The best of the rest(aurants) of 1999


Before our memory cells get erased by the momentous celebrations and the post-millennial hangover, let’s pause for a moment to consider some of the many places we visited and enjoyed in 1999 but which, for whatever reason, never made it into print.

Here is a baker’s half dozen of the “best of the rest” — some new and gleaming, others quietly making their mark, and even an old favorite that has continued to impress. All of them have the Food File Seal of Approval.

If you live or work in the Hiroo vicinity, the chances are you need little introduction to Cardenas. Over the past year it’s carved out its own solid niche in the rapidly proliferating genre lazily referred to as Californian cuisine, by occupying a middle ground halfway between the flashy high-end cooking of Stellato/Tableaux and the laid-back bistro buzz of Fummy’s Grill.

Comparisons with the latter are warranted — and not just because Fummy’s, for many of us, is the yardstick by which all newcomers are judged. Just a few minutes walk away, they are in fact sister restaurants (and although Fummy himself does not preside, he was heavily involved in the set-up) and a certain degree of menu crossover occurred at the outset.

It took a while for the kitchen to really find its feet, but the food is now for the most part confident, creative and constantly evolving. Hopefully they’ll keep the shrimp and crab cakes (which turned out to be wrapped in won ton pastry and deep fried), the Chinese lamb chops (with a gravy spiced with red peppercorns and hoisin sauce), and the dynamite wasabi mashed potato.

It’s a chic but restful place, with understated lighting and tasteful calligraphic decor. The tables are nicely spaced apart. Even the seats along the counter provide a sense of privacy. And while this stretch of Meiji-dori is quite forgettable, there are outside tables for summer drinks while you wait to be seated.

Unlike Fummy’s, where you could almost drop by in your pajamas, Cardenas is worth getting dressed up for. You’ll also need to reserve without fail.

Tokyo has no shortage of generic Thai eateries serving up basic hawker fare. The trouble is they are just pit stops, not worth planning a full evening around. Khun Me, however, makes just enough effort to justify the trip up to Shin-Okubo, without losing that street-corner sassiness (or unduly denting your bank balance). The colorful exterior is cute and welcoming, the staff is friendly, and the food is reliable and authentic enough to attract plenty of Thai customers.

The menu covers the standard gamut of snacks, noodles, fish and meat, with plenty of specialties from Issan, the region of the northeast Thailand that was once Laos. That means good versions of som tum (green papaya salad), catfish laab, khai yang (grilled chicken) and khao niyao (sticky rice). Wash it all down with Mekhong whiskey or Singha.

Khun Me, 1-10-11 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3368-1166

For years, eating French in Yotsuya-Sanchome meant the bargain basement bistro offerings of Pas-a-Pas. These days its prices remain just as cheap as ever, but the food is sadly uninspired (though still popular enough to fill its new annex). You don’t have to go far for an alternative: Sucre Sale is just a few meters down the narrow alleys of Arakicho but a major step up in quality for only a modest increment in price.

The name implies a balance between sweet and salty, and that sums it up well. Decor and attitude cater to the predominantly female clientele; but the food is well cooked and seasoned to a robust sensibility. You can tell the chefs have paid their dues in French kitchens — just try their queue de boeuf, or the canette papillon. The prix fixe dinner is just 3,500 yen (lunch is 1,200 yen or 1,800 yen) — so this represents serious value for your yen.

Sucre Sale, 9-7 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3351-8741

Yoyogi’s West Park Cafe has always been a favorite of ours, despite its one big drawback — that off-the-map location. No such problem with their second venture, up above the fray at Akasaka-Mitsuke. If you know the original WPC, you’ll know what to expect. Plenty of good salads and sandwiches, generous portions, the trademark rotisserie chicken, a selection of New World wines and a great take-out deli counter.

It’s too bad they haven’t been able to reproduce the same warm, neighborhood feeling. But despite the sterile, suburban mall layout and canned music, at least the place is totally nonsmoking. And in summer they open the entire frontage to the elements (and traffic noise). Good-value 2,500 yen weekend brunches too.

West Park Cafe, Akasaka Tokyu Plaza 2F, 2-14-3 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3580-9090

Futon is also an outcropping of an old favorite, down on the main drag in Nishi-Azabu. This was one of the first of the new wave of yakiniku joints featuring funky, post-industrial decor, cozy charcoal-fired shichirin grills and food that’s confidently Korean without any excess sense of ethnicity.

Their new branch, on Roppongi’s Seijoki-dori (the street at right-angles to the Defense Agency), boasts a rural wood-clad interior, and a menu that’s a tad more sophisticated — including a fiery, meaty kamjatang stew which certainly warms the cockles. They also have an interesting range of Korean herbal teas and medicinal liquor infusions. When the weather gets really cold, they batten down the hatches and you have to duck in through the bottom of the wooden door — a refreshingly unselfconscious attitude for this part of town.

Futon, 7-4-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5474-0032

Forget about the iffy name: Wunderbar has nothing to do with all those pervasive stereotypes. There’s none of that faux bierkeller decor and contrived bonhomie and absolutely no lederhosen oompah music. What they do have is plenty of good pilsners, dunkels, weiss and schwarz beers to slake the thirst, plus a selection of interesting wines.

The food is not outstanding, but it’s substantial and varied, with plenty of good soups and sausages, hearty entrees and even a few dishes that confirmed nonmeat eaters would find acceptable. Think of it as the German equivalent of a casual izakaya. This is how contemporary Germany likes to eat, drink and relax. Too bad it’s not closer to Gotanda Station.

Wunderbar, 4-7-29 Higashi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku; tel: (03) 3448-1878

Having established his beachhead in Harajuku and then conquered Nishi-Azabu, Osaka-based chef-restaurateur Kenichiro Okada has now advanced into Shinjuku. It’s not as big in scale, but if anything the new Ken’s Chanto Dining (in a basement opposite My City) is even flashier, with eye-popping interiors and relentless house music.

At the same time he’s also set up an equally striking deli-style outlet on street level, which means you can pop in at any time of day (up to 10 p.m.) for a snack, an espresso or a take-out. There are good salads and prepared dishes, plenty of vegetables and a great range of innovative onigiri rice balls, featuring toppings such as yaki-sake (grilled salmon), nasu-miso (eggplant) and negi-buta (pork). At lunch they offer 850 yen take-out lunch boxes to go.

If you like Okada’s Asian-fusion cooking and his “dining as clubbing” approach, you will also need to check out the “nouvelle cuisine japonaise” at his other Shinjuku operation, Daidaiya (in the same building as Hibiki, reviewed on this page last month). Who knows, this could well be the future of Tokyo dining out in the 21st century.

Ken’s Chanto Dining, 3-26-6 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 5363-0336

Ken’s Deli & Cafe (same address); (03) 5363-3393

Daidaiya, NOWA Bldg. 3F, 3-37-12 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 5362-7173

Finally a sad farewell. Last month a fire broke out and destroyed most of the narrow block of ancient (well, postwar) and none too salubrious drinking holes and eateries next to the Yamanote Line in Nishi-Shinjuku. Although nobody could claim any gastronomic or architectural merit for this area — officially called Yakitori Yokocho, but to foreign residents of a certain vintage known affectionately as Piss Alley — it was a last remaining slice of Showa in-your-face honesty that the developers had long wanted to get their hands on. We will miss it.

To close, the Food File would like to wish all our readers a very happy (and well-fed) holiday season, and the best of health in the last year of the century (by the local way of counting).