On a culinary cruise in Akasaka


We have numerous restaurants which bear the name of their chefs, owners or svengalis. But Denis Allemand is perhaps the first to proudly boast the name of the man responsible for its interior design — whose main work in Japan up to now has been producing deli-diners in airport departure lobbies for the Royal group.

The most remarkable aspect of his latest creation is just how much space it enjoys. It’s a long, low-slung, two-story building that seems even more squat compared to the Hie Shrine and the Capitol Tokyu Hotel on the hill above — not to mention the massive new Sanno Park Tower soaring over it next door.

Set way back from the main drag, it forms the back wall of a wide, open plaza whose only features are a low, black fountain in one corner and a trickling artificial waterfall in the other. In any part of the city such a vast area of undeveloped real estate would be a luxury. Here among the upwardly aspiring architecture of Akasaka it seems almost profligate.

This sense of spaciousness is used to maximum advantage inside. The dining areas are almost totally encased in glass, drawing in light and a rare sense of perspective. Upstairs, the picture windows slant outward, as if you were sitting down to eat on a cruise ship forging across an ocean of concrete.

Though the food is far better than you’d be served on a starlight cruise under the Rainbow Bridge, Denis Allemand does unmistakably exude an air of superior institutionality, of the kind you’d find at one of our top hotel restaurant.

It’s just the kind of approach you’d expect at this address, so close to the seats of government, bureaucracy and big business. This is conservative territory. The clientele wear suits, most of them three-piece, and with recognizable lapel pins. They dine either in corporate groups of four or in couples with their secretaries, dates or significant others.

Likewise the cooking, which adheres to the Modern American-slash-Continental genre, occupying a terrain somewhere between Lunchan and the New York Grill. It’s an orthodox menu, with few nods to fusion fadism, just solid contemporary cooking performed with total proficiency. The ingredients are good quality, fresh and expertly prepared. You could call it cooking by numbers, but it’s done by chefs who know some advanced math. The bottom line is that you eat well.

We began our dinner with a small appetizer, terrine of duck and chicken liver with pistachio nuts. As appetizers, we chose the crab croquettes, actually rissole-shaped but rich with the flavor of zuwaigani, and the warm duck salad, slices of rare duck breast marinated with wine and pepper, in a mixed salad not overburdened with too much leafy matter.

The “okura” soup was not a nod to the hotel of that name, but an excellent minestrone with plenty of spicy chorizo and a good assortment of vegetables, including star-shaped slices of the okra from which its name derives. The coconut fish soup — like a Thai tom kha plaa, but prepared with a French bisque — was not so successful, and was out of place in these surroundings.

No such complaints with the main courses, however: the cioppino consomme stew dish comprised a tender fillet of snapper surrounded with langoustine, scallop, new potatoes and cherry tomatoes. The braised oxtail, despite having been stewed rather too long, was served with a fabulously dense red wine reduction sauce.

The wine list is predominantly around middle-range Californian and French bottles and, although priced rather higher than necessary, introduces some interesting bottles — notably the eccentric Bonny Doon range (we enjoyed the big jammy southern French flavors of the Sirrah Syrah as much as the Ronald Searle-esque scribble on the label).

The standard three-course prix-fixe dinner, including starter, dessert and final espresso, is priced at 4,800 yen. The chef’s special menu, for 6,800 yen, features a salad of Maine lobster, consomme of duck and fillet of beef.

They are also open for breakfast and lunch, as well as for appetizing weekend brunches. With a nice outside terrace big enough for 12, this is probably the most comfortable location in the neighborhood for a leisurely warm-weather open-air meal.

Two other reasons why you should know about the new Sanno Park Tower. Way up on the 27th floor the latest branch of Heichinrou will be opening next Monday. Besides the sleek nouveau Hong Kong cuisine on which they have gained such deserved recognition, they will also be serving light, noodle-based midday meals, plus wine and evening cocktails in their high-rise, cityscape bar. Tel. (03) 3593-7322.

On a totally different plane, down in the basement you will find the third Tokyo branch of the Dubliners’ Irish Pub. Although the look loosely resembles its sibling operations in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, this one is rather gloomier — which many would say makes it more authentically like Dublin. Tel. (03) 3539-3615.

Another sparkling new operation which is targeting the same corporate demographic as D. Allemand (but in its own distinctive way) is the latest offering from the Mikuni group. Located in the newly invigorated Marunouchi district, it is split into two separate parts — one an upscale restaurant dressed in plush Italian mode; the other a bustling urban Euro cafe/bistro.

We haven’t eaten at the restaurant yet, but it certainly appears to be up to Mikuni’s usual standards of cuisine and grandiose style. Its two most obvious visual features are a glass-fronted wine cellar and an ancillary dining area (called the Chapelle) near the front door, complete with “Last Supper” frescoes and crucifix centerpiece.

The cafe is far from minimalist in appearance but much less intimidating. The windows are thrown open in clement weather; the waiting staff are relaxed and speak reasonable English; and at various times they stage live music in a jazzy vein.

The menu changes five times during the day: Breakfast is 7-10 a.m.; lunch runs 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; then it’s afternoon coffee and snacks until 5:30 p.m.; dinner is served 5:30-10:30 p.m.; later on there’s a light “supper” menu until 11 p.m. They also have a takeout counter for bread, focaccia sandwiches, salads and pastries.