Fumihiro Nakamura does not affect the expansive personality and well-studied bonhomie of a born restaurateur in the classic European mold. Nor does he in any way exude the slick professionalism and marketing savvy of the streetwise MBAs who scheme up and preside over flash designer eateries for cash-flush upwardly mobile entrepreneurs and their corporate camp followers.
Instead, he is a laid-back, mild-mannered man, deferential even, and one to whom the notion of self-aggrandizement seems totally alien. Yet after just four years on the Tokyo scene, he and business partner Masa Nagasaka are already presiding over an impressive stable of restaurants which many, the Tokyo Food File included, believe represent the best of cutting-edge Pacific Rim values.
First off the blocks, back in 1996, came the (approximately) eponymous Fummy’s Grill, offering a West Coast take on down-home bistro-level cooking, which hit the mark immediately despite its less than accessible location behind Yebisu Garden Place. Next came the rather more upmarket Cardenas, round the corner on Meiji-dori in nether Hiroo, and soon thereafter its Oriental sister operation, Cardenas Chinois, set among the well-heeled dining alleys of Nishi-Azabu.
Now here they are again, less than a year later, with yet another variant on the ever-flexible canon of California cuisine — and it’s the biggest and the best of the series yet. Cardenas Charcoal Grill may not be the most imaginative choice of names, but they have certainly managed to put the right message across. From the moment they threw open the doors last month, this has become one of the hottest dinner spots anywhere in town.
The massive sign at street-level gives you full warning that Cardenas CG ups the ante in terms of both scale and sophistication. Follow the stairs down two levels through gleaming darkness (or rob yourself of the surprise element and take the elevator) and down a narrow passage, emerging with eyes blinking into a brightly illuminated space of surprising proportions.
It’s an impressive architectural achievement. The high walls and soaring ceiling are broken by angular, adobe-style steps rising on one side of the entrance to a smaller elevated dining area, and on the other to a mezzanine-level bar equipped with a few low-slung armchairs. Banquettes and chairs are covered in dark fabric. The ornamentation is similarly monochrome, but in no way minimalist (just one example of their trademark sideways-on calligraphy) and the room is so carefully lit there is no sense that it lacks intimacy.
Two other factors contribute to putting you at ease: the relaxed but attentive demeanor of the waiting staff and the happy aromas that emanate from the semi-open kitchen set into the far corner of the room with the charcoal grill well visible.
To see how this newest operation stacks up against its elder siblings, we started with an old favorite, the “Cardenas style fish cakes.” These, of course, are not fish cakes as the rest of the world understands the term, but a preparation known in Japanese as uni no shinju. Forget the name: What you get on your plate are morsels of creamy seafood, encased in a crisp shell of nori and deep fried in batter with shards of noodles to simulate the sharp spikes of a sea urchin. Adorned with a rich cream sauce liberally flavored with the self-same uni, here is immediate evidence that chef Masaaki Sakai not only knows his materials, he has hit the ground running and is well up to speed.
Other starters that may perhaps be familiar to regulars at Fummy’s and the sister restaurants include the Caesar salad, the fresh spring rolls (constructed, as expected, with plenty of verticality) and the Chinese chicken salad with wonton chips. On our next visit we will definitely try the grilled Cajun shrimp and the home-smoked foie gras.
The menu has a choice of seven pastas or so-called risotto (actually donburi rice bowl) with a choice of tuna and avocado tempura or sirloin steak. The side dishes cater to local sensibilities with miso soup and pickles, but also include a suitably wicked garlic mashed potato.
But you have come there for the grills, and you will not be disappointed. There is fish (including Ahi tuna, swordfish and smoked salmon); seafood (jumbo shrimp); mixed organic vegetables; teriyaki chicken; duck; tea-flavored pork chops; barbecued lamb kebabs; and a choice of U.S. or Hida-Takayama beef steaks, for which you can select the size or price of cut and flavor of the accompanying sauce (wasabi red wine, spicy red curry or vegetable salsa). All are prepared over premium bincho charcoal, imbuing them with a rich flavor that whispers far more of the Japanese irori than of the hickory wood-fueled barbecues favored on the other side of the Pacific.
We can vouch that both the breast of duck and the teriyaki leg of free-range Satsuma chicken were prepared perfectly. The latter was juicy and satisfying, and was served with soft mash potato, slices of deep-fried spring roll filled with avocado and ham, and a fine white wine sauce. The sliced duck was equally well cooked, neither as rare or as chewy as is common in Tokyo; it came with a creamy polenta, crisp lengths of seared negi leek, a yogurt sauce and a sharp black-currant-based salsa.
The bar offers a long list of cocktails and liquors, but this kind of cooking cries out to be washed down with wine. Cardenas CG boasts a substantial cellar, all from California, which unfortunately means there is little choice under the 5,000 yen mark. However, at the moment they do have a special supplementary list of the Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve selection, which includes three whites and four reds from 700 yen per glass, 2,800 yen the carafe or 3,800 yen the full bottle. Unless you are celebrating (and this place is quite good enough for a special day) these wines should be quite adequate.
The dessert menu is perhaps less creative in inspiration than the earlier courses, although the dishes are all given suitably decorative treatment. However, after a substantial steak or chop, you may prefer to forgo dessert in favor of one of the fragrant “pudding” wines.
Limiting your drinks, curtailing side dishes and forgoing other extras, it would be entirely possible to enjoy yourself frugally at Cardenas CG for as little as 3,500 yen per head. But that would be a major shame. This is a place that demands a certain amount (or perhaps more) of a splurge. In fact it would be quite easy to pay twice as much over the course of a full evening here — and you would still feel it was worth it.
Reservations are required.
If you’re looking for a place to meet up for a drink or two in Ebisu before dinner, there’s no shortage of bars, pubs and assorted drinking holes in the area. But while there are still a few mild evenings left this month, you could do a lot worse than slumming it at Casablanca Vin Vino, a simple cafe that every evening turns into a cozy, no-frills wine bar spilling out onto the sidewalk just down the road from the new Cardenas (but much closer to the corner with Komazawa-dori).
There’s no need to worry about it being full — there are only a few seats anyway. The concept here is tachi-nomi: You order from the counter and then prop your glass on one of the rough-hewn wood packing cases that act as makeshift tables. And it certainly won’t add much to your evening’s budget, since just about everything on the menu is priced at a very wallet-friendly 500 yen — including a selection of wines by the glass which change on a daily basis.
Casablanca Vin Vino: 1-10-10 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5489-5860. Bar open Monday-Saturday, 6-12 p.m. (cafe time 11 a.m.-5 p.m.)
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