Over the last couple of years, one of our favorite watering holes in Ginza has been the curiously named (and hard to find) Grape Gumbo, a down-to-earth wine bar with a no-frills, izakaya ambience and Euro-bistro trencherman fare to match. So when we heard that the head chef there, Touru Wachi, had left to set up his own operation, our ears pricked up in happy anticipation.
We have not been disappointed. Chef Wachi has taken the same basic concept — straightforward, hearty food, an interesting wine list and a casual setting — but given it a stylish look more worthy of his new address at the Shinbashi end of Namiki-dori.
Mardi Gras, which opened in September, occupies a long, narrow basement reached by a deep flight of stairs leading straight from the street. The interior is simple but chic — whitewashed, adobe-look walls; a matte-black ceiling with exposed air ducts; a couple of chunky wooden shelves running along the length of the premises, which are filling up fast with empty wine bottles; and wooden furniture that has not sacrificed comfort for the sake of design.
The counter overlooking the open kitchen seats three at a pinch. At the other end of the room, there is a small lounge area with a settee and two low chairs, plus a bar that’s just big enough for a couple of people perched on high stools. And in between is the main dining room — just half a dozen tables set with linen serviettes and globular wine glasses. The priorities are immediately clear: You are there not for the decor but for the comestibles.
Do not be misled by the name. The only connection with Carnival in New Orleans is the music that Wachi has chosen for his sound system. His food instead draws on a medley of Mediterranean influences, principally French, but with major nods to the cuisines of Spain, Italy and even North Africa.
The wine list is not as extensive as at Grape Gumbo, but there is a good range of well-chosen bottles, predominantly (but not exclusively) French and priced quite reasonably (in the 5 yen,000-10,000 yen level). There is also a good selection of wines by the glass (two whites, four reds and a champagne, all at 1,000 yen), which allow you to mix and match according to what you have on your plate at any one time.
If (like us) you are a sherry fan, you should definitely start off with a glass of Npu, a very fine, complex, deeply hued amontillado. And, to tide you over while you consider the menu, which is more complex than it initially looks, order up a plate of pinchos (think of this as a Spanish-theme version of an antipasto misti plate). It will feature a variety of tidbits: deep-fried prawns; butter-fried baby squid; little toothpick skewers with beetroot, cherry tomatoes and miniature croquettes of potato and ham.
Other starters of note include the Huevos a la Flamenca — eggs baked in the oven with a couple of rashers of bacon on a bed of sliced onions with crisp slices of baguette, presented in a country-style, plain brown ceramic platter; and the thick fish soup (think bouillabaisse, but without the bits) served with a good spoonful of garlic-enhanced rouille.
You get the idea: Wachi’s approach to cooking shuns intricacy and fancy arrangement in favor of good, solid tastes prepared with a minimum of fuss. This is obvious if you try his Tuscan fried potatoes, one of his trademark dishes. Basically they are fries, thin but robust, sprinkled with coarse crystal salt and plenty of crisp rosemary leaf, and brought to the table wrapped in paper, peasant-style.
Another of his signature dishes is the Coriander Bomb. This is a salad of fresh coriander leaf mixed with finely chopped green chilies and fried garlic, given an intense dressing of oil mixed with nam plaa sauce. It does explode in your mouth, but in the tastiest way possible.
This is not to say that Wachi does not have a delicate hand. Just the other day we tried his civet de lotte — anko (monkfish) wrapped in bacon and pan-fried, with a bed of cubed sauteed potatoes, a red wine sauce and scattered with deep-fried onion bits. This was immensely satisfying. The firm, white flesh of the fish was prepared to just the right degree of softness; the bacon imparted a good saltiness to balance the more neutral flavor of the spuds.
We can highly recommend all the above, and just about everything else on the menu. The tagine of lamb, with its appealing conical chimney, contains substantial chunks of meat, simmered down slowly with wedges of ham (not very Moroccan, of course, but it adds to the depth of flavor) and plenty of sweet potato slices in a thick, vegetable-based sauce. And if you’re looking for something even heartier, there’s always the charcoal-grilled wild boar.
There is one other area of the menu that will repay exploration and is easily overlooked. Ask to see the vegetable bowl, a long, metal boat filled with seasonal produce, and pick out a few you like. Wachi will whip them up as salad, in a pasta, grilled, boiled or in whatever style you specify.
Purely for the purposes of research, we have sampled the dessert selections and can reassure you that the ga^teau chocolat is worthy of your attentions. It is neither moist nor over-dry, balanced nicely with a hefty dollop of fresh whipped cream. But should you be feeling the effects of overindulgence (which is not unlikely, if you order the Tuscan potatoes), you may prefer to retire to the lounge at the back for a glass of sweet-sharp Pacheranc dessert wine and a coffee.
Namiki-dori at night is a world away from New Orleans, and Mardi Gras is not quite as riotous as Carnival on Bourbon Street. But if you like your food four-square and unpretentious, you will enjoy your evening here.