The dining-bar is a strange concept, one that is quite peculiar to Japan. Unlike at regular bars, food is a central part of the experience — not just beer nuts, but real sustenance. Unlike a proper restaurant, though, you are not expected to order a whole meal from starter through to main course and dessert. Instead you just pick out a few dishes at a time, which are usually shared between the two (or more) of you.
For first-timers this seems a hybrid arrangement, neither fish nor fowl. For many locals, though, this is the preferred way to spend the evening. Dining-bars are venues for meeting, talking and dating. You are there to graze rather than to dine in depth.
In appearance and layout, La So is typical of the genre. From the street you glimpse a stylish dining room with plush furnishings, subtle lighting and an aura of exclusivity. Slide open the door — a massive slice of timber set into a glass surround — and you will find yourself ushered either to the counter, where you ease yourself into comfortable chairs with upholstered arm-rests and generous elbow room; or to one of the alcoves, each of which has a table large enough for four and is partitioned into spaces of semiprivacy.
But where too many dining-bars feel impersonal to the point of pretentiousness, La So has a hands-on feel. Owner-chef Tatsuya Watanabe handles all the kitchen duties, working solo from his open kitchen. Meanwhile, his wife, Masako, is in charge of logistics. The clientele may be well groomed and well heeled, but they treat La So as their neighborhood kitchen. It’s a place to relax.
Both share a deep love of good food and wine — to the extent that they recently went off to Bourgogne to work on the vendange, harvesting the very grapes now being fermented into Watanabe’s custom lot of Burgundy wine (ready for drinking in 2004). Over the course of several trips to France, they have assembled a very fine cellar, not dauntingly large or expensive but selected and priced judiciously.
Their sake selection is less extensive, but of equal quality. Watanabe is equally at home with traditional Japanese ryori as he is with the French and Italian culinary traditions, and his menu reflects this span of expertise. As you sit down, you are served a small cup of steaming hot soup — a smooth, sweet pumpkin potage made with soymilk — and a saucer of lightly steamed vegetables with a grain mustard dip. You can follow this up with a purely Japanese meal, from sashimi to grilled fish. You can also eat entirely European style, or you can mix and match as the mood takes you.
We have tried both approaches at La So and can aver that, either way, the ingredients and cooking are first-rate. Try the homemade sausages, which are simpler in flavor than you’d find at a brasserie in Alsace, but no less satisfying. Or the terrine of “dried soybean curd,” a smooth, light confection prepared from yuba, white-meat fish, dill and plenty of cream — unlikely though it sounds, it tastes delectable.
Watanabe has access to some marvelous seafood, which works equally well as sashimi (try those akagai shellfish) or carpaccio (soft, sweet scallops, served with finely chopped vegetables). Much of the produce he uses is organic, such as the leaf vegetables in his chef’s salad, mixed with sliced onions, bell peppers and bacon, topped with a warm dressing of balsamic vinegar, garlic and black sesame. His tofu, too, is excellent (not homemade but bought from an artisan who obviously cares).
One page of the menu is devoted to different preparations of asari (short-necked clams). Steamed Korean style, they arrive in a piping hot broth seasoned with spicy koshujang and a mix of different kinds of Japanese miso. This is rich, savory fare that’s perfect now the evenings are getting chill.
The only dish that didn’t work was the mushrooms with grated tororo yam. Despite being oven-baked, like an exotic shepherd’s pie, the yam flavor remained too raw and overpowering. This is forgivable when Watanabe has such a good charcoal grill, over which he prepares herb-encrusted jidori chicken breast, beef tongue or — our favorite — maguro-no-kamayaki, the massive, sickle-shaped “shoulder” bone of the tuna, from which you excavate plenty of good meat, both chewy-dark and “sea chicken” white.
You can round off your evening with onigiri (packed with black sesame and aromatic shiso leaf) and hojicha tea; or spaghetti and a banana flambe. Whichever way, you are likely to be well satisfied.