We’ll have ‘the usual’


Comme d’habitude. As any linguist knows, that’s French for “as usual.” As the name of a restaurant, it conjures up images of a run-of-the-mill bistro with standard-issue checkered tablecloths. But the name is both modest and misleading, because Comme d’habitude in Kami-Meguro stands head and shoulders above the average.

A dark-red awning covers the carpeted steps that lead up to the front door. A bevy of attentive staff greet you as you enter. To your left is a small bar where you can sip an aperitif as you wait for your dining partners. The walls are paneled with wood, their seriousness relieved only by a couple of wine maps of France.

This is a place by and for people who are serious about their food (and drink). You can tell by the way the dining room is arranged. It’s small but in no way cramped, with generous-sized tables for almost 20. But for many people, the best seats in the house are the eight that line the spacious wooden counter. Most of one wall is open so you can look into the kitchen, not through glass, not from afar, but as close up as if you were sitting in a sushi shop.

You gaze at the kitchen staff as they go about their work in virtual silence, intent and focused like actors on a stage. Their white overalls bear the embroidered logo “Comme d’habitude chez Taka.” And there is Taka himself — owner-chef Takayoshi Kamatani — standing front and center at his spotless work surface, preparing cuts of fish and meat, chopping up lobsters (if you’re squeamish, then you’d better reserve a table seat) and generally directing operations like a maestro with his baton.

Kamatani is one of the new generation of chefs who have been redefining French cuisine here in Tokyo, moving away from merely reproducing the kind of food you’d find in restaurants in France and, instead, re-creating it from a Japanese sensibility. He cooks with a simplicity and lightness of touch that might seem almost too subtle to all but the most cultured of palates.

What makes Comme d’habitude so successful, though, is the way it manages to bridge the divide between bistro casual and expensive formal dining. It is perfectly fine to drop in for a couple of dishes and a half bottle of wine. Indeed, you can perch at the bar and nibble on cheese alone, if you so wish. One look at the menu, though, and you will be sorely tempted to much greater indulgence.

At dinner, you have a choice of 10 starters, each at 1,800 yen, and the same number of main dishes, all priced at 2,800 yen. But it makes better sense to order one of the set configurations. The basic 5,800 yen meal consists of amuse gueule, appetizer, main dish, cheese plate, dessert and coffee. For an extra 400 yen you can have another hors d’oeuvre. If you’d like an extra main course, add 1,100 yen. And if you want to go the whole hog, with two starters, two main courses (plus cheese, dessert and coffee), it’s 7,500 yen.

The amuse gueule is just enough to whet the appetite, perhaps two wafer-thin slices of lightly toasted baguette, topped with dabs of rillette or salmon mousse.

Kamatani’s trademark appetizer is his plate of lightly simmered vegetables — daikon, kabu turnip, burdock, carrot, tomato and a skinned eggplant — served with a scattering of salad greens and rich, dark scoops of savory nikogori, a thick, jellied consomme. The vegetables, all apparently organic, are cooked exactly to the right degree and so lightly seasoned that they leave just the faintest impact on your taste buds and your appetite.

One major reason for ordering a second appetizer is so that you can try the boudin blood sausage. It is cut into thin slices, lightly warmed and arranged on rounds of browned potato in a rosette formation on a layer of fine pastry. This “tart” is then briefly baked and topped with a whole “onsen tamago” soft-boiled egg. It tastes wonderful.

But, there again, so do all the other hors d’oeuvres, especially the scallops, which are served with a dark sauce imbued with the wild fragrance of trompette mushrooms.

With such a selection, you will have an equally hard time choosing your main dish. The lamb was cooked absolutely the way we like it — succulent, tender and pink, but not over-rare — and was perfectly matched with a dense sauce heavily accented with aromatic black truffles. And the quail, served with small cubes of sweet potato, was so good we almost ordered a second helping on the spot.

But instead we allowed Kamatani to move us gently along to the cheese course. He keeps at least 40 varieties available, almost all of them French, arrayed on large trays from which you choose three varieties each. One problem with such a large range, however, is that some of the cheeses will inevitably be moving past their prime.

Unfortunately, the same can be said about the cellar. The wine list is wide and deep, covering all the major regions of France, with many interesting vintages, and with 10 different wines by the glass. Commendably, it is not top-heavy with prestige, heavyweight cha^teaux, and in fact includes several tasty bottles from the Midi at very reasonable prices. However, our first choice, a Marsonnay, had not been kept well and was undrinkable. While this sort of problem can (and does) occur anywhere, we mention this as a caveat when selecting older bottles. We had no complaints about the Pommard of similar age that we ordered instead.

But everything is conducted with such smoothness and polish, it seems impossible that you can fail to enjoy yourself. In that sense, at least, you are likely to find after several visits to Comme d’habitude that you will start saying to your dining partners, “Another fine meal chez Taka — as usual.”