Time to say arrivederci to the old-school cucina


Out with the old and in with the new. That’s the prevailing state of the game in Tokyo’s restless, ever-changing restaurant scene. Sometimes this can be exhilarating, as with the brilliant refurbishment of the top floors of the My City building in Shinjuku. Sometimes, though, the process can feel downright disorienting.

At least, that was our initial reaction when one of our trusty haunts, Il Caminetto, was swept away earlier this year. It was never a top favorite of ours, but we kept going back anyway — for its highly convenient location above Gaienmae Station (the ground-floor cafe always made a great meeting spot) and the honest sincerity of the Florentine cucina. Granted, it was getting a bit fusty, but the food was good — plus they boasted an improbably massive cellar of top Italian wines.

Anyway, so disgruntled were we when the ground floor reopened as a hip-looking, deli-style, self-service cafeteria (now simply called Sign), that until recently we never bothered to check out what had happened to the restaurant upstairs. Our mistake. The old place has had a total face-lift, emerging like a chic, modern butterfly from that dowdy, old-world chrysalis.

The steep flight of stairs are still quite shabby. But slide open the shiny, buttercup-yellow metal door and you find yourself in the future. The small dining room is done entirely white — walls, chairs, table-tops, tableware, even the angular chandelier lights hanging at one end of the room — save for one short black, leather-look banquette and the bright-yellow menus.

There are two features that save this ultra-modernistic space from feeling sterile: the view through the narrow windows, straight over the lights of Aoyama-dori; and the cozy glow of the real, live log fire that is lit each evening in the rectangular fireplace set into the end wall.

But they’ve done much more than just shorten the name, hire a team of cutting-edge interior designers and put ambient house music through the sound system. The menu has also been entirely reworked. No longer are they trying to re-create Tuscany in Tokyo. Caminetta has gone new wave — and does it really well.

Dropping by for lunch the other day, our 1,500 yen set meal opened with a plate of mixed antipasti arranged on a stylish square platter (pure white Alessi ware, like everything else). There was a small serving of carpaccio — very fresh ishigarei (flounder), so lightly seasoned it was virtually sashimi; a couple of slivers of tasty Parma ham on a small mound of mixed leaf salad (mostly arugula and Japanese herbs), again dressed with a very subtle hand; and a cappuccino cup of warming minestrone soup made with local winter vegetables, including daikon and (as if to evoke cubes of bacon) red-tinged ama-kabu, a root vegetable most often found in refined Kyoto cuisine.

This was followed by a bowl of delicate spaghettini in a delectable seafood ragu cooked up with (among other things) anko (angler fish), madai (snapper), suzuki (sea bass) and tiny morsels of octopus. Although the serving size was not large, it was rich and nourishing and so good we promptly ordered dessert (an extra 300 yen) to go with our complementary Illy coffee. The cassata was as creamy as chilled nougat but not as intensely sweet, and instead of dried fruit it was attractively studded with tart, frozen red currants.

You get the idea: Caminetto’s approach is delicate and subtle, favoring quality seafood and seasonal Japanese vegetables. Don’t expect hearty country cucina, or anything slathered in lots of red or white sauces. New chef Yuji Goto (he just took over this month) knows his basics, thanks to stints at various Italian restaurants around town. But his most recent job was at Cardenas Ginza, and the fusion influences shine through, especially at dinner time, when his cooking gets much more elaborate and intriguing.

There are two set courses in the evening: the three-course Trial Menu (3,800 yen) and the elaborate Chef’s Menu (6,500 yen) which features antipasti, pasta, fish, meat and dessert. But it is worth your while ordering a la carte, if only to make sure you don’t miss out on the fritto of edo-mae anago (conger eel), which arrives balanced on top of a small portion of fragrant mushroom risotto. The other standout dish is the scampi (“oriental river prawn” it is called on the menu) served with Hokkaido uni (urchin), served with porcini mushrooms and a rich, spicy americaine sauce, dusted with a hint of garam masala.

The pasta and main courses were equally fine. We had excellent duck and roast chicken, and the steak showed that Goto knows his meat dishes, too. But our notes from dinner are more happily focused on the wine list. Caminetto has inherited most of its predecessor’s extensive cellar, which includes many lesser known bottles rarely found in Tokyo (the 1999 Capo Martino, a luscious white from Jermanns, was a great find). Better still, manager-sommelier Masaki Majima has selected half a dozen for his special list at prices close to retail levels. They’re still not cheap, but they’re good enough to transform a dinner beside Caminetta’s open fire into an evening that’s as memorable as it is stylish.