It’s prognostication time again and, just like Janus (after whom this month is, after all, named), the Food File likes to look ahead by surveying all that lies behind.
Every year at this point, we sit down and sift through the tea leaves and scrutinize the entrails of the past 12 months. In part this is a way to divine the trends of the year ahead. But just as much it is intended to pay tribute to some of the outstanding restaurants, cafes, bars and books that we have enjoyed but, for whatever reason, we never got around to mentioning in print.
High-rise haute cuisine
The marketing event of the late summer was the grand opening of the massive Marunouchi Building, a landmark tower with multiple dining possibilities from basement basics all the way up to the overhyped, overpriced and overpopular penthouse establishments. With all the attendant media hullabaloo, however, little attention was given to the arrival a mere month later of the latest Four Seasons Hotel, inside the new Pacific Century Place building just the other side of the JR tracks, or of its super-stylish flagship restaurant, Ekki.
In contrast to the extravagant Four Seasons at Chinzanso, this new hotel is boutique-size (just 50 rooms or so), and so exclusive it’s hard to find the entrance. It’s also unashamedly contemporary in appearance. The decor is warm and comforting, but no attempt is made to disguise the stark fact you are inside a box of concrete, steel and floor-to-ceiling glass, looking across at the hulking Tokyo Forum and down over the railway lines onto the mainline station from which Ekki’s name obviously derives.
In the daytime, when the dining room is bathed in sunlight filtered through silver-gray blinds, it seems empty and minimalist, warmed only by the sculpture of two golden hands that greet you as you enter. Once night falls, though, sheets of lighting break up the room. It looks stylish, modern, atmospheric — the perfect backdrop, in fact, for the brilliant new-French cuisine that is served there.
Executive chef Jerome Legras is apparently just 28, but his cooking is executed with verve and poise. Simple, modern, unfussy and exciting to the palate, it is beautifully structured and presented with style. Throughout, though, it remains anchored to the hearty tradition of French regional cooking — warming soups; dark lentils, creamed with hidden hints of spices; a velvet-soft poached quail’s egg; a perfect morsel of pan-fried fish; succulent beef; wicked desserts — combined with local Japanese ingredients.
Portions are not large, and prices are not insignificant (courses from 3,500 yen at lunch; from 12,000 yen at dinner). But the service is impeccable, the music is hip but relaxing, the clientele comfortably cosmopolitan. Exclusive it may be, but Ekki is also impressive.
Ekki, Four Seasons Hotel, Pacific Century Place, 1-11-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel. (03) 5222-7222. Web site: www.fourseasons.com/marunouchi/dining/dining_311.html Open daily 6:30-10.30 a.m.; 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m.; and 5:30-10 p.m. Lunch courses 3,500 yen and 5,000 yen; dinner courses 12,000 yen, 15,000 yen and 20,000 yen. Ten percent service charge added.
Up to this summer, the restaurants in the aging MY City shopping mall next to Shinjuku JR Station were about as appealing as a visit to the shokudo canteen of the average regional car-component manufacturer. What a difference a total face-lift can make.
Stripped out, lavishly refurbished and reincarnated under the new umbrella name of Shun/Kan (“Spring/Hall”), the top two floors of the building now boast a clutch of restaurants that boldly proclaim their shift of allegiance from the last century to the present. Best of all, this is recognition that it is not only Tokyo’s high-rollers who appreciate modern design — and that there’s massive demand for good, stylish eateries that are affordable.
We have already enthused in this column about Kitchen Shunju and its cutting-edge, modern izakaya ryori. We haven’t had time to work our way around all the other places in Shun/Kan yet, but we can certainly recommend Rin, on the floor below. It’s a branch of Tsunahachi, the redoubtable tempura specialists whose main shop lies just oil-spitting distance away, round the corner from MY City. Unlike the original shop, with its labyrinth of wooden rooms and corridors steeped in Showa Era history, Rin is the tempura of today.
Rin updates the fundamentals of tempura — fresh ingredients, each morsel deep-fried to order — with some interesting twists. Besides the usual dipping condiments of grated daikon and plain salt, they also offer cruets filled with salt flavored with parsley, green tea or powdered shrimp shell.
You can sit at the main counter and watch the food being prepared; or settle down at screened-off tables and treat it like any other form of restaurant. Rin translates tempura into a casual, no-frills and — most importantly — affordable dining experience. And that’s the bottom line throughout the whole of the new MY City Shun/Kan.
Tapping into tapas
Another well-established mall that also underwent a much-needed overhaul this autumn was Parco Part 1, in Shibuya. Regular readers of this column will recall that we gave our thumbs-up to Les Hydropathes, the chic Belgian beer bar down on the basement level. But we are equally keen on the new-look, ground-floor cafe/bar.
Moph (which they say is their way of writing “morph”) has been done out with a striking retro pop-art interior, with contoured white tables the shape of upside-down eggcups, and chunky banquettes and stools in bright bubble-gum colors. The staff wear black (of course), the music veers from lounge to trip-hop to bright R&B, and the restless flicker of video projections run throughout the day and night.
But what impresses us most is the menu, with its distinct Iberian bias. The counter is arrayed with a choice of over 30 different tapas — some modeled on classic Spanish recipes (pan-fried potato with octopus, paprika and garlic; mussels in their shells, stuffed with risotto), others of distinctly exotic appearance (layered yuba; slices of tofu interspersed with eggplant). At lunch time these are available as a set meal; at other times you just pick and choose.
There is tea and coffee, of course, to go with their specialty cream-enrobed strawberry chiffon cake. But they also stock a full range of alcoholic refreshment, again featuring Spain front and center — Tio Pepe sherry, sangria, cava bubbly and Rioja wine.
There’s a reasonably secluded no-smoking section on one side. And come the spring, they will open up the windows along one side to convert Moph into a full-blown sidewalk cafe — facing not onto Koen-dori but the pedestrian street at the top of Spain-zaka. But you don’t have to wait for the warm weather to arrive to enjoy this stylish slice of Euro-cool in upper Shibuya
Moph, Parco Part 1, 1F, 15-1 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5456-8244; www.moph.jp Open daily 10 a.m.-midnight
For anyone with a passion for Japanese food, there were two books published last year that are essential reading.
“World Food Japan,” part of the ever-reliable Lonely Planet’s expanding imprimatur, is exactly the guide to eating your way around Japan that countless generations of visitors have wished for. Everything you need to know about Japanese food is here, from a history of the Japanese diet to where and how to choose a meal.
Authored by Kyoto resident John Ashburne, it is concise, informative and well-illustrated with color photos. He includes a very useful glossary of Japanese food terms, information about regional specialties, pronunciation tips and even some basic kanji. And it’s small enough that you can stuff it in your jacket pocket when you go out trawling the streets in search of your next meal.
World Food Japan (Lonely Planet; paperback 288 pages; $13.99/£8.99)
But you can never truly understand Japanese food unless you know how it is grown and cooked. One of the best practical introductions to the depths of this magnificent cuisine is Shirley Booth’s “Food of Japan,” which recently came out in paperback.
Booth has not only lived, traveled and eaten widely in Japan, she has met and talked with the people who make the tofu, grow the rice, harvest the seaweed and pick the tea. She has studied shojin ryori with Zen nuns, but she has also frequented numerous izakaya and nomiya. With her trained eye (she is also an accomplished director of documentary films, several on Japanese food), she has also picked up the basics of home cooking.
Her recipes range from the simple (such as chilled hiya yakko tofu) to the sublime (the secret to making premium dashi soup stock). Soy-based foods and vegetarian dishes are emphasized, but without neglecting traditional seafood and meat preparations. Her explanations are easy to follow, with illustrations at useful junctures, and numerous tips pointing out some of the pitfalls and the shortcuts that many native Japanese cooks take for granted.
You can tell she loves and understands Japanese food, and is keen to share that enthusiasm. And even if you do not intend to spend too much time in the kitchen, she gives valuable background information and peppers her text with amusing and apposite quotes. In short, a valuable introduction to the art of good eating, Japanese style.