Going back to favorite restaurants after a gap of several years is much like meeting up with an old flame after being out of touch for too long. Anticipation is likely to be tempered by a good measure of anxiety. How have they changed? What if they don’t look so good any more, or they’ve gone to fat, or have lost their sparkle? Were they — and this is the bottom line — really as fantastic as our memories tell us they were?
No such worries at Un Cafe. For a couple of years after it first opened in 1996, we were frequent visitors to this super little place tucked away behind the forbidding portals of the UN University on Aoyama-dori (yes, the name is meant to be a pun). But then our attention wandered, and until last week we hadn’t been back there in years. With relief and pleasure, we found it’s just as good as it ever was.
For some people, it’s the location that makes Un Cafe special, hidden from the outside world like a secret between lovers. For others, it’s the effortless way Un Cafe combines stylish with casual. The setting may not be quite so cutting-edge as it felt seven years ago, but the pastel-cream, ’60s-revisited interior hasn’t dated at all. The furniture — much of it Philippe Starck before he franchised his name to convenience stores — melds bistro simplicity with Conran Shop sophistication. The stainless steel counter that delineates the open kitchen gleams as bright as it did on opening day.
Nor has the ambience changed. The emphasis has always been on informality, the distinction between cafe and restaurant blurred. That means you can linger over lunch as long as you like. You can drop in at any time of the afternoon for a snack — perhaps a bowl of pasta or one of their pastrami sandwiches — with a glass of wine, or just a quiet cup of coffee. Or you can dress up a bit and make a proper evening of it over a leisurely dinner.
To be sure, the menu has evolved (that’s inevitable, with new chefs at the helm) and now wears its Californian influences less consciously. But the cooking remains just as accomplished — and the prices every bit as reasonable. The 3,400 yen set dinner comprises six separate courses, including two hors d’oeuvres (one hot, one cold); fish (currently pan-fried isaki); meat (roast lamb); then two separate desserts plus coffee. This must be one of the best bargains in the city.
We adopted a different strategy, though, deciding to pick and choose our way through the surprisingly extensive a la carte menu. This allowed us to build our meal around a series of starters and smaller dishes, kicking off with a plate of small bruschetta and pa^te with our aperitifs.
Straight away we homed in on the leek terrine. This is not to be missed. The delectable chunks of white-green, soft-cooked leek encased in a thick layer of clear aspic come from real Belgian poireaux, not Japanese negi of any description. Their simple flavor is enhanced by a substantial serving of chicken liver pa^te on the side, so smooth and spreadable it is virtually a sauce, and by a rich, black dressing attributed to truffles but deriving far more from olive tapenade. It is a brilliant combination, one that has become a signature dish at Un Cafe and almost worth the journey on its own.
We could find no fault with our Caesar salad — we came, we saw and we gobbled it up with gusto — but the standout is the to-die-for sauteed foie gras. These two plump portions of goose liver were pan-fried so well they were almost black on the outside (but inside still pink and rare) and sinfully rich with fat. They were served on stems of green asparagus and provided with a modicum of balance by the dark, sherry-vinegar sauce. In more puritan cultures than Japan, this kind of food would risk being banned as deleterious to the national morals.
There are always a couple of reliable pastas to choose from (we went back for lunch a few days later and had a very good spaghetti with crab meat in cream tomato sauce). But that evening we chose risotto — and it was memorable. Creamy yet sufficiently al dente, and generously mixed with morsels of chicken white meat and mushrooms (mixed Japanese kinoko), this was as good as any risotto we have eaten in Tokyo.
The only area where significant change has been allowed to creep in over the years is in the wine cellar. In the early days, Un Cafe had one of the best, well-priced selections of West Coast wines in the city. Now the list is almost entirely French, with only a token presence from elsewhere. This is surprising, since this kind of cuisine — serious but relaxed — cries out to be paired with some quality Aussie vintages.
We were happy to be able to take advantage of their ongoing (until May 5) special Californian wine promotion. There are 10 or so wines, all available by the glass (from 900 yen) the carafe or the bottle, from which we picked out a ZD Chardonnay (the initials stand for “zero defects” and we certainly had no complaints) and a Carmenet Dynamite Cabernet Sauvignon (every bit as full-on in nature as in name). And if we had scanned the menu more closely, we would have rounded off the meal perfectly with a glass of Monbazillac (by the time we noticed, it was too late).
Back in 1996 we wrote that Un Cafe achieves what so many other eateries in Tokyo have aimed for: that elusive synthesis of innovative food, reasonable prices and an easygoing ambience that would not be out of place in Sydney, Soho or San Francisco. Seven years later, we have no reason to alter that assessment.