A toast is called for, to greet this brave new murine Year of the Rat as it scuttles out of the wainscoting and into the dining room. Nihonshu, Trappist ales, Prosecco, whatever — we’re not fussy, as long as the setting is right and there is quality food to go with the liquid refreshments. Here are a few places that opened recently where the victuals are every bit as worthy as the booze.
‘Tis the season of ritual and tradition, so the first kampai must surely be with sake. It also has to be in style, so our first stop is the excellent new Sake Bistro W in Kasumigaseki. The interior is designer chic, with carefully modulated lighting and, as a central water feature, a step pyramid of glowing green glass. The cellar may be stocked with sake, shochu and Okinawan awamori, but the ambience is more akin to a Greenwich Village wine bar.
That sense of crossing cultures is heightened further as you scan the English-language menu. The categories used to describe the more than 20 sake stocked are those used for fine wine: Grand Cru for the super-premium daiginjo, Premier Cru for premium ginjo and Tradition for the less rarefied categories.
Topping the Grand Cru list is the ineffable Myouka Rangyoku (“Heavenly Flower”) from Daishichi in Fukuoka Prefecture, the finest sake made by one of the best kura (breweries) in the country. Lest you balk at paying over ¥20,000 for a 730 ml bottle, bear in mind that in New York the sticker price is upwards of $450. Considerably more affordable but still highly recommended is Eau de Desir. This is not a perfume but a fine “1er Cru” from an Aichi Prefecture kura called Kuheigi that features on the wine list of the Ritz Hotel in Paris and can be savored here for ¥1,000 a glass.
To match these premium brews, the kitchen produces a good selection of comestibles. We snacked on goya (bitter melon) chips and satsuma-age (deep-fried fish cakes). The sashimi is good, of course, and there’s a range of tofu dishes, but we preferred the updated takes on such down-home favorites as dashimaki tamago (thick omelet, prepared with free-range eggs) and niku-jaga (pork soft-simmered with delectable yellow spuds).
Modern Japanese cuisine wears its eclectic influences on its sleeve: The NY Salad features avocado and king crab; meat dishes include juicy steaks of Spanish Iberico pork, as well as local jidori (free-range) chicken; and that ever-popular Okinawan stir-fry staple, goya champuru. To close the meal you can choose from delicate udon noodles, onigiri rice balls or seafood risotto.
Sophisticated but not snooty, contemporary but still rooted in the age-old drinking culture of the izakaya, Sake Bistro W gives Japan’s traditional tipple a chic sheen that brings it totally up to date. What better way to start the year?
Well, there’s always beer. Not any old suds, of course, but the wonderful heady brews of Belgium, as served at Delirium Cafe , right next door to Sake Bistro W in the new (October 2007) Kasumi Dining restaurant complex.
It’s not as wild as the name suggests — although Belgian beers can pack a significant alcohol punch, often 8 or 9 percent, or even higher. Delirium Tremens (8.5 percent alcohol), one of the finest, has up to now only been available as a bottled import, but here it is on tap, along with nine other premium beers that were previously unknown in Tokyo in draft form (all around ¥900 per 350 ml glass).
These range in color from light blond to dark amber to bright red, and in flavor from extreme hop-fueled bitter to rich, malty yeastiness to fruity sweet-sour. They are served into squat, bulbous glasses, each a different shape, each well suited to cradling in your hands for slow sipping and maximum appreciation. Besides the draft beers, there are as many as 60 bottled varieties (around ¥1,000 each, with 750 ml bottles from around ¥3,000). All in all, there is considerable scope for befuddlement, if not total frenzy.
As with sake, these beers can be drunk alone but are best paired with suitable food. Delirium Cafe lays on all the Belgian favorites: mussels steamed in white beer; batter-cooked vegetable fritters; cheese, charcuterie and hearty meat dishes; and classic thin-cut fries, which come with a choice of three kinds of mayonnaise — our favorite is the one blended with dark, salty anchovies.
Delirium Cafe is already hugely popular, so it is worth phoning ahead to reserve a table. Nonsmokers should be aware that it gets very smoky. Unless you are happy to huddle outside under the space-heaters, then get there early. There’s no Happy Hour as such; but for aficionados of fine beer, just being able to settle in at one of the counter seats with a few of these brews should ensure many hours of delirious contentment.
Delirium Cafe, Tokyo Club Bldg., 3-2-6 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3501-3181; www.deliriumcafe.jp. Nearest stations: Toranomon (Ginza Line), Tameike-Sanno (Ginza and Nanboku lines). Open: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 11 a.m.-2 a.m.); lunch (Monday-Friday) from ¥1,500; dinner menu a la carte. English menu; some English spoken; major credit cards accepted.
Of all the places we went drinking last year, our best find was the brilliant little Terauchi in Minami-Azabu. That’s not really so surprising, since it’s an offshoot from the wonderful Italian grill of that name, which was our outright favorite restaurant back in 2003.
Given his continuing popularity, chef Masayuki Terauchi could have expanded into bigger and flashier surroundings. Instead, he has opened a bijou wine bar in a location that seems willfully obscure. Hidden in a mansion block on a narrow street behind the New Sanno Hotel, this is not a place you will stumble on by chance. But for anyone serious about food and drink, it’s definitely worth searching out.
The walls are lined with shelves of wine bottles from floor to ceiling. The atmosphere is as intimate and dimly lit as a scholar’s study. There’s just room for two small tables, half a dozen chairs at the counter, plus another couple of tables in the separate outer area. The menu, inscribed (Japanese only) on a small blackboard, only runs to a dozen items, most of them antipasto appetizers.
Start without fail with an order of Terauchi’s baked onions, cooked whole in their skins until they turn a dark, burnished brown and the innards are soft and deeply sweet. Sliced in half and adorned with a salsa of Italian parsley, they illustrate brilliantly that, here at least, simplicity really can be perfection, as long as the basic ingredients are of superb quality.
The mozzarella “salad” is fantastic — served just with fragrant olive oil and a dusting of black pepper — and so is the charcuterie platter, which includes various types of salami and prosciutto carved from the haunch that sits atop the counter.
There are only a couple of hot dishes — usually trippa (honeycomb tripe in red sauce) and a hearty, warming meat stew (ask for the nikomi) — but they are just as memorable. There will also be the day’s spaghetti, perhaps tossed with a little oil and topped with flecks of botargo (smoked mullet roe, here known by its Japanese name, karasumi). Again less is most definitely more.
By this time you will probably have made your way through an opening glass or two of Prosecco and then a bottle from Terauchi’s well-stocked cellar. Some of the wines are too heavyweight for this kind of occasion, but there’s adequate choice in the ¥5,000-¥7,000 level (ask if they still have the Barbera Ca di Pian — you won’t be disappointed).
This is not the place to come if you want to let your hair down or stuff your belly. In fact, it’s much more Japanese in feel than Italian. But that makes it just right for a date, for quiet conversation with an associate or for simply unwinding at the end of the day. Or perhaps for saluting your own success in finding your way to this only-in-Tokyo little gem.
4-12-6 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 3443-3638. Nearest station: Hiroo (Hibiya Line). Open noon to midnight; closed Sunday and third Monday of the month. Japanese menu; English wine list; no English spoken; major credit cards accepted.
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