Anyone who has visited Spain knows it offers some of the best eating in Europe. But its food has never been embraced in Japan in the same way as French and Italian cuisine. So it’s always good to see a new Spanish restaurant arriving in Tokyo — especially when it’s as capable as Bullicio.
Belying its name (which means “bustling” or “uproar”), Bullicio is cheerful and easygoing but never noisy or boisterous. It styles itself as a Valencia-style bar, but the focus is just as much on food as drinking. The menu includes plenty of classic dishes from across the Iberian Peninsula, while the extensive wine list is weighted firmly at the affordable (under ¥5,000) end of the spectrum.
Bullicio hits a comfortable, accessible middle ground with no high-end aspirations but is still a world away from the generic Spanish pubs with their bull-fighting posters and faux-antique dark-wood interiors. It is bright and airy, with lots of window space — too much to be intimate, but saved from feeling soulless by the gorgeous, hand-painted murals covering most of the walls.
These graceful, colorful illustrations are also the biggest clue that you will eat well. Those in the know will straightaway recognize the similarity with the decor at Cristiano’s, the excellent Portuguese bistro near Yoyogi-Koen Station. They are also likely to spot Cristiano’s head chef Koji Sato behind the counter here, working with the Bullicio kitchen crew as they get up to full speed.
Sato has managed the culinary transition from Portugal to Spain with aplomb. As at his other restaurant, the cooking is confident and full flavored. He doesn’t stint on the Iberico ham in his croquettes. He makes a fine version of albondigas (meat balls) using ground lamb meat. And he has good recipes for callos, the tripe stew with chickpeas that is so popular in Madrid, and esqueixada, adding white beans to the classic Catalan salad of salt cod and tomato. He also cures his own bacon and stuffs his own sausages, both a plain pork botifarra and a richer, darker morcilla (blood sausage) variety.
You could make a whole tapas-style meal from these starters (all under ¥1,000). There are also larger main dishes of both seafood and meat. But you might want to hold off on ordering them until after the middle of the evening when the kitchen unveils its specials. A bell signals that the tortilla (Spanish omelette) is ready. A second clang announces the arrival of a full-size pan of Valencia-style paella, which is divvied up among all those who raise their hands.
Bullicio would be a welcome addition in any part of Tokyo, but in the sterile setting of Ark Hills it feels like a ray of warmth and color. Better yet, it has outdoor seating, complete with foosball, which will come into its own just as soon as the weather warms up.