Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Argile: A gourmet sanctuary above the streets of Ginza

by Robbie Swinnerton

Is there any Tokyo neighborhood more focused on dining than Ginza? Its nine compact blocks house the greatest concentration of high-end restaurants in the country — quite possibly the whole world. But when it comes to quality cuisine at somewhat more affordable prices, the area has less to offer. All the more reason to greet the arrival of Argile.

Opened in September, it is the offshoot of one of Tokyo’s finest French restaurants, the excellent Esquisse. It’s just two floors down in the same building, meaning there’s a strong overlap in both ingredients and philosophy, especially since the man in charge of the kitchen is Teruki Murashima, who has worked under Esquisse head chef Lionel Beccat since day one.

But the two restaurants couldn’t look more different. Where Esquisse is open and light, Argile is solid and earthy. The walls are dark, with matte textures evoking traditional Japanese ceramics. The bar area is faced with roof thatching. Smooth, spindly tree trunks rise to the ceiling, while statuesque chunks of driftwood seem to float above the bare timber tabletops in the center of the room.

Even during the day, there’s little natural light — apparently the sun is so strong they have to cover all but a few slits of window. But once your eyes have adjusted, the overall effect is calm and cocoon-like. Time slows down and the outside world feels far away.

This makes Argile perfect for long, leisurely lunches. There are two options: five courses (¥7,000) or three (¥5,000, with no meat dish or pre-dessert). Both include extra tidbits at the start and finish. From the amuse-bouche to the final nibbles and coffee, everything is expertly plated and cooked.

The current menu opens with a light cauliflower blancmange layered with avocado puree and thick, rich chicken consomme, topped with sea urchin. Light, fragrant and appetizing, it sets the tone brilliantly for the entree: Large, luxurious scallops are lightly pan-fried and paired with chunks of crunchy lotus root, apple puree, creamy white wine sauce and crisp thin-sliced lotus root.

The first main course is kinmedai (splendid alfonsino), a fish as gorgeous as its name and made even more so by its presentation, with curls of Brussels sprouts sprinkled with truffle powder, juicy Chinese cabbage and pureed cauliflower. The meat is even more impressive: a noisette of aged Hokkaido venison with a beautiful beni-imo (scarlet sweet potato) puree.

The meal closes with a bang. A refreshing basil mousse is followed by the main dessert, tarte tatin, not the usual upside-down style but deconstructed so each element is separate, with apple that bursts onto your taste buds with sharp caramelized acidity. So good!

Dinner at Argile proceeds rather differently. The menu is a la carte only, and starts with Champagne and light nibbles at the bar (included in the ¥3,000 cover charge). After that, you move to your table in the main dining room. The experience feels more like a dinner party, an occasion to share with friends — a chance to enjoy something a little special without blowing the budget. In Ginza, that is more than welcome.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.