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336 Ebisu: Neo-bistro has food and style all its own

by

Special To The Japan Times

If you judge restaurants solely by their architecture and decor, you’d probably finger 336 Ebisu as a temple of modern Scandinavian cuisine. The interior is so simple and airy — all big windows, curving arches, light-wood furniture, unadorned walls — that you expect dishes of Nordic precision. You’d be wrong.

One look at the menu, one glance down the wine list, and it’s clear that 336 Ebisu is of French lineage. But it’s not the classic version, with pretensions of Gallic grandeur. Nor does it evoke the bustling, no-frills virtues of old-style brasserie culture.

The inspiration at this calm, welcoming little restaurant on the nether side of Yebisu Garden Place is the new wave of Parisian neo-bistros, where quality cooking and a well curated cellar are de rigeur but dressing up and putting on airs is decidedly passe. You go to eat and enjoy, not to see or be seen. And the wine is picked and priced for your enjoyment, not for name-brand status.

That’s the admirable approach of the youthful owner, Tomotaka Yamazaki. As a sommelier, he has a substantial CV to his name, both in Japan and France. Besides working in wineries in the Champagne, Burgundy and Cotes du Rhone regions, he spent two years at Passage 35 in Paris, the first restaurant in France with a Japanese chef to achieve two Michelin stars.

If Yamazaki’s career trajectory is quite straightforward, you could hardly say the same for the chef he picked to work with him after returning to Tokyo to open 336 Ebisu last autumn. Hayato Saito initially trained as a piano tuner, and it was only later that he turned to cooking.

He has a confident, contemporary style and his repertoire displays a strong individuality. But he can also prepare the standard dishes with great precision. A plate of freshly baked gougeres (individual gruyere puff pastries) makes for some excellent nibbles to go with that first glass of wine — Yamazaki pours a Swartland Chenin Blanc, as if to demonstrate that his expertise extends well beyond French borders.

A small but tasty pot of rillettes offers no lack of refinement along with its rusticity. And the substantial salad that follows is generously topped with mushroom, bacon and oozing grilled goat cheese. This is one of Saito’s signature appetizers and, like everything on the menu, is intended to be shared between two or more people.

He also serves an excellent confit of duck. The contrast of crisp skin and tender meat inside is exactly as it should be. It comes on a mound of green olives and raisins simmered down in Madeira, a rich, sweet-savory counterpoint that makes this dish a highlight of any meal here.

If there’s a downside, it’s that by the time you have explored the charms of Yamazaki’s Rhone reds and segued onto dessert wines, it feels very hard to tear yourself away when the taxi arrives to whisk you back to the station.

Open 6 p.m.-midnight; also Sat. & Sun. 12-2 p.m. (irregular holidays); dinner a la carte (about ¥5,000 plus wine), weekend lunch ¥2,900; Japanese menu; French spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.