|

Sel Sal Sale: Ristorante quality with trattoria values

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Sel Sal Sale is not one of those modest restaurants that keeps itself safely hidden out of sight behind an anonymous frontage. Quite the opposite: The wood-framed window onto the street invites you to slow down, pause and peer inside.

Stroll past at dinnertime — it’s on one of the quieter routes connecting Ebisu with Daikanyama — and you’ll see one of the most cheerful restaurant scenes in the neighborhood. It draws a smart, youngish, well-dressed crowd, who fill the place with a buzz that’s happy but never too loud.

It’s been like that ever since Sel Sal Sale (the third part of the name, meaning “salted,” rhymes with “palais“) moved here from Ikejiri just over a year ago. You won’t find a menu outside, just an apologetic sign that reads along the lines of: “We regret we are full today, so please don’t bother to even ask.”

In fact, there is no written menu. Each day, chef Masahiro Hamaguchi prepares a one-size-fits-all omakase dinner. While this may vary to reflect what is in season, generally the meal comprises 10 dishes and is priced at ¥5,500. Given the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the cooking on display, it’s no mystery why tables are in such high demand.

Hamaguchi cut his teeth under Mario Frittoli at Luxor in Shirokanedai, and later joined the brilliant (and much lamented) Roppongi Nouen. He worked his way around Europe, chiefly Italy, honing his creativity. That is apparent from the very first dish, his signature “one-bite capellini.”

The delicate strands of pasta are dressed and chilled, and then wrapped around the tines of a fork. The final, memorable touch is the carpaccio, a slice of madai (red sea bream) draped over the pasta. It’s a superb way to start an excellent meal.

The dishes that follow are light, colorful and seasonal. Among the stand-outs are a cauliflower mousse topped with a jellied consomme rich with lobster and uni (sea urchin); a quiche of caramelized onion served (if you time it right) with truffle; and another of Hamaguchi’s signatures, foie gras brulee served on a slice of soft white bread accented with espresso coffee.

The evening will include a risotto as well as another excellent pasta dish — hot this time — followed by a main, perhaps duck or pork. Individually, none of the portions are substantial, but together they add up to a very satisfying meal. The only quibbles might be that the wine list could be deeper and the desserts feel like a bit of an afterthought. But at the end a meal of this quality you barely notice.

This is superior restaurant cooking at trattoria prices. More than anything, though, Sel Sal Sale feels relaxed but professional — the kind of atmosphere that you look for in Tokyo, but all too rarely find. And that is the deeper reason behind its enduring popularity.

Set menu from ¥5,500 (same day cancellation charge: ¥5,940 per head); no menu; English spoken