The equinox is past, and the evenings are already drawing in. So isn’t it a bit late in the year to go searching for the light, aromatic foods that nourish us best through the summer months? Not if you’re craving the green papaya salad at An Com.
The shallow bowl is heaped with matchsticks of the pale green, slightly crunchy fruit, surrounded by an array of accompaniments — cashews, sesame seeds and flakes of fried onion, slices of cucumber and tomato, morsels of orange and two kinds of grape. Leaves of coriander, mint and other herbs add distinctive accents, as does the small pot of creamy citrus dressing on the side, thickened with sake kasu, the lees from sake brewing.
Mix everything together and let the contrast of textures and tastes play on your palate. There’s a good reason why this dish has become the signature appetizer at An Com, no matter the season.
This diminutive counter-style restaurant, which opened in July last year in the Eat Play Works complex in Hiroo, takes the beguiling flavors of Vietnam as its inspiration. Here, the traditional recipes are reinterpreted with Japanese inflections, giving them a sophistication that feels entirely right in this casual, contemporary setting — just as it does at An Com’s sister restaurant, the excellent (and considerably more spacious) An Di over in Jingumae.
The difference between the two is not just in size and setting. While the latter boasts a serious focus on wine — owner Motohiro Okoshi is a sommelier of considerable repute — the drink of choice at An Com is premium sake.
Okoshi has selected more than two dozen brews from around Japan. It’s quite a number, given the compact scale of this restaurant, which has just eight seats overlooking the kitchen, plus a couple of small tables to one side.
All the sake is first-rate, but the standout bottle is the one customarily poured to open your meal. Called Awaibuki, it’s a bottle-conditioned awa (bubbly) sake Okoshi commissioned exclusively from Tomita Shuzo in Shiga Prefecture. It is the first time that this nearly 500-year-old brewery, renowned for its Shichihonyari brand, has produced a sparkling sake.
Crisp and complex in flavor, it’s a festive way to start the meal and pairs excellently with the green papaya salad, unsurprising considering the dressing uses the lees from this same sake.
In fact, Awaibuki would match just about any of the dishes included in the set meals at An Com. The menu has been developed by An Di’s head chef, Chihiro Naito, a longtime alumnus of the now three-Michelin-star L’Effervescence, and he brings a sureness of touch to both taste and presentation.
The beautiful, plump spring rolls (aka nama harumaki) are all prepared to order, incorporating seasonal ingredients such as slivers of green sudachi citrus, sawara (Spanish mackerel) with fuki (butterbur) miso, milky-white oyster, or even thin-sliced abalone (though it’s best to book at An Di to try this more upmarket version).
Expect the same seasonality in the fillings of the deep-fried spring rolls, with their crisp, lace-like batter coating. This month, to mark the arrival of autumn, they are stuffed with shishamo (smelt) and mushrooms.
An Com’s trademark pho noodles could hardly be more refined. Served in an exquisite, clear-golden chicken broth, they are topped with slices of pure white breast meat, with a wedge of lime and plenty of aromatic herbs on the side, plus a heaping pile of katsuobushi (skipjack tuna) flakes to impart even deeper levels of umami.
Scan the a la carte menu and you’ll find some great side dishes, too, including large patties of grilled lamb seasoned with lemongrass and the excellent katsuo tataki (lightly seared skipjack) served on egoma (perilla) leaves. The kitchen can also rustle up an excellent lamb banh mi sandwich for takeout.
An Com even offers a limited menu for those sitting downstairs in the pleasant ground-floor al fresco terrace area. But the place to be is at the counter, sipping a foaming toast — Awaibuki, of course — to the end of the state of emergency. Be sure to make reservations wherever you want to sit.
Eat Play Works 2F, Hiroo 5-4-16, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0012; 03-6409-6386; ancomvietnam.com; open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (L.O.), 5-8 p.m. (L.O.), opening days and hours subject to change due to COVID-19; closed Mon.; basic lunch set meal ¥1,600, dinner set meal ¥5,500, also a la carte; takeout available; nearest station Hiroo; nonsmoking; major cards accepted, cashless only; English menu; English spoken
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