Friday, 30 May 2008

Rude about Food

First post on my new blog, Rude about Food. Reserved for harsh comments I'll probably regret.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

There are times, Gentle Reader, when your Humble Correspondent is not ashamed to admit that others may have better insight into particular cuisines or localities. After all, one has a reputation to defend - better the temporary embarrassment of asking than the shame of lingering doubt finding its evil way among you!

So looking for a place to take my work team for a tipple after a sally into Ginza recently, I asked bon vivant Richard Cohen of Village Cellars for his advice. The VC office is located hard by the Kabuki-za, and my inner muse (can you spell w-i-f-e ?) told me that if anyone should know the area it would be Richard and Yoshiko. Their advice – Grape Gumbo [Japanese Yahoo website] [Map] !

Oh brave Richard! Oh wise Portia (Yoshiko)! Grape Gumbo is very much a sarariman magnet, and no place could have been better suited to my purposes. One feels Grape Gumbo must have started as a New Orleans/Cajun destination (at least, that is what the Big Easy photographs, posters, and jazz paraphernalia shout at me), but has thought better of that brief moment of insanity to return to French brasserie/tabac cooking that tickles the fancy and fills the belly. My dinner companions were legion, and personalities ranged from the Wacky Creative Guy through Donna Bella and the Brand Icon to the redoubtable Ms’s Motonaga and Takano. By the way, a bottle of Australian sparkling for a collective noun for more than one Ms …!

We attacked the appetizers with gusto, and the table of seven voted the pate de campagne probably the best of a good bunch. Washed down with some flirtatious Australian white wine, the entrée-sized portions of everything from foie gras to fresh salad had my antennae twitching and taste-buds anticipating our main courses.

We devoured perhaps four different species of animal in rapid succession, and each was well-prepared and sufficient for more than one in that friendly, rough-and-ready izakaya manner. My Duck Confit was on the great side of good, and the pork looked regal and tasted better. A Montepulciano made for much laughter and less logic at the table, and complemented the food well enough that we found ourselves at the empty end of a second bottle.

At around Y7,000 per person, Grape Gumbo is probably better scheduled soon-ish after pay day, but represents good value for money with something on the menu to please both the discerning and the boisterous. Go there with peers and colleagues, or when exhausted after a tear through Ginza.

Grape Gumbo [Map]: 5-9-6 Ginza, Chuo-Ku. 03-3569-7388
Rating: Food: 6; Wine: 7; Service: 7; Ambience: 7; Price: 7 ($$). Total 34/50

Saturday, 17 May 2008

By Charlie! Epanoui Hiroo

One wonders, Gentle Reader, how people navigate their way through the mesmerizing, myriad selection of great dining opportunities here in Tokyo. How easy it is to just fall back on the old favorites, happy in the knowledge that all will be well and familiar.

It falls on your Humble Correspondent to slave on your behalf to discover the hidden jewels in Tokyo's culinary crown. So it is with great delight that I introduce Epanoui in Hiroo 3-Chome [Map], where I dined with a self-surrendering colleague recently. A true delight, Gentle Reader, with a deft touch in the food, the service, and the atmosphere it has created in this stand-alone house just off Komazawa-dori near Kokugakuin University. Epanoui comes from the French for "to bloom", and is used in the wine industry to describe the sensation when a wine's bouquet "opens" up.

One of the characters-in-residence at Epanoui is Charlie, the Wire Hair and Fox Terrier who serves as Maitre D' with aplomb and quiet reserve. Charlie has his own section in the Japanese-only website, and seems to regard most of we humble diners with a touch of disdain and distance. Chef Shindo Takeshi has plenty of experience both here in Tokyo and in Paris (mainly in the 8e), and uses it with great aplomb at this wonderful suburban restaurant. He and his wife live "above the shop", and they are truly dedicated to l'art de cuisine.

We went for the safe middle ground among the 3 set menus (A: 1 entree, Meat or Fish, Dessert @ Y4,200; B: 2 entrees or 1 entree and Fish, Meat or Fish, Dessert @ Y5,985; C: 1 entree, Fois Gras, Fish of the Day, Meat of the Day, Dessert @ Y7,560).

My colleague ordered first, and so snaffled the Foie gras poêlé à la sauce aux truffes, which I matched with Terrine de canard challandais. Both were delightful, and served as a great introduction to the experience this husband and wife team seek to provide their lucky customers. Our second entree was the Asperges Blanches à la sauce mayonnais, served with an interesting Mascapone and Salmon mousse, that delivered on every promise and provided us both with something to discuss other than mundane work matters.

We both chose the Confit de canard as our main course. Simply brilliant, Gentle Reader, and worth the sometimes frustrating navigational headache that Epanoui can provide (see directions below). The champignon and squeezed duck jus rissole that accompanies it is delightfully light and balanced.

Our wine was a 2004 Chablis, which was complex and elegant without showing that cloying sweetness that can dominate the chardonnay grape. It was excellent with my Basque tart dessert.

I shall be back at Epanoui in very short order, eager to try the other options on this interesting menu. Try Epanoui with only your best friends, or we'll find the 20-odd seats will fill way too quickly!

Epanoui [Map], 3-2-14 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku. Tel./Fax 03(3407)1513
Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Service: 7/10; Price ($$): 8/10. Total: 37/50 Add a bonus point for Charlie!

Directions: Have your driver head along Komazawa-dori from Shibuya-bashi towards Roppongi, and look for the 7-Eleven conbini after the second traffic light. Get out and cross the road, turn left and look for the first lane way on your right side. Turn into the lane, and Epanoui is the 2-storey house in front of you as the lane turns again to the right.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Ah, a play's the thing! Cafe Eight.

Ever the urbane sophisticate, Gentle Reader, I was delighted to be invited by Ashley Associates to the recent Tokyo performance of the Bard's Hamlet by the International Theatre Company London. Hamlet, performed brilliantly by this talented cast of seven (!), is one of my favorite Shakespeare pieces and never fails to reveal new insights and highlights.

And repairing for a post-performance bite with the troupe and various Ashley associates, the Child Bride and I found ourselves - obviously (after the Danish play?) - at the all-night Chinese restaurant Cafe Eight [Map] located hard by the Grand Hyatt and famous for its Peking Duck.

I must admit, Gentle Reader, that your Humble Correspondent has a h-u-g-e soft spot for Peking Duck [and Jaiozi (dumplings)]. I firmly believe that this duck dish is the third great contribution of Chinese civilization to humanity, after paper money and gunpowder, and have tried it all around the world from Beijing to Hong Kong, Guangzhou to Glenelg.

Cafe Eight could work somewhat on the pancakes to make them a little lighter (or prepare them fresh rather than well in advance!), but the duck itself is among the best I've ever had and the accompanying soup and stir-fry certainly don't wilt in its limelight. At Y3,680 this is a real bargain and I'm deeply grateful to Sir James (that paragon of elegant eating in Tokyo!) for the introduction and the meal.

The rest of the menu is both exciting and comforting, and with dishes and banquet courses to cover every budget, I commend Cafe Eight to you for gatherings that you know will be enthusiastic and effervescent. The side dishes we tried were good-to-great, with a cap doffed especially to the Chinese Greens and Fried Fresh Garlic. The drinks list is fulsome and interesting, although one should expect a predilection to the Orient rather than the Occident. I opted for flavour and familiarity with TsingDao which remains one of my favorite ales despite 30 years of competition from other well-meaning brews.

Cafe Eight has three branches in Tokyo (and one in Ontario apparently), but I am reliably informed that the Roppongi venue is the oldest and best. Visit Cafe Eight with rambunctious friends and tipsy colleagues.

Chinese Cafe Eight [Map], Nishi-Azabu 3-2-13,Court Annex 2F (opposite Grand Hyatt), 5414-5708; Open 24 hours a day.
Rating: Food: 8/10; Beer: 6/10; Ambiance: 6/10; Service: 7/10; Price ($$): 8/10. Total: 35/50

Sunday, 11 May 2008

A Secret Love - Le Recamier

There are times, Gentle Reader, when we all look for a calm and reassuring haven as we wend our way through the frenetic Tokyo dining scene. Quiet competence, a sharp focus on fine food, and the calm assurance of a chef who has seen it all.

And Le Recamier [Map] in Moto Azabu is that sort of place. The tableware has that slightly battered feel that one only sees when dining with long-term friends or relatives. Sort of like your grandmother's table. Except she could never cook like this!

Le Recamier is of course a reference to the Grande Dame de la salon of 19th century Imperial France, whose portrait graces the entrance and whose wit and charm seem to effuse this charming little restaurant with an air of grand decadence and enormous charm. There is more than a hint of Chef's personality in this glance back at better days, and I for one salute him for his je ne sais quoi.

My recent visit was not my first - the ineffable James had introduced me to this little gem a couple of years ago, and the Tokyo Darkside once visited as well. I'm pleased to report that Le Recamier has gone from strength to strength, and is thriving just off Terebi-Asahi-dorii in Roppongi/Moto-Azabu (turn down the street before the fire station). Dropping in with a Kiwi friend (now there's an amusing irony!), we were delighted to leave the menu to Chef.

After a quick dash at the pate de Fois Gras, my entree was a superb St Jacques turned off nicely and plated to highlight the coral. This dish is a joy and I recommend it to you, Gentle Reader, should you follow my advice and make Le Recamier a regular stop on your Tokyo dining journey. The white wine, Chassagne Mont 2005 Domaine Jean-Marc Morey, complemented this dish wonderfully well and seemed to evaporate in the glass (although the Kiwi is indeed a thirsty fellow, and a man's not a camel you know).

Yes, I'm not ashamed to admit that I went for the Confit of Duck once more time. The duck is such an ugly animal with a frightful way of expressing itself - but the meat is God's way of making up for these shortfalls. Chef is a dab hand indeed at this canard thing, and didn't disappoint with a darling little wine reduction and a just enough of a hint of vegetables to satisfy my doctor's raucous insistence on fiber. Our Clos St Martin 1996 St Emilion was surprisingly elegant yet fresh, and added to the enjoyment of both the fowl and the Kiwi's subtle Lamb (I swear I'm not making that up!) dish.

A selection of cheeses whetted the appetite for cigars - not here, but at the Grand Hyatt. More on that at a later time! Visit Le Recamier often, with friends and lovers. And raise a glass to the rotundity in the corner - I'll be the fool smirking over a grand pate de fois gras!

Rating: Food: 8/10; Wine: 7/10; Ambiance: 7/10; Service: 8/10; Price ($$): 7/10. Total: 37/50
Le Recamier [Map], 3-2-3 Moto-Azabu, Minato-Ku. 10 minutes walk from Roppongi station. 03-3408-5044