Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Australian Food: Come on Aussie!

Having ventured to the Great Southern Land, Gentle Reader, I was looking forward with considerable relish (no pun intended) to a veritable feast of fine food. And I'm desperately disappointed.

In Dominic's recent post about a certain restaurant in Canberra, he lamented at the poor quality of the offering. Your Humble Correspondent would feign call him mistaken, were it at all possible.

I must say that, like the United States, Australia boasts magnificent produce. Whether shopping for my humble home or considering what was on offer at the various eating establishments I have visited with the Child Bride, I have no doubt that the ingredients are of the highest quality. Magnificent seafood, extraordinary cuts of meat and poultry, superb vegetables, and some of the best delicatessens I have ever experienced. There is a passion for the providore that thrills me to the core. So what, I wonder, is the issue?

In your Humble Correspondent's opinion, the problem happens once the produce gets to the kitchen. Too many cooks spoiling broths, and not enough chefs focused on what hits the plate. Over-cooking such as Dominic suffered, or under-cooking like I experienced recently when the filling for a steak-and-kidney pastry was barely tepid, is a solid indication that some-one at the kitchen door is not paying attention. Wait staff make the simplest mistakes, and seem driven to have the diners in and out quickly. A cross-eyed view to the top-line, rather than customer satisfaction and growing a crowd of "regulars".

Perhaps we are all a little spoiled in Tokyo, but there where livelihoods are on the line chefs go that little further to make sure customers are delighted. Here in the Antipodes, it seems that people have jobs rather than passions and the competition is for employees rather than learning opportunities. It's almost as if the roles are reversed between kitchen and floor, and between diners and eateries. For goodness' sake, food is not fuel and dining excellence is not measured with a stopwatch.

It is all a rather large pity - the venues and locations are splendid and the ingredients (as noted) real quality. Why, oh why, don't people apply that finishing touch of the entertainment inherent in food? If all the world's a stage, where are the players?

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Top Food Blogs?

Christopher claims to be my friend. Note the "claims". Yet he has managed to cut me to the quick, wound my already damaged pride, and set the bar for success at an impossibly high level. How? By reminding me of my insignificance and pallor.

Now that he's moved on to academia - not just any ivory tower, but Tokyo University - he seems to be focused on deep and meaningful research. He took the trouble to forward me an article from some unknown journal that purports to be a listing of the world's best food blogs. Oh the shame! Oh perfidy! What craven scribe could ever compile said list without including Jon, Dominic, or your Humble Correspondent? Here's the list:
  1. Mexico Cooks!
  2. Eating Asia
  3. Silverbrow on Food
  4. Grab your fork
  5. Chocolate and Zucchini
  6. Wine Anorak
  7. The Boy Done Food
  8. Refined Palate
  9. Cheese and Biscuits
  10. Eat like a Girl

Actually, some of these are pretty good. A bit British, what-ho, but a solid effort. I would add: The Amateur Gourmet; David Lebovitz; Chez Pim; Michael Laiskonis.

And if you're getting a little "over-the-top" about this whole food blogging thing like some-one I know, see the Foodblog Blog. What's even more embarrassing is that none of the Three Musketeers is listed there either... how demeaning!

Yule be wondering ...

Regular Gentle Readers will be wondering what befell your Humble Correspondent. Unlike the effervescent Jon (Blog link here!) , travel to the wilds of Akita was not on the menu this year. Instead, I chose a much more sedate and familiar destination - Brisbane, Australia. While not yet feted as the point of origin for your Humble Correspondent, the City and I look forward to that happy day when foodies all over the world flock to its fair shores for ... um, food!

The point of my antipodean journey with the Child Bride and The Princess was of course to visit my ragged but treasured collection of parents, siblings, children, children-in-law, children-in-law-in-waiting, and grand-babies for a cacophonous convocation at Christmas. A bit of a tradition, you see, which your aging diarist both enjoys and quietly propagates.

Some say, Gentle Reader, that I sometimes tend to go over the top with regard to food and gatherings. Tee-hee to them, and pshaw! Going over the top happens to be a part of my core skill set, and in my (feeble) mind a consummation devoutly to be wished. How could people be so cruel as to suggest that importing a hand-made creche and Nativity Scene from Oberammergau by way of the blithe and generous George was over the top? My intention is to buy a new figurine every year, adding it to the display for the grand-babies to enjoy. [BTW: the figurines are 12cm high, so you can imagine how much space it takes up!]
But the food! Everything is lovingly hand-made by your Humble Correspondent each year. This year, for 20 people! Each year we add something to the mix that might be thought by ne'er-do-wells as "over the top". The Child Bride has long forsaken trying to curb these culinary passions - a good thing too, as covering my ears and poking out my tongue was lately feeling a little childish.

Here's what I prepared (and feel free to contact me for recipes):
Smoked Salmon Pate
Smoked Trout, Chive, and Chervil Terrine
Pressed Duck with Red Wine Vinegar in Aspic
Honey Mustard Glazed Ham
Slow Roasted Pork with Apple Cider Stuffing
Roast Turkey with Sage and Onion Stuffing
Forcemeat Stuffing Balls Wrapped in Pancetta
Roast Herbed Potatoes, Pumpkin, and Kumara
Steamed fresh-picked beans and Asparagus
Cherry and Macadamia Praline Cheesecake
Brandy and Citrus Peel Truffles
Over the top? Never ... just wait for next year! I'm already in planning mode.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bevitrice - Backstreet Beauty

Ebisu has a rich and fascinating history of fallen men and women, bewitched by Eros, Bacchus and formidable Ebisu himself. How fitting therefore, Gentle Reader, that your Humble Correspondent found himself wandering its back streets in search of Bevitrice.

How might it be possible that this comely and captivating destination has escaped my attention for the last 13 years? I am told by my betters that bevitrice is Italian for a "woman who drinks a lot". My choice of companion on this happy evening, alas, was neither female, Italian, nor a dipsomaniac. Truth to tell, he was English (promise you won't tell anyone!) - a lordling, and gentile. Of all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ... your suffering Explorer-Gallant had failed to even negotiate the first hurdle. Why couldn't I have found a fallen woman, or at least a flopsy?

We opened with an Anselmi Capitel Croce 2006 which is a splendid wine, and my first experience of Garganega done well outside of Soave. The Lordling and I decided to trust ourselves to the Prix-Fixe @ Y6,300, but negotiated some slight deviations off the carta.

The charming floor staff offered an Amuse of some home-smoked ham served over a nut mix. Immediately, the Lordling and I knew we were on to something here. Attention to detail, fine balance of flavors, elegant delivery, and a touch of innovation!

Chef followed up with a Tuscan white bean soup. Oh, ♪ Swing Low Sweet Chariot ♪ ... carry me away to Lucca. A hint of lardo. A dreamy, creamy consistency. Mouth-ready, not too hot and not too tepid. For our next course, I had chosenthe antipasta mista and the Lordling was gnawing on a fulsome house Foie gras terrine. Excellent, excellent! The wine was working its magic, and I was beginning to see the flopsiness inherent in my companion.

On to primi - I had chosen the Fettecinitti and he the Porcini Risotto, both of which were outstanding dishes. It was time for some Italian red: we chose Vino nobile di Montepulciano poliziano 2004 as our Elysian poison, and noble indeed it was - so when the Lordling's Beef Cheeks and my Tuscan pork found their way to the table for a brief stay as secondo, your Humble Correspondent found it difficult to choose. My simple solution: alternate mouthfuls of pork, and wine until the porcine perfection was gone and I had received more than my fair entitlement of the beverage.

We rounded out the me with some cheese for me (parmigiana, wash, amaretto) and Zuppa di Iglese for him [which he wittily described as very English and not very zuppa!]. Delightful!

Visit Bevitrice with hordes of dipsomaniacal flopsies, or with good friends - you won't be disappointed with either the food, the pleasant service, or the wine. And if you hear a quiet giggling coming from the cellar, throw me a bone!

Bevitrice: 1-16-29 Ebisu, Shibuya Ward, tel: (03) 3443-2313
Rating: Food: 8; Wine: 7; Service: 8; Ambiance: 8; Price: 7 ($). Total 38/50

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Dame Jeanne - A la Campagne!

Sensitive to the criticism, Gentle Reader, of being too much focused on the gaijin ghettos of Tokyo it became obvious that exploration of deepest, darkest Edo might form the basis of some sort of sensible reply. When a group of my Japanese friends and former colleagues suggested a soiree celebrating Year-End, I saw the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Or in this case, one demijohn.

For indeed, demijohn comes from the medieval French "Dame Jeanne". How embarrassing - imagine a lady being remembered for all posterity as "large and squat, usually covered with wicker". A curmudgeonly comment from the gossips of some quaint Burgundy village, and one's cursed for life!
Maruyamacho, I will admit, is not so far from civilization that one needs to mount a full expedition complete with porters, elephants and tentage. But navigating the jungle of love hotels and restaurants that flourish in this lush and steamier side of Tokyo is a task that only an acknowledged jungle killer can accomplish.
Dame Jeanne is very reminiscent of a quaint Burgundian village - indeed, its proprietors had this very much in mind when they decided 6 months ago to open a tabac style restaurant to replicate the feeling of a village gathering place in the French countryside. And they have very much achieved this goal in this delightful addition to the Tokyo eating landscape.
Maruyamacho [actually, the cho piece means village in Japanese. Egads!] is a difficult area to explore, and Dame Jeanne can be hard to find with only a very small sign and a demure entrance. Your Humble Correspondent happened on it only after bringing to bear years of experience as a professional Explorer-Gallant. Others less accomplished might aim for the Lawsons on the western side of Shinsen station on the Inokashira line. Dame Jeanne is one door closer to the station.
We shared Rillette de Lapin (bravo, Chef!), Liver Pate, Potatoes Dauphinoise (magnifique!), Shellfish in White Wine, a wonderful pork offal sausage, roast venison, and a delicious cassoulet that set new standards for expeditionary fare. Praise the Lord and pass the gibier [game] and l'abats [offal]!
The wine list is complete and reasonably priced (Dom 1999 at Y21,000?) and the service superb. One can expect to pay around Y5000 for food - a pleasant relief after the outrageous prices charged closer to the palace.
Dame Jeanne: 23-4 Maruyamacho, Shibuya Ward, tel: (03) 3496-2755
Rating: Food: 7; Wine: 7; Service: 7; Ambiance: 7; Price: 7 ($). Total 35/50

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Ristorante La Primula - I'm shattered!

My faith in my fellow man has been shattered, Gentle Reader. More precisely, my faith in the Michelin Man (Bibendum). We share a certain jollity and silhouette, you see, and your Humble Correspondent felt a deep and abiding belief in his infallibility. The name Bibendum actually comes from the first advertisement which has him offering a toast "Nunc est bibendum" ("It's time to drink" in Latin) to his skinny competitors with a glass full of road trash.

All is now dust, alas. I'm shattered, like Venetian glass crushed underfoot. I had invited a good friend and former colleague to dinner, and having lost the services of the redoubtable Ms Motonaga, flittered unchaperoned through the Michelin Guide and landed on Ristorante La Primula. The Primrose is a pretty enough herb, used for some medicinal purposes, but sadly not native to Japan.

La Primula specializes in the cuisine of north-eastern Italy, principally Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto. An admirable ambition, and one with every chance of being successful in Japan. But given the unending excellence one finds in Italian restaurants in Tokyo, it would require effort and dedication. Both of which failed to evidence at Ristorante La Primula. That said, the food was well-prepared and interesting but not outstanding.

The wine list has both the dangerous "E"s - eccentric and expensive. Too much concentration on the north-east, and the wine from other regions seems to be around 300% marked up over wholesale.

You may wonder why I ramble so - unfortunately, there is little else memorable about the restaurant. It is a little like the plant - pretty enough and potentially medicinal, but not at home in the Guide. Call me a peasant or a pissant, but if La Primula is indicative of those regions give me Tuscany or Milan any time.

And take away the star - Andre Michelin would be turning in his grave!

Ristorante La Primula: 2-8-10 Azabu Juban, Minato Ward, tel: (03) 5439-9470
Rating: Food: 6; Wine: 5; Service: 7; Ambiance: 7; Price: 6 ($$$). Total 31/50

Monday, 8 December 2008

Cogito - I'm Game!

One wonders, Gentle Reader, what happens to Lost Boys when they grow up. Your Humble Correspondent often feels drawn to "Nibs" because he grew up to work in an office, although there are those who would plump for "Slightly".

Chef Jitsuhiro Yamada seems to me to be a Lost Boy, although he quite definitely seems to have all his marbles and so can not be "Tootles". There are times when he seems ever-so-grown-up, and times when one feels slightly being-toyed-with. But make no mistake, Gentle Reader! Cogito is a fine restaurant in a difficult market, and one that deserves its Michelin star if only for its magnificent wine list and common-sense. Game, or gibier, is a speciality ... and a delight!

I journeyed a-pied from The Hermitage to dine with The Ad Guy ... who actually seems to have undergone a transformation himself and grown up into a Tokyo University professor. What-ho! Seems standards are slipping in the towers of academia!

We were impressed with the ambiance of comfort and reassuring elegance, and decided to slip into something a little more comfortable by way of a Sancerre. The obvious choice was the o-makase course. Feeling remarkably intellectual in the presence of The Prof, Your Humble Correspondent was not about to sully that image with a silly and irreverential, if not to say poor form, wander through the menu. What followed was a delightful little journey through high-quality ingredients, including game shot by Chef himself, the highlight of which was the Duck and Foie Gras Pie served as the main course. The meal was marked by both quality and reasonable quantity, although I'd venture this is no place for a flapper or a banker in these troubled times.

Our Morey St Denis rounded out the meal superbly, and the selection of cheeses was ample for both The Prof and I.

Chef has travelled from his Marche aux Vins in Aoyama, via Harmonie in Nishi-Azabu, to this little gem in the shadow of The Grand-ish Hyatt. Cogito is pronounced with a soft "g" as in "codger"... which word describes well the two Lost Boys who dined this evening. Visit Cogito with old friends and ex-bankers, and soak up a pleasant evening's worth of subtle flavours.

Cogito [Map]: 3-2-15 Nishi-Azabu, Minato Ward, tel: (03) 3796-3838 [sorry, no website].
Rating: Food: 8; Wine: 8; Service: 7; Ambiance: 8; Price: 7 ($$$). Total 38/50

Friday, 5 December 2008

Artichaut

You can imagine, Gentle Reader, the breathlessness with which I had anticipated the opportunity to dine with Jon (Eating Out in Tokyo with Jon). Your Humble Correspondent pales into insignificance when compared to this paladin of grace and virtue ... one feels like Edgar Linton to his Heathcliff, or like Boswell to his Dr Johnson. Jon, whose lofty vocation is masterminding strategy for a multinational financial house. [Brief pause for thought] On reflection, perhaps "masterminding" is a stretch given the uproar in that sector!

We settled on Artichaut, a little French venue hidden away in Ebisu. Chef Yamane has overseen this restaurant for some 2 years after 5 years in Paris most notably at the heavenly 3-star Pierre Gagnaire [note to self and Jon: get to the Tokyo edition in Minami-Aoyama asap]. At His Jon-ness's suggestion, we went for the Chef's special o-makase menu but asked for 2 dishes of game rather than game and fish.
In the view of this admittedly jaded interlocutor, Artichaut seemed to progressively lose the plot as the evening ran its course. Our dinner started well with Oyster au Natural, plump and sweet. The Sancerre worked well with this jewel of the sea, although your Humble Correspondent was so a-gush that Jon had finally arrived that I neglected to note which particular example it was.
We moved on to a Presse of Kamkura vegetables, from whence our downward spiral commenced. Perhaps I wasn't ready for the delicate flavors, but it disappointed. This was followed by an Artichoke, Unagi and Fois Gras terrine which was serviceable and workman-like, but which didn't stand for anything we could easily define.
At a little of a loss by now, I opted for the 1983 Malescot St Exupery from Margaux - not through any deep knowledge of the Chateau or terrior, but because I was intrigued by the connection to the famous French aviator and author Antoine de Saint Exupéry (The Little Prince and others). His great-grandfather Count Jean Baptiste St-Exupery bought the property in 1827, although his subsequent extravagant lifestyle forced his widow to auction the property in 1853. Tangential perhaps, but the wine was excellent.
The Venison (Ezojika) and Fois Gras Risotto was a much better effort, although my companion The Delphi seemed a little less impressed that I. The rice was "plump and sticky", and done to about one tick less than perfection. My Pigeon was well-prepared, without any of the chopped liver-ness that can afflict this dish. Jon will no doubt report that his Pheasant was better.
At Artichaut, one feels slightly let down by the experience, but it's hard to put one's finger on exactly what's missing. Your Humble Correspondent will be returning in the New Year to see if it was just the brilliance of the company that took the shine off the food. For the meantime, it's a place for friends rather than those you seek to impress.
Artichaut: 2-6-29 Ebisu, Shibuya Ward. t: 03-3446-9747
Rating: Food: 6; Wine: 7; Service: 7; Ambiance: 7; Price: 7 ($$). Total 35/50

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A fistful of stars - Joel Robuchon

Gentle Reader, this may sound like heresy but is the Michelin guide a reasonable standard by which to judge chefs?

With the release of the Hong Kong/Macau guide recently, Joel Robuchon has opened up a substantial lead on his erstwhile colleagues - with 24 stars around the world compared to Alain Ducasse on 16, dear old Gordon on 12, and Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se etc) on 7.

But if one works some alchemy with the math to derive my proprietary "star index", it very much looks like ubiquity (being everywhere) is not a substitute for quality (concentrating on the food). Keller, with 5 locations and 7 stars , tops the list. Robuchon (16 locations) stays in the black, but Ducasse (19) and Ramsay (21) seem more like businesses than chefs. While Zagat represents brutish democracy and should be shunned, one feels that Michelin needs to somehow get into the global village and provide we humble diners with a more "international" view.

It's a matter of some personal shame that I haven't eaten at one of Chef Keller's establishments, although I threatened to do so last year until - ever your intrepid aviator - I was shot down by the Red (Ink) Baron. We also stood a small chance of having him visit Tokyo last year, but that horse fell at the final jump. Still, I look forward to the day when we can see all of the top 4 chefs battling for wallet share in Japan.

M. Robuchon is an enigmatic character: he learned to love cooking while in boarding school. That strikes me as a rather rum piece of hagiography - when has boarding school food ever been known to excite passion? More than that, Gentle Reader ... having got his 3rd star in Paris he just up and closed his restaurant in 1996. All rather too much, he confessed.

Today, a mere handful of times around the sun later, he's the primus inter pares of the world's chefs with a much simpler approach to elegance and sophistication. His restaurants range from L'Atelier (workshop) to La Table (Table) to La Cuisine (Kitchen). And his empire extends even further than Alexander's or Octavian's - with locations in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macau, Las Vegas, Monte Carlo, New York, Paris, London and perhaps Tel Aviv, he must have more frequent flyer miles than Condeleeza Rice.

Ramsay, or "Chef", is also busier than a ram on shearing day ... no, wait, I'm confusing work and play. But with the Gordon Ramsay Group extending into pubs and bars and even airline food, you've got to wonder how he fits it all in. Ducasse's dedication I respect, although the Benoit deal here in Tokyo was perhaps a bridge too far.

Note: Twenty One, closed down in unfortunate circumstances, has re-opened at the Shinjuku Hilton as La Pergolese Tokyo. Your Humble Correspondent will toddle along shortly, so stay tuned.

Restaurant List

Cicada (Hmmm) Tags: Fusion, Azabu, 2 forks
Monna Lisa (Ebisu) Tags: French, Ebisu, 4 forks
Argent Tags: French, Meguro, 3 forks
Alladin Tags: French, Hiroo, 4 forks
Bon Monsieur Tags: French, Roppongi, 4 forks
Izakaya Vin Tags: Wine, Shibuya, 3 forks
Sucre Sale Tags: French, Araki-Cho, 3 forks
Esperia Tags: Italian, Azabu, 3 forks
Epice Kaneko Tags: French, Azabu, 3 forks
La pitchoulie de Lou lou Tags: Basque, Hiroo, 3 forks
Cheers Tags: French, Shibuya, 3 forks
L'Amphore Tags: French, Kyobashi, 3 forks
Osteria Nakamura Tags: Italian, Roppongi, 3 forks
Felicita Tags: Italian, Aoyama, 3 forks
Casita Tags: Fusion, Aoyama, 3 forks
Esperia (again) Tags Italian, Azabu, 3 forks
La Bisboccia Tags: Italian, Hiroo, 2 forks
French Kitchen Tags: French, Roppongi, 3 forks
Angolo Tags: Italian, Hiroo, 3 forks
Cicada (again) Tags: Fusion, Hiroo, 2 forks
La Taperia Tags: Spanish, Yotsuya, 3 forks
Hainan Jeefan Shokudo
Hiroo 148
Salt
45
Le Marche aux Puces
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Le Marche aux Puces (again)
Le garcon de la vigne
Benoit
A ta guele
New York Grill
Goutte d'or Achiano
De Longhi
Bistro de La Cite
Chez Matsuo
Incanto
Sin Tong Kee
Gordon Ramsay
A Presto
Delhi
Le Recamier
Chinese Cafe 8
Epanoui
Grape Gumbo
Azabu Haus
Les Vinum
La Chasse
Glass
Bon Pinard
Peter
Bolice
Trattoria Tornavento
Don Ciccio
Burdigala
L'Estasi
Coucagno
Yamada Chikara
Piatto Suzuki
La Lune
Chez Pierre
Le Bourguignon