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Thursday, July 22, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

The new alfresco hits the pavement


It was not so long ago that alfresco dining here meant choosing between a raucous, roof-top beer garden or the cosy, elbow-rubbing confines of a funky pavement yatai. And if oden or ramen and a glass of cheap sake was not quite what you had in mind for a romantic evening out, too bad.

What a difference a decade or so makes. The sidewalk cafe boom, as pioneered by Cafe des pres and finessed by Aux Bacchanales, has irreversibly redefined the way Tokyoites relate to eating out on sultry, summer nights. These days no self-respecting bistro, trattoria or trendy diner dares to hang out its shingle without first installing a clutch of parasol-shaded outside tables or, at the very least open frontage. And you know the axis shift is irreversible when even the burger joints and Pronto coffee shops are getting in on the act.

As far as location goes, however, few places can hold a candle to T.Y. Harbor Brewery. Where else in Tokyo can you sit by the waterside on a summer's evening, sinking a flagon of freshly brewed suds while you watch the sun set over a post-industrial cityscape of skyscrapers, highways and limpid canals?

When it first opened in 1997, TYHB was not just our first proper brewpub-cum-restaurant, it symbolized the gentrification of Tennozu Isle (or Tennoz, as it's now usually rendered in romaji). Here, rather than at the theme-park fake beach of Odaiba, Tokyo was finally starting to rediscover its waterfront identity -- and it has certainly been enjoying the renewed acquaintance.

With its gleaming, stainless steel brewing vats arrayed inside a creatively revamped, low-slung, red-brick warehouse, TYHB looks every bit the part of a West Coast-style microbrewery. They produce four basic styles of beer: a crisp hoppy amber ale, a mildly nutty malty pale ale, a refreshingly spicy Belgian-style wheat beer, a darker brew (either a full-bodied stout or a rich porter), plus a "brewer's choice," which right now is a light, quaffable lager in the Superdry vein.

All these brews are fine and satisfying -- if never of brilliant, award-winning quality -- and at 600 yen per glass (2,400 yen a pitcher) no pricier than the mass-produced nama beer served at many other bars. They even offer a tasting "set" for 900 yen, so you can sample the full spectrum.

The good news this summer is that TYHB just got better. After undergoing a major reorganization of its kitchen, the TY restaurant was relaunched earlier this summer under the experienced direction of David Chidoo and Ian Tozer, whose tenures at Lunchan and West Park Cafe respectively give them all the credentials they need in this city.

The layout of the dining room is essentially untouched. The ceilings are high and spacious. There's a raised area at one end with a dozen nonsmoking tables. Doors lead onto a canal-side terrace with seating for at least 50 people.

What has changed is that the brand-new menu (written in flawless English) finally generates the kind of excitement this place always deserved. Gone are the glorified beer garden snacks with fancy names. In their place, there is a great range of creative starters, pizzas and pastas, and an excellent array of grilled dishes, all complemented by an extensive, well-chosen wine list, most from California and the New World.

You can make a very worthy meal of it all, from entree, salad and main course through to dessert. But there's nothing to stop you taking a more casual approach, just ordering up a selection of snacks, salads or pizzas to pass a mellow evening with.

We liked the look of (but didn't try) the potato wedges with sour cream, the spicy shrimp cakes L.A. style, and the boldly arranged tuna tataki ("with Ian's dynamite sauce"). But we were highly impressed by the TY Kickass Chili, a thick, creamy bowl of spicy black beans with home-baked biscuits. And even more so with the plump mussels, steamed in a delicate ale-flavored stock with chunks of chorizo and garlic and colorfully garnished with bell pepper slivers.

The main courses ("grilled and oven-roasted dishes") showed signs that the kitchen is still learning how to cope with the summer rush. The grilled salmon steak was a tad underdone, and the vegetables closer to being raw than al dente. The beer-marinated leg of free-range chicken, although overly dry, was nicely seasoned with herbs and served with a mash that tasted of real potatoes.

Not surprisingly, at this time of year TYHB plays to full houses most evenings, and for their weekend brunches. If you don't have a reservation, you can settle down with a beer at the bar (which also has several outside tables).

If that is also packed out, your only fall-back position is the nearby Deli Box [(03) 5479-0327], the mobile trailer run by TYHB which for the duration of the good weather is augmenting its take-out lunchtime service with an evening (5-9 p.m.) beer garden. Even though the snacks and the seating are simpler, it's the same canal and the beer's just as good.

The view may not be Bruges or Sausalito, but on a balmy summer evening, with a breeze off the water, the sun fading over the new Sony building, and the yakatabune boats chugging past with lanterns aglow, TYHB does make the living in Tokyo exceptionally easy.

Fujimamas manages to hit all the right chords. They've taken the shell of a venerable old wooden town house, and converted it into one of the most intriguing dining spaces in the city. The wooden outer walls and some rooms remain in their original positions, spruced up in a style that seems endearingly homemade. It has an open front on the ground floor, and three tables on the balcony upstairs.

Then there's the food: Fujimamas is not the first place to offer Pacific Rim fusion fare, but no one else is doing it quite so eclectically or at such reasonable prices. Curry-marinated chicken with sweet lemongrass and pepper sauce; warm wok-seared asparagus with black sesame oil aioli; char sui quesadilla with grilled onions, mushrooms and Asian tomato salsa: Sometimes the results are way over the top, but mostly it's fun, tasty and very reasonably priced.

The feel is stylish but friendly, and decidedly multicultural -- both the waiting staff and the satisfied punters who are clearly taking it to their hearts. This would be unusual in any part of town; just off the main drag of Harajuku it's remarkable.

Fujimamas, 6-3-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5485-2262. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

At last Ebisu has a streetside cafe/diner worthy of the title.

Good Honest Grub is as casual and unpretentious as its name. It's only been open a couple of months, but it's already become a focus for life among the local crowd. The look is simple, cheerful and welcoming. The furniture is decorated with bright, hand-painted motifs. The logo has been daubed on the wall in strong primary colors. It has four small tables looking out onto street life that's never too busy or noisy, making it a great place to drop by for a light snack, an espresso or beer in between hours, or more leisurely, satisfying dinners.

GHG is the latest project of Newfoundland-born chef Don Foley, known to all true-blue Canadians for his culinary prowess at Salty Box Grill over the last few years. He specializes in keeping things simple, using fresh ingredients and a strong emphasis on plenty of vegetables. He does excellent things with fish and pasta, both of which feature prominently on both lunch and dinner menus, and his Caesar salad is hard to beat at any price. They have also started serving lunch on weekends and holidays.

Good Honest Grub, 1-11-11 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3710-0400. Open: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Friday; 10:30 a.m.-2.a.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays and holidays.

Finally, here are three places with great outdoors dining, which have already been reviewed in these pages over the past year.

KM Fils (1-30-14 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku; [03] 5457-1435) crosses serious French technique with multicultural influences, infusing it all with the chic sensibility of lower Daikanyama, resulting in contemporary cuisine at its most interesting. Better still, they shed some of their serious airs when they roll back the windows and spill out onto the street.

Ken's Chanto Dining (1-15-4 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; [03] 5771-5788) showcases the pan-Asian fusion food of Kenichiro Okada, which melds Japanese, Korean and Chinese influences, with extra flourishes from Indochina and even Italy. This is grazing food aimed at a fashionable crowd, but Ken weds his stylish ambience with a simplicity of execution and prices that are very reasonable for this part of town.

Showa Society (1-3-5 Naka-Meguro, Meguro-ku; [03] 3713-7431) is Japanese dining at its most stylishly casual on a terrace overlooking a quiet backstreet that's perfect for a summer evening. The menu revolves around prime seafood, chicken and gamecock dishes. The house specialty is homemade, unpressed tofu in three ineffable flavors. Is this the shape of things to come for 21st-century Tokyo dining? If so, then roll on the millennium.



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