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Thursday, Dec. 9, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Good-time dining for the new year


It's the time of year for that annual conundrum: Where to go for that end of year celebration. It really does have to be something European, with wine and a soft, jazzy backing track. You want something with style, but definitely not too formal; a place with a buzz, but not too well known; with good food, of course, but where the dynamics of the meal never get in the way of being together with your dining partner(s). In short, somewhere special.

That's a tall order anywhere. In Tokyo, where conformity -- albeit to standards that are often impeccable -- is the name of the game, it's nigh on impossible. But thankfully, at least we have Carmine Edochiano. Having just celebrated its third anniversary, it has eased into the seam of the city these days and no longer seems quite so outre as when it first opened. But among Italian restaurants, it remains in a league of its own, certainly in terms of appearance and ambience.

First, there's the location: Arakicho is a long-established entertainment district of narrow alleys on the fringes of Yotsuya, better known for its exclusive kappo restaurants and discreet drinking establishments. And then there's the architecture. Edochiano occupies a traditional Japanese house that until a few years ago functioned as a ryotei -- a house where men of a certain social stratum used to come for refreshment, not just sake and refined tidbits of nourishment but also entertainment in the geisha vein. Now it's reincarnated as the jewel in the crown of Carmine Cozzolini, the dean (some would say don) of Tokyo trattorias.

The exterior is pure old-world Japan. A narrow alley lined with nomiya and snack bars; a recessed entrance with just a menu to advertise its presence; an anonymous sliding door. Resist that knee-jerk urge to remove your shoes. Once past the genkan you are in a strange hybrid space, in which the traditional interior of wooden beams and low alcoves is just the backdrop for Milano-contemporary furniture, tasteful antique fittings and the clean, crisp lines (and acoustics) of a top-end Bang & Olufsen sound system.

There are four separate dining areas, upstairs and down, with seating enough for over 50. All retain much of the original feel -- low wooden ceilings, shoji-covered windows and tokonoma -- except that they have been equipped with tables and chairs. All, that is, apart from one downstairs room for 10, where the original tatami has been preserved and you sit on zabuton cushions gazing out onto a miniature Japanese garden as you sip Cinzano or grappa and consider the relative merits of osso buco or cinghiale.

It is a strange and potentialy disastrous cross-cultural east-meets-west aesthetic, but the wonderful thing is it works just beautifully. Japanese elegance meets Italian poise (though, interestingly, it's the creation of French installation artist and former Tokyo resident Michel Boulange) and sets the stage for a memorable evening.

To his credit, Carmine, having set the stage in great style, does not ruin the production by attempting to make either food or atmosphere too sophisticated. Instead of going way over the top, he sticks with what he does best, the farmhouse food of northern Italy, especially the cucina of his base in the hills of Tuscany (though also informed by the rustic simplicity of his birthplace, Calabria).

In effect, it is little more than a tweaked up version of what you'd find in Carmine's other restaurants: fixed price meals that are plenty adequate, but never awe-inspiring. At lunch there are meals of 2,500 yen (three courses) and 3,500 yen (four courses). Dinner is also a four-course affair (for a set 6,000 yen plus a 500 yen cover charge), with a couple of canapes with your aperitif; a choice of half a dozen antipasti; a similar selection of pastas, risotti or soups; the same number of main dishes; followed by dessert and coffee.

The mixed antipasti are colorful if less than compelling, but the cibreo (chicken livers) alla Caterina de Medici (in a piquant mustard-based sauce) are well prepared. We can also recommend the scampi (with a light chickpea gravy), but best of all the starters is the delicately cooked foie gras on a bed of spinach (also accompanied by a mustard sauce).

The primi piatti are equally capable. The risotto of porcini (and other seasonal fungi) is creamy and flavorful. The soups are hearty -- the minestrone boasts plenty of vegetable matter, while the Tuscan white bean soup is thick and creamy -- and goes very well with the homemade bread, which is unsalted in true toscana style. The house specialty, spaghetti "edochiano," is served with a lively pesto freshly prepared from dried tomatoes, olives, pine nuts and just the faintest hint of basilico.

The main dishes are disproportionately weighted in favor of meat and fowl (all except monkfish and a special of the day, such as sea bass). They are also simple in the extreme: The roast lamb chop is served virtually unadorned.

Serving sizes are tailored to Edokko appetites, rather than those of Florentine trenchermen. If you are still hungry, though, or have wine left in the bottle, you can ask for the (supplementary) cheese plate before moving on to the dessert course (of which the zuppa inglese is very satisfactory), coffee and perhaps a snifter of grappa to blur the senses and round off the proceedings.

Given such exceptional surroundings, and the sense of well-being they engender, few people seem to notice or care that the food is actually quite unexceptional (especially in this price range). This is not due to any deterioration in standards or deficiencies on the part of resident chef Saito, but more a reflection of Carmine's own philosophy, which is to "keep things simple and effective." It's an approach that has not failed for him yet.

In fact he has always been more a restaurateur than a hands-on chef. And right now Carmine is a busy man. At the last count, he owns (or has interests in) seven other operations, from his original eponymous trattoria near Kagurazaka and his new pizzeria in Mejiro, to the very recent Amici (the creation of a superstar dream team which includes F1 star Jean Alesi and Japan's ex-soccer coach Takeshi Okada) out in Gakugeidaigaku.

The man is not resting on his laurels, either, with a new operation due to open in the spring, just a stone's throw from the Nishi-Azabu crossing. This is good news. You need not expect anything too creative or overly fancy, just satisfying, good-time dining. And if it is half as good as Edochiano, it will be well worth waiting for.

Who says we have to celebrate Christmas in the European mode? They have their own way of doing it in Africa -- especially in the highlands of Ethiopia where the Christian tradition dates back just as long. If you'd like to give your holiday dining a very different style, check out the newly opened Abyssinia, in the back streets of Shibuya, right behind Club Quattro.

We have only eaten there once, and will return again before giving it an in-depth assessment. But in terms of food quality, we rate Abyssinia even higher than our old favorite Queen Sheba, the first (and for a long time only) source of Ethiopian cuisine in the city.

The menu runs the gamut from semi-familiar items such as sambusa (similar to Indian samosas) and kebabs of chicken or goat meat to the out-and-out exotic Zil Zil Tibs (a tangy snack of beef and vegetables that goes very nicely with beer) and the thick, rich stews known collectively as wot.

These are accompanied by excellent handmade indigenous breads: Injera comes in spongy gray-brown rolls tasting much like sourdough pancakes; abesha is a thick, yeasty cake redolent of cinnamon and other spices and is often served at festivals. It's all great stuff, and definitely worth exploring this holiday season.

Abyssinia: Shibuya Chitose Bldg., 2F, 32-7 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, (03) 3770-2060; open 5-11:30 p.m. (and will soon be opening for lunch as well). From Shibuya Station walk down Sentaa-gai street, past Sakuraya and just past the back entrance to Club Quattro. Look for the Ethiopian flag on the second floor.


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