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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2000

Italian home cooking from a solo artist


It's always depressing when news comes in that another good restaurant has bitten the dust. In the past month we've found out that two of the best (in their own ways) have given up the ghost. So it was with not a little trepidation that we hiked off into nether Ebisu to see if our long-time favorite backstreet Italian place was still there.

Bar Pomato looks absolutely as unpreposessing as its highly unlikely (and quite misleading) name. In fact it is not a bar at all; it's a gem of a little restaurant that over the past decade and more has produced some of the most satisfying Italian home cooking anywhere in the city.

From the outside it does little to draw your attention. In daylight hours you could walk past and not give it a second glance. The paintwork is a bit shabby; there's an abandoned-looking barbecue outside; the pot plants along the front look scruffy, especially in winter when there's little vegetation to hide the mounds of gleaming white eggshells.

But were you to wander down this same street on a balmy summer's evening, you would find owner/chef Yoshiaki Kakehata cranking up the charcoal and filling the sultry air with the tantalizing aromas of grilled fish and meats seasoned with the aromatic leaves he has just plucked from the herb garden that has sprung up under the kitchen window.

Kakehata runs a classic one-man show. Not only does he do all the cooking himself, he will also take your order, serve it and make sure your wine is well topped up. In free moments, he will engage you in spirited conversation on food, wine and politics, richly leavened with recollections of his years in Europe, which (unlike so many Japanese would-be chefs) were not spent in the massive kitchens of flash Michelin-starred palaces but in small, local restaurants serving up the kind of honest bourgeois food that makes your heart sing.

Bar Pomato is fashioned entirely in Kakehata's own likeness: cozy and idiosyncratic, personable, unostentatious and quite untouched by the hype and flittering interests of the OL magazines. Jars of pickles and brandy-marinated fruit adorn the windowsill; for some reason boxes of panetone hang from the lamps; the menus are handwritten in jaunty colors on homemade polystyrene boards.

The wine list is brief to the point of abruptness. But if you don't like what you see, ask to see the Riserva Speciali, his second list (this one written on wine carton cardboard) of finer bottles, predominantly Tuscan and Piedmontese reds, all in the 5,000 yen to 12,000 yen range. We can certainly recommend the '93 C. del Pazzo, a fine vino do tavola Tuscana (sangiovese and cabernet) for under 6,000 yen.

Because he prepares everything himself, Kakehata has to keep his menu brief. But he hasn't put his prices up in a decade and, although the a la carte suggestions always look tempting, we have never been disappointed by his showpiece 5,000 yen dinner. It's terrific value, and hearty enough to satisfy any trencherman.

The antipasti are inventive and plentiful -- no mixed plate of nouvelle doodlings here, but a succession of plates (officially five of them, but he may throw in extra).

On our most recent visit we were served marinated salmon and scallops, topped with vinegared apple sauce, with his light home-pickled vegetables (Brussels sprouts, carrots, turnip); a carpaccio of karei (flounder), anointed with a sauce of fine minced onions, shallots and tomato; a tiny saucer of mussels baked in garlic olive oil; a generous serving of pork pate studded with garlic served with warmed rolls; and finally fritti of conger (anago). And that was just for starters.

The primi piatti more than hold their own. These days it isn't such a big deal to find fresh, handmade pasta but back in the '80s he was one of the first. He rolls and cuts his own, adorning them with dense, well-simmered sauces. We chose the tagliatelli with porcini, in a fragrant cream sauce; and ribbonlike pap pardelle in a rich, aromatic sauce of rabbit meat and mushrooms, boldly seasoned with black peppercorns.

The summer specials, of course, are grills -- usually rabbit, lamb or veal, all packed with herbs plucked fresh from outside the doorway. When you call to reserve, inquire if he has any fowl that day. He may be serving quail in grape leaves or pigeon with sage and raspberry leaf. If you're in luck, it will be his pheasant wrapped in oregano and fennel, stuffed with bacon, vegetables and rosemary and adorned with a sauce of field mushrooms.

The other main courses are simpler, but no less rewarding. We had an excellent coda di bue bollita (ox tail simmered down in a wonderful stock), offset by a piquant salsa verde that included finely minced hard-boiled egg; and the rabbit, which was served with a thick sauce, was made fragrant by the generous inclusion of funghi porcini.

You are given an array of eight desserts to choose from. They're all good, but Kakehata is especially proud of his fig carafutti and his chocolate gateaux (but the prunes in red wine or the baked zuppa inglese are equally impressive). You will want to explore his grappa collection to accompany your closing espresso.

If you drop by on a quiet night, you may well be able to walk in off the street. But it's always much better if you reserve ahead of time. That way you can discuss the menu possibilities and be sure of what he will have ready.

However, the bad news is that time is running out if you want to enjoy this remarkable, one-of-a-kind experience. Kakehata is planning to pack it in soon, in favor of a different, less demanding operation, in some new (as yet undecided) location.

This is sad news. But at least we will have one more year in which to enjoy his summertime charcoal-grilled specialties and his patent caccuicco (the seafood hotpot which is Livorno's killer reply to Marseille's vaunted bouillabaisse), which he only prepares in the month of December. And one more year to remember that true pleasure comes not merely from satiating the taste buds but relaxing, sitting back and thoroughly enjoying the entire dining experience.

One of the two bemourned places mentioned earlier was Chotoku, the high-class Kansai-style te-uchi udon restaurant in upper Shibuya, where you dined (and beautifully) to the sound of classical music and the muffled thump of the noodle cleavers. Well, it's gone now, and we are all the worse off.

However, if you find yourself in need of noodles in that neighborhood, Myoko makes a (second-best) substitute. It's a rustic place, full of the usual knick-knacks but friendly in an inaka sort of way. The cooking is in Niigata style, which means you can expect plenty of hearty nabe-style noodle preparations, such as nabe-yaki udon and hoto, the belly-warming vegetable/noodle hotpot traditional to those upland regions.

Myoko: 1-17-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3499-3450. From Shibuya Station, walk down Meiji-dori, turn right at the Emporio Armani shop and head up the hill. If coming from Aoyama-dori, it's the same road as Chotoku was on, but further down on the left. Look out for the wooden water wheel outside.


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