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Thursday, May 11, 2000

TOKYO FOOD FILE

TETE-A-TETE/SAC A VIN

French with a difference


We have no shortage of bargain-basement French-accented bistros scattered around the metropolis. But for my money, Tete-a-tete is the cream of the current crop. I could reel off about a dozen cogent reasons why I rate this little place so highly. But there's only one that you really need to know -- it is brilliant value.

The price structure is calibrated at almost thrift shop levels. A first-rate three-course dinner, including cheese or dessert will set you back just 2,500 yen -- plus an extra 300 yen if you order soup as well, and a surcharge of 700 yen if you want the cheese plate as well as dessert. Finish with a cappuccino and it's another 450 yen.

Most people whose stomachs are acclimatized to Tokyo portion sizes will be quite content with the basic meal. But should you feel the urge for a blowout and decide to go for the full works, the total damage for the evening (including tax but not counting your alcohol intake) will still come to less than 4,000 yen per head.

What makes Tete-a-tete even more appealing is that the food is consistently good. Obviously, you don't expect brilliant creativity worthy of a Michelin mention. But chef Koichi Nohira has done his homework, including a good stint in kitchens around Europe, and he's picked up all the fundamentals of solid home cooking -- with a pronounced emphasis on meat and fowl, rather than fish.

Not only does Nohira serve up fare that few French people would fault, he does it with a lightness of touch and flair for presentation that would embarrass most bistros in France. He also uses an interesting selection of ingredients that is certainly above the common denominator for this genre of restaurant in Tokyo.

These are some of the dishes we tried and approved of wholeheartedly on our most recent visit. A country-style potage from vegetables and pork cheek; a delicate seafood terrine made of crab and anago (conger); a tartar of sliced maguro (tuna) and avocado, which was simple but appetizing; and an excellent terrine of foie gras and dried persimmons, with smoked duck and adorned with Chinese truffles (granted, this was 300 yen extra).

For our main dishes we dined on Langue de Boeuf au Vin Rouge -- ox tongue simmered down in wine until delicately soft, and accented with a blueberry-influenced sauce; a bouillabaisse of cod and tiger prawn; slices of Ezo shika (Hokkaido venison) served as a warmed "carpaccio"; and sauteed Okinawa kuro-buta pork.

Besides the eight different hors d'oeuvres and six main dishes, there are eight desserts (nine if you include the cheese platter) to choose from. These too were far more elaborate than you might expect.

One more reason why Tete-a-tete is worthy of note. Since this spring, they have given their wine list a very good tweak for the better, thanks to the addition of a number of bottles of organic French wine, both white and red, from the cellars of Vinbio (see below). Although the wine list doesn't differentiate between organic and non-organic, you can always ask the attentive young waiter (however, for best results you will need to use Japanese).

Tete-a-tete is lovingly decorated to simulate the quintessential (if cliched) provincial French bistro. Outside, a drooping tricolor flag; a rosemary bush growing out of a terra cotta pot; and a bright blue awning above a warm orange-red facade. Lace curtains cover the bottom half of the windows. Inside, the walls are adorned with posters, postcards and football memorabilia commemorating France's World Cup exploits.

The dining area is cozy, with simple tables wedged in tight together. The room is split into two levels, with tables for 10 at street level, and for 10 more up on the same level as the kitchen. If you are a party of four or six, ask for the tables in the alcove off to the side upstairs.

Tete-a-tete is even better value at midday. The prix-fixe lunch is 1,200 yen for hors d'oeuvres and a main dish; 200 yen more if you want dessert; and an extra 100 yen for coffee or tea.

Tete-a-tete 2-3-19 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3356-1048
Open:11:45 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5:45-9:45 p.m. Closed: Sunday and holidays
Nearest station:Yotsuya (JR, Marunouchi and Namboku lines)
How to get there:From Yotsuya JR Station walk down the right side of Shinjuku-dori to the first lights. Turn right, then immediately left down a small side street (parallel with Shinjuku-dori). Tete-a-tete is 50 meters down on the left (look out for the tricolor flag).
What works:Brilliant prices, improved wine list
What doesn't:The menu doesn't tell you which wines are organic.
Number of seats:26
BGM:Gallic pop
Price per head:1,200 yen (lunch); 2,500 yen (dinner) (without drinks)
Drinks:French cider 500 yen; beer (Yebisu) 600 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 3,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Major ones
Language: French/Japanese (only Japanese spoken)

At last the wine cult has come of age and come to its senses. No longer are we being forced to treat the fruit of the vine as if it were the holy sacrament, requiring hushed reverence, expensive crystal balloons and sommeliers in full regalia.

Sac a Vin exemplifies the new breed of wine bar, which understands that enjoying wine is a question of attitude -- or rather lack thereof. Tucked away down a quiet residential side street in Yotsuya Sanchome, this is just the simple, relaxed, contemporary place that we all wish were located close to our own homes.

The basic principles are those of the neighborhood izakaya -- albeit one that is dedicated to wine and European cooking rather than nihonshu and sakana. You can arrive solo and sit at one of the counter seats, in front of the open kitchen. Couples and small groups may prefer to huddle at the small tables around the periphery. And there's a large three-sided table in the center of the room, which is intimate enough to invite conversations between strangers, but large enough not to demand them.

The wine list, which is updated on a weekly basis, offers four whites and eight reds either by the small glass (50 cc); the large glass (100 cc); small decanter (250 cc); large decanter (500 cc); or the full bottle. Mostly the bottles are French, although there are a few Italian reds. In addition, there is champagne (currently Bruno Paillard) by the bottle or glass; plus two ports from Ramos-Pinto (one of them 20 years old).

Unless you are what the French call a true amateur -- i.e. a keen wine maven -- you will probably not recognize many of the labels they stock. But the folk at Sac a Vin -- owner Takahashi-san and his partner Sugimoto-san -- are easygoing people who wear sneakers and don't feel the need to pin their sommelier's badges to their chests.

They're quite happy to explain what's what and put forward their recommendations as to what will go best with your food. The menu is straightforward, but what we tried was uniformly good. Ratatouille; goat's cheese marinated in miso; Parma ham with slices of strawberry; pizza bianca; various pasta; very tasty chunks of charcoal grilled gamecock (shamo, not chameau); strips of grilled kalbi still nicely rare inside.

Apart from the meat, few dishes are priced above 1,000 yen. If you like the sound of their pasta with fresh uni (sea urchin), reserve your portion in plenty of time, since it is likely to run out early.

Sac a Vin also keeps a limited cellar of top quality (and equivalently priced) wines, to encourage the serious oenophiles. However, they are no less gracious in their greeting and their service if you prefer to just drop in for a pizza and some of their most basic red. This kind of approach is still all too rare -- and one that deserves raising your glass for.

Sac a Vin Yumoto Bldg. 2F, 4-1 Aizumi-cho, Shinjuku-ku Tel: (03) 3358-7650
Open: 6 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (Sunday and holidays 4-10:30 p.m.)
Nearest station: Yotsuya Sanchome (Marunouchi Line)
How to get there: Leave Yotsuya Sanchome Station by Exit 2 (right by the Fire Museum), and turn right along Shinjuku-dori until the first turning. Sac a Vin is 30 meters down this side street on the right. The stairs are just round the corner.
What works: Good food, non-mainstream wine, casual approach.
What doesn't: The music is too loud; the menu is hard to decipher.
Number of seats: 50
BGM: Boz Scaggs, Neil Young, Keith Jarrett, etc.
Price per head:3,000 yen (dinner, without drinks)
Drinks: Wine from 500 yen/glass (50 cc), 3,500 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Major ones
Language: Japanese menu; little English spoken

The organic wines available at Tete-a-tete are supplied by a new import operation known as Vinbio, which distributes a limited selection of French wines made from grapes that are grown according to either organic or biodynamic principles.

They range from classic vintage champagne down to simple vins de pays. At present these are only available in case lots by mail order.

For more information contact Vinbio by phone at (03) 3412-3118; fax (03) 3412-7740; or e-mail at info@vinbio. co.jp. Or visit their trilingual Web site at www.vinbio.co.jp

E-mail recommendations and feedback to foodfile@yahoo.com


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