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Thursday, Aug. 24, 2000

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Alfresco evenings in Heisei style


Just when you feel it's safe to venture out of the air conditioning to enjoy a drink or three in the mellow evening air of the late summer, that's about the time most beer gardens are starting to think about shutting down for the year.

It's the same rigid, old-school thinking which decrees that swimming pools must be drained after schools restart and that you can't wear short sleeves after Oct. 1. And who says the only foods worth eating with those frosty flagons of beer are cold edamame and greasy gyoza?

Tommy Garden in Ebisu

Certainly not the good folks at Tommy Garden. Casting one finger aloft at the climate and another at all those stuffed shirts who say rooftops are only for midsummer, this has to be the most remarkable take on the beer garden genre in the entire city.

Firstly, it's in that building, the one you see from the Yamanote Line -- the one which looks like half its concrete casing has fallen away in some recent natural disaster, exposing an inner skeleton of glass and steel. And although TG has the standard open-roof setting, it also boasts a high-tech retractable canvas roof that makes it equally viable in the typhoon season, or even when it's snowing (they stay open year round, though they do admit it can get a tad chilly in the dead of winter).

Don't expect swaying lanterns and keening enka music: Here you get white, tropical parasols, Balinese motifs and the thumping reggae bass lines of Sly and Robbie. The table mats are gift-shop ethnic weavings. The waiting staff wear sarongs, not black bow ties. Music videos flicker on a screen over the end wall. Smack in the middle, a turquoise-blue pool gently laps at your feet. This is the Tokyo beer garden recast in the guise of a tourist bar in the narrow alleys of Kuta Beach.

Standard-issue Asahi Superdry is on tap, but they also have Corona, and Bali Hai shipped in from West Java, served without glasses to be swigged from the bottle. They do a range of sweet tropical cocktails, plus a very acceptable gin and tonic. They also have a short but adequate selection of wines at quite reasonable prices.

The one area in which TG adheres firmly to tradition is in the quality of their food. You may be getting curry-flavored potatoes, chicken satay and nasi goreng in place of ika geso and agedashi-dofu, but in tried-and-true beer garden style it's all virtually inedible.

The Indonesian coconut curry is served with slices of French bread. The satay is basic yakitori-style tsukune on a stick. The tandoori chicken may be spicy but it's just deep-fried kara-age given an exotic Asian identity. You are advised to stick with the smoked salmon and pizza. Or forego solid fuel entirely.

But it really doesn't matter -- certainly not to the young salarypeople who seem to book out the entire premises on an almost daily basis. They come because the prices are right. Although there is a 500 yen per head cover charge, the cheapest set menu for food is just 2,000 yen and there are nomihodai special deals of all you can drink in two hours (2,000 yen for men, 500 yen less for women).

Most of all they like it because this place is definitely one of a kind.

Tommy Garden, East Gallery 6F., 3-24-7 Higashi, Shibuya-ku, (03) 3486-4101. Open Monday-Friday, 6-11 p.m. From the rotary outside Ebisu Station, head under the railway bridge and turn left at the first traffic light (at KFC) in the direction of Shibuya. East Gallery is the striking building of concrete and glass on your right after two minutes. Tommy Garden is on the sixth floor.

Wired Diner in Shibuya

So this is how to play it. You slip into Tommy Garden when it first opens at six (they should fit you in for an hour or so, even if you haven't reserved) and order up a few drinks. Then you ease back and watch the night sky change to that familiar neon-streaked glow of crimson-orange.

In a while, when you're feeling mellow and ready for some solid sustenance, you settle up, head down to ground level and drift across to the other side of the railroad tracks. Five minutes stroll in the direction of Shibuya and you can be sitting down to a laid-back meal on the terrace at Wired Diner (you will have called ahead to reserve, of course).

This is the new operation from the people behind Wired Cafe, the stylish little bar and eatery in the back streets off Meiji-dori between Shibuya and Harajuku. It's bigger and perhaps a bit slicker, and the menu focuses on tasty Asian-American dishes rather than just deli-style sandwiches and snacks.

But the underlying formula is the same: casual eats, a youthful clientele and friendly hip waiters, inside an architecture of dark metal girders, steel panels and industrial-strength glass frontage. Upstairs is cosy (low ceilings, tables wedged in close together) and particularly popular with the fashion and design students who populate this former no-man's land down from Daikanyama.

Far more pleasant at this time of year is the spacious wooden terrace out front, where you sit raised above street level under the spreading foliage of a couple of trees watching the trains rattle past. The obvious drawback of this arrangement is that conversations get drowned out at intervals of approximately every 25 seconds. But that's all part of the urban soundscape -- just as Wired Diner has seamlessly insinuated itself into the city's new restaurant landscape.

Wired Diner, 4-17 Sakuragaoka, Shibuya-ku, (03) 5428-5167. Open daily, 11:30-2 a.m., Sundays to midnight. Exit Shibuya Station on the Tokyu Plaza side, cross the big highway (Route 246) and walk along the train tracks heading for Ebisu. After about five minutes you'll see the terrace of Wired Diner right after the sign for the am-pm convenience store.

See also Wired Cafe, 6-15-7 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, (03) 3407-9899.

A healthy beer garden is a contradiction in terms, of course. But with its pastel-white surroundings and whole-food menu, the brand-new Yaffa Organic Cafe comes perilously close to achieving it.

Basically it's a trendy adjunct to a hip hair salon on the top floor of the recently opened La Place minimall in lower Roppongi. At lunch they serve up simple genmai-shoku (brown rice meals). But YOC is also blessed with a nice terrace that's just right for enjoying the evening breeze and the drone of the cicadas over the hum of the traffic and the soul music emanating from the plaza below.

Beer reactionaries need not get too concerned. The suds on tap are Ichiban Shibori (nothing too threatening there). But YOC also stocks Kirin's much more noteworthy Heartland, a crisp, thirst-quenching brew in authentic pilsener style, along with two kinds of organic beer (from France and Germany).

What is truly alarming at YOC is the care they put into making their food taste good. We have not yet tried the various pizzas or spaghettis. Nor can we comment on the oiliness of their kara-age chicken. But the long, thin spring roll "cigars" filled with crab and shrimp are definitely worthy of the name, crisply deep fried and served with a light, sesame-based dipping sauce.

YOC does manage to prepare Tokyo's (the world's?) weirdest take on a Caesar salad, using pieces of chicken the size of bacon bits, drizzling the (regular) lettuce with a creamy white sauce that isn't mayo, and topping it all with raw muesli oats (complete with dried raisins) and only the merest hint of grated parmesan.

However, their deep-fried potato wedges approach perfection. They're fragrant yet filling, cooked to just the right degree of softness using fresh organically grown spuds, and served with a good dollop of basil-infused butter.

The surroundings are altogether too spick and span to feel entirely comfortable. But if this level of attention to taste and detail were to catch on more widely, then the good old beer garden we know and love in all its Showa mediocrity would soon be history. And few people would be crying into their mugs of Kirin lager.

Yaffa Organic Cafe, Roppongi La Place 3F, 5-10-25 Roppongi, Minato-ku, (03) 5770-4788. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Tuesday. From the Roppongi crossing, walk down Imo-arai-zaka (the diagonal street next to Almond) in the direction of Azabu-Juban. Roppongi La Place is the mall on your left just before you come out on the main drag opposite the Sweden Center. Yaffa Organic Cafe is on the top floor (take the elevator on the right at the back of the plaza, after Cafe Mosaique).


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