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Thursday, Sept. 14, 2000
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Tunisian flavors in Shin-Okubo
Don't roll up at Hannibal with ideas about mysterious Middle Eastern souks, exotic belly dancers or desert caravansaries. Nor should you expect ancient classical motifs and provender of Punic proportions. Just forget you ever saw the movie "Casablanca" (and don't even mention "The Silence of the Lambs").
Hannibal is certainly 100 percent Tunisian -- as is its cheerful young owner-chef, Mondher Gheribi. But he does not trumpet his food and his nationality with flags, maps and the whole caboodle of ethnic knick-knacks. Instead, his little basement diner brings a bright, contemporary feel to the cosmopolitan back streets of Shin-Okubo.
Gheribi used to be on the kitchen staff at the late and very much lamented Hamadi, down in Hiroo, the place that first introduced Tokyo diners to the pleasures of the Tunisian table. When that admirable operation was superseded by its sister restaurant, La Cueva, Gheribi spent some time in Europe, honing his skills in both French and Italian cooking.
Now he has returned to Japan, convinced that the city is now ready for the flavors of his homeland. Not that he is attempting to do this solo. While Gheribi handles all the kitchen duties, managerial and waitress duties are in the very capable hands of his charming wife and partner, Sasaki-san.
Whereas Hamadi was slick and upmarket, exuding a sense of cool worthy of a Miles Davis solo, Hannibal by contrast is as homely as you like. With its simple white walls and tables adorned with blue checked tablecloths, the sense here would almost be casual Mediterranean bistro, were it not for the hubble-bubble pipe at one end of the counter.
And why not? Tunisia shares the same water -- it just looks at it from a different side. Indeed it's barely more than 100 km from Italian territory. So do not be surprised to find Gheribi serving up fish and vegetable dishes that are not so far in inspiration from the foods of Sicily, Provence or Andalucia.
However, the first touch is entirely North African. As soon as you have ordered, you will be brought a plate of bread -- if you are lucky Gheribi will have baked up a batch of homemade roll-size khobz -- and with it a small bowl of harissa sauce. Be warned, it may look like ketchup, but its attractive orange-red color holds within it a fierce heat that would put most salsa to shame. Harissa is for adding zip to your meal, not as a dip for your bread, unless you want to cauterize your taste buds for the evening.
The menu is all written in Japanese, and there are also several specials of the day to be figured out from the blackboard. But Sasaki-san will help you construct your meal, with a ready explanation for all the unfamiliar vocabulary. As at a European restaurant, figure on a couple of starters and one main dish each (portions are generous) -- but with everything shared by all present.
We started with the mechoui salad, made up of eggplant, red and green bell peppers, onion and plenty of garlic which were oven-baked until sweet and soft (mechoui means "grilled") in almost nouveau Californian style.
More out of interest than hunger, we also ordered the tajine, since we wanted to see just how different it would be from the kind of spicy stews you would expect to find in a Moroccan restaurant. In fact it's no relation at all. The Tunisian interpretation of the term is a kind of quiche made with succulent eggplant. It's simple but very tasty and, much like a Spanish tortilla, it goes very well with a crisp white wine.
Hannibal's drinks list offers a selection of French, Italian and Spanish bottles, as well as several native Tunisian labels. Don't turn your nose up at the latter: The house white, made from ugni grapes, is perfectly drinkable. And your opinion of North African vintages may be permanently upgraded if you try their top-of-the-line bottle: Massinissa Rouge is as good as any of the new south French varietals. It's a Syrah, although it's far smoother than a classic French Rhone, produced from grapes grown organically in the vineyards of the Tunisian president.
This was a very good complement to both the fish and the chicken we had as main dishes. Gheribi offers a choice of three different fish, according to your appetite. The medium-size offering was a whole young sea bass (seigo) which was delicately oven baked with bell peppers and onion and served with a sauce of tomato flavored with plenty of cumin.
Last, but very much not least, our chicken dish arrived. You get a whole bird, infused with herbs and pepper, its inner cavity stuffed with banana and with a sauce deftly infused with rosemary. It was moist, tender and absolutely satisfying, the kind of signature dish that you remember in your dreams and is likely to draw you back time and again.
There are a number of desserts, including a sweet custard made with dried fruits which confusingly is also called harissa. But given the size of the main courses, you may just want to top off the evening with a cup of espresso and a thimbleful or two of Boukha l'Oasis, a wonderfully smooth Tunisian eau de vie of figs which looks like grappa but travels down far more smoothly.
You will be satisfied.