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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2000
TOKYO FOOD FILE
KURA CARMINE/HANEZAWA GARDEN
Dining out in year-end style
With Christmas a mere 10 days away, it is unlikely that anyone has failed to make their arrangements for celebrations, either on the day itself or during the Yuletide run-up. However, just in time for the season of good cheer, overeating and loosening of purse strings, here are two places (opened in the past month) with just the kind of atmosphere for that special occasion.
Kura Carmine is the latest addition to the growing stable of trattorie, pizzerie and ristoranti produced and operated by veteran chef-restaurateur Carmine Cozzolino -- and again demonstrates his flair for blending Italian cucina with traditional Japanese architecture. While not quite as unusual as his Edochiano in Yotsuya-Sanchome, Kura's setting is inventive.
As the name suggests, it dwells within the shell of a converted storehouse, hidden away in an unlikely location between tall office buildings off the main drag of Kotto-dori. Passing through a narrow wooden gate, you pick your way across stepping stones through a glade of bamboo and enter the massive heavy doors of an original kura that has stood on this site since the time when Aoyama was actually a semirural "green hill" on the outskirts of Edo.
Kura is small and intimate, with just 50 seats split between two floors. Downstairs is simple and cozy, with wood paneling and a low ceiling; upstairs is more spacious and romantic. Do not come expecting the kind of full-throated authentic cooking you might find in the mountains of Tuscany. Carmine has succeeded by serving unchallenging fare that is reliable and reasonably priced -- and here he sticks with his winning formula.
At lunchtime there are good, fixed-price set meals from 1,000 yen a head, but in the evening a more sophisticated a la carte menu comes into play. The antipasti are trustworthy if not brilliantly exciting -- though the home-smoked kajiki (swordfish) was very tasty.
Carmine's calling card is his pasta: It's all freshly prepared in-house, and is uniformly excellent. We were especially impressed by the tagliatelli al ragu di coda di manzo (a rich ragu of oxtail and tomato).
The secondi piatti selection includes veal, fillet of beef, homemade sausage, chicken, roast pigeon (with good mash and a knock-out red wine sauce) and a fish of the day.
The wine list at Kura is better than we remember at Carmine's other restaurants. Not only is it well chosen and laid out according to region (Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany or Umbria), the wines are also priced not far above retail levels. Treat yourself to the Ania, an excellent Tuscan red for 7,000 yen, perfect for a seasonal splurge.
For an even more memorable and sumptuous evening out, however, we would gently direct your steps toward a hidden corner of Hiroo that still does boast a green, leafy hilltop. Although the Hanezawa Garden is best known (to a select few, at least) for its old-style outdoors beer garden, summer visitors have always been restricted to a small part of the premises. Now the main house itself has been opened up -- and there's nowhere like it in the city.
The gateway is lit on either side with candles. You make your way up a long, illuminated drive that curves past bamboo and maple and find yourself in an open gravel area in front of a traditional wooden villa. Built in 1940 for the head of one of Japan's powerful zaibatsu groups, the classic architecture still exudes a palpable sense of privilege and patrician wealth.
The design and layout remain quintessentially Japanese, but the interior has been given a contemporary makeover, with modern heating and plumbing and tasteful furnishings. No longer a moldering, underused ryotei, it feels like a sophisticated, cosmopolitan gentleman's club or a deluxe banquet hall, and you are treated as such.
You will be shown into an anteroom decorated with Balinese carvings and filled with the fluid rhythms of gamelan music, while your table is prepared for you. Alternatively, drift down to the bar and relax in comfy, low-slung wooden chairs with a predinner aperitif, perhaps a Valdespino Inocente fino or a Solera 1842 aged oloroso sherry.
When all is ready, you will be ushered along corridors whose fusuma are covered in washi paper given a light indigo wash, to the main dining room. It is wide and spacious, with a low ceiling and picture windows giving onto the garden. The original fixtures are augmented with antique Indonesian furniture and Cambodian silk hangings. The tables are set with white linen. Jazz plays softly.
The menu promises "new Japanese cuisine" that translates into a mix-and-match approach combining influences from Japan, Asia and Europe. They do their own modern take on sushi and kushi-age. They also offer spring rolls, crab and greens in Shanghai style and other Asian specials. They are also justly proud of their prime hand-reared organic wagyu beef (from happy cattle raised on a free-range farm in Shikoku).
We had wonderfully fresh king prawns, quickly boiled and served with a simple salt and pepper dip and a mustard tartar sauce. The nama harumaki were good but too chilled from the fridge. The kushi-age (we ordered oysters, scallops and vegetables) were fine, but suffered from being too far from the kitchen. The buta no kakuni (pork in Kagoshima style) was not the best we have ever had.
As with a top hotel dining room, everything was fine, but lacking the creative inspiration of a master chef. Next time we will go down an entirely Western route: carpaccio, Caesar salad, pasta and a steak. Not only is it more reliable, it will go much better with the excellent wine on offer.
When you are through with dining, repair for coffee and a postprandial liquor to the second bar (Havanas are available, though not compulsory, and make the perfect accompaniment to their smoky Chantal Comte rum from Martinique). It is a wonderful, oak-paneled room in European style with comfy rattan furniture and an open fire filling the room with warmth, flickering light and the perfume of burning wood.
It's almost the ultimate setting for a perfect evening. Unfortunately there are two factors that prevent total enjoyment of the idyll. The floor staff are all wired up with walkie-talkies: Not only do they walk around hissing into mikes everywhere you go, when you ask questions they have to stop to remove or turn down their earphones.
The other negative is that the waiters are equipped with high-tech remote ordering devices of the kind they use at Denny's, which emit enervating high-pitched bleeps every time a key pad is touched. But this is quibble, and easily forgotten once you're out of the dining room, amidst such special surroundings.
Still looking for the right Christmas present for the favorite foodie in your life? You couldn't do better than a subscription to Eat magazine. It's bright, bold, glossy and sexy -- and all about edibles. It's also entirely bilingual (English/Japanese). Check out Issue 2, which hits all the best newsstands this coming week. For more details phone Eat at (03) 5484-6680 or savor their online version at www.i-eatsite.com