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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2000

TOKYO FOOD FILE

NEW FACES FOR 2001

Looking back at the future


In honor of that particularly Japanese custom of creating instant tradition ("Since 1999"), this last column of the year peers forward by looking back. Here are just three of the many new places we have visited and enjoyed during the past 12 months but never got around to writing up.

Not only are they all new, but each in its own way represents the evolution of how Tokyo goes about the business and pleasure of eating right now on the cusp of the millennium. Like virtually every other restaurant, cafe, bar or izakaya mentioned by the Food File, they are worthy of your time, attention and hard-earned spending power.

What does an exclusive, old-school French restaurant in the heart of expense-account territory do to survive when the prevailing mood is in favor of less pomp and circumstance, more casual surroundings, plenty of wine to glug on and greater value for money? In the case of l'Ecrin, the answer is to open a rotisserie.

Rotisserie l'Ecrin's sophisticated but casual surroundings.

It sounds positively plebeian but Rotisserie l'Ecrin manages to transform the concept of grilled chicken and greasy fingers into a dining experience of sophistication, even subtlety. The machine is the first thing you see on arrival, along with the various roasts and other specialties of the house. The effect is every bit as mouthwatering as the well stocked floor-to-ceiling wine cellar -- also set behind glass -- which is virtually the sole design feature in the dining room.

The attitude is stylish but conservative. This is Ginza doubling as midtown Manhattan. The tables are clad in starched white cloths. The waiters, who wear black vests and long aprons, are attentive, efficient and never fawning. There is no background music. In summer they throw open the frontage on two sides and, despite the proximity of Harumi-dori, screened out with trees, the effect is very pleasant.

The cuisine is of course based on French principles, though it is not as resolutely formal and "proper" as the parent restaurant, with much more influence from the Mediterranean and even further afield. In the evening the set menus start from 5,000 yen, with the roasts of chicken, duck, lamb or pork prominently featured as main courses.

But we prefer to think of Rotisserie L'Ecrin as a noontime spot. In fact, it is arguably the best in all of Ginza if your aim is to have a leisurely, boozy lunch, to meet someone special for a middle-of-the-day assignation, or just to treat yourself to some good resuscitation after a hard morning doing the rounds of the department stores.

The neighboring tables will be occupied by well-heeled matrons, graying executives with their "daughters," reunions of college friends from upper-crust universities, account executives with their clients and fashionably-dressed young women discussing Paris couture.

What they all have in common, besides plenty of time to dawdle away in the middle of the day and the readiness to spend a little extra for lunch (courses from 2,300 yen upward) is that they are all invariably having a great time.

Rotisserie L'Ecrin, Ginza Crest Bldg. 1F, 5-11-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku; across from the Kabukiza Theater; tel: (03) 5565-0770. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (lunch); 3-5 p.m. (tea); 5-11 p.m. (dinner). Closed Sunday.

Nobody goes to Yokohama to eat, except if it's part of a day out in Landmark Tower or the alleys of Chinatown, or unless you are a diehard ramen devotee.

Lunchan Avenue in Yokohama features sturdy American fare.

Wrong. There are plenty of people in Kanagawa for whom the amenities of the port city, limited as they are, are far preferable to the frenzied bright lights of the metropolis.

So it is not so much the weekend visitors who will welcome the opening of Lunchan Avenue as those who live or work in striking distance of Kannai. Like its well-established sister operation in Tokyo, it is a plush diner, with North American attitude, Pacific Rim fusion influences and Japanese attention to detail (and portion sizes). What gives it a distinct personality of its own is the location.

Whereas the Aoyama Lunchan would fit inside a sleek, modern Miami high-rise, this new branch feels more like downtown Chicago, with its high, vaulted ceiling, sturdy pillars and wide windows. It occupies the ground floor of the former Yokohama Chamber of Commerce and Industry (built 1929), which has now been totally remodeled to house the Yokohama Media and Communications Center, including the Broadcasting Museum and Library.

The food feels more solid too. Settle down with some Louisiana-style crab cakes or a hot chowder; a blue cheese salad with walnuts followed by their plate of meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Other entrees include Ahi tuna and a quarter-kilo New York steak. Wash this all down with some good Californian cabernet and round off the proceedings with cheesecake and a cafe latte.

Your total check should not come to much more than 8,000 yen for two, excluding your drinks. In Tokyo, places of this ilk are mainstream, even taken for granted. But down in bayside Yokohama, its arrival is welcome news indeed. In fact it's almost worth a special trip down from the big city.

Lunchan Avenue, Yokohama Media & Communications Center 1F., 11 Nippon Odori, Naka-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa-ken. Nearest station: Kannai (south exit). Tel: (045) 641-2666. Open daily 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch); 2:30-5:30 p.m. (tea); 5:30-11 p.m. (dinner)

If you are visiting the Broadcasting Museum, you may also like to try the European-style Cafe de la Presse on the second floor of the same building; tel. (045) 222-3348. Open 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; closed Monday).

The Marunouchi district of Tokyo is undergoing a similar process of revivification. From the construction site of the new Marubiru Building all the way down to Yurakucho, the whole area is being given a makeover for the new millennium. No longer a fuddy-duddy salaryman ghetto, this is rapidly turning into cutting-edge designer territory.

A hip deli-cafe in Marunouchi: the Dragonfly

Perhaps nowhere in the neighborhood exemplifies this new sense of style and poise better than the excellent Dragonfly Cafe. The chairs, lamps and interior fittings are all out of the Brutus Casa catalog of contemporary design. And the food is a fresh take on deli-cafe fare that is simple, fresh, creative and well executed.

They offer a few straightforward main dishes, salads and warming soups and chowders, but the heart of the menu is the selection of sandwiches. There is focaccia stuffed with champignons, chicken and spinach or eggplant and cottage cheese with basil paste; sliced baguettes with spreads of tuna and jalapeno or egg tartare with anchovy and basil; and hearty country bread filled with either avocado and shrimp or grilled chicken with diablo sauce.

This is also one of the few places in town that knows what a crocque madame is. The house mineral water is Imdal. The wine is nothing to write home about, but the juice selection includes the delicious (and dramatically colored) Italian blood orange. During the afternoon you can drop by for tea and some of their tasty pumpkin pudding or baked apple tart.

They don't have a delivery service, but they offer a fine take-out lunch box comprising sandwich, salad, soup and coffee or tea. You can even phone in your order in advance, and pick up a picnic to eat on the lawns in front of the Imperial Palace. It's almost enough to make you wish you were a Marunouchi office worker.

Dragonfly Cafe, 2-3-2 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku. A two-minute walk from Tokyo Station. Tel: (03) 5220-2503. Open 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. (11 am-8 p.m. Sat, Sun, holidays).


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