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Thursday, Feb. 8, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Brash, bright, cheerful and fun
As a matter of principle, the Food File doesn't write up places within the first few weeks of their opening. Instead we prefer to wait until the kitchen has settled in properly and recovered from the inevitable strain of dealing with the local media and the surge of customers that inevitably follow.
If we are making the brand-new Roti an exception, that's because there are two compelling reasons. The first is that the man responsible for this stylish, casual diner in Roppongi is Ian Tozer, a chef with a proven track record in putting interesting restaurants on the Tokyo map. The second reason is simply that we like it.
During his time here, the peripatetic Tozer has been a major force in (among other things) the groundbreaking Farm Grill in Shinbashi; the original West Park Cafe in Yoyogi; and TY Harbor Brewery, down on the waterfront in nether Shinagawa. In many ways, Roti reflects aspects of all of the above. Ask Tozer, though, and he'll probably tell you it's not so much a synthesis as a summation. Finally he gets to bring all the strands together and do it entirely his way.
The most obvious feature of the operation here is the rotisserie machine. It stands proud behind the counter, near the semi-open kitchen, its casing done out in spiffy racing red (customized with a cheeky Ferrari decal) and its glowing cargo of chickens and other cuts of meat in constant rotation.
It's hard to go wrong with a machine of this caliber, and the chicken (a special Brazilian breed) is succulent, all crisp skin and juicy flesh. Tozer prepares it two ways: original (marinaded with mint and garlic, served with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy); and piquant Creole (with polenta and apple-mustard sauce).
He also knows his way around the grill. We gave a big thumbs up to our lamb chops, the tender pink meat encrusted with black pepper, presented alongside a pyramid of strongly seasoned warm couscous -- a sly nod to the architecture visible just outside the window. We will be back again to try the rib-eye steak, which Tozer confides is the best thing he makes.
Neither of the fish dishes we tried was as successful as the meats, their delicate flavors overwhelmed by the richness of the dressings they were paired with. But we had no quibbles with the mashed potatoes served with each (flavored with chopped black olives and pesto, respectively). Nor with our side dishes (listed as appetizers but substantial enough to stand alone as main courses) -- tasty deep-fried calamari morsels, encased in amber-ale batter, and a chicory salad heaped with warm bacon bits, garlic, goat cheese and croutons.
Roti styles itself as a "modern American brasserie," and although serving sizes are hardly up to stateside proportions, they're certainly hearty and filling by Tokyo standards. But what gives it an all-American sensibility is the sheer intensity of the assembled flavors on every plate.
This is not a shy, retiring cuisine. Tozer likes to cook with the volume turned up to 11, with plenty of seasonings, rich glazes, high-octane sauces and full throttle gravies. Brasserie means brash, but it also means bright, cheerful and fun.
Roti's full-flavored food is well matched with the demonstrative properties of Californian wine, of which more than 50 bottles are kept in stock. Not only are they affordably priced, nine of them are available by the glass, making Roti one of the best places in this quarter of the city to explore less well-known West Coast wineries.
We were equally pleased to find the beer is from Rogue Ales, an innovative and successful new-wave "micro" in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. To our knowledge, this is the first time their Saint Rogue Red, Buckwheat Ale and Hazelnut Brown Nectar have all been available on tap anywhere in Tokyo. Order up a sampler, three tumblers to taste and compare for 800 yen. Serious ale aficionados, however, will be disappointed to find the "pint" listed is well-short of the imperial measure -- and even the U.S. version that goes by the same name.
It's a good-looking space. Picture windows on two sides give the dining room a sense of spaciousness and ample light. The pale wood furniture is simple but with a chic modern sensibility; a plain black banquette runs the length of the room; a series of striking paintings of Brazilian fowl adorn the main wall.
The best thing about Roti, though, is that the ethos is decidedly casual. You're there to eat, of course, but just as much to quaff (wine, primarily, or beer), to drop in for a light lunchtime snack, a simple soup or sandwich in the afternoon, or a dinner that can be as drawn-out as you like. And brunch here could well become a Roppongi institution.
One final reason why we approve: The main dining room is an entirely smoke-free zone. This should not be construed as incipient Cali-fascism -- after all smoking is allowed at the bar (and, of course, at the outside tables when the warm weather returns). It's just that cigarettes are so 20th century, and Roti is very much a diner for the new millennium.
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