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Sunday, April 22, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

A cave of wonder, down under


Underground Mr. Zoogunzoo has an interior to match its singular name. The walls are daubed with adobe designs, as if decorated by aboriginal dot artists. Light diffuses from opaque lamp shades resembling irregular crystals or the seed pods of an alien life form.

At the far end of the room, a half-moon door leads into a further chamber, set aside for small larger parties. The Balinese wooden furniture is simple and reassuringly solid. Even the refrigerators have been covered in washi paper in deep earth hues to soften their insistent presence. This otherworldly Aladdin's cave whispers not of money or design but of tales of mythology and imagination.

Owner-manager Eiji Suzuki and his friendly young team were, until last year, the people running Uluru 125, the cult little Aussie wine bar set in a funky old Japanese house in backstreet Harajuku. Their raison d'e^tre at Mr. Z (as we're sure it will come to be known, at least among the foreign community) remains unchanged, albeit filtered through several layers of refinement and creativity.

If anything, the wine list at their new operation is even more substantial. It's a tome of great wonder, listing a total of 162 different bottles, all from Australia save for a sprinkling of New Zealand's finest, and including 14 kinds of bubbly plus 10 typically Aussie pudding wines (of the port, sauterne or liqueur Muscat types).

It gets better. Any of these are available on a by-the-glass basis, up to a maximum of four different bottles each night. There's no mystery to the math either -- each glass is 150 ml (one-fifth of a bottle), for which they charge a quarter of their full-bottle price. This applies to any wine on the list, although for the very best they insist you buy a minimum of two glasses.

As a concept it is simple, admirable and hugely seductive. It also makes things much easier when it comes to ordering your meal. The essential precepts of the food are Italian and, although it's intended primarily as a foil for the wine, the cooking is absolutely up to standard.

As there were three of us in our party, we decided the appropriate strategy would be to share some starters, have one pasta each and then split a main dish between us. We kicked off with a carpaccio of suzuki (sea bass) on a bed of carefully shredded cucumber, the sashimi-grade fish delicately drizzled with a pesto-based sauce and the juice of a lemon segment. This was well complemented with a glass of Nautilus Estate Sauvignon Blanc, its inherent gooseberry fruitiness well balanced by a New Zealand crispness.

Our Caesar salad was just as it should be, with plenty of dressing (a rarity in Tokyo), crisp croutons and a generous scattering of grated Parmesan. We also enjoyed our American eggplant grilled with a layer of melting cheese, daubed with olive oil and garnished with fruit tomatoes. Our primi piatti were uniformly excellent -- a rich penne with a thick sauce of Gorgonzola and cream; a spicy anchovy spaghetti, with parsley and some serious chili heat; and a very tasty spiral pasta with a creamy Genovese sauce laden with morsels of bacon and broccoli.

As our shared main course, we went for the oven-roasted lamb chops, nicely rare and served with an aromatic, herb-driven pistou sauce. It was an excellent selection, albeit determined by our choice of wine. David Wynn Patriarch Shiraz is an old favorite of ours, and the 1997 displays a fine patrician structure, with a delectable full plumminess that is perfect for drinking right away.

We closed with a portion of their berry fruit tart and a glass of the McWilliams 10-year Hanwood Port, unctuous and comforting. Our bill for the whole evening came to 24,000 yen, half of which went on the very fine wine. In any surroundings we would not be unhappy. Here, under the subterranean sign of a legendary African fish, we were totally impressed.

Underground Mr. Zoogunzoo Aoyama City Bldg. B1F, 2-9-11 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3400-1496; Web site: www.unitedf.com/zoogunzoo/
Open:6 p.m.-2 a.m., Monday-Saturday(restaurant last order 10.30 p.m.)
Closed:Sunday
Nearest stations:Omotesando (Chiyoda, Ginza and Hanzomon lines); Shibuya (JR, Toyoko, Inokashira, Ginza and Hanzomon lines)
How to get there:From Omotesando, walk down the south side of Aoyama-dori in the direction of Shibuya, past Aoyama Gakuin. The entrance to Underground Mr. Zoogunzoo is on the left on the second block after the pedestrian bridge. From Shibuya, cross Meiji-dori, walk up the hill and go one block down Aoyama-dori. Cross and continue for another half block in the direction of Aoyama Gakuin.
What works:Great wine list, brilliant atmospherics
What doesn't:They say there's an English menu in the works, but ...
Number of seats:30
BGM: An eclectic mix of ambient, jazz, African and Asian sounds
Price per head:4,000 yen (without drinks)
Drinks:Wine from 2,970 yen/bottle, 650 yen/glass; beer from 600 yen
Credit cards: Most
Language:English menu expected soon; some English spoken

Uluru 125, Tokyo's pioneering Aussie wine bar, remains very much in operation, just off the extension of Takeshita-dori (on the other side of Meiji-dori) at 3-22-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3403-0125. Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sundays. All comments and feedback to Robbie Swinnerton at foodfile@yahoo.com


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