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Sunday, May 27, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
A ristorante close to heaven
Arriving at Ca Angeli for the first time, you will be forgiven for wondering which is more important, the kitsch or the kitchen.
The first thing you see is a bronze -- almost life-size -- of a young couple, smartly dressed, as if they've just come straight from the office, but both endowed with the wings of angels. Inside, there are cherubim and seraphim everywhere -- on the logo, out on the little patio and plastered all over the walls of the stylish inner dining room.
It looks like an exercise in unadulterated whimsy, but do not be deterred. The sparkling contemporary Italian cuisine served up by owner-chef Hiroshi Satake is light, attractive and completely free of superfluous frills or fussiness.
Satake first made his name at Gino's, an intimate little ristorante right above the main Roppongi Crossing. During his 17 years at the helm, he won serious plaudits for his full-flavored, meat-driven meals that were as rich and powerful as some of his big-league customers (former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was a repeat visitor, but Satake says he was even more impressed the time Sydney Poitier came to dinner). Over the years, though, Satake found himself increasingly drawn away from the old-school orthodox cucina of Gino's. He wanted to serve the kind of simple, fresh, seasonal fare that he himself preferred. And he wanted his restaurant to reflect his personal concern for health and the environment.
The very modern-looking Ca Angeli, now in its third year, is the vehicle for Satake's new approach. It is still firmly rooted in the Italian tradition but given a very Japanese lightness of touch. The aim is to draw out the inherent flavors of the ingredients, all of which are of premium quality.
Virtually all of his produce is grown organically. To cut down on waste, it's delivered to Tokyo without using any plastic wrappings. Satake works closely with his vegetable growers in Chiba, Niigata and Amami Oshima, and the results of their combined efforts are outstanding, especially at this time of year.
We opened our meal with a plate of delectable spring salad vegetables -- lettuce, endive, arugula, fennel and tomato -- so sweet and full of life they must have been picked that same morning. The centerpiece of the dish was a deep-fried whole flowering zucchini, small and fragrant and enrobed in a batter so crisp and light it could only have come from the land of tempura. This is Satake's signature dish and not to be missed.
The carpaccio of nicely seasoned wagyu beef was pounded thin and soft, and brilliantly complemented by fine slices of raw artichoke. We also gave high marks to the aori-ika (squid), lightly cooked with a spear of white asparagus and given a robust anchovy gravy that was just right for mopping up with the good homemade bread.
The fresh ravioli was stuffed with a sweet puree of pumpkin and served with a creamy Gorgonzola sauce that was mild and subtle. The linguine was even better: With its dense, tomato-infused sauce of rich watarigani crabmeat, it was nigh on perfection.
Satake's seafood is all caught from the wild. Most are from the cold clear waters of northern Japan, though he is currently offering rainbow trout from Wakayama. The meat is, where possible, from happy animals -- and you can taste the difference. The roast quail had an intensely concentrated flavor, accentuated by the juicy slab of back bacon it was cooked with. Finger bowls are provided since you are expected to gnaw on the bones.
The jidori chicken was even more of a revelation. Satake uses birds of the Bresse variety that are free-range raised in Japan. Their meat is firm and full of character in a way that broiler chicken can never be. Pan-fried with rosemary until the skin was crisp and glazed, it was served with slices of roast potato, a soft, sweet compote of onion and a rich, savory gravy.
This is serious eating. It is satisfying without being heavy, the kind of food you could eat on a very regular basis -- and (who knows) so healthy you might eventually sprout wings. Satake-san himself is definitely on the side of the angels, and here's one more reason why. Unlike just about any other restaurant in Tokyo, he's designed Ca Angeli to be accessible for wheelchairs. Remarkable.
All these dishes -- and plenty more -- are available as a la carte selections (around 1,700 yen for antipasti, 1,500 yen for pasta and 2,500 yen for main dishes). Or you can configure them into one of the set meals (6,500 yen for four courses; 8,000 yen for five; 10,000 yen for a blowout six courses), all of which include the fresh salad, plus dessert and coffee.