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Sunday, June 3, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Kihachi China moves uptown


When Kihachi China moved a few blocks across Ginza last November, it was not just a change of address -- it signified a definite change of status. The old premises, hidden away behind Printemps, were smart but lightweight. The new restaurant is a mere five minutes' stroll away -- just around the corner from Matsuya's eye-popping, face-lifted facade -- but it represents a definite move into the mainstream.

Kihachi China serves stylish, updated Chinese cuisine.

Just like much of contemporary Ginza, Kihachi China plays the nouveau-retro look. It's housed in a Taisho Era building that's solid and dependable, tastefully refurbished for the new century, but with many period features left intact. The gleaming ground-floor kitchen is visible through a great plate-glass window. The second floor, which serves simpler meals and yum cha lunches, has dark, wood floors and paneling and restful lighting, evoking the colonial past. By contrast, the main dining room, up on the fourth floor, is cool and modern, with high ceilings, cream-colored monochrome paint-work and furniture to match.

The food, though, is entirely new school. It's subtle, refined and close to faultless. The ingredients are superb, especially the seafood. Kihachi China quotes so freely from French, Korean and Japanese cuisines, it can scarcely be recognizable to anyone from the mainland. At the same time, though, this is not fusion territory -- or at least not the way the term is usually understood. We chose the 10,000 yen dinner course and didn't regret the extravagance.

First, a round tray on which five small saucers of appetizers were arrayed, each a mere mouthful and a half of concentrated flavors. There was finely chopped kurage jellyfish set off by a few strands of scarlet, ume-flavored menma bamboo; a small cube of tofu topped with a raw shrimp as fresh and sweet as if plucked straight from the ocean; a whole hotaru-ika squid just a few centimeters long, cooked tenderly in a sauce of shaoxingjiu rice wine; a roll of crabmeat and fine-cut arame seaweed wrapped in yuba (soy-milk skin); and a morsel of lamb grilled rare (but not bloody) with a balsamic dressing.

Our palates were suitably awakened for the first main dish: a wonderful shark's fin soup, gelatinous and comforting, containing flakes of crabmeat and tiny white shirasu (whitebait) and wafting savory aromas of the ocean depths. Then came duck -- but not of the Peking variety. Sturdy slices of Bresse-style canard, interspersed with muskmelon and anointed with a sauce hinting of star anise to give it a haunting Asian presence.

The next dish demonstrated just how good this kitchen is. One large, delicate, steamed scallop was presented on a lake of striking red risotto, cooked down from regular rice, red rice, tomato, red bell pepper and just the barest trace of red chili. The scallop was sprinkled with chopped boiled egg imbued with hints of the XO sauce in which it had been seasoned. The superlative technique, presentation and blending of flavors were worthy of the finest restaurants on any continent.

This was followed by a small cut of soft, juicy steak of the finest wagyu beef, given a crisp coating of homemade arare (senbei the size of rice grains) mixed with sesame. It's a unique flavor, and many restaurants would build an entire meal around it. But here it doesn't even get top billing. Instead, the brilliant climax of the meal was lobster -- half an homard sliced lengthways to reveal firm, succulent, white flesh (plus creamy, dark innards), onto which we drizzled a well-balanced umeboshi-based sauce that was neither too sweet nor too sour.

We ended with a bowl of piping-hot noodles with seafood and then dessert -- chocolate mousse with a dab of marmalade; a cassis sorbet; and a small mound of fresh fruit (cherry; blueberry, pineapple, orange; musk melon and lychee).

What do you drink with food of this subtlety? Certainly not the shaoxingjiu wine. Beer is too prosaic. It has to be wine. The four Australian varieties being promoted right now go perfectly, especially the bone-dry Leeuwin Estate Riesling; and the d'Arenberg Custodian Grenache was just divine with the beef.

While the food is three-star professional, Kihachi's idea of service is less so. The waiters are stiff and not well informed about the food they are serving. Worse than that, they emit shouts worthy of a fast-food joint. It didn't spoil our meal, but surely that's not quite up to Ginza standards.

Instead of the elaborate meals, many people prefer to just share a few dishes from the a la carte listing, especially if eating in parties of four or more. Get them to fax the menu in advance, so you can put your own meal together. The menu on the second floor is simpler and cheaper, with a good dim sum set offered at lunchtime.

Kihachi China 3-7-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 5524-0761
Open: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order); 2:45-5 p.m. (teatime); 6-9 p.m. (last order; Sunday last order 8 p.m.)
Nearest station: Ginza (Ginza, Hibiya and Marunouchi lines) Exit A13
How to get there:From the Ginza Crossing, walk down Chuo-dori in the direction of Kyobashi. Turn right after Matsuya department store (opposite the Warner Bros. store), walk down a block and a half, and Kihachi China will be on the right.
What works: The cool neo-chinois look; superb food
What doesn't:Stiff waiters, lack of English menu -- and that soundtrack (see below)
Number of seats:84 on the second floor; 40 (four rooms) on the third floor; and 84 on the fourth floor
BGM:Power pop played too loud on a repetitive tape loop
Price per head: Dinner courses from 5,000 yen (2F) or 8,000 yen (3/4F); lunch courses from 1,800 yen (2F) or 3,000 yen (3/4F); lunch yum cha course 3,000 yen
Drinks: Wine from 750 yen/glass, 4,500 yen/bottle; beer from 700 yen; shaoxingjiu from 600 yen
Credit cards:All the big ones
Service charge:10 percent
Language:Japanese/Chinese menu; little English spoken
Reservations:Recommended



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