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Sunday, July 15, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

TOKYO TAPAS CRAWL

For those about to tapa . . .


In Spain tapas are much more than just food, they're a way of life. There's even a verb -- to "tapa," as it were -- to describe the act of progressing from one tapas bar to another until the wee hours, balancing your intake of alcohol with a succession of light snacks -- always standing up, of course.

The entrance to Sherry Bar de Doce

For obvious reasons, you cannot duplicate that experience in Tokyo. But recently, we did the rounds of three places where discerning drinkers can enjoy the pleasures of "tapassing."

We started in Shinbashi, at Sherry Bar de Doce, a recent arrival that has raised the tone of this traditional drinking zone. Apart from a barrel by the entrance, there is little attempt to conjure up the ambience of Andalucia. The interior looks more like a New York cocktail bar, and the music is saccharine R&B. But whoever compiled the sherry list certainly knew what they were doing.

They offer 16 of them -- standard finos (Tio Pepe and Don Zoilo at 700 yen); two very acceptable manzanillas; several superior aged olorosos and amontillados from the house of Emiliau Lustau; plus a clutch of rare Pedro Ximenes, dark, syrupy and suitably pricey (1,750 yen per glass).

Poco a Poco owner Nishino-san

The house wine is Marques de Caceres and sangria is provided by the glass or pitcher. There's even a limited selection of tapas, although portions are far from generous and slow to arrive. Our Spanish omelette had a good, subtle flavor, with the right balance of egg and potato. The chorizo and cheese plate was disappointing (a few dabs of Camembert on crisp wafers), but we enjoyed the creamy Russian potato salad, its lid of red pimento making it look from a distance like a giant portion of maguro sushi.

Doce also provides a full menu of Japanese tidbits to satisfy the after-work salarymen who comprise the main clientele here. When all around you are tucking into sashimi and sake or yakitori and beer, you realize that Shinbashi has a long way to go before it really embraces the true tapas spirit.

Sherry Bar de Doce, 2-9-4 Shinbashi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5251-5437. Web site: gnavi.joy.ne.jp/gourmet Open 5-11:30 p.m.; closed Sunday and holidays. Japanese menu only; most credit cards accepted.

From the square on the west side of Shinbashi JR Station, go to the left of the old steam locomotive and continue down the street leading away from the station. Doce is halfway down the block on the left. Before visiting Sherry Bar de Doce, you can access the Web site (you will need a Japanese-language browser) and print out a coupon entitling you to a free glass of sherry.

Venencia offers the true tapas tradition.

Whereas Doce is not even superficially Spanish, across town at Venencia you barely feel you are in Japan. This splendid sherry bar, tucked away in Kami-Meguro, is a faithful homage to the flavors of Iberian culture -- and owner Naito-san is a sherry connoisseur of the first order.

He stocks 30 or more of them, many found nowhere else in the city. A notable recent addition to the collection is his El Rocio three-year manzanilla, a complex fino with all its sharp edges smoothed off.

The tapas are simple, solid and masculine. Start with a mixed plate of chorizo and Saitama-made jamon serrano and a saucer of green olives; then try his octopus in wine vinegar. The hot tapas are less successful, but Naito does an excellent cheese platter, with manchego, mahon and a goat's milk haloumi from Majorca.

But more than anything, Venencia serves up atmosphere -- a sense of quiet melancholia, somber but not sad, that is enhanced by the proud and plaintive flamenco music he plays.

Venencia, Kobayashi Bldg. 1F, 2-15-16 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3670-7310. Open 6:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m.; closed Sunday and holidays. Japanese food menu; English wine list. Major credit cards accepted.

Turn right out of Naka-Meguro Station, then turn right again after the huge tower block currently under construction. Walk down the shopping street for three blocks. The sign for Venencia is visible on the right, by the entrance of a medium-sized white building.

The apogee of tapas dining in Tokyo is still the wonderful Poco a Poco, just off the main drag in Gaienmae. It's an intimate place with large mirrors, dark woodwork and antique lampshades illuminating a counter barely big enough to seat six.

The focus here is not sherry but the powerful wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Nishino-san, the distinguished-looking proprietor, has a cellar that ranges from simple reds to outstanding ancient vintages that he has sourced himself in Spain.

He has a simple menu in English, but it is far better just to let him guide you in the direction of whatever is best that day. Our first plate was sliced cerviche of sardine, marinated in wine vinegar and sprinkled with whole red peppercorns, followed by jamon serrano (from Shiga Prefecture, as it lasts better through a Japanese summer) finely sliced with a bone-handled knife and served with cuts of superb Iberico lomo meat from Jabugo, the very best.

By all means try the tuna-stuffed pimientos rellenos, the pan-fried squid and the crisp enpanadas of spicy minced meat. But above all ask for the trippa, a memorable, soft-simmered stew of beef stomach and garbanzos that keeps the customers coming back year after year.

Poco a Poco is truly a labor of love for Nishino-san. He holds forth at length (in Japanese, but Spanish will do) on food, wine, golf and European travel, especially about the Basque Country which he visits each winter during the slow season. For all this, count on spending 5,000 yen per head, not including the aperitif, wine and the snifter of aged French marc you will cradle slowly as you try to tear yourself away.

Poco a Poco, Soft Town Aoyama 1F, 3-1-24 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3404-5888. Open 6-11 p.m.; closed Saturday, Sunday and holidays. English menu, Spanish spoken. Cash only, no credit cards. From Bell Commons, walk up the left side of Gaien-nishi-dori in the direction of Sendagaya. Poco a Poco is at the back of the ground-floor patio inside a building called Soft Town, just before the first light.


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