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Sunday, July 29, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

The cafe of Asian delights


The idea of the Asian-themed izakaya, complete with basic hawker food and crass giant Buddhas, has been with us for several years now. But Hong Hu is surely the first place in Tokyo to reinterpret Southeast Asian street food in the guise of a sidewalk cafe-bistro.

The interior of Hong Hu AsianROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

With a low-budget menu and a design sensibility to match -- plenty of exposed concrete, basic rattan chairs and student-casual wall paintings -- this is a taste of Indochina that has been filtered through a very Tokyo prism. In short, Hong Hu represents Asia not as an exotic theme-park backdrop for carousing but as a hip meeting place for a clued-in young generation.

The name is Vietnamese and so are the design motifs, but the menu spans an axis that runs from Bangkok through Indochina and up into China. It has been worked out with great precision, without much evidence of flair but with plenty of attention to the kind of crisp, fresh flavors and attractive presentation that Tokyo diners demand.

The fresh goi cuon (#4 on the menu) scores highly, both for performance and artistic interpretation. The tender rice-paper wrap encloses a well-balanced selection of fresh ingredients -- raw toro tuna, sliced avocado, slivered cucumber, shredded daikon and negi onions, and plenty of leafy green matter protruding from either end like edible ikebana. Served with two contrasting dips, one soy-based, the other spicy, it ranks up there with some of the most interesting spring rolls in town.

We can also endorse the deep-fried beef with Vietnamese perilla (#31). The minced beef was formed into little finger-size parcels, wrapped in shiso leaves and deep-fried until nicely crisped. The dip for this was an intriguing mango-flavored sauce of cappuccino-froth consistency that was considerably improved with some extra soy sauce.

The menu is laid out -- as it should be anywhere in Asia -- with separate sections for chicken, pork, beef, seafood, plus appetizers, salads and desserts, and with categories devoted to curries (mostly in the Thai style), rice dishes (including nasi goreng) and pho (Vietnamese rice-flour noodles).

It is these generous bowls of light, appetizing noodles that keep us coming back here for repeat visits. We like the zesty pho with small round dumplings of fish meat, bean sprouts and a twist of lime. But our favorite is the Bun Bo Hue (spicy pho with beef in the Hue style).

The noodles have a good al dente texture and are presented in a rich, spicy soup with a tomato base that would seem very strange to anyone in central Vietnam but that we find addictive. The slivers of beef are cooked to the right degree of tenderness, while the bean sprouts still remain crisp. And a scattering of toasted black sesame seeds adds a further contrasting dimension. You will find this raises the perspiration sufficiently to give your circulation a welcome boost on sultry evenings.

This mode of eating is perfect for this time of year, when few people feel any inclination to sit down for a full-scale meal. The appropriate approach is to pick out a few light dishes for nibbling on as you sip on your beer -- they have a good range of Asian brews -- and chat, flirt or just hang out through the evening.

The large upstairs dining room feels soulless, despite the cheerful Ho Chi Minh stencils brightening the back wall. The main action is always down on street level, where there are design magazines to flip through, interesting selections of music playing in the background and always good people-watching to be done -- especially when the entire front is opened onto the street, although they do not do so in the worst heat of the summer.

Hong Hu attracts a predominantly female clientele during the day. At night, the place is taken over by dating couples and groups of young, arty types who seem not to care that the friendly young serving staff are sometimes more enthusiastic than professional.

One final indication of just how relaxed the attitudes are here is the sign on the wall inviting customers to bring their pet pooches in with them. At some restaurants in Vietnam, dogs have entire sections of the menu devoted to them. At Hong Fu, they are considered honored guests.

Hong Hu Asian 2-29-8 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3479-9242
Open:Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (daily).
Tea: 3-6 p.m. (Saturdays, Sundays, holidays)..
Dinner:6-10 p.m. (daily).
Late menu: 10 p.m.-3 a.m. (Monday-Saturday).
Nearest station:Gaienmae (Ginza Line)
How to get there:From Bell Commons, walk down the left side of Gaien-Nishi-dori in the direction of Nishi-Azabu. Hong Hu Asian is on the left, just before the first traffic lights. From Gaienmae Station (Exit 1A), cut down the first side street to the left, then turn left onto Gaien-Nishi-dori.
What works:The ambience is hip, and they like dogs (no, not for eating).
What doesn't:Long on style, short on authenticity
Number of seats:90
BGM:Interesting indie acoustic and electronica
Price per head:4,000 yen (not including drinks); lunch from 900 yen
Drinks:Beer from 450 yen; wine 650 yen/glass, 3,900 yen/bottle; cocktails from 650 yen
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:English menu; simple English spoken



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