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Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Give my compliments to the chef


There are many -- the Food File included -- who believe that Kazuhiko Kinoshita produces the finest, value-for-money French food in all of Tokyo, and probably the whole of Japan. So how can it be that he and his bistro-style restaurant remain so little spoken about by the general populace, or at least those who pride themselves on eating well?

Restaurant Kinoshita in Shibuya

In part we can blame the less-than-sexy location and unpretentious furnishings. And partly it's because Kinoshita is a modest man, who does not play the mass-media game. But the underlying truth is there's been a conspiracy of silence.

This is quite understandable. His fans (especially those for whom this is their neighborhood dining spot) have done all they can to keep Kinoshita's existence a secret. But, even so, word did get out, and for a couple of years it was about as hard to snare a table there as to arrange a private audience with the Pope.

To his credit, Kinoshita did nothing to capitalize on this, and his prices are barely higher than when he opened here in 1997. But we were still concerned that standards might have slipped, that the chef had put on airs or was coasting on his laurels. A recent visit reassured us emphatically that all was well; if anything, Kinoshita's food shows even more confidence and flair than before.

A welcome, post-typhoon sun was beating down as we arrived in Hatsudai's quaint, almost rural shotengai shopping street, making Kinoshita's two outside tables a very attractive proposition. They are well-shaded, and though they are too close to the street (and right by a bus stop), they actually offer greater space and intimacy than the cheek-by-jowl tables inside.

Kazuhiko Kinoshita produces the finest, good-value French cuisine in the city.

As starters we had small slices of quiche Lorraine, simple and unfussy, with layers of onion, bacon, egg and savory kinoko mushrooms on nicely browned pastry, with a small well-dressed salad of mixed leaves on the side. But it was with the main courses that Kinoshita's creativity kicked in.

A perfectly poached fillet of cod had been covered on one side with a delicate mousse of scallops, then breaded and grilled crisp but not oily, the crunchy texture of its upper face contrasting magnificently with the moist white flesh, soft and flaky, of the fish itself. It was accompanied by a few morsels of summer vegetables, and a light sauce of fresh tomatoes given a very gentle arabbiata effect with the addition of a few small slices of chili.

Even more remarkable was our sauteed Iwate pork, which came with tiny oil-crisped globes of taro, green shishito peppers, baby zucchini and a graceful, aromatic sauce gently imbued with curry spices, ginger, garlic, turmeric, whole golden sesame and finely chopped chives.

Written down, this may sound like some Pacific-Rim fusion experiment -- indeed Kinoshita later told us he was dreaming of ramen broth as he created it. But his unfailing ability to combine impeccable French technique with the simplest of local produce and a wonderfully deft touch with flavors is Kinoshita's forte: one that most contemporary Parisian bistros would give their eyeteeth for.

We had a choice of five desserts, all wickedly tempting, and plumped eventually for the mascarpone cheese ice cream, served with a dash of Pernod and a thimbleful of hot, dark, espresso; and orange and grapefruit set in a beautiful red Campari-infused jelly, a scoop of homemade golden kiwi sorbet on the side.

All this, plus coffee, for just 1,800 yen -- which is half of what you'd pay for the same in the center of town -- added up to an outstanding, lingering midweek lunch.

Dinner is an expanded -- and even more creative -- version of the above. Four courses for a basic 3,800 yen (although several items carry supplements of up to 1,000 yen each), including a choice of nine starters; either soup or a light salad; nine main dish options; plus dessert and coffee. For the serious trencherperson (and there are many among his devotees), Kinoshita offers a 5,000 yen menu de chef, including both fish and meat courses, various pre-desserts and extra amuse gueules. We have tried this in the past and it is highly recommended.

Kinoshita is a chef's chef, as highly respected by his peers as he is by critics and gastronomes. And the remarkable thing is that he has never been to France. But near the entrance to his compact open kitchen hangs a photo of the visiting Joel Robuchon, patron saint and roving ambassador of haute cuisine, kissing Kinoshita-san's gleaming pate. It is a warming image and a fitting seal of appreciation and approval.

Restaurant Kinoshita 1-9-12 Hatsudai, Shibuya-ku; tel. (03) 3376-5336
Open:12-2 p.m. (last order); 6-9 p.m. (last order)
Closed:Monday and 2nd Tuesday of the month
Nearest station:Hatsudai (Keio Line)
How to get there:Leave Hatsudai Station by the South Exit and walk down the Hatsudai shotengai (shopping street). Restaurant Kinoshita is on the left side after about 400 meters, right by the Hatsudai Itchome bus stop. From Shibuya, take the #61 Tokyu bus (to Hatsudai) from the rotary in front of Tokyu Plaza
What works:Wonderfully inventive super-bistro fare
What doesn't:Cramped seating; scarce reservations
Number of seats:22 (plus four outside)
BGM:None indoors; Chopin and Strauss out on the street
Price per head:Lunch 1,800 yen; dinner 3,800 yen or 5,000 yen (not including drinks)
Drinks:Beer 600 yen; champagne from 3,800 yen/half bottle, 6,800 yen/bottle; wine from 600 yen/glass, 3,200 yen/bottle
Credit cards:Not accepted; cash only
Language:Japanese food menu; French wine list; little English spoken
Reservations:Essential

The procedure for snaring reservations at Kinoshita is Byzantine: You must call on the first Monday of the month, 4-6 p.m., to reserve a table for any evening the following month. It's invariably hard to get through. But it's certainly worth the effort. All comments, queries and feedback by e-mail to foodfile@yahoo.com


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