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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Best cellars Down Under
When a recent cover feature in a heavyweight U.S. weekly magazine assures us that New World vintages -- especially those from Down Under -- are giving the French (and Californians) a run for their money, then it's safe to say that Australian wine has arrived. But we in Tokyo have known that for a long time.
We have a long-serving specialist online mail-order service (Village Cellars). We find bottles from Coonawarra and Hunter Valley in our street-corner convenience stores. And we have a clutch of wine bars -- Uluru 125; followed by El Vino; and, more recently, the extravagantly named Underground Mr. Zoogunzoo -- that won't pour anything if it wasn't fermented in the Antipodes.
And since last December, we have Arossa, a stylish restaurant-cum-wine bar tucked away on the outskirts of Shibuya. It is the spiritual successor to another Aussie-only wine bar, the well-liked The Rocks, which occupied this same site for a few felicitous years.
Owner Takuo Takeshita was one of the partners in that earlier incarnation. Now he is in sole charge. His enthusiasm for Australia and the fruit of its vines remains undimmed. What has evolved is the level of sophistication: Arossa is streets ahead of any of its predecessors in terms of poise and ambition, not to mention the quality of its excellent Italian-based food.
Arossa is split into two levels. On the ground floor is a well-polished wooden counter with seats for eight where you can perch and watch the kitchen staff at work. The main dining room is upstairs, an attractive space irregular in shape and simply furnished.
Whichever area you sit in, you have a choice of strategies. You can treat Arossa like a regular restaurant, ordering the 5,000 yen set meal (five courses) or a la carte from the compact, bistro-plus-style menu. Alternatively, you can make the wine your primary focus, selecting your food as and when you feel, in the finest, most relaxed, wine-bar style.
The menu (in English) and accompanying blackboard of daily specials (in Japanese only) list a tempting array of starters. Our mixed plate included a carpaccio of mebachi (bigeye tuna); Tasmanian smoked salmon; small crostini with blue cheese mousse; and slices of seared gyutan (beef tongue) hot from the grill. This we backed up with a glass or two of crisp Frankland Estate Riesling.
Besides the wine and the beer (Coopers, VB and Fosters), a large proportion of the food is sourced from Down Under. Along with the kangaroo, lamb and beef that feature strongly in the main-course grills, Arossa also receives twice-weekly deliveries of organic salad vegetables from the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Meanwhile, the chicken (free-range, of course) is from Iwate and the seafood shipped up fresh from Fukushima.
Youthful head chef Hidekazu Noguchi recently returned from a three-year sojourn in Italy and is clearly enjoying his tenure here, despite the miniature kitchen space. He rolls out all his own fresh pasta and also produces a very tasty risotto that is soft, creamy and features generous slivers of Parma prosciutto cut fresh from the large ham that sits proudly on the counter.
He is also partial to producing specials that don't feature on the menu. We spotted -- and obtained the last serving of -- a very satisfying beef bourguignon, simmered till tender in red wine (perhaps the previous day's unfinished bottle), served with chips of deep-fried lotus root and a very accomplished mashed potato. This went exceptionally well with our glasses of, respectively, jammy Yalumba '98 Shiraz and full-bodied Redgate '97 Cabernet Franc.
There is a separate blackboard listing the three desserts of the day. But those who know just how well Australians do their pudding wines are likely to opt instead for a glass of de Bortoli Noble One, perhaps, or a McWilliams Show Reserve Port.
Despite the excellent provender, it is still the cellar that is the outstanding feature of Arossa. Takeshita has assembled some 700 bottles, ranging from the simple and basic to the rarefied -- and he says he sells nothing he doesn't like himself. He has 200 varieties on the regular wine list, plus another 50 specials (older vintages, rarer species and even a couple of Penfold Granges).
There is no fixed house wine. Every day they open 10-15 bottles for consumption by the glass (say, eight reds, five whites and a couple of sparklers). If you time things right, you can often get to choose one or more for yourself. This is a great way to sample some of the unfamiliar names in this huge cellar.
Prices are all marked, so there are no rude surprises: You get a sixth of the bottle for a fifth of the full-bottle price. And it gets even better after 10 p.m. Until closing time, happy hour tariffs prevail, with wines by the glass 20 percent cheaper. No wonder Arossa is running full virtually every night of the week.
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