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Sunday, Sept. 30, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Oh, to spoon under the silvery moon


The harvest moon is upon us, and where better for viewing it (God and the elements willing) than the terrace at Tsuki no Niwa, the aptly named "Garden of the Moon." Not only is it a marvelous setting, it's hard to believe it's in the heart of Minato Ward.

A perfect spot for moon-viewing, Tsuki no Niwa is not as pricey as it looks.

If you are not familiar with Tsuki no Niwa, that's because it does not go out of its way to draw attention to itself. It does not advertise, nor does it allow the media inside its portals.

The look is modern-traditional -- a low-rise, wooden house, freestanding on its own patch of real estate. It nestles back behind its low wooden wall so anonymously that you barely notice it's there at all. At night they hang up their cotton noren, illuminated by a single lamp. With its sole window covered by a discreet bamboo blind, you could almost take it for a ryotei.

In short, to the casual passerby, Tsuki no Niwa looks expensive and exclusive, a place with secrets to conceal. But the biggest secret -- the one that habitues like to keep to themselves -- is that it's not only accessible, it's very reasonably priced, too.

Behind that noren, you find the main building on the left; a small bar area to the right; and in front of you, the garden, a remarkable area of shrubs and foliage (including some fairly respectable trees) slabs of stone, twinkling lanterns and trickling water.

If it is the garden area that you have come to contemplate, you will slip off your shoes and be led down to the tatami-covered first-floor dining room, a simply furnished area with wooden pillars, sliding doors and low tables set with zabuton cushions. Throughout the year (or as long as the weather holds up and customers don't complain), they keep the entire side wall of that room open onto the garden.

Upstairs there are more rooms, some for private parties, some shared, one of which leads out onto the open-air terrace built out on top of the bar. With just two tables, enough to seat eight people on zabuton, it has an unparalleled view right over the garden, making it ideal for balmy summer evenings -- and for tracking the progress of the moon, too.

Despite the trappings of refinement, Tsuki no Niwa is basically an izakaya. The drinks menu is central -- chuhai and wine being the beverages of choice for most of the well-heeled clientele -- although they also provide a good variety of edibles. These are well detailed on the English menu, including the seasonal specials, though you will have to ask about the sashimi of the day. With our first beer, we ordered eda-mame, a heaped bowl of a particularly fine-tasting variety (Shirayama Dadacho-mame), fresh, plump and bright green despite the lateness of the season. We also nibbled on dainty slices of homemade karasumi (salted and smoked mullet roe), which were dense, oil-rich and perfect with the good ginjo sake.

We followed our sashimi of very fresh, tender ishi-garei (flounder) with steamed baby eggplants, dressed with umegatsuo (plum and bonito) and a small bowl of buta no kakuni (simmered cubes of pork belly in the Kagoshima style).

Throughout, we found the flavors and presentation to be adequate, and although the portions were small, prices were mostly below 1,000 yen per serving. However, much of the food had been prepared ahead of time, and the overall impression was that it was limp and lacking in vitality.

For that reason, we found the deep-fried snacks much more satisfying, especially the satsuma-age. Incorporating plenty of squid and negi green scallions, they were piping hot, crispy golden brown on the outside, good and chewy on the inside.

We closed with anago bo-sushi (pressed sushi of conger) and a bowl of satisfying, chilled Naniwa udon. For the above, and without stinting ourselves for liquid refreshment, the outlay for two was just under 14,000 yen. From our observation, few of the other customers were eating that much, being more content to drink and chat. So it would be quite easy to leave with even less damage to the credit card.

Coincidentally, another place has opened this week that also provides great view of the sky and over the rooftops. Gonpachi is the castlelike structure that now occupies the northeastern quadrant of Nishi-Azabu Crossing.

The first and second floors, which are devoted to yakitori and hand-made noodles, are just as impressive as the exterior. It is as if a peasant market place from a Kurosawa set had been dismantled from the old Shochiku studios in Ofuna and reassembled in central Tokyo.

Of more interest at this time of year is the third-floor sushi restaurant. Besides the sushi bar itself, there are dining areas on both sides and, in the middle, a wide terrace that is open to the skies. Stay tuned to future columns for the Food File's assessment of the ryori. For now, all we will say is that, if the weather holds, this terrace will be set with dining tables, making it a prime viewing spot for lunar activity.

Gonpachi: 1-13-11 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5771-0170. Open 11:30 a.m.-6 a.m. daily. Third-floor sushi restaurant: (03) 5771- 0180; www.global- dining.com Open 5 p.m.-5 a.m. Please send all comments, queries and feedback to foodfile@yahoo.com.


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