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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

RESTAURANT J

Food that gladdens the heart of man


Restaurant J has been open for more than a year, so there's absolutely no reason for the Food File to wait any longer to bestow its seal of approval. But we're still reluctant to give it the unconditional thumbs-up it so richly deserves. Why so? It's the same old story: We're always loath to spread the word about the places we like best.

But it's not as though enough people haven't discovered this brilliant little place for themselves. It has already won a loyal following of enthusiastic fans who like the chic but casual surroundings, the sense of spare simplicity and the fact that it draws a young and unpretentious crowd of diners.

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The intimate scale of Restaurant J in Jingumae allows chef Masahito Ueki to really shine.

But, above all, they like the food. Restaurant J is the showpiece for one of our most gifted young chefs, Masahito Ueki. His CV is short but illustrious. Before setting up shop here last year, he was the man in charge of the kitchen at Stellato (from its inception) and before that was second-in-command at Tableaux.

If you have eaten at either place, you will not need be told that he works in the style best known as modern cuisine, the eclectic international approach to ingredients and kitchen techniques first associated with California and Australia but now established as far afield as London and even Paris. You will also already know that Ueki's cooking is a stylish, Japanese-inflected interpretation of the genre. Now forget those antecedents -- Restaurant J is even better.

Here, working in his own premises, on a much smaller, hands-on scale, Ueki's cooking soars. He uses premium ingredients, combining and juxtaposing them with artistry, never with artifice. But it's not just a question of greater confidence or better technique: There is a clarity in his cooking now, a purity of purpose and expression that elevates it to a higher level.

On our most recent visit, we opened with plump, sashimi-grade scallops from the wild seas off Iwate, lightly seared and paired with fritters of delicate flowering zucchini the size of your little finger, with marinated fruit tomatoes and a dressing of coriander and sesame.

For our other starter, we chose one of our favorites, his "Chinese" ravioli. For this, Ueki uses wonton skin, much smoother and thinner than standard Italian ravioli, stuffed with crabmeat (taraba king crab), and slavers it with a creamy, bisque-based "bouillabaisse" sauce that lingers on the tongue and in your memory.

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Colorful and tasty

Both of the salads on offer are works of art. The Caesar salad is given extra depth with full-textured roast-duck gizzards and a great anchovy-Parmesan dressing. But, this time, we opted for the green salad -- a mix of light salad herbs, scattered with mauve pansy petals and wafer-thin slices of crisp, salty lotus root, given a dressing spiced with yuzu citron and white Kyoto miso.

One of the most commendable features of Restaurant J is that you are allowed to have half-portions of main dishes, or share full servings between two. This gives you much greater flexibility when ordering a la carte -- and also means you can try more of the offerings on the impossibly tempting menu.

So we shared the fish of the day -- fillets of cod given an inspired Japanese treatment. Seared on one side, then steamed until perfectly flaky and moist, the fish was topped with a fritter of shirako (the milt of the same fish), soft, white and rich inside its crisp casing, and scattered with salted paprika. The sauce was a suberb blend of rich chicken consomme was fortified with crab and shiitake dashi, thickened in umani style -- but using kuzu starch, not standard-issue katakuriko.

The meat dishes are no less outstanding. We ordered the venison -- a good cut of Hokkaido deer served on komatsuna greens (a plebeian vegetable but here prepared with verve), with half-moons of beautiful red-tinted koshin daikon, in a powerful gravy made with a jus from the meat, cooked down with plenty of red wine.

And another of our longtime favorites: roast lamb (organic from Colorado) on a bed of mashed potato, with slices of brown mushroom and scattered with fried coriander leaf. The meat was cooked absolutely right -- rare still, but not bloody; the mash was whipped soft, without being too cream-enhanced; on the side, a slice of soft-grilled eggplant topped with hot goat's cheese; and, unifying all, a spicy gravy of tomato and garam masala. Miss this one at your peril.

When it comes to dessert, one strategy is to leave enough room for you to try Ueki's decadent warm chocolate cake, which comes with espresso ice cream, a crisp, vertical sail of butterscotch sugar, a sprig of mint and a daubing of raspberry coulis. But if you're after something less filling, we highly recommend the smooth, light annin (Chinese bitter almond) pudding, adorned with slices of fresh fig and a rich, brown-sugar ice cream.

What is there not to like here? The scale is right; the service is friendly, not obsequious; and, best of all, there is absolutely no background music -- all you hear is the hiss and clang from the open kitchen, accompanied by the most appetizing aromas wafting through the room.

Our only grumble is with the wine list. Split evenly between France and California, it is not so much overpriced (they're all good bottles) as top-heavy. Ueki's food deserves premium wines -- but there's not enough choice under 10,000 yen. That said, our bone-dry Trefethen Riesling (5,800 yen) matched our opening courses perfectly. And the reds by the glass, which went with our meat, were absolutely adequate.

But we'll forgive anyone who has good quotes from the Bible chalked up in their front room. Right now (quite appropriately), the text is from Psalm 23. But before that, it was Psalm 104: "He makes grass grow for the cattle and plants for man to cultivate, bringing forth food from the earth, wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread that sustains his heart."

At Restaurant J, you will be both sustained and gladdened. Isn't that what it's all about?

Restaurant J
AK Bldg. 1F, 4-9-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3796-1144
Open:noon-2:30 p.m. (last order); 6-10:30 p.m. (last order)
Closed:Sunday
Nearest station:Omotesando (Ginza, Hanzomon and Chiyoda lines)
How to get there:Leave Omotesando Station by Exit A2 and walk down Omotesando (toward Harajuku), then turn right at the first stoplight (just past McDonald's). At the end (by Royal Host), turn left and then take the first right. Restaurant J is on the left, at the end of the first block, with its entrance just round the corner on the side street.
What works:Ueki's outstanding cooking; they encourage you to split main dishes.
What doesn't:The wine list is top-heavy with expensive wines. And 1,200 yen for a bottle of Evian?
Number of seats:34
BGM:Absolutely none
Price per head:Lunch courses: 1,500 yen, 2,500 yen and 3,500 yen. Dinner courses: 4,500 yen and 6,000 yen. Also a la carte menu. 10 percent service charge and 5 percent tax added.
Drinks:Beer 500 yen; cocktails from 700 yen; wine 600 yen/glass, from 4,800 yen/bottle; dessert wine from 600 yen/glass; digestifs from 600 yen
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:English/Japanese menu; English spoken
Reservations:Highly recommended, especially early in the evening

On Dec. 23, 24 and 25, Restaurant J is offering a special 15,000 yen, six-course Christmas menu (reservations only), with a la carte also available on Christmas Day.

Please send all comments, queries and feedback to foodfile@yahoo.com


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