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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

The sweet smell of distinction


There's nothing new under the sun -- at least it often seems that way at Italian restaurants in Tokyo. This is not to deny that we are blessed with plenty of excellent cucina, just that too many of the places serving it look and feel like clones.

Caffe Aromatica is different. The name suggests it's another coffee shop endowed with a flowery, Italianesque name. The reality is a very stylish little eatery that plays the restaurant game by a different set of rules.

Diminutive is beautiful: a few tables set close together; a short counter along the bar area; and another small dining room downstairs dominated by a mural of the Vatican rooftops.

The idea may be simple, but Aromatica is run like a high-end restaurant. The tables are dressed in good starched linen; the uniformed waitresses are efficient but friendly; the open kitchen is minute, but it's staffed by chefs equipped with very sophisticated cooking skills.

This blurring of distinctions is also evident when you look at the menu. The food choices have been pared down to the minimum -- just one page of pasta and risotto dishes; and another page of desserts. They provide one starter -- the day's plate of antipasti misti -- and absolutely no main courses.

What they do have is an extensive selection of Italian wines, at least 70 of them, categorized by character (fresh, aromatic, spicy, regal, velevety, etc.). Better still, there are almost 20 different half-bottles. And best of all, thanks to a tie-up with the importers, they are being offered at retail prices. We spotted a wonderful 1989 Borolo that would have cost twice the price in any other Tokyo restaurant.

The menu is the same throughout the day, so you can drop in for spaghetti at lunchtime, or a cup of espresso and a gelato in the afternoon. But where Aromatica comes into its own is at dinner time. The food, wine and ambience are good enough to spend several pleasurable hours here.

They construct a very good cocktail, from the simplest (Campari Lime Tonic) to originals such as the Aromafresco No. 12 ("Grappa Fizz," it says in katakana). But you may prefer to start, as we did, with some spumante (they have half-bottles of Franciacorta Brut at 2,200 yen), especially if they are still offering fresh Hokkaido oysters. These are not listed on the menu and are likely to run out if you don't get there early.

Do not fail to order the antipasti. It comes on a square platter divided into four sections, the contents of which will change with the seasons. On our recent visit we were given a carpaccio of modori katsuo (the fatty bonito of autumn), sashimi-quality but dressed with a tomato-based sauce; sliced Parma prosciutto with slivers of sweet, ripe figs; a salad of cold grilled vegetables (chicory, cherry tomato, onion, asparagus, red and yellow peppers); and a morsel of anago eel simmered down in a tremendous consomme.

This was exquisite to look at and tasted even better. There's nothing to stop you sharing one of these plates between two (hey, it's a cafe -- you can split everything). But you will immediately wish you had ordered a whole one for yourself.

You should also figure on at least one pasta dish per person. There are 11 to choose from, and they are so appetizing it's a difficult decision. Running down the menu, they feature sauces made with king crab; organic vegetables; mussels from Mont-St.-Michel; carbonara with white truffles; four kinds of pork tripe; crab with leeks; potato and pesto (ravioli); ragu of eggplant and chicken gizzards with mushrooms; pork and cabbage; boar simmered with burdock and papardele; and guinea fowl with porcini.

We did not regret ordering the penne with tripe (Busecca alla Reggiana). The meat was cooked down in a hearty tomato sauce to just the right melt-in-the-mouth consistency. It was also hearty enough to quell our immediate hunger, while we waited for our next dish to arrive.

Martagliati is a chunky kind of homemade pasta, much like lasagna but cut into random shapes. The ragu it was slathered with was wonderful. The flaked meat of guinea fowl had been pulled off the bone and cooked down in the full-bodied ragu, imbued with the distinctive flavor of porcini mushrooms.

Still we were not done: In lieu of a main dish, we splurged on risotto as well. We were tempted by the idea of ostrich, but decided instead on the Risotto all'Erbe con Quaglia. The rice underneath was creamy and perfectly al dente. On top of this was laid a small but perfectly formed quail, cut into halves. It had been deep-fried, giving the skin a good crispness that was not over oily.

This was a tremendous combination, so satisfying and filling we did not bemoan the lack of any main course. In fact, we even skipped over the dessert page, in favor of a glass of Bertoli dessert wine and a sniff through the grappa list.

The only downside is the location, midway between the towers of Nishi-Shinjuku and the quiet backwaters of Nakano Sakaue. It's not that far from one of the new Oedo subway stops, but for many people this is off the radar. Worse still, it's on a section of Yamate-dori that is currently undergoing major reconstruction.

But this is not deterring the customers. The word is out -- mostly because Aromatica is so good, but also because it's an offshoot of Aroma Fresco, a fine little ristorante in Hiroo that's is currently one of the hottest tickets in town.

That means demand is high for tables at Aromatica. Luckily they have an enlightened reservation policy. You can only book one day in advance, from 11 a.m. the day before.

Caffe Aromatica
Abitashon 1F, 1-4-6 Yayoi-cho, Nakano-ku; tel. (03) 3374-9511
Open:noon-10 p.m. (last order)
Closed:Wednesday
Nearest station:Nishi-Shinjuku 5-chome (Oedo Line)
How to get there:Leave Nishi-Shinjuku 5-chome Station by Exit A2, turn left and walk down to the main road at the end (Yamate-dori). Turn right and make your way past the road construction for two short blocks. Caffe Aromatica is on the ground floor of a new apartment building, with its entrance partly obscured by a small modern shrine.
What works:With pasta as wonderful as this, who cares there are no main dishes?
What doesn't:It's a diabolical location, especially with all the construction work outside.
Number of seats:23
BGM:Ambient Latin vocal jazz
Price per head:Antipasti 1,600 yen; pasta from 1,800 yen; dessert from 700 yen. Figure around 4,800 yen for a three-course dinner (not including drinks).
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; cocktails from 700 yen; wine 600 yen/glass, from 1,800 yen/bottle; dessert wine from 800 yen/glass; grappa from 900 yen.
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese/Italian menu; some English spoken
Reservations:Essential at dinner. Bookings accepted one day ahead (from 11 a.m.) -- and you have to get in there fast!

If you want to check out some of the wines available at Caffe Aromatica, you can drop by the showroom of Vinitialia Japan at the Shibuyabashi Crossing on Meiji-dori near Ebisu Station, 1-1-29 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3498-1690; open: 1-9 p.m. (except Wednesday).


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