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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Delicious plum choices from 2001


In a city the size of Tokyo, it is simply impossible to visit every single new restaurant or to keep track of changes at all the established places. For that reason, the Food File does not presume to assign year-end rankings or pronounce its best-of lists for the year, especially since, in the end, it is just a matter of subjective preference and personal taste.

Nevertheless, as the holidays approach and we sit back, pleasantly stuffed from the seasonal excesses, this is always an appropriate moment to pause, reflect and sift back through the lees of our gustatory memories -- not just the restaurants but also the food shops, cafes, pubs and relevant reading matter that have impressed us over the past 12 months.

And so, this week and next, the Food File will be sticking in a thumb and pulling out a few of its choicest plums from the past 12 months.

Best new boulangerie: The opening of a good new bakery is always welcome news in Tokyo. But we were especially pleased to hear of the arrival of Maison Kayser. Just a minute's walk from the new Shirokane-Takanawa subway stop, it's a friendly shop perfumed with the warm aroma of bread fresh from the oven.

The master, Shuichiro Kimura, learned his trade under one of the top boulangers in Paris, Eric Kayser, whose croissants were recently declared the best in the city by the French daily Le Figaro. Kimura has learned his craft well and makes an excellent croissant, light but with plenty of body, rich but not too buttery. However, his main specialty is his bread -- more than 25 different kinds -- all made by the traditional process using natural leavening in place of regular yeast.

Besides the standard baguettes, he bakes a range of breads incorporating different grains, nuts, seeds, olives or dried fruit. Best of all is his Tourte, a large round loaf made in peasant style using wholesome, unrefined flour. Its full-bodied texture makes a perfect match with a thick potage or smeared with rillette, goat's cheese or perhaps just some plain unsalted butter.

Kimura also produces an excellent array of patisseries, including half a dozen varieties of tart -- among which our personal favorites are the rich, insistent chocolate and the irresistible Tarte Monge, with its topping of red berry fruits.

Boulangerie Maison Kayser Japon, 1-4-21 Takanawa, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3446-2110. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Nearest station: Shirokane-Takanawa (Mita/Nanboku lines Exit No. 2)

Best new coffee shop: If you think coffee culture in Seattle begins and ends with Starbucks and Tullys, then you're in for a very pleasant and eye-opening surprise. The newly opened Macchinesti doesn't look significantly different, but the quality of the java it serves certainly is. In everything but name, it is a clone of Vivace, almost universally considered the finest coffee shop in Seattle.

Not that Starbucks will be worried yet. Macchinesti's location, out past Nissin supermarket in Azabu Juban, is hardly mainstream, and the interior is bright but generic (to put it kindly). But the flavor of the coffee is superb, addictive even. Every step of the process has been optimized, from selecting, roasting and blending the beans to filtering the water and the presentation of the end product -- the coffee in your cup.

We are not anticipating success on the Starbucks level -- indeed we pray it will never attain that level of bland commercialization. But what we are hoping is that a small network of franchises evolves, sets up in more convenient parts of town, so we don't have to travel so far to obtain our regular fix.

Cafe Macchinesti, 2-29-8 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3589-5602. Nearest station: Akabanebashi (Oedo Line, Nakanohashi Exit).

Best book on Japanese food: Ever wanted to know the difference between the three types of millet grown in Japan -- awa, hie and kibi? The distribution and maximum size of of Hanasaki and taraba crabs? The English name for kanpachi? The protein content of minke whale? Then clearly you need a copy of "Shokuzai-zuten."

First published in 1995, this hugely informative, fully illustrated encyclopedia was reissued this year in two volumes, with the cute English title "Food's Food." It doesn't even start to hint what the contents are.

If you have any interest in local cuisine, then Volume I is the one for you. It gives a comprehensive introduction about virtually every animal and vegetable used in Japanese cooking. Besides the gadzillion different marine organisms that form such an important component of the diet, it also covers land-based animal foods along with Japan's massive cornucopia drawn from the vegetable kingdom -- beans, vegetables, fruit, berries and grains -- not to mention herbs, spices and traditional seasonings.

This is not an academic text, but a thorough layman's explanation of where each of these foods comes from and how it is used in the diet. Although the text is entirely in Japanese, most entries give the English equivalents (where they exist) and sometimes those in other European languages, too. It's not particularly cheap, but for anyone who has a certain proficiency in the language and has ever wondered what exactly it is they have been eating here, this is an essential addition to your book shelves.

Shokuzai-zuten (Food's Food), published by Shogakukan (Tokyo), 383 pp. 5,912 yen.

Best crosscultural recipe book: No, not the Nobu cookbook -- though that does contain plenty of appetizing tidbits. However, we found our interest was piqued just as much by Eric's Kitchen, an attractive and inventive collection of recipes put together by longtime resident Eric Gower.

Incorporating plenty of local Japanese ingredients into a Western (most Italian-influenced) framework, Gower's recipes are quick, simple, healthy and -- most important -- they work.

Although it has been published in Japanese only, under the title "Erikku-san-chi no daidokoro," do not despair. Gower has a nicely put together Web site giving most of the recipes in English.

"Erikku-san-chi no daidokoro" ("Eric's Kitchen"), Kadokawa Shoten, (Tokyo). Web site: www.ericskitchen.com

Best Book on Food (any language): Undoubtedly the publishing highlight of the year for any foodie has got to be the publication by Cambridge University Press of its "World History of Food." It was a such a massive undertaking it had to be issued in two heavy tomes, each weighing in at 1,000 pages.

The blurb sums it up best: "The most comprehensive reference book on food ever published." Far more than you will ever need to know on anything that humans have ever eaten, it has to be the food reference book of the millennium.

"The Cambridge World History of Food," Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge) in two volumes, $175.


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