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Sunday, Feb. 3, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

You're the tops, baby


There's not long to go till we see off the cold days of winter with pagan festivities of fertility and wild abandon -- no, not Mardi Gras and the Rio Carnival but the ritual observances of St. Valentine's Day. Some people like to send out cards; others mark the occasion through the selfless receiving of chocolate. The Food File, however, is a firm believer in the Western tradition, in which romance is inseparably linked with the pleasures of the table.

In our book, it is not absence (and certainly never abstinence) that makes the heart grow fonder, but the magic, aphrodisiac, synergistic properties of food, alcoholic lubrication and a setting that is suitably atmospheric -- though not necessarily in that order. You could do a lot worse than to kick-start your romantic intentions for the evening with some light bites and a few drinks in the cocooning luxury of an exclusive high-rise bar.

Until recently, our options have been limited -- where else was there to go than the unrivaled (but hard to reserve) New York Bar, at the very pinnacle of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Nishi-Shinjuku? Thankfully, we have a better range of choices now, especially with the arrival of the Tower's Bar Bellovisto, which opened last year on the 40th floor of the Cerulean Tower.

Here's a place that's worth getting dressed up for. It's sleek and elegant, the chic lines of the decor enhanced by the subtle lighting. Orders are taken with a well-oiled professionalism, but there is little of the blandness you associate with hotels (at least until the cocktail piano starts up around 7:30 each evening).

And the view is magnificent. The huge windows span the skyline, from the syncopated lights of Shinkuju as far as the quaintly retro orange glow of Tokyo Tower and, right below, the neon streets of Shibuya, close enough to make out the details, yet far enough away they almost look exotic. Indeed, from this altitude, the whole city starts to looks romantic.

As you'd expect, the Bellovisto boasts a substantial and sophisticated drinks list. Tellingly, the cocktails are grouped into sections not according to their base liquors but by their alcohol content (0-5 at the bottom, 31-40 at the upper end) -- select your own speed of seduction/inebriation. They also construct some excellent champagne cocktails. The eponymous Cerulean Tower is beautifully blueberry-tinted and sharp and reviving.

They also keep an extensive if not overly adventurous wine cellar. With over 100 bottles to choose from, including 20 offered by the glass, you may find yourself seriously tempted to settle in here for a whole evening -- especially as there are plenty of good victuals to complement the wine.

Unlike most other hotel bars, where you're lucky to find any sustenance other than mixed nuts, jerky or the inevitable microwaved pizza, Bellovisto has a surprisingly broad food menu. In volume, they're little more than glorified bar snacks, pretty but not hugely substantial. But there's quite enough variety for you to fashion a coherent light meal without feeling the need to venture further afield.

To get an idea what they're capable of, just try the deep-fried rolls of sea urchin and crab. These are long, slim cigars, like a delicate take on a spring roll (but made from the wrappings for won ton or possibly Tunisian brik), the crisp exterior housing fresh, tender seafood, topped with plenty of chopped fresh tomato, good olive oil and no skimping on the garlic. Sliced into five bite-size morsels, they are tasty and subtle -- we would give these top marks if they had arrived at the table at a slightly higher temperature.

Curiosity impelled us to sample the Tower's Salad 2002 Style, a deluxe concoction of over 20 ingredients, priced at 2,002 yen. A colorful array of mixed vegetables and seafood is stacked up inside a tall glass cylinder, which is brought in with a flourish before being divvied up and served at the table. But this is not just a floor show. The leaves are crisp and fresh, the shrimp, crab and scallop are all first rate, and the dressing is light but well-flavored.

There are several hot meat dishes, including a seasonal beef stroganoff that looked most appetizing. We instead sampled the fish of the day -- kuromutsu steamed in butter and wine sauce with assorted mushrooms, negi onions and asparagus, the juices kept in by the paper wrapping in which it's cooked. The white meat of the fish was beautifully tender and, again, if it had only been slightly hotter when it reached us, we would have called it perfect.

In the final analysis, the Tower's Bar Bellovisto is best treated not as a final destination for dinner but as a starting point. It's a sundowner spot, a place to watch the moon rise and to plan the rest of the evening.

This strategy is enhanced by the fact that they will take reservations -- try for one of the five tables a deux right next to the windows -- but only if you can arrive before 7 p.m. After that time it's first-come, first-seated. Be warned: That inevitably means the kind of long wait that can suffocate all romantic intentions.

Tower's Bar Bellovisto
Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, 40F, 26-1 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3476-3398
www.ceruleantower-hotel.com
Open:4 p.m.-midnight (last order); Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 3 p.m.-midnight
Nearest station:Shibuya (JR Yamanote, Tokyu Toyoko, Keio Inokashira, Ginza and Hanzomon lines)
How to get there:Leave Shibuya Station by the Tokyu Plaza Exit, turn left, take the pedestrian overpass and head up the left side of Route 246. Cerulean Tower is the massive skyscraper on the left. The elevator to Bellovisto is in the main lobby of the hotel.
What works:Brilliant night-time vistas; cocktails for every mood
What doesn't:The food prices are calibrated at hotel levels.
Number of seats:95
BGM:Nothing intrusive until the cocktail piano starts up.
Price per head:About 3,000 yen for a few snacks (not including drinks).
Drinks:Beer from 1,000 yen; wine from 900 yen/glass, 4,500 yen/bottle; sake from 1,100 yen; shochu from 1,000 yen; spirits from 1,000 yen
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; English spoken
Reservations:Accepted until 7 p.m.

Another of our favorite, mellow sundowner spots is the bar attached to Shunju, in the Sanno Park Tower (right above Tameike-Sanno subway station). It's chic but not cold, intimate without being overbearing and, even though it's only just over halfway up the building, you still get to see plenty of nighttime neon. The yuzu cocktails are not to be missed.

Shunju Tameike-Sanno-ten, Sanno Park Tower Bldg. 27F, 2-11-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 3592-5288. Open 5-11 p.m. (last order 10 p.m.).

The aforementioned New York Bar shares the same spectacular high-altitude space and stunning rooftop views (not to mention the extensive cellar of Californian wines) as the adjoining New York Grill. They offer light snacks and light jazz sessions -- and look out for their special wine promotions.

The New York Bar, Hotel Park Hyatt Tokyo 52F, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel (03) 5323-3458. Open 5 p.m.-midnight (Sunday and holidays, 4-11 p.m.); 1,700 yen cover charge from 8 p.m. (Sunday and holidays from 7 p.m.).


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