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Sunday, March 3, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Substance with style on the side


Any fashion boutique worth its salt has a cafe attached these days. Offering cappuccinos and cheesecake is, after all, a good way to draw reluctant window-shoppers through the doors. Too often, though, style wins out over substance. The requisite ambience is installed along with the espresso machine, but it's all froth and no flavor. Here are two new places, however, that are definitely worth knowing about.

News photo
News photo
Originality reigns not only in the high design of The Conran Shop, but also on the menu of its in-store cafe.
ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

We had always been surprised by the lack of an adjoining eatery at The Conran Shop in Nishi-Shinjuku -- especially given the growing international stable of restaurants owned by London-based founder/design guru Terence Conran. Perhaps they were just taking their time to make sure they did it right. Now Tokyo's mecca for design devotees has an eatery that lives up to the company lineage and its upmarket address in the Shinjuku Park Tower.

The Conran Shop Cafe, which opened in November, is a textbook example of contemporary design married with simple, well-executed light meals and drinks. From its cream-on-cream logo on the wall outside to the chic, pastel-colored chairs and light-wood tables, here, the design medium is the message.

The score or so of tables are arranged in an organic, nonlinear pattern around a small central "garden" composed of grass and pebbles. The large window looks out toward the greenery of parkland. Ambient jazz plays softly. A nonsmoking section has been created well off to one side. Books with titles such as "Eco Chic: Organic Living" and "The Minimalist Garden" adorn the walls and the shelves that rise up in the center of the room.

There are few surprises on the menu. It revolves around salads, soups and sandwiches, curry and a pasta dish or two. These are staples at most cafes of this ilk -- the difference here is that the Conran Shop presents them with a good side helping of originality.

Their curry rice is, arguably, the best in Tokyo. Well-flavored with cinnamon, clove and cardamom (plus, they say, nine other spices), but not overly hot with chilis, it contains generous chunks of well-cooked chicken plus carrot and potato. What puts it in a class of its own is the rice it is served with. They mix in enough kodaimai (a dark-red strain popular in parts of Southeast Asia) to tinge the rice a beautiful and highly auspicious shade of purple. Instead of the usual technicolor array of pickles, you are given small servings of yellow sweet corn, gherkins cut into small cubes and similar-size cuts of cheese.

The pasta dishes are perhaps less remarkable. But they construct an excellent salad of the day (topped with strips of tender duck breast or chicken), and the open sandwich (chicken and organic vegetables) is laid out on nicely browned toast.

These are available on an a la carte basis throughout the day. But at midday on weekdays (11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.), they also offer two-course meals featuring most or all of the above for 1,000 yen. Add to this a cup of spicy chai (650 yen) and their espresso creme brulee (450 yen), and you have the makings of a very satisfactory meal.

At lunchtime, the Conran Shop Cafe is mostly filled with office workers from the tower above. The rest of the time it is patronized by well-heeled shoppers from the parent shop who sip on Bunzan Hoshu Chinese Tea, served in miniature Yixing pots along with generous refills of hot water; and by hip, young folk who drop by to the Ozone gallery for design shows and who have discovered the excellent gin and tonics.

"I like to think that design is 98 percent common sense," says Sir Terence. The Conran Shop Cafe here in Tokyo certainly achieves that -- with an extra percentage point or two of creativity on top.

The Conran Shop Cafe, Shinjuku Park Tower 3F, 3-7-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, tel: (03) 5322-6443, Web site: www.conran.ne.jp Open 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. (Friday, Saturday, Sunday 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.). Closed Wednesday.

Shinjuku Park Tower is a 10-minute walk along Koshu-kaido from Shinjuku Station (take the South Exit and turn right). A free shuttle bus service runs from outside the Shinjuku El Tower (opposite Odakyu) near the station's West Exit (Exit 20 from the underground concourse).

Meanwhile, down in Yurakucho, a very different but no less noteworthy cafe opened late last year. Meal Muji, the first full-fledged venture into the restaurant business by the Mujirushi Ryohin empire, forms the centerpiece of the company's new flagship store right across the JR tracks from the sleek glass facade of the Tokyo International Forum.

News photo
News photo
Complementing the no-brand, no-nonsense reputation of Mujirushi Ryohin, Muji Meal offers a simple, good-value range of dishes.
ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

As much of the world knows by now, the "no-brand brand" espouses a simple, straightforward, almost Scandinavian design ethic dressed in no-frills, low-cost packaging. Not only does Meal Muji exemplify this approach, it is (like everything this company touches) exceptionally well-thought-out to the last detail.

With its glass walls and soaring ceiling beams, this is one of the most spacious dining areas you will find outside of a major hotel. The high walls are decorated with rows of jars of colorful beans and pasta. The open kitchen gleams with spotless stainless steel. The bevy of cooks and serving staff bustle around wearing black baseball caps.

It's a self-service cafeteria. You pick up what you want from the bakery section or the deli canteen, and you bus your own tray back when you've finished. This not only keeps the overheads (and prices) down, it exemplifies the whole Muji philosophy. The idea is nothing new -- think Andersen's in Omotesando, but on a massive, airy scale -- but the sheer size and professionalism of Meal Muji is still hugely impressive, and so are the prices.

Throughout the day, the bakery turns out a tasty selection of sandwiches (all 280 yen) and desserts. Their mini baguettes stuffed with prosciutto and rocket or salmon and sour cream are good value. Ko-aji nanbanzuke (two small fish deep-fried whole and marinated in an overly salty dressing) does not make a successful filling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the egg-mayo sandwich in speckled sesame bread.

To wash these down, there's a well-priced selection of beers from regional breweries -- Echigo Beer in cans for 400 yen; Yokohama Beer (weizen or pilsner) in bottles for 500 yen -- plus wine by the glass and prosecco in mini-bottles. Coffee goes for 250 yen, as does the hot soy milk, while a pot of tea is 300 yen.

The menu expands at lunch and dinner. For 650 yen you can choose four items from the deli case -- the selection includes fish, chicken wings, steamed organic vegetables, salads and intriguing deep-fried nuggets of Parmesan-flavored tofu -- plus rice or bread.

They also serve three substantial main dishes: a Korean-style donburi, topped with a soft poached egg; a Nanbu-dori and negi (leek) donburi; and a very acceptable curry-rice platter, with a good amount of their steamed organic vegetables on the side. It's not gourmet fare, but it's satisfying and, at 580 yen, excellent value.

It's the small points that make Meal Muji worth the detour. The whole space is a no-smoking zone; they have special chairs for young children; they offer an unusual range of oils and condiments (nam plaa and Okinawa-style chili-marinated vinegar).

And before you leave, check out the food section of the retail store next door. One wall is filled with organic breakfast cereals, pasta, beans and a huge selection of teas (black, green, Chinese, herbal). The freezer holds 23 kinds of dim sum, seven flavors of tortillas and various frozen nan, pita and focaccia. There are half a dozen different flavored olive oils, and a great selection of the traditional Japanese snack foods that go so well with sake. Muji never does anything by halves.

Meal Muji, Infoss Yurakucho 2F, 3-8-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5208-8241, Web site: www.mujIyurakucho.com. Open daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (lunch deli counter 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.). The Muji Yurakucho store is on the opposite side of the JR tracks from the Tokyo International Forum. Nearest stations: JR Yurakucho (Kyobashi Exit) and Yurakucho Line, Yurakucho (Exit A9).


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