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Sunday, April 7, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Harmonizing great food in the key of fine wine


Keen-eyed Nishi Azabu-watchers will have noted the arrival of a whole slew of new restaurants in recent months. The influx has been especially noticeable on the southwest quadrant of the crossing known to old-timers as Kasumicho Crossing and to foreign punsters as Hobson's Choice.

News photo
The appealing entrance to Harmonie

In the space of just one small block, the newcomers include the latest incarnation of Futon (funky Korean shichirin barbecue); Seizan (contemporary Japanese in izakaya mode); an upscale basement "wine salon" called Ageing; and a couple of flash Asian-fusion joints, right on the main Gaien-Nishi drag. Most of the above can be safely ignored as mere backdrops for affairs of the heart. But one place that is entirely serious about satisfying the palate and the stomach is Harmonie.

The appealing, timber-framed facade is enough to pique the interest. Push through the antique wooden doors and you find yourself in a small chamber equipped with a handful of round tables and well-worn chairs in the Parisian style. The cheerful glow of a rotisserie machine draws your eye to the small kitchen at the back. The menu is hand-written on a blackboard in Japanese and French.

So far so appetizing. Make your way up the stairs to the far more spacious second-floor dining room, though, and you will find that Harmonie is much more than a standard-issue bistro. But that is only to be expected when the man at the helm is Jitsuhiro Yamada, whose first restaurant, Marche aux Vins in Minami-Aoyama, helped to pioneer the admirable idea that serious wines don't require chandeliers, cork-dork sommeliers and an Amex gold card. They can be enjoyed just as well with simple French cuisine at bistro prices in a casual setting.

News photo

News photo
Chef/owner Jitsuhiro Yamada (top) stands behind the bar, while the interior offers the discerning diner a welcome spot to treat his appetite.

These days the idea is hardly revolutionary, but back in 1994, when Yamada first started out, it was still new and exciting. And although Harmonie represents a move several notches upmarket, Yamada still remains true to his basic premise. The food is even better (if pricier) and his cellar even more extensive, but the ambience remains as welcoming and unpretentious as a rural hostelry in Bourgogne.

Harmonie's basic 4,500 yen two-course dinner menu offers a choice of six starters, soup as an optional extra, and six main dishes. Since some of the options carry supplementary charges, and dessert and coffee are not included, a better option is to put yourself in Yamada's hands, as we did last week, and go for his 6,000 yen omakase (chef's special) menu.

To accompany our aperitifs, we were brought small saucers holding cubes of smoked duck liver with a dab of papaya sauce. As an hors d'oeuvre, this was tasty enough and served to prime our appetites. But it was no indication of the wonderful first course that arrived next.

A tartare of spring bonito, minced coarsely so the reddish fish still had plenty of texture, was arranged on a mousse of the smoothest light-green avocado, topped with a jelly of savory consomme and garnished with lightly cooked spring vegetables. Delicate, sensuous and beautiful to behold, this was far superior to anything we had ever had at Marche aux Vins. It was served with some good homemade bread rolls, so we could mop up every last drop.

The soup course was a light, frothy potage served in small cappuccino cups. The choice was either onions or garden peas, of which the former was perhaps less successful, as the sweetness of the young onions did not provide an adequate contrast to the soup's creaminess.

Yamada-san has always done great things with fowl, especially his wintertime classic, foie gras-stuffed quail on mashed potato with chestnuts and port sauce, which he does even better than ever at Harmonie. However, on this occasion our course included a delectable dish of Chalon duck that was every bit as good, and better suited to the warmer weather.

Tender and fragrant, it was braised with just the slightest hint of orange and served with courgettes, young onions and fresh morel mushrooms in a balsamico sauce. Yamada believes this Chalon duck, flown in fresh, is the best in all of France. Prepared as well as this, there's no arguing with that.

Food of this caliber demands equally good wine -- and Yamada has the cellar to supply it. In fact his warehouse in Aoyama holds a total stock of 15,000 bottles, virtually all from France and concentrating on Burgundies. Even though he keeps only a fraction of that stock at Harmonie, there is no shortage of choice.

Confusingly, though, the wine list mentions just a score or so of names. Do not be deterred: Mention a price bracket and you will be offered half a dozen varied bottles to choose from. We found a very good Cote Roti in the 8,000 yen bracket, which seemed the right level of splurge for this meal. Alternatively, there are always six reds and the same number of whites available by the glass, too.

The cheese plate -- all French, all at the perfect stage of affinage -- featured the diminitive portions that have become the Tokyo standard. Dessert was a first-rate, no-nonsense creme brulee, given more than a hint of the aroma of Earl Grey tea. However, it must be said, a good reason for ordering a la carte would be to sample the house ga^teau au chocolat or the black-sugar blancmange.

We closed our meal with espresso at the table. An alternative is to adjourn to the ground-floor bar, where you can stand and cradle a snifter of Armagnac or aged Calvados served in one of Yamada's antique Baccarat glasses, while puffing on a Cohiba.

This is the great thing about Harmonie. You can settle in upstairs for a full-scale dinner with a grand cru, or you can sit downstairs and snack on light bistro fare. You can drop by early in the evening for a quick pastis, or linger late into the night, propping up the bar and nibbling on Parma ham, Parmesan cheese or Yamada's incomparable grilled foie gras.

Whichever way you play it, Yamada has assembled a fine little restaurant where all the elements do indeed meld together in a melodious harmony.

Harmonie
4-2-15 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 5466-6655
Open:Lunch noon-2 p.m.; cafe 2-6 p.m.; dinner 6-10:30 p.m.; wine bar 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sundays.
Nearest stations:Hiroo (Hibiya Line); Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Exit 3 of Hiroo Station, walk up Gaien-Nishi-dori in the direction of Nishi Azabu to the third light. Harmonie is on the left, at the corner of the next side street (one short block before Hobson's).
What works:Yamada-san has a great way with his duck and quail and outstanding Burgundies to back them up.
What doesn't:The view of the gas stand across the street is hardly epic.
Number of seats:30 upstairs; 7 downstairs in cafe; standing room for 12 (just) in the bar.
BGM:A barely audible mix of light bossa & jazz.
Price per head:Figure around 6,000 yen (not including your wine); lunch courses from 2,000 yen; 10 percent service charge.
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; wine from 800 yen/glass, 5,000 yen/bottle; spirits from 800 yen.
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:French/Japanese menu; some English spoken.
Reservations: Advisable



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