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Sunday, April 14, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
And on the seventh day, we dined
Sunday evenings are always the most difficult time for dining out, especially if it's full-fledged Japanese cuisine you're after. With the markets closed and the streets deserted, choices are always limited, even in the most up-market parts of town.
So that is why, at the tail end of last weekend, we felt especially glad to be ensconced in Kappo R. Not only does this basement hideaway in the back streets of Ebisu serve up quality ryori in the Kyoto style seven evenings a week, it manages to do so at reasonable prices and with absolutely no standing on ceremony.
You can tell from the name this is not an establishment of the old school. Kappo (literally "cooking") always signifies a more casual approach to the culinary arts than kaiseki. And that single initial is a sure-fire indicator that a contemporary sensibility rules.
The small bar by the door has an extensive range of spirits and liqueurs. A turntable enclosed in a glass case turns incessantly, the needle tracking the grooves of a Beastie Boys album. Thankfully this turns out to just for show -- in fact, you eat to the barely audible sound of chilled jazzy grooves.
Kappo R is comfortable rather than plush. There is room for 12 at the L-shaped counter by the large open kitchen, tables for another dozen to one side, rather more secluded seating at the back in horigotatsu style (low tables with sunken wells), plus a couple of private rooms (one of which has been given remarkable upholstery of synthetic fur).
The waiters, young and friendly, are better versed in the drinks menu than in the food they serve. The lubrications of choice are cocktails and wine (predominantly French and red). But we were disappointed that the sake selection is so meager and uninspired, since the ryori at Kappo R is straightforward and orthodox, prepared with a light touch, a sure hand and no attempt at cross-cultural fusions.
No doubt many people treat this place as an upscale izakaya, choosing their wine first and then ordering their food a tidbit or two at a time as their appetites dictate. But since the entry-level 4,800 yen set meal seemed such excellent value, we were happy to sit back and let the courses (all eight of them) come.
The zensai (appetizers) were arranged in small, black cups, nestled inside double-decker boxes of well-scrubbed cypress wood. They included minute hotaru ika (firefly squid) on a bed of jade-green wakame seaweed, dressed with white Kyoto miso; orange globes of ikura roe suspended in grated daikon; creamy yuba, almost liquid in consistency, served with a savory dashi and a dab of wasabi; o-hitashi of fresh spring spinach sprinkled with golden sesame seeds; burdock root and fuki (butterbur) stem mixed with flakes of ichimi togarashi chili; and two small balls of rice topped with shrimp.
Bowls of gold and silver makie contained the suimono, a broth of fragrant katsuo dashi lapping around a berg of white-meat fish mixed with slivers of bamboo shoot and steamed in shinjo style. This was garnished with tendrils of warabi bracken and with a blob of red bainiku, the pureed flesh of sour umeboshi plums.
The otsukuri (sashimi) -- madai bream, freshly landed at Sajima, on the the Miura Peninsula, and cubes of indo-maguro (southern bluefin) -- was served on rectangular platters of black, slatelike stone. This was followed by the takimono (simmered dish), covered bowls of frosted, green glass revealing hot ganmodoki balls of mashed tofu with ginkgo nuts and crabmeat.
For the main course, the hassun, we had a choice of charcoal-broiled fish or chicken. The small morsels of white-fleshed tachi-uo (cutlass fish) from Tokyo Bay were light and delicate; while the chunks of free-range Shimane jidori gamecock were firm-fleshed and juicy, their crisped skin lightly scattered with salt and served with a piquant yuzu kosho sauce.
The lacquered eight-sided trays also featured grilled wedges of crunchy, new-season takenoko (bamboo shoots), a couple of bright-green broad beans, a couple of minuscule red shrimp and a slice of lightly pickled white daikon. It was an outstanding combination.
As the final main course -- described on the menu as "our chef's inspiration with the ingredients in season" -- was a mixed tempura of anago eel; one small and rather uninteresting baby ayu (sweetfish); tara-no-me (the fresh bud of the tara tree); and two slices of lotus root, the air pockets stuffed with mentaiko roe and karashi mustard, respectively.
Usually the arrival of rice (asari gohan), akadashi miso soup and pickles signifies the end of the meal, but there was still more to come. We closed with green tea (though we could have had espresso) and a selection of desserts prepared with as much elaboration as you might expect in an upscale French restaurant.
For the whole of that chilly Sunday night, we were the only customers at Kappo R. But we hear that on weekdays the place is invariably packed to capacity. Given the quality of the food here, it is not surprising that they recommend you reserve well in advance.
* * * Two weeks ago we introduced Manuel, the new Macanese/Portuguese bistro in Shoto. By coincidence, a new place by the name of Paradise Macau has just opened in nearby Udagawa-cho. The food is standard-issue izakaya-style Chinese-Asian with only a hint of Portuguese influence, but it's still an agreeable space. You'll find it on a side street just past the B2 entrance of Tokyu Hands (below the new Bar Isn't It) at 39-5 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3780-5231.
* * * Fans of Portuguese cheese should know that Fermier, our premier cheese importers, now stock four varieties, including Quiejo de Nisa, a fragrant ewe's milk cheese reminiscent of a good Manchego. These are available at Fermier's main store (1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku) near Kamiyacho Station, or from their counter in the Food Show basement of the Tokyu Toyoko store in Shibuya. For more information call (03) 5776-7720 or see their Web site www.fermier.fm
* * * Correction: Please note that Helmsdale (reviewed here March 24) is open only in the evenings (6 p.m.-6 a.m.) and not for lunch. For more details, contact them at (03) 3486-4220 or check their Web site at www.helmsdale-fc.com