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Sunday, April 21, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Coming to your neighborhood soon?
The glowing sign over the door at Fairfax Grill evokes the image of a classic '50s diner. But don't go there hungry for burgers and fries. The North American cooking they serve is done in a far more sophisticated, up-to-the-minute mode.
That's because it's the latest star in the rapidly expanding constellation of restaurants in the Cardenas Group. In fact, if you count the funky, friendly and strictly lower-case fummy's grill in Ebisu (the one that started it all) and discount their outlet in Yamato, Fairfax is the seventh place they've opened in about as many years.
The location, on the edge of the Funamachi/Arakicho pleasure area near Yotsuya San-chome Station, is much less mainstream than their other more recent ventures. But the basic concept remains much the same as ever: modern interiors; laid-back vibes; a fusion-esque cuisine that's attractive and usually successful; a good selection of wines (most from Napa and nearby); and affordable prices.
Long-term fans will be happy to know that Fairfax is much closer in feel to the original fummy's than the overly plush Daikanyama and Ginza branches. The look here is straightforward -- a chic, monochrome, cream-on-cream decor -- and so is the food, which is in the steady hands of chef Hiroki Uematsu (formerly at Cardenas Chinois).
As always, the starters are the tastiest, most inventive section of the menu. We ordered the shrimp cakes -- an old favorite at several other branches -- and were surprised to find that the core of pounded shrimp surimi was breaded and deep-fried in croquette form, rather than nori-wrapped and batter-fried as expected. But it was excellent anyway, served with a softly oozing poached egg and a creamy sauce featuring garam masala spices and (we are told) a dash of Chardonnay.
Based on our undying "try anything once" philosophy, we chose as our second starter the "carzone [sic] of duck meat and chili beans." Imagine, if you can, a thin tortilla folded over to resemble a calzone but stuffed with meat and beans, heated and daubed with a hatched arrangement of green and brown sauces, topped with a scoop of bright green guacamole. It looked like a dessert crepe adorned with matcha ice cream and tasted like a burrito -- not a combination that anyone in Italy would recognize. Nonetheless, it was tasty and substantial enough to make a good alternative main course.
They have a good selection of pastas, plus a cha-soba noodle plate that comes piled up with fine-sliced nori seaweed. But risotto is clearly not their strongest suit: Asian-style beef risotto turned out to be a sloppy porridge, seasoned with Hoisin sauce and topped with salad greens. Our recommendation: Stick with the pasta.
Our main courses, however, were of a much better standard. The grilled whitemeat hobo fish was served with baby potatoes and a colorful combination of bell peppers with onion. We could not identify why it was described on the menu as "Turkish style," but the fig (and Calvados) sauce was very tasty. And so, too, was our grilled shamo (gamecock), the skin of which had been given a honey-and-red-wine glaze, the sauce flavored with garam masala and chutney.
Several observations: Fairfax is not very vertical in its visual arrangement of its dishes, nor very elaborate; the sauces appear to repeat the same flavors too often, especially balsamic vinegar and garam masala; and where is the dynamite, creamy mashed potato that we have come to love and expect since the very first days of fummy's?
On the other hand, the serving sizes are satisfying (by Tokyo standards), and despite the inevitable shouts of greeting that arise anytime anyone walks through the door, the overall mood of the place is bistro-casual.
Does Fairfax up the ante and set new standards for the Cardenas group? Is it romantic? Is the food as good as Charcoal Grill? Negative three times over. Is it a fine place for a fun evening out, where the food doesn't outshine your dining companion(s)? You betcha.
By one of those quirks of coincidence, another of our well-established restaurant groups has also celebrated the opening of its auspicious seventh restaurant this month. Carmine Cozzolino's latest venture is a foray into the quiet residential back streets a stone's throw from the Nishi Azabu Crossing. Not only does this represent a further move upmarket for him, it's also definitely his best to date.
The name -- Don/Carmine -- is not intended to mean that Cozzolino sees himself as the godfather of real cucina italiana in Tokyo (though it's true, he was there virtually at the birth). It's a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that Carmine has brought in longtime Tokyoite Don Morton as the manager-cum-maitre d'. And together they've created a strikingly modern restaurant.
It's a custom-built, glass-fronted building on two floors -- one of which is entirely no-smoking -- with cool white decor offset by a magnificent wooden counter sliced from a single massive piece of timber. The paint was still drying on the walls when we visited and the waiters were still finding their feet, so it's too early to pronounce a definitive assessment. But everything we ate was expertly prepared, with a subtlety and flair that exceeds anything Carmine has achieved to date.
In good measure, this is due to his head chef, Stefano Fastro, who adds to the basic Tuscan repertoire a sensibility of his own. We especially enjoyed his maltagliati (a rough-cut flat pasta) with swordfish and asparagus and a light oil dressing; the pheasant stuffed with his "secret" foie gras mix; and the gubana (a cake of dried fruits and nuts) washed down with good grappa.
Here's a place that seems to have all the right elements in place. Forza Don/Carmine!