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Sunday, May 12, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Natural quality, Acquavino style
You don't get to become a successful restaurateur without knowing exactly what it is that people want. As the man behind the Acquapazza and Mangia Pesce stable of ristoranti, chef Yoshimi Hidaka helped to define the new high-end Italian cucina of the cash-flush 1990s. Now he shows he is equally in tune with the more parsimonious, light-eating, health-conscious values of the new decade.
Case in point: lunch at Acquavino, Hidaka's latest venture down at the far end of Hiroo's friendly little shotengai shopping street. The main constituent of the one-dish special menu -- known as the piatto unico -- is not butter-rich, tomato-infused risotto but simple, natural brown rice.
Granted, this is very different from the kind of heavy, chewy grain most of us associate with earnest health-food eateries. In fact, it is likely to be the tastiest genmai you have ever eaten. Cooked together with a sprinkling of wild rice, small brown lentils and golden chickpeas, it is not just attractive to look at, it has a bright, nutty aroma that is wholesome and appetizing.
Presented on a large oval platter, this rice is flanked on one side by lightly sauteed greens and on the other by a sauce-rich preparation of well-cooked meat, fish or vegetables -- much like curry rice, in fact, but based around Italian herbs rather than Indian spices. Last week the meat option was soft-cooked morsels of chicken simmered down with chunks of carrot and lotus root in a white, soymilk-based sauce. It was very good and satisfying. It also appears to be exceedingly popular with Acquavino's clientele, who are predominantly well-heeled and female.
The innovation does not stop there. Look in the glass-fronted deli counter and you find an array of colorful salads and cold antipasti served up on small individual-size dishes. These self-styled piattini range from familiar Mediterranean staples -- red peppers steeped in olive oil or mushroom quiche -- to some pretty unlikely hybrids.
Sliced lotus root sauteed with anchovy; hijiki seaweed dressed with balsamico; or even kiriboshi daikon (shredded daikon radish that's been dried and reconstituted) doused in a fiery-red arabiata sauce. Not all of these intriguing combinations are totally successful. But at just 400 yen each, you can afford to be adventurous in putting two or three of them together for a light snack.
Acquavino is more than just a chic, up-to-the-minute lunch spot. It also functions as a caffe and, later in the day, as a casual neighborhood trattoria-cum-wine bar. The range of possibilities are detailed on four separate blackboards. There are the food specials, all rather more orthodox Italian dishes priced over 1,000 yen; a dozen or so wines, available by the glass or bottle; seven Chinese teas, including some rare and pricey varieties; and more than a dozen different grappa.
All these make it feasible to drop in for a drink and a snack on your way home from work. Or you can settle in, as we did, with a bottle of good wine for a lengthier meal. We began with two of the specialties of the house -- bagna cauda,delicate vegetable sticks served with a pot of warm garlic-anchovy sauce; and a delectable fritti of mixed small fish, shrimp and a whole (though small) octopus, its bulbous head full of rich ink.
From the blackboard we chose the steamed spring vegetables, tender young fava beans, sprouting broccoli and garden peas in their pods, anointed with a fragrant butter sauce and covered with fine shards of peccorino cheese. This is the kind of preparation that is Hidaka's trademark -- light, straightforward and glisteningly fresh.
We were less impressed with our main dish, mainly because they had run out of our first choice and had to settle for a rather oversalted preparation of chicken. But we were mollified by a plate of very good grilled Caciovallo cheese (produced not in Sicily but here in Japan, we were told) to go with the excellent bottle of Tuscan red we had chosen.
With its glass frontage, simple modern furniture and bistro-style tables out front on the sidewalk, Acquavino is spacious and airy, stylish but casual, and totally accessible. It's also very affordable, in contrast to the main Acquapazza, the latest incarnation of which occupies the basement below.
It matters little that the waiters are not yet totally clued up and that some of the fusions are overly experimental. What is constant in everything that Hidaka does is his unwavering equation of quality, simplicity and style. Here at Acquavino, he has done it again.