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Sunday, May 19, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

A marriage guaranteed to last


Designer dining: It's a minefield in this city. In the past few months, we've sat ourselves down in too many places where the surroundings are flashy but the food is at best ordinary, too often misguided fusion dabblings, and at worst close to inedible. We haven't seen such a major outbreak of style over substance since the plague of excesses in the bad old bubble years.

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Another perfect sushi is born at Hizuki, where cutting-edge style blends with delicious substance.

So we must confess to having approached Hizuki with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, it's new (since March), it's been featured in most of the vernacular magazines, and it has exactly the kind of cutting-edge look that appeals to the late-night crowd for whom ambience is the only requisite and food quality a very distant second on their scale of priorities.

The design references in the first-floor dining area are northern European, with plenty of sleek wood, dark stone and glass. An open kitchen to one side displays just enough steel to let you know they mean business. The walls are paneled, except in the alcoves, which have plush brown padding. The chairs are Scandinavian, chic but comfortable. The lighting is strategic, but not so discreet that you can't identify what you're eating.

A wide wooden counter fills the center of the room, running almost four sides of a square serving area, in the center of which a pillar of coarse, white stone rises up to about waist height. A cylinder of the same diameter but covered with terra-cotta tiles is suspended from a ceiling of opaque back-lit panels. It looks like an altar for some mysterious sacrament -- and in a sense it is. This ichirincharcoal grill is Hizuki's centerpiece, not just in design terms but also as the main focus of its menu. But there are also plenty of other choices on the bilingual menu and, with only a couple of exceptions, everything is prepared to a fine standard. We ordered the basic set course (a reasonable 3,800 yen) to get a feel of what Hizuki does best.

The first dish was simple, unadorned, homemade yose-dofu, a couple of scoops of soft, unpressed curds arranged on a single sasa leaf on a low tray of woven bamboo. A pinch of grated wasabi, a bit of chopped spring onion, a dribble of shoyu or a sprinkle of salt -- when tofu is this good, that's the only seasoning you need.

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The zensai starters were served in small, white containers nestled in a large, square glass bowl filled with ice. There was a creamy chilled soup of tofu and kabocha squash; a bowl of moist yuba, sensuous in texture, its beany flavor balanced by the topping of dark, savory tsukudani of clams infused with ginger; and an incongruous "salad" of chopped hard-boiled egg and cucumber mixed in mayonnaise and served with a couple of sweet, wedge-shaped wafers.

Confronted with this strange sandwich filler, this was the only point in the meal that we felt the storm clouds of concern gathering. But all doubt was quickly assuaged as soon as the black lacquer bowl holding our agemono (deep-fried) course arrived. It was crisp "tempura" of shrimp and mushroom (actually enrobed in a batter of starch and egg white, so closer to Chinese-style fritters), served on a bed of finely shredded scallion and cucumber. Topped with a piquant sauce of creamed tofu, this was not just very tasty, it was proof that Hizuki's kitchen knows what it's doing.

This was followed by a luscious tamago-dofu worthy of a Kyoto ryoriya. The hot, simmered tofu was blended with egg yolk to give a yellowish tint and rich flavor. This came bathed in a smooth ankakesauce flecked with pieces of dark-green iwa-nori seaweed and topped with a small teaspoonful of fresh uni urchin and a couple of slices of pickled myoga (Japanese ginger).

Our choices from the ichirin grill were chicken breast or thigh (with the more expensive 5,800 yen course, the options are wagyubeef or abalone). The jidori was grilled to just the right degree and so well seasoned with salt and black pepper there was no need for any further condiments.

The third star of Hizuki's show is the sushi, which (inevitably) is inside-out nori-maki of the North American persuasion. Again, we were agreeably surprised. The thin rolls contained Atlantic salmon and cucumber, and were decorated with tobiko roe colored green and red. Served with a pile of grated daikon, a small whole deep-fried crunchy river crab and a single iris flower, it scores high marks for presentation.

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More importantly, though, it was so good we ordered another. The Dragon Roll was remarkable: minced salmon mixed with the meat of soft-shell crab, rolled inside-out and then covered in layers of avocado, like green reptilian scales but soft and slithery, and daubed in a sauce of black, sugar-sweetened shoyu. It could have been a disaster, but we rate it among the best new-wave sushi we have eaten.

After a good dessert and plenty of hojicha tea, we left happy, impressed and convinced. Hizuki shows it is entirely possible to marry good looks with quality cooking and to do so at very affordable prices. More than that, it has also restored our faith in the possibilities of designer dining.

That Hizuki manages to solve the equation of style verses substance so effectively becomes less surprising when you know that the man in charge (and its executive chef) is Akira Watanabe, who for some nine years was the head chef at Tableaux. Having declared his independence from the Global Dining Group, he now appears to be emulating it.

He already has a hip cafe/diner near Tokyu Honten, (03) 5790-2944. Now suddenly, he has opened three more operations this week, all in the heart of Nishi-Azabu. Just along the street from Gonpachi, he has opened a second Brava Table, (03) 5770-3109, with a casual Asian-themed dining bar called Majestic, (03) 5770-3187, in the basement below. And just round the corner on Roppongi-dori, Fish Bank, (03) 5468-8364, is a stylish eatery that should be worth investigating.

Hizuki
5-11-2 Shirokanedai, Mianto-ku; Tel: (03) 5798-7492
Open:5 p.m.-5 a.m. (Sunday and holidays 5 p.m.-2 a.m.)
Nearest stations: Shirokanedai (Nanboku-Line) and Meguro (JR, Nanboku and Mekama lines)
How to get there:From Shirokanedai Station (Exit 1), turn left. At the first set of lights, cross Meguro-dori and walk down the left side of Gaien-Nishi-dori (Platina-dori). Take the street running diagonally to the left just after the new Sony Music building and continue all the way to the bottom of the hill. You will see Hizuki on the right just before you hit the main road. From Meguro or Hiroo, it's a short taxi ride.
What works: At last, designer dining with taste and substance
What doesn't:That strange egg salad served with ice cream wafers
Number of seats: 72
BGM: Trad jazz
Price per head:Courses 3,800 yen and 5,800 yen; a la carte also available
Drinks:Cocktails from 800 yen; beer 600 yen; sake from 650 yen; shochu from 700 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 2,800 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; English spoken
Reservations: Advisable



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