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Sunday, June 23, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Eating out on Roppongi's new beat


With its in-your-face frontispiece of steel and glossy orange, there's little chance that you'd walk past the arrestingly named B*EAT without giving it at least a second glance. But, for the benefit of those short of sight or of attention span, they declare their manifesto in upper-case letters: "This is a new Ra~men place. Feel a new style noodle shop."

News photo
News photo
News photo
B*EAT is not your ordinary greasy-spoon noodle joint, as it caters to the more sophisticated slurper.

And indeed it is a new style. Forget all those greasy, dingy holes in the wall populated by slurping students and worse-for-drink salarymen. And say sayonara to those same old predictable flavors so redolent of postwar Showa Japan. At long last here's a venue that drags ramen kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The interior is hip Tokyo meets Lower Manhattan modern. The street-level noodle bar boasts a bright-orange counter where you perch on bar stools. An oval-shaped glass table is set with half a dozen designer chairs. A stylish arrangement of glass jars filled with Chinese tea adorns a side wall, and panels of sleek steel surround the short-order kitchen, while the rest of the room is covered in panels of glass etched with further slogans of intent.

The second-floor dining room, reached by a curving staircase, is decked out in cool cream tones, with a curious arrangement of metal-bead curtains that tries (without great success) to break up the space into a more intimate configuration. There's a small private cubicle over on one side. And if the cluster of tables with their glittery metallic tops are all occupied, you can bide your time at the semicircular bar counter.

The floor staff dress in black and the sound system emanates a contemporary groove of bossa nova and beats. The lighting is cocktail-lounge indirect, with the constant flicker of the Roppongi night filtering through the picture windows. The basic premise is immediately clear. This is not a slurp-and-run joint -- it's the kind of environment where you are encouraged to stay and chill for a while.

But clearly they don't want you hanging out all evening, and that is no doubt why they have kept their drinks list quite basic. There's beer, and wine (adequate Chilean plonk, red or white, both chilled) by the glass or bottle. The cocktails are not outstanding but neither are they overpriced.

The menu is printed out (in English and Japanese) on tabloid-size newsprint. And, as you will have suspected already, there is plenty to choose from besides noodles. Alongside the ramen, they also offer a range of dim sum and spicy Southeast Asian-influenced tidbits.

We started with a plate of their original dumplings, small pan-fried gyoza potstickers stuffed with tofu and nira greens. We followed that up with egg rolls (deep-fried spring rolls) whose stuffing was imbued with a Thai-style green curry flavor. They were crisp, tingly spicy and surprisingly tasty.

Examine the dim sum category, and you'll find more exotic touches. Tom yam kung manju buns are a novel hybrid indeed, but the experiment works well, thanks to the distinctive presence of lemongrass in the mix alongside the finely minced meat and shrimp.

The B*EAT Salad is only unconventional in the context of a ramen shop. It's a standard-issue green salad (with lettuce, radishes, onion rings and cucumber spears) spiced up with a scoop of egg-mayonnaise salad and crisp, deep-fried ramen scattered on top for extra texture, and served with a French dressing.

Ramen aficionados -- and there are thousands of them out there -- will not find too much to complain about at B*EAT. The basic choices are shoyu or miso (what the menu calls "Bean Sprouts taste"), with or without charshu BBQ pork slices; and you can specify either regular or small ("Light") portions. The noodles themselves are more wholesome than usual, with a dark color and chewy texture. The broth is clear and light-tasting, and the sliced BBQ pork is excellent. The bowl is topped up with plenty of chopped scallions, bean sprouts and fried garlic. In all, this is definitely superior ramen.

More unusually, they also offer kama-age ramen, a style more commonly associated with udon noodles, in which the hot noodles arrive on a bamboo tray with a separate dipping sauce. The most outrageous variation, though, is the chilled ramen salad, topped with bacon bits and French dressing. Unorthodox it may be, but we found it to be light, tasty and just the ticket as a midday snack.

At heart, though, this is inconsequential food, albeit accomplished with lashings of style and a sense of fun. In a couple of years, when the paintwork gets scuffed and the novelty wears off, B*EAT is likely to lose its edge. For the moment, though, this is the best-dressed, hippest noodle shop in town -- and the good news for clubbers is that it stays open until the wee hours, seven days a week.

B*EAT
4-12-7 Roppongi, Minato-ku; (03) 5770-4840
Open:Daily 11 a.m.-5 a.m.
Nearest station:Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Roppongi crossing, walk up Gaien-Higashi-dori in the direction of Nogizaka. B*EAT is on the right just after the second small side street (and right across the road from Starbucks).
What works:Finally someone has made ramen hip.
What doesn't:The cocktails tend toward the sweet end of the spectrum.
Number of seats:44
BGM:Eclectic rhythms with Euro-bossa beats
Price per head:Ramen from 550 yen; dim sum and side dishes from 480 yen; cover charge 300 yen
Drinks:Cocktails 680 yen; beer from 600 yen; wine 600 yen/glass, 2,400 yen/bottle
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; little English spoken
Reservations:Accepted (but they'll still make you wait until a table frees up)

Another new face has arrived on that very same block -- in fact just down the street toward the main Roppongi Crossing. Trung Nguyen (pronounced Choong Gwen) is Vietnam's answer to Starbucks, and its mission is to hook Japan on drinking coffee the way it's done in Saigon.

Vietnam has become one of the top coffee producers in the world and now grows a good range of varieties, from basic robusta to high- quality arabica. But it is the way they brew the drink that distinguishes Vietnamese coffee from the rest of the pack.

The coffee grounds are placed in special aluminum filters placed on top of the cup, which are filled with hot water. You then have to summon up some patience until the coffee has finished dripping through, a process that leaves it less than piping hot. But it's worth the wait, especially if you order one of Trung Nguyen's top-of-the-line varieties.

Our favorite is the one known simply as Chon. At 550 yen a cup, it's not cheap, but the rich, dark flavor is exquisitely bittersweet. It also packs a powerful caffeine punch that lifts you up and powers you through the day without leaving you jittery. Their regular hot coffee is a more reasonable 330 yen for black, 30 yen more for a dollop of sweet condensed milk to give it a milder flavor and an extra sugar kick.

They also have a small selection of Vietnamese snacks (sandwiches and goi cuon spring rolls) and desserts, most of them coconut flavored. The sound system plays Vietnamese pop, which occupies a sonic territory that will be familiar to anyone who knows the music of Thailand or Hong Kong.

The furnishings have a vaguely tropical feel to them, but with few overt ethnic trimmings. Unfortunately, the shop front is not open to the street. That deprives customers of prime people-watching opportunities, but also shuts out the noise and car emissions -- which here, at ground zero in Roppongi, are probably as high as they'd be in Ho Chi Minh City.

Trung Nguyen, 4-9-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku, (03) 5785-2020, www.trungnguyencafe.com


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