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Sunday, July 7, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
The pleasure zone is your oyster
Now that the monthlong soccer carnival has samba'd off stage, it's safe to venture back into the heartland of Roppongi again. This is highly welcome, as there are several places that we've been looking forward to trying out -- and top of the list is Hisio, with its newly opened oyster bar.
You'll find it right in the heart of Roppongi's pleasure zone, across from Velfarre and round the corner from One-Eyed Jack. Indeed, the restaurant shares its basement premises with a club that lays on evening entertainment for men. But it's very sophisticated, we are assured, and everything is in the finest of taste -- just like dinner at Hisio, in fact.
Having made your way past the eye-catching and disturbingly life-like mannequins at street level and down a flight of concrete steps, you are ushered through a plush reception area and into the oyster bar. It's a convivial space, brightly lit but intimate in scale, with a couple of tables, some counter seats and booths at the back for those occasions when privacy is paramount.
The focal point of the room is the ice tray, displaying not just seafood but a tempting array of aperitif materials. There's Champagne, of course, of which they offer a substantial range. But the best way to start the evening is with one of their potent martinis constructed around a base of Grey Goose, a French vodka (from the same Cognac region as the great brandies) now justifiably considered the finest in the world.
The provenance of the shellfish will depend on the season. Right now they keep regular stocks of San Riku oysters (from the coast of Iwate Prefecture) in two varieties. Besides magaki (regular Pacific oysters), they also have iwagaki, which are plumper, rounder in shape and more pronounced -- some would say raunchier -- in flavor. They also receive regular shipments of Tasmanian oysters, flown in fresh each Thursday.
You will want to order a couple or more on the half shell, with a squeeze of lemon juice and perhaps some horseradish (or Tabasco, if you must). Paired with a glass of chilled Monbazillac -- a sweet, complex white from the Dordogne more often served as a dessert wine -- there can be few better ways to start the evening anywhere.
Oysters this fresh need absolutely no further ornamentation. But lightly cooked -- baked or deep-fried -- they are every bit as good. What can beat classic oysters Rockefeller or fried oysters with a simple tartar sauce? Well, try them with Hisio's patent Chinese black bean sauce blended with finely chopped ginger. It is outstanding, as are the deep-fried oysters encrusted with sesame seeds and daubed with a delectable sweet-savory sauce which, based on Hatcho miso, tastes like a cross between akadashi and hoisin.
It is entirely possible to construct a whole light meal around the salads, soups and pasta (as well as oysters) before heading on to further entertainments elsewhere. But that would mean missing out on Hisio's main restaurant on the floor below, where up-and-coming chef Kenichi Ando produces some of the most exciting modern cooking in Minato Ward.
It is split into two sections. One end is casual and spacious, with a high ceiling, plenty of foliage and a simple, Southern California feel. At the other end, the decor is chic and elegant in contemporary Manhattan-meets-Asia style, with designer chairs and a view of the gleaming kitchen. Lighting and music are kept at appropriate levels.
The wine is served in Riedel glasses. They have a substantial and well-chosen list, with emphasis on lesser-known Californian bottles in the mid- to upper-price range. It's worth asking what else they have in their cellar, as there are often some more unusual wines kept in reserve or in such limited quantities they haven't bothered to list them.
Chef Ando spent several years at Spago in Los Angeles, and his menu occupies a similar territory. His influences are pan-Asian, as you would expect. His devotion to top-quality ingredients -- including organic produce from the Uenohara farm in Yamanashi -- prepared without over-elaboration reflects the best of Japan and California.
Our appetites well-primed with oysters, we followed up with a couple of appetizers. First a plate of sweet, plump Japan Sea prawns served in a lightly jellied consomme scattered with morsels of avocado and bell peppers in chilled gazpacho style (though with no tomato in sight). Attractive to the eye, simple and refreshing on the palate, this was just the ticket for the humid summer conditions outside.
Ando's smoked duck is even better. It is served in the Peking style, with miniature crepes, slivers of vegetables and thick, soy-based sauces. But he uses French duck (from Challans) lightly smoked in-house; his pancakes are made with buckwheat flour, like smaller, lighter-colored versions of Breton galettes; and besides the classic thick, black Chinese tenmenjang, he also offers a lightly spiced Korean kochujang.
As main courses, you choose from Maine lobster, Tasmanian salmon, U.S. beef, free-range chicken from Nagano, lamb, pork, Barbary duck or fish -- all cooked over the charcoal grill. Our fish, grouper, was cooked absolutely perfectly, lightly seared across its moist, white flesh, accompanied only by lemon and some extra olive oil.
The rack of lamb was marinated and encrusted in a thick coating of herbs and grilled just the way we ordered it (not a usual occurrence in Tokyo, by any means). It arrived with a wonderful selection of vegetables -- good roast spuds; creamy but not overly dairy-rich mashed potato; deep-fried slices of lotus root, baby corn and fresh tomato. It is deceptively hard to produce food that is so simple but satisfying. Hats off to Ando-san.
Hisio also does some fine desserts. For the month of July, they are offering a complimentary selection (either a fruit-based tart or chocolate cake). If they are as good as our slithery-soft mango pudding in lemon-grass-infused coconut milk, then you cannot go wrong.
There has always been good, upper-end dining in Roppongi, but not enough of it and often not accessible without the right connections. Hisio is a very welcome addition to the neighborhood.