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Sunday, July 21, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Basement beats and eats
So what do hip young French eat when they go out clubbing these days? Actually, that's a trick question. Nobody feels like eating much when there is a first-rate DJ working the turntables. But that doesn't mean there's nothing worth eating on the menu at La Fabrique Paris, the cutting-edge club-cum-diner that opened earlier this year in the heart of Shibuya.
Given its lineage -- it's the offshoot of an equally of-the-moment DJ restaurant in the rapidly gentrifying Bastille district of Paris -- and from its name ("The Factory"), you would expect it to occupy some refurbished warehouse. But post-industrial red brick is hard to find in central Tokyo, so they've gone one better by taking over the cavernous basement space underneath Zero Gate. This arresting, glass-enclosed building, the latest in the Parco family of fashion boutique mini-malls, fits La Fabrique to a tee. It is intelligent, sophisticated, cool, European -- everything, in fact, that the youthful hustle of nearby Center-gai is not.
Make your way down two flights of stairs and slide back the silver metal door: You can't help but be impressed by the scale of the place. Along one wall, a loft-style mezzanine lounge area has been built from shiny metal scaffolding way up under the ceiling. On the opposite side of the room, giant wall-high video projections of anonymous Paris street scenes flicker in never-ending loops. Beats fill the air, though never at levels that intrude or make conversation impossible.
Obviously, this is not a destination for a serious haute-gourmet banquet. Most people are happy to nurse their drinks, nibble on snacks and imbibe the heady buzz of the place. And yet food is always an important part of the equation in France, and this is equally true at La Fabrique, at least during the early evening hours. Take over one of the tables on the raised dais under the scaffolding, and settle in for the evening.
The menu, which we are told mimics that of the Paris original, has a la carte selections running the usual gamut from entrees (starters) through plats (main dishes) to desserts and fromages. Portion sizes tend to the diminutive, but they are quite happy for you to share everything. They also offer two set meals -- a light vegetarian selection (a feature of the original Paris restaurant) for 2,800 yen and a more substantial menu degustation (two starters, main, plus dessert) for 4,800 yen.
The specialty of the house is a curious preparation known as flammekueche, a dish from the Alsace region that we in Tokyo have been blissfully unaware of until now. A light wheat dough is rolled out wafer-thin, quickly grilled crisp, then sprinkled with a variety of ingredients, either savory or sweet, and served on rustic rectangular wooden boards. Think of it as a cross between a pizza and a Breton-style crepe, but closer in taste and texture to an Israeli matzo or a Carr's water biscuit.
The basic model (1,500 yen) has a simple covering of cheese (in fact bibeleskas, a mixture of fresh cream whipped with thick fromage blanc) and sliced onion and bacon bits (in keeping with their vegetarian-friendly principles, the meat is optional). We tried the rather more deluxe version (1,800 yen), featuring added goat's cheese, Provencal herbs and olive oil. It was tasty but insubstantial, too light to form part of a proper meal but commendable as an unusual (and healthy) snack food. Too bad they don't brew their own beer here (as they do at the Bastille restaurant) -- these flammekueches would be perfect with a fresh lager or biere de gard.
As at so many bistros -- whether in Tokyo or Paris -- we found the quality of the cooking uneven, not stellar though never poor. One of the best dishes we tried was the carpaccio. The slices of red maguro (tuna) sashimi were given a simple marinade of finely chopped onion, garlic, tomato, capers, Italian parsley and chives that was highly effective for being so straightforward.
Our salad -- crabmeat, avocado and grapefruit on anonymous greens -- was eminently forgettable. We gave higher marks to the pommes paillasson, though. Like a French version of rosti, the potato was finely shredded then oil-fried until golden crisp, broken up into smaller fragments, then covered with morsels of smoked salmon and a "tartare" sauce of creme fraiche. The saltiness of the fish was balanced by the rich oiliness of the hot potato. Our tagliatelli was served with generous lashings of basil-driven pistou sauce. Again, this was simple but satisfactory, though not comparable in any way with fine Genovese pasta in basilico sauce.
The same could be said for our main dishes. The roast lamb (carre d'agneau) was prepared properly, pink but not bloody, although the meat was too fatty. The roast leg of guinea fowl (pintade) was slightly overcooked, but nothing to complain about. And the fish of the day (snapper) was delicious, and good value at 1,400 yen (though the portion was small).
We found a couple of wines at the 5,000 yen level that went well with the above (the food does not warrant a splurge on any of the pricier bottles). The only aspect of the meal that disappointed was the dessert selection. You would do just as well to move on straight away to a digestif of calvados or cognac with your espresso (Illy) or Darjeeling tea (Marriage Freres).
It may sound as though we are damning La Fabrique with faint praise, but that is not our intention. The waiters are all young but attentive. Our meal arrived promptly. We were out for a fun evening, for the music and the ambiance as much as for the dining. We had a good time and left happy in the knowledge that Shibuya now has a good, stylish, casual French eatery hidden away down in that cool, beat-drenched basement.