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Sunday, Aug. 25, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

New kids on the Aoyama block


There's been a host of new openings in the Aoyama area recently, and they're a very mixed bag. Top of everyone's list has to be Kubakan & Republica, the eagerly anticipated restaurant-cum-champagne lounge.

Kubakan is sleek and contemporary, the sparkle and bustle of its long, open kitchen complementing the stylish decor of the dining room, in which hints of Asia seem to win out over the lure of the Caribbean. Republica, the attached lounge, is smaller and more intimate, although perhaps rather too plain in style for those Tokyo high rollers most likely to be attracted by its deluxe champagne list, which is, we are assured, the longest, most elaborate in the entire metropolis.

Kubakan's menu (part of which is also available in Republica) occupies classic fusion territory. This time, chef Mark Vann -- one of the people behind Fujimamas, the funky and continuously popular Asian-fusion eatery in Harajuku -- has blended Mexican and South American influences into his ever-fertile mix of Southeast Asian ingredients. Thus we find dishes such as Foie Gras and Seared Tuna Tostada with Jalapeno-Miso Vinaigrette, or Gaucho-style Skirt Steak with Ponzu, Purple Basil, Garlic Chimichurri, Truffle Oil, Mashed Potatoes and Bok Choy.

It's an ambitious project but -- based on a very early visit -- one that delivers very mixed results. The Sauteed Morels on Potato Cakes were rich and tasty, offset by a green mole and Zinfadel reduction that was rich and flavorful and also very attractive. The home-baked bread rolls were equally assured. Our oysters, however, were less than fresh, and the tasty serrano-lime-soy vinaigrette was unable to resuscitate the shellfish.

For the main courses, the honey-soy grilled salmon worked just fine, enhanced by good mashed potato and wok-wilted spinach greens, but a very adequate lamb chop was tarnished by the side serving of roasted pepper-tortilla bread pudding, which tasted several days old.

There will always be a receptive market in Tokyo for the kind of inventive American cuisine practiced by Vann. Since our visit, we've been told that the menu has already changed and that the oysters have been taken off the menu. We are looking forward to revisiting Kubakan later this year, once all the elements have been put in place, to see how it stacks up against Roy's, Stellato and its other rival operations.

Kubakan & Republica, Raika Annex Bldg., B1F, 6-4-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; (03) 5467-7135; www.kubakan.com. Open 6-11 p.m. (last order); Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Monday. From Kinokuniya, walk down Kotto-dori. Turn left at the fourth set of traffic lights (opposite Cafe Papas). Just after Blue Note Tokyo, there are two new buildings on the right. Take the walkway between them and turn left down the steps at the end. The entrance to Kubakan is on the street below, at basement level. Most credit cards accepted. English spoken. Reservations recommended.

***

With its flickering burners, stylish bistro chairs on the sidewalk and the Art Deco lettering of its trendy name, Sydney Blue has the look down so right you could almost be in Surrey Hills or Darlinghurst. That is, until you scrutinize the menu, which fails to deliver any of the eclectic culinary excitement that we have come to associate with the best of Australian cooking.

News photo
The Australian influence is slight yet present at the dining bar Sydney Blue

Instead, you will find a kitchen that sticks to the tried-and-true standards of modern Tokyo dining bars (soups and salads, pasta, grills, desserts) spiced up with a few antipodean influences (New Zealand oysters; Tasmanian salmon). The most representative part of the menu is the wine list, which promises a few good Aussie bottles (Leeuwin Estate Riesling; d'Arenberg Shiraz/Grenache) alongside Cooper's Sparkling Ale from Adelaide, one of our all-time favorite beers.

Nevertheless, there are a few reasons why Sydney Blue is worthy of your attention. At the top of the list is the weekend brunch, featuring pancakes, eggs Benedict and French toast. It's high time we had such fare in Tokyo and, until the others catch up, any street-side cafe of this ilk can only be recommended. While the street outside isn't especially quiet or scenic, if you're walking the dog, they offer additional inducement in the form of special cookies and milk for your pooch.

Sydney Blue SGSSS Bldg., 1F, 2-3-6 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5468-0810; www.wdi.co.jp. Open: 11.30 a.m.-midnight (last order); Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (last order); Saturday 10:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (last order); Sunday and holidays 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (last order). From Omotesando, walk down Aoyama-dori toward Shibuya. Turn left after Aoyama Gakuin. Sydney Blue is on the right after about five minutes. Most credit cards accepted. Little English spoken. Reservations recommended.

***

Perhaps the most startling of all the new eateries in Aoyama is Dancing Monkey. Not least because it's the latest venture from the dynamic Global Dining empire (the same operation that has given us Zest, Monsoon Cafe, La Boheme, Gonpachi and Tableaux).

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It's self-service at Dancing Monkey, which marries hipness and convenience

The surprise here is neither the decor (candy-colored strip lighting; the entrance lobby lined with cages of inventory) nor the resolutely youth-market orientation (DJ booth, disco ball) but the underlying concept. Everything is self-service. You order your food (donburi; simple snacks) from signs over the serving counter, as if you were at McDonald's. You even extract your own bottle of champagne (or wine or beer) from the fridge, pay for it at the check-out counter and cart it down to the main bar/dining area yourself.

The food is lightweight and not memorable, but, inevitably, it's been extremely well thought-out. Over the past two decades, Global Dining has been on the leading edge of numerous restaurant trends -- from Italian to Tex-Mex to pan-Asian izakaya and more. Is low-budget, hip dining the wave of the future? And, if so, does that mean we should really be starting to worry about the economy?

Dancing Monkey, Minami-Aoyama Homes B1F, 6-2-2 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; (03) 6418-4242. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-5 a.m. Walk down Kotto-dori (from Aoyama-dori). The entrance to Dancing Monkey is on the left, shortly after the third traffic lights. Reservations only for private rooms.


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