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Sunday, Sept. 15, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Simplicity, the mother of perfection


First impressions are everything. You can tell a good restaurant from the moment you walk through the door. It could be a visual cue or the general layout, a subtle feeling that the feng shui is right. It could be the way you are greeted at the door, the movements of the chef or the reassurance of seeing other customers thoroughly enjoying themselves. At the very best places, it will be all of the above.

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Terauchi presents Italian cucina at its simplest and best, free of frills and pretension.

The first thing you notice at Terauchi is the appetizing aroma of cooking. Nothing sharp or penetrating, just the wafting scent of Mediterranean herbs gently underpinned with garlic and warm bread, perhaps, and the heady perfume of fine olive oil. No need for a second glance into the open kitchen to know that here you will be in good hands.

This is one of those places where nothing is allowed to detract from the primary business at hand -- the pleasure of eating. There is no background music, cell phones are discouraged, and the decor has deliberately been kept understated. Apart from the large flower arrangement in the center of the dining area and a couple of rows of empty wine bottles arrayed along the narrow window sills, it looks as simple and unadorned as a whitewashed farmhouse in Sardinia.

Simplicity is also the underlying virtue of chef Masayuki Terauchi's food. He has no truck with complexity and artifice for its own sake. His is a back-to-fundamentals approach to the art of Italian cucina -- to obtain the finest ingredients and then to prepare them in ways that bring out and enhance their inherent flavors. In short, to let his ingredients do the talking.

News photo
Chef Masayuki Terauchi in the kitchen

Terauchi's principal tools are his oven and his grill. Every single main dish he offers is either roasted or charcoal-grilled. You can choose from pork, lamb, beef, chicken, duck or fish. It's all prime quality -- and the results are wonderful.

At lunch recently, we marveled at his roast chicken. The meat was tender and juicy, crisped to a golden brown on the outside and full of taste in the way you only find in free-range jidori fowl. It was served with thick-cut wedges of potato, equally well-browned in olive oil and fat, roasted just long enough to be soft without turning fluffy and losing their flavor; and with four large cloves of garlic, roasted whole, encased in their thick skins, still slightly al dente in texture and with a semi-raw pungency that made no concessions to delicate sensibilities. The only seasoning was a light sprinkle of salt, freshly ground black pepper and a couple of sprigs of rosemary.

On another evening, we were equally impressed by Terauchi's grilled lamb. The three chops were charred to a dark brown on the outside, the meat inside still pink and juicy. As anyone who has sweated over a barbecue can attest, it is deceptively hard to achieve results of this kind.

The rest of his repertoire is just as delectable -- and just as simple. For example, the caprese salad. It's not an exceptional dish, one found at countless cheap Italian pasta shops. But here it's a classic. All it consists of is sliced tomato interspersed with mozzarella cheese, lightly seasoned with salt and black pepper and drizzled with oil. But what splendid tomatoes Terauchi has sourced, red-ripe and oozing juice; and what good cheese, too. It's premium mozzerella di buffala, from the milk of water buffaloes, fresh and soft. The crystalline salt is from the sea; the pepper is aromatic; and the olive oil is deeply fragrant.

Ditto with our carpaccio of isaki (a white-meat fish often rendered in English as grunt), which was served on a bed of finely grated daikon and celery, sprinkled with chives, lightly salted and anointed with more of that extra virgin oil. These same basic seasonings crop up time and again. Doesn't it get monotonous? Never, when you have meat, seafood and vegetables of this quality.

Here's a dilemma. You shouldn't miss the roast vegetables -- red bell peppers, squash, sweet corn, eggplant, okra, negi leeks and slices of carrot, gently seared to just the right degree, some sweet and crisp, others just the right side of al dente, all scattered with salt, Italian parsley and that same rich olive oil. But can you still make room for the fritto misto? It's one of Terauchi's signature dishes -- chunks of squid, anago eel, baby octopus and vegetables, all sealed inside a fine, crisp batter and served with a wedge of lemon and salt.

And then there are still the primi piatti to come. Much of the pasta (but not the spaghetti) is homemade and so, of course, are all the sauces. Terauchi makes an excellent lamb ragout, using thick chunks of meat (not minced) cooked down with only the lightest hint of tomato. Beware: It's so satisfying you may have to forgo your main course. We also enjoyed the spaghetti with tangy orange bottarga (karasumi, a salty smoked mullet roe) and chopped chives. But our favorite of all is the chilled capellini that Terauchi was serving earlier this summer (now no longer on the menu, unfortunately) topped with lightly blanched tomato and crowned with a scoop or two of uni (sea urchin).

The lunchtime menu allows you to choose from many of the above for the very reasonable rate of 2,000 yen for two courses (starter and pasta) plus dessert and coffee; or 3,500 yen for three courses (with a main course added). In the evening, you order a la carte. The best strategy is to come as a group of four; order plenty of starters to be shared between you; then a pasta each; a plate or two of grilled meat, as the appetite dictates; and wash it down with a bottle or two from the well-chosen (if slightly pricey) wine list. Then settle back with one of the desserts (the semifreddo is a standout), or cheese and grappa.

Your fellow diners (most of whom adopt the designer-casual look) are likely to be doing the same. But be sure to book ahead. Terauchi only opened his doors in February of this year, but he already has a strong following of committed regular customers.

Terauchi
1-4-7 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, (03) 5414-1808
Open:11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (last order) and 6 to 10 p.m. (last order)
Close:Sunday
Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines); Hiroo (Hibiya Line)
How to get there:From Nishi-Azabu Crossing, walk up Gaien-Nishi-dori (toward Aoyama Cemetery). At the first set of lights, take the right fork, then at the next lights (by the Kaotan Ramen shack) turn right past the Pacific Stars and Stripes. Terauchi is on the right, after about five minutes.
What works: Terauchi-san's brilliant grilled meats
What doesn't:Rather stodgy bread rolls at 600 yen per serve.
Number of seats: 20
Price per head:Lunch courses at 2,000 yen and 3.500 yen; dinner a la carte (figure around 5,000 yen not including drink); cover charge 300 yen (evening only)
Drinks:Aperitifs from 600 yen; beer from 600 yen; wine from 800 yen per glass, 4,500 yen per bottle; grappa and digetivi from 800 yen
Credit cards: VISA, Mastercard, Saison
Language:Japanese/Italian menu (but daily specials only in Japanese); no English spoken
Reservations: Advisable

E-mail comments and recommendations to the Tokyo Food File at foodfile@yahoo.com


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