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Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

As bistros go, this one is parfait


It's the post-holiday syndrome, the back-at-work midweek slump. You feel like eating out, but you don't want to get dressed up. You need to avoid straining the credit card. And you're certainly not in the mood for elaborate delicacies or rare vintages by candlelight.

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Cou Cou is friendly, the food is good and it's got a great location, along the peaceful banks of Meguro-gawa. Better still, it's a cheap. What more could you possibly want out of a neighborhood bistro?

All that's needed is a quiet night out; French food that's simple and affordable; and, most of all, it has to be somewhere that feels a long, long way from the bustle and grind. An impossible conundrum? Not if you live anywhere within striking distance of the wonderful Cou Cou.

The idea of the bargain-basement French bistro is certainly not new or unique. These days the concept has permeated into virtually every neighborhood of the city. Few other places in Tokyo, however, can match Cou Cou in offering satisfying three-course dinners for a mere 2,500 yen. And nowhere else at all has a setting to compare.

It sits right next to Meguro-gawa, just a few minutes' stroll from Naka-Meguro Station. Although you cannot actually see the river from your table (it runs at the bottom of a wide concrete storm drain), that matters little. This is a tranquil neighborhood with little traffic, and when the weather is clement -- which means frequently at this time of year -- they open up the whole front of the restaurant. All you see are the cherry trees outside. This has to be one of the most pleasant areas in all of Tokyo -- and Cou Cou is one of its best-kept secrets.

It has occupied this prime location for a decade or so now, and the interior seems to have changed little over that time. The walls are still plastered with French film posters, interspersed with wine labels and punctuated by a handsome wooden box that once held a large Brie de Meaux. The tables are small and clustered close together, but covered with cloths of sparkling white. Indeed, everything is clean, tidy and welcoming.

Over the years Cou Cou has been through its ups and downs, mostly due to changes in personnel. But right now it's on an upward course. New manager Motoyasu Oyama is friendly and capable, while chef Akihiro Fukuda produces good, solid bistro fare with the confidence that results from the time he spent in Europe.

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What hasn't changed at all is the price of dinner. As already mentioned, it is a three-course, prix-fixe affair for 2,500 yen (although a couple of the main course selections have small surcharges tacked on). The handwritten menu offers a choice of seven starters, the same number of main dishes, and eight desserts. Because there were three of us when we dropped by last week, we were able to sample a good cross section of what was available.

We started with Cou Cou's ever-reliable terrine de campagne, a hefty tranche of firm pork meat enrobed in a layer of white fat and studded through with morsels of liver and green pistachios. The tripe in thick tomato sauce -- perhaps more Spanish than French in inspiration -- was soft and tasty. It had been simmered down with canned tomatoes and would have benefited from some stronger seasoning, but our only complaint was that it could have been served much hotter.

Our third starter, tender sauteed sardines, was the most successful. The medium-size fish were not prepared whole but as fillets, pan-fried with sprigs of thyme until light brown. Simple and tasty, they were served with a few leaves of rocket and halves of cherry tomatoes adorned with scoops of black olive tapenade. All very straightforward, very Provencale.

The options for the main courses included two kinds of fish, chicken or duck, lamb, rabbit or beef tongue. Our confit de poulet (chicken) was nicely crisped to an attractive golden brown, and came with small roast potatoes, onions and a tasty gravy. The canard roti (roast breast of duck) was rather over-salted on its skin, but the meat inside was juicy and not too rare (too often the bane of bistro kitchens). It was accompanied by good roast spuds and a few green vegetables. By common consensus, the best of our three dinners was the tongue (langue de boeuf), braised in Madiran wine. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth soft, topped with a sauce of finely chopped vegetables; the accompanying mashed potato was creamy-smooth and the gravy full-bodied and rich.

Our bread basket was replenished with sliced baguette at regular intervals. And there's a very adequate wine list, composed almost entirely of French bottles, mainly lesser-known names from Bordeaux, Bourgogne and the south of France. We did well with our Medoc (Chateau La Cardonne '95) but even the house wine (from Languedoc) will readily pass muster with meals at this level.

The desserts, all classic bistro favorites, didn't taste as though they had been made that day. That mattered rather more with the pear tart than the dense gateau au chocolat, which worked much better for being warmed up. We also tried the cheese plate -- four varieties, not a very imaginative selection, and nary more than a dab of each, but quite good enough to help us down the last of our wine.

All in all, this is good food rather than great, home cooking not cordon bleu, though none the less satisfying for that. Serving sizes are not huge, albeit larger than you'd find at twice the price in many other places with grander pretensions. But you may find you have such a good time that, like us, Cou Cou becomes a regular port of call.

Cou Cou
1-16-2 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; (03) 3792-2975
Open:11:30-2p.m. (last order) and 6-9:30 p.m.
Close:Monday
Nearest stations: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya and Toyoko lines)
How to get there:From Naka-Meguro, cross Kyu-Yamate-dori and walk straight ahead until you reach the Meguro-gawa River. Turn left and follow the river. Cou Cou is on the left, after you have passed the two bridges.
What works: Great location, great prices
What doesn't:The constant sizzle of the insect zapper outside
Number of seats: 40
BGM: Vocal jazz
Price per head:Lunch menu, 1,500 yen; dinner 2,500 yen
Drinks:Beer 600 yen; wine from 550 yen/glass, 2,500 yen/bottle; digestifs from 1,000 yen
Credit cards: Cash only
Language:Japanese/French menu; English spoken
Reservations: Recommended, especially during the cherry blossom season



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