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Sunday, Nov. 10, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

New digs, but same culinary magic


When the news came through this summer that one of our favorite chefs, Kazuhiko Kinoshita, was closing his eponymous restaurant in Hatsudai and moving to fresh pastures, it came as no surprise to us. In fact the move was well overdue.

It wasn't just that he had long outgrown those cramped and well-scuffed premises. It wasn't just that he had become so popular that securing a reservation had become increasingly impossible. The real reason why Kinoshita badly needed to find a new address was that the setting was frankly not good enough to match the excellence of his cooking.

We are long-time fans of Kinoshita, ever since his early days at Bistro Vela, an unlovely eatery below the concrete station concourse at Yoyogi Uehara. It was after he had set up under his own name, though, that he really won our affections.

His cooking has always been fresh and inventive, and often it is touched with the sparkle of magic dust. It was clear that, despite the simple decor and bargain set-price menus, he was producing cuisine of a quality that was substantially beyond the parameters of the usual neighborhood bistro.

And now, at last, here is a setting more worthy of his talent. Thankfully, though, it is not the quantum leap upmarket that some people were dreading. Instead, the new Restaurant Kinoshita represents a natural progression.

Not only does it seat more people (32, up from just 22), it feels vastly more spacious. The tables are wider and you don't have to turn sideways to scoot in between them. The decor is as simple and chic as the furniture. A plush red banquette runs down one wall. Elsewhere you sit at comfortable, rattan-backed chairs. The center of the room is occupied by a handsome, communal-style table of finely finished timber, which is perfect for larger groups or just plenty of the solo diners (locals of all ages, both male and female) who have always formed an important proportion of the clientele.

The open kitchen feels more integrated with the dining room than before. It's also considerably larger, which has allowed Kinoshita to expand his menu. He still offers his basic 3,800 yen dinner menu (and the 1,800 yen prix-fixe lunch). But it is his "B menu" that really shows what he's capable of. For 5,000 yen (though with supplements on some items), you get a major meal of four courses, plus a couple of extra tidbits.

If anything, Kinoshita's cooking is even better than before. Here are some of our notes from the other night.

Amuse gueule: a small, white cappuccino cup, filled with a light egg custard, chilled, with a single plump oyster and shredded leek. Think chawan mushi meets haute cuisine. We arrived here tired, but we're feeling perked-up already, and we haven't even started on the wine.

The menu is in Japanese only, so it takes time to decipher. It takes us just as long to decide which of the 10 hors-d'oeuvres we want. We finally decide on the carrot mousse and terrine of foie gras. The mousse is creamy and light, topped with a generous spoonful of fresh orange urchin, the whole covered in lightly jellied savory consomme. So simple, so luxurious.

The terrine comes in a thick tranche, much more duck liver than surrounding jelly. It is set on a thick slice of ripe yellow mango, sweet yet still slightly tart. Intriguing. Next to this, slices of home-smoked duck breast, on a "salad" of green French beans dressed with a thick sesame-based sauce. The two parts of the dish seem disparate, until you eat all four elements together. All of a sudden your palate is humming. An inspired combination.

The next course is a choice of either salad; soup (chilled vichyssoise, bouillabaisse or onion gratin); or a choice of light fish dishes. The seafood soup is piping hot and served, as it would be in Provence, with thin rusks of toast, a pot of alioli and some grated cheese.

Our fish is hige-dara (grenadier) in a sticky sauce infused with dark sherry vinegar. The kama ("neck") bone is deep-fried: You have to pick it up to gnaw at all the inner dark meat. Beside this is a tender fillet, so lightly simmered it is barely cooked. The contrast in flavors and textures from the same fish is remarkable.

The main courses (there are a dozen to choose from) are infused with equal creativity. The jidori chicken with roast banana in a curry-flavored sauce sounds tempting, but we choose the roast quail. It has a small mound of creamy risotto packed with finely chopped onion, shreds of fresh grapefruit and topped with foie gras. Remarkable. Also joue de boeuf, tender cheek of ox slowly simmered down in red wine, the dense flavor balanced by a small serving of mashed potato and green vegetables: "Everything as it should be," is all we noted.

Another palate-pleaser, a dish of finely cubed fresh fruit, lightly perfumed with amaretto. Then dessert: pistachio-flavored creme brulee with chocolate ice cream; and sesame blancmange with ice cream made with brown Le Puy lentils -- an effect much like azuki. But now our notes give out. We sigh with pleasure.

Unfortunately, many other people share our high estimation of Kinoshita, and the restaurant is still very popular. However, the move to the new location and the slight increase in size means that tables are now rather easier to obtain, despite the arcane reservation system (you phone in on the first Monday of the month prior to the month in which you want a table). As of last week, Kinoshita was still accepting bookings for their special 10,000 yen Christmas dinner. It promises to be a treat.

Restaurant Kinoshita
Estate Bldg. 1F, 3-37-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3376-5336
Open:12-2 p.m. (last order); 6-9 p.m. (last order)
Closed:Monday
Nearest stations: Sangubashi (Odakyu Line) or Yoyogi (JR and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Yoyogi JR Station (West Exit), it is a brisk 10-minute walk. Cross the intersection and head down the street (to the right of McDonald's). Continue straight ahead, under the Odakyu Line tracks, and up the hill for another five minutes. Restaurant Kinoshita is on the right, shortly before the Yoyogi 3-chome crossing. From Sangubashi, walk up the slope to the main road, turn left and walk a block. Turn right at the first lights and you will find Kinoshita on the left after 100 meters, just after a police box.
What works: Kinoshita's inventive cuisine is finer than ever.
What doesn't:The rest rooms are outside and down a flight of stairs
Number of seats: 32
BGM: Classical music so faint that you can hear it
Price per head:Lunch: 1,800 yen (weekdays only; Saturday and Sudney same as dinner menu); dinner courses 3,800 yen, 5,000 yen, 7,000 yen
Drinks:Aperitifs from 500 yen; beer 600 yen; wine from 700 yen/glass, 3,800 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: Not accepted
Language:Japanese menu (Japanese/French wine list); little English spoken
Reservations: Essential (Reservations open on the first Monday of the month 4-6 p.m. for the following month, but try your luck)



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