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Friday, Feb. 28, 2003



Bettering the bistro

Maruichi is so intimate and unpretentious that it has chosen to call itself a bistro. But that gives the wrong impression entirely. You will find no red checkered tablecloths here, no tourist posters, Pernod ads or guttering candles jammed into empty wine bottles. Instead it espouses a quiet simplicity that feels altogether more Japanese than Gallic.

News photo
Chef Kimio Ichikawa and his charcoal grill are the highlight of any trip to Bistro Maruichi.
News photo

It's a tiny place with just five tables, plus a small counter along an open kitchen as compact (and shipshape) as the galley of an ocean-going yacht. The rough ocher walls are plain and unadorned, save for a blackboard listing the specials of the day. The furniture is rustic but comfortable, the tables covered with "cloths" of cheerful yellow plastic. The place settings feature chopsticks propped up on twigs of charcoal, with the knives and forks kept in baskets at the side, as if to emphasize that here you are a long way from France.

Cast your eye down the menu (although you will have to be able to read Japanese to do so) and you will find it infused with a similar interplay of influences. Chef Kimio Ichikawa is well-grounded in the basics of French cuisine, but he brings a homegrown Japanese sensibility to his art. A quiet man who prefers to let his food do the talking, he also has a love for the smoky, spicy flavors of Southeast Asia. The results are original and delectable.

There is such a range of choices that the only sensible thing to do is to put yourself in Ichikawa's hands and order one of the set omakase dinners for 3,000 yen or 3,800 yen (in the pricing, the bistro epithet starts to makes sense). Whichever you choose, your first course will be a plate of mixed appetizers -- consider them zensai, in the Japanese mode, rather than hors d'oeuvres. These are likely to feature some or all of the following: smoked salmon wrapped around lightly blanched nanohana mustard greens, served with a wedge of lemon and a scattering of yellow egg; a tranche of smooth, soft pate, its light flavor of chicken enhanced with the tang of cumin; carpaccio of sayori (halfbeak) dressed with chervil, dill and banno-negi scallions; a slice of maguro tuna, still red-rare inside, adorned with salsa verde of pureed parsley and fine-chopped tomato; and lamb prepared in the form of Chinese char-shu, presented on a bed of chilled ratatouille.

This is cooking of creativity and sophistication, and so good you are likely to feel like switching to a la carte so you can order a full serving of each. Alternatively, put in an extra order (as we did) for some of the other starters.

The nama-harumaki (fresh spring rolls) are well worth trying. Sashimi-grade maguro is rolled up with crisp lettuce leaves, with a seasoning of seed mustard and just a hint of chili underneath the rice paper wrapping. Served with a few leaves of coriander and a dark, savory dipping sauce redolent of Hoisin aromas, they have the innate complexity of taste that is a sure indication Ichikawa uses ingredients of real quality.

Equally outstanding in their simplicity are the early-season sora-mame broad beans. Grilled over charcoal, their dark green skins are lightly scorched, leaving the natural bitter-sweetness of their inner flesh. Ichikawa matches them with slices of pecorino cheese, an unexpected and novel contrast of flavors and textures.

This charcoal grill is Ichikawa's specialty, and virtually all of his main dishes are cooked this way. The menu offers a surprising variety of seafood -- hamaguri clams, octopus and various fish -- as well as chicken, pork, beef, lamb and venison. All are given surprising tweaks of seasoning; nothing we tasted was less than excellent.

The fish course features two varieties, each little more than a mouthful but cooked to perfection. Kuromutsu (bluefish) was anointed with nuoc mam fish sauce and sprinkled, Vietnamese-style, with deep-fried onion shreds. The mixed leaf salad was notable for the amount of French dressing with which it was mixed (too often salads in Tokyo are so lightly dressed as to make no impact at all). It cleared the palate well for the main course -- slices of grilled pork (mochibuta from Gunma) with a spicy tomato salsa; and chicken (satsuma jidori) served with potatoes, mixed vegetables and a dob of egg-white froth infused with wasabi.

In terms of variety and complexity of flavor, this 3,800 yen course leaves nothing wanting (especially since there are good desserts still to come). But we were hungry, so we ordered the venison (ezo-jika, from Hokkaido) cooked down in a red wine sauce then sliced open. Ranging in color from dark burgundy on the outside to a rare pink at the center, it was tender, succulent and satisfying.

The wine list is eclectic and also priced at bistro levels. It concentrates on French bottles but also ranges to the New World and even the Middle East. We considered ourselves lucky to find a Co^teaux de Languedoc (La Clape) for 4,900 yen that hit just the right spot, but there are also plenty of cheaper alternatives.

Maruichi is not easy to find, tucked away down a side street and a fairly long walk from the nearest station. But in fact that is our good fortune. With a little bit more exposure and media savvy, Ichikawa will surely move on to bigger and better things before too long. So while we can, let us rejoice that we can still enjoy food of this quality and inventiveness in such casual surroundings, and at generous bistro prices to boot.

Bistro Maruichi
3-5-4 Kudan-Minami, Minato-ku; (03) 5213-0170
Open:11.30 a.m.-2.00 p.m. (last order) and 6-10 p.m. (last order)
Nearest station:Ichigaya (JR and Shinjuku, Nanboku, Yurakucho subway lines)
How to get there:From Ichigaya Station (subway Exit A3), walk down the right side of Yasukuni-dori toward Kudanshita. When you reach the Post office, continue for one more block then turn right. Take the second small side street on the left and you will find Bistro Maruichi on the left after about 50 meters.
What works:Chef Ichikawa has a subtle, creative touch, and his prices are even better.
What doesn't:It's an obscure location that's deserted on Saturday nights.
Number of seats:19
BGM:Smoky vocal jazz
Price per head:Dinner courses 3,000 yen and 3,800 yen; also a la carte.
Drinks:Beer 600 yen; wine 600 yen/glass, from 2,900 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese menu, little English spoken
Reservations: Advisable on weekdays

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