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Friday, March 28, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
More than just a pour
What's in a name? Since last year, and especially over the past month, the most in-demand dining spot in Ginza has been the one with the most unwieldy misnomer. Afternoon Tea Baker and Diner hardly trips off the tongue. It also disguises the fact this is no mere tea room: It's a proper restaurant, contemporary yet casual, and very much of the moment.
But it is another name that has been drawing the crowds -- that of young British chef Jamie Oliver, best known for his "Naked Chef" TV series in Britain. Still in his 20s, Oliver's main appeal has been his casual approach to the kitchen and his youthful, chirpy Mockney demeanor. Behind all the attendant hype, though, there is a serious, talented chef. And that is why he has been brought in to serve as consultant chef and headline-grabber at ATB.
Modern British cooking, at least the way that Jamie Oliver expounds it, dovetails perfectly with Japanese sensibilities. It's based on an appreciation of fresh, high-quality ingredients, prepared and served without fuss or over-elaboration, synthesizing from (basically) French and Italian fundamentals. The other key aspect of his approach is keeping things casual -- dining out is supposed to be approachable and fun. That's certainly the case at ATB.
In February, Oliver was in Japan, rejigging the menu for the spring and summer. Although he is no longer around, his presence lingers in the form of a giant black-and-white photo above the wide staircase leading down to this stylish basement restaurant. But there's no whiff of any cult of personality here, just the stray appetizing aroma wafting from the gleaming open kitchen that greets you as you step inside.
The J.O. name is only attached to the two prix-fixe dinner menus -- 5,000 yen for four courses (appetizer, starter, fish or meat, dessert) or 7,000 yen for the five-course special (the same, plus an extra main course) -- but his influence permeates the whole kitchen. The rest of the menu is the work of resident chef Tetsuya Taniguchi. Having worked with Oliver in London, his style of cooking is in a similar vein, as you can see by perusing the extensive a la carte menu. What caught our eye, though, was the special Organic Set Menu -- four courses (plus an appetizer) for 6,000 yen -- and all based around ingredients of wild, free-range or organic origin.
The first plate, just to awaken the appetite, featured a small, freshly baked croissant, the interior of which contained a dab of anchovy paste, presented with a slice of perfectly ripe persimmon (how they found this out of season, organic or not, I know not). As a nice, casual touch, you are encouraged to eat these with your fingers, a truly "hands-on" strategy that is clearly a J.O. approach (he does it all the time on his television show).
We were kept plied with good, wholesome bread and morsels of ciabatta (as the name implies, they have a bakery attached), served with a very tasty extra virgin olive oil seasoned with salt and herbs. They have a good selection of wines, all priced below 10,000 yen and several of them also organic. Most of the wines are from France, which is surprising since this kind of light, sunny cooking style is tailor-made for New World wines -- though you will find a good Tasmanian Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.
The appetizer consisted of white asparagus sliced in half lengthways, lightly grilled and served with diced tomato, segments of fresh orange and a vinaigrette dressing. The asparagus, still firm and slightly crunchy, had a bitterness that was well balanced by the sweet citrus flavor and the gentle tartness of the vinegar. The plate was scattered with fresh green herbs, a motif that was repeated throughout the meal.
Our warm "salad" of cauliflower florets and grilled scallops was perhaps the highlight of the evening. The scallops were every bit as soft and succulent as we have come to expect here in Tokyo, lightly seasoned to allow their inherent sweetness to shine through. More remarkable, though, was just how good the cauliflower tasted. Fresh from the field, with the slight bitterness of springtime -- but at the same time with a hint of subtle sweetness -- it was a wonderful reminder of just how good this vegetable can be (and a rebuff to the bland, mealy starchiness that it all too often is). A scattering of al dente farfalle was balanced by the slight piquancy of the chopped black olives in the sauce.
The provenance of many of the vegetables is listed on the menu -- Saitama for the cauliflower -- but the individual farmers (and it is they who deserve the most praise) are not named. For the seafood, though, we can thank a Mr. Kido, down in Amakusa, on the west coast of Kyushu. On the basis of our fish course, he deserves the plaudits. The filet of delicate, white-meat umitanago (known in English as Temminck's surf perch) was delectable, albeit pan fried slightly too crisply on its outer surface. This was arranged with slices of meaty hakureidake mushrooms on top of long, green wakegi spring onions that had been sauteed until they were almost crisp. Underlying all was a mustard-vinegar sauce reminiscent of thick, savory gravy.
Do not arrive here expecting London-size portions. Everything is calibrated to Tokyo appetites, especially the minimalist cheese plate -- small dabs of three different cheeses that were just sufficient to help down our last glass of wine. But our dessert was a visual treat. A tall cone of dark, bitter chocolate filled with thick white whipped cream in which morsels of organic mandarin lurked, next to a sable "millefeuille" (more like a biscuit sandwich) containing strawberries enrobed in a lime-flavored cream.
There are also after-dinner drinks, grappa or pudding wine, for those who like such pleasures. But ATB is not really a place for lingering once the meal is over. The plain, Scandinavian-look furniture is just too utilitarian, and anyway, they close far too early to permit any sustained self-indulgence. This is, however, just the kind of place you will want to come back to, so you can explore everything on this hugely tempting and satisfying menu.
The Food File is taking a holiday next week and will return on April 11.