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Friday, April 11, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
The big breakfast
Tokyo is not big on breakfast. Granted, there's no shortage of places to grab a sandwich or a Danish with your long latte mochacino. A kissaten "morning set" should furnish a boiled egg with a slab of faintly browned igirsu-pan (they blame white bread on the English, here). And a family restaurant can rustle up defrosted pancakes around the clock. But if it's quality, cooked fare you're after first thing in the day, just about the only options up until now have been the dining rooms of the larger hotels.
But for early risers in Yoyogi, things are different. A brief, early-morning stroll from the rear entrance of Yoyogi Park brings you to the new and very stylish Tarlum. With its glass-fronted architecture, stylish furnishings and strange name, you might take it for a chic coffee shop. But here you get much more than just a kissaten "morning set" -- with absolutely no sight of miso soup, natto or seaweed.
Settle back in one of their armchairs, unfurl your Japan Times (not provided, unfortunately) and order up one of their substantial cooked breakfasts. How does scrambled egg sound, served with bacon, a small side salad, some bread or a croissant, plus juice, coffee or tea? It's yours for 850 yen. Or would you prefer an omelet -- plain, cheese or filled with flakes of pink salmon (the latter for 1,000 yen)? For those with lighter appetites they offer French toast (700 yen) or a range of Danish pastries to have with your mocha or Earl Grey.
This is not some hopeful approximation of a Western breakfast. This is the real thing prepared by kitchen staff who know how to get bacon crisp and eggs to just the right degree of fluffiness. You could be in the dining room of some swish hotel -- an illusion destroyed only by the inefficiency of the young waiting staff who, friendly and willing as they may be, are clearly untrained and not up to the requisite speed yet. This is not necessarily a problem, if you don't mind your bread arriving just as you finish your egg -- and as long as you don't have a train to catch or a crucial 9-o'clock meeting with the boss.
Not only does Tarlum open well before the start of the working day, it stays open well past most people's bedtimes. As their slogan proudly declares, "Serving nonstop every day 8:00-28:00." Drop by at midday and Tarlum will provision you with a range of simple, set-course lunches. During the afternoon it reverts to being a coffee shop, with a choice of ga^teaux. Finally, as evening falls, it assumes the guise of a proper restaurant -- or, as it prefers to style itself, an "Aqua Brasserie."
The meaning of this became clear to us as we began to navigate our way around the menu. Seafood rules. For such a modest place, they provide an astounding selection -- and the menu is equally complex.
We were invited to choose from a dozen kinds of fish or crustacean, prepared any way we liked -- the options including frittered; grilled; boiled; meuniere (floured and pan-fried in butter); steamed; or simply as carpaccio. There are appetizers -- including fresh oysters on the half-shell and a number of soups and chowders; pasta of various descriptions; seafood platters; and main courses ranging from grilled snapper with foie gras to Carpetbag steak (a fillet of beef served with oysters).
Wait, there's more on the other page.
Until midnight they offer very reasonable set-price meals (3,000 yen or 3,500 yen for three courses; 5,000 yen for four), which involve picking from four categories that have been given cute (English) names: Almost Raw; Barely Touched; Lightly Cooked; and Dessert. But no matter which part of this menu you order from, you will eat well.
From the basic set meal, we started with a couple of fresh oysters, served with a small but sophisticated "cocktail" of ikura roe with slivers of yuzu in a consomme jelly. That was followed by a delicious, hearty bouillabaisse featuring mussels, jumbo prawns and a good chunk of sea bass. It was let down by the trimmings -- thin slices of regular French bread rather than rusk-crisp baguette, and a strange "rouille" of finely mashed potato with little or no garlic -- but overall it was most satisfying.
For our other appetizer, we chose from the a la carte menu. The fritti of mebaru (black rockfish) came deep-fried in cornmeal and served with malt vinegar, a wedge of lemon and a small serving of chopped egg in mayonnaise. We are so used to new-wave cooking with exotic garnishes that our eyebrows rose to encounter such a classic, old-world preparation. But it was none the less tasty for that -- and nor was the thick, warming soupe de poisson, and the aquapazza of hobo (bluefin searobin) with its beautiful red-tinged skin, substantial white flesh and delectable sauce of olive oil, white wine and parsley.
The most important point is, the seafood is fresh, and it's prepared by cooks who know how to handle it. What made our dinner less than a total success was the dessert (a tarte au fruit that had sat for perhaps a day too long) and, as at breakfast, the gormless waiting staff. But once we had a good bottle of wine in hand (Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc -- how can you go wrong?), we were in forgiving mood -- especially in this setting and with such reasonable prices.
Is Tarlum good enough to cross town for? Despite its chic looks, good food and great location, the verdict has to be: not quite. But for anyone living within striking distance of Yoyogi Park, there is no better place for a leisurely breakfast.