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Friday, May 2, 2003


Masahito Ueki does it again

While the eyes of the world -- or at least the Tokyo-centric portion of the planet -- have been fixed on the unveiling of the massive Roppongi Hills complex, our attention was focused on another new arrival, not so far away but on a totally different scale. For us, the main event last month was the opening of chef Masahito Ueki's new place, Studio J.

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Chic Studio J is headed by executive chef Masahito Ueki (above left) and a chef-in-residence Yoshiaki Takazawa.
News photo

Anyone who has followed this column over the years will be aware that we are major fans of Ueki's cooking, and his intimate super-bistro, Restaurant J, is one of our favorite places to eat in the whole city. But part of its charm is that it's tucked away where only those in the know will find it. So we were eager to see how Ueki's sophisticated food and understated, keep-it-simple aesthetic would fare in Roppongi, the brash belly of the beast.

With its clean, uncluttered lines and simple, modern furnishings, Studio J resembles less an artist's studio than a chic gallery, an effect that is heightened by the striking black-and-white lithographs of giant birds' eggs that line the walls of the two small dining rooms. Gray blinds filter out the light from the street. The kitchen is hidden away, glimpsed only through a window as you enter. That means there's nothing to distract you from the essentials of the evening -- your dining partner(s) and the food in front of you.

And what excellent food it is. The menu is a collaborative effort with chef-in-residence Yoshiaki Takazawa (formerly of Hiramatsu and, before that, the New York Grill), but it bears Ueki's unmistakable hallmarks -- top-quality ingredients, inventive combinations, delicacy of execution and, even more so than at Restaurant J, an emphasis on the vegetable kingdom.

Ueki is certainly not the first cook in Tokyo to incorporate typically Japanese produce into Western cooking forms. But he's put his money where his heart lies and now has his own plots in Kyoto, Saitama and his native Kanazawa, where everything is grown organically and shipped to Tokyo at the peak of its season. This produce is so fresh, so delicious, it's no wonder that throughout the menu he gives it equal billing alongside the meat and seafood.

Here are some of the standouts:

* Soft, warm gnocchi, stained a brilliant green from all the spinach juice in them, served with lightly blanched leaves of baby cabbage as tender as lettuce. Luckily there are good, freshly baked bread rolls at hand -- the creamy sauce is infused with the aroma of seafood and chardonnay wine and you will want to mop up every last drop.

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* A single scallop, sashimi-tender but perfectly textured, grilled until gently browned. This is draped with a "ravioli" as light as a won-ton pouch, stuffed with a puree of green fava beans and decorated with a dribble of balsamic vinegar and a couple of fresh-picked baby broad beans.

* A tranche of vegetable terrine: chunks of colorful vegetables, all lightly blanched to al dente texture, molded inside a soft skin of cabbage, decorated with flower petals and offset with a puree of tart, sweet tomato. For a dish like this to work, the vegetables have to be just at the peak of their flavor and tenderness. They are; it does.

As at Restaurant J, every dish on the menu is available in either full or half-size portions, which makes it possible to sample a greater number of these impossibly tempting dishes. Even better, Studio J is sufficiently dining-bar casual that you can put each item in the middle of the table and share from it. However, the main dishes were so good we all wanted to keep our plates entirely to ourselves.

The simple flavor of steamed sakura-dai (snapper) was brilliantly paired with fritters of pickled Kyoto vegetables -- kyoninjin (carrot), gobo (salsify) and kabu (turnip), laced with yuzu (citron) -- and a scoop of pureed bacalao (cod) flavored with the tang of peppery sansho leaf. And to match the grilled lamb with a puree of white ingen (kidney beans) and a red-wine sauce -- well, that was outstanding.

Even the more playful items on the menu are creative: a miniature hamburger (ground from wagyu sirloin) sandwiched inside a dainty little bun and, on the side, some of the best fries you will ever taste (they're made from fluffy, intensely flavorful kita-aka potatoes) and sticks of lightly pickled vegetables.

Where Ueki and his team seriously push the envelope with their vegetable bias, though, is on the dessert menu. We didn't try the deep-fried beignet of avocado with tomato sorbet; nor the purin (custard pudding) of sora-mame (broad beans) with molasses ice cream. However the espuma of annin-tofu (Chinese-style bitter almond mousse) worked well, with its tricolor fruit puree of strawberry, kiwi and passion fruit.

As for the almondine tart with chunks of blood-red beetroot, it looked pretty but was overwhelmed by the flavor of the kabocha ice cream, as savory-rich as frozen pumpkin soup. If you're not feeling adventurous, then stick with ever-reliable vanilla ice cream or move on to the cheese plate.

In fact, there is no need to treat Studio J as a formal restaurant, where you follow the standard sequence of courses. This is just the kind of place where people drop in for a couple of small dishes to help down a bottle of good wine. The list is two-thirds French, the rest Californian. There's not a great selection under 5,000 yen, but we picked out two fine bottles for 6,000 yen each -- a delicate, complex Co^te Challonaise white (Francois Lumpp) and a hearty, satisfying Co^tes de Castillon red (B de l'A). The food is good enough to justify wines of this caliber, or even better.

For intimacy and special celebrations, Restaurant J is still the place to go. But for those times when you want to eat brilliant, inventive food at the beginning or end of the evening, Studio J is perfect. Classy without being ostentatious, this is a spot for adults. Roppongi needs more places like it.

Studio J
Roppongi Ignoppor 1F, 5-9-20 Roppongi, Minato-ku; (03) 5411-1137
Open:Daily 6-10:30 p.m. (last order). From May 16 Studio J will also start serving lunch.
Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya & Oedo lines)
How to get there:From the Roppongi Crossing (Roppongi Station Exit 3), walk down Imo-arai-zaka, the small street next to Almond coffee shop. Just after you pass Sweet Basil Club (STB 139) you will see the sign for Studio J on the left side of the road.
What works: Strikingly inventive cuisine in a classy but unpretentious setting.
What doesn't:The desserts are rather too left-field for most people's tastes.
Number of seats: 38 (plus 8 at the bar)
BGM: Jazz, just a tad too loud
Price per head:Figure around 5,000 yen-6,000 yen per head (not incuding of drinks). There is a 400 yen-per-head bread charge.
Drinks:Beer from 700 yen; aperitifs from 800 yen; wine from 800 yen/glass, 3,500 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese and English menus; Some English spoken
Reservations: Recommended

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