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Friday, May 9, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

CAFE + CULTURE

The fine art of museum dining


What could be more cultured and civilized -- indeed more pleasurable -- than to spend the morning strolling around a good museum and then, with legs aching and aesthetic senses saturated, to adjourn from exhibition hall to adjoining restaurant for a leisurely lunch? Especially when the cuisine is sophisticated and the light-filled dining room looks out over parkland in the first flush of spring?

News photo
The Hara Museum's Cafe d'Art has been given a temporary makeover by the Propaganda design unit from Thailand. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE HARA MUSUEM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Such, at any rate, is the premise for Le Jardin, which proudly (and not inaccurately) proclaims itself "The French Restaurant next (sic) Setagaya Art Museum."

Certainly, there's nothing wrong with the setting: Spacious Kinuta Park may be hard to reach if you don't have your own wheels, but it's a restful oasis of oxygen-rich greenery. As for the museum, we rank it among the best in the city, both for its layout and its shows. The only problem here is the food.

The menu gives you due warning: Waldorf salade; soup a l'oignon gratine; boeuf a la Bourgignon; saute de veau "Cordon Bleu." It's classic catering-school Continental, the sort of fare you'd find in hotel dining rooms circa 1965.

This was the 2,500 yen lunch the other day: a slice of seafood terrine, attractively daubed and garnished, but as insubstantial as the morning mist (the other option was corn potage); a couple of soft, spongy bread rolls and a pat of butter; braised beef tongue, cooked so long it was soft and unresisting, served with a rich, dark demiglace sauce, a coil of noodles and carefully shaped wedges of carrot and potato.

Not that this food was in any way bad, just bland in the extreme. Everything was perfectly presented and perfectly dull, down to the baby glasses of fruity house wine and the slick background music that was almost, but not quite, Muzak. Just the ticket, in fact, for Le Jardin's target clientele, who are mostly of that generation willing to pay for "foreign" food as long as it's not in any way threatening, even if they do have to fork out a further 600 yen for dessert.

To be fair, everything is cooked and catered with great efficiency and decorum. The tables are comfortable and the place settings are not overly formal. They even have a wine list of some depth, though prices are somewhat inflated. But frankly, unless the idea of dining 40 years ago appeals to you, it is not worth the outlay.

Le Jardin, Setagaya Bijutsukan, 1-2 Kinuta-Koen, Setagaya-ku; tel: (03) 3415-6415. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. (11 a.m.-7 p.m. on Sunday and holidays); closed Monday.

Thankfully, the only aspect of the Hara Museum that evokes a sense of time warp is its wonderful Art Deco architecture. Housed in a period villa that stands in its own grounds, the Hara invariably runs exhibitions that are adventurous and stimulating, making it one of our all-time favorite spaces for contemporary art. Even better, it has an attached eatery, Cafe d'Art, that can rustle up some decent grub worthy of these surroundings.

Housed in a steel-and-glass conservatory (by architect Arata Isozaki), the cafe clings modestly, almost organically, to the rear wall of the museum. It's a long, narrow space, currently decorated (till July 21) by the Propaganda design unit from Thailand, in black, trash-art style. The floor and other surfaces are inscribed with leaden epigrams such as: "A person without imagination is like a tea bag without hot water"; the tablecloths read "table of contents." Facile and self-consciously art-school, perhaps, but at least it attracts a clientele that is not exclusively over the age of 55.

There are no fixed mealtimes here. Drinks and light snacks are served throughout the day (until half an hour before the museum closes). The menu is not so different from what you would find at one of those chic cafes run by designer boutiques in Shibuya or Harajuku. But it is executed with sophistication and poise.

When we dropped in last week, the two-course daily special featured a delicate, light-pink tomato mousse nestling in a delectable jellied consomme, served with a cream of pureed green peas and topped with a sprig of fresh dill. This was followed by a plate of pasta Espaghetti with sliced fresh scallops, ikura (salmon roe) glinting like orange gems, tossed in a very light sauce prepared with fine slivers of lemon peel and specks of fresh mint. At 2,200 yen, it is not inexpensive, but we were impressed by the complexity of the flavors and the colorful, artistic way everything is presented.

The desserts show similar inventiveness, especially the so-called Image Cake, which is created to mirror whatever art is on display. Currently the Hara has a playful photographic retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto's couture. The accompanying dessert is a small, circular cheesecake adorned with a crisp, fan-shaped crepe intended to evoke a pleated skirt.

Perhaps the most eye-catching item on the menu, though, is the special weekend Garden Basket for two. This comprises a herbed sausage, ratatouille, fries and other light snacks, plus fruits and a small dessert, with a bottle of house wine thrown in for 2,800 yen; or 5,800 yen for the same with a half-bottle of Laurent-Perrier Champagne.

The arrival of warm, clement weather means diners can again take advantage of the white plastic tables set up on the lawn outside, with matching chairs and canvas parasols. The rear of the museum is not as impressive to gaze upon as the front, but it is screened by a pleasant bank of trees, and the experience is further enlivened by the faintly surreal presence of mannequins in monochrome Yamamoto dresses installed on the grass and peeking down from the roof.

Good art doesn't necessarily make you hungry, but it does (or should) heighten the senses. Museums in Europe and North America began incorporating restaurants with flair long ago Enot just to feed visitors, but to lure more people to their shows. Here's hoping their counterparts here, or at least the more enterprising institutions among them, come to realize that it's a natural synergy.

Another place where art, nature and food (or at least light snacks) intersect is in the grounds of the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts. The rustic tea houses are not for the use of the general public, but you can sit in the gazebo cafe, sip coffee or matcha, gaze through the trees and forget you are in the heart of Aoyama.

Cafe d'Art
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, 4-7-25 Kita-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku; (03) 5423-1609
Open:11 a.m.-5 p.m. (last order); Wednesday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (last order 7:30 p.m.); Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Closed:Monday (except national holidays)
Nearest stations:Shinagawa (JR) or Gotanda (JR, Ikegami & Asakusa lines)
How to get there:From Shinagawa Station (Takanawa Exit), cross the main street, turn left past the Shinagawa Prince Hotel and follow the street as it curves up the hill to the right. At the third traffic lights (by the Gotenyama police box) turn left. The Hara Museum is on the left after about 300 meters. From Gotanda it is a short bus or taxi ride.
What works:Light meals that are reliable and attractive, and that al fresco garden setting.
What doesn't:Those tired quotes sprinkled around the walls.
Number of seats:30 inside, plus about 50 outside
Price per head: Light meals from 1,000 yen; weekend specials 2,200 yen, 2,800 yen and 5,800 yen; Wednesday evening special champagne dinner 7,000 yen for two.
Drinks:Beer 650 yen; Breton cider 700 yen; wine 700 yen/glass, 3,000 yen/bottle; champagne 4,500 yen/half-bottle, 8,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; a little English spoken
Reservations:Accepted weekdays only



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