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Friday, June 27, 2003



On top of the world

It's one of those universal truths we hold self-evident. Fine food plus city lights from way up above, multiplied by one significant other, equals romance. And the great thing is, that equation always adds up, no matter what city, climate or time zone you're in -- even in Roppongi Hills.

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Nouveau-Chinese cuisine (below) is served up in Star Anise, the pick of the restaurants in the Roppongi Hills Club, which occupies the 51st floor of Mori Tower (above) PHOTO COURTESY OF ROPPONGI HILLS CLUB/JUDE BRAND PHOTO
News photo

Yes, back we were drawn, like moths to a high-intensity flame. How could we say no to an invitation to peek inside, to linger and then to dine in unabashed luxury at the top of the massive Mori Tower that forms the looming high-rise heart of the complex.

This is rarefied territory -- and not just because of the altitude. The entire 51st floor of the tower is occupied by the members-only Roppongi Hills Club, without a doubt the most exclusive new address in Tokyo. It boasts no fewer than eight top-flight restaurants. But unless you are one of the lucky few who can afford the considerable fees (a million down flat and counting), then the only way to get to see this floor is as a guest. Start angling for that invitation now.

The club-only elevators rise at a high speed as the lights inside dim and turn mauve, as if from lack of oxygen. Disembarking, you are greeted by receptionists: you could be checking into a bijou hotel. A bevy of uniformed staff hover at hand, ready to usher you to your table. The lighting is diffuse, just sufficient to see where you're going without undue strain on your retinas.

The decor (as you might expect from the house of Conran) is retro-futuristic, all clean, sleek lines and no harsh edges: chrome and mulberry leather in the main lounge, the 51 Club; steel-and-glass, walk-in wine cellars in Aurora, the main French restaurant; and an aquamarine bar and bistro-style seating in the casual seafood bar, Undercurrent.

Sexiest of all, though, is Star Anise and its two semiprivate rooms done out -- carpet, banquette, chairs and walls -- in scarlet. No window view here, though, just a band of lipstick-red light casting a dramatic glow that makes the gleaming white tablecloth seem to float in space. It's a brilliant setting, perfect for the nouveau-Chinese cuisine.

The appetizer plate is an excursion around our taste buds, arrayed on a platter of rough, handmade glass. Crunchy rolls of slivered jellyfish and bean sprouts, wrapped in yuba; some sweet, sesame-glazed walnuts; prawns so lightly boiled they are almost raw, on a bed of baby leaf salad; slices of delectable marinated barbecued pork; minced meat and stems of makomodake grass, tender as eggplant, in a tongue-tingling sauce; and morsels of beef, braised dark with plenty of soy and aromatic spices.

The main influences are Cantonese, but allegiance is also paid to Shanghai. The shark's fin soup is bulked out with plenty of king crab meat and egg white in a thick chicken broth. The sliced fillet of beef is sauteed soft in black bean paste and served with al dente slivers of bell pepper and green garlic stems. The steamed scallops are as melt-in-the-mouth tender as anything you'd eat in Hong Kong, but the sauce they're matched with is oily and slightly sweet, infused with salt and garlic -- classic "Shanghainese."

Best of all, though, is the sweet and sour pork (from premium Platinum pigs, reared in Iwate). So rich and delectable was this, it's just as well the portion is small or you'd risk death by surfeit. The one aberration is the so-called Peking Duck -- the minute square of crisp duck skin comes with a limp pancake that was too thick and pasty, and not redeemed by the fruity sauces it was served with (perhaps they should stick to the South Chinese cooking they do so well). But the noodles are first-rate, as are the dim sum.

If you have no space left for dessert, order one of their rare Chinese teas -- or maybe just another of their excellent (if pricy) Californian wines by the glass, of which our favorites are the Flora Springs Merlot and the Heitz Chardonnay. You will be satiated -- so much so you may find yourself sinking back in your seat and musing on the idea of taking out a club membership on the spot.

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The stylish Museum Cafe (above); staff (l-r) Matsumoto-san, Morita-san, Muranaka-san, Iida-san and Ishikawa-san wait to serve clients at 51st Club, Hyakumi-an and the Star Bar PHOTO COURTESY OF ROPPONGI HILLS CLUB/JUDE BRAND PHOTO
News photo

This, of course, is the drawback. Until you do become a member, dinner at Star Anise (and the other in-house restaurants) will have to wait until you are invited there.

Star Anise, Roppongi Hills Club, Mori Tower 51F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; open to members only. For details, tel. (03) 6406-6001.

For the rest of us, there is one way to get a taste of the high life on the 51st floor -- at the Museum Cafe. Although it is part of the Roppongi Hills Club, this is open to nonmembers part of the time. And although it is unannounced to the hoi polloi who mill around at ground level, the museum can be accessed via the Tokyo City View observation deck on the floor above.

This is one of the best-kept secrets in all of Roppongi Hills. Here, too, the decor is classic Conran -- chairs upholstered in bright, warm orange pulled up to sharp white tablecloths; lighting of the same hue illuminating the ceiling; chunky cruet sets and bulbous water glasses; comfy sofas in the lounge area on the other side of the bar. And, of course, that awesome view all the way across to Shinjuku and beyond.

The food, drawn from the pan-Mediterranean gamut, is just as tasty as the surroundings. There are set meals, featuring salads and pastas, plus a selection of meat and seafood. At lunch the other day, we chose instead from the a la carte selection

The Caesar salad is excellent and innovative. On top of the standard lettuce and red endive, it features a chilled, soft-poached egg; a crisp rasher of bacon; in place of regular croutons, long slices of toasted baguette liberally flavored with garlic pesto; and shards of Parmesan tuile (a thin, flaky confection with the same deep taste as savory cheese straws).

Our cream-laden risotto contained flakes of white chicken meat with fresh, green edamame beans and garden peas. It was topped with a skewer of grilled chicken seasoned with pesto and a "fritter" of maitake mushroom (not battered, just deep fried and sprinkled with salt). It was so good we vowed immediately to come back as soon as possible -- if not as members then at least paying for the City View elevator -- to enjoy a more substantial, lingering dinner.

It's not that straightforward, though. Because these are early days still -- the museum itself doesn't open till October -- the opening policy is still being firmed up. As of July 1, the cafe is open to nonmembers on weekdays until 5 p.m., but all day at weekends. Reservations aren't accepted, so you will have to time your visit well or be prepared to nurse a drink until a table frees up. It will certainly be worth the wait.

Museum Cafe
Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 51F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; (03) 6406-6001
Open:Daily 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.) Closed to nonmembers weekdays from 5 p.m.
Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo subway lines)
How to get there:From Roppongi Station (Roppongi Hills Exit), take the main escalator to the second floor open space and walk round to the left of the main tower. Take the elevator to City View Gallery on the 52nd floor, then ride the escalator down to the 51st floor and follow the signs to the Museum Cafe.
What works: Great view, cool interior and excellent modern Mediterranean food
What doesn't:You have to pay for the elevator ride.
Number of seats: 124
BGM: Cool bossa jazz
Price per head:Lunch courses from 1,800 yen; dinner courses from 3,500 yen (a la carte available for both)
Drinks:Beer from 800 yen; cocktails from 1,000 yen; wine from 800 yen/glass, 4,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Not accepted (but there's a nice little cafe/bar to wait in)

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