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Friday, July 18, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

This Ricos is posh, new -- but is it improved?


It was with considerable anticipation that we made our way to Akabanebashi last week to try the new Ricos, which opened June 10. After all, this is the latest from the people who brought us Ricos Kitchen near Yebisu Garden Place, which was one of our restaurants of the year in 1999 and remains a reliable favorite to this day.

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At Ricos in Higashi-Azabu, floor manager Hiromichi Shibazaki

First impressions are everything -- and Ricos looks very much the part. It occupies a custom-built, freestanding, two-story building hidden away on a quiet residential back street in an as-yet sleepy part of Higashi-Azabu. Inside and out, the architecture is stylish and modern.

You see the kitchen to your left as you enter, and on the right a substantial, glass-fronted wine cellar. The main dining room, up on the second floor, is airy and spacious, with high ceilings and picture windows through which the orange girders of Tokyo Tower's upper levels can just be glimpsed.

The chairs and banquettes are midnight-blue, the tables covered in brilliant starched white. Complex jazz fills the air. Formality is the order of the day here, in contrast to the hip, relaxed vibe that makes dinner at Ricos Kitchen such a pleasure.

The menu reflects a similar move toward high-end sophistication. Chef Mitsunori Shimazaki has until now been second in command at the Ebisu operation. But here he jettisons the easygoing Californian-meets-modern-Italian style in favor of a far more intricate, minimalist cucina with particular emphasis on seasonal vegetables. It looks beautiful and tastes superb, but is definitely geared toward special occasions -- a romantic dinner, say, rather than a casual, after-work meal with the spouse.

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The weekday lunchtime set menus are good value, as is the weekend brunch. The dinner menu, though, proved more difficult to navigate. There were five in our party, of whom three chose to pick from the a la carte menu and subsequently spent much of the evening looking on hungrily at the succession of dishes that were produced for the two who ordered the 6,500 yen omakase tasting menu.

This is an altogether better deal. First comes an amuse-gueule, tartare of chopped red maguro on a small spoonful of creamy avocado. Next a small starter of marinated seafood (scallops and kodai snapper), accompanied by lightly blanched vegetables with a lemon vinaigrette, a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan and topped with scoops of fresh, orange uni. Then, as a second, warm starter, a whole softshell crab, breaded and deep fried, and served on a bed of tomato salsa.

With both the pasta and main dish, you can choose fish, meat or fowl based on the options on the a la carte menu. The spaghettini with guinea fowl was barely more than a couple of mouthfuls, but the flakes of dark meat tasted rich and intense. Our main dish -- rack of lamb with a spoonful of mash -- was equally diminutive but even tastier.

The "pre-dessert," an espresso cup filled with a lingering coffee mousse, was followed by a slice of apricot tart that was virtually eclipsed by a scoop of bittersweet caramel ice cream. By the time the coffee arrived, satiation point had been reached.

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Chef Mitsunori Shimazaki

Meanwhile, the individual a la carte dishes were being served at longer intervals; in volume, they were only marginally larger; and in terms of overall cost, they added up to a more expensive meal with fewer individual elements. An even more significant grumble was that several dishes arrived lukewarm at best from the kitchen below. And the floor staff are still not fully up to speed, although this should be rectified with time.

Ruffled feelings were mollified by the substantial wine list, which is almost entirely Californian in composition. It contains several lesser-known names, and enough bottles under 7,000 yen to allow for experimentation. Among those we can recommend are two from Edmunds St. John -- the Los Robles Viejos white (a Rhone-style blend of Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne grapes); and the intense Rocks and Gravel (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise), reminiscent of the wines of the sun-drenched south of France.

Ultimately, though, if we left feeling less than totally satisfied, it was not due to any deficiencies in the menu or the service -- and certainly not the cooking. It was more a sense of disappointment that, despite the striking setting, Ricos is content to follow the conventional model for upscale Tokyo restaurants, rather than continuing the innovative and refreshingly casual path that made Ricos Kitchen so noteworthy.

Ricos
1-20-3 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 3588-8777
Open:11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. (last order); Sunday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (last order)
Closed:Monday (except national holidays)
Nearest stations: Akabanebashi (Oedo Line)
How to get there:Leave Akabanebashi Satation by the Naka-Shibabashi Exit, turn right by the Family Mart convenience store, and you will see Ricos on the left on the second short block. From Azabu-Juban (Ichinohashi Crossing), it's a 7-8 minute walk in the direction of Shiba Koen.
What works: Stylish modern cuisine in a setting to match.
What doesn't:Kitchen is too far from the dinning room; the wait staff are still timid.
Number of seats: 38 upstairs, 12 downstairs (plus counter for four)
BGM: Jazz
Price per head:Lunch from 1,000 yen; dinner courses at 5,800 yen and 6,500 yen (also a la carte); Saturday and Sunday brunch 2,800 yen
Drinks:Beer 800 yen; wine from 900 yen/glass, from 4,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; English spoken
Reservations: Advisable



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