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Friday, July 25, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Why shell out?
One thing should be made clear from the outset: L'Ecailler is not a restaurant for everyone. This has nothing to do with location or exclusivity, though it must be said that tony, well-heeled Shirokanedai does boast a distinctive demographic all its own. Neither is it a question of finances. L'Ecailler may not be a budget bistro, but neither could it be called a budget-buster.
What sets this place apart is the food. Virtually everything on the menu is prepared from fruits de mer of some description. If you're not into seafood, forget it. But piscivores -- and that includes just about the entire population of Japan -- will be entirely in their watery element.
This restaurant's predilection for fish is no doubt obvious to all French-speakers. L'ecailler is the person who pries open shellfish -- the shucker, we would say in English (though the term hardly invokes the requisite gravitas for the name of an eating establishment). And there, standing behind a handsome, stone-topped counter in one corner of the room, you will espy one of the staff dressed the part of the fishmonger, in long white apron and flat cap.
You could sit at the counter and watch him as he picks out mollusks from the iceboxes behind him, preparing them and also slicing up cuts of fresh fish for the carpaccio. But it's not the kind of compelling floor show you'd get at, say, a sushi shop. So instead, make yourself comfortable at one of the tables in the dining room proper. Continuing the converted fish-shop look, the walls are covered with shiny white tiles and hung with amusing prints of a maritime nature. Best of all, though, on warm summer evenings they throw open the whole front of the restaurant, giving a ringside view of the leafy boulevard outside.
When L'Ecailler opened more than a year ago, it aimed upmarket, with prices to match. But changes have been rung, and now it achieves an admirable balance of good cooking, relaxed ambience and attentive service, with prix-fixe menus that are very reasonable. What hasn't changed is that, with the exception of one main dish, everything is based on seafood.
The four-course 4,800 yen dinner menu is based on a wide range of choices from the a la carte menu. It opens with an amuse-gueule, which last week was a small bowl of gazpacho, chilled and refreshing, the tomato and cucumber enhanced by more than a hint of watermelon.
From the list of starters, we chose tartare of zuwaigani, the fresh meat of the snow crab blended with smooth avocado, strongly flavored with cumin and served on a basic green salad. It was very good -- especially compared with our other dish, quiche made with Edomae anago (sea eel). This was an intriguing marriage of egg and eel, with a light accent of cheese on top and seasoned with a splash of shoyu on the plate. But the pastry was heavy and the filling too dense, as if it had been prepared far in advance.
The pasta, though, was excellent. We were delighted by the fine linguettine with oursin, the rich, creamy sauce blending uni (sea urchin) with plenty of cream, sauteed garlic and finely chopped parsley. The octopus risotto was also successful, with both the rice and the large morsels of octopus cooked to just the right texture. (Another option we recommend is the soup -- a rich, red seafood bisque that we sampled on a previous visit.)
Chef Koji Kaneko is not shy of using forthright flavors, with spices and herbs prominent in the mix. Nor is he reluctant to incorporate "exotic" ingredients (green papaya, for example, or passion-fruit vinegar) -- after all, these crop up in the mainstream of modern French cuisine these days. And though we found our main courses rather over-salted, they were no more so than we would expect in many a bistro in Paris.
The pan-fried fillets of isaki (grunt) were straightforward, but none the worse for it -- nicely crisped, served on a sauce of creamed artichoke and garnished with slices of grilled artichoke heart. More inventive was the shirakawa (white horsehead fish, brought in from Hong Kong) wrapped inside a pan-fried parcel of brik pastry, along with mussels, strips of leek and fine-chopped champignons. Tres bon.
The nonfish alternative on the main course is currently bavette of beef (with shallots and freedom fries), and that appeared to be popular with our fellow diners -- perhaps because of all the red wines in the cellar. L'Ecailler boasts an excellent wine list, with plenty of reasonably priced bottles. But their expertise in this department should be no surprise, given that the restaurant is part of the same group as the Enoteca wine shops.
The dessert list features a good, dark gateau chocolat classique and there is a fine selection of cheeses (not included). The bread was replenished frequently. Service is prompt, efficient and neither casual nor obsequious. And lunch is, if anything, even better value.
They even let you tether your dog if you're sitting at one of the four outside tables -- this is Shirokanedai, after all. In short, everything at L'Ecailler has been worked out to the last detail. Just as long as you like seafood.