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Friday, Aug. 8, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Keeping your cool this summer


Summer is here, the season of lethargy and listlessness, of sweat and stunted appetites. There are ways to ameliorate (if not actually beat) the big heat, but very few of them involve eating. For us, summer is about sitting outside in the cool of the evening, a nice cold beer at hand, or a bottle of crisp white wine. Snacks are required, though certainly nothing too substantial. But the most important factor is the location. Here are a couple of places with al fresco annexes that come into their own at this time of year.

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Soho's, at the stylish V28 building, offers another terrace treat.
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The opening of the V28 building last September marked the arrival of 21st-century, glass-and-steel architecture at the hitherto sedate end of Omotesando. Inside is just as impressive, as you will find if you ride the see-through elevators up to the fourth floor, occupied by the sexy, stylish flagship of the Soho's chain.

The restaurant itself is a cavernous space with high ceilings, curving walls of sleek aluminum, a glass-fronted kitchen and deep purple velvet curtains to screen off the leather sofas of the VIP area. It makes for spectacular dining, but we prefer the cool chic of the adjacent bar area, with its long, sweeping counter and low tables for two looking out through huge picture windows onto the Harajuku skyline.

This is one of the classiest places in the area to start or finish an evening, either as a rendezvous spot or for one final cocktail. But what is of greatest interest, now that summer is upon us, is the small open-air terrace on the floor above. Forget the miserable fare offered by rooftop beer gardens in bygone years: Soho's Omotesando drags the whole concept into the present tense.

The full range of food and drink from the bar below is available. That means a wide gamut of cocktails (they produce a killer Manhattan) plus a substantial wine list, as well as some unusual beers, including one of our all-time favorites, Anchor Steam from San Francisco.

The food menu is classic fusion/confusion territory, especially when rendered into English. Bloomy fried onions? These, in fact, are fritters of flowering onion tops -- sprinkled rather generously with salt, but definitely worth exploring. Follow that, if you will, with fresh spring rolls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, prosciutto and basil leaf (a cross-cultural experiment that actually works). Or perhaps move on to the grilled Cajun chicken with an avocado and cheddar salad drizzled with a honey mustard dressing.

This exotic vein extends into the pizza and pasta menus. Asian alioli pizza with teriyaki chicken, sesame and mozzarella? Hawaiian BBQ-sauce pizza with roasted pork scattered with pineapple and coconut chips? Thankfully they also have more reliable mainstream Italian selections, such as pizza with good old prosciutto and rucola -- prepared with expertise, too.

But the food comes second in a setting like this. Here, way above the heat and hassle of the street, you can spend the evening in style, snacking and sipping and drinking in the view across to the winking lights of Shinjuku.

Soho's Omotesando, V28 building 4F, 6-31-17 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5468-0411. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-4 a.m. (Sunday and holidays till 11:30 p.m.). Nearest stations: Harajuku (JR) and Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line)

Nothing could be more different from the cutting-edge cool of Soho's than, just around the corner, the comfortable, casual welcome you get at the Pink Cow. It's only a couple of hundred meters away, but the difference is as great as moving from New York to the mellow vibes of southern California.

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Chef Andrew Warden and CEO Tracy Consoli on the terrace of The Pink Cow, famed for Warden's delicious burritos (below).
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Occupying the ground floor of a residential apartment building hidden away in the back alleys of Harajuku, the Pink Cow (as the name suggests) is not a place to take yourself too seriously. Though the food is one of its many attractions, it is not a restaurant per se, more a lounge that also functions as a bar, art gallery, event space and meeting point for like-minded souls to gather.

The spacious, rambling premises are done out in classic thrift-shop chic, with funky secondhand furniture and a revolving display of artwork adorning the walls. It even has its own secluded patio -- just a few benches and chairs where you can nurse a drink and a cheroot.

We usually start with a bottle or two of their microbrewed beers (Redhook ISB, straight from Woodinville, Wash.) or a big-drinking Californian wine (perhaps a Cline Syrah, or a Ravenswood Zinfandel). These are hardly subtle tipples, by any means, but they make a perfect match for the hearty, home-style cooking of the Pink Cow's resident chef, Andy Warden.

His is basic, feel-good fare, the primary inspiration being Tex-Mex -- chunky guacamole with home-made tortilla chips; quesadillas; good, spicy Mexican chorizo sausages. We love the burritos, stuffed with oozing hot black beans, cheese and chicken, with plenty of guacamole, sour cream and salsa on the side.

Vegetarians eat well here. There are meat-free equivalents for just about everything on the menu -- including the remarkable samosa burritos (a house original, stuffed with curried lentils and topped with cashew nuts and coriander), the black bean fajitas and veggie burgers.

On any given evening the Pink Cow may be hosting a live jazz band, a DJ party, a meeting of Democrats Abroad or a wine tasting. So it's hardly surprising that, over the past three years, it's become one of the hidden treasures of Harajuku -- indeed of the whole city.

However, we only have a couple of more weeks in which to enjoy this oasis of idiosyncrasy in its present form. Following a closing party on Aug. 24, the Pink Cow will reopen in newer, larger premises in Shibuya (see below). Not only will it be easier to find, but it will also be equipped with a proper kitchen (instead of a two-ring burner). We can't wait. The Cow will abide.

The Pink Cow, 1-10-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5411- 6777; www.thepinkcow.com. Open: 5:30-late; closed: Monday; also 2nd and 4th Sunday of month. Nearest stations: Harajuku (JR); Meij-jingumae (Chiyoda Line). See Web site for map. The Pink Cow will close Aug. 24. In September it moves to 1-3-18 Shibuya, across from Aoyama Park Tower (see Web site for details).


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