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Friday, Sept. 26, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Pour a libation to summer's end at a stylish washoku hideaway
At last that spell of late summer heat has broken. At last we can generate something approximating an appetite. And -- all praise to the gods of zymurgy -- at last the first of the fresh-season sake is starting to arrive on the shelves and menus of our favorite ryoriya (restaurants) and izakaya.
What further excuse is needed for a libation? And where more appropriate to mark the occasion than at Tama? It would be hard to find a better example of the way Tokyo dines in casual, contemporary style.
Tucked away on a small side street off Kotto-dori in Aoyama, Tama's sleek facade is distinguished from those of the neighboring designer boutiques and hair salons only by the menu at the door. A miniature rock garden is shoehorned between the window and the street. The interior, too, is a study in minimalism -- all sharp, rectilinear angles and spare, monochrome decor.
Walls, ceiling and floor are all unadorned gray concrete. The simple tables and comfortable bistro-style chairs are plain white, and a small L-shaped counter occupying one corner glows pastel pink. The kitchen, glimpsed through a long, low glass panel, gleams of spotless stainless steel. The only splash of color comes from the generous flower arrangement in the back room, and the beckoning labels on the magnums of sake and shochu arrayed along and behind the bar.
This is quintessential cool. The chefs wear black berets with their whites, while the waiters favor all black. They were playing solo Keith Jarrett on the sound system when we arrived, and had the lights low and the air conditioning cranked up. But Tama is not one of those designer dining bars where attitude rules. Despite the good selection of libations -- they keep a dozen or more jizake in their refrigerator, plus good shochu, wine, cocktails and other liquors -- this is also a place where people come to eat, not just to pose and fill the air with tobacco smoke.
They understand food here. It is inventive and, notwithstanding the modest portions, surprisingly satisfying. They call their approach "washoku creative," and with good reason. They have developed a host of interesting variations on Japanese izakaya standards, embellished with Chinese and European influences.
A good example of this flair was our carpaccio. Thin slices of sashimi-grade modori-gatsuo, the plump, fatty bonito of autumn, were arranged on a square platter and drizzled with a fine crisscross hatching of shoyu that had been thickened almost to a caramel consistency. Garnished on top with grated ginger, the flavor was classic Japanese, but in appearance it was anything but.
Some of their dishes require no attempts at tweaking. These days, it is not so unusual to find homemade oboro (unpressed) tofu, but Tama's is a particular good example of the genre. Formed in a small ceramic bowl, rather than in the more usual bamboo zaru, it had a smooth, creamy texture that hit exactly the right spot on our rapidly recovering taste buds.
The menu covers all the standard categories -- zensai (appetizers); cold dishes (including classic sake accompaniments such as smoked Barbary duck and toriwasa (sashimi of chicken breast with a dab of wasabi); and boiled, grilled and fried (by which they mean deep-fried) dishes. There are also salads, manju (variations on Chinese dim sum), and a few cross-cultural experiments, such as pizza topped with jako (minute fish) and negi (onions), a combination that goes remarkably well with melted cheese.
But Tama's strongest suit is Japanese, as evidenced by the excellent grilled jidori chicken. This is free-range fowl -- most recently a variety called Nasu jidori, from Ibaraki, although they change the provenance regularly -- and you can taste the difference. The menu description ("Grilled chicken with salt") is a totally inadequate representation of the delectable morsels of grilled fowl that were put in front of us. Under the crisp brown exterior the meat was juicy and moist. Lightly coated with salt, it barely needed the cruets of chili, spicy yuzu and other spices served with it.
All of our food was presented beautifully, using ceramics and utensils of greater interest than the norm. But the stand-out for us was the cha-soba with which we closed our meal. The pale green noodles were piled up on a thick slab of clear crystal ice. "Eat it before the ice melts," we were advised. But we needed no encouragement.
Stylish but casual, satisfying but affordable, Tama achieves that all-too-elusive golden mean where style is balanced by real substance. This is just the place to reacquaint your appetite with good sake and food to match. Bring visitors from out of town here, and they will need no further proof that Tokyo enjoys the hippest, most exciting dining opportunities on the planet. But they might not believe how little you paid to impress them.
At lunchtime, Tama presents a small range of donburi (rice bowl) set meals, served with soup, pickles and a side dish. Two caveats, though. In the cold light of midday, the decor can seem almost industrial in its starkness. And although the grilled chicken donburi is delectable, do not order it if you are pressed for time, since it takes twice as long to prepare as it does to eat.
Food and drink of a similar caliber are served at Tama's original premises in the CI Plaza between Gaienmae and Aoyama-Ichome. Although the decor is perhaps less cutting-edge, the setting is more spacious and enhanced by an outdoor terrace.
Tama, C.I. Plaza 2F., 2-3-1 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5772-3933. Open Monday-Friday 11.30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-midnight; Saturday and holidays 5 p.m.-midnight; closed Sunday.From October, with the introduction of the new Weekend Scene on Friday, Tokyo Food File will appear every first and third Friday of the month.