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Friday, Oct. 3, 2003



Pride of Italy, transplanted

You eat better at Italian restaurants in Tokyo than you do in Italy. A preposterous statement of unreconstructed chauvinism? An urban myth propagated by a few disgruntled tourists ripped off in Rimini? No, that is the considered opinion of a growing number of people familiar with both countries and their food -- not least among them Mario Frittoli, the Tuscan-born chef who has made his home in Japan for the past 13 years.

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Not Satisfied with merely reproducing traditional Tuscan classics, chef Mario Frittoli brilliantly improvises on Italian traditions at Luxor in Shirokanedai.

Of course, you can dine like a king in most of Italy's major cities. The problem is, royalty is passe. Except at a few outstanding (and nonrepresentative) ristoranti, most of them in cosmopolitan Milan, you will have a hard job finding creative, contemporary food to match what is available to us here in Tokyo. Drop by for a meal at Luxor, Frittoli's unashamedly swish restaurant in ritzy Shirokanedai, and you are likely to agree.

Luxor is not perhaps the most obvious name for an Italian restaurant. But Frittoli has clearly set his sights well above the merely obvious. He has created a thoroughly modern cucina that draws on influences from far beyond the borders of his homeland -- Paris, London and New York, all places he has worked; and, in his regard for freshness and quality of ingredients, from his adopted home, Japan.

Frittoli is a passionate promoter of the Italian way of eating, with frequent television appearances to his name (his WowWow series was one of our all-time favorite cooking programs). He was also the man who put Higashi-Azabu on the culinary map, thanks to the excellent, reasonably priced Tuscan food he served during his all-too-short stint at the helm of Il Pinolo. Now, though, he finally has the independence and the wherewithal to take his ambitions to a higher level.

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Luxor opened at the beginning of the year. It is as stylish as a Milan fashion boutique, furnished with an understated verve and only the slightest hint of postmodern irony. As you enter, check out the column of cutlery embedded in transparent Perspex. In the main dining room, gaze up at the chandeliers and you will see they are formed out of Dali-esque distorted forks. The ceramic tiles covering much of the walls are shaped like rectangular Japanese serving plates, but interspersed with panels of soft leather the color of terra cotta.

Frittoli's engaging personality is evident throughout. He bustles from kitchen to table, greeting customers like old friends and checking all is well. Even when he is out of town, his presence remains in the form of a frieze of massive monochrome photos along the far end of the dining room, showing him in action in the kitchen.

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For those craving privacy, there is a leather-paneled VIP room at the back. Ceiling-high glass doors open onto a spacious terrace, which at this time of year is the place to be for lunch and leisurely weekend brunches. But if you have the slightest interest in food, the place to sit is at one of the three "chef's tables" right by the open kitchen. From here you get a ringside view of your meal being prepared, and of the man himself conducting his staff through the intense symphony of the mealtime. If you think all Italian kitchens are like the movie "Dinner Rush," you will marvel at how calm (and sparkling clean) he keeps it.

Instead of merely reproducing the foods of his native Tuscany, as he did at Il Pinolo, here Frittoli uses them as the basis for improvisation. The results can be outstanding, as we found out last week when we dropped by to try his new autumn menu.

Our antipasti platter was a brilliant palette of flavors and colors. On one side there was a small mound of beef carpaccio, the fine slivers of pink meat garnished with curls of soft fois gras and daubed with rich drizzles of dark balsamico and brown mustard. Paired with that, on the other side of the plain white plate, a tartar of fresh, uncooked shrimp, coarsely chopped and mixed with finely diced zucchini and stuffed into a ring of pure white squid, set off with young asparagus and small, sweet cherry tomatoes.

For our pasta course, we ordered the special Tagliolini Luxor. The fine, homemade noodles are tossed with fine specks of herbs and served with a substantial Atlantic lobster. The deep red of the crustacean shell provided a beautiful contrast with the green vegetables -- morsels of zucchini and mangetout peas -- with generous clusters of dark gray Oscietra caviar adding further depths of flavor. It was a remarkable combination.

Frittoli is confident with his herbs and spices, even those not generally associated with Italy. The scampi we ordered for our fish course was breaded with a generous amount of green herbs, then oven baked. Underneath that crunchy outer layer we found scoops of soft uni (sea urchin), its orange color and gentle bitterness contrasting with the soft white flesh of the langoustine, and offset by a scattering of red peppercorns.

Our next dish -- involtini of free-range chicken -- was prepared in classic style, the crisped outer skin concealing rolls of soft, white meat, accented with the comforting sweetness of caramelized onions. This was served on a simple bed of soft spinach, but the sauce that surrounded it was boldly suffused with aromatic spices, the lingering flavors of anise, cumin and nutmeg adding a totally unorthodox slant that brings new life and interest to this well-loved but well-worn recipe.

But our absolute favorite, the dish that we will continue to come back for as often as time and purse allow, is the homemade papardelle. The pasta dough is infused with a hint of rosemary, then coarsely cut into wide bands that make the perfect foil for the wonderful sauce that accompanies it. The rich, intense ragout of duck meat is cooked with small pieces of fresh chestnut and Italian bacon, simmered down with Pinot Noir. It is so good you will call out for more bread to mop up every last drop of that sauce.

An evening here is an indulgence -- one which, unless you are on an expense account, you will want to keep for those special occasions when you want to dress up and celebrate with an expensive bottle of wine. There are plenty to choose from, with some top Californian names alongside the Italians. Overall, though, the wine list is top-heavy with prime Barolos, Brunellos and super-Tuscans. Since there is very little available under 5,000 yen (and those are badly overpriced), a better option is to order one of the excellent wines served by the glass.

Unlike too many other upscale restaurants in Tokyo, though, Luxor has the buzz of a place where people are really enjoying themselves. And that is entirely attributable to the food and vision -- and personality -- of Mario Frittoli.

2F Barbizon 25, 5-4-7 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku; (03) 3446-6900; www.luxor-r.com
Open:Daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (last order 2:30 p.m.) and 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. (last order 10:30 p.m.)
Nearest stations: Shirokanedai (Namboku Line)
How to get there:From Shirokanedai Station, walk down Gaien Nishi-dori until you reach the Idemitsu gas station. Take the small side street immediately after the traffic lights and you will see the steps leading up to Luxor immediately on your left.
What works: Immensely confident, modern Italian cooking in a sleek setting.
What doesn't:Too few bottles under 5,000 yen on the wine list.
Number of seats: 80, plus 28 outside on the terrace
BGM:Mellow R&B at noon; jazzy by night; live music on Friday and Saturday evenings
Price per head:Lunch menus at 1,500 yen, 2,300 yen and 3,800 yen; brunch (Saturday and Sunday) at 1,800 yen, 3,200 yen and 4,500 yen; dinner menu 8,500 yen and a la carte
Drinks:Aperitifs from 800 yen; cocktails from 1,200 yen; beer from 800 yen; wine 800 yen/glass, from 4,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Italian/Japanese/English menu; English spoken
Reservations: Highly recommended, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings

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