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Friday, Nov. 7, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Embracing the brasserie
It takes a good measure of self-confidence, ballsiness even, to try to reproduce a Parisian-style brasserie in the heart of Tokyo. The look is not the difficult part; ready-made interiors can be bought off the shelf these days. But replicating the atmosphere and dynamics is another matter altogether.
The only place that has ever come close to getting it right -- not just in terms of attitude and looks but in its juxtaposition of casual style with serious food and drink -- was the much loved and now lamented Aux Bacchanales, late of Harajuku (its clone in Ark Hills has never gained our affection in the same way). Happily, though, we have not had to wait too long for a worthy successor to come along.
Brasserie Aux Amis certainly looks the part, with its red awning, matching banquettes, brass fittings and full-wall mirrors -- inscribed in white with the menu of the day, bien su^r. But this is much more than just a pretty space. Although the premises are not large, one corner by the door has been given over to a bar area, where you can prop yourself up and order un petit cafe (just 200 yen for espresso), a casse-croute snack or a glass or two of vin ordinaire.
In fact, the cellar here rises well above the ordinary. One glance at the weighty wine list, which covers all the important wine regions of France, is enough to reassure you of that. Of course, we would expect nothing less from the ever-enterprising Aux Amis group, which has led the way as Tokyo moves beyond infatuation with wine to serious connoisseurship.
This is the third Aux Amis restaurant (not including the two Vin Picoeur grills, one of which is in the basement of the same Shin-Tokyo Building). Each place has a distinctly different character, but all display a serious love for French wine in all its guises, and the recognition that good food plays an essential part in its enjoyment. Here at the Brasserie, the menu is solidly bourgeois in inspiration, but using premium ingredients and executed with all the precision and finesse that we take for granted here in Tokyo.
As soon as you sit down, the waiters will bring to the table uncooked specimens of the day's specials for you to inspect -- live langoustines for the bouillabaisse; kuromutsu or madai (snapper) to be pan roasted; plates of wild seasonal mushrooms, imported from the mountainsides of Europe; and wild fowl, such as grouse or quail.
Indeed, gibier (as game like this is collectively known in French) occupies pride of place on the menu. And if this puts you in mind of Aux Bacchanales, that's hardly surprising, since Chef Masashi Hadachi was at the helm there until its final days. You are likely to be sorely tempted -- as we were -- to pass over the 4,500 yen three-course dinner menu in favor of the duck, quail or Hokkaido venison on the a la carte page.
This can work out quite pricey. One grouse split between two comes to 5,200 yen, and there's not a lot of meat on it. We supplemented this with an excellent mixed salad (organically grown greens from the Shizuoka homestead of Matsuki-san, formerly manager of La Tour d'Argent); a plate of the aforementioned fungi, which at 2,400 yen were poor value, being not entirely fresh (understandably, as they are air-freighted in), bland and underseasoned; and a platter of excellent frites, served with mustard.
The prix-fixe menu has plenty of interesting options, too -- especially the Alsace-style sausages and sauerkraut. There are good selections of cheese, desserts and post-prandial marc and cognac. The great thing is you can structure your evening exactly as you like. Sip and snack at the bar; drop in for a light meal with wine (though there are not many bottles under 5,000 yen); or come and settle in for the evening, splurging on a top cha^teau with a dinner of real substance.
Not everyone will like the intimacy (for which read cramped table space); the friendly service (too casual at times, and still getting up to speed); or the hubbub of happy diners (quite a din when it gets full). But few people will fault quality of the food. And, with all the theater of waiters rushing in with steaming pots and flaming pans, only the most curmudgeonly will fail to enjoy themselves. And surely that is the bottom line, the sine qua non, the raison d'e^tre, for any brasserie.
They say that time flies when you're having fun, but can it really be five years since Fujimamas first threw open its distinctive doors to the Harajuku night? Back then it was unique; now it's a Tokyo institution. But there's still nowhere else like it in the city.
Now, to mark their anniversary, they have begun serving Sunday brunch, as well as continuing their long tradition of wine dinners, tasting sessions and live musical entertainment.
Fujimama's is a winning combination -- the funky, open-plan architecture (inside the shell of a traditional wooden house); friendly multilingual, international staff; a good range of New World wines and well-mixed cocktails; and unpretentious (and very reasonably priced) Asian-Pacific good-time cuisine.
Fujimamas, 6-3-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5485-2262
Another favorite of ours that celebrated an anniversary in October is Ricos Kitchen, which has just turned 4 years old. Despite the opening earlier this year of a sleek new sister operation (simply called Ricos) in Higashi-Azabu, we still prefer the original restaurant.
It still looks and feels stylish; it's smart enough for a first date, yet casual enough for a no-frills after-work dinner; and best of all, it still serves up that same satisfying New World Italian cucina. In the immediate vicinity of Yebisu Garden Place, there are few eateries more satisfying.
Ricos Kitchen, 4-23-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel (03) 5791-4649
Congratulations are also in order for Eat magazine, Tokyo's fine bilingual, food-centric publication, which is now in its third year of operation. On the strength of its eye-catching graphics and equally striking editorial content, the quarterly recently won the Silver Ladle in the "Best Food Magazine" category at the Jacob's Creek 2003 World Food Media Awards.
You can pick up Eat at many bookstores in Japan (and abroad), as well as at selected outlets of Starbucks. For more details -- and to sample its colorful pages -- check out the Web site, www.i-eatsite.com