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Friday, Dec. 12, 2003



Steak a claim to heavyweight dining

The first thing you see as you enter The Oak Door is the bar, surrounded on three sides by sleek, glass-fronted wine racks packed with boutique New World wines. The second thing that grabs your eye is the warm, flickering glow emanating from the bank of wood-fired ovens by the kitchen, and the white-clad chefs carefully tending the cuts of meat cooking inside.

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Chef Christopher Mark presides over the kitchen at The Oak Door, with17:45 2003/12/11 its bank of wood-fired ovens.

The visual message is simple and direct. The Oak Door, in Roppongi's Grand Hyatt Hotel, does steak and wine, but with a sense of poise and sophistication you will find nowhere else in town.

You come here for power eating. The menu offers eight different cuts of beef, ranging from a basic half-pound of New Zealand tenderloin or 10 ounces (283 grams) of U.S. Angus sirloin to 22-oz (625-gram) porterhouse steaks of prime Japanese wagyu (for two, they recommend). There's veal, lamb and pork, too, not to mention lobster and assorted fish -- plus chicken or duck from the rotisserie. Potatoes are optional. Dr. Atkins would most definitely approve.

This is heavyweight dining, as serious and masculine as the setting. The main dining area is large and imposing, with high ceilings and little in the way of decor, save for the beautiful dwarf tree set against a wall of burnished vermilion at one end. There are also a few alcoves off to one side that afford greater intimacy and -- if you are lucky enough to be close to the cooking area -- wonderful aromas.

You can start with soup, salad or perhaps one of the seafood starters -- we can recommend the breaded croquettes of tara-gani crab with piquant red-pepper sauce, and also the Kumamoto tomatoes topped with blobs of blue cheese. But we noticed many people prefer to home straight in on their main course.

Needless to say, the steaks are excellent. But so, too, are the other meats. The braised Greenland lamb shank comes in a rich gravy cooked with celery and kyo-ninjin carrot, cooked long and slow until the meat almost falls off the bone. The Long Island duck had perhaps been in the rotisserie a tad too long, but the meat was firm and flavorful, with delectable, crisp-basted skin, enlivened by the three cruets of sauce (red wine and shallot, roast mushroom, and green peppercorn), and another of horseradish.

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All diners have to do is sit back in the elegant dining room (above) and prepare to charge their expense account.
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We were less impressed by our vegetables. The rosemary-flavored baby potatoes were under-cooked and had to be sent back for further baking. The sliced pumpkin had a sweet, cinnamon-tinged glaze that was intriguing, though we thought receiving only four thin slices was slightly stingy.

Overall, serving sizes are generous by Tokyo standards, though if you are fresh from New York or the trenchermen heartland of Texas, you may be underwhelmed. But desserts offer a further chance to fill up. The house specialty is their range of tarts -- lime, chestnut, pear, chocolate or sweet pumpkin. Each is served with whipped cream plus a good punnet of ice cream, and is quite large enough to split between two.

The Oak Door is not the place for those who are counting their yen. As evidenced by the preponderance of executives in suits, this is expense-account territory. This is especially true if you have a bottle or two of wine with your meal. The selection, half from California, the rest from other parts of the New World, is exciting, but there is little on the list under 5,000 yen and everything is marked up even higher than you will find in most other parts of town.

All in all, The Oak Door is not, perhaps, the place for a sultry date or a cozy pre-Christmas meal a deux. But if you are exulting in a clinched deal, toasting recent gains in Kabutocho, or merely ending the year in a state of solvency, then here is just the place to celebrate.

And if you are not in the mood for a sit-down meal with the works, you can drop by the bar for a drink and a snack (the sirloin steak baguette, perhaps). If you have visitors from abroad, bring them here -- if only to impress on them that Tokyo has just as much sizzle and style as anywhere back home.

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We were hoping that the arrival of the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills might deflect attention away from the Park Hyatt in Nishi-Shinjuku, making it easier for us to get reservations at the New York Grill -- but it remains as popular as ever. It may not have wood-burning ovens, but there's nowhere in the city that combines top-flight dining with such a stupendous setting.

The modern American cuisine -- honey-glazed rotisserie duck, Australian roast lamb, and a great selection of prime steaks -- is as good as ever. And so is the wine cellar, with its extensive range of premium Californian bottles. And when you have finished with the tempting desserts, just totter across to the adjoining New York Bar to take in that remarkable nighttime view with a leisurely digestif.

New York Grill, 52 F, Park Hyatt Tokyo, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 5322-1234. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Lunch: 4,400 yen; dinner: 10,000 yen; 15,000 yen; also a la carte

But you don't have to venture so far upmarket if it's the visceral pleasures of roasts and good wine you're after. One of the Food File's favorite places, the redoubtable Grape Gumbo, offers good-time eating and quaffing at almost izakaya prices and with a casual, unpretentious atmosphere to match.

You pass right by the open kitchen as you enter, filling your nostrils with the aromas of grilling meats. This is resolute cooking, where finesse takes a back seat to full-on flavor (do not miss the fried potatoes with herbs and whole cloves of garlic). But glance down the substantial wine list and you realize they know exactly what they are doing. There are bottles here to suit every pocket and preference, but with absolutely no airs and pretensions.

You will find Grape Gumbo (if you are lucky) tucked away in an obscure recess in nether Ginza. Do not be put off by the location, or the strange name. Grape Gumbo is well worth searching out.

Grape Gumbo, 5-9-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3569-7388. Open 6 p.m.-midnight; closed Sunday.

Or you could try and get into Mardi Gras, the stylish basement restaurant at the other end of Ginza. Chef Toru Wachi used to be in charge at Grape Gumbo, but set up on his own about a year ago and has been playing to full houses ever since.

Wachi brought his recipes with him (Tuscan fried potatoes, coriander bomb, et al), and much of the same casual approach to food and wine. But here it is leavened with a dash of greater refinement. The food is on a French/Spanish/Mediterranean axis -- despite the name, there is no New Orleans connection here -- and the wine list is predominantly French but well-priced. It's a winning combination. Mardi Gras is a small place, so reservations are a must.

Mardi Gras, B1F 8-6-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 5568-0222. Open daily 6-11 p.m.

The Oak Door
6F Grand Hyatt Hotel, 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku; tel: ( 03) 4333-8888 www.grandhyatttokyo.com
Open:Daily 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m.; coffee and snacks 3-5 p.m.; dinner 6-10:30 p.m. The Oak Door Bar serves drinks and snacks 11.30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Roppongi Station (Roppongi Hills Exit), take the main escalator to the second floor and follow signs for the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The Oak Door is on the 6th floor
What works: Are these the best steaks in Tokyo?
What doesn't:The wine list is seriously overpriced.
Number of seats: 154 (plus 29 at the bar and 40 on the terrace)
BGM: Jazz, faintly (currently with a Christmas inflection)
Price per head:Lunch menus at 3,200 yen, 3,600 yen and 3,900 yen (also a la carte); afternoon tea: 1,500 yen; dinner menu starts at 10,000 yen (also a la carte). Ten percent service charge.
Drinks:Aperitifs from 900 yen; beer 900 yen; wine from 1,100 yen/ glass, from 4,000 yen/bottle; liqueurs from 900 yen.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; English spoken
Reservations: Recommended

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