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Friday, Dec. 19, 2003



'Tis the season to eat, drink -- and be opinionated

'Tis the season again when the Food File anoints itself as demiurge, handing out gongs and accolades, winnowing the worthy from the weak, and pronouncing unashamedly subjective opinions about the past 12 months. So here's our annual toast to all those restaurants and stores -- most of them new, but also some old favorites -- that have caught our eye during the course of 2003. And to all Japan Times readers, too, compliments of the season: Here's to plenty of turkey and lots of stuffing.

Best new restaurant (non-Japanese)

Any new venture from multi-Michelin-starred French chef Joel Robuchon is going to be a major event. Placing L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the heart of Roppongi Hills guaranteed that the hype would be massive. But even though the crowds (and queues outside) have subsided, we are still mightily impressed.

For such an establishment figure, L'Atelier is a radical change of style. First, they don't take reservations; it's first come, first served (hence those lines). Second, instead of tables with elaborate place settings and starched cloths, all the seats are along the great, ornate counter. You perch on comfy bar stools, looking in at the open kitchen, receiving your food and drink directly from the chefs, as if at a sushi bar.

And then there's the food. Instead of complex haute cuisine, Robuchon gives us tapas and complex froths in tall glasses in the neo-Barcelona style, side by side with some of the classic recipes he has honed over the decades. It's not just a remarkable synthesis, it represents a total validation of the food south of the Pyrenees -- just as the counter seating is an obvious tip of the hat to the way Japan has evolved the art of dining. But, best of all, it's an affordable (we didn't say cheap) way to taste the food of a culinary superstar.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Roppongi Hills Hillside 2F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: (03) 5772-7500. Open: daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (last order); 6-10 p.m. (last order). Nearest station: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines).

Best new restaurant (Japanese)

News photo

In Japanese food, too, the trend is away from more formal ryoriya in favor of the relaxed mode of the izakaya. Izayoi epitomizes this new ethos. It is sleek, chic and up-to-the-minute in its adult ambience and minimalist decor. But the reason it gets our vote is for the quality of the cooking.

Chef Yukiyoshi Hara emphasizes the virtues of jidori (premium free-range chicken), and often performs the grilling himself over a charcoal grill built into his counter tabletop. But his menu also includes much else of interest, including excellent nabe (hot pots) in the cold season.

Hara dresses in retro-chic samue work clothes, but this is a place where food, not fashion, is the focus. Equally important, though, is the sense of calm; of being able to relax and settle in. This is slow eating, Japanese style, the way it's always been done -- but with a totally contemporary accent. No wonder Joel Robuchon is treading a similar path.

Izayoi, Grand Palace Minami-Azabu Sendaizaka 2F, 1-4-5 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku. Tel: (03) 5442-0965. Open 6 p.m.-midnight (Friday & Saturday till 2 a.m.).; closed Monday. Nearest subway: Azabu-Juban (Nanboku and Oedo lines)

Best new eatery in a traditional setting

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1900 Pizzeria

Carmine Cozzolini clearly has a thing for old Japanese architecture. Following his Edocchiano, in a traditional Arakicho ryotei, and Kura, a converted storehouse off Kotto-dori, his latest operation is housed inside a beautiful wooden Taisho-era shop on Shirokane's main street. Unlike those earlier ventures, though, his 1900 Pizzeria makes no pretenses at sophisticated cucina.

The menu couldn't be simpler. You have a choice of six starters (salads or antipasti), eight pasta dishes, and 12 kinds of pizza. Nothing is priced over 1,600 yen except the wine, and even that is reasonable (2,400 yen and up). You order and pay as you enter, take your own condiments and refill your own water glass. At least you don't have to carry your own food, as the timber stairs to the second floor are quite steep.

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Park Hyatt's Delicatessen

So what if the food is unmemorable? (If you want truly remarkable pizza, go round the corner to Isola.) There's nowhere else that can hold a candle to this unique setting -- apart, that is, from the bar next door, Quienquiera, which shares the same restored building and makes the perfect destination for a snifter of grappa to round off the evening in style.

Millenovecento Pizzeria, 5-14-8 Shirokane, Minato-ku. Tel: (03) 3447-4222. Open: daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order), and 6 p.m.-late. Nearest stations: Hiroo (Hibiya Line); Shirokane Takenawa (Nanboku and Mita lines)

Best new beer specialist

Tokyo is well endowed with pubs specializing in the flavorful, full-bodied beers of Belgium, but we are always happy to have one more, especially if it is as well put together as Bini Maru. Owner-manager Mikiya Nosaka used to be in charge at the Harajuku branch of Brussels (itself still a reliable source of Belgian beer), so he certainly knows his Leffes from his Lambics, and he stocks more than 30 different brews in his stylish new basement bar.

The food menu is limited -- fries with mayonnaise are nowhere to be found -- but the few snacks Nosaka prepares are delicious. The pan-fried mussels are superior, as is the chicken liver pate; and his Carbonade Flamand (soft-simmered sinew of beef in a rich gravy) is succulent, warming and quite hearty enough to stand up to the potency of these heady, complex beers.

Bini Maru, Villa Gloria B1F, 2-31-7 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: (03) 5411-1209; Web: www.binimaru.com. Open: 6 p.m.-2 a.m., closed Sunday and Monday holidays. Nearest stations: Harajuku (JR) and Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line).

Best real ale in town

"Real ale," as defined by connoisseurs of good brews (especially those in the United Kingdom), is beer served by drawing it straight from the cask using hand pumps, without the pressurized nitrogen or carbon dioxide that gives other draft beers (both lagers and ales) their fizziness. To the best of our knowledge, there is only one place in Tokyo where you can sample it and see what all the fuss is about -- the wonderful Helmsdale, which is better known for its exhaustive selection of single-malt whiskies.

A couple of months ago, they installed a special hand pump and now dispense ales and dark porter made by Yonayona, an excellent small producer in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. The difference is remarkable. Yonayona is one of Japan's best jibiiru (microbrews) anyway, but without the gas it is a revelation. The flavor is balanced and rounded, the texture is silky smooth and it goes down a treat.

The best thing of all is that it's not half as filling as regular, gassy, draft beer. And that means you have more room for Helmsdale's good bar food -- calamari fritti; fish and chips (of course), or -- if you're in adventurous mood -- a homemade haggis that tastes better to us that anything we ever had in Scotland.

Helmsdale, Minami-Aoyama Mori Bldg., 2F, 7-13-12 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: (03) 3486-4220. Web: www.helmsdale-fc.com. Open: 6 p.m.-6 a.m.. Nearest station: Hiroo (Hibiya Line)

Best new deli (upmarket)

The legendary New York deli-to-the-gods, Dean and Deluca, arrived to great fanfare in Marunouchi this summer, and another outlet is now up and running in Shibuya's Tokyu Toyoko store. But the prize for premium deli fare -- with prices to match -- goes to the Park Hyatt's new Delicatessen on the ground floor of Shinjuku Park Tower.

It has the hushed, reverential atmosphere of a library. The walls are filled to the ceiling with exclusive grocery products from six continents. Behind the wide glass counter you see a tempting display of prepared foods, straight from the kitchens of the New York Grill. There are a few tables where you can sit and eat your order on the spot. Coffee and beer are served, but inexplicably you can't get any wine by the glass. It is a veritable temple to the ideal of sophisticated eating -- which, after all, is the definition of "delicatessen."

Park Hyatt Tokyo Delicatessen, Shinjuku Park Tower 1F, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: (03) 5323-3635. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday and holidays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.). Nearest station: Tochomae (Oedo Line)

Best new deli (mass market)

In recent years, the variety of sozai (side dishes) available in department store basements has increased immeasurably. But the bar has been raised several notches by the spread of the RF1 Sozai chain. Their brightly lit counters are crammed with colorful displays of vegetables, croquettes and other cooked foods that taste as good as they look.

Every month they have a special salad created by a notable chef. In November, Kazuhiko Kinoshita (of the eponymous restaurant in Yoyogi) gave us Platinum Pork Salad. This month, it's an Italian preparation with a green tomato dressing, courtesy of Ristorante Pontevecchio in Osaka. With food like this available, you won't need to resort to convenience store bento or oden ever again.

RF1 Sozai outlets can be found in the basements of many department stores.

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