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Friday, April 2, 2004

TOKYO FOOD FILE

HIGASHI-YAMA

'Designer washoku' for all seasons


Cometh the season, as the saying almost goes, cometh the man. And every year when the hanami season rolls around, you are likely to find us strolling down by the Meguro River in Naka-Meguro. It's a favorite spot for us, not just for the superb cherry blossom that lines both banks, but also because there is such good dining to be had in this area.

News photo
Higashi-yama (above) serves contemporary Japanese cuisine that's as stylish as the ambience and as sleek as the plates it's served on.
News photo

There are plenty of excellent restaurants right alongside the river, several of which we have reviewed in past columns. But this year, instead, we directed our feet across Yamate-dori and up the hill, to the peaceful, stylish environs of Higashi-yama.

It would be hard to find a better example in Tokyo of the genre best described as "designer washoku." Too often, after bitter experience, we are tempted to use that epithet as a sneering pejorative. Not so here. Higashi-yama is actually the creation of a design company but, we are happy to report, it rewrites the definition. Here is a place where the food is executed with as much poise and creativity as the exceptional setting.

From the street there is little to be seen through the ornate concrete facade, just glimpses of the ground-floor bar. You make your way up a short flight of stairs to the discretely concealed main entrance and are shown into a plush anteroom, where you will be served a small cup of arare-cha, a revivifying savory dashi broth speckled with minute croutons made of roasted mochi rice.

The main dining area is a remarkable space with a high ceiling and a large picture window. One wall is filled by a single massive painting of a red square on a white background, much like a modernist rendering of the Hinomaru flag. Downstairs there are a couple of private rooms with tatami and low tables, and there are also seats at a counter that gives onto the open kitchen.

The a la carte menu is arranged not by the traditional Japanese food categories -- grilled, deep-fried, steamed, etc. -- but according to the Western convention of starters and main courses. But there are also set omakase ("leave it up to us") courses at 4,500 yen and 6,000 yen. Not least because the lighting was too dim to read the menu easily, we were happy to take the latter option, so we could sit back and enjoy to the full the succession of exquisite -- and delectable -- dishes placed in front of us.

The zensai starters were a series of minimalist morsels, each served on separate lacquer plates. First, a couple of scoops of creamy zaru-dofu, freshly made soy curds spooned from the bamboo basket in which they were formed. Next, a single warabi fern cut in half, with a half-slice of lotus root, each lightly simmered in rich katsuo dashi; then steamed nanohana greens with a small section of kyo-ninjin, the bright red carrots that are a Kyoto specialty.

The otsukuri (sashimi) course comprised a couple of cuts of soft, pink maguro that had been briefly marinated, for which a dab of freshly grated wasabi root was all the seasoning required; and two minuscule hotaru-ika squid so soft they almost dissolved between our teeth, leaving just the faintest hint of the ocean.

The next dish was outstanding: A thick white soup of pureed kabu turnips, with a couple of bite-size morsels of the same vegetable in the center of the bowl. Prepared with pureed onion, and a small dash of milk, it had a deep savory-sweetness to rival the very finest potage. This was one of the highlights of the evening, but it was almost eclipsed by the delicacy of the tempura course that came next. Comprising just three small morsels of fuki-no-to, tara-no-me and yama-udo, these mountain plants with strong, wild flavors were a reminder that spring comes much later to the highlands than it does here in Tokyo.

After a "salad" of anago (conger), grilled takenoko (bamboo shoot), green asparagus and segments of iyokan, a Kyushu citrus akin to mandarin orange -- an intriguing and effective combination of textures and flavors -- we were served our first "main course." This was a fillet of steamed oshitsuke (a delicate white-meat fish of the grouper family), served in a thick, clear ankake sauce with white asparagus.

The youthful head chef, Shojiro Nishikawa, is a native of Kyushu, and introduces local touches such as gotofu, a smooth jelly of soymilk that acts as a light palate freshener. This is a specialty of Saga, which was also the provenance of our final course. Gyu-katsu -- cutlets of beef -- may not sound deluxe, but this was a gourmet treat. Lightly breaded and crisply deep-fried until it was just faintly pink, this was wagyu beef of the highest quality, complemented perfectly by a dark, savory demiglace sauce on a bed of mashed potato.

We closed the meal with kamayaki-udon, piping hot noodles served in a large, conical ceramic bowl with a separate soy-based dip; then a fine blancmange of coconut milk topped with a sharply flavored jelly of dark green matcha tea. This is Japanese cuisine at its contemporary best, imbued with both Western and yoshoku influences, and in perfect synergy with its setting.

You can round off your evening by going for a leisurely nightcap in the bar downstairs -- Higashi-yama actually calls it the Lounge -- which remains open until the wee hours. But an alternative strategy would be to stroll back down to the Meguro River, where a year ago the same company set up an equally stylish subsidiary operation known as Sabo.

Converted from an old two-story house right on the riverside, the ground floor serves during the day as a wagashiya, purveying contemporary versions of traditional Japanese tea-ceremony sweets. Up on the second floor, under the newly exposed roof beams, they have installed a large table plus a counter area where they dispense a selection of quality teas (Japanese, Chinese and Western).

After dark, it also functions as a bar. Here you can nurse your drink while gazing out of the wide windows straight onto the cherry trees. The billowing clouds of blossom will be gone shortly, but the fresh green of the foliage is almost as soothing, making it the perfect setting for a light wappa bento lunch, a relaxing afternoon tea or for rounding off a wonderful evening after a meal at Higashi-yama.

Higashi-yama
1-21-25 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku; (03) 5720-1300
Open:6 p.m.-1 a.m. (last order: midnight); Lounge bar 8 p.m.-3 a.m.
Closed:Sundays
Nearest stations: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya & Toyoko lines)
How to get there:Leaving Naka-Meguro Station, turn left and walk down Yamate-dori for 500 meters. At the fourth light (just after Freshness Burger), take the side street on the left. Higashi-yama is on the left shortly after the first lights.
What works: Striking interior, beautiful ceramics and lacquer, and contemporary washoku to match.
What doesn't:The lights are so dim you can't read the menu.
Number of seats: 50 (including two tatami rooms and 12 seats at the counter)
BGM: None whatsoever
Price per head:Courses at 4,500 yen and 6,000 yen; also a la carte.
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen; sake from 900 yen; shochu from 600 yen; wine 800 yen/glass, from 3,600 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese menu; some English spoken
Reservations: Essential

Sabo, 1-13-12 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; (03) 5428-1717. Open 11 a.m.-3 a.m. (wagashi shop till 8 p.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; bar 8 p.m.-3 a.m.). Closed Tuesdays.


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