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Friday, Oct. 1, 2004


Top tapas made the Uncle Danjo way

Tio Danjo is not a large place, and it's hard enough at the best of times to reserve a table at short notice. At the end of last month, though, it was nigh on impossible. Owner-chef Keita Danjo had just come back from one of his regular visits to Madrid, and the word was out among regular customers.

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Owner-chef Keita Danjo (above) serves up fine Iberico ham, tapas and paella at his Ebisu restaurant, Tio Danjo.
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Like so many chefs, Danjo is quiet-spoken and undemonstrative, preferring to let his food do the talking for him. But his love of Spain and its food is clear as soon as you enter his modest, second-floor premises in Ebisu. It has won him a loyal following (the Food File included) who share that enthusiasm.

The open kitchen is almost totally obscured by the row of hams, sausages and cured pigs' trotters that dangle down alongside paella pans of various dimensions. The counter is lined with cazuelas, those rectangular brown earthenware dishes that are an essential element of Spanish cooking, displaying an appetizing array of glistening olives, marinated seafood and hearty stews of pork and chickpeas. And, in pride of place, you see a bright-yellow tortilla (Spanish omelet) the size of a small cake.

We sat down to dinner at 9 in the evening, which by Iberian standards is by no means tardy. Tio Danjo stays open until 1 a.m. or later, and its tapas-based menu is geared as much to the late crowd who prefer light eats as to those who want a more substantial dinner. Just as you would find in Spain, most of the foods can be ordered either as individual snacks (tapas) or in larger portions (called raciones).

We settled in with a glass of chilled Fino sherry and a plate of ham -- Danjo has managed to obtain supplies of some of the best of both. San Len is one of our all-time favorite manzanillas, and until recently was unobtainable here. He also stocks jamon serrano iberico fresh from Jabuca, perhaps the very finest provenance. There can be no better way to start a meal.

The benchmark for any self-respecting tapas bar is its tortilla: Danjo's is first-rate. Not only is the potato in correct proportion to the egg, it is also cooked perfectly, just slightly scorched in places to add flecks of brown in the golden yellow. It is firm but not dense and, unlike too many places we could name, Danjo knows that tortilla can never survive refrigeration.

By this time we were browsing through the all-Spanish wine list. It contains a good selection of honestly priced bottles, among them a lovely crisp albarino from Galicia (Fillaboa, 4,300 yen), as well as Alios do Luzon, an excellent red from the still overlooked Jumilla region inland from Alicante (Monastrell, 5,900 yen). This time, though, we plumped for a Ribera del Duero (Castajon, also 5,900 yen), a full-bodied crianza that drank beautifully throughout the evening.

The great thing about tapas is there are no hard and fast rules about what order you eat things in or what to drink with them. So why not order soup in the middle (or even at the end) of your meal? Danjo's light gazpacho is very refreshing, but we also rate his warming garlic soup (sopa de ajillo). The paprika-tinted broth is thick with onions, slices of baguette, Italian parsley and plenty of lightly cooked egg (in "egg-drop" style), and is served in well-worn, folksy earthenware bowls.

Among the hot tapas we have ordered on previous occasions, we are fans of the fritos, batter-fried cuttlefish or other seafood. We also like the simply, satisfying dishes of meat and beans. Now we can add to that list the trippa (honeycomb tripe), which Danjo simmers down in a rich tomato-based sauce. It was delicious, the meat firm in texture without being chewy and the thick sauce tangy with cayenne. By the time we had finished mopping it up with our bread, our plates were sparkling.

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A good way to sample a range of different dishes is to order the cena de tapas (2,500 yen per head), which includes eight different selections from the tapas menu. Equally good value is the cena de paella (3,000 yen), which includes six tapas starters, plus a plate of Danjo's delectable paella. Cooked in the oven until it is perfectly al dente, then finished over the stove to lightly crisp the bottom, the saffron-yellow rice contains clams and mussels, small shrimp and morsels of chicken, along with bits of red and green pepper. If you are ordering a la carte, this takes a good half-hour to prepare. It is well worth the wait.

Desserts include crema catalana, creme caramel browned on top with an old-fashioned searing iron (rather than the more usual blowtorch) and various ice creams. We prefer to finish off our wine with the cheese plate (all Spanish, of course) and then close with a snifter of brandy or perhaps a small glass of nut-brown Pedro Ximenes sherry.

Tapas bars are suddenly hip these days -- and not just in Tokyo. But Danjo has been quietly preaching the gospel of the Spanish way of dining for nine years now, and that is what makes the difference. Behind that taciturn exterior there beats the heart of a true Iberophile. It is certainly no affectation that he has called himself "Tio" (Uncle).

There's more where that came from . . .

Can't get a reservation at Tio Danjo? On the wrong side of town? Here are some other places to explore sherry, tapas and the inimitable Spanish way of dining.

The ideal place to start is Camaron, a small, upscale tapas bar near Kamiyacho. For 2,500 yen, the Camarn Set (II) includes a half bottle of La Gitana manzanilla, a saucer of blanch-boiled shrimps and a wedge of tortilla: the perfect introduction.

Camaron, 3-11-8 Toranomon, Minato-ku; (03) 3432-7772. Open 6-11:30 p.m. (last order); Saturdays and holidays 6-10 p.m. (last order); closed Sundays.

No one in Tokyo plays homage more faithfully to the spirit of Andalucia than Naito-san, the owner of Venencia, a splendidly somber little bar tucked away in Naka-Meguro. His tapas are nothing special, but he always has some special sherries to pull out of his stock.

Venencia, Kobayashi Bldg. 1F, 2-15-16 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; (03) 3670-7310. Open 6:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m.; closed Sundays and holidays.

Pintxos (pinchos to the rest of Spain) are the bite-size snacks, usually served on morsels of bread, that are the tapas of choice in the Basque Country. Bepo serves up traditional favorites, plus exotic new-wave mutant versions of the genre, in a bright, cheerful salaryman basement.

Pintxos Bepo, Fukoku Seimei Bldg. B2, 2-2-2 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3597-0312. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; closed Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

Senor Nishino, the patrician proprietor of Poco a Poco, dispenses fine Riojas and delectable food -- don't miss the enpanadas of spicy mince or the soft-simmered trippa con garbanzos -- along with tales of his travels around Europe. An evening at this genteel hole in the wall will be pricey (and remember, it's cash-only here) but memorable.

Poco a Poco, Soft Town Aoyama 1F, 3-1-24 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3404-5888. Open 6-11 p.m.; closed Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

Ignore the dim lighting and basic decor, Sherry Club is the real deal. Owner Koya Nakase has assembled the best cellar of sherries in Tokyo, including numerous rare aged specimens.

Sherry Club, Yugen Bldg. 2F, 6-3-17 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 3572-2527. Open 5:30 p.m.-midnight (Fridays 5:30 p.m.-4:30 a.m.; Sundays 3-10 p.m.); closed Mondays.

Formerly a whiskey-specialist bar, until owner Hashimoto-san discovered the singular delights of sherry, Welfun Castle now boasts 85 different varieties. Don't expect much in the way of tapas, though.

Welfun Castle, 3-24-12 Nishihara, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3460-3018. Open 7:30 p.m.-4 a.m.; closed Sundays.

Tio Danjo
Ogihara Building 2F, 1-12-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5420-0747
Open: 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. (last order midnight)
Closed: Sunday and holidays
Nearest stations: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)
How to get there: From Ebisu Station (East Exit), go down the escalator to the rotary. Walk down the slope to the main street, cross over and take the street to the left of the Mizuho Bank. You will find the stairs and elevator leading up to Tio Danjo after the building that houses the Red Pepper restaurant.
What works: First-rate tapas, excellent paella and no unnecessary frills: Tio Danjo gets it exactly right.
What doesn't: The tables by the window can feel a bit gloomy.
Number of seats: 20 (including six at the counter)
BGM: Plaintive, flamenco-influenced music, a style known as "la tuna"
Price per head: 2,500 yen; paella course 3,000 yen (minimum two people; dessert and coffee 500 yen extra); also a la carte.
Drinks: Beer from 400 yen; sherry from 500 yen; wine from 400 yen/glass, 2,000yen/bottle; cava from 3 yen,600/bottle; digestives from 500 yen
Credit cards: Not accepted (cash only)
Language: Japanese/Spanish menu; a little English and some Spanish spoken.
Reservations: Essential

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