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Friday, Dec. 17, 2004

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Raising a glass to the Food File's faves


The goose is getting fat and so too is your humble correspondent, after another year of gobbling his way through some of the best dining that Tokyo has to offer -- not to mention a sizable dollop of the mediocre and worse. But it's not just gluttony that keeps the Food File going, nor merely devotion to duty. It is, of course, the delight in discovering new places where we can all dine well.

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Nezu Club, balancing kaiseki's drama with home-cooking comfort

This year's favorites are scattered around the city and cover a gamut of styles and cuisines. Most, though not all, are new operations, opened within the past 18 months. What they have in common is flair and style, a personal touch and, of course, plenty of good food. The Food File tips its hat and raises its glass to them -- as it does to Japan Times readers. Happy holidays to one and all.

Pot-Bouille

Proving that atmosphere and the personal touch are every bit as vital as location or decor, Pot-Bouille epitomizes the neighborhood bistro experience. With its cheerful yellow awning, white cotton half-curtains, ocher walls and brown wood paneling, it brings a whiff of small-town France to the back streets of Ebisu.

The menu focuses on hearty brasserie fare. Straightforward it may be, but it's a good couple of grades above the basic standard we have come to expect at budget bistros in Tokyo. However, what we like best is the buzz. You can roll up your sleeves and enjoy yourself. Even if you've come halfway across Minato Ward, you can treat it like your local.

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Takuma Sagayama and Takishi Ishiguro of Aotea Rangi, Tokyo's first and only New Zealand wine bar

If, in this respect, it recalls the ambience at the late-lamented Aux Bacchanales in Harajuku, that is not really surprising, since the patron, Naoki Fukushima, was the man in charge there. He understands better than most that keeping things simple and offering that personal touch is the best recipe for success. Here at Pot-Bouille he has proved this again.

Pot-Bouille, 2-7-4 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3791-8845; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-11 p.m. (Saturday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.); closed Sundays.

Stefano

After several years working in the Carmine group of restaurants, Stefano Fastro was champing at the bit to strike out on his own. Now that he's finally done that, he's showing us just what a good chef he is.

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Dhaba India, a very welcome addition to Tokyo's community of Indian restaurants

Fastro hails from the fertile Veneto region of northeast Italy, and his repertoire ranges from the seafood of the Venetian lagoon to the meaty, almost Austrian fare of the mountains. His primi piatti are superb, featuring great homemade tagliatelli, plenty of polenta dishes and knockout gnocchi that alone are worth crossing town for.

It's a modest place, set back from the main drag at the scruffier, upper end of Kagurazaka, but that just makes it feel more special. And if you check his new Web site you'll probably end up calling up for a reservation on the spot.

Stefano, Terui Bldg. 1F, 6-47 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 5228-7515; www.stefano-jp.com/; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5:30-11 p.m.; closed Sundays.

Park Side Cafe

In summer, all we ask for is good food, an open-air terrace, and panoramic greenery with not a single building to be seen. That holy trinity may be hard to find in downtown Tokyo, but Park Side Cafe hits the jackpot down in Nakamachidai, in nearby Kanagawa.

Seseragi-Koen is just a narrow strip of grass and trees surrounded by suburbia, but Park Side Cafe exudes Aoyama sophistication, thanks in equal parts to its sleek design and sophisticated, Italian-light cafe cuisine. Just the place to sip a glass of chardonnay and nibble on antipasti after walking the Afghan hound.

Park Side Cafe, 1-33-31 Nakamachidai, Tsuzuki-ku, Yokohama-shi; (045) 949-3050; www.park side-cafe.com/; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (Saturday and Sunday till 3 p.m.); tea 2-5 p.m.; dinner 5-9:30 p.m.; closed Monday.

Nezu Club

Bringing a creative, contemporary touch to traditional ryori, chef Etsuko Yamada prepares meals that are nowhere near as formal as kaiseki but far more sophisticated than regular home cooking. Here you can explore the depths of flavor in Japanese cooking, without feeling any need for ceremony.

This melding of new with old is encapsulated in the setting. Nezu Club occupies a converted 30-year-old metal-frame workshop tucked away down a narrow alley in one of the best-preserved neighborhoods of shitamachi. Dinner here would be the perfect way to round off a day exploring the temples and back streets of the historic Yanesen area.

Nezu Club, 2-30-2 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel: (03) 3828-4004 www.nezuclub.com; open 6-10 p.m. (last order 8:30 p.m.); closed Sunday, Monday & Tuesday.

Dhaba India

How nice to finally lay to rest one of our longest-standing pet peeves -- the lack of good South Indian cuisine in Tokyo. The friendly chefs are mostly natives of the spice-rich southern half of the Subcontinent, and they know how to temper their fiery curries with the subtle flavors of coconut, tamarind and real curry leaf. The crisp, freshly made marsala dhosas come with a tangy sambar soup and a dab of piquant rassam chutney. And the thali meals are served with real basmati rice (in the evenings, at any rate).

Even better, this place has a distinctive character of its own that owes nothing to ethnic baubles and knickknacks or faux Moghul furnishings. Hidden away in back-street Yaesu, Dhaba India is already firmly established as our favorite Indian restaurant in the city.

Dhaba India, 2-7-9 Yaesu, Chuo-ku; (03) 3272-7160; open: 11:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. (Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.); closed Sunday and holidays.

Aotea Rangi

Here's a first. This rough-hewn wine bar -- an offshoot of the strangely named Underground Mr. Zoogunzoo, in Aoyama -- concentrates exclusively on the oenological output of New Zealand. Even if you are aware there are other names besides Cloudy Bay and other grapes besides Sauvignon Blanc, you will still be amazed by the range of their wine menu, which lists over 100 varieties.

They produce some good, straightforward food to go with all that wine. The specialty of the house is seafood, especially oysters and spectacular green-lipped mussels, also imported from New Zealand. And they can whip up some very tasty Aussie lamb to partner those cold-climate Pinot Noirs.

It's a simple, wood-clad place, little more than a kitchen with a few tables shoehorned in along the walls, plus a diminutive but very pleasant street-side deck. But there's one enduring mystery: they call themselves a "brace trattoria." What in Godzone does that mean?

Aotea Rangi, 1-21-18 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3447-1496; www.united.com/aotea_rangi; open 6 p.m.-midnight; closed Tuesdays.

Singapore Style Pork Ribs Soup Eating House

In closing, we must bid a fond farewell to the Yurakucho Coca Restaurant. It's not the food that's disappearing -- their spicy Thai-suki hot pots are available at other branches, including their new shop above Bic Camera on the other side of the JR tracks -- but the classic, run-down, atmospheric, retro building that has housed it this past decade or more.

The upstairs dining room has already closed, but for a few short weeks, the ground floor has found a new incarnation as an authentic Singapore-Chinese fast-food hall. There's only one thing on the menu -- Bak Kut Teh, literally "pork ribs tea" but actually served in a clear, meaty broth. For 1,000 yen you get a bowl full of the stewed ribs (conveniently cleavered into mouth-size morsels) in soup, served with rice and jasmine tea. Add a bottle of Tsingtao and an extra side plate of steamed bokchoi and you'll still have change from 2,000 yen.

You will not lack for MSG, but that's precisely the point. This is an aptly funky way to salute the final days of this classic old setting. Block by block, Tokyo's personality is being eroded; blandness and glitter will rule. But for another fortnight the old building abides. Get down there fast, dude.

Singapore Style Pork Ribs Soup Eating House, 2-8-13 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 3201-5489; open: daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.


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