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Friday, March 4, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Tapas and paella: paradise in Shibuya
Much like Pavlov's poor, sad, salivating dogs, we can never pass a restaurant without going inside if there's a paella pan, some empty sherry bottles and a red-and-yellow flag outside. This weakness for Spanish food often results in disappointment: mediocre tapas and the music of The Gypsy Kings can dull the enjoyment of even the best sherry. Just sometimes, though, we strike lucky when we least expect it.
Casa Paradis Barcelona is tucked away in a basement on the lesser-trodden outer fringes of Shibuya. It's a small place, with whitewash and brickwork walls adorned with a clutter of Iberian mementos and photos. Unpretentious this setting might be, but the cooking of owner-chef Masanori Iwasaki is worthy of much more upscale surroundings.
A quiet man who shuns chefs' whites in favor of a chic, gray-blue dress shirt, Iwasaki understands the robust flavors of Spain, especially those of the Catalan coast where he used to live and work. But he is also blessed with a delicacy of touch and taste that would not be out of place in restaurants with far grander pretensions.
His tapas are sophisticated but homely, and he does not stint on the garlic or the olive oil. Pulpos y patatas a alioli (boiled octopus and potato) is the simplest of dishes, often as ordinary as it sounds in English: Iwasaki's is creamy and refined. Ditto with his tortilla (Spanish omelet), the yardstick for all tapas bars, either in or out of Spain. His is smooth, soft and warm, almost gourmet in character, served with a dab of garlic-rich alioli and a salsa (non-piquant) of fresh tomato.
The best dish we tried was his morcilla black sausage. The flavor was as dark and rich as the color, with a deceptively smooth texture. The garlic was balanced with a none-too-subtle undercurrent of clove, and it was served with a very delicate side serving of spinach, pine nuts, sliced champignons and soft morsels of chorizo. We were disappointed to find, when we went back last week, that it's a winter specialty and Iwasaki has now taken it off the menu.
But there are still a score of other tapas on the menu, both hot and cold, and all of those we tried were delicious. It would be quite feasible to create a whole meal around this section of the menu. Indeed, the night before we last dropped in, a group of four Spanish people had apparently worked their way through the entire selection (at least 20 in all).
If that were not sufficient recommendation, then a glance at the wine list should do the trick. You don't expect a place of this size to stock three varieties of Albarino, the wonderful dry Galician white which, along with manzanilla sherry, is the supreme wine to sip on with tapas. In fact, thanks to the attentions of that same Spanish party, there was only one bottle of it left in the house. But Casa Paradis also has plenty of other good wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and further afield. The food justifies a small splurge here.
Iwasaki's main dishes also demonstrate that same balance of finesse and flavor. The steak of iberico pork came with comforting creamed potato and gravy; the soft-simmered lamb knuckle had a lighter touch, with tomato sauce. And, best of all, the lubinas a la plancha (sauteed suzuki sea bass) was given a light gratineed coating, served with more of that spinach and a froth of alioli.
These were part of our set menu, which, at 5,500 yen, represented very good value. It started with a selection of tapas-style appetizers, including slivers of Bellota iberico jamn, the Rolls-Royce of Spanish ham; a good salad in the Nicoise vein; a full-throttled sopa de ajillo (garlic soup) that was definitely worthy of the name; a small seafood paella featuring superb ama-ebi shrimp; then a choice of main dishes; and finally dessert -- a flambe of strawberries and vanilla ice cream dusted with ground black pepper. Outstanding.
Two grumbles: The room is kept too hot, and the Spanish pop music too insistent. Some people might also groan that the location is too obscure. But for us, it just adds to the pleasure, to find cozina of such quality when you finally get there.
* * *
It's always been a mystery to us why it's taken so long for Tokyo to cotton on to the tapas way of eating. It has nothing to do with gourmet wine bars; it's the European version of the izakaya -- simple foods, wine and sherry by the glass, casual and fun -- and it's a natural fit. Finally, though, Ebisu 18-ban gets it exactly right.
The look is faux industrial, from the walls of raw insulation blocks to the stainless steel distressed to look like zinc around the kitchen, which occupies the center of the room. If the small bar stools are all taken, then you stand and prop up the black, cheap-wood counter. The entrance is cluttered with empty beer kegs, spent wheels of Parmesan cheese and stripped carcasses of ham.
Your otoshi (obligatory starter) is a small saucer of Parmesan scooped freshly from the whole cheese on the counter, next to the two large hams: S. Daniele (600 yen a serving) or iberico de Bellota (900 yen). The menu, chalked (in Japanese only) onto blackboards on the wall, offers a range of snacks, both hot and cold. They are not exclusively Spanish; in fact there are plenty of Japanese dishes too. But all are single-person portions and none, apart from the ham, cost over 500 yen.
You can choose from seven kinds of sherry, from bone-dry manzanilla to syrupy Pedro Ximenes (450-500 yen). They have cava and sangria, and a clutch of wines by the bottle (none over 5,000 yen). But there's no dogma here: half your fellow diners will probably be sipping on shochu.
Ebisu 18-ban has only been open since late November, but the Ebisu crowd seems to have already taken to this idea of slumming it in style. It's noisy, smoky and invariably full. It stays open till 5 in the morning and it hums to an almost tangible sense of enjoyment. This is our sort of place.
Ebisu 18-ban, 2-3-13 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3794-1894; open daily 6 p.m.-5 a.m.