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Friday, April 1, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Moon shines brightly in Naka-Meguro


La Luna Rossa is one of those excellent little places that fly under the critical radar, avoiding the hyperventilation of the vernacular media but generating a deep, slow-sure buzz of appreciation among the culinary cognoscenti. In the parlance of the showbiz world, it's a sleeper.

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You're in good hands at La Luna Rossa, a small riverside gem in Naka-Meguro.

It has been open some four years now and, although we had heard the word, we kept putting off our visit. The main problem was the location. Even for those happy souls who live in Naka-Meguro, the stretch of river to the east of Komazawa-dori is well off their regular beat. Indeed, until recently this was an uninviting wasteland, known only to joggers and dog-walkers.

So it was a particularly brave move for La Luna Rossa's young owner, Hitoshi Mizutani, to choose this obscure but now steadily gentrifying locale for such an ambitious operation -- especially as a first-time restaurateur. Modestly he calls it an osteria (inn), but in reality it's a bijou ristorante, simple but polished, small but perfectly formed, and with delectable modern Italian cucina to match.

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Owner Hitoshi Mizutani and head chef Kousuke Yagi with the restaurant staff.

It's also a labor of love. Mizutani was a frustrated salaryman who threw in the towel and headed off to Italy to become a chef. After a year in the kitchen, he realized his mission in life was to run a restaurant rather than merely cook for one. More than that, he wanted to design a place of his own. The result is La Luna Rossa.

The look is impeccable. As you enter, a window by the door frames a pot of pasta water bubbling in the kitchen. The dining room is absolutely clutter-free: no artwork on the walls, no chandeliers or other decorations. A big sky is visible through the picture windows that fill the entire end wall. In the center of the room, stairs lead down to a wine cellar that clearly means business. The sparkling white tablecloths are set with an impressive array of cutlery.

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But La Luna Rossa has none of the sterile self-consciousness that permeates too many of Tokyo's upper-crust Italian (and French, of course) restaurants. In large part, that's because Mizutani understands that eating is about enjoyment. And also because he is working with a gifted young chef, Kousuke Yagi, who really knows his stuff.

Yagi has served his time in the kitchens of Italy, five years in all, including at Florence's famed Enoteca Pinchiorri. He understands the importance of garlic, black pepper and fragrant olive oil (extra virgin, naturally). He cooks with creamy Burrata cheese from Puglia and the finest Sardinian bottarga (smoked mullet roe) we have ever tasted. He also has a wonderfully light touch with his herbs and seasonings, allied with the innate Japanese aesthetic and love of fresh ingredients.

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The first highlight of our excellent meal was the pastella di scampi served as one of the antipasti in our dinner course. A single whole scampi was wrapped in a slice of S. Daniele prosciutto, batter-fried as a tempura-light fritter and served in a thick white "soup" of creamed, pureed kabu turnips. Outrageously delicious.

This had already been preceded by a delicate morsel of poached sakura-masu (salmon trout) in a vinaigrette of finely diced apple and fruit tomato, topped with a smattering of caviar. File this one under hors d'oeuvres rather than antipasti: Yagi has clearly taken on board plenty of French influences too.

Two pasta courses followed. Spaghettini al cavolo e bianchetti featured soft, plump shira-uo (about as close to whitebait as Japan gets) on the long, fine pasta, scattered with shards of the aforementioned aromatic bottarga. We also loved the tortelli, stuffed with a creamy puree of potato and cheese, served in a rich ragu of minced duck meat with whole white canelli beans. Thoughtfully they supply plenty of foccacia and home-baked wholewheat rolls, so you can mop up every last drop of that piquant sauce.

As main courses, we had a pan-fried fillet of yellowfin in a saffron sauce with clams and nanohana greens; and a medium-rare roast of Iwate Platinum pork on a colorful array of skillet-fried seasonal vegetables. Both were highly satisfying. The desserts include a very good semifreddo and an outstanding molten-hot chocolate mousse that is well worth the 15-minute wait (a small glass of vin santo kept us happy during that hiatus).

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All the above (except the alcohol of course) was included in the basic 5,250 yen set dinner, which we can recommend unreservedly. In all, expect a bill of up to 20,000 yen for two, including wine -- and this is food that demands a good bottle. That basement cellar, though rather top heavy in price, covers plenty of territory, and we were very happy to find among the Pinot Grigios an old favorite (Venica & Venica Collio, for 7,000 yen) that was a perfect match for Yagi's cooking. In addition, Mizutani always has several good quality wines by the glass.

Only trenchermen will need to consider the more substantial "B" meal, at 7,350 yen. But our appetites were so whetted by the a la carte menu that we plan to return to investigate. That will probably not happen while the cherries are in bloom along the Meguro-gawa outside, however, as tables at La Luna Rossa are at a premium during the sakura season.

Osteria La Luna Rossa
2-5-23 Naka-Meguro, Meguro-ku tel: (03) 3793-4310
Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order); 6-11 p.m. (last order)
Closed: Tuesday
Nearest stations: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya and Toyoko lines)
How to get there: Turn right outside Naka-Meguro station onto Yamate-dori. Cross Komazawa-dori and continue down the left side of Yamate-dori until the first side street (by an ampm convenience store). Walk to the Meguro-gawa, then turn right and follow the river. Shortly after the street veers away from the river, you will see Luna Rossa on the left (about 8-10 minutes' walk in all).
What works: Excellent Tokyo-Italian cucina of refinement in a setting that's stylish but never stuffy.
What doesn't: Too bad they don't have a terrace overlooking the river.
Number of seats: 24 (plus a private room for four)
BGM: Sultry jazz vocals
Price per head: Lunch from 1,000 yen (from 1,890 yen at weekends); dinner from 5,250 yen, also a la carte; 10 percent service charge.
Drinks: Beer from 800 yen; wine from 900/glass, 3 ,800 yen/bottle; digestivi from 700 yen
Credit cards: Most accepted.
Language: Japanese/Italian menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Highly recommended, especially at weekends.



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