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Friday, May 20, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Sacred setting that suits local-grown food to a T


Think globally, eat locally. The slow-food, small-is-beautiful approach is not just ecological, it makes brilliant economic sense. The only questions are: Is there anywhere in town that actually upholds this righteous creed? And, most pertinently, does it taste good? Thanks to a remarkable new Japanese restaurant simply called T, the answers to both questions are an unqualified yes.

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Occupying a former teahouse on the grounds of Atago Shrine in Minato Ward, the restaurant T is a place where Tokyo folks can take pride in their local produce.
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The philosophy is simple and admirable. All the ingredients -- both foods and drinks -- are grown, caught or produced inside Tokyo. Impossible? Not once you remember that the area encompassed by Greater Tokyo is substantially bigger than the commercial and residential areas of the metropolis.

Open since last autumn, T (it's pronounced tei) sources its rice, produce and meat from the patchwork of farmland that still covers the fertile lowlands to the far side of Hachioji. Mushrooms and sansai are brought in from the uplands of Oku-tama. And there is seafood aplenty, thanks to City Hall's control over the seven Izu islands, plus Ogasawara to the far south.

So far so worthy. But T is more than just a great concept, it also has a superb location -- right at the summit of Atago-yama, that abrupt outcropping of rock and trees between Kamiyacho and Shinbashi. High above the traffic, the neon and the restless hubbub, it is an aerie of greenery and calm within the atmospheric precincts of historic Atago Shrine.

Standing right by the stone torii at the top of the shrine's vertiginous flight of ancient steps, T occupies a low-slung, single-story wooden structure that was formerly a teahouse. It has two distinct areas of seating. Just inside the front door, there are regular tables and chairs where smoking is permitted. The main dining room, all no-smoking, is a tatami room. Although you must slip off your shoes, you get to sit on low-slung wooden chairs with thick cushions and plenty of room to stretch your legs.

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Tetsu Dekura

It's the perfect compromise of traditional style and modern comfort. The tatami are still new enough to have a slight hint of green, echoing the color of the fusuma screens, the cloths draped over the tables and the upholstery of those well-padded chairs.

The young serving staff dress in traditional cotton work clothes. Helpful and well versed on the intricacies of the food, they are able to reel off the provenance of just about everything on the (all-Japanese) menu. They will tell you, should you be interested, that the four microbrewed beers they offer are just a fraction of the jibiiru produced in Tokyo; that one of the 13 different kura that supply the nihonshu is actually within the city proper (Marushin Masamune, in Kita-ku); and that most of their 11 shochu producers are on subtropical Hachijojima.

The food menu is split into five sections: eight or so sakana -- the kind of appetizers that go so well with sake; the same number of fish dishes; half a dozen choices of chicken, pork or beef; rice, noodles and accompaniments; and dessert.

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We promptly ordered a flask of Rei-un Edo-zukuri, a characterful yamahai junmai ginjo sake (made in Musashi-Murayama), that made a great match with our otoshi starter -- cubes of soy-simmered tuna and broccoli -- with our first side dishes. Edomae asari, Tokyo Bay clams cooked down with miso and negi leeks; piquant wasabi root from Ome, pickled in sake lees and served with a spoonful of refreshingly bitter fuki-miso (wild butterbur cooked down with dark, savory miso); and a Japanese-style salad of fresh young greens mixed with shards of crisp yuba and scattered with fine-cut nori seaweed.

These were all preludes to the excellent plate of mixed sashimi that followed. The exquisite arrangement of kampachi (amberjack), medai (butterfish) and meji-maguro (tuna) was wonderfully fresh, although modest in size for its 3,000 yen price tag. In fact, we were so impressed by the quality we ordered more -- this time hatsugatsuo, early spring bonito at the peak of its season. Served in the classic tataki style, lightly seared on the outside, with a ginger and shoyu dip, it was as delectable as any we have ever tasted.

The meat dishes range from the simple -- morsels of juicy Kaori-dori chicken deep-fried in the tatsuda-age style -- to deluxe steaks of locally reared wagyu beef. For us, the highlight was the buta-no-kakuni -- succulent soft-simmered cubes of pork belly. At T, they prepare this from Tokyo-X, the gourmet meat of a very tasty (and extremely pampered) hybrid that was created by crossing U.S. Duroc, British Berkshire and Beijing pigs.

After nibbling on grilled onigiri rice balls, served with piping-hot miso soup, we rounded off our meal with a refreshing mouthful of soymilk blancmange. The coffee, of course, was not local -- probably the only exception on the entire menu -- but at least it was made from beans roasted in shitamachi.

Like an izakaya in a teahouse or an exclusive ryoriya with a pick-and-choose menu, T combines casual style with great attention to quality. In this, it is no doubt a reflection of its creator, the uber-sommelier and frequent TV guest Shinya Tasaki. His original claim to fame was his prowess with wine (he was the first Japanese to win the world sommelier concours). But it's clear he has just as good taste when it comes to the food and drink of his homeland.

One more reason why T breaks the mold. When the weather is clement, they set out tables under the trees in the forecourt of the shrine at lunchtime and during the afternoon, when drinks and light snacks are served. Where else in central Tokyo can you dine al fresco, Japanese-style, on a hilltop?

* * *

While you are in the vicinity, do not fail to visit Tokyo's finest cheese shop, Fermier, just down the hill behind Atago Shine. You will find an outstanding selection of cheeses from France, Italy, Spain and further afield, all in peak condition (the affinage process is completed in their own warehouse). This is why they are preferred suppliers of Tokyo's top restaurants.

Fermier, 1F, Atago AS Building, Atago 1-5-3, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5776-7720; info.fermier.fm/shop/index_e.php. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Sunday and holidays

T (tei)
Atago Shrine, 1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku tel: (03) 5777-5557
www.tasaki-shinya.com/restaurant/ts.html
Open: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; teatime: 2-4 p.m.; dinner: 5-10 p.m.
Closed: Monday
Nearest stations: Kamiyacho (Hibiya Line); Onarimon (Mita Line)
How to get there: From Kamiyacho Station (Exit 3), walk along Sakurada-dori in the direction of Toranomon, and turn right at the first traffic lights. By the entrance of the tunnel that runs under Atago-yama, you will see a steep metal stairway that takes you to the top of the hill. Or take the new elevator (it runs until 8 p.m.) just outside the Shinbashi end of the tunnel. By taxi, ask the driver to take the road up to the NHK Broadcasting Museum.
What works: Excellent local ingredients, skillfully cooked and arranged, in a setting that's hard to beat.
What doesn't: If your reservation is for after 8 p.m., be prepared for a vigorous hike to the top of the hill.
Number of seats: 26
BGM: Contemporary crossover gagaku
Price per head: Lunch: 1,500 yen. Dinner: set menus at 6,000 yen, 8,000 yen and 10,000 yen (must be ordered when making your reservation); also a la carte (figure around 4,500 yen without drinks)
Drinks: Beer from 700 yen; sake from 800 yen; shochu from 500 yen/glass
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: Japanese menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Highly recommended in the evening



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