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Friday, June 16, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

An African heart beats in Kagurazaka


Not so long ago, Kagurazaka was one of this city's most traditional neighborhoods, its alleys still echoing from the days when it was an important geisha district. Though some of its old character survives, these days it has much more of an international nature -- especially when it comes to dining out.

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So it is really no surprise at all to turn a corner and find the wall of one building decorated in motifs inspired by the mud-dyed fabrics of West Africa. You have arrived at Tribes, a casual dining-bar of considerable style and poise, whose self-described mission statement is to provide "the taste of Africa."

In aesthetic terms, at least, the taste is entirely 21st-century Tokyo. The walls are a restful shade of matte terra cotta. A large, imposing sub-Saharan figurine gazes down benignly on the three spacious dining tables. Above the bar counter, a projection screen flickers mutely with a National Geographic film loop of wildlife parks. A pan-African soundtrack of soukous and highlife music wafts from the sound system.

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But Tribes is much more than just a designer drinking hole with ethnic accents. And the master of the house, Kunihiko Ishikawa, is no mere Afro-dilettante. He lived and worked in Nigeria for a number of years and, so smitten was he by the experience, he packed in his trading company job to create a tranquil space that lovingly encompasses the best of both worlds.

He stocks lagers from Morocco (Casablanca), Ghana and South Africa (Castle), plus Kirin Heartland for those who prefer to stay closer to home. The wine list also spans the entire continent and though we cannot recommend the thin, cheap wines of Morocco, we picked out a very drinkable Pinotage (Mooiplaas) from his selection of South African bottles.

In terms of food, Africa still remains an unknown continent for most people -- with the exception of the distinctive and delicious cuisine of the Maghreb. Wisely, Ishikawa has understood that accessibility is more important than authenticity, and he has worked with his chefs to create an excellent menu that he terms "Afro-French dining." For the most part, it's a fusion that works really well.

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Master Kunihiko Ishikawa

What does that entail? A perfect example was the amuse (appetizer) we were brought to accompany our drinks and tickle our appetites. It was a small saucer of canapes, the flaky pastry topped with a smooth pate of ostrich liver -- refined but with just enough of a tang to evoke the call of the wild.

Although Ishikawa offers a very reasonable set meal (6,500 yen for two, and 3,250 yen per head thereafter), we chose instead to explore his a la carte menu. We started with fried slices of cassava (much like a savory banana), which were delectable; and heavy, mochi-like pao de quiejo (cassava "bread" with cheese), which were less so. There was no stinting on the garlic in the sauteed hotaru-ika (small squid) that followed, although we were unable to determine exactly why it deserved the designation "South African."

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Ostrich features prominently on the menu, although it is raised at a farm in Saitama, not flown in from Africa. Besides carpaccio and kebabs, there are also excellent ostrich sausages. The chewy, densely packed meat has a dark flavor far closer to beef than any bird, and goes every bit as well with grain mustard and sauerkraut as a Wiener.

There is enough variation on the menu to reward several repeat visits. We have not yet tried the grilled prawns (from Mauritius), or the crocodile (deep fried with ham and cheese). But we can highly recommend the Nigerian "Pepe" soup. This is a dark, savory stew of chickpeas and lamb meat simmered as soft as a joue de boeuf and, as the name suggests, generously fortified with enough pepper to raise your body temperature to tropical levels.

Honorary mention must also go to the Tribes "original" couscous. Served with a highly satisfying Moroccan-style stew featuring hearty chunks of mutton and plenty of vegetables in ample rich gravy, this is one of the best couscous dishes we have eaten in Tokyo.

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Lucky and his wife offer African authenticity at Esogie, their small funky bar in Shinjuku-Sanchome.

Should you feel like dessert, Ishikawa will steer you in the direction of his sweet banana fritters or the fruit-packed mango pudding. Although these were strongly endorsed by diners at the next table, alas we had no room left by this stage of the meal.

* * *

Delicate, subtle, refined -- an evening at Tribes is a far cry from the earthy reality of life at street level anywhere in Africa. For an altogether full-flavored taste of the continent, you will not do better than an evening at Esogie. This funky, friendly bar on the third floor of a battered old building in the Shinjuku-Sanchome backstreets is as close as you will ever need to get to West Africa without actually flying there.

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Nigerian-born Lucky and his charming wife run a low-rent laid-back operation that moves to the rhythm of Afrobeat. Settle in at the bar with a beer -- Star from Ghana or, better still, Guiness that's brewed in Lagos (though be warned, it's strong stuff, with an alcohol content of 7.5 percent).

You should order a few snacks -- idodo (plantain chips), perhaps, or some spicy chicken wings. Then, if you're hungry, plunge in and order a plate of their egusi chicken with pounded yam; rice with aromatic tomato meat stew; or a tongue-tingling pepper-laden fish soup (with or without mashed plantain).

Hearty and sustaining, this is true soul food. Lucky says the word esogie means "valuable gift from heaven" -- we should feel ourselves blessed to have a place like this on our doorstep.

Esogie, Muraki Bldg 3F, 3-11-2 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3353-3334; www4.point.ne.jp/~esogie/ Open 7 p.m.-4 a.m.; closed Sunday (except last Sunday of the month); nearest station Shinjuku Sanchome (Marunouchi and Shinjuku lines). From Isetan, walk a short block toward Yasukuni-dori and turn right just before Uniqlo. The building that houses Esogie is on the left just after the second intersection.

Tribes
10-7 Wakamiyacho, Shinjuku-ku; tel. (03) 3235-9966; www.tribes.jp
How to get there: From Iidabashi JR Station (west exit), turn right, cross the river and go straight across the main street (Sotobori-dori). Walk up Kagurazaka, and turn left at the Bishamonten Shrine. After about 80 meters, just as the alley turns sharp left, you will see a wall painted in bold "ethnic" motifs. Ignore the sign for the Rubaiyat wine bar next door: the entrance to Tribes is the smoked-glass door on the corner.
What works: African inspiration meets French cuisine meets Tokyo style -- it's an excellent fusion.
What doesn't: It's easy to miss that poorly marked entrance
Number of seats: 22
BGM: A heady, pan-African mix of soukous, highlife and griot music
Price per head: Dinner course 6,500 yen (for two); also a la carte; 500 yen cover charge
Drinks: Beer from 530 yen; cocktails 740 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 3,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: Japanese/English menu; some English spoken
Reservations: Advisable



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