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Friday, Aug. 5, 2005



An appetite for Andalucia

'Tis the season for grazing -- coaxing the appetite to life, while nibbling on snacks and sipping on something nice and cool. And this summer, more than ever before, Tokyo is discovering the pleasures of tachi-nomi (literally "stand and drink") joints and their upscale counterparts, which eschew all low-life connotations by using the currently vogue term "stand bars."

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At Bar Camaron, chef Tomoyuki Shinohara and floor manager Carlos Solis serve up Spanish tapas with a twist.

It's not just the nomenclature that's changing, it's the concept itself. No longer is tachi-nomi the preserve of slumming salarymen and blue-collar Edokko swilling down shochu and motsu-yaki. We now have hole-in-the-wall pubs where you can belly up with premium imported and microbrewed ales. We have chic counters with designer downlighting, where fashionistas quaff prosecco (or champagne) with side plates of prosciutto and parmesan. But best of all we have a growing number of places that serve authentic Spanish tapas.

Our current favorite is Bar Camaron. Open since May, it is an offshoot of the excellent little Spanish restaurant of the same name in Toranomon. As diminutive and friendly as its name (Spanish for "shrimp"), the original place proved so popular that owner Shinichiro Sugama, a dyed-in-the-wool Iberophile, decided to open new premises just walking distance away, on the Azabu side of Kamiyacho station.

Bar Camaron is hidden away off the main drag, occupying the ground floor of a nondescript two-story house that until recently housed a 1960s-era kissaten. Were it not for the sign outside, complete with bright red shrimp, and the plastic replica jamon hanging in the window, there is little to hint that this inscrutable facade conceals the clean, contemporary lines of a cutting-edge tapas bar.

Although there is room for four or five people to prop themselves up at the counter, it's not a standing-room-only place. Sugamo has installed three small tables, complete with stylish bar stools, plus a couple more seats facing in over the bar. In this regard, the layout follows the tradition of southern Spain, where people settle in for extended evening drinking sessions, rather than the better-known Basque style, where customers drift from one bar to another, never bothering to sit down.

Sugamo himself does not preside at Bar Camaron, preferring to oversee his main restaurant. The man in charge here is Tomoyuki Shinohara, a young chef with a very fine sense of what makes good tapas, ably assisted by floor manager and bartender Carlos Solis, who hails from Peru.

The enthusiasm for the Andalucian style is clear, from the boxes of imported paper tissues (don't cast them onto the floor after wiping your fingers, though) to the emphasis on sherry. They keep half a dozen different bottles in their refrigerator, ranging in style from Don Zoilo, a crisp fino that makes an excellent aperitif, to richer, more complex varies such as the Napoleon oloroso abocado and the nectar-sweet Solera 1847, a quintessential dessert sherry.

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Start the night off with a glass of manzanilla sherry, then sample the delicious marinaded sardines and a slice of tortilla.

Our favorite way to start a tapas session is with a glass or two of bone-dry manzanilla. At Bar Camaron you have two to choose from -- the ever-reliable La Gitana, also available in half bottles if you are a party of three or four; and the far less common (here in Tokyo, at any rate) Solear, which is even finer. Either fit the bill just right, tingling the tongue and shaking the taste buds awake, ready for those first, light snacks.

Throughout, Shinohara imbues his food with plenty of nice touches, such as the dill and lightly pickled onion slices that have been steeped with the olives. Ditto with the sardines: they are small, delicate and marinated in just the right amount of vinegar.

Here, as at the main restaurant, the specialty of the house is camarones cocidos -- good-sized shrimp (the kind known in Japanese as ama-ebi) simply blanch-boiled in their shells, but so perfectly you don't even need the wedge of lemon that's served with them.

What else is good? Just about everything we've tried. Don't miss the mojama -- these slices of maguro (tuna) jerky, served with crunchy-roast almonds, are cured until they almost have the appearance and texture of a fine ham. Shinohara's excellent patatas al alioli are noteworthy because he uses new potatoes, boiling them with their skins on, and then, instead of slathering them with the usual thick white mayonnaise, he just pours on a simple dressing of olive oil, garlic and anchovy.

Even more unusual are his tortillas. Shinohara follows the Camaron tradition by using other vegetables in place of the standard potato slices. The other day we were presented with a thick tranche of omelet made with spinach, its color a dramatic dark green and its texture much smoother than expected. It was not an unqualified success -- we prefer his pumpkin tortilla -- but tasty nonetheless, and an indication that creativity takes precedence here over slavish adherence to tradition.

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Shinohara also offers a good selection of heartier hot tapas dishes. We loved the cerdo adobada, slices of grilled pork topped with a rich red sauce. The homemade chorizo is equally good, chopped into bite-sized morsels and served on a wide wooden platter with a healthy mound of watercress. Ask for some of their good home-baked rolls, to mop up all those tasty sauces.

By this time we were drinking red wine. Unless you are seriously pinching pennies, ignore the mediocre house wine and instead order the Ramon Bilbao "Limited Edition," a Rioja with plenty of tempranilla character, highly affordable at 4,200 yen. Also on the list is a Marques de Riscal Riserva, another Rioja we have always found reliable. And they have two excellent Spanish cheeses to go with those reds -- a dense sheep's-milk Manchego, and a fragrant blue from Valdeon.

To bring our meal to a close, we ordered the fideue. Think of this as paella made not with rice but short lengths of fine pasta, mixed with shellfish and vegetables. Prepared well, this can be just as tasty as good paella. Unfortunately, we have to report that this one was less than memorable, not being given enough time in the oven to absorb all the juices and develop a crisp, brown underlayer.

Probably the reason for this was that Shinohara had suddenly got very busy. Bar Camaron opens at 4 p.m. -- late for lunch, even by Spanish standards -- and usually stays quiet for the next couple of hours. But as people drift out of work, it suddenly fills up, and by 7 p.m. there was not a spare seat in the house, nor even leaning space at the counter.

Bar Camaron
5-8-11 Toranomon, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3432-8804; www.camaron.org
Open: 4-11 p.m. (last order)
Closed: Sundays and holidays
Nearest stations: Kamiyacho (Hibiya Line)
How to get there: From Kamiyacho Station (exit 2), turn right and walk along Sakurada-dori in the direction of Azabu. Turn right down the second side street (just by a sushi shop), and you will see Bar Camaron on the right after about 30 meters.
What works: Casual but with plenty of style, fine sherry and good finger food -- everything a tapas bar should be.
What doesn't: The air conditioning struggles a bit with all the smoke, heat and smells from the grilling plancha.
Number of seats: 15 plus room for 5 standing at the counter
BGM: Predominantly flamenco
Price per head (not including drinks): Figure around 1,000 yen for a few light snacks, 3,500 yen for a full evening.
Drinks: Beer from 350 yen; sherry from 400yen/glass, 1,800 yen/half-bottle; wine 450 yen/glass, from 2,800 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: Japanese/Spanish menu; Spanish and English spoken

Stand and deliver: foraging for tapas on the streets of Ebisu

Ebisu has a new tapas bar, Tapachos, on the side street leading up to Ebisu Jinja. Open to the balmy evening air, it has two long counters propped up by the usual well-dressed suspects, who nurse glasses of cava (650 yen), manzanilla (350 yen) or vino tinto (from 400 yen). The kitchen is remarkably well equipped, and its menu stretches from standard tapas, both hot and cold, and pinchos (basically canapes on slices of baguette) to cocas, a form of mini-pizza apparently popular in Majorca. We want to like this place as they're trying hard, but everything, the food included, still feels a bit sterile. Go now, quickly, while the summer is at its peak and they're still handing out 500 yen discount coupons.

Bar Tapachos, 1-13-5 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 6415- 7227; www.tapachos.com. Open 5 p.m.-5 a.m. (holidays 5-11 p.m.); closed Sunday.

* * * * *

Much more up our street, both in style and ambiance, as well as in the range of its cooking, is Ebisu 18-ban, which we reviewed in these pages back in March of this year. What we like is the faux-industrial look; the starters, scoops from a wheel of Parmesan; the eclectic menu; and, most of all, the late-night buzz.

Ebisu 18-ban, 2-3-13 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3794-1894. Open daily 6 p.m.-5 a.m.

* * * * *

While we're still in Ebisu, another favorite "stand bar" is Whoopee. Rubbing shoulders with funky fishmongers and downmarket izakaya, the aesthetic here is poverty chic: wood paneling and open ceiling ducts, a long marble-look bar, a disco ball overhead, and a soundtrack ranging from Abba to hepcat jazz. They offer a dozen wines (all 500 yen per glass, 2,000 yen per bottle) and inventive bar snacks (most 500 yen too). What's remarkable is not the number of women propping up the counter, but the fact that all the staff are women too.

Whoopee, 1-8-14 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel (03) 3444-5351. Open 5.30-11.30 p.m.; closed Sunday.

* * * * *

Classiest of all the Ebisu standing bars, though also hardest to find, is definitely Vin Santo. Bossa jazz on the sound system, discreet lighting and a diminutive counter (five people maximum), it serves 16 or so wines by the glass, including 10 of the eponymous dessert wines. Simple bar food of remarkable quality is produced, not just prosciutto, salami and cheeses but even hot pasta dishes.

Vin Santo, 2-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel (03) 3464-4641. Open daily 5 p.m.-midnight (2nd-floor bar 5 p.m.-4 a.m).

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