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Friday, Sept. 2, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Bet you wished you lived nearby
Good food, cooked well and touched with creativity; a comfortable setting, attentive service and honest prices. Whether it's haute cuisine or a ramen shack, those are our criteria for satisfaction. Location counts for nothing: Often the best value for money is to be found well away from the bright lights, out on the streets less trod.
A case in point: Brasserie Bec, in the tranquil pastures -- compared to the razzmatazz of nearby Shinjuku, at any rate -- of Yoyogi-Uehara. Hidden away in a basement, it's way too modest to draw the well-heeled gourmet crowd, and too far removed from the hip enclaves to win mainstream media attention. But over the course of five years, it has built up a strong following, so much so that it's become a jealously guarded secret among local cognoscenti.
The entrance is unprepossessing, marked only by a small olive sapling and a simple red awning. On the bright blue door-frame it says Tirez ("Pull"). Accept that invitation and make your way inside. At the bottom of the stairs, you will be met by a waiter dressed in white, and ushered into a compact dining room with low ceilings and walls adorned with a cheerful collage of photographs, tourist souvenirs and a reproduction late-period Picasso sketch.
The quintessential neighborhood bistro, you might think, where well-intentioned enthusiasm papers over any cracks in performance and presentation. But hold your judgment: Brasserie Bec is much better than that. If you can't tell as you scan the menu -- half a dozen hors d'oeuvres and the same number of main dishes on the regular (bilingual) list alone, plus numerous specials of the day chalked (only in Japanese) on a blackboard brought to your table -- then it becomes obvious as soon as you taste the food.
Although owner-chef Osamu Harada has never worked or cooked in France, he has a fine sense of flavor and presentation. He doesn't aim for complexity but, working in his small kitchen with a single sidekick, he applies a deft touch to all the brasserie standards. More to the point, he understands the importance of good ingredients and cuisine that is consistently satisfying.
To keep us happy as we waited for our first course and pondered our choice of wine from the remarkably substantial list, he sent out a basket of good fresh bread and a complementary saucer of his tasty homemade chicken pa^te. Not having anticipated this, we had already ordered quail pa^te as one of our hors d'oeuvres.
It didn't matter at all. The latter, a substantial tranche, was served hot with just enough enough jus to moisten the pastry that framed the rich, chunky fowl meat. It was very good indeed. But so too was the escabeche of conger, morsels of anago eel enrobed in a coating of golden batter and lightly soused in a marinade that contained more than an undercurrent of cumin and curry spices.
Harada has the customary Japanese sensitivity for cooked seafood -- his scallops are delectable -- and we were tempted by his fish of the day, steamed sea bass. But his strong suit is in the meat and poultry department. Besides his regular Challans duckling a l'orange, as a special the other day he offered filets of the same served with a red wine sauce. The orange was relegated to a subsidiary role, adding its distinctive tang to an intriguing mash of kabu turnip that went really well with the dark, juicy duck meat.
But we still prefer Harada's roast lamb. It's one of those dishes that you know you want to order every time you go there. He cooks it absolutely right, with plenty of garlic, tender but still nicely pink on the inside, with rich gravy that you just have to mop up with the last of your bread. A finger bowl is supplied, so you can gnaw the bones to the last.
Did we talk about value for money? Harada offers two courses for a charitable 2,900 yen (500 yen more if you want to add some dessert). The 3,900 yen course includes both soup and dessert. Or if you really want him to pull out the stops, order the "chef's special course" (5,800 yen).
Now that Tokyo has so many good French restaurants on every level, is Brasserie Bec good enough to warrant a trip across town? Probably not. But it's certainly good enough to make us wish we lived close enough to get over there more often.
This month, Brasserie Bec is celebrating its fifth anniversary. To mark this felicitous occasion, from Sept. 6 it will be offering special wine prices for all customers. For more details, see the Web site or call direct.
Food lovers, welcome to the neighborhood
Change can be painfully fast in Tokyo's neighborhoods. Traditional "villages" morph into trendy enclaves and then, before we know it, turn to slick, soulless redevelopment zones. We've seen it happen in Daikanyama. Naka-Meguro is surely next to go. But, so far, Yoyogi-Uehara -- especially the back streets around the station -- has held onto its low-rise, low-pace ambience. Here are a few more eateries in the area that the locals would prefer the rest of us didn't know about.
Back in 1996, West Park Cafe was the first proper deli-cafe in the city, and it's still going strong. The tables are still too cramped, but that open wooden deck, with its trademark primrose-yellow awning, remains one of our favorite places for a leisurely Sunday brunch or for sipping a Zinfandel on a mellow late-summer evening.
Anyone with an interest in quality nihonshu should get to know Sasagin. Narita-san, the master of the house, stocks an amazing array of fine sake from most of the best (and some of the most obscure) breweries in the country. The food menu blends traditional izakaya standards with creative crossover dishes, generally with delicious results. The look is contemporary Japanese; the atmosphere is casual but never obstreperous; and most nights it is packed to the gunwales.
Jeeten is no bigger than your typical lunch counter, but its fame has spread far beyond the borders of Uehara, thanks to the creative wok of chef Katsuhiko Yoshida. He has developed his own style of light, colorful home cooking, grounded in the Cantonese tradition but well formulated to Japanese palates. That means he uses plenty of vegetables and proudly shuns the use of all artificial additives (MSG included). It's a highly successful formula, so reservations are essential at dinnertime.
Kushi-yaki with contemporary flair. That's the mission statement at Fuku -- which primarily deals in yakitori, but also has a range of meat, vegetables and other interesting new ideas (we love the tomato wrapped in bacon, with a spritz of black pepper). Despite the modern look, it can get just as smoky inside as in any old-school yakitori grill, though. They've kept their prices at 20th-century levels, too. And they even have an English menu.
There's also plenty of good foraging to be had along Inokashira-dori, up in Uehara proper. Pasta Zio offers fast-food spaghetti in sleek, chrome-and-glass architecture. If you prefer goya champuru and soki soba, head for the strangely named Room'z. And the minimalist Kinoji serves high-quality stylish Japanese dining-bar fare.
But without a doubt, our favorite place in this entire neighborhood is the gloriously funky, dilapidated Coffee Praha. It's a retro classic, an old-style kissaten-cum-bar given a hip new lease of life. There's little exceptional about the curry-rice they serve, but due mention must be given to their tandoori chicken taco rice -- yet another take on that improbable mongrel dish.