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Friday, Oct. 21, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Wine and BBQ in wafu style


Wine with Japanese cuisine? We've never been convinced. In theory, all that seafood should find the perfect match with a crisp Chablis, Condrieu or unoaked Chardonnay. But when sip comes to gulp, we'll always prefer a ginjo or yamahai sake to accompany our sashimi, sukiyaki or tempura.

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At Les Vinum, in Nishi-Azabu, owner-manager Makoto Tokuhara (center) selects the wine and chef Haruo Nojiri (left) oversees the charcoal grill.

There is, however, one notable exception to this rule: the style of cooking known as sumiyaki. In our book, anything that's been slowly grilled over charcoal -- and as long as it's not slathered in a thick, savory, soy-based tare sauce -- goes beautifully with wine. And if the kitchen is using fine ingredients and premium charcoal, especially the variety known as bincho, then it's worth uncorking a bottle that means business.

And so it was we found ourselves at Les Vinum. Yes, the name is strange (to European ears, at least) and rather stuffy-sounding. But this is not one of those exclusive Nishi-Azabu joints populated by wine snobs and cork dorks. It's a smart little place with a young crew that manages to hit just the right balance between style and substance, casual and chic, enjoyment and outlay.

We've seen this look before: half a dozen tables; a long counter running the length of a spick-and-span open kitchen; and lighting that's discreet but not dim. The walls are a warm shade of orange-ocher, a hue echoed by the banquette at one end of the room. The tables are set with sharp, white-linen cloths, gleaming wine globes and all-white tableware. The only clues that this is not a regulation wine bar are the designer chopsticks (though cutlery can be provided).

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It looks expensive and, should we have wished to indulge ourselves, it could well have been. But Makoto Tokuhara, Les Vinum's affable young owner-manager, keeps things highly affordable in this affluent neighborhood, especially with the wine. The core of his cellar comprises a score or more of choices offered at a one-price-fits-all 4,400 yen per bottle.

With some tasty Co^tes du Rho^ne reds and nearby appellations included on that list, there was no temptation at all to look at any of the pricier bottles. By restaurant standards, a Colombier Crozes-Hermitage at that price is a deal. Next time, though, we may even bring our own wine, as Tokuhara charges an exceptionally modest corkage of just 500 yen.

Tokuhara's second strategy for impressing new customers and keeping his regulars happy is his chef, Haruo Nojiri. Equally adept in both Japanese and French traditions, Nojiri has a subtle touch and understands that simplicity is a virtue. The heart of his kitchen may be the charcoal grill but, from starters to dessert, there was nothing on the menu that we did not want to sample -- and that was before starting to scrutinize the large blackboard (in Japanese, but also with English translations) over the counter advertising the specials of the day.

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Charcoal-grilled wild mallard (above); and a salad of sashimi scallops and clams
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Since this is wafu (Japanese-style) territory, there is no breadbasket. Instead, we were brought otoshi appetizers -- a small ohitashi of spinach and a cup full of piping-hot chawan-mushi, a delicious savory custard made with dashi stock, which helped to revivify and prime our taste buds.

For hors d'oeuvres, we started with a brace of excellent Sanriku nama-gaki, the best oysters we've eaten all year; sashimi scallops and mirugai clams, with a salad of couscous and fragrant mixed herbs; and a plate of wild kinoko ("sauteed fungi" somehow doesn't do them justice) fresh from the mountainsides of Tateshina, in Nagano Prefecture, seasoned with the merest dash of shoyu.

But we were there for the charcoal grill, and the obvious place to start was the Les Vinum osusume (recommended) set: five taster-size dishes of charcoal-grilled delicacies. The exact composition will depend on whatever Nojiri determines is best on that particular day. For us, he produced in quick succession the following:

A single jidori chicken liver, sliced to reveal a very red-rare interior, but dark on the outside, soft as sin; a slice of his homemade pa^te, containing as much fowl meat as pork, crisped on the outside and paired with baby cornichons; a couple of whole shiitake, moistened with a light warishita sauce, as you might be served at a top yakitori shop; exquisitely grilled quail, both breast meat and wing; and two small fillets of unagi (eel) served with a dab of wasabi.

Wine with wasabi? Nothing to be alarmed about. It's freshly grated from the root, pungent but mild on both the nasal cavities and palate. Indeed, there was not a clashing note throughout. Though each dish comprised little more than a morsel, at just 2,800 yen this course represented great value.

There was plenty more. At this time of year the specialty of the house is gibiers, fowl and game hunted in the wild. Currently the options include wood pigeon, mallard and wild quail, but later on in the season they should also have pheasant and Hokkaido venison. How could we resist? The mallard was outstandingly good, firm and not nearly as fatty as domestic duck. At this point, we started planning our next visit, with a bottle or two of vintage Bordeaux tucked under our arms.

For those who like to finish a meal in Japanese style, there are chilled somen noodles and even a curry-rice made with Nojiri's charcoal-grilled quail, which should be worth a special visit in itself. There is also a cheese plate. But instead we ordered the homemade custard pudding, rich with egg yolk, fresh vanilla and butterscotch sauce. Satisfaction. Or, this being a wafu wine bar, gochisosama deshita.

New-comers and new faces

What makes a bistrot different from a bistro? In the case of the chic, sleek Bistrot des Arts, which opened last weekend in Ebisu (diagonally across from popular Tex-Mex restaurant Zest), it means a good recipe for confit de canard, a classic French onion soup that warms the soul in any season, late hours that cater to the city's night owls, and walls crammed with modern art (by French jazzman Daniel Humair) worth inspecting.

Bistrot des Arts, 4-9-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3447-0408; open 11:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Just around the corner from there, one of our favorite Spanish restaurants, Tio Danjo (reviewed in these pages a year ago), has been refurbished. The second-floor dining room hasn't changed that much, except there's no open kitchen and no counter seating now. But downstairs Danjo has created a very fine, authentic-looking tapas bar, complete with Spanish trappings. Just the place to prop up the bar before dinner with a glass of fino and a ration of his good tortilla.

Tio Danjo, 1-12-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5420-0747; open 5:30-10 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday and holidays; tapas bar open 2-11:30 p.m. (last order).

Sadly, another fine Spanish place -- Casa Paradis Barcelona -- has served its last paella. Perhaps that backstreet Shibuya location was just too remote, but hopefully Chef Iwasaki will soon be serving his outstanding morcilla in a more receptive location.

Les Vinum
4-5-8 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5466-8607; www.corri-corri.com/vinum.html
Open: 6 p.m.-2 a.m. (Sunday and holidays 5:30 p.m.-midnight)
Closed: Monday
Nearest stations: Hiroo (Hibiya Line)
How to get there: From Exit 3 of Hiroo Station, walk up Gaien-Nishi-dori in the direction of Nishi-Azabu. At the second traffic light, turn left, then turn right past Da Noi Italian restaurant. Les Vinum is on the right after 50 meters.
What works: Excellent grilled food, especially the gibiers; and top marks for the wine pricing
What doesn't: The location feels a bit remote (neither Hiroo nor there, you might say).
Number of seats: 24 (including eight at the counter).
No Smoking: No allowances made
BGM: Up-tempo modern jazz
Price per head: Figure around 4,000 yen (not including your wine); 5 percent service charge
Drinks: Beer from 600 yen; wine from 800 yen/glass, from 4,400 yen/bottle; grappa from 800 yen
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: English/Japanese menu; English spoken
Reservations: Recommended (by telephone, call after 3 p.m.)



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