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Friday, Jan. 20, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
That Mediterranean buzz
Readers of this column over the past seven years will be well aware of our abiding love of the food and wine of the western Mediterranean. Anyone who has eaten his or her way around Spain will understand. From the seafood of Galicia and the Basque coast to the sherry, tapas and superb hams of Andalucia, there is so much great eating and drinking to be done. And that's before you even get to Morocco.
Chef David Chiddo clearly shares the same enthusiasm. His menu at Cicada, halfway between Hiroo and Nishi-Azabu, is a loving homage to some of the best dishes from our favorite region, with creative additions from as far afield as Italy, Greece and Lebanon. Judging from the full tables and the contented hubbub that spreads through the restaurant every evening, there are plenty of other people in Tokyo who feel the same way.
New York born and trained, with stints in both Los Angeles and France under his belt, Chiddo came to Japan more than 13 years ago to launch Lunchan, before moving on to help put T.Y. Harbor Brewery on an even keel. But he always aspired to running a top-flight French restaurant -- until he too fell in love with those simple, beguiling Mediterranean flavors. That was well before the current boom in Spanish bars and restaurants. There was nowhere here doing that kind of food right, he says. "So I opened the kind of restaurant that I wanted in Tokyo but couldn't find."
The result is Cicada. Open more than two years now, it hits all the right notes. It is sophisticated but casual, with a youthful, personal touch. And despite the sleek, contemporary look, it's grounded in the traditional values of good food and friendly service. Whether you perch on a bar stool with some tapas and sherry, order up a full meal in the main dining room, or settle in with a bottle and some close friends in one of the secluded alcoves in the back, here is a place where you can slow down to the unhurried pace of Mediterranean dining.
The menu is divided into four main sections: tapas and their Lebanese counterparts, mezze; a page devoted to jamon and chorizo (from the finest Iberico hogs, of course), culatello and prosciutto from Italy, plus a good choice of cheeses; main dishes, including seafood, meat and plenty of vegetarian-friendly pastas; and finally desserts.
You could put together a very satisfying meal from the first section alone. Over several visits we have tried, and greatly enjoyed, Chiddo's bacalao fritters; the creamy hummus (prepared from dry beans, not precooked, and not overly spiked with garlic); Lebanese fattoush salad; brochettes of "Moorish" pork (though since the Moors were Muslims, surely this should read "more-ish"), and kibbeh (small, egg-shaped balls of minced lamb and cracked wheat), with a refreshing Greek-style tzatziki sauce of yogurt and cucumber.
Chiddo also has a great recipe for albondigas -- small, spicy meatballs -- which he serves in a delicious, piquant tomato sauce with fine chopped almonds that's as good as any you will find in Spain. (Unfortunately, at present, this is only on the lunch menu.) But you also can't go wrong with the roasted calamari, small squid browned in the oven, stuffed with prosciutto, herbs and plenty of garlic.
The other night we started with the Moroccan crab cakes. Never mind that you'd never find a dish like this in North Africa. These bite-size patties are made with lots of crabmeat, spiced with a tingle of chili, and served with an exotic green sauce of basil and hint of coriander leaf.
While waiting for the food to arrive, a serving of freshly cooked Middle Eastern-style flatbread will be brought to your table. Made from wholewheat flour with lots of cumin and coriander seed added, it is grilled to order over a bed of hot pebbles until it's crisp and nicely seared, then anointed with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of Malden sea salt (Essex's finest export). It is so good we find that first complimentary basket is never enough.
The options for main dishes include rib-eye steak, lamb chops and oven-roasted snapper. But at this time of the year, our eyes were drawn to the hearty, warming promise of tagine. There are three versions of this Moroccan stew to choose from: chicken (free range from Kagoshima) with green olives, carrot and preserved lemon, a classic North African combination; anko (monkfish), prepared with almond chermoula (a traditional Moroccan marinade); and lamb. All are served (but not actually cooked) in authentic tagine casseroles with quaint, conical lids, with a bowl of light, fluffy couscous on the side.
Although most recipes for lamb tagine call for prunes or dried dates, at the moment Chiddo is using Japanese dried persimmons instead, and they add their gentle sweetness brilliantly. The tender chunks of lamb shoulder meat are cooked with generous amounts of carrot in a rich, aromatic gravy, and garnished with fine slivers of ginger. A small cruet of fiery harissa is provided, for those who crave a little chili heat, but that meaty stew is so good little further seasoning is needed. What is sadly lacking, though, is proper bread -- baguette, or better still pain de campagne. The flatbread, good as it is, just doesn't work for mopping up all those delectable juices.
Overall, this is confident, competent cuisine, toned down in flavor compared to the original inspirations, but never to the point of deracination. Comfort food of a very high standard, it certainly warrants some good wine. The list focuses on Spain, Italy and France, with around 30 available by the glass or carafe (not including the dozen sherries and various dessert wines). However, while mark-ups are not excessively high for this part of town, there is not much choice for under 5,000 yen.
The desserts are substantial, especially the hazelnut creme bru^lee and the warm, fennel-accented apple cake. But we prefer to finish off a meal (and a bottle of Rioja) with Manchego cheese and membrillo (quince jelly), and then retire to the bar area for a leisurely snifter of vintage port, Madeira or grappa.
Right now, the main dining room is kept warm by a faux-wood gas fire that glows and flickers its eternal flame. In summer, when temperatures get as hot as in Seville, the windows will be thrown open to the street. But whatever the season, there always seems to be a buzz of enjoyment emanating from Cicada.
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The three kinds of draft beer served at Cicada are produced at T.Y. Harbor Brewery, out in nether Shinagawa. Unless you live or work out in Tennozu Isle, you are unlikely to be a regular at their brew pub. Nor, in the current temperatures, will you want to linger on their canal-side deck nursing a glass of Pale Ale. But once spring comes round and we can venture outside again, it is one of the nicest spots in the city to quaff a fresh microbrew.
T.Y. Harbor Brewery, 2-1-3 Higashi-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku; tel. (03) 5479-455; www.tyharborbrewing.co.jp
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In the early 1990s, Lunchan represented the cutting edge of sleek, sophisticated American dining. When it closed a few months back, few people wept (or even noticed). Now David Chiddo is returning to that same address, the site of this first success in Tokyo, at the Shibuya end of Aoyama-dori. His new restaurant will be (in his words) "an urban chop house" and is due to open in three months' time. Watch this space.