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Friday, March 3, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Spice with style on the side
We joined the crowds and sauntered down to Omotesando Hills, not so much to explore the banal shopping-mall architecture but to see whether it retains a shred of the atmosphere of the old, charming, crumbling Dojunkai buildings. But there's nothing, not even a shrub or a shadow. So we went and looked for something to eat.
The biggest lines were outside the swish Zazza (it's pronounced with the same kind of stress as "pizzazz") the latest pasta/pizza place to bear the Salvatore Cuomo imprimatur. We never got close to sitting down, even in mid-afternoon. But that didn't matter a bit, because right opposite is Poivrier, a little cafe-shop where the sleek contemporary style is balanced by some seriously tasty food.
As the name suggests -- poivrier means either "pepper tree" or "pepper mill" -- the underlying theme is spices. During the daytime, they keep things very simple, just serving a couple of curries and the same number of desserts. But it is in the evening, from 6 p.m., that the menu starts to get interesting.
The starters range from straightforward tomato and basil bruschetta or coriander-leaf salad to items of considerably greater sophistication. We homed in immediately on the pate filo parcels, stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. These dainty little triangular morsels of flaky filo pastry were served warm, so the cheese was just slightly oozy, and they came with two very unusual sauces -- a delicious, sweet-tart marmalade of ogonkan (small kumquats); and a pool of unsweetened tamarind, viscous, jet-black and as sour as umeboshi (indeed, for a few moments we thought it was bainiku ekisu, the concentrated juice of the ume plum). Be warned, a little of this sauce goes a very long way.
We followed that with a well-simmered tagine-style stew of lamb and vegetables, served on a bed of light, fluffy couscous. Although the rich gravy was not spicy in itself, once we had stirred in the dab of fiery-red harissa sauce on the side, there was piquancy aplenty.
To find this and other equally sophisticated dishes -- confit of chicken with lemon zest sauce; or pan-fried breaded cutlets of golden pork with Chinese huajiao pepper -- on the menu was surprising enough. But the wine list here is even more remarkable. Should you be in the mood, you could start the evening with a small bottle of Krug (11,000 yen) then progress to a 1994 Puligny-Montrachet or a 1995 Romanee-St.-Vivant (14,000 yen and 18,000 yen respectively).
Even the house wine is the very quaffable (and reasonable at 2,800 yen a bottle) Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon from David Wynn, in the Adelaide Hills, though we think the same winery's Riesling (3,500 yen) is a much better match with this kind of spicy cuisine.
So impressed were we that we went back for lunch a few days later to sample the curry-rice. Poivrier produces a modern take on this well-loved modern Japanese staple that we can confidently state is the best in Tokyo. The roux is light and fragrant, aromatic but with little chili bite. Whereas in most curry, the vegetables (and/or meat) are stewed till they are lost in the mix, here the vegetables -- chunks of daikon and carrot, half a Brussels sprout, a new potato and some lightly grilled negi leek -- are cooked separately, retaining both their color and nutrition.
The rice is even healthier. It's a potent blend of white rice mixed with half-polished brown rice, barley and grains of black rice, with yellow split peas and peppercorns for extra color and sensory excitement. It's chewy, nourishing and exceedingly tasty (as long as you like crunching on whole red peppercorns). It's also filling in a way that lasts the afternoon, not just an hour or so.
Round off your meal with a small bowl of yogurt blancmange or a delicate slice of apple tart with just the right amount of cinnamon, plus an espresso or herbal tea. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Poivrier is already operating at full capacity -- how has the word got out so quickly? -- but if you can't get a table, at least they do take-outs of both the curry-rice and the couscous-tagine. And anyone with a gourmet tooth in their mouth will linger by the shelves of the diminutive retail section, feasting their eyes on the imported Aussie goodies such as Dandaragan Olive Oils, laksa sauce and Byron Bay cookies; the Italian artisan pasta and red sauces; the wholewheat couscous and harissa from Tunisia; and Illy coffee and grinders.
If you prefer your curry more authentically Indian, and if your travels take you through Shinagawa, then you need to know about the new Sitaara Diner. It's located in a newly opened upmarket mall section called Ecute Shinagawa, inside the wickets of the JR station.
Forget ethnic trinkets and Bollywood soundtracks. Here the only Indian influences are in the kitchen -- most of the staff, in fact -- and on the plate. It may look like a modern minimal cafe-bar, but there's no quibbling with the heat and flavor of the food.
There are six curries to choose from, of which our favorites are vegetable and chickpea. From the tandoor oven, we like the paneer tikka, cubes of curd cheese that have been marinated in spices before being baked. And besides regular naan, you can fill up on wholewheat roti; marsala kulcha (thick pancake-style breads stuffed with potato); or even mutton biriyani.
Anywhere in Tokyo, Sitaara Diner would be welcome, but compared to the stand-up noodle bars and cheap izakaya fare that commuters have had to put up with until now, this is brilliant. During the day, the station is surprisingly quiet. But once the rush hour starts, you will find Sitaara Diner packed, with waits of half an hour or more.
Should you have already detected a common denominator between Poivrier and Sitaara, you are right on the money. Both are connected with Mascot, probably Japan's premier purveyors of spices to the food industry and, increasingly, on the retail level. It is also the producer of our favorite line of just-boil-and-serve curry packs, which uniquely in Japan are produced with no MSG or artificial additives. Look for them in larger supermarkets and gourmet stores.