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Friday, April 21, 2006


Panache and great value on a plate

Picture this. A substantial fillet of salmon fills the center of the plate, its flesh glinting a delicate pink and adorned with a dab of sour cream and a frond of dill. To one side a small mound of lightly steamed spring vegetables: young peas still in their pods; nanohana (rape greens); a thin wedge of scarlet koshin daikon. To the other, a soft-poached egg, an irregular sphere of brilliant white encasing a yolk of molten gold.

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Chef Yusuke Nakada prepares his signature salmon dish at L'Artemis in Jingumae

It tastes every bit as wonderful as it looks. The salmon has been marinated for a night, then briefly smoked (a mere 15 minutes) over chips of cherry wood, imbuing it with a subtle flavor midway between carpaccio and traditional smoked salmon. The egg, onsen tamago style, is poached to perfection. The glistening vegetables are garden fresh, their gentle bitterness tempered by the tarragon dressing.

The elements are simple but the combination -- that synergy of colors, flavors and textures -- is memorable. It's a dish worthy of inclusion at any top-end restaurant. Where you'll find it, though, is on chef Yusuke Nakada's highly approachable (and affordable) menu at L'Artemis, on the outer fringes of Harajuku.

From the outside, it looks unremarkable, a typical neighborhood restaurant built into the ground floor of a generic 1980s apartment building. Inside, the rough plasterwork is decorated with vintage French advertisements.

With a banquette under the window and counter seats along an open bar area, it feels almost bistro simple -- until, that is, you take in the impressive wine cellar set into one wall, the Riedel glasses on the table, the professional demeanor of the floor staff and the sophistication of Nakada's cuisine.

He arrived here in mid-2004, fresh from a two-year stint under one of France's top chefs, Regis Marcon, whose restaurant in Auvergne now boasts three Michelin stars. A quiet man in his early 30s, he modestly says his cuisine still borrows heavily from Marcon and from his first mentor, chef Kazuhisa Tashiro at La Blanche in Shibuya.

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Having eaten at L'Artemis three times in the past 18 months, we have been pleased to observe that Nakada is rapidly developing a poise and style all his own. We can also attest that you will not find better value French cuisine of this caliber anywhere in the city.

His 3,990 yen Menu Petillant ("Sparkling") allows you to pick one each from the day's selection of entrees, main dishes and desserts -- plus a host of little extras. The 5,250 yen Menu L'Artemis gives you the option of an extra dish. Nakada also offers a 7,560 yen Menu Confiance (omakase in Japanese), for which you can have absolute confidence that he will pull out all the stops.

Just look how well we dined the other evening from the basic menu -- although we did choose several dishes that bore supplemental charges (500 yen or even more). As soon as we were seated and still mulling our wine choices, a plate of canapes were placed in front of us: a couple of mini cheese and sesame grissini, fresh from the oven; rich pork rillettes on a small slice of dark bread; and a saucer of highly addictive savory-toasted pumpkin seeds.

Homemade rolls and baguette slices were followed by an amuse bouche, a couple of small hotate scallops grilled on the shell with herbs and butter. It's just a taster, a few mouthfuls to whet the palate, but it also gives a subtle hint of the quality of what is to follow.

The salmon may be Nakada's signature dish, but this time we chose as entrees -- to quote from the slightly idiosyncratic French on the bilingual menu -- Les Oursins (sea urchins) and Les Coquillages (shellfish). The former comprised a wonderful bowl of soft, smooth scrambled egg, its rich, orange color betraying the generous quantity of sea urchin it contained. The morsels of sashimi-grade fresh urchin garnishing the very center of the dish concealed a vivid green puree of nanohana, creating a dramatic yet playful contrast of colors and tastes.

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Manager Kazuhiko Shiomi welcomes you to L'Artemis, which offers some of the city's best value French cuisine.

The latter was even more complex. A petit flan of onion formed an island in a lake of light, frothy green-pea potage, topped with fresh broad beans, mangetouts and more peas, plus a selection of lightly cooked seafood -- not just clams and scallop but also fish and squid, all of it of impeccable freshness.

The fish of the day -- kuromutsu, a delicate white-meat fish -- was pan-fried and served with fritters of wild sansai mountain vegetables (fukinoto, udo and more). Equally accomplished were our chops of Australian lamb, roasted to just the right degree of pinkness inside, garnished with a small chunk of new-season bamboo shoot and set on a bed of savory wild rice and vegetables. We made full use of the home-baked rolls and baguette to mop up the juices on our plates.

L'Artemis also boasts a serious wine selection. The cellar holds 100 different varieties, albeit overwhelmingly focused on Bordeaux and the Bourgogne appellations. While Nakada's cuisine is certainly good enough to match with a fine (if pricey) vintage, we would like to see a wider selection from the Languedoc and Rhone Valley regions.

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As a rule, we thoroughly object to being asked to order dessert at the beginning of a meal. How can we know how stuffed we'll be by the time we're through with our main dishes? But we will certainly forgive L'Artemis, as several of the desserts are made only in limited quantities, and ordering late would have meant missing out on the fabulous mousse of Venezuelan chocolate with its red-wine sorbet accompaniment.

Nakada also makes a very fine souffle, which on our visit was accented with kawachi-bankan, a refreshingly acidic variety of citrus native to Kumamoto.

The meal was drawing to a close, but it wasn't over yet. A second dessert arrived, a creme brulee of diminutive size but massive flavor, slightly accented with fennel seed to balance its richness. To round off the meal, they bring espresso or tea and, should you wish, snifters from their stocks of eaux de vie, vieux Calvados or vintage ports.

Although the locals have done their best to keep L'Artemis to themselves, the word is out now. Besides the fashion and design companies that occupy this formerly residential quadrant of Harajuku, it is also well patronized by Tokyo's French community. They know, better than any of us, that in terms of value for money, it doesn't get much better than this.

2-31-7 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5786-0220;
Open: Lunch 12-2 p.m.; dinner 6-11 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.) (last order) and 5-10 p.m. (last order); Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-
Closed: Wednesday and second Tuesday of the month
Nearest stations: Harajuku (JR) and Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line)
How to get there: From Harajuku Station, walk down Omotesando and turn left along Meiji-dori. At the third light, turn right (by the Face Building), then take the first street to the left. L'Artemis is on the left after about 200 meters.
What works: First-rate cuisine at neighborhood prices -- what value!
What doesn't: The tables are rather too close together.
Number of seats: 30 (including nine at the counter)
No-smoking areas: It's entirely no-smoking.
Price per head: Lunch from 1,500 yen; dinner menus at 3,990 yen, 5,250 yen and 7,560 yen; also a la carte. Service charge 7 percent (dinner only)
Drinks: Beer 735 yen; sherry from 630 yen; cocktails from 945 yen; wine from 840 yen/glass, 2,100 yen/half bottle, 2,940 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: Japanese/French menu; some French (and a little English) spoken
Reservations: Recommended

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