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Friday, May 19, 2006



Power dining that shines

The stock market's up and ditto consumer spending. Real estate is rebounding and there's even talk of another bubble. No surprise then that we've been seeing plenty of upmarket restaurants opening in recent months. Better still, some of our favorite restaurateurs are getting into the action.

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Chef-about-town David Chiddo (right) puts a finishing touch on a dish at Beacon, his newly opened "urban chop house," just off Aoyama-dori.

David Chiddo is a chef who seems unable to rest on his laurels. Not content with running the excellent Cicada in Hiroo, which remains consistently popular among our expat community, as well as TY Harbor Brewery down on the Tennozu waterfront, he has embarked on a new and even classier venture.

Beacon styles itself as an "urban chop house." What that means is a self-confident, high-end grill in the best American tradition. Swanky and polished, it exudes the reassuring, understated elegance (and, it must be said, the equivalent sticker price) of a Lincoln Continental.

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Beacon is more formal than Cicada. More formal than Cicada, Beacon targets a rather different clientele. It's the demographic who can afford to eat at Cicada on a regular basis and who are looking for somewhere a bit more special for power lunches, dinner with the boss or serious occasions with significant others.

There's a large bar area where you can schmooze over cocktails (David's Perfect Martini, made with aromatic Hendricks gin, lives up to its immodest name) before heading to a table in the capacious main dining area. The furniture is solid but stylish. The chairs are comfortable, with low arms and ample girth. Banquettes in the window alcoves offer intimacy. And the open kitchen is well off to one side, so you're hardly aware of the action or any stray smells from the grill.

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The look and layout are right, and so is the menu. The appetizers range from oysters on the half-shell and Loch Fyne organic smoked salmon (Scotland's finest) to the zesty taraba-gani crab cakes with which we opened our meal. And the main courses include a tempting array of seafood, such as swordfish steak with papaya sambal, grilled wild Aussie prawns with okra fritters or tender Hokkaido scallops gently pan-roasted with a tasty creamy crab sauce.

But meat is the heart of the matter here. There are three kinds of steak to consider: a 10-ounce sirloin, 7-ounce filet or 14-ounce rib eye, all from premium Australian Angus beef (grade one, long grain fed, the best). We were also tempted by the chops -- premium Wa-ton Mochi-buta pork or juicy Aussie lamb; the chicken -- half a Chiba free-range Kaori-dori chicken; and the sausages (also pork). Dilemma: As at Cicada, you know they're all going to be good.

On the evidence of the excellent filet steak that we eventually plumped for, Chiddo's grill team certainly knows what they're doing. The meat was moist and tender, cooked to the right degree of light-medium rareness, lightly seared on the outside, juicy and pink inside, just the way it should be.

Grills go with beer, right? Not here. The TY Harbor draft brews are fine for slaking your thirst on arrival, but this is food that calls for -- nay, stamps its foot and stridently demands -- some major, quaffable New World wines. The elegant, glass-enclosed cellar contains a couple of offerings under the 5,000 yen mark, but the bulk of the interesting bottles are around 7,000 yen and up. If you want a Grand Cru claret, though, you'll have to bring your own (corkage is 4,000 yen).

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With appetizers averaging 1,700 yen and main dishes at around 3,000 yen (more for the steaks), add in a couple of side dishes (don't miss the rosemary "smashed" potatoes or the cheese-infused "garlic toast steak fries") and dessert, plus a decent wine, and you can easily expect a dinner tab of 10,000 yen per person.

At midday Beacon is considerably more affordable. Besides offering a scaled-down version of the a la carte dinner menu -- the sirloin steak is a 7-ouncer; the filet is 6 ounce -- there are five different special lunches (from 1,200 yen, including home-baked rolls, a side salad and coffee).

The tuna tataki salad looks wonderful, as does the herb-marinated half chicken. But our favorite is already the brilliant Beacon Burger. The standard version (1,600 yen) is already good, but with avocado, bacon and cheese as optional extras (100 yen each; just say ABC), it's outstanding.

The patty itself is thick and moist, still with a blush of pink in its interior. Topped with melted cheddar, crisp bacon and ripe green avocado, it nestles between two soft sesame buns, with a dill pickle and slices of tomato and red onion on the side. The ketchup and tartare sauce are there to help the fries down. The burger itself is perfectly seasoned just the way it is.

Open barely a month -- and still so new they don't have a Web site -- Beacon is clearly just getting up to speed. But all the signs look positive and are clearly hitting all the right chords with the lunchtime crowd. It's already humming, close to full capacity, including all seating in the bar area.

Plates on the side

Chef Jitsuhiro Yamada first won our affections with his super little bistro/wine bar, Marche aux Vins in Aoyama. He moved the concept, along with his considerable cellar of premium Burgundies, up several notches when he opened Harmonie in Nishi-Azabu. Now he has another little restaurant, Cogito (that's a soft "g," as in "cogitate"), in a side street off Terebi-Asahi-dori in the shadow of Roppongi Hills.

It's a freestanding two-story house, built from scratch and lovingly furnished with lots of wood paneling and European antique furniture. The cozy ground floor dining room (all no-smoking) feels like a well-heeled auberge somewhere near Lyon. Upstairs is a private dining room, complete with balcony; hidden down steep stairs you find a tiny basement lounge with antique leather chairs and cigar humidor.

This is Roppongi, so it's pricey -- budget 7,000 yen per head for dinner, plus the same again for wine -- and, yes, pretentious (though the initial stuffiness is tempered by Yamada's huge enthusiasm). But the food is first rate and so is the wine, and lunch is quite affordable. On a sunny summer day, with the doors open, this could be the nicest spot in the whole neighborhood for lunch.

Cogito, 3-2-15 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3796-3838; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-10:30 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday. Lunch from 2,000 yen; dinner from 4,800 yen; most credit cards. Closest station: Roppongi.

* * * * *

Over in Shirokanedai, a restaurant of a very different stripe opened last week. Quintessence (pronounced with a Gallic accent, "Kan-tess-once") is the latest venture from the Granada group (Sadler; Sant Pau; Isola; Izayoi) and it's a one of a kind.

The star here is talented young chef Shuzo Iwata, who is fresh back in Japan from five years in France, including stints as sous-chef at some heavy-duty Paris restaurants. The gimmick: There's no menu, nothing to order, not even a guideline of what sort of ingredients will be used. And, so they say, Iwata himself only decides what you're getting as he starts cooking.

Essentially, this is a chef's table, but with an extra frisson of uncertainty. We haven't had a full meal there, but having sampled some of his repertoire of experimental neo-nouvelle cuisine, it promises to be an interesting experience.

Quintessence, Barbizon 25 1F, 5-4-7 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5791-3715; www.quintessence.jp; open 12-3 p.m. (last order 1:30 p.m.) and 6:30-11 p.m. (last order 9 p.m.); closed Wednesday. Lunch 7,350 yen; dinner 15,750 yen; service charge 10 percent; major credit cards accepted. Closest station: Shirokanedai.

1-2-5 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 6418-0077
Open: Daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (last order) and 6-10 p.m. (last order); bar 6-11:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday & holidays also open 3-5 p.m. for tea/coffee and dessert
Nearest stations: Omotesando (Ginza, Hanzomon and Chiyoda lines) and Shibuya (various lines)
How to get there: From Omotesando Station (Exit B2), walk along Aoyama-dori toward Shibuya (about 4 minutes). After passing the Children's Castle (Kodomo-no-shiro), turn right. Beacon's entrance is on the left, straight after the first small side street.
What works: Great burgers and steaks: This is power dining.
What doesn't: We only wish that great burger was on the evening menu.
Number of seats: 130 (including 30 in the bar, and a private room for 14)
BGM: Straight-up modern jazz
No smoking: Large no-smoking area. Smoking also permitted at the bar -- but no cigars, pipes or clove cigarettes.
Price per head: Lunch from 1,200 yen, also a la carte; dinner a la carte (figure around 7,000 yen, not including drinks). No cover or service charge.
Drinks: TY Harbor Brewery beers 800 yen (700 yen at lunch); martinis and cocktails from 1,200 yen; wine from 900 yen/glass (800 yen at lunch), 4,500 yen/bottle; spirits from 900 yen. Corkage: 4,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted.
Language: English/Japanese menu; all the friendly floor staff speak good English.
Reservations: Recommended.

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