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Friday, June 30, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Great food, naturally
Natural farming, environmental sustainability, conscious lifestyles -- these are the mantras of the dyed-in-the-wool, back-to-the-earth ecological movement. They're also becoming buzzwords at Tokyo restaurants.
For evidence of this growing green consciousness, look no further than Kurkku Kitchen. Opened in March in nether Jingumae, it's more than just a restaurant, it's the flagship for an ambitious project marrying quality food, contemporary architecture and ecological thinking, which finally hit its full stride last week.
Kurkku means cucumber in Finnish (perhaps distantly related to the word "gherkin") and is pronounced something like "crook." Be that as it may, this is not some well-intentioned labor of love dreamed up by warm, fuzzy idealists. It's a sophisticated (and evidently well-funded) organization that occupies not one sleek, glass-and-steel building but two.
Coming from Harajuku, you first reach the brand new Kurkku Green store, selling designer plant pots, above which is a designer-casual cafe serving light meals and drinks under a remarkably high ceiling. Climb further and you reach a tranquil roof garden with turf, a trellised bower and beds of herbs and eggplants. It's a delightful example of how to combat the heat-island effect and also get featured in architectural journals. Too bad they don't let you bring your organic coffee up here and sip it on the grass.
The restaurant itself, Kurkku Kitchen, lies just around the corner, on the ground floor of the equally impressive (and even larger) main building. With its clean lines, wooden furnishings and bar stools, it could almost be the lobby of some Scandinavian spa hotel, were it not for the open kitchen at the far end of the room and chef Shinnosuke Morohashi's confident French-inspired cuisine.
All the produce and meats used in his kitchen are grown or raised in Japan by farmers who share Kurkku's same enthusiasm for natural farming. And as much of Morohashi's cooking as possible is done over his charcoal grill. The results are simple and highly satisfying.
We nibbled on delicate, home-fried potato chips and sipped on Yonayona draft ale as we studied the menu. There are two choices for fixed-price meals: 5,500 yen for three courses or 6,800 yen for four (this includes both hors d'oeuvres and first course), with half a dozen options for both first and main courses.
Morohashi's skill was immediately evident in the hors d'oeuvres (called amuse on the menu). They consisted of a series of six small palate pleasers, including a miniature spherical croquette enclosing a whole fruit tomato, served with curry-infused salt; an ultra-fine brochette of pork meat; and a delicate mousse of red pimiento.
On the menu, the first course is called legume (vegetable), even though most of the options also include substantial portions of meat. This was certainly the case with the pa^te plate -- a thick slice of chunky, flavorful pork meat, served with a generous side salad.
Even better was the warm vegetable plate (on-yasai in Japanese). This colorful array featured 16 different vegetables, all lightly blanched and served in an immensely flavorful bouillon, topped with a lightly poached egg. Anyone still dubious about the merits (and sheer taste) of organically grown produce is likely to be converted on the spot.
Having spotlighted the vegetables, the main course (simply called viandes) does the same for the organic meats that Kurkku sources. These include pork (kuro- buta black pig) from Kagoshima, either charcoal grilled or served in small nabe casseroles; Oita jidori (free range gamecock), also grilled; or beef steak, from a special variety of shorthorn Japanese cattle bred without the usual marbled fat.
The grilled chicken, one large chunk of wing and breast meat, tasted great, beautifully charred if rather too dry in the middle from its slow cooking over the charcoal. But we had no complaints whatsoever with the plate of grilled bacon, gammon and sausage, which were imbued with the forthright flavor of hickory, and served with potatoes in their very nutritious jackets and grain mustard.
We had not anticipated such robust fare, since most of the customers at Kurkku are women (or at least were the evening we visited). Nor had we expected such a substantial wine list. It's mostly French, all of them "natural," and none priced under 5,000 yen -- though we were happy to find an Oregon Pinot Noir (Evesham Wood) that perfectly matched this style of simple, honest cooking.
We're never impressed by the idea of being brought two desserts, least of all when the first is a green melon soda topped with beaten egg white. We would have been happy enough with the classic-style chocolate ga^teau and the mousse of banana and chocolate that rounded off the meal.
These are still very early days at Kurkku, and inevitably there was some hesitancy in the service (plus they should get some more CDs, instead of playing the same chill-lounge music on a loop of less than an hour). But these flaws fail to detract from the bottom line. You won't find food that's better tasting, better looking and also better for the environment anywhere in the city.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood
This quadrant of Jingumae between Harajuku and Sendagaya has always had a quieter, more adult feel, far from the teenybopper throngs on Takeshita-dori. Perhaps that is why it has long been a fertile ground for foragers in search of organic dining.
The granddaddy of natural foods in the neighborhood is good old Mominoki House, 30 years young this year (the anniversary celebrations were a couple of months ago) and still dancing to its own distinctive beat.
Is it an izakaya that just happens to serve unpolished rice? Or is it a genmai specialist that forgot to get uptight? Who really cares? Owner Yamada-san has flown the flag for so long now that he's created his own distinctive genre and he still manages to draw a lively crowd, many of them hipsters of a certain age.
Mominoki House; 2-18-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3405-9144; www2.odn.ne.jp/mominoki--house/. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (lunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.; dinner 5-10:30 p.m.)
Natural Harmony Angolo, right on the crossing at Killer-dori (that's Gaien-Nishi-dori if you look at the map), has been flying the flag for conscious, wholesome, additive-free nourishment for more than a decade now.
It's had its ups and downs, but the homely wooden decor and cheerful young staff have always made it feel like an oasis for reliable if unsophisticated Japanese home cooking.
Natural Harmony Angolo; 3-38-12 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3405-8393; www33.ocn.ne.jp/~angolo/. Open 11.30 p.m.-2.30 p.m. (last order) and 6-8.50 p.m. (last order); closed Monday.