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Friday, Sept. 15, 2006

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Such quality, such flavor. Bellissimo!


Lastricato lies on the main street of Ushigome, a quiet neighborhood not far from Kagurazaka but quite distinct in character. At first glance, it looks typical of the many mid-range little ristoranti that dot the city these days. Compact but not cramped, chic but not self-conscious, it is worth dressing up for but casual enough to become a regular port of call for those living or working nearby.

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Organic vegetables and premium ingredients are essential for Masakazu Hasumi, the owner-chef of Lastricato, in Ushigome. Below: salmon tartare, one of his signature antipasti dishes. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
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What sets it apart from most other middle-range Italian eateries, though, is chef Masakazu Hasumi's massive enthusiasm for vegetables. An energetic man not long out of his 20s, he loads his menu with them, from the opening appetizers and colorful antipasti through to his main courses, where they assume just as much importance as the meat or fish they accompany.

Not that Hasumi is content with the standard-issue tomatoes and basil, zucchini and Italian parsley served elsewhere. He prepares a remarkable variety of roots and greens, of both Mediterranean and Japanese origin. Why this great emphasis on vegetables?

"I just like them," he says.

That may have been his initial thinking when he opened Lastricato in 2002, having returned to Japan after four years working in Tuscany and northern Italy. But now there is more to his philosophy than that.

"There are a lot of people these days who are deficient in vegetables," he says. "We need to eat 360 grams of vegetables every day. We don't need to take supplements; we can get all the nutrients we need straight from our food."

Who could disagree, after trying one of his salads? He searches out produce that is organically grown -- his main supplier is the renowned Bio-Farm Matsuki, at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture. And he never starts cutting his lettuce, tomatoes or other vegetables ahead of time, always waiting until each order comes in. You can really taste the difference.

Although Hasumi does not overtly espouse the Slow Food philosophy, this approach necessarily means that dinner at Lastricato is a leisurely affair. It does not do to arrive late or (as we did) overly hungry, since the menu is extensive and requires time to explore, even for those who read Japanese.

Simply choosing the most basic of the three set menus entailed considerable pondering, selecting from the a la carte options (and then finding some of them had already sold out). We had finished our aperitivi before we were served our first grissini breadsticks, and were well into our vino by the time the appetizers arrived.

Called antipasti misti on the menu, they were more akin to the zensai served at Japanese meals, opening the taste buds for the meal ahead. A long, rectangular plate held three separate morsels: a slice of pink Parma ham concealing a plump, perfectly ripe fig; half a lightly grilled scallop on a bed of sauteed spring onions; and a couple of slices of marinated suzuki (sea bass) adorned with a small mound of salad greens.

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As with every dish that followed, the seasonings were kept subtle and understated, allowing the inherent flavors of the ingredients to burst through. This was especially true of the delicate yet full-flavored carpaccio of sanma(saury).

Hasumi makes sublime fritti. We were disappointed not to be able to sample his porcini cooked this way -- his entire day's stock of those delectable fungi was already spoken for. But his batter-fried, bite-size parcels of Edomae anago (conger from Tokyo Bay) and small spherical Thai eggplants were outstanding.

What makes them so good? Hasumi is happy to share his batter recipe: one part of grated Parmesan to every two parts of flour, then leavened with baking powder, not eggs. The result is fluffy and savory, not dense or heavy, and with little or no residual oil.

Most of his pasta is homemade. Hasumi says this is his favorite area of cooking, especially served with his trademark uni (urchin) sauce. We choseinstead his rich ragu of minced Challans duck meat cooked with eringi mushrooms and carrots and served over fettuccine; and wonderful ravioli stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese and covered with a thick tomato sauce. Both were served with a generous selection of runner beans, cooked greens and zucchini slices.

Our main dishes were equally accomplished. The roast quail was stuffed with three varieties of rice -- black, sticky and wild -- and served with a rich jus (concentrated meat juice) that demanded to be mopped up with the home-baked rye rolls. And the breast of Akita hinai-jidori chicken was moist and flavorful, simply seasoned with sea salt, grilled and sliced. Both dishes came with an even larger variety of lightly steamed vegetables on the side.

Although portion sizes are around average for Tokyo, we found all this vegetable matter quite filling. Had dessert not been included in our set meal, we would have been tempted to skip it in favor of a glass of golden vin santo. But the fig compote, a single soft-simmered fruit surrounded by concentrated red winejelly, slipped down with no difficulties.

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Given the media-hyped vegetable boom of the last couple of years, it is not surprising to find that women outnumber male customers four to one at Lastricato. But it is by no means a feminine sort of place. The doors are a bold, bright red; the floor paved in stone; the walls simply whitewashed, and decorated with contemporary hanga prints.

But later in the evening, Lastricato takes on a different demographic. From 10 p.m., a lighter, cheaper "osteria" menu is offered, which draws a more casually attired clientele from the nearby printing companies and design studios, who like to settle in with wine, pasta and snacks.

Explore Lastricato's Web site and you start to realize the extent of Hasumi's energy, as well as his love of vegetables. Besides writing the text, he posts pinups of all his main ingredients, identifying the provenance and providing links where necessary. You can also examine the online calendar, to see if tables are free on any given date. To access this you need the password, which he issues to all customers after their first visit.

Even more innovative is his Sunday lunch program. Twice a month, he sets the restaurant aside for parents who have young children, offering them the full evening menu. He understands how hard it is to find any places to eat, let alone sophisticated Italian, when you have kids in tow. And he knows they especially will appreciate the quality of his vegetable-rich menu.

Bravo to Chef Hasumi and his crew.


Ristorante Lastricato
www.r-lastricato.com

Location: 12 Nando-cho, Shinjuku-ku
tel: (03) 5261-4226

Open: 6 p.m.-1 a.m. (last order 11:30 p.m.); light "osteria" menu available from 10 p.m. Sunday lunch: noon-3 p.m.

Closed: Monday (except national holidays)

Nearest station: Ushigome-Kagurazaka (Oedo Line)

How to get there: From Ushigome-Kagurazaka (A1 Exit), turn right and walk up Okubo-dori to the lights. Turn left on Ushigome-chuo- dori. Lastricato is on the left after the second side street.

What works: Hasumi's cucina is light, healthy and delectable.

What doesn't: The menu takes time to work out.

Number of seats: 24.

Smoking areas: No designated no-smoking area, but they try to seat nonsmokers together at the back.

BGM: Sultry jazz vocals.

Price per head: Set meals at 5,200 yen, 6,250 yen and 7,200 yen; also a la carte. Coperto: 700 yen.

Service charge: 700 yen.

Drinks: Beer from 400 yen; cocktails from 630 yen; sherry from 840 yen; wine from 630 yen/glass, 3,000 yen/bottle; vin santo from 840 yen.

Credit cards: Most accepted.

Language: Japanese menu; a little English spoken.

Reservations: Recommended (essential for Sunday lunch).



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