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Friday, Nov. 3, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Fine dining that really takes flight
Special people deserve special occasions. But finding exactly the right place for that celebratory dinner is easier said than done -- especially when your criteria are as stringent as ours.
First and most important, the food has to be sensuous -- that means French or Italian -- and matched with good wine. It must be inventive but not self-consciously so. We want flawless, assured technique, not self-indulgent pyrotechnics.
Location is important. We like seclusion, a bit of exclusivity even, but nothing so remote we can't get a taxi when we want to head home. It should be somewhere with a good buzz without being overly trendy, stylish and polished without being too formal, with service that's professional, not slick (always a bugbear for us in Tokyo).
Bottom line, we want to enjoy ourselves. Impossible, you say? Well, everyone's standards are different, but we definitely came close to that elusive goal at Citabria the other day.
From the moment you get out of your taxi, it really does feel a little bit, well yes, special. The setting has a lot to do with it. Citabria (pronounced "cy-tabria," like the aircraft of the same name) is a freestanding, single-story property tucked away down a quiet residential side street. It's only a short block from Roppongi-dori's looming expressway, but all you see is the silhouette of the temple across the road.
The look is modern Deco, its entrance flanked with greenery, each step illuminated from below. The greeting at the door is warm, and delivered in perfect English. The dining room is lit by the friendly orange glow of the illuminated back wall. There is a bar (plus a separate cigar lounge) for those who wish to linger before taking their tables. It feels as comfortable and plush as a private club.
We were shown to one of the three alcoves (we had booked ahead of time) along one side of the dining room, which gave us privacy while allowing us to observe the action at the other tables. The kitchen is downstairs, leaving little to distract your eye from your dining companion.
Chef Tsutomu Endo cooks in the contemporary idiom known as Modern French, incorporating a wide range of influences and ingredients, but without allowing anything to obscure the quality and flavor of his foodstuffs. As some cynics say, when this kind of cuisine is good, it's called creative; when it's bad it's fusion. Endo's cooking is more than good -- it has many touches of excellence.
The easy approach would have been just to order one of his set-piece dinners (8,000 yen or a deluxe 12,000 yen), but there were too many tempting offerings on the a la carte menu (written in near flawless English). Strangely, it is not laid out in the usual way -- hors d'oeuvres first, then main dishes. Instead it is divided into three categories, cutely named "seaside," "backyard" (salads and vegetable dishes -- including several vegetarian options) and "countryside" (meat and fowl), each with a choice of lighter or more substantial dishes.
We primed our taste buds with Endo's patent bagna cauda. He tempers the dark, salty, anchovy flavor of the bubbling hot dip not just with cream but also sweet white miso -- an intriguing and most successful tweaking of the classic Italian recipe. And instead of generic carrot and celery sticks, he surrounds it with a colorful array of less common vegetables, crisp, fresh-cut, and all organically grown.
Crab croquettes sound prosaic and the initial impression of our first starter was underwhelming, just a couple of diminutive golden-brown nuggets on a small mound of salad. But it's taste, not size, that matters -- and these were packed full of fresh, moist king crab meat, with no filler to dilute that wonderful flavor. Accented with a "salsa" of diced fruit tomato, sharp and lively, they were served on a bed of creamed avocado "mousse."
Good as this dish was, though, it paled in comparison with our other starter, a small but perfectly formed pigeon pie of incomparable flavor. It arrived from the kitchen wrapped in a table napkin to keep it warm. Placed in one corner of the plate, it was anointed with an unctuous chocolate-dark gravy, a heavy red wine reduction that was almost balsamico tart (kudos to Endo, he doesn't try to make everything too sweet). The pastry was moist rather than flaky; the meat inside was a fabulous aromatic mixture of rich, dark pigeon and cubes of velvety foie gras, gently textured with pumpkin seeds and barely discernible minced vegetables. Small dabs of pureed natsu-mikan oranges and cumin-imbued carrot provided a piquant counterpoint to the richness of the meat.
This was brilliant and memorable, so flavorful and substantial that it almost overshadowed the rest of our meal -- indeed, at 3,000 yen, it cost much the same as the meat dish that followed. Best of all, it made us glad that our wine (a Tablas Creek 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel) was good enough to match it, even though we had picked it from the lower price levels of Citabria's extensive half-French, half Californian wine list.
We were in fine spirits by now, despite the long gap before our main courses arrived. They were worth the wait. The roast duck was outstanding -- as good as any we remember being served in Tokyo -- its outside layer of fat cooked as crisp as pork crackling, its meat full of delectable juices, and well complemented by a red wine-simmered pear. An intense cinnamon aroma rose from the powder frosting on the edge of the plate, but to our relief there was none in the food itself.
Our lamb, though perfectly cooked, was less remarkable. The dusting of aromatic Moroccan spices provided a fine touch, and we loved the lemon curd-like "chutney," but were not so impressed by the couscous cooked with yogurt, which was soggy and harshly spiced with harissa chili paste.
For dessert we adjourned to the cigar lounge, which is quieter and more spacious, albeit not lit sufficiently to fully appreciate the artistry of our desserts -- persimmon tiramisu, topped with wedges of the fruit marinated in amaretto; and a pomegranate sorbet on lime macaroons, with ginger brandysnaps and a delicate jelly of Sauternes wine.
To say we dined well would be an understatement. But we enjoyed the relaxed, satisfying atmosphere just as much. Open five years now, Citabria has never trumpeted its presence, relying instead on a growing reputation spread by word of mouth. It is that understated sense of style that makes an evening at Citabria quite special.