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Friday, Dec. 15, 2006

TOKYO FOOD FILE

BEST OF 2006

Reminiscing on a year at the table


The solstice is upon us, and the holiday season is closing in fast. But before we take refuge under the mistletoe and give ourselves over to the usual Yuletide overindulgence, we must first clear the clutter from the Food File desk and tidy up all the loose ends.

There are never enough column inches to do justice to all the fine restaurants, cafes, izakaya and bars that we visit. So for our final column of 2006, we'd like to catch up on just a few places that have lingered in our memories and on our taste buds during the past 12 months. And to all Japan Times readers, best wishes for the season, good health and good eating in the year ahead!

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Refined but relaxed at Banrekiryukodo YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Although we have dined superlatively well in 2006 -- as documented in this column -- very few of the standout places were restaurants that actually opened this year. This was especially true when it came to Japanese cooking. We are still looking for somewhere to supplant in our affections the wonderful Banrekiryukodo, near Azabu Juban.

It's all about the synergy at Banreki. Here in Tokyo, it's not so hard to find outstanding ryori (cuisine) in the contemporary vein. But there are very few places that boast such a marvelous setting, so seamlessly melding traditional craftsmanship with cutting-edge Tokyo design sensibility. The spare, organic simplicity of the furnishings; the handcrafted serving vessels; the massive, gleaming wood counter that fills the ground-floor dining room; and the tranquil private chamber hidden away downstairs like a tea ceremony hut of the future: It's serene, a little bit exclusive, but never staid or standoffish. As we wrote in our review after a visit last year, Banreki epitomizes the subtle alchemy of Japanese dining at its best.

Banrekiryukodo, 2-33-5 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3505-5686; www.banreki.com; Lunch 12-1:30 p.m.; dinner 6-10 p.m. (10-11.30 p.m. limited a la carte menu); closed Sunday. Dinner from 8,000 yen; reservations essential.

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Superior modern Continental at WaZa

If it's bling you're after, rather than subtlety or understated refinement, then run, don't walk, to the immodestly named Dazzle. Nestled in the top floors of the striking Toyo Ito-designed Mikimoto Ginza 2 Building, unmissable for its contoured, triangular windows, here you will find over-the-top, form-over-content dining like nowhere else in the city.

The experience starts as you disembark from the elevator to find yourself virtually in the heart of the open kitchen. A second short elevator ride deposits you in the dining room, with its soaring ceiling, glittering LED lights and a futuristic glass-fronted wine cellar looming overhead.

Owner Yoshihiro Shinkawa was formerly with the Global Dining Group (Tableaux, Stellato, Gonpachi), and he has learned well, taking the idea of theatrical dining to another level. We were less than dazzled by the overambitious (and overpriced) fusion cuisine. But if impressing your date is more important than the food on the plate, then you will not be disappointed.

Personally, we preferred the more straightforward cooking at WaZa, one floor below in the same building. Here you dine on simple, modern versions of straightforward Continental cuisine -- think hotel restaurant cooking but with superior ingredients and technique, and a strong emphasis on fresh produce. The specialties include cheese fondue (served with vegetable sticks), charcoal-grilled meats and, currently, warming winter pot au feu.

Needless to say, the clientele is almost exclusively female, especially at lunchtime. Plush but not to excess, glittery but not over the top, WaZa is actually more romantic than Dazzle because it's more intimate and not trying so hard to impress.

Dazzle, Mikimoto Ginza 2 8/9F, 2-4-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku (03) 5159-0991; www.huge.co.jp/ Open daily 5:30-10:30 p.m. (last order); bar: 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m.

WaZa, Mikimoto Ginza 2 7F, 2-4-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 5524-5965 (reservations: 0120-70-8620). Open daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order) & 5-10:30 p.m. (last order).

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fiery but not fancy at Bangkok Kitchen

Bangkok Kitchen is a welcome recent arrival in the Ginza Corridor, the row of restaurants crammed beneath the expressway between Yurakucho and Shinbashi. Despite the eye-catching facade, there are no flights of fancy in the decor here. The interior is as bland and functional as a Bangkok hotel lobby, and the cooking is equally authentic, both in range and flavor.

As the sign promises, the focus here is "Thai noodles and casual food." The menu spans that satisfying middle ground between gourmet and street food, all presented with care, albeit with few attempts at originality. There is no stinting on the spices, herbs and condiments essential for this cuisine. You will find good amounts of fermented fish paste and tiny dried shrimp mixed in with the shredded green papaya in your som tum salad; the kai yang chicken is nicely marinated in Isaan style before being grilled; and the curries are uncompromising in their heat levels.

Almost all the staff, both in the kitchen and on the floor, hail from Thailand. And the smart-casual look attracts an entire cross section of Ginza society, who tuck into the tom yam or excellent pad thai noodles with gusto. There will be businessmen in suits; dating couples; gaggles of office ladies; even the occas- ional kimono-clad madame from a nearby late-night bar. It's not worth crossing town for -- indeed now there are branches of Bangkok Kitchen in Hiroo and Jiyugaoka, but as a place to refuel at reasonable outlay after an afternoon of retail therapy, this is just the ticket.

Bangkok Kitchen, Ginza Corridor, 8-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku (03) 5537-3886; Open daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5:30-11:15 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday and holidays until 11:30 p.m.).

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The proliferation of standing bars shows no sign of letting up -- and Ebisu still seems to be spawning the most interesting ones. Perhaps our favorite find of 2006 has been Bon Marche Q, a chic bar offering snacks of some distinction, and where the well-dressed young salarymen and women who gather there are just as likely to be sipping Aussie sparkling wine as shochu or beer.

There are warm oshibori towels to help yourself to as you enter. Sides of fatty, home-cured bacon dangle above the bar, ready to be carved and served as otoshi appetizers. The menu, chalked overhead (in Japanese only), includes excellent breast of duck, home-smoked and sliced on baby leaf salad; white fish carpaccio (good, if slightly overseasoned); pork belly soft-simmered with Hatcho miso; even Spanish-style tripa (cow stomach) cooked tender in a tomato sauce.

You will find Q down a narrow side street on the east side of Ebisu JR Station. The sign is nigh on invisible, but you can't miss the striking white frontage, especially now that it is adorned with Christmas lights.

Bon Marche Q, 4-4-2 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5793-5591. Open 5 p.m.-4 a.m. (last order); closed Sunday & holidays.

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Spam sushi at Teppei

You want more evidence of how sophisticated Tokyo's bar scene is becoming? Trawling the back streets of Kagurazaka, we came upon Teppei. Unpretentious and welcoming, it looked like a promising place to pause midway through a bar crawl. We ended up staying till the last train home.

As is the way of these things, our notes were less than intelligible the next day. What we do remember, clear as a bell, is that the drinks list offered a remarkable 50-plus varieties of umeshu (plum liqueur), of which we sampled many, plus an equal selection of shochu; and that the best thing we ate all evening was the house specialty, spam sushi. Yes, you read that correctly. The meat -- standard-issue, canned, Okinawa-grade spam -- had been browned in butter, lightly seasoned and artistically arranged on patties of vinegared sushi rice. Sheer shoestring brilliance.

Teppei, 4-2-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3269-5456; Open 5:30-11 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday & holidays.

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Elizabeth Andoh's definitive book on Japanese food culture. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

There was never going to be any competition for the Food File's Book of the Year award. Elizabeth Andoh's long-anticipated "Washoku: Recipes From The Japanese Home Kitchen" has finally reached these shores (albeit as an import) -- and that's cause to celebrate. Much more than just a cookbook, "Washoku" is a distillation of Andoh's more than 30 years' experience eating, cooking, teaching and writing about Japanese cuisine. Indeed, it appears to be the definitive book on Japanese food.

What makes it so good? First, it's about the everyday food being prepared in people's homes, not the complex techniques of the master chefs. Second, Andoh's recipes are honed to perfection: They work, even for neophytes unfamiliar with the culinary territory.

But most of all, she puts Japanese food into context. Far from being exotic or alien, it is daily nourishment for mil- lions, the expression of a living, thriving culture. Here is the deepest heart of the Japanese people. Whether or not you are a cook, this is essential reading.

"Washoku: Recipes From The Japanese Home Kitchen," by Elizabeth Andoh. Ten Speed Press. $35.



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