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Friday, May 4, 2007
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Portuguese bistro-casual with a grill
Another week, another new building complex. After working our way through Tokyo Midtown, Velviakan in Ginza and the new Shin-Marunouchi Building, we'd had it with the hype and the crowds. Craving simple, honest sustenance in a quiet neighborhood setting, it came as a pleasure to return at last to Manuel Churrascaria.
The smallest and plainest of the three Tokyo restaurants that bear the Manuel name, it lies on the main street of Takanawa's temple district, a tranquil enclave far above the fray of Shinagawa. This is an unlikely place to find a Portuguese eatery, least of all one that specializes in the hearty, meaty flavors of the grill.
The red-and-green flag by the door marks its national affiliation, as does the picture of Prince Henry the Navigator. But it's the cheerful red neon sign overhead and the arched window with its inscription frango assado (grilled chicken) that really tells you what to expect. There are no fancy airs or graces here: it's a diner, albeit one of considerable charm and quality.
Unlike the better-known churrasco grills of Brazil, with their massive spits of beef and eat-till-you-burst menus, Manuel replicates the churrascaria of provincial Portugal. It offers plenty more than just red meat — including chicken in various guises, plus seafood, all imbued with that rich depth of flavor that can only obtained by slow cooking over premium charcoal.
Because grilling is a process that cannot be hurried, it's a good idea to get your order in straight away. At the same time, there are plenty of tasty starters to prime the palate and keep you from getting too hungry while waiting for your main course.
As an aperitif, we sipped on chilled white Madeira, its complex flavor neither dry nor sweet but nicely balanced in between. This went very well with our first dish, pasteis de bacalhau, golden-crisp, deep-fried breaded croquettes of creamed potato infused with undertones of dried cod.
Portugal's charcuterie does not have the same renown as that of neighboring Spain. Nonetheless, Manuel offers quite acceptable presunto (cured ham) and the churico (chorizo sausage) is excellent — here sliced and lightly grilled, piquant with paprika and great for nibbling on.
The soups are authentically bland. So is the bread, which is baked in-house and will only be of interest to those who like to mop up the juices on their plates with a sweet, cake-like white sponge. The salads are small and unexceptional.
We can unreservedly recommend the legumes cozido variadas. If you think boiled vegetables can only be prosaic, then this platter will rid you of that prejudice. Cabbage, carrot, daikon, broccoli and baby asparagus all are cooked absolutely right. But it's the potatoes that are the highlight; they're light, fluffy and full of flavor from the chicken bouillon in which they are simmered.
By this time our main dishes were ready. Portugal's staple may be the sardine, but here a rather more refined fish was offered. Known in Japanese as isaki ("grunt" in English), its beautifully browned skin concealed steaming white flesh of great delicacy. Cooked whole, and to perfection, it needed no further seasoning, not even the accompanying sauce of fine-chopped onion and coriander.
The two chefs responsible hail not from Iberia itself but from Macau. This is not a complaint but a cheer, because they have brought with them a dynamite recipe for African Chicken, the specialty dish of that former Portuguese enclave.
If you're not a fan of spicy food, then stick with the frango churrasco, the regular grilled free-range chicken. But those who like their tongues to tingle should look no further. The chicken is basted long and deep with a proprietary mix of aromatic spices, with no stinting on the chili.
It's wonderful lip-smacking fare, which you will pick up and gnaw down to the bone, despite the absence of a finger bowl. Unfortunately, the natural high induced by this brilliant chicken is severely dampened by the fries that are served with them. Soggy and still raw inside, they are worse than mediocre. Maybe it was an off day, but next time we will demand a serving of those fine boiled spuds instead.
As soon as the steaming hot days of summer arrive, all you will need with this kind of food is a well-chilled bottle of the acidic young wine (usually white) known as vinho verde, of which they have a selection, including an Alvarinho of note. But wine lovers will want to explore the cellar of full-bodied reds.
Dao and Douro may be Portugal's premier appellations, but we enjoy the wines of Alentejo too, and we were very pleased to find a bottle of Jose de Sousa. It's a classy red made from the Trincadiera and Aragonez (Tempranillo) grapes, which we have read is still made in the old way, with the grapes trodden by foot and the first fermentation done in clay amphorae pots. It is a wine that's full of character, albeit pricey (in the 7,000 yen range).
You don't expect to find fancy confectionary at a churrascaria. Manuel's desserts are basic but good. The smooth, thick chocolate mousse could have used rather more dark chocolate. The coconut-flavored bebinca do leite was rich and substantial. We closed with coffee and a snifter of golden-tawny 40-year port — at 1,980 yen a most enjoyable splurge; they have a couple of more affordable alternatives.
Two points to note: If you ask for water, you will be told you can only have bottled mineral water — Luso, all the way from Portugal. Why should this be so? Is the tap water in Takanawa not potable? More commendably, if you want to smoke, you have to step outside the front door, where chairs have been set up on the sidewalk for those who want to light up in between courses.
Much as we enjoyed our leisurely meal, what makes Manuel Churrascaria so pleasurable is the bistro-intimate scale: the simple, uncluttered look; the personal attentions of the staff; and the fact that the families eating at the tables next to ours obviously lived nearby. If only all neighborhood restaurants were this good.
Manuel Churrascaria's two sister restaurants in Tokyo are at the following locations: Manuel, 1-25-6 Shoto, Shibuya-ku (tel.  5738-0125), near Shoto Station (Inokashira Line) and Shibuya Station (various lines). Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m and 6-10:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Manuel Casa de Fado, 11-7 Rokubancho, Chiyoda-ku (tel.  5276-2432), near Yotsuya Station (JR, Marunouchi, Namboku lines). Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.