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Friday, June 1, 2007

TOKYO FOOD FILE

In hog heaven with the pig gang


Gourmet tonkatsu. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, as implausible as haute cuisine hot dogs or Michelin-starred jellied eels. Surely those breaded, deep-fried "cutlets" of pork can be nothing but comfort food: fatty, filling and reassuringly easy on the budget.

premium pork at Butagumi
premium pork at Butagumi
Butagumi in Nishi-Azabu takes its tonkatsu very seriously. Using premium pork, both lean hire (top and above) and fatty rosu are on the menu and come served with organic cabbage and homemade Worcestershire sauce. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
premium pork at Butagumi

Try telling that to the folks at Butagumi. They take this humble staple and elevate it to hitherto unheard of levels of refinement. What's different? Just about everything.

First, there's the neighborhood. This low-lying residential enclave just north of the Nishi-Azabu Crossing is still far from swank, but it's gentrifying rapidly and has the restaurants to prove it. Butagumi — literally the "Pig Gang" — fits the new, affluent demographic comfortably.

It occupies a cozy, timber-frame house, just two stories high, that has stood on this spot since 1958. Before being reincarnated in restaurant form two years ago, it was given a total refurbishment both inside and out: A quaint crescent-moon window has been cut into the wall on the second floor; the gabled porch is supported by rustic posts; the door, appropriated from some sturdy farmhouse, is flanked by a squat, metal andon lamp and purified by two small cones of salt. Just in case you might be wondering if you have come to the wrong address, the coarsely woven white curtain that hangs at the entrance is helpfully emblazoned with the word "tonkatsu" in katakana.

Once inside, you may notice the glass-fronted, refrigerated chamber set under the checkout in which cuts of prime pork are displayed, much like the fish on show in a sushi shop or the bottles in the cellar of a wine bar. Most likely you will barely register the kitchen, set off to the side — especially since there is nary a whiff of oil to disturb your nostrils.

Besides the four small tables with chairs upstairs, there is also a side area with timber floors, divided into separate semiprivate booths with horigotatsu-style leg wells — each big enough for four people (at a pinch) but ideal for couples. Much more than merely a place to feed and then leave, Butagumi encourages you to settle in for a while.

Having ushered you to your place, an attendant will hover to take your order and explain the minutiae of the menu. As elsewhere, your basic choice is this: fatty or lean.

For those unfamiliar with tonkatsu terminology, the Japanese words you need to know are rosu (blubbery-rich belly meat) and hire (lean loin "fillet"). The difference here — and this is Butagumi's true claim to distinction — is that instead of using generic meat, they offer a choice of name-brand varieties of pig.

The regular "house" pork is Kenton, a special breed reared at a few farms in Gifu Prefecture with the kind of care and attention to quality that is better associated with prime wagyu steers. They also serve other options, such as Platinum pork from Iwate, or the flavorful Meishanton, a Chinese crossbreed reared in Ibaraki. And, underlining their gourmet aspirations, they also serve tonkatsu made from premium Spanish Iberico pork.

Not sure you'll be able to taste the difference? Then order the Butagumi-zen set (3,000 yen). This will bring you a sampler of five small tonkatsu morsels, each a generous bite-size, each made with a different cut of pork. This includes two of the Kenton — rosu and hire; the same again of one of the special varieties; plus one of the Iberico. They are identified by small flags stuck into them, much like cocktail petits fours, each flag inscribed with the type of pork and cut.

It's an interesting taste test, but in terms of volume, these so-called "cube" katsu are only for dilettantes. To gain the full measure of what Butagumi has to offer, you need to try one of the whole tonkatsu.

The entry-level Kenton fillet (1,950 yen) is a good place to start. The meat has a mild flavor, and the firm, dry texture contrasts nicely with the crisp breading that surrounds it. The remarkable thing is that it does not taste greasy: all the deep-frying is done in good quality sesame oil, and the results are outstanding.

Rosu from the same pig is very lardy, and a little goes a very long way. The other varieties of pig tend to have more pronounced flavors.

Whichever you order, it will be served on a mesh of gleaming copper so it doesn't get soggy, with some of their homemade Worcestershire sauce on the side, and a heaping plate of finely shredded cabbage, organically grown, moist and sweet. You also get rice and miso soup, to settle and fill your stomach.

Not that you'll have much lingering hunger, especially if you've earlier been nibbling on some of the starter dishes. They have ezo-jika (Hokkaido venison), either as a delectable carpaccio (1,500 yen), garnished with dill and red peppercorns; or, less successfully, as a rather chewy, heavy-textured cutlet (1,800 yen).

These are luxuries, but a salad is essential to balance all that oil. Of the two on the menu, shun the shredded semiraw potato, but don't miss the refreshing Marimero Salad (800 yen), a mix of tasty leaves featuring plenty of herbs and a tangy citrus dressing.

At lunchtime, alongside the regular menu, Butagumi also offers some more affordable set meals (from 1,900 yen). There's also a Ladies Course (1,500 yen), much like the Butagumi-zen, offering a sampler of bite-size morsels, but not including the Iberico pork.

And that, of course, is the supreme delicacy. Listed on the menu as rosu, it actually falls halfway between the two Japanese classifications in terms of fattiness, and it tastes superb, melt-in-your-mouth perfect.

Each serving comes with its own numbered tag, indicating how many of these prized Iberico tonkatsu they have served to date — just as La Tour d'Argent does with its duck, in both Paris and Akasaka. Is it worth 4,800 yen for a serving? That really depends whether or not you consider yourself a gourmet.


Butagumi
www.grace.fm/butagumi

MAP
Location: 2-24-9 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
tel: (03) 5466-6775

Open: 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m (last order); 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (last order). Closed Monday.

Nearest station: Hiroo (Hibiya Line) and Nogizaka (Chiyoda Line)

How to get there: At the Nishi-Azabu Crossing, cross Gaien Nishi-dori and walk along the north side of Roppongi-dori in the direction of Shibuya. Take the second side street on the right (just after a yakitori restaurant). Continue straight as the narrow street curves to the left. Butagumi is clearly visible on the left after 150 meters.

What works: You will not find better tonkatsu than this.

What doesn't: Why no wines by the bottle?

Number of seats: 38

BGM: 1960s/'70s classics

Smoking: Allowed upstairs except on weekends

Price per head: Lunch: tonkatsu set meal from 1,500 yen. Dinner a la carte (side dishes from 800 yen; tonkatsu from 1,950 yen; desserts from 400 yen)

Drinks: Beer from 800 yen; wine from 750 yen/glass (at lunchtime 400 yen); sake from 800 yen; shochu from 700 yen.

Credit cards: Most accepted.

Language: Japanese menu; a little English spoken.

Reservations: Recommended

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