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Friday, Aug. 3, 2007

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Al fresco dining above the crowds


S hibuya is not the neighborhood that springs to mind most readily when planning a mellow evening of al fresco dining — and certainly not anywhere in the vicinity of brash pedestrian street Center-gai. And yet why not, when the tranquil terrace at Sumile lies just steps away from all that relentless hustle and bling?

News photo
News photo
Nine floors up in central Shibuya and a world away from the hustle and bustle below lies Sumile, whose terrace area is perfect for a hot summer's night; their Tokyo-Italian cuisine includes Japanese Sirloin Bo-sushi (above). SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTOS

Occupying the penthouse floor of a sparkling-new nine-floor building (opened at the beginning of this year) just past the Tokyu Hands store, Sumile is a rare oasis of calm.

It is almost as discreet as a private members' club. The sign is inscrutable, giving nothing away. And the entrance is set back so far from the main street you'd hardly know it was there.

Once aloft, you find simple, understated decor, artfully positioned indirect lighting and soft vocal jazz on the sound system. It's just the kind of environment we would take for granted in Nishi-Azabu or Aoyama; here, though, it seems unfeasibly grownup, especially in comparison to the blare outside.

There is counter seating around the open kitchen, plus a small dining room with wooden furniture and tables of a generous size, and a small private area to one side. In scale and feel, it lies halfway between a full-on restaurant and intimate dining-bar, neither too formal nor overly casual; fashionista territory this is not.

But it was the small terrace area that brought us here. There, nine floors up, the noise from the street is muffled and distant. The sky is dark and wide, with the neon intruding only into a small quadrant of the panorama.

Best of all, at this altitude, there is a welcome breeze that seems unthinkable as you wade through the humidity at ground level.

Apart from a few bar stools, mostly occupied by smokers nipping out from the dining room between courses, the main feature of the terrace is a single long table equipped with chairs of clear Perspex. We soon settled in with a bottle of Chardonnay chilling in the bucket, perusing the menu and munching on squares of homemade focaccia and slices of chilled sweet corn.

The cuisine — no surprises here — is Tokyo-Italian. That means intricate antipasti appetizers (at around ¥1,500 each); half a dozen pasta options (¥1,500-¥2,000); and the same number of main dishes (¥2,000-3,000).

Throughout, everything is prepared and presented very competently. Flavors are muted and portion sizes small — that is to say, perfect for nibbling the evening away, rather than gourmandizing. It is best not to arrive too hungry.

As starters, we can vouch for the carpaccio and the bagna cauda — crisp sticks of colorful fresh vegetables with a dipping sauce that is not too anchovy-salty.

But the specialty of the house is the excellent Japanese Sirloin Bo-sushi. Small morsels of sushi rice, prepared not with vinegar but with a savory dashi stock, are covered with the finest slivers of prime wagyu beef, then topped with an even finer layer of Emmental cheese melted into place. A sweet-sour jelly accented with ponzu (a mix of soy sauce and rice vinegar) made a fine, refreshing counterpoint.

The pasta dishes were considerably more substantial, although not really big enough to share between two people. Our tagliarini del pescatore came with a great mixture of seafood and fresh tomato adorning the fine ribbon noodles.

Even better was the bright-yellow kabocha (pumpkin) gnocchi, which were plump, sweet and served in a delectable butter-rich sauce with hints of sage.

As a main dish, our roast Challans duck (France's finest) was prepared to just the right shade of light pink and was accompanied with a rich gravy bulked out with tiny grains of quinoa. A side serving of melting-soft eggplant and firm gobo (burdock root) provided an unmistakably Japanese accent.

Good as it was, we were still left wondering what happened to the wasabi flavor mentioned on the menu. Toning down the spices is one thing, but this was nuance taken to the nth degree.

Such subtlety was not needed with the sturdy, easy-drinking wines on their list, most either from Italy or the U.S. West Coast. We found their current Oregon wine promotion (ongoing through August), a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir from William Valley Vineyards, perfect for whiling away the evening.

The U.S. connection seemed especially right, since Sumile has a sister restaurant in New York City's West Village — it's Japanese-French, so this one is not a spinoff, as such.

Both are owned by Miwa Yoshida, one half of the massively popular Dreams Come True J-pop duo. Remarkably, given this showbiz connection, Sumile still remains refreshingly unhyped and undiscovered.

The name Sumile is an alternate way of writing the Japanese word for the violet flower, sumire. It could equally be a misspelling for the kind of contented grin that is likely to spread across your face to find a place like this on a hot summer's night in Shibuya.

Authentic? Hardly, but the pizzas are good

Strolling away from Shibuya along the same street as Sumile will eventually bring you to Yoyogi Park, now being re-branded as Nishi-Harajuku. That is where you will find the new (opened in May) Blue Point.

News photo

It's a lot more downmarket (and much less standoffish) than the main operation, which is on Platinum Avenue in Tokyo's well-heeled district of Shirokanedai.

Casual, generic trattoria-style food and wine is the name of the game here, and it all feels about as authentic as the faux stonework interior.

Instead, the real draw is their wood-fired pizza oven, plus a score or more of outside seats looking out toward a bank of thick foliage — albeit on the other side of a busy thoroughfare.

Still, this a still a good place to know, whether you're in the neighborhood for lunch, or meeting up with friends for a drink, or simply want to refuel during a day out in bucolic Yoyogi Park.

Blue Point "Nishi-Harajuku Park Street," Barbizon55 1F, 1-15-2 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5465-0215. Nearest station: Yoyogi Koen (Chiyoda Line). Open: daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. ("tea time" menu 3-6 p.m. on weekdays).


Sumile
www.sumiletokyo.com/

MAP
Location: Edge Bldg. 9F 10-3 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku tel: (03) 3461-3021

Open: Daily 11:30-2 p.m (last order); 6 p.m.-10 p.m (last order). Closed Sunday.

Nearest station: Shibuya (various lines)

How to get there: From Shibuya Station's Hachiko Exit, walk to Seibu department store, turn left and continue walking toward Yoyogi. Sumile is on the top floor of a new building on the right, shortly after Tokyu Hands.

What works: A dining space for grownups in Shibuya

What doesn't: The terrace is rather stark.

Number of seats: 31 (including 7 at counter), plus 20 outside

BGM: Cool jazz, bossa nova

Smoking: Terrace only

Price per head: Lunch from ¥1,000; dinner set menu ¥6,000; also a la carte. Cover charge ¥500 (dinner only)

Drinks: Beer ¥700; cocktails from ¥800; wine from ¥700/glass, ¥3,900/bottle; shochu from ¥700.

Credit cards: Most accepted.

Language: Japanese/English menu

Reservations: Recommended at weekends



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