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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Stateside menu goes big in Tokyo


Spend too much time wandering down the main Roppongi drag and you start wondering what country you're in. Since Suji's threw open its doors earlier this year, close to the Iikura-Katamachi Crossing, that particular stretch of Gaien-Higashi-dori has started to feel more like Main Street, USA.

News photo
Owner Suji Park stands proud at her restaurant Suji's, as manager Kyu Chah looks on from the kitchen; the spicy Mexican scrambled eggs with chorizo and salsa (below) are a popular staple with the all-day brunch crowd. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
News photo

Scan the menu and it's hard to believe you're still in Japan. Meatloaf, burgers and quesadillas; steaks and eggs. This is the kind of down-home, stick-to-your-ribs diner fare that many a homesick ex-pat North American lies awake pining for, once the initial excitement of being in the land of sushi and sake has worn off.

The first thing you see is the deck. There's plenty of sidewalk space here, and Suji's makes full use of it. Those 20 seats have become one of the most convivial places in the whole area to meet and chat or to chill and heal the hangover from one too many Roppongi evenings.

Unlike too many places that assume you're never awake before midday on the weekends, brunch at Suji's starts from 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday (an hour later on national holidays). It's definitely worth getting up for — and it doesn't matter how late that may be, since they serve through 5 p.m. Even after that there are plenty of brunch items on the evening menu.

So how do you like your omelet? Large, they hope. Suji's special (¥1,900) is a humongous six-egg affair, stuffed with bacon, onion and potato. There's a choice of five other versions, marginally smaller, such as New York-style (with smoked salmon) or Spanish (peppers and tomatoes). Personally, we like the spicy Mexican scrambled eggs with sliced chorizo (¥1,700), which is served with salsa and tortillas on the side. Perfect for those mornings when the taste buds need some rousing.

Then there is the burger selection. The house special Jason "The Chef" Burger (¥1,700; named after the head chef) includes bacon, two kinds of cheese and browned onions. Hardcore fans, though, swear by Masa's Blue Madness Burger (also ¥1,700), so named after the blue cheese that oozes out of this elaborate construction.

This is not fast food; in fact it's closer in flavor to home cooking. What distinguishes Suji's from the gourmet burger joints and all the other American-style diners is that they prepare everything themselves — they're especially proud of their dynamite chili recipe — rather than just heating up precooked frozen food.

In the evening, the menu gets more sophisticated. To start off there are some good nibbles, such as garlic bread, to go with that first beer (forget the Asahi on draft; it's the Samuel Adams lager that hits the spot) while perusing the list of main dishes.

We haven't tried the jambalaya yet, but we really enjoyed the Blackened Fish (¥1,700), with its spicy Cajun-style seasoning and substantial layer of creamy mashed potato.

The steak and egg platter will seriously dent all but the most famished of appetites. The chunky rib-eye steak is seared just right and comes with a couple of eggs, served sunny-side up of course, and a small portion of homemade fries — not of the French variety but pan-fried moist and well-browned.

There are Tex-Mex influences too, as in their oozing, chili-rich quesadillas. Vegetarians will rejoice to find large, satisfying salads, plus the first offering in Japan (to our knowledge) of burgers made with giant portobello mushrooms in place of meat.

From the peppery Grandmother's Chicken Soup, piping hot and soothing to the soul, to the wickedly rich black chocolate brownie cake that is the highlight of the desert menu, it could hardly feel more American. So the surprise is that the whole idea behind Suji's — like its name — comes from South Korea.

Owner Suji Park first felt the lonesome pangs of homesickness and the craving for comfort food while living in New York. Back in her native Seoul, she realized that Americans there were going through the same thing in reverse. Having opened her first restaurant in Itaewon, she has now brought the same concept and expertise to Tokyo.

Only in a couple places does Suji's appear anything other than authentic, and the differences are all for the better. The most obvious is in the quality of the coffee. Instead of over-stewed Java, you get barista quality latte. And while there is not the bottomless pot that keeps your cup refilled throughout the meal, we would go for quality over quantity any day.

World-class scrambled eggs and pancakes means bills, bills, bills

Any chef of note has a signature dish, one on which they have established their reputation. For Australian Bill Granger it is his version of that good old breakfast staple, scrambled eggs.

News photo
Ricotta pancakes by bills.

It may sound less than glamorous or gourmet, but Granger has a recipe to die for, and he's parleyed it into a stable of casual cafes in Sydney (simply called bills), a bevy of cookbooks and a burgeoning international reputation. Now he has a food show on TV in Japan, and a restaurant coming soon.

If you want to know what all the fuss is about, then head to trendy-hip Daikanyama cafe Sign, where, for this month only, they are featuring a selection of Granger's dishes — including, of course, his famous scrambled eggs.

Are they as good as everyone says? Absolutely. They're smooth and moist, and because he uses free-range eggs, they taste fabulous. On their own they seem under-salted (gourmets may want to bring a twist of Malden sea-salt with them). But in combination with the smoked gravadlax salmon and wholesome brown-bread rolls they are served with, it is a perfect balance.

Granger's ricotta pancakes are equally brilliant: light, fluffy, and with plenty of creamy white cheese in the batter mix, they are served with sliced banana and a drizzle of maple syrup, plus a blob of his patent "honeycomb" butter. As a followup to the eggs, and with a cup of good cappuccino to help it all down, this was one of the finest brunches we have had in ages — perhaps since the last time we ate chez bills, in Sydney's Darlinghurst.

The pancakes will set you back ¥1,200, and so will the scrambled eggs (¥1,000 at lunchtime). Add in the coffee and you will have little or no change from ¥3,000. Is it worth this premium price? And, more to the point, can Granger make a go of it here? Judging by the satisfied faces of the Tokyo foodies who have been filling Sign so far this month, the answer is yes and yes.

The special bills menu will run at Sign Daikanyama until October 31. Thereafter, we will have to satisfy ourselves with his TV cooking show on Wowow until his restaurant opens in the spring on the coast in Shichirigahama, on the Shonan coast south of Tokyo, soon to be Kamakura's answer to Bondi Beach.

Bills Cafe @ Sign Daikanyama, 19-4 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3780-9570; www.bills-jp.net; www.transit-web.com/01/0103. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (last order).


Suji's
sujis.net/japan

MAP
Location: 3-1-5 Azabudai, Minato-ku
tel. (03) 3505-4490

Open: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (last order 10 p.m.); Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; holidays 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Nearest stations: Roppongi-Itchome (Oedo Line); Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines); Azabu-Juban (Namboku and Oedo lines)

How to get there: From the Roppongi crossing, walk in the direction of Tokyo Tower. At the Iikura-Katamachi crossing continue in the same direction. You will see Suji's on the right after 20 meters.

What works: Happy hour from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

What doesn't work: The kitchen closes very early for this neck of the woods.

Number of seats: 50 (plus 20 on the deck and eight at the bar)

BGM: Rock, soul, R&B and some jazz too

Smoking: There are some no-smoking tables, but smoking is allowed on either side.

Price per head: Lunch plates at ¥1,500 & ¥1,800. At dinner, figure around ¥3,000 (plus drinks). Ten percent service charge added at dinner time.

Drinks: Beer from ¥750; wine ¥900/glass, from ¥3,400/bottle; cocktails from ¥900

Credit cards: Most accepted

Language: English menu; English spoken

Reservations: Reservations recommended



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