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Friday, Feb. 15, 2008

TOKYO FOOD FILE

French freres serve up 'bistronomie'


It's always a pleasure to find a new restaurant that doesn't quite fit into any of the comfortable, well-worn categories. That's certainly the case at the excellent Le Pré Verre, which opened last November in the designer-sleek Gyre building on Omotesando-dori.

News photo
Confit of duck at Le Pré Verre ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

You can't call it a bistro; the dining room looks way too chic, and the food is several notches too sophisticated. By the same measure, it's not a wine bar either, despite the prominence of the glass-fronted cellar. So is it a full-fledged restaurant? Not really. It's friendly and casual, plus you can wander in any time of the afternoon, even if all you want is a light snack with a glass of wine or a small cafe espresse.

"Most French restaurants in Tokyo look either Zen (minimalist) or (cliched) bistro. We wanted to do something different," says Marc Delacourcelle, the genial co-owner and head sommelier.

Well, it's definitely refreshing to find such an easygoing attitude — along with affordable French food — at the top of Omotesando's latest gleaming temple to high-end luxury living.

News photo
Le Pré Verre's chic, easygoing interior

It's only different, though, for those not familiar with the original Le Pré Verre in Paris, which Delacourcelle runs with his brother, Philippe. In the five years since it opened in the heart of the Latin Quarter, it's become one of the most talked-about eateries in the area, thanks to its winning combination of innovative cuisine, contemporary feel and superb value for money.

Can those same values translate to Tokyo? Absolutely. Each time we've been there, the place has been buzzing. During the day, the light floods in through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the cheerful red table tops, the menus chalked onto large blackboards around the entrance to the open kitchen and the bold designs hand-painted in primary colors on the column in the center of the room.

At night, the illuminations of the city outside, viewed across the rooftops above young, fashionable Cat Street, add a touch of romance that will compensate for the lack of terrace seating once the warm weather arrives.

News photo
Co-owner and head sommelier Marc Delacourcelle

But it's the food and drink, not the setting, that makes Le Pré Verre worth the visit. The two brothers (both of whom have been in Tokyo on and off since the new restaurant opened) have worked together for 25 years, and each has his own area of expertise.

Marc Delacourcelle is responsible for the cellar, stocking it entirely with "bio" wines produced organically or as close to that ideal as possible. He has built up close relationships with the producers — he prefers to call them auteurs (authors, creators) — small-scale artisans from less mainstream appellations who share his passion. Many of his favorites are represented here. Of the 50 or so varieties on his list, a dozen or more are available by the glass.

While the younger brother resembles a twinkle-eyed, entirely benevolent Tony Soprano, Philippe Delacourcelle looks more like an egg-head scientist than the renowned chef that he is. He has a long connection with Asia — he first came to Japan 30 years ago, and spent several years in Malaysia — which is reflected in his creative use of aromatic spices, from both far and Middle East.

Although he is not here full time (his next visit is scheduled for April), his bold, individual take on modern French cuisine is impeccably reproduced by resident chef Hayato Koyama, from the hors d'oeuvres through to the delectable desserts.

At dinner the other evening, we whetted our appetites with a couple of oysters on the half-shell (¥380 each; from the coast of Miyagi Prefecture), perfectly matched with a glass of crisp Muscadet (Amphibolite Nature, produced by Joseph Landron).

Of the hors d'oeuvres, we loved the terrine of pumpkin and goose liver, with its subtle aroma of cumin and beautiful Cubist appearance, squares of orange vegetable against soft gray-pink meat. The scallops with "faux caviar" (basically, minced olives and capers) and shredded beet were more orthodox but faultless.

But the best of the lot was the warm "salad" of escargot and sliced chicken gizzards, served in a vibrant curry sauce that was heady with the aroma of turmeric. Fortunately there was plenty of baguette to mop up every last drop.

We were equally impressed with our main courses. The venison (Ezo-jika from Hokkaido) had been slowly braised till tender in a dark, concentrated sauce that had seen more than a drop or two of red wine, and was served with slices of polenta that had been dusted with cumin and cinnamon, reminiscent of French toast (without the syrup, of course).

And then there was the fantastic suckling pig (cochon de lait). This is one of Delacourcelle's specialties from Paris, a dish he's been perfecting for 25 years now. The melt-in-the-mouth roulade of tender pork sits on a small mound of lightly steamed green cabbage, decorated with star anise, cassia strips and Chinese pepper (sansho pod), which add subtlety and depth to the wonderfully rich, creamy reduction gravy. Again, such brilliant flavor could not be left to go to waste, so another basket of bread was summoned.

If you are lucky, Marc Delacourcelle will be in town and at hand to help you with your choice of wine. The excellent red he produced for us, Le Duras from the Gallic region of southwest France (produced by Plageoles), is named after a local grape varietal that offers lovely spicy undertones and a good balance of acidity despite its youth (2005).

The desserts are sophisticated and not too frilly. If the chocolate truffe seems too wickedly dense, then try the aubergine ice cream (yes, those beautiful flecks are indeed eggplant). Or order up the rum baba — another staple of the Paris restaurant — and slosh a decanter of booze over a tranche of sweet sponge cake.

This is first-class fare, in the kind of setting where you can settle back and enjoy it. And better still, three satisfying courses cost just ¥4,500. Marc Delacourcelle likes to call the brothers' approach "bistronomie" (perhaps it sounds less clunky to French ears than it does in English). We'd just call it great value for money.


Le Pré Verre
www.lepreverre.com/en/tokyoen.html

MAP
Location: Gyre 4F, 5-10-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
(03) 3486-1603

Open: Daily 11 a.m.-midnight (last order 10:30 p.m.); lunch served till 2:30 p.m. Closed during occasional building maintenance days (such as Monday Feb. 18)

Nearest station: Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line); Harajuku (JR Yamanote Line)

How to get there: From Harajuku Station, walk down Omotesdando and go straight across Meiji-dori. The Gyre building is on the right side of the boulevard after about 200 meters (look for the Chanel and Bulgari boutiques). Le Pré Verre is on the 4th floor.

What works: Superior cuisine and wine in a space that's chic but casual

What doesn't work: Too bad it doesn't have an outdoor terrace

Number of seats: 100

BGM: Jazz, R&B, new-wave — anything hip, and all of it French

Smoking: A nonsmoking section is provided, but it's not separate.

Price per head: Set lunch menus from ¥1,200; dinner menu from ¥4,500, also a la carte

Drinks: Beer from ¥800; champagne from ¥1,500/glass; wine from ¥550/glass, ¥3,500/bottle; digestifs from ¥1,400

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: French/English/Japanese menus; English/French spoken

Reservations: Recommended



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