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Friday, May 16, 2008
TOKYO FOOD FILE
bills' beach bites
Regular readers of this column will know it doesn't take much to lure us to the Shonan Coast of Kanagawa Prefecture, especially when there's good eating to be done at the end of the journey. And since the spring, there's been very good reason for making that trip: the stylish new restaurant/cafe known simply as bills.
As previewed in these pages last October, bills (always written in hip lowercase script) is the first operation by chef Bill Granger outside of his native Australia. Among globe-trotting gourmets, Granger is known as Sydney's breakfast king. But there's plenty more to his cooking than his superlative scrambled eggs and fluffy ricotta pancakes.
The location, right on the coast road halfway between Kamakura and Enoshima, is certainly worth the train ride down from Tokyo. The surf here may not be up to the standard of Bondi, but this is as close as the metropolitan area gets to the upwardly mobile beachfront culture of New South Wales.
Although the gray concrete architecture looks city-sleek and the interiors owe plenty to the spare Scandinavian aesthetic, bills feels anything but impersonal. The greeting is friendly and the atmosphere hits a good balance between Japanese correctness and laid-back Down-Under informality.
The same goes for the food. We haven't managed to make it down for breakfast yet (from 9 to 11), but we have had dinner and lunch there, and on both occasions we really enjoyed the combination of quality cuisine in a casual setting.
Granger himself is not actually in residence (he will of course fly up from Sydney time to time to check up on things). But he has trained his all-Japanese kitchen crew well, and they are producing perfect versions of his three classic dishes.
The famous scrambled eggs are made with free-range, organic eggs and certainly live up to their reputation. The savory sweet corn fritters are light and colorful, prepared from fresh corn from the cob and topped with a creamy avocado salsa.
And we love the sweet ricotta pancakes, which come with sliced bananas and sweet "honeycomb" butter. These are served throughout the day (each ¥1,400), and are just as popular at dinner as in the morning.
We were pleased to find they are equally adept at the rest of the menu. The gourmet burger (¥2,000) is a delicate patty made from premium wagyu beef cooked to a well-judged state of rareness, its heart still a light shade of pink, and topped with a delectable compote of onion. The fries are lightly dusted with parsley and are given a beautiful garnish of lettuce, tomato, beetroot and vivid yellow zucchini pickles. You won't find a more attractive burger plate in Japan.
At dinner, we started with a mushroom potage that was thick and warming but not too creamy. Our salad — spinach greens, fresh peas and feta cheese with a judicious sprinkling of young mint leaves and flecked with ground pistachio — was one of the best we have been served in recent months. And the saffron risotto with pancetta and assorted clams was equally good.
As a main course, we shared a filet of pan-fried kinmedai (red sea bream), its bright red skin beautifully contrasted with the grilled Mediterranean vegetables served with it. And we closed with a light, refreshing mixed fresh-fruit salad served with a wonderful champagne jelly.
Our big mistake, though, was ordering too much for our small tables to hold. Looking around, we realized the strategy adopted by everyone else (mostly young couples and local families) was to share one course at a time. This is encouraged by the waiters, who proffer small side dishes willingly.
Granger's new-Aussie cuisine is all about high-quality ingredients from land and sea, recipes that don't obscure the fresh flavors and colorful presentation. These, of course, are the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine, so inevitably his food is being well received.
Inevitably, bills has been getting considerable media exposure since it opened, and over the recent holidays, the line outside stretched around the block. We were told that one couple flew all the way from Hokkaido specifically to sample the scrambled eggs.
Expect similar lines on weekends, especially at lunchtime. Likewise, reservations for dinner (they aren't taken for lunch) are at a premium. But neither time we went (on weekdays) did we have to wait longer than a few minutes.
Besides the main dining room, bills also has a cafe-style lounge serving tea in the afternoon and evolving into a full fledged bar in the evening. With the windows open to the sea breeze, this is definitely going to be the place to be on the coast this summer.
Sniffing out open-air dining in Kamakura
So what's the fallback plan if you can't get into bills or you don't want to wait in line? There are plenty of other places to eat along this stretch of Route 134, though few of them have the cooking to match their coastal views.
Just 100 meters along, in the Enoshima direction, Amalfi sports passable Italian fare, a generous terrace overlooking the busy coast road and flocks of dating couples. Far quieter and more relaxed is the sister operation, Amalfi della Sera, which is perched at the top of the hillside directly above and can only be reached by a steep flight of steps. Unfortunately the magnificent 180-degree panoramic vistas along the coast are not enhanced by the unimaginative Italian-generic menu, but it's a superb place for a sundowner. Amalfi is at 1-4-8 Shichirigahama, Kamakura-shi; open 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. (Sat., Sun. & holidays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.); (0120) 13-9911; r.gnavi.co.jp/g665601
Amalfi della Sera is at 1-5-10 Shichirigahama, Kamakura-shi; open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (last order 9 p.m.); (0467) 32-2001; . r.gnavi.co.jp/g665603
Heading in the other direction (toward Kamakura), just before you reach the point at Inamuragasaki is Taverno Rondino, a staunch standby in this neck of the woods for over 20 years. The cucina is not as outstanding as it seemed back in the 1980s but is still worthy, especially the fresh seafood main dishes and the good, spicy homemade salsicche sausage.
Don't bother to reserve; they'll only stick you away on the sterile second floor. The downstairs dining room is far livelier, even if the seats are packed close together. But the best option of all, weather permitting, is to install yourself at one of the four tables on the elevated outside terrace. With a glass of vino in hand, a selection of tasty antipasti on the table and the gentle waves of Sagami Bay stretching to the horizon, it doesn't get much better than this.
2-6-11 Inamuragasaki, Kamakura-shi; open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (closed Wed.); (0467) 25-4355; www.rondino.co.jp
It has always surprised us that there are not more dining places overlooking the ocean in Kamakura proper — and fewer still with open-air terraces. One of the few, Blue Point, with its pleasant wooden deck, closed last year. The good news is that its place has been taken by Appughar, serving passably authentic Indian curries with a brilliant bayside view. Fans who used to make the trek down the Akiya coast to Appughar's former location (which we extolled in this column last July), will be relieved to know the menu remains as extensive as ever, with dozens of different curries to choose from. We still feel the tandoor-grilled food could be better quality (and we live in hope that one day they will start serving proper basmati rice), but the thali set meals are good value, with a great selection of chapati, puri, paratha and other breads.
Unfortunately, the furniture is not designed for lingering, and only a few ethnic flourishes distinguish the decor from any other roadside family restaurant. But we'll forgive them anything for the pleasure of that al fresco setting out front, looking over Zaimokuza Beach toward Izu Peninsula.
6-4-7- Zaimokuza, Kamakura-shi; open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; (0467) 24-6969; www.appughar.co.jp/