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Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Modern kaiseki the Maru way


The simple truth has become a global cliche: It is hard to get a bad meal in Tokyo. Whether you're eating humble noodles or a rarefied kaiseki banquet, it's likely to be more than just satisfactory — there's a good chance it will be prepared with flavor and flair.

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Proof's in the pot: At Maru in Aoyama, the rice course, cooked in dark-brown heavy clay pots, is hardly an afterthought — it's the star of the meal. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

That said, it still remains frustratingly difficult to access high-level Japanese cuisine. Many of the finest chefs work in tiny premises, well away from the mainstream and the glare of publicity. You may see a sliding door with a nameplate in kanji script. You know there's great food inside. But without an introduction or reservation (not to mention a knowledge of Japanese), how do you venture past that inscrutable noren curtain?

Thank goodness at least there is Maru, a stylish basement restaurant of no little quality just a short walk from Omotesando. Besides serving excellent modern takes on traditional cuisine, it is relaxed and absolutely accessible. Best of all, the serving staff are perfectly accommodating for those who speak little or no Japanese.

In keeping with the Aoyama address, Maru's outward face is stylish and discreet. A small sign indicates a flight of concrete steps leading down from street level, and, halfway down, a noren in bold red marks the entrance. Inside, an open kitchen runs the length of the room, fronted by a wide wooden counter, with half a dozen tables along the facing wall furnished with banquette seating. There are also three small private rooms tucked away out of sight.

This contemporary layout reflects the outlook of owner-chef Keiji Mori. After apprenticing at one of the top kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, he eventually left to widen his worldview and reinvent his understanding of traditional cuisine.

Most kaiseki restaurants serve meals that are by definition multicourse affairs, with no deviation from the established sequence of dishes. At Maru, you get a choice: Call ahead to order a full-course meal or pick from the a la carte menu (a full English translation is available) according to your whim.

These days there are few eateries in Tokyo that do not keep a couple of bottles of wine in the fridge. But Mori's wine list has serious depth, from Portuguese Vinho Verde (at ¥3,000) and Galician Albarin~o (¥5,860) to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (Cloudy Bay, ¥6,800). More surprisingly, he gives equal space to reds, from a basic Aussie Shiraz to mighty Bordeaux chateaux, even though they will inevitably drown out the subtleties of his cooking.

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Maru serves up sashimi as fresh and beautifully presented as you could hope to find.

By contrast, he stocks far fewer shochu and just half a dozen kinds of sake (all top-grade jizake brews). But that was quite sufficient for us to work from, as we enjoyed a leisurely run-through of Mori's ¥5,000 omakase (chef's selection) dinner the other evening. Here were some of the highlights:

* Delicate sashimi of the rare aka-yagara (red cornetfish) from Nagasaki, the white-meat flesh perfectly complemented by a flask of Matsu no Tsukasa, a fruity junmai ginjo (premium sake) hailing from Saga Prefecture.

* Maru 's homemade kyo-ganmo, balls of tofu mixed with finely diced vegetables, of which the crunchy lotus root was especially enjoyable, deep-fried golden, topped with a little shredded myoga ginger and served with a thick, savory ankake sauce.

* Fillets of sawara (Spanish mackerel) charcoal grilled with a citron-sweet- savory glaze, a technique known as yuan-yaki. As accompaniments, the slice of crunchy smoked takuan daikon pickle and dab of creamy Brie cheese were inspired; the pot of semi-cooked kurakake-mame beans, less so.

* And meltingly tender cubes of long-simmered yawaraka-ni pork in a clear sauce, nicely matched with a lightly pickled baby onion.

Too often, the shokuji rice course at the end is tacked on like an afterthought. At Maru, it is one of the stars of the meal. The rice is prepared in dark-brown heavy clay pots. The new season's harvest of rice is already in, and it cooks up glistening and fragrant. (This is included in the set meals, otherwise you need to order it more than half an hour ahead). If you can't finish it all, they will fashion it into onigiri rice balls for you to carry home and nibble on later.

Not surprisingly, given the quality of the food, the English menu and the patient ministrations of Mori's youthful, bilingual staff, there is a loud and growing buzz about Maru among Tokyo's expat community. This has only been fueled by its inclusion in Mark Robinson's "Izakaya Pub Cookbook" (reviewed in these pages earlier this year).

Few Japanese would agree with the assessment of it as an izakaya — they would probably call it "kaiseki dining " (or, too often, "dinning"). In fact, Mori has already coined its own category, which he includes in Maru's full name: Rakushokushu, literally "enjoyment, food and sake." We couldn't have put it better ourselves.


Rakushokushu Maru
www.maru-mayfont.jp

MAP
Location: Aoyama KT Building B1F, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
(03) 6418 5572

Open: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.); dinner 6 p.m.-1 a.m. (Fri. 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun. 6 p.m.-midnight)

Nearest station: Omotesando (Ginza, Hanzomon and Chiyoda lines)

How to get there: From Omotesando Station (B2 exit) walk down Aoyama-dori (in the direction of Shibuya). Continue past the lights at the intersection with Kotto-dori, then take the second side street on the right (after the Muji shop). The entrance to Maru is immediately on your right.

What works: Quality Japanese cuisine in a setting that's accessible and welcoming

What doesn't work: The constant bleeping of the timers for the rice pots

Smoking: No restrictions

Price per head: Set evening meals at ¥5,000 and ¥7,000; also a la carte

Drinks: Beer ¥750; cocktails from ¥700; sake from ¥800; shochu from ¥630; wine from ¥800/glass and ¥3,800/bottle

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: English menu; English spoken

Reservations: Highly advisable



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