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Friday, Nov. 7, 2008
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Haute cuisine and the friendly local
The slatted, skewing facade of the new Prias Building may not be the most arresting design in Ginza — the melting-metal, curvilinear De Beers building wins that accolade hands down. But it's enough to make you stop and crane your neck.
It was not the design that prompted us to ride the elevator up to the 12th floor, though. It was the lure of stellar dining high up above the fray at the latest restaurant bearing the name of Tateru Yoshino, one of Japan's finest chefs.
Until recently, Yoshino was better known among French gourmets than in his own country, especially since his Paris base, Stella Maris, garnered plaudits and a Michelin star in 2006. But having opened restaurants in the Shiba Park Hotel (plush and over-fussy) and the high-rise Shiodome Park Hotel (tastefully minimal), his stock has been rising fast in Tokyo, too.
Now, with Restaurant tateru yoshino Ginza (like the others, it is written in idiosyncratic lowercase), he has raised the ante even further. It is as grand and swish as the location, oozing a well-oiled confidence and class that belie the fact that it has been open only a couple of months. In Shiba Park, Yoshino already has a Michelin star to his name: In Ginza, he is clearly gunning for three.
The menu is not so different from his other operations', featuring many of Yoshino's trademark dishes. The difference is that you pay three-star prices. Dinner courses are ¥13,650 and ¥21,000 per head, and the simplest lunch is ¥4,725 (plus 10-percent service charge).
Simple, of course, is always relative. Over and above the three courses, you will be pampered with canopes, an amuse-bouche appetizer and post-dessert bonbons, not to mention inexhaustible supplies of tasty bread rolls (baked in house) and mineral water.
There is no hint of "Oriental fusion" in Yoshino's cooking. It is as French as that of master chefs Joel Robuchon or Pierre Gagnaire. His use of foie gras is classic haute cuisine, either combined with prime meats in his pa^te en crou^te or his signature duo de foie gras, contrasting one piece of the liver lightly seared with another that is marinated with dried fruit.
More Tokyo in style is his assiette de legumes du potager, an array of raw and lightly cooked vegetables scattered on a glass plate so artfully that it could pass for a museum piece. We were wowed by the equally exquisite mille-feuilles de thon rouge aux aubergines, layers of sashimi-grade red toro interspersed with strips of pale green eggplant, as precise and flawless as a jewelry display.
Yoshino's quail stuffed with foie gras is brilliant, but it was his te^te de cochon that caught our imagination. It features half a dozen different cuts of pork, all taken from the head. These range from cubes of delectable cheek meat to chewier morsels of ear and creamy portions from the inner recesses, served with vegetables, morel mushrooms and a wonderfully rich gravy.
This is modern French gastronomy at its best, with precision but not pretension. All the details are right: a trolley laden with cheeses of perfect maturity; desserts of great artistry; a heavyweight wine list (with little under ¥10,000); and polished service that is never snooty.
Fundamentally, though, here you dress to impress. This is the place to proffer the engagement ring, invite the future in-laws or mark a major anniversary. For a lesser date or just for a relaxed dinner session, we would rather enjoy Yoshino's excellent cuisine at his Shiodome restaurant.
tateru yoshino Shiodome is in the Park Hotel Tokyo 25F, 1-7-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku; (03) 6252-1155; lunch from ¥3,675, dinner from ¥7,875. tateru yoshino Shiba is in the Shiba Park Hotel Annex 1F, 1-5-10 Shiba-Koen, Minato-ku; (03) 5405-7800; lunch from ¥3,675, dinner from ¥6,825. Both restaurants are open daily 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order); 6-9 p.m. (last order).
Craving straightforward French food in that affordable middle ground between haute cuisine and basic bistro fare, we decided it was time for a return visit to Sucre Sale. It's been 10 years since this cheerful little neighborhood restaurant opened. Remarkably, it seems to have changed very little.
Sucre Sale lies on the edge of Arakicho, a traditional carousing district just off the main thoroughfare between Shinjuku and Yotsuya. On weekends, the area can be quiet, and the alleys lined with bars and eateries mostly empty. But on a recent Saturday evening, almost all the tables in Sucre Sale's cozy dining room were taken.
There are very good reasons for this: The decor is warm and welcoming, the cooking good and portions substantial. And best of all, it's great value. This may not be the cheapest French meal in town — for that, you can just walk up the alley to Pas a Pas, with its barely credible ¥2,500 bistro dinner. But where Sucre Sale scores is in making you feel that you are having a proper night out.
The basic prix-fixe three-course dinner (called Bouquet, ¥3,675) is affordable and satisfying. With a fish course added (Pastel for ¥5,250), we were absolutely replete. All dinners start with a complementary appetizer, in our case a steamed savory egg custard with nameko mushrooms and a crunchy topping that was very similar to Japanese chawan-mushi. But this was the only aspect of the whole meal that seemed more local than French.
For both starters and main courses, there are more than half a dozen options. The outstanding choice among the starters is the Trilogie, a combination platter of asparagus spears and confit of quail (two legs), topped with a poached egg. There was an ¥840 supplementary charge for this, but it should also have come with a warning: It was bigger than the main courses in most restaurants.
Our fish — pan-fried suzuki sea bass with ratatouille vegetables and black-olive tapenade — was the highlight of the meal. The cotelette d'agneau roti (two very nice lamb chops) was cooked just right, and the roast breast of canette (duckling) was just as generous and prepared with a sure hand to just the right degree of rareness.
There is a long list of desserts and cheese. And although the wine list is only in Japanese, it is surprisingly long and helpfully laid out by price range with a large selection under ¥5,000. Gaps between courses can be quite long when the kitchen is stretched, but the wait staff are consistently helpful and friendly.
What was most impressive about Sucre Sale, though, is that it has managed to maintain the cost-performance standard that first put it on the map a decade ago.