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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

TOKYO FOOD FILE

What delicacies hide in Takanawa


When Shoko Davis first opened her Wine Cellar more than 10 years ago, it felt like the ultimate neighborhood restaurant. Not just because it ticked all the boxes in terms of food, drink and ambience, but also because it was so far off most people's radar.

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Inside the hideaway: Owner Shoko Davis and chef Takahiro Morimoto of Restaurant & Wine Cellar Davis in Takanawa ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
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Tucked away in Takanawa, a quiet district of temples and hotels, on a back street that doesn't even appear on most maps, and hidden from view until you're virtually stumbling across the threshold, it was one of those places that was too good to share. Those in the know preferred to keep it to themselves.

We too were happy to leave it that way, since Davis had all the right elements in place. The cooking was good and reliable, with inventive touches. Her wine list was well chosen, French and Italian but with plenty of New World bottles. And, above all, the setting was comfortable enough to relax in, but with sufficient style to make it worth heading across town.

A decade later, Takanawa may not be much better known, but the word has certainly got out about Restaurant & Wine Cellar Davis. And it's just as good as it ever was, we're happy to report — whether you are dropping by for a bottle (or even just a couple of glasses) with a light meal or settling in for a full-course dinner with all the trimmings.

The wood-and-canvas cocoon-look entrance is still there, with its outside table so popular in the summer months. The walk-in by the door is still primed with a great selection of bottles, ranging from seriously oenophile grands crus to simple (and affordable) vin de table. And the large chalkboard menu, which Davis herself brings around to your table, still offers far too many difficult choices, almost all of which we want to try.

Unless you are having the set ¥3,990 four-course menu — in which case the only decision to make is between fish or meat for your main course — all dishes are intended to be shared by two. Ordering a la carte, a couple of starters followed by a pasta and a main dish is likely to be quite adequate for all but the heftiest of appetites.

Chef Takahiro Morimoto incorporates a good number of Japanese influences and ingredients into his confident European cuisine. We started with a superb plate of pan-fried shirako (cod's milt), as smooth as cream, lightly butter-browned on the outside, which was perched on top of a galette of shredded red potato, a variety grown in Hokkaido called Northern Ruby.

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Rare contrast: Salsify and piquant white radish at Restaurant & Wine Cellar Davis

We were also pleased to find salsify (yama-gobo in Japanese) on the menu. It's a root similar in shape and texture to burdock (called gobo, although the two plants are not actually related) but rarely seen in Tokyo. It was presented along with caramelized halves of karami- daikon, small white radishes, whose softer texture and piquant flavor contrasted well with the dense salisfy.

The homemade ribbon pasta, a thin tagliatelle, was served with a most delectable ragu made from Hokkaido Ezo-jika venison haunch. With generous amounts of diced mushroom, carrot and apple, the sauce had a pronounced sweetness that was well matched by our wine, a full-bodied but easy-drinking Montepulciano d'Abrazzo (Yume 2005, for just ¥4,900) — a fine recommendation from Davis.

The pasta was the highlight of the meal, but we were also impressed by our main dish: roast breast of wild French wood pigeon. Served red-rare on a bed of barley grain with ink-black trompettes de mort fungi, it was further demonstration that chef Morimoto's cooking is well worth the effort to search out.

This is especially worth knowing given that the festive season is approaching fast. For four days (Dec. 23-26), Davis will be hosting her 11th annual Christmas dinner (four courses for ¥7,500). It has become a popular and now firmly entrenched local tradition, noteworthy because the centerpiece is a roast goose, a bird vastly superior in flavor to turkey.


Lucky to find Las Meninas in Koenji

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In search of that same happy confluence of wine, food and a friendly welcome, we found ourselves heading toward the other side of the city. Koenji, a few train stops west from Shinjuku, is better known for its jazz bars, hole-in-the-wall eateries and lurid under-the-track dives than for fine dining. But you certainly can eat well at Las Meninas.

The tiny bar-restaurant can be found (if you're persistent and/or lucky) on the second floor at the back of a dingy building in the heart of Koenji's rabbit warren of nighttime alleys. The outside may look unpromising, but the interior is warm, comfortable, simple and uncluttered, and is furnished with a handful of low-slung tables and a mix of comfortable secondhand chairs. At the back is a small tapas counter that holds six at a pinch (though more have been known to squeeze in) by the cluttered kitchen.

For seven years now this has been the domain of owner-chef Johnny Miller. From here this easy-going, soft-spoken native of Newcastle, England, dispenses a commendable selection of Iberian wine, cava bubbly and sherry, all great value and ranging from the house vino tinto at just ¥1,700 per bottle to select Riojas and Riberas at prices not far off retail.

He also produces a great range of tasty, wholesome Spanish cuisine, from bar snacks to hearty stews and seafood paella. He's especially keen on vegetables — vegetarians will find plenty of solace here — and his escalivada of grilled bell peppers seasoned with olive oil and sea salt is not to be missed, whether or not you want it garnished with chunks of piquant chorizo or slivers of Iberico jamon serrano ham.

Miller does have a menu, but mostly he just cooks up whatever he sources from the market that day. Regulars at Las Meninas know they can just call out for "food," in total confidence that whatever he serves up is going to be great.

So how did this affable art lecturer-turned- chef end up in darkest Koenji, catering to full houses just about every evening and counting local chefs and even members of the Berlin Philharmonic among his loyal customers? It's a great story, one you may eventually hear about as you belly up to the bar or kick back for a leisurely and highly enjoyable evening.

Plaza Koenji 2F, 3-22-7 Koenji-Kita, Suginami-ku (From the north exit of Koenji Station, turn left and follow the side street running under the tracks. After about 100 meters, turn right by a bakery down a side street. The stairs leading to Las Meninas are on the right after about 20 meters); (03) 3338-0266; open 6 p.m. to the wee hours (closed Mon.); English spoken; major credit cards accepted



Restaurant & Wine Cellar Davis

MAP
Location: 2-5-6 Takanawa, Minato-ku
(03) 3440-6007

Open: 5:30 p.m.-midnight (last order); Sunday 5-9 p.m.

Closed: Monday

Nearest stations: Takanawadai (Asakusa Line) and Shinagawa (JR lines)

How to get there: From Takanawadai Station, walk along Sakurada-dori for 400 meters, then turn right. When you reach the Takanawa shopping street, turn left (at the old Fire Dept. building). Take the first street to the right, then the first small side street to the left. Restaurant & Wine Cellar Davis is hidden away on the left after about 30 meters.

What works: Even more than the excellent food and wine cellar, it's the relaxed setting.

What doesn't: It's devilish hard to find.

BGM: Faintly jazzy

Number of seats: 24 (plus a table for four outside in summer)

Smoking: The main dining area is no-smoking

Price per head: Set four-course dinner at ¥3,990; also a la carte; cover charge ¥315

Drinks: Beer from ¥630; aperitifs from ¥630; wine from ¥950/glass and ¥3,700/bottle; digestifs from ¥840

Credit cards: Most accepted

Language: Japanese/English menu menu; English spoken

Reservations: Highly advisable



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