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Friday, Dec. 19, 2008

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The interior of Volo Cosi. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS


Northern Tokyo's top- notch Italian

Another year of eating our way around Tokyo draws to its well-fed conclusion. We have dined well in 2008 — we invariably do, of course — with many memorable evenings and lunches spent at the table. Among the highlights was finally making our way to Volo Cosi.

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Adriatic inspirations: Chef Daisuke Nishiguchi serves his signature Della Laguna antipasti with each dinner at Volo Cosi.
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From the moment chef Daisuke Nishiguchi set up this excellent little ristorante a couple of years back, there was a powerful buzz among the cognoscenti. Who was this little-known chef who had appeared on the scene with such a flourish? Why an Italian restaurant decorated in French Art Nouveau style? How come he chose such an out of the way location, in nether Hakusan? Where the heck is Hakusan anyway?

Like any chef starting from scratch, Nishiguchi faced a hard choice when he returned to Tokyo, having spent a total of over eight years working around Italy. Either he had to try to elbow into an established area already saturated with Italian restaurants or move to a neighborhood little known for dining out, but where there was no competition.

Despite the unpromising address, midway between Hakusan and Sengoku (way up in Bunkyo-ku, not so far from Sugamo), Nishiguchi had one major advantage. He was taking over the premises of an established restaurant, Belle de Jour, with a strong reputation and distinctive decor — glasswork, mirrors and swirling lamps — that he left virtually intact.

Volo Cosi is not a spur-of-the-moment, drop-in kind of place. You need a reservation (at a minimum one week ahead; at this time of year, a month or more). There is only one sitting, so you never have the sense of being hurried. Here you dine as you would in Old Europe — amply and at a leisurely pace, settled in for the evening with your belt eased out a notch or two.

Unless you are feeling cash-flush, adventurous and especially hungry, the standard ¥7,000 full-course menu will be more than adequate (a more circumspect ¥3,000 weekday lunch is also offered). Besides the basic four courses, from antipasti through dessert, it also includes numerous additional extras.

To accompany our aperitifs — an elegant glass of Ferrari Perle '02 bubbly — we were served a plate of amuse-bouche nibbles. A slice of salami, some grilled, marinated eggplant, a couple of savory biscuits and a spoon of fragrant risotto: Just right to quell those initial impatient pangs of hunger and to prime the appetite.

Having placed our order — the only dilemma being whether to have fish or meat as a main course — we were each presented with a small cheese galette, crisp, warm and redolent of the rich flavor of pure Grana Padano cheese.

Although Nishiguchi actually spent more time working near Milan, it is the cuisine of Venice and the seafood from the Adriatic that inspires his menu at Volo Cosi. No matter which meal you order, it will include his superb signature antipasti platter, simply entitled Della Laguna.

For us, this featured a single raw oyster, creamy baccala (salt cod) and a thin roll of steamed eel on slices of polenta; a small scallop, lightly gratinated; jellied cuts of octopus; a sliver of anchovy on a broccoli floret; and in the center a whole botan ebi prawn adorned with a blob of black caviar. Seasoned with subtlety and wonderfully fresh, the dish derives as much from the sashimi tradition of Tokyo Bay as anything caught in the Venice lagoon.

From the list of half a dozen pastas, all prepared freshly in-house, you choose not one but two, which are served as separate courses: lasagna, piping hot in its diminutive pot and little more than a couple of lip-smacking mouthfuls; delicate ravioli pouches stuffed with a delectable melange of polenta and Taleggio cheese; a small mound of light chitarra daubed with a full-bodied venison ragu; or the same pasta topped with freshly-sliced, aromatic black truffle. All were outstanding.

Our main courses were pan-fried isaki (grunt, an excellent white-meat fish) with seasonal mushrooms, and thick cuts of Challons duck breast roasted rare and tender. Each was equally enjoyable, with only the simplest of embellishments, allowing the inherent flavors to shine through.

The desserts, too, involved more than just the single course. Frankly, we would have been replete after our creamy semifreddo ice, with its rich caramel flavor and crunch of roasted almonds, and the fondant chocolate cake with homemade blood-orange gelato (a 15-minute wait, but worth it); but our espressos arrived together with a "postdessert" platter that had chocolate truffles, cubes of wine jelly, crunchy peanut brittle and shot glasses of a refreshingly sharp yogurt drink.

Braced by a final snifter of grappa, we eventually left our table after four hours. Nor were we the only ones to linger. We were gratified to see that our fellow diners — whether dating couples, older pairs marking anniversaries, or local families with kids in tow — appeared to be enjoying themselves and their food as much as we did.

It is this neighborhood flavor that gives Volo Cosi its character. It is formal but has the approachability of a family-run operation, complete with occasional blips in the service, that you rarely find in the city center. In our book, that makes it more, not less, worth heading across town for.

Big-city cooking, neighborhood values at Diritto

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There are so many good restaurants all over the city these days that it is not unusual to find good dining spots in the least likely of areas. Even so, we were delighted to discover a ristorante of Diritto's quality among the modest mom 'n' pop stores on Hatagaya's humble shopping street.

Only a couple of klicks west of Shinjuku's bright lights, the feel of this low-rise, low-key neighborhood is strictly local. Diritto's clean appearance, though, would not be out of place among the sleek, inner-city eateries of Aoyama or Nishi-Azabu, and nor would the cuisine that emanates from the compact open kitchen in the center of the premises.

Chef Masahiro Sakauchi's menu offers half a dozen antipasti (each ¥1,500 if ordered a la carte); eight different pastas (¥2,000); and, for the main course, a choice of meats from the grill (from around ¥3,500). Unless you are forgoing dessert (¥700), it makes sense to order one of the full-course dinner sets (from ¥5,400).

Sakauchi used to work at the brilliant (and high-end) Aroma Fresca in Hiroo, and later at its more casual branch, Aromatica, in nearby Nakano-Sakaue. His cooking is in a similar vein — poised and served in portion sizes that reflect Tokyo sensibilities. The carpaccio is sashimi-fresh; the pasta dishes (his specialty, many of them rolled and cut in-house) exquisite and as colorful as they are tasty; his desserts sophisticated.

The menu changes daily, depending on what's in season. But don't miss Sakauchi's ribollita Toscana, a thick winter minestrone prepared with white beans and plenty of vegetables (using spinach, however, not cavalo nero, the coarse but flavorful Tuscan cabbage required for authenticity). Topped with cuts of lightly grilled honeycomb tripe and dusted with Parmesan, it's outstanding.

3-55-2 Hatagaya, Shibuya-ku (Hatagaya Station on the Keio Line); open 6 p.m.-midnight (closed Wed. and the first Tues.); English menu; (03) 5350-6588

Volo Cosi

Location: 4-37-22 Hakusan, Bunkyo-ku
(03) 5319-3351

Open: 12 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; 6-9:30 p.m.

Closed: Mondays and for lunch on the third Sunday and Tuesday of every month

Nearest station: Sengoku (Mita Line)

How to get there: From Sengoku Station (Exit A2), turn right and walk down Hakusan-dori for 300 meters. After passing a pedestrian bridge, take the next side street to the right. You will see Volo Cosi immediately on your left.

What works: High quality cucina worth lingering over

What doesn't: Service can be a bit haphazard

BGM: Faint jazz

Number of seats: 20

Smoking: Not permitted

Price per head: Lunch menu ¥3,800 and ¥7,000; dinner menu ¥7,000, ¥9,000 and ¥13,000

Drinks: Beer ¥700; aperitifs from ¥700; wine from ¥1,000/glass and ¥4,800/bottle; grappa from ¥1,000

Credit cards: Most accepted

Language: Japanese/Italian menu; Italian and some English spoken

Reservations: Essential

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