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Friday, Feb. 6, 2009
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Artistic cooking in an American style
The Food File has a new favorite restaurant — with the emphasis firmly on "new." Cujorl has been open barely a month now, and already we've been back three times.
What's so great about it? Well, certainly not the location on the Daikanyama edge of Shibuya. It's less than 10 minutes from the JR station, but the brisk uphill trudge (and then down a bit the other side) lacks appeal on a gray winter evening. It's worth it, though.
Cujorl (pronounced with a "Y," something like "Coo, y'all") manages to hit the sweet spot on many levels: The look is stylish in a simple, unfussy way; the welcome is formal but warm; the scale is small but not cramped, with adequate space between tables and comfortable counter seating for those dining solo. But it's the food that has us well and truly hooked.
Chef Masayo Funakoshi cooks beautiful contemporary cuisine, precisely and with a light, inventive touch. As a trained artist (she majored in sculpture), it's hardly surprising that everything looks great on the plate.
What makes it count, though, is that it tastes so good. We're steadily making our way through her menu, and nothing we've tried so far has been less than excellent. Where to start? Without fail, do not miss the Mushroom Cappuccino w/Milk & Sugar? (no, the question mark is not an extraneous typo).
The coffee cup in fact holds a dark, strong mushroom broth, heady with the aroma of maitake, hiratake and other fungi, with a light topping of milk froth. On the side is a miniature pot of hot milk (just add to taste if you want more of a cream-of-mushroom texture). And those lumps of dark-brown sugar? They turn out to be meringue imbued with porcini powder, to lend further depth of flavor. It's a brilliant, novel, tongue-in-cheek way to open any meal.
This playful touch is the only tip of the hat to the high-tech world of molecular cuisine. Basically, Funakoshi cooks in the modern American idiom. She trained and worked in New York, finding her feet and formative influences with Michael Anthony (now at Gramercy Tavern) and later in Paris with Pascal Barbot (Astrance). After stints in Indonesia and Australia, she returned to her native Japan and spent a year at Kan in Naka-Meguro (another longtime Food File fave).
At Cujorl, Japanese flavors occasionally rise to the fore in the melange. We loved the superfresh Hokkaido uni urchin she deftly arranges on a clear jelly made from tomato water, garnishing it with a foam made of Parmesan and ao-nori seaweed. And we adored the delectable combination of premium katsuobushi dashi soup stock bathing a crisp, deep-fried breaded sphere of buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese.
Other standout dishes from our visits have included a single giant hamaguri clam anointed with a butter sauce that's zesty with homemade Moroccan-style preserved lemon; and a tartare of venison, the lean and powerful meat coarsely ground and seasoned with aromatics and accompanied by buckwheat-flour shika senbei crackers (also prepared in-house).
One corner of the open kitchen boasts a diminutive grill (in Tokyo 2009, what restaurant doesn't?), on which a selection of grilled meat and fish is prepared. For our main course of Japanese shorthorn beef, grapevine twigs were added to the charcoal during the grilling process imbuing it with a delicate extra edge of flavor. A creamy puree of celeriac balanced the firm, concentrated texture of the meat.
Given that Funakoshi does not have any background in Italian cuisine, it does seem strange at first that Cujorl calls itself a "hybrid trattoria" (whatever that means). No doubt this is to let the locals know that pasta is also served. The pasta is very good, as was our risotto featuring rich chunks of homemade salsiccia sausage.
The Italy connection is also reinforced by the presence of two Italians on the floor staff. Simone Oberto will be well known to regulars at the now-deceased Caffe de Amici in Gohongi, Meguro. At Cujorl he brings the same easygoing expertise, plus a hotline to fine Tuscan winemakers.
Basically, though, the hybrid label is a warning that Cujorl has a rather different character at lunchtime. The menu then is pared down to a basic minimum, revolving around pasta and salad. If you want to sample Funakoshi's creative cuisine, book yourself in for dinner. It's well worth the walk. See you there.