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Friday, March 20, 2009

TOKYO FOOD FILE

With eager eyes on the kitchen


One of the particular pleasures of dining out in Tokyo is sitting at the counter of a small, owner- chef restaurant, gazing into the kitchen and watching your meal — and others', of course — being prepared.

News photo
Frying solo: Chef Takeshi Amano in his kitchen at Cucina Amano in Akebonobashi. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

It's a Japanese tradition, but these days the cooking is just as likely to be French, Italian, Spanish or from even further afield.

Ask any European chef and they'll say they hate the idea of being observed. An open kitchen affords no privacy for blowing up at underlings when they screw up. No such problem for Takeshi Amano. He cooks totally solo, handling everything from prep to clean-up. He does it brilliantly, too.

His cozy little ristorante, Cucina Amano, is a classic two-person operation: Amano cooks; his wife, Mayuko, attends to customers. There are just five tables in intimate proximity, plus seats for four at the counter. The decor is warm and Mediterranean-simple, with no unnecessary clutter or chintz. It's everything that a good neighborhood eatery should be — except that there is no neighborhood, just a traffic-clogged, faceless stretch of Yasukuni-dori, one of Tokyo's least appealing thoroughfares.

With nothing to look at outside the window, your focus will come to rest instead on Amano's sparkling kitchen — he's been here for three years and it still looks totally spotless — and on your plate. The aromas that waft out into the diminutive dining room will prime your appetite in no time flat. Just don't arrive too hungry or in a hurry. At Cucina Amano you eat well — but at a leisurely, European pace.

You also eat with remarkable refinement. Amano's cuisine covers the gamut of Italian styles, from hearty northern goulash-style stews to Sicilian- influenced smoked swordfish. Don't come looking for full-bodied, rib-sticking trattoria cooking, either. His food has a delicacy, clarity of flavor and attention to detail that would not be out of place in some of Tokyo's finest restaurants.

The menu (Japanese-language only) is more extensive than you'd expect for this size of place. There's a choice of eight antipasti (just about all at ¥1,470); the same number of pasta dishes (¥1,680); half a dozen main plates (most at ¥2,100); plus desserts (¥840). The one drawback is that it's all squeezed onto two pages, which makes it hard to decipher, even for those who can read kanji.

News photo
Married with victuals: At Cucina Amano, Takeshi Amano handles the food, and Mayuko Amano runs the floor.

The fall-back position is to order the omakase (chef's special) set menu. Comprising four courses, plus amuse (opening nibble) and coffee, this is brilliant value at ¥5,460. But the computer-savvy solution, for anyone keen to explore the a la carte options, is to print out the bilingual menu page from Amano's Web site (like everything on eatpia.com, it's very clearly laid out).

We started with a plate of mixed antipasti morsels laid out colorfully on a long rectangular platter. Perhaps the best of the eight was the least prepossessing, as what looked like a blob of guacamole served in simple bruschetta style turned out to taste far more of crab than avocado.

That was good; but our other appetizer was even more memorable: A frittata of chi-ayu, baby sweetfish that were deep-fried whole and served with broad beans enrobed in batter as light as any tempura. Dusted with grated Parmesan to give it extra depth of savor, this was simply delectable.

Throughout the meal, the level of care and attention paid to presentation was outstanding. And so too is Amano's focus on using quality ingredients. The spring vegetables served with our spaghetti tasted farm fresh — they're grown organically in nearby Setagaya Ward, so they don't have far to travel. Seasoned with just the right amount of anchovy and slivers of orange botargo (preserved mullet roe) scattered on top, it looked as beautiful as it tasted.

Amano also prepares his own home-made pasta. His tortelli, stuffed with ricotta cheese and delicate young spinach, was meltingly soft and served not with the standard thick tomato sauce but a freshly made sauce of new-season fruit tomatoes. He only offers this particular pasta at this time of year because soon the spinach leaves will become too coarse.

He also understands that when ingredients are this good and this fresh, they only need the lightest of embellishments. That was the case with the main course of charcoal-grilled chicken. Amano uses free-range Ohyama fowl from Tottori Prefecture, gently cooking it in the oven before placing it over the coals. This leaves the meat soft and juicy, but with a crisp, savory skin.

If anything, the cabbage, potato and sausage meat on which the chicken was served was underseasoned. But that was compensated for by the rich tomato ragu that came with our cacciucco. This seafood stew — sometimes called Livorno-style bouillabaisse — was rich, full-flavored, and slightly oversalted.

The wine list is longer than you'd find at many bigger restaurants. It's also notable for the large selection under ¥5,000. However, desserts are not Amano's strong suit. That said, his light crepes stuffed with cream-cheese mousse and banana certainly hit the spot. Alternatively, Mrs. Amano can offer a grappa or aquavit.

This is serious food, and Amano is now (after a slow start) beginning to generate a considerable reputation among serious foodies, which is hardly surprising given the excellent value for money. Whether at lunch or dinner, it is worth arriving early. Otherwise you may find some options already off the menu or — calamity — they may have sold out and closed early. Reservations are a very good idea.


Cucina Amano
www.eatpia.com/cucinaamano/

MAP
Location: 8-27 Tomihisa-cho, Shinjuku-ku
(03) 3355-0044

Open: 12 noon-2 p.m. (last order) and 6-10 p.m. (last order; closed Mon.)

Nearest station: Akebonobashi (Shinjuku Line)

How to get there: From Akebonobashi Station's Exit A1, turn left along Yasukuni-dori. Cucina Amano is on the left just after the second set of lights.

What works: It's superb cucina . . .

What doesn't work: ...for such an obscure location.

BGM: Italian pop at low volume

Number of seats: 16 (plus 4 outside seats)

Smoking: Not permitted

Price per head: Lunch at ¥1,050 (weekdays only; limited availability), ¥1,890 and ¥5,570; dinner menu ¥5,460; also a la carte; ¥420 cover charge

Drinks: Aperitivi from ¥630; beer from ¥630; wine ¥630/glass, from ¥3,150/bottle; digestivi from ¥630

Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard only

Language: Japanese menu; no English spoken

Reservations: Highly recommended



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