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Friday, June 5, 2009


Basque in great flavors at Txoko

It's no secret: Spain has some of the best food in Europe. But Tokyo is only starting to realize there's much more to it than just paella and sangria. That's why we were so pleased to hear about Txoko, the city's first restaurant specializing in the outstanding cuisine of the Basque Country.

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As good as it looks: Txoko's pan-fried fillet of isaki (grunt fish) ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

The climate, people and language of this mountainous region wedged between the Bay of Biscay, the Pyrenees and the French border are quite unlike those of the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast or the Castilian heartland. So too is the cooking. Having eaten our way around the area on a number of visits, we were keen to see how well the flavors could be translated to Japan.

The initial impression is underwhelming. Txoko (it's pronounced "Choko") only opened in March, but the look is far from cutting-edge. Apart from the sign and menu in the illuminated "window," little has changed since the demise of the previous occupants (Capitolino, a fusty Italian eatery): the same black brick surround, whitewash stucco and heavy wooden shutters.

The inside feels equally old-school, all white tablecloths and dark chairs, with little in the way of color save for the large Basque flag adorning one corner of the room. If you're out on a hot date or hoping to show people from out of town the latest in Tokyo Cool, this is certainly not the place. But if it's good food prepared well that you're after, then Txoko delivers.

Basque cooking revolves around premium ingredients: seafood from the cold waters of the Atlantic, especially hake and bacalao (salt cod), along with meat, charcuterie and cheese from the lush green uplands. Compared with the tomato-laden, oil- and garlic-infused dishes in other regions of Spain, it is simple, precise, almost austere — but all about the inherent flavors. It's an approach that is ideally suited to reinterpretation in Japan.

As at any Spanish restaurant, you start your meal with a selection of tapas-style appetizers: cuts of prime chorizo, salsichon sausage and jamon serrano, cured ham from acorn-fed Iberico Bellota pigs; wedges of tortilla (Spanish omelet) with an alioli mayonnaise; or a plate of the delectable homemade oil-marinated baby sardines dressed with finely diced tomato and cucumber.

Hold that impulse to order up a glass of bubbly cava or sherry. The classic aperitif of the Basque Country is a light white wine known as txakoli. Thin and refreshingly acidic, especially in the summer heat, txakoli has more than a passing resemblance to Portugal's vinho verde. There is a slight fizziness that is brought out when aerated, which requires pouring small doses at a time into squat beakers from a considerable height, a technique that the waiting staff now have down pat (on our first visit, our shoes got sprinkled too).

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Local color: Wine and the Basque flag in Txoko's simple interior.

Unless you're in a large group or plan to eat plenty of tapas, a glass or two of txakoli will probably be enough. The wine list covers most of Spain's major regions, with a good selection available by the glass. Wanting to stay strictly Basque, we focused on Navarra and Rioja: The Murua Riserva, a full-bodied but easy-drinking Rioja, was a rewarding find, going especially well with our meat dishes.

Trippa, the classic recipe of honeycomb tripe simmered with chickpeas in a rich, tomato-accented broth, was as good as we have ever had. It was tasty enough to even convert a nonbeliever, a dining partner who had always turned his nose up at dishes made with this particular internal organ.

We were also highly impressed by the soup, a smooth (but not creamy) puree of leek and potato, flecked with shreds of bacalao and garnished with croutons and swirls of herb-infused oil.

The fish and meat courses are of similar caliber. Our pan-fried fillet of the tender whitefish isaki (known as grunt in English) was served with steamed asari clams, a spear-tip of asparagus and a halved soft-boiled egg in a delicate sauce tinted with the green of spinach and infused with the juices of the seafood. It was as tasty as it was colorful.

Two of the standout meat dishes that we have tried and enjoyed are the platter of mixed roast meats (cuts of pork, beef and chicken) and the golden, pan-fried chicken, for which the kitchen uses pollo amarillo, a breed of "yellow" chicken imported from Spain.

Not knowing what to expect, we ordered a la carte on our first visit to Txoko. But all the above courses (apart from the jamon serrano) are included in the fixed-price menu, which at ¥4,500 represents excellent value for money.

In Basque (which is nothing like Spanish, or any other language in the world), the word txoko is used for the gastronomic clubs that are found in communities throughout the region. In the city of San Sebastian alone, there are said to be more than 120 of them, where locals — sometimes exclusively men — gather to cook, eat, drink and keep alive their distinctive gastronomic culture.

It's a deep-seated tradition that is taken very seriously — one that has now arrived in Tokyo thanks to the aptly named Txoko.

Hooked on tapas? Then prime yourself for a pintxos passion

You can't talk about the food of the Basques without mentioning their best-known contribution to the global gastronomic lexicon: pintxos (pinchos in Spanish), which is their unique and highly addictive take on tapas.

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Basque bites: A selection of modern pintxos served on a recent visit to San Sebastian

The idea is simple but brilliant: a slice of baguette-style bread topped with savory morsels and pierced with a long slender cocktail stick to hold it all together (a pintxo literally means a spike). The toppings can range from straightforward tidbits — slivers of ham or cheese or maybe even a wedge of Spanish omelet — to cooked morsels of considerable sophistication. They may be as small and dainty as party finger foods or substantial enough to make a wholesome snack.

The world capital of pintxos has to be San Sebastian, specifically the grid of narrow, pedestrian-only streets that cross the old city close to the fishing port. We have spent many a happy lunchtime and evening there, moving from one bar to the next, sampling the delicacies arrayed on the counter and then moving on for another bite down the street.

The drinks of choice are wine — either sharp, fizzy txakoli or the local red, txikito, or beer (zurito in Basque), although lightly alcoholic cider (sidra) is sometimes served.

In recent years, pintxos bars have caught on outside of Spain, but not, surprisingly, in Tokyo. Several attempts have been made (most notably the exciting new-wave creations of Pintxos Beppo, sadly no longer in operation), though none have stayed the course.

To give us an idea of what this city is missing, Txoko in Nishi-Azabu offers a small but very well constructed selection of pintxos, both a la carte and as part of its set menu. Two favorites: a single shrimp set on cream cheese and drizzled with homemade alioli mayonnaise; and one that's spread with pisto, a delectable mixture of red pepper, onion and eggplant, cooked down in ratatouille style.


Location: 1-11-13 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
(03) 5410-1752

Open: 11:45 a.m.-2 p.m. (Sat., Sun., & holidays till 3 p.m.); 6-10 p.m.

Nearest stations: Nogizaka (Chiyoda Line); Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines)

How to get there: From the Nishi-Azabu crossing, walk back toward Roppongi and take the second side street to the left. Txoko is on the right at the next corner.

What works: Good food, great value and friendly service.

What doesn't: Inside and out, it feels too plain for a date.

BGM: None at all

Number of seats: 30

Smoking: Not permitted

Price per head: Lunch from ¥1,000 (weekend lunch from ¥2,500); dinner set menu ¥4,500; also a la carte

Drinks: Beer from ¥800; cava ¥1,200/glass, from ¥6,800/bottle; sherry ¥500/glass; cider ¥600/glass, ¥3,600/bottle; wine from ¥685/glass, ¥3,900/bottle

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese menu; little English spoken

Reservations: Advisable

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