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Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

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Spicy: The Cajun Lamb Burger at Eat, with a side order of fresh-made fries. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS


Fast food worth lingering over

The bright yellow sign calls down over the busy, narrow sidewalk like a grandmama from the old country exhorting her brood to come to table. "EAT EAT," it shouts. Do as you're told: Go in and sit down. We did. And we ate. We ate very well indeed.

News photo
No ordinary burgermeister: At Eat in Gaienmae, chef Michi Takahashi (above) serves much more than just gourmet hamburgers. His side dishes include spicy seafood gumbo (below) and fresh tortilla chips with homemade salsa and creamy guacamole.
News photo
News photo

Apart from the neon up above, there's little to indicate this blink-and-you-miss -it hole-in-the-wall diner is anything special. But, as we've learned so many times in this city, you don't judge a restaurant by the width of its shop front or the length of its history.

Eat — for that is its punchy, no-nonsense name — only opened last summer, but it didn't take long for the word to reach the street: Tokyo's got a hot new "premium burger" joint. We found out it's got a lot more to offer besides.

There are three tiny wooden tables where you can perch by the window, but the seven leopard-skin-print bar stools at the counter are cozier and more comfortable. We shoehorned ourselves in by the narrow open kitchen and settled back. Certainly we were there for the burgers. But what was the hurry? Why not start with a couple of snacks?

First up, a plate of chips and dips to go with that initial bottle of Lowenbrau (there's also Yebisu on draft, or Corona for the truly homesick). Instead of standard-issue corn chips out of the package, we were given a plate of crisp tortilla chips cooked in-house with a couple of tasty dips — a piquant homemade salsa with fine-diced tomato, pimento and onion; and a smooth, creamy guacamole. We were impressed from the get-go.

We were also intrigued to find a menu of weekly specials that was far from the norm for a fast-food restaurant. It wasn't the weather for chilled carrot and ginger soup, but we certainly felt like trying the seafood gumbo. It didn't disappoint. Dark, rich and nicely spiced with both chili and black pepper, it includes clams, fine-cut squid, carrot, mushrooms, and even the crumbs of broken-up chips for extra texture.

We weren't going to risk spoiling our appetite for burgers by ordering the sirloin steak (from wagyu — Japanese black Angus cattle) or the beef stew. But we just had to try the confit of duck; first because it seems so unlikely to find this standard of French cuisine in a fast-food joint, and second because it's one of our all-time favorite dishes.

The flavorful leg meat was neither too dry nor too salty (two common faults), and had plenty of good crisp skin. It looked appetizing too, served with a tart cassis jam that was drizzled artistically in concentric circles over the plate. Clearly, this had to be the work not of some hired grill-hand but a proper trained cook.

And so it turned out: Eat's cheerful chef, Michi Takahashi, ran a highly regarded restaurant in Los Angeles until 2008. Now back in Tokyo, he may have started up in modest premises, but he's not scaling back on quality.

And that was abundantly clear when our burgers arrived. There are only two styles to choose from, and both are highly impressive: The Kobe Burger, which is prepared from wagyu beef, or the Cajun Lamb Burger (both at ¥1,000 for a single patty or ¥1,400 for a double).

For us, the flavorful lamb just shades it, thanks to the smoky Cajun sauce and because it comes with roasted pimento as well as a thick layer of salad vegetables and a creamy tartar sauce, carefully built up between two lightly browned buns. The fries (served separately, ¥350 or ¥600) are long and skinny, fresh cut from large spuds. We like that they are deep-fried to order, but felt they needed to be cooked a little longer to be perfect.

Michi — after 24 years in the States, he insists on casual first-name terms with everyone — also offers a vegetarian sandwich, made with plenty of roasted vegetables. And he can rustle up some simple pasta dishes, a tasty ground-beef Keema curry (we had to go back for lunch to sample that), plus some tempting desserts — not that we had room to try any.

The other day, back at Eat for dinner, we fell into conversation with another customer (not hard in such an intimate place), a young American who was due to leave the next day after a two-week visit. She was having her last dinner in Japan — not sushi; not even ramen; but a burger. And why not? She had lucked upon one of the best in town, every bit as good as she'd be likely to find back home, we'd say.


Location: 2-12-27 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku
(03) 6459-2432

Open: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. (Sunday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.)

Nearest station: Gaienmae (Ginza Line)

How to get there: From Gaienmae Station (Exit 3), walk along Aoyama-dori to the Bell Commons building and turn right onto Gaien-Nishi-dori (aka Killer-dori). You will see E*A*T on your right after about 50 meters.

What works: Premium burgers — plus some great side dishes

What doesn't: If only Michi stocked better beer, to match the food.

Number of seats: 7 at the counter, plus tables for 6 by the door.

BGM: R'n'B

Smoking: Permitted

Price per head: Burgers from ¥1,000; set lunch plates ¥1,100; ¥50 surcharge for takeout (free if you bring your own containers)

Drinks: Beer from ¥550; cocktails from ¥700; wine from ¥600/glass

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese and English menus; English spoken

Reservations: Not taken

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