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Friday, March 5, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Brick Square is hip
Pizza and pasta in peace and quiet
Spring may not be here for real just yet, but it's never too early to celebrate the first al fresco lunch of the year. So when last week's unseasonably warm spell arrived we knew exactly where to go — into the heart of the city, to grab an outside table at A16.
We had two compelling reasons for this choice. The casual Californian-Italian cooking at this San Francisco transplant hits exactly the right note for a light, leisurely meal at any time of day. And the location is about as good as it gets in central Tokyo.
A16 takes its name from the autostrada that cuts across southern Italy from Naples to Puglia. Just as at the parent restaurant in San Francisco, the idea is to showcase the hearty, healthy cooking of that region, especially the province of Campania. That means plenty of good antipasti, pasta and wine, all presented in easygoing U.S. West Coast style.
Since the inspiration is Naples, there has to be pizza. And sure enough, dominating the dining room you see the twin pizza ovens with their flickering flames and handsome brickwork chimneys. Although safety regulations here require them to be gas-fired rather than wood-burning, everything else about them is true to the original spirit, channeling those authentic Neapolitan flavors.
But it wasn't just the pizza we were there for; it was the piazza outside. A16 occupies a prime position inside the remarkable Brick Square, a pedestrian -only space almost entirely closed off from the surrounding streets. With the traffic out of sight and virtually out of earshot, it's hard to believe you're in the center of Marunouchi, just a minute's walk from Tokyo Station.
Since it opened last autumn, this little plaza has given the city something it has sorely lacked — a public area that's not a mall or slotted in as an afterthought between skyscrapers. The small garden boasts trees and shrubs (though not yet in leaf), a sward of lawn, benches where you can read or people-watch, and up above, a proper view of the open sky.
Two sides of this square are high-rise, overlooked by the soaring tower of Marunouchi Park Building. But the other two are built mostly in retro red-brick style, replicating the look of Josiah Conder's Ichigo-kan, the very first Western-style building erected on this spot in 1894 — complete with old-fashioned windows and low, sloping roofs that let in the sunshine until well into the late afternoon.
That's the Old World view as you sit down on the south-facing terrace outside A16 and scan the single-sheet menu of New World dishes. There are half a dozen starters to choose from; five pizzas; four kinds of pasta; and just a single main dish, the house-special braised pork meatballs. It's much the same selection at dinner, with just a couple more entrees added. For such a mainstream location, it's all quite affordable.
If we were embarking on a full dinner, we would tuck into the prosciutto (¥1,300), a plate of San Daniele ham strewn with crisp hazelnuts and leaves of radicchio, and follow it up with the soft- simmered tripe (¥1,500), cooked in white wine in the napolitana style. But this was lunch, so we ordered the salad of tender arugula greens (¥950), which are tossed with fine-sliced apple and celery, walnut bits and a delicate ricotta dressing.
The pizzas are about as good as we ever ate in Naples, with light but chewy, well-browned pies. The classic marinara (¥1,300) is simple but satisfying, while the romana (¥1,500) has a greater depth of flavor thanks to the anchovy and olives added as toppings. But our favorite is the top-of-the-range salsiccia (¥2,700).
Chunks of fennel-flavored sausage meat and naga-negi leeks are scattered on a thin layer of molten mozzarella and grana padano cheese, with just enough garlic and chili flakes to give an accent but not to burn (chili oil is provided if you crave more of a kick). In terms of price, you might be tempted to share one of these between two of you. In terms of flavor you'll probably be squabbling over who gets the last piece and end up ordering another.
Two things about the pasta: All are available in half portions; and if you're after standard-issue spaghetti you'll be disappointed. The chefs at A16 like to get creative, with recipes such as bucatini with broccoli and clams; chestnut tonnarelli with ragu blanco; or spaccatelle with pumpkin, maitake mushrooms and tasai greens.
The great thing is that you can pick out what you want as you go, ordering more dishes to match how hungry you are and — more to the point — whatever you feel like drinking next. The wine list is far longer than the food menu, and is split pretty evenly between southern Italy and California.
In fact, without advertising itself as such, A16 is the kind of all-day wine bar that we have craved so long in Tokyo. It has bottles in all price ranges and a solid base of quality cuisine to match them with — and best of all, with a refreshing absence of highfalutin pretensions.
Too many U.S. restaurants branching out in Japan make the mistake of positioning themselves upmarket (Union Square in Roppongi Midtown is a prime example), instead of relying on the core values that put them on the map in the first place — fine, uncomplicated cooking based on quality ingredients. But A16 seems to get it right on all levels.