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Friday, April 2, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Roppongi breakfast, high tea in the Ginza
Breakfast and afternoon tea: Two meals that rarely get discussed in this column. It's not a question of bias. It's just there are very few places in town that get them right.
In the case of breakfast, Tokyo really doesn't seem to bother. If you're not inside one of the larger hotels, you can forget about getting anything more substantial than coffee and a danish. Unless you're close to Roppongi Hills, that is, and the welcoming early morning glow emanating from Lauderdale.
To find anywhere serving a good cooked breakfast at 7 in the morning is in itself noteworthy. But to sit down in such a relaxed setting — high ceilings, mix-and-match old wooden furniture, a bar at one end and a comfy banquette at the other — is cause for outright celebration. So is Lauderdale's menu.
Would you like blueberries or banana with your buttermilk pancakes, or perhaps crispy bacon? Or how about a fluffy omelet — plain; with smoked salmon, dill and lime; or tomato, basil and tangy gruyere cheese? We're not big on the idea of salad first thing in the day, or soup (let alone clam chowder), but those are also available if you're so inclined.
Far more unusual is the range of souffles, both sweet and savory. These are made to order and served piping hot, straight from the oven, so they take at least 20 minutes to prepare. So settle in with some tea or coffee (just ¥150 extra) and a podcast or newspaper (you have to bring your own copy of The Japan Times) while you wait.
Getting a souffle to puff up (and stay that way) is notoriously hard. Lauderdale seems to have a foolproof recipe, but it has one drawback: Achieving the rise is done by coating the outside with sugar. That is fine for the sweet souffles, such as the excellent apple cinnamon, but not the savory ones. For the disappointing salmon and spinach version, the taste of the fish was overwhelmed.
In the evening, the menu takes on more of a bistro persona, with a la carte offerings spanning the gamut from burgers, roast chicken and baked fish to tasty "chasseur" hotpots of mussels steamed in wine (moules marinieres this would be called in France).
These two disparate strands — American diner and Euro-bistro — are brought together in Lauderdale's highly lauded eight-hour weekend brunch. This features just about everything mentioned above, plus two more of our favorites: eggs Benedict and a side dish of mini falafels with yogurt dip.
One more thing sets Lauderdale apart — its small terrace. At any time of year (there are space heaters), it's pleasant to sit outside under a canopy of cherry trees. But breakfast under the blossoms is surely one of those supreme, only-in-Tokyo dining experiences.
Compared to getting a good breakfast, treating yourself to a leisurely afternoon tea ought to be far less of a problem. After all, when it comes to patisseries, Tokyo is every bit the equal of Paris or Vienna. Just one problem — very few places understand how to serve the tea itself.
Invariably there will be little or no choice — maybe Earl Grey, Darjeeling or perhaps (laughably) some Breakfast Tea. It is more than likely to be brewed from tea bags, rather than from the leaf. And then, when it arrives, it will probably be overstewed and harshly tannic. Worse yet, the milk will no doubt be warm.
The only way to be sure it will be done right is to go to one of the specialist tea houses. None of them takes the job more seriously than Mariage Freres, in the heart of Ginza.
The tea canisters on the shelves of the ground-floor retail store barely hint at the sheer number of teas stocked here. There are hundreds listed in the catalog, many of them exclusive, handpicked, single-estate, first-flush varieties. All are available for you to choose from for your afternoon pot, up in the tea rooms on the second and third floors.
With prices from ¥945 per pot, this is tea for serious connoisseurs. Add a plate of sandwiches, a croque-monsieur, a snob salade or some gateau, and your bill will come to well over ¥2,000. But you can be sure that the tea will be perfectly brewed, timed to the second and immediately strained for optimal color and aroma.
You can linger here as long as you like, in this genteel, unhurried oasis. But there are days when the retro sensibility — colonial-era decor; waiters dressed in white linen suits — starts to feel a bit suffocating. By contrast, at the Lipton Tea House, over on the other side of Ginza, the atmosphere is far less stuffy.
Here the rituals of afternoon tea are performed in the British style. Mercifully there's very little overt cultural baggage. The influences are all on the menu and in the cup. With just 32 varieties on the list, including quite a few flavored teas and herbal tisanes, that is quite enough choice for us. Although the brewing is performed out of sight, beforehand you will be asked how strong you like your tea. You will also be asked what you want to eat with it.
This time last year, Lipton was even serving hot cross buns, aromatic sweet rolls that are a classic Easter tradition in Britain. Perhaps due to lack of interest, they're not offered this spring, but there are plenty of year-round specials.
You can't get more British than a proper cream tea (¥1,700). You get to pick from six flavors of scone, including — only in this season — sakura, made with salted cherry blossom and leaf. These are served in true style with authentic clotted cream and little pots of jam (strawberry, blueberry or rhubarb) or lemon curd, which you can take home with you if you don't finish them.
Or go the whole hog with the full-scale afternoon tea (¥3,500), an assortment of dainty sandwiches — on thinly sliced white bread, naturally — plus cream tea scones and various cakes. There is also an all-day menu of savory dishes, including those great British culinary standards, shepherds pie and fish 'n' chips.