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Friday, April 16, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
A fresh future for healthy dining
We have seen the future. It's a bright, cheerful place, where farmers are heroes and everyone munches on raw food. There are posters and didactic messages everywhere, and the enthusiasm seems almost otaku. Welcome to Noka no Daidokoro (Farmhouse Kitchen), the taste of things to come.
Set up by a brash, media-savvy company called Kunitachi Farm — it does actually have its own land, though mostly it works with a network of independent farmers — there are now three Noka no Daidokoro restaurants. The first opened in 2007, in one of Tokyo's western suburbs. But it was the launching of the second branch in Ebisu the following year that really announced the company and its distinctive style to the mainstream.
Two giant glowing plastic daikon flank heavy doors that lead you into a temperature-controlled room filled with shelves of fresh vegetables. You may be asked to wait in this chilly antechamber while your table is prepared. It's a momentary discomfort — think of it as a produce purgatory before being admitted into the inner sanctum.
The decor is faux rustic, with bulging barrel-shaped walls flanking the mezzanine dining area and a fake tree (currently adorned with cherry blossom) in one corner. Dominating everything are the colorful posters of the farmers that provide the produce. Gazing down from over the windows and open kitchen, it is they rather than the chefs who are the stars of the movie that will soon be your dinner.
The focal point of the room is the self-service salad bar. A dozen small baskets brimming with carefully cut vegetables are laid out on a bed of ice, as if they were prime seafood. Behind them, a chef stands on a dais, constantly keeping this colorful display topped up. You can return here as often as you like during your meal for more of these crudites. You can also get refills of the dips — a garlicky mayo, salt mixed with flakes of red turnip, and savory-sweet miso paste — but the truth is that these veggies really don't need any extra seasoning.
So how do they get to taste so good? The main reason is that they're super fresh. Some are even grown on the premises, in a large, brightly lit hydroponic chamber at the far end of the room. The most unusual of these is salt leaf, a variety of ice plant that draws up minerals from the earth or liquid it's grown in, giving it a mildly salty savor that's as intriguing as the little dew-like beads that cover its surface.
Noka no Daidokoro does not shun fish, chicken or meat entirely. What it does do, though, is use them in a more subsidiary role. The balance of the set meals is clearly indicated on the menu: The 4:3:3 course comprises 40 percent vegetables, 30 percent fish and 30 percent chicken. The 6:2:2 course bumps up the vegetable factor further; while vegetarians can graze to their hearts' content on the 10:0:0 option.
After 9 p.m., an a la carte menu comes into force, allowing you to pick and choose among the seasonal specials. These might include tajine or pot-au-feu; grilled vegetables drizzled with a balsamico sauce; spinach gnocchi in cream sauce; or (highly recommended) Oyama chicken with root vegetables that are beautifully seared over the grill and served with a wedge of lemon.
These dishes are prepared with a delicate touch that clearly finds favor with the predominantly female clientele. All meals conclude, though, with hearty bowls of rice (brown and/or red), served with miso soup so thick it's almost a potage. This is not just earthy, healthy farmhouse food, it's also satisfying on many levels.
Forget all the posters and pamphlets; this is the underlying message Kunitachi Farms wants to get across: We don't need to pile on the protein to feel full. Good fresh veggies sourced locally and cooked with care can also hit the spot. It's a new take on an old theme, and one that might just catch on.
Noka no Daidokoro: Ebisu South One 1F, 1-7-8 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3719-4831; r.gnavi.co.jp/p963301 Nearest station: Ebisu (JR, Hibiya); open 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m.; lunch from ¥800, dinner from ¥4,800, also a la carte; major cards accepted; non-smoking; Japanese menu, a little English spoken; reservations recommended The other two branches of Noka no Daidokoro are at: Poporo Bldg 3F, 1-16-17 Higashi, Kunitachi-shi; (042) 571-4831; Takayama Land Kaikan 4F, 3-5-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3226-4831