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Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

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Little wonder: There's not a lot of space at Rue de Shuri, but the good food and personal service add up to classic neighborhood dining. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS


Small is beautiful out in Nakame

Everyone likes Naka-Meguro. With its languid tree-lined creek, quirky bars and design boutiques and easygoing low-rise ambience — away from the station, at any rate — it's one of the Tokyo locales we all wish we lived in. Best of all, Nakame (as those in the know call it) has some excellent little neighborhood restaurants. A new favorite of ours is Rue de Shuri.

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Local hero: At tiny Rue de Shuri in Naka-Meguro, owner-chef Junichi Shibata offers a menu worthy of far larger restaurants. His multicourse meals include great French regional dishes, such as lamb ragout (above); a la carte specials are listed on his chalkboard.
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News photo

"Little" is the operative word here. Tucked away off the main drag, nestling on the first floor of a new but unremarkable apartment block, Rue de Shuri is barely bigger than the average ramen counter. Were it not for the French tricolor hanging outside from the token eaves, you'd never give it a second glance. And that would be your loss.

How tiny is Rue de Shuri? Let's just say that if the table by the window is occupied, you have to turn sideways to squeeze past as you enter through the front door. Inside, you'll find three small tables shoehorned in tightly, plus a raised counter area looking straight into an open kitchen the size of a yacht's galley. Even for a basic bistro, this would feel overly intimate. But check out the cuisine: Rue de Shuri rivals many French restaurants 10 times its size.

Owner-chef Junichi Shibata worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in France, Belgium and England, and he's clearly capable of running a much more substantial operation. Now back in Japan, he's had to scale back on his ambitions and floor space — but not the range of his menu, as we found out when we dropped in for a leisurely late lunch a couple of weekends ago.

Shibata's one-plate special (¥1,500, served only on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays) is great value. You get to pick from seven different main dishes (meat, fish, omelet, etc.), which are served on a sizable oblong platter with cooked vegetables on the side and a hefty mound of salad. He even throws in bread rolls, dessert and coffee.

There's only one drawback. Because the main dish is cooked to order (naturally), you have nothing to nibble on as you wait, while tantalizing aromas assail your nostrils from Shibata's stove less than a couple of meters away from where you're sitting.

We quickly saw the better option was to order the prix-fixe four-course menu (¥3,500). This includes virtually the same range of main dishes as the one-plate lunch. But, on top of that we got to pick from seven different amuses, eight entrees (hors d'oeuvres) and then, after the main course, we could opt for dessert or cheese.

To kindle our appetites, we nibbled on Basque-style brandade, a smooth, creamy paste made from salt cod, which we spread on rusklike slices of crisped bread; and marinated mushrooms, a mixture of Japanese rather than French fungi.

I t seems impossible that Shibata could have a wine cellar in such a limited space, but his list is surprisingly long, well priced and covers all the important French wine regions. As it was still early afternoon, we did not order a full bottle, instead relying on Shibata's by-the-glass recommendations. His drinks menu is literally a corkboard — a quirky arrangement of cards pinned to wine corks on a metal frame.

The Bourgognes were just right: white (Clos St. Germain '07) with the brandade; red (Michel Gros '07) with the delightful carpaccio of ezo-jika venison that we had as an entree. The thin slices of meat, rare and tender, were beautifully presented on the plate, lightly garnished with grated Parmesan, finely chopped chives and red peppercorns, with a drizzle of cassis sauce that was commendably tart (rather than tasting like dessert).

This dish was actually on the dinner menu, not lunch. But since Shibata takes the orders — and serves the food and wine (he has a sidekick in the kitchen to help with food prep) — there is ample scope for discussion, flexibility and improvisation.

Too often at restaurants, the main dishes are not as exciting as what precedes them. Not here.

The confit de canard was cooked exactly right, nicely crisped on the outside, not too dry or salty underneath. Best of all, the duck was served not with fried potatoes or dauphinoise (classic but always very rich) but with a generous dollop of creamy mashed potato.

The standout dish, however, was the ragout. The lamb meat was perfectly tender and moist, with vegetables (carrots, cabbage, green beans) and more of that same spud, and plenty of added juice. This was an accent that Shibata must have picked up during his stay in Britain rather than France or Belgium). It was marvelous.

We rounded off our meal with a couple of simple desserts: peach sorbet garnished with homemade lemon compote and a swoosh of strawberry coulis, and a bite-sized chocolate cake served warm with a scoop of ice cream. They were fine but, compared with what came before, desserts are clearly not Rue de Shuri's strongest suit. Even so, this was one of the most satisfying lunches we've had in a long time.

I n the evening, the menu is even more elaborate. Shibata's top-of-the-line prix-fixe dinner (¥7,800) is a veritable banquet that includes two entrees (one cold, the other warm); fish and meat courses; and a cheese plate before your dessert.

By the time this column goes to press, he will have gibiers on his menu — wild boar, mallard, pheasant and more. We are also looking forward to trying some of his sweet-potato gnocchi, which he was experimenting with when we were there.

Perhaps what we like best about Rue de Shuri is its utter lack of airs and pretension. You don't get tablecloths and candlelight. What you do get is excellent cooking and a tangible sense of personal attention. Exactly the way neighborhood dining should be. It's enough to make us think about contacting a few realtors in the area.

Rue de Shuri

Location: Sun Royal Higashiyama 1F, 1-8-6 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku
(03) 5721-2306

Open: Daily 6 p.m.-1 a.m. (Sun. till 11 p.m.), Sat., Sun. and holidays: Lunch 12-2:30 p.m. (last order), closed Mon.

Nearest station: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya and Toyoko lines).

How to get there: From Naka-Meguro Station, turn left along Yamate-dori until the second set of traffic lights. Continue one block, then turn left. Rue de Shuri is on the right after a small side street.

What works: Restaurant-level cuisine, wine-bar ambience.

What doesn't: The tables are packed in very tightly.

Number of seats: 6 at counter; 8 at tables.

Smoking: Not permitted inside.

Price per head: Weekend lunch ¥1,500 and ¥3,500; dinner ¥4,500 and ¥7,800, also ala carte; table charge (at dinner) ¥500.

Drinks: Beer from ¥700; wine from ¥800/glass, from ¥3,900 bottle.

Credit cards: Most major cards accepted.

Language: Japanese / French menu; no English spoken.

Reservations: Best to call ahead.

A sleek wine bar with neighborhood values

Even the toniest of neighborhoods needs somewhere you can just drop into for a light bite and a glass of wine or two without stress or sticker shock. For Shirokanedai, one of Minato ward's sleekest areas, the recently opened Osteria Rustica Domus is exactly that kind of place.

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Stylish but casual: Osteria Rustica Domus serves quality Italian food, such as Piadina flat bread and prosciutto, with affordable wine.

Set up as an adjunct to Il Grappolo da Miura, a fine Italian ristorante just around the corner on ritzy Platinum Avenue, Domus is a wine bar in the most literal sense: just a single counter seating 10. But it boasts a great little menu of Italian foods to go with that booze.

There are tapas-style snacks — Carpaccio of sanma (saury), trippa (tripe) with pesto, marinated autumn mushrooms and the like — from as little as ¥300. There are great salads and pasta, too. If you're really lucky, Chef Otake will have prepared his excellent spaghetti with homemade salsiccia sausage, cabbage and just a hint of togarashi chili.

Every evening, there are seven bottles of wine served by the glass — one bubbly, three red and three white — not all from Italy, but all reasonably priced in the ¥700 range, and also a selection of grappas and other spirits.

Better yet, Domus may look like the kind of place you need to dress up for — this is Shirokanedai, after all — but it's all very affordable. We're not about to move to this rarefied area anytime soon, but now there's another good reason to make a detour on our way back home.

Osteria Rustica Domus, 4-8-14 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku; (03) 6450-2575; www.ilgrappolo-damiura.com/domus.html. Open 12-2 p.m. and 6 p.m.-2 a.m. (Sat. till 11 p.m.), closed Sun.; nearest station Shirokanedai (Nanboku and Mita lines); Japanese menu, no English spoken; major credit cards accepted.

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