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Friday, Dec. 3, 2010


Buzzing new bistro moves in for the grill

The great guide Michelin has again spoken, and lo! Tokyo has yet more stars in its firmament, and with even greater numbers anointed to the most exalted echelons. Further confirmation, should it be needed, that this is the foodiest city on the planet.

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Wild things: The winter special at La Gargote is gibier (game). Charcoal-grilled seafood dishes include hobo (gurnard) on green beans (below) and shirako (cod milt) wrapped in bacon (bottom). ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
News photo
News photo

But the same can be said if you look lower down the pecking order. There is no letup in the stream of new restaurants bubbling up from Tokyo's fertile wellspring of culinary creativity. Of course, not all have lofty aspirations. For many, the aim is to provide fun dining rather than fine dining. Count La Gargote among that happy, humble crowd.

Though it only opened in late October, this hybrid bistro/grill/wine bar/Gallic gathering spot is already generating a buzz well beyond its immediate vicinity of Azabu Juban. That's not so surprising, given the pedigree of those involved. Owner Nelson Surjon is known to many from his tenure as manager of Le Petit Tonneau, the popular little bistro that overlooks Azabu Juban's peaceful square. And in charge of the kitchen is Patrick Chambiron, formerly executive chef of the Petit Tonneau group.

The underlying sensibility at La Gargote is undeniably French, from the staff (though most are trilingual) to Chambiron's cooking (charcuterie, chevre chaud and so on). But in look and layout, La Gargote also has a very Japanese feel.

The first thing you see as you enter the cozy first-floor dining room is the open kitchen, with its substantial grill and seating at a narrow (and rather Spartan) counter, while a wooden bench with tables runs along the back wall.

A large blackboard details the specials of the day in a mix of French and English. But the thin wooden menu plaques hanging on the back wall could have come straight from any yakitoriya (grilled chicken shop). It's as if an izakaya tavern had been transplanted to one of the hippest arrondissements in Paris.

There is more to La Gargote than initially meets the eye. A spiral staircase leads down to a more spacious basement area and bar, where one entire wall is covered by a monochrome mural in manga style.

The drink of choice is not sake, of course, but wine. Surjon has assembled an excellent list that is mostly (but not exclusively) French. It's not so extensive that your eyes glaze over; and, helpfully, it's grouped according to price rather than region.

There is the house selection of basic affordable wines, each at ¥3,800; another section entitled Les Bonnes Occasions, at ¥4,900; Les Petits Plaisirs for ¥7,800; Les Bons Deals (yes, really) ¥9,800; and a page or two of superior Grands Vins aimed at those who are celebrating big time.

There are a dozen wines available by the glass, too. However, unless you are dining solo, it is inadvisable to follow this route as the pours can be unconscionably skimpy. It really makes better sense and value to order by the bottle.

The bulk of the menu is made up of bistro standards, though many of the dishes have been given a creative tweak. The excellent plate of carpaccio — finely sliced, sashimi-fresh buri (yellowtail) — that opened our meal was slathered with a rich, savory sauce based on ginger with a hint of wasabi (though Chambiron was naturally loath to divulge the precise ingredients).

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Drawing on experience: Nelson Surjon, owner of French bistro La Gargote, was formerly in charge at Le Petit Tonneau.

He serves his frites not plain but seasoned with melted brie. And his version of La Raclette comprises a mound of cooked potato and uncured ham smothered in molten cheese — not the eponymous raclette but tangy munster — adorned with leaves of endive and a scattering of cumin.

The sense of cross-cultural adventure extends deep into the kitchen. Alongside the traditional Gallic favorites (the likes of escargots and foie gras, steak tartare and confit de canard) and the comfort foods (macaroni cheese, anyone?), you find the specialty of the house: "Les French Kushiyaki."

It's a classic linguistic mashup, but endearingly apt. Chambiron grills the morsels of seafood, meat and vegetables on metal brochette skewers rather than bamboo sticks, but many of the ingredients are local, and he tends them over the glowing charcoal with all the attention of a veteran yakitori master.

The two highlights of our dinner were the St. Jacques (scallops) and the special of the day, shirako (cod milt) wrapped in bacon. Both were so good we were tempted to order a whole flight of kushiyaki (grilled skewered foods) — the ¥4,300 omakase menu includes sticks of foie gras and even duck a l'orange — but abandoned that idea as soon as we saw the menu of seasonal gibier (wild fowl and game).

Currently, Chambiron is offering quail, pheasant, duck and boar, all shot in the wild in France. We chose the pheasant, which was grilled just perfectly and served on a lovely creamy mash of celeriac, garnished with roasted figs and moistened with a rich, meaty gravy.

Overall, the flavors are bold and, in classic bistro style, tend toward the salty end of the spectrum. But everything is produced with care married with flair. The floor staff are attentive and the atmosphere lively. We will definitely be going back for second (and third) helpings at La Gargote.

From Dec. 23 to 25, La Gargote will serve a French-style Christmas feast from ¥7,000. Reservations limited; for information in English, visit www.eatpia.com/restaurant/la-gargote-azabu-juban-french

La Gargote
Location: 1-3-13 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo
(03) 6277-6725

Open: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 6-11 p.m. (last order); Sat., Sun. and holidays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.)

Nearest station: Azabu Juban (Namboku and Oedo lines)

How to get there: Leaving Azabu-Juban Station (Exit 7), turn left, then turn left again (opposite the Eneos gas station). La Gargote is on the right after about 15 meters.

What works: Good wine, grilled fare and Gallic hospitality

What doesn't: The pours by the glass are skimpy

Number of seats: First floor: 12 plus 7 at counter; basement: 20 plus 6 at counter

Smoking: Downstairs only

BGM: Club jazz

Price per head: Lunch from ¥1,300; dinner acc a la carte (figure around ¥4,000 plus drinks)

Drinks: Aperitifs from ¥800; beer from ¥700; wine from ¥600/glass (¥400 at lunch), from ¥3,800/bottle; dessert wine from ¥1,000/glass; digestifs from ¥800

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese/French/English menu; trilingual staff

Reservations: Best to call ahead

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