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Friday, Dec. 17, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
High-end Italian for the spontaneous gourmet
Snaring a reservation at a top-end Tokyo restaurant is hard enough at the best of times. Now, with the yearend celebrations in full flow, it's nigh on impossible. But even if you haven't booked that special dinner yet, there could still be a glimmer of hope. You can always try your luck at Casa Vinitalia in Azabu-Juban.
It doesn't boast Michelin stars or instant name-brand recognition. But that is clearly of no concern to local gourmets, since Casa Vinitalia currently enjoys stellar ratings on the most influential Japanese-language customer-generated restaurant Web rankings.
In large part, that's because it looks classy but feels relaxed. The food is fine but affordable — for special occasions, at least. The service is friendly yet professional. And it boasts a superb cellar of wines (Italian, obviously) drawn from the considerable stocks of its very own wine store on the ground floor.
Another major factor is that Casa Vinitalia is the "second restaurant" of Aroma Fresca, whose chef, Shinji Harada, produces some of the finest, most rarefied Italian cuisine in the city. Although Harada is rarely present in person, his influence is clear, and there is considerable overlap on the menus of the two restaurants, especially with their strong emphasis on seafood and a superb selection of vegetables.
Up to the summer, the connection was also physical: They shared the same premises. But since Aroma Fresca moved to its ritzy new address in Ginza, Casa Vinitalia has expanded and taken over the whole of the second floor. No longer the sideshow, it has become the star attraction — and it lives up to the rave reviews.
One of the major bonuses of the new arrangement is that you can sit (if you're lucky or have booked ahead) on the patio. Before, the folding glass doors were always closed, but now the idea is to keep them open year-round. There are space heaters to keep you warm in winter, as you gaze out on the trees, shrubs and pot plants — and currently a beautifully decorated Christmas fir — that constitute this unexpected hidden garden.
Another difference: At Aroma Fresca you must order one of Harada's elaborate, formal Chef's Special menus. Casa Vinitalia is far more easygoing. All the dishes are available a la carte, meaning you can eat whatever you feel like; you can share dishes; you can even specify how much (or little) pasta you want to eat. Think of it as a very glorified wine bar — albeit one with tablecloths and no counter.
That said, the ¥7,500 prix fixe dinner seemed to us excellent value. All but two of the seven courses involved plenty of choices from the menu (though some bore hefty price supplements). As we fine-tuned our choices, we sipped on premium Prosecco, a golden Cavalleri Blanc de Blancs, and nibbled on olives (using our fingers rather than the useless, blunt prongs provided).
The first course, bagna cauda, is mandatory — not that we were complaining. The vegetables were crisp and colorful, and the anchovy dip (Gorgonzola is also available) was just the right degree of tangy/salty/oily to keep us nibbling happily until the first of our antipasti arrived.
Called simply a "gratin," it turned out to be a delicious, Parmesan-rich bechamel sauce with large fleshy cuts of fresh porcini mushrooms. These were topped with a generous scoop of chicken liver pa^te, which melted nicely into the thick, hot sauce surrounding it. We followed this with a fritto of batter-fried honeycomb tripe with seasonal vegetables, which combined robust and delicate flavors.
By this time we had abandoned the idea of ordering a full bottle of wine, even though the list is long, varied and priced most reasonably. Preferring to pair each course with its own wine, we picked from the by-the-glass selection (three bubblies; six whites; seven reds). These vary from week to week, but currently one of the highlights is the excellent Hirschprunn Contest, an Alto-Adige chardonnay/Pinot Grigio blend.
We were reluctant to miss out on the homemade pasta — always a benchmark in our eyes — but the promise of riso pilaf was too tempting to ignore. Cooked in a cast-iron mini-casserole, it featured three types of crab. The rice was mixed with kani-miso (the rich paste from Shanghai swimmer crab) and topped with the grilled legs and pincers of king and queen crab. Powerful and rich, the resulting flavor was as much Japanese as Italian. We loved it.
Little soul-searching was needed to decide our main course. The December special is guancia di bue al vino rosso, beef cheek soft-simmered in a red-wine sauce with aromatics — star anise was detectable — until delectably soft. This is served with three kinds of Japanese mushroom and topped with generous shavings of white truffle. Was it as good as it sounds? Better!
We gratefully accepted the suggested wine pairing for this course. Bricco Manzoni is a deep, full-bodied Nebbiolo/Barbera blend from Piemonte. To make it even more theatrical, this is poured — with great care and concentration — from a heavy Jeroboam (a three-liter bottle). It was so good we ordered refills.
At this point in the meal, most restaurants would shunt you on to the dessert course. But here — and this is one of Harada's trademarks — you are offered a second round of pasta, this time spaghetti (though not hand-cut), and you even get to specify how much you want: 30, 60 or 100 grams. It's a nice touch, equivalent to the rice course that comes at the end of a Japanese meal.
Both our desserts were outstanding: A whole Aomori apple baked in a miniature cast-iron cocotte and topped with honey ice cream; and a wonderful semifreddo, a gelato studded with dried fruit with a hot coffee-chocolate sauce poured over it. We did not go home hungry.
So how can it be possible that there are still tables available here, even for Christmas Eve? That's because of its remarkable policy of only taking reservations in advance for half of the tables; the rest can only be booked on the day (from 2 p.m.). And this is the final reason why we give Casa Vinitalia such a big thumbs up.