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Friday, June 3, 2011
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Basque in the flavor of rustic, refined cuisine
One area of Tokyo that remains off many people's radar is the small quadrant known informally as Upper Shibuya. Far from the neon glare of the Hachiko Crossing, it has more in common with Aoyama, apart from the prices. Lower overheads mean affordable restaurants, and few of them are better — or better value — than Abasque.
Just a couple of steps from busy Roppongi-dori, it has the kind of clean, modern exterior that's easy to overlook. You might notice the wine bottles by the entrance and the bunch of large dried peppers hanging on the door. But there's little to tip you off to what a fine little place this is, or how unusual.
Abasque is one of the few restaurants in Tokyo to focus on the food of the Pays Basque in Southwest France. In recent years, the global spotlight has rightfully shone on the brilliant new-wave cuisine of the chefs in Spain's Basque Country. But the tradition of eating well runs every bit as deep on the French side of the Pyrenees too.
Naoki Wada, Abasque's young chef, spent more than three years there, not at the big-name restaurants of the coastal resorts but up in the craggy foothills of the hinterland. In the historic town of St. Jean Pied de Port, he learned the recipes, gained a deep appreciation for the superb local ingredients — especially the mildly piquant peppers known as piment d'Espelette — and melded them with the French culinary skills in which he was originally trained.
His food is hearty but delicate, rustic but presented with finesse. Meat dishes form the focus of his menu, especially slow-simmered stews and robust oven roasts. Try the Basque roast pork and you're bound to agree. The chunks of meat, crispy brown along the edges, still blushing pink inside, are dusted with finely chopped herbs and served with carrots roasted to delectable sweetness.
And then there is his poulet grand-mere ("grandmother's chicken"). Cooked down in rich gravy with rosemary, it comes with moist little new potatoes and a blob of country mustard. Luckily he also makes good home-baked wholewheat bread rolls; you will need extra to mop up all the juices. This is country food at its best: simple but memorable.
Before you get to grips with Wada's main dishes, you will be wowed by his hors d'oeuvres. This is where you begin to realize that Abasque is in a different league than most of the bistros and tapas bars that have sprung up around town in recent years.
There will be five or six separate items on your plate, perhaps croquettes of salt cod with fine-chopped parsley, deep-fried a crisp golden brown; a dab of smooth pork terrine or light chicken liver mousse subtly sweetened with raisins; ratatouille of Mediterranean veggies, given a Basque tweak with powdered pimiento; and maybe a couple of large green olives the size of quails' eggs.
Our starter plate at dinner last month was even more elaborate. It included bite-size new potatoes topped with finely ground beef; very tender confits of chicken gizzards; and miniature "burgers" of pork painstakingly separated from pig trotters, formed into impossibly rich, soft patties just barely crisped on the outside. All this was set around a colorful mound of salad vegetables, with marinated carrot adding extra color to the mix.
One more to look out for is Wada's outstanding terrine of ox-tail (queue de boeuf) with foie gras. The chunky texture of the tail meat contrasts beautifully with the silky-smooth goose liver surrounding it, as does the accompanying green salad, which came garnished with slivers of jambon du Kintoa, an aromatic aged ham to rival the best Ibericos.
Dishes such as these are the basic ingredients of an evening at Abasque. But you're likely to get lots more beside. There will be little tidbits to nibble on at the outset, soups (chilled vichyssoise or gazpacho at this time of year) as mid-meal palate cleansers, and dark chocolate truffles to go with your coffee at the end.
It's always good to know about food this good, whatever part of town. But what makes Abasque worth searching out is that it's such excellent value. The entry-level prix-fixe dinner menu (a mere ¥4,935 for two people, though some dishes cost extra), includes entree, main dish and a choice of either tapas or dessert.
We've found the best strategy if you're still hungry is to just order a couple of extra dishes — slices of that wonderful Kintoa ham; wedges of Ossau-Iraty sheep's milk cheese; or the soft merguez sausages made with tender agneau de lait lamb meat. It's still highly affordable.
Wada offers an even more substantial six-course dinner (¥6,300 per head). There is also a menu of tapas-style snacks, if all you want is lighter fare with a glass or two of wine. At lunchtime, abbreviated versions of the above menus are available (Wednesday-Friday, from ¥1,260; note that Abasque will not be serving weekday lunch from July through the first week of September, due to concerns about electricity usage). But perhaps the best deal of all is the five-course Sunday brunch (¥3,675), which is likely to dull your appetite for the rest of the day.
For such a small place, Abasque has an impressive wine list. Assembled by owner Shigeo Oyama — he's the youthful maitre d'/sommelier — it ranges from a crisp cava to Banyuls, Sauternes and other dessert wines. In between he's put together plenty of choice from Burgundy and Bordeaux, plus a substantial range of regional wines, including a lovely Madiran (Chateau Viella) that suits Wada's cooking to a tee.
Oyama and Wada joined forces to open Abasque in 2007. Four years later, they have really hit their stride, and these days there is a palpable buzz about the place; with only 18 seats to fill, it's invariably booked out ahead of time.
TOKYO FOOD FILE