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Friday, March 2, 2012

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Wooden it be nice: Iri's comfortable design is one of its many selling points, along with its Italian-inspired dishes — such as spaghetti with snapper and spring greens (below) and its range of antipasti (BOTTOM). ROBBIE SWINNERTON


Hidden pan-European eatery is one of a kind

Neighborhood restaurants are different from those where the lights are brighter and overheads (and expectations) higher. Almost by definition they're more casual and down-home, rougher around the edges, simpler and less stylish. Iri doesn't fit that pattern at all.

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Hidden from sight down a narrow residential side street where few but the locals are likely to pass by, it's certainly not a destination you'd cross town to eat at. But Iri is one of the nicest-looking restaurants you're likely to find anywhere in the city.

The first thing you notice are the huge windows, a glass-fronted facade set back at an angle from the street, drawing your gaze inside to the chefs in their gleaming open kitchen and to the spacious dining room beyond. Inside and out, Iri looks so sharp and contemporary you barely register that it's a conversion, a small one-story wooden house built decades ago when this area, Uehara, really was on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Once you are seated and your eye starts to wander, you take in the wooden pillars and beams, the timber roof boards, even glimpses of the exposed wattle-and-daub (mud on bamboo frame) walls. Out back there's a deck overlooking a small garden with gravel, moss and tasteful shrubs. It all feels comfortable, organic, contemporary. Just like the food, really.

The starting point for the menu is Italian, anchored by a strong selection of gnocchi, risotto and handmade pasta. But there are plenty of other influences at play here, both Western and Japanese. Throughout, the cooking is light and attractive, with an emphasis on quality organic ingredients and, naturally, the changing seasons.

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Keeping it simple: Iri's head chef Takayasa Akimoto (left) and manager Nao Harada.

Our recent five-course dinner course (¥4,800; it changes each month) opened with a small tapas-style otoshi starter of slow-cooked mini onions, with halves of cherry tomato dusted with cheese and lightly grilled. A very nice match with a glass of Piedra Luenga Bio, a delicate, dry fino sherry produced from "ecological" viniculture.

The colorful antipasti plate included freshly sliced Parma prosciutto, rings of black, ink-daubed squid and morsels of white-fish escabeche, together with marinated vegetables, including a couple of cuts of gobō burdock, crunchy but tender. But the first highlight of the meal was the pasta, a hearty, home-made strozzapreti: twisted strips of dough — the delightful Italian name means "priest choker" — topped with a rich, meaty ragu of wild-boar meat generously sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

The seafood course was equally well prepared. A small rockfish was poached and served whole as an acqua pazza with clams, sweet small mussels and cherry tomatoes. Sensibly, Iri serves plenty of good bread so you can mop up all the thick sauce with its flecks of herbal goodness.

The meat course — beef tagliata — showed an equal deftness of touch. The cut of tenderloin was seared, then sliced, and arranged on a wooden platter with a mound of arugula greens, shavings of Parmesan and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. The sweetness of the balsamico dressing could have used a tad more vinegar tartness, but there was no faulting the presentation, equal parts rustic and artistic, or the tender meat itself, red-rare and juicy.

Interestingly, the wine list is strongest on French wines, with as many New World choices as there are Italian. But this kind of food isn't fussy, it goes just as well with a Cotes du Rhone, a Mendocino Pinot Noir or even Aussie Cab-Shiraz.

This eclectic approach mirrors the a la carte food menu. From the massive appetizer plates, all cutely named — For Gillman (seafood), Cougar (meatier), Veggie or Greedy (lots of everything) — to bouillabaisse or stews cooked up in heavy cast-iron Staub pans, it's all good, honest, uncomplicated modern cooking.

Rather than ordering individually, everything is intended to be shared between two (or however many are in your group), though desserts are small enough that you will want one each. Unless you really order a lot of wine — there are no bottles over ¥10,000 — the final tab should be quite reasonable. Lunch is less of a bargain, though, with just two courses plus coffee for ¥1,800.

Food, look, service: Everything hangs together so smoothly at Iri, it comes as no surprise to find out it is not the labor of a single individual or a husband and wife combo, but a collective effort. Chef Takayasa Akimoto and his team handle the kitchen duties, but the overall concept and menu planning are the work of Yuri Nomura, who also directed the 2009 cult foodie documentary "Eatrip" (tagline: "Jinsei towa taberu tabi," or "Life is a journey of eating").

And it makes even more sense when you know that Iri was produced by the same company as the buzzy, busy Shibuya diner, On the Corner. It has that same one-of-a-kind designer feel, but with an underlying professional expertise. No ordinary neighborhood restaurant indeed.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.


Location: 1-25-11 Uehara, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
(03) 5790-2233

Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order) (Sat., Sun. and holidays till 3 p.m); 6-11 p.m. (last order). Closed Mon.

Nearest station: Yoyogi-Uehara (Chiyoda and Odakyu lines).

How to get there: Leaving Yoyogi-Uehara Station (South Exit 1), turn right. Before you reach Fireking Cafe, take a sharp left and walk uphill. Iri is on the left just after the second side street, and shortly before you reach Inokashira-dori.

What works: Neighborhood ambiance with style and taste.

What doesn't: Too bad there's no outside seating on the deck at the back.

Number of seats: 30 (including 12 at the counter).

Smoking: Not permitted inside.

BGM: Unobtrusive and jazzy.

Price per head: Lunch from ¥1,800; dinner set menu ¥4,800, also a la carte; cover charge (dinner only) ¥700.

Drinks: Beer from ¥700; sherry ¥700; cider ¥800; sake ¥800; wine from ¥700/glass, ¥3,500/bottle; spirits from ¥800; digestifs from ¥800.

Credit cards: Major cards accepted.

Language: Japanese/English menu; little English spoken.

Reservations: Advisable (by phone 2-5 p.m. or after 11 p.m.).


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