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Friday, June 1, 2012
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Rustic Italian fare, served in seclusion
Quick, before the wonderful spring weather turns to rain and then to sweltering summer. It's the perfect season for long, leisurely alfresco lunches: Time to book that peaceful verdant patio table at Cucina Tredici Aprile.
It's all about the setting. Screened from the sun by a wide parasol and surrounded by shrubbery, you settle in sipping Prosecco and nibbling on focaccia. Ensconced in this oasis of calm, you might almost forget you're just steps away from the Nishi-Azabu Crossing, with its looming expressway flyover and ceaseless roar of traffic.
Although Cucina Tredici Aprile is by no means new, it still remains under most people's radar. In large part this is due to the off-off-main-street location, so secluded on a narrow cul-de-sac you barely see the sign until you're right under it. But it's also because chef Masafumi Hidaka seems to prefer it that way.
He rarely ventures out of his semi-open kitchen, leaving all duties at the front of the house to his wife, Hiroe. When they moved into these premises six years ago, they knew they wanted to offer at least one outside table. Because there was no garden, they set about making one, filling the narrow parking lot with lemon trees, rosemary shrubs and all manner of other herbs, all growing out of terra-cotta pots.
Inside and out, they've created a rustic retreat in the heart of the city. Cucina Tredici Aprile is simple and casual, but it's a proper little restaurant (and certainly not a trattoria). Hidaka spent a year in Sicily, and the Mediterranean influences are strong, from the whitewashed walls and scrubbed wood floors to the well-patinated wooden chairs drawn up to crisp white tablecloths.
The same influences shine through in the cooking. Hidaka has a regard for quality ingredients that will warm the heart of any slow-food enthusiast. He sources his seafood fresh from Kyushu or ports along the Japan Sea coast. Most of his vegetables are grown for him by market gardeners in Kamakura, on the warm, fertile Kanagawa coast south of Tokyo. And the wine list focuses on winemakers that adhere to organic or biodynamic principles.
Because Hidaka prefers to work at an unhurried pace, he only serves lunch on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, when his customers have the time to do justice to his extended multicourse meals (from ¥2,730 at lunch; from ¥6,825 at dinner).
The core of the menu is his homemade pasta. He produces a score of different styles, from simple linguine and wide, flat pappardelle to chunkier casarecce and crinkly mafalde. Samples of these are brought out for you to inspect as you ponder your choices.
His signature dish, though, is trofie — small circles of dough rolled up into fat strings a couple of centimeters long — which he serves all'arrabbiata in a mildly piquant sauce prepared from fruit tomatoes. Remarkably sweet, and only lightly piquant, it contains generous amounts of the delicate meat from kegani horsehair crabs.
Another seasonal special — and another cogent reason for grabbing a table before spring is gone — is his gnocchi alle fave. The broad beans, crushed and mixed with the dough, give the gnocchi an extra smoothness of texture as well as a distinctive dark-green hue. Served with creamy white ricotta cheese and crisp curls of salty pink guanciale (pork jowl bacon), it's not just a great mix of flavors — it's the quintessential Italian color combination.
Also well worth exploring on the current lunch menu is the salad with seared tairagai clam. The salad itself is an eclectic mix of wild greens and herbs, including mange-tout peas, ice plant and a couple of strands of wild asparagus.
Together with this you get several slices of the shellfish, like a coarser, meatier, country-cousin version of hotate scallops, anointed with a lively dressing of horseradish, mustard and shallots. For a starter it's a substantial serving — and very attractively "plated" on the massive black triangular shell of the very same clam.
Hidaka's Tokyo-Mediterranean cuisine tends to the opposite of robust. It has the delicacy and precision that you expect in Japan, veering more toward the sweet than the salty end of the spectrum. Unsurprisingly, his desserts are excellent, especially his biancomangiare (blancmange) with grappa-infused gelato. With a demitasse of espresso and maybe a small glass of limoncello, a fine way to round off the meal.
About the name and its significance: Tredici Aprile means April 13 in Italian, which was the date chef Hidaka first set off from Japan to work in Italy. It's also his wife's birthday. And by a happy coincidence, it also happens to be around the time when the weather gets fine enough to use that pleasant outside table.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.