Brasserie Gus: Kagurazaka favorite

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Brasserie gus confit 4

 

Whenever I have an idle moment I fantasize about confit de canard—the crisp savory skin, the dark flesh so tender it pulls from the bone with the slightest tug of the fork, and bones looking so tasty you want to crack them open with your molars and suck out the marrow. Whenever I need to satisfy this duck-flesh fantasy, I come to Brasserie Gus.

Once roughly the size of a subway car, Brasserie Gus (pronounced “goo”) expanded some years ago by taking over the neighboring subway car-sized space to accommodate more customers who know a great deal when they find it.  When Brasserie Gus first opened, the very reasonable prix-fixe dinner course was ¥2800. Now, more than ten years later, it costs only 50 yen more.Brasserie gus saumon

Chef Arai looks like he ought to be unloading a beer truck rather than turning out classic dishes of French country cooking. He’s a stalwart, friendly fellow with the sensibilities of a craftsman, producing in his still tiny kitchen meals he could easily charge twice as much for. For  ¥2,850 you choose from among 9 starter “entrees,“ 11 main dish “plats,“ and 9 desserts.

And keep in mind, Arai doesn’t skimp on portions.

B Gus interior 1This is food you want to tuck into with your sleeves rolled up—robust, clear flavors balanced with care. As starters, for example, a generous cut of pork Terrine Maison with mustard and lightly dressed seasonal greens, or a cool, silky ratatouille, or slices of marinated salmon dusted with fresh dill.

My main dish, the duck confit, paired with a dash of tangy mustard sauce, rested on a bed of mashed potato and mild cabbage  to offset the canard’s salty richness. Another “plat,” slices of succulent roast lamb, was crusted with herbs and drizzled with a parsley sauce. Each main dish is garnished with a small ensemble of mashed or scalloped potato, a floret of broccoli, a baby carrot, shimeji mushrooms, and bit of turnip or pumpkin. There is plenty of sliced baguette to mop up the sauces.

B Gus ExteriorThe long narrow dining room is a cheerful place with red-checked tablecloths, posters of Paris on white walls, knick knacks on red shelves, and French jazz on the stereo. It has the casual charm of a working-class establishment. All that’s missing is the smell of Gauloise cigarette smoke.

The wine list is modest, but well chosen. Good bottles, both white and red, start at ¥2800. A bottle of the excellent Haut Medoc Chateau Beaumont goes for ¥4900.

The lunch special is a steal at 1,050 yen.

Reservations recommended.

Brasserie Gus: 82 Yarai-cho, Shinjuku-ku

Open Monday–Saturday lunch and dinner. Closed Sundays.

Tel. 03.3268.7157

Los Barbados: African/Turkish/Moroccan/French joint in Shibuya

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Joints like Los Barbados make living in Tokyo a privilege. Down an unattractive Shibuya side street and wedged into a nondescript building with six other tiny establishements, this African/Turkish/Moroccan/French eatery is run by one free-spirited Japanese dude in a T-shirt and jeans who back when reggae hit the Japanese shore decided to go to Jamaica, but instead ended up in the Congo.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHe’s been back to the Congo multiple times for additional cooking lessons.

But he’s also hung out in Paris with the African crowd picking up a French approach to cooking. And when the mood strikes, he says he might whip up a prune and olive chicken tagine.

His haven is hung with French vinyl LP covers such as “Franco L’Afrique Danse No. 6” or “Dynamite Verckys et l’Orchestre Veve” or “Docteur Nico” or “Johnny Bokelo et Son Orchestre L’Afrique Danse No. 1.”

The joint is basically just a cramped kitchen surrounded by a narrow counter, seating seven or eight, with the space above filled with bottles of rhum, African masks and colorful paintings of a zebra, giraffe, and hippo. Easing from the corner speakers is a constant Congolese groove of intricate guitar and infectious  drum work.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe 15–20 item menu varies from the Assorted Vegetable Starter (500 yen) featuring tabouleh, hummus with rose pepper, pickled red cabbage, and French carrot salad; to African Grilled Chicken with fufu cassava (1000 yen) or Turkish “springrolls” deep-fried tidbits filled with lamb and dabbed with hot sauce (650 yen).

The chef also serves up a tasty Senegalese Whitefish Stew with peanuts, tomatoes and okra (950 yen) or a Chickpea and Vegetable Couscous dish (950 yen).

Hot sauce is served with each dish, but for the brave, or the addled, a few bottles of habanero-based sauces are available for incendiary heat.

The chef has also selected several well-priced French rosé, white, and red wines by the glass.

And if you want to explore French Caribbean rhum, you’re in luck.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHe’s got nearly 20 types of rhum from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and a superb specimen from the Isle de Marie-Galante—the 50% strong La Guildive honoring Jean-Baptiste Labat, the Dominican monk and inventor of the distillation of sugar cane in the 17th century (900 yen the glass).

You can’t go wrong at Los Barbados. You’ll be well fed, and your wallet won’t be much lighter than when you went in. Reservations are usually not necessary, but call ahead if you like.

Los Barbados: 41-46 Udagawacho, Papier Biru 104, Shibuya-ku. Open Monday to Saturday 12 noon to midnight. Tel: 03.3496.7157. If you get lost trying to find the place, call. The chef will explain how to get there.

For a map, check out this link:

http://www7b.biglobe.ne.jp/~los-barbados/

 

 

Anniversaire Café: Omotesando‘s last outdoor café

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

 

The street running from the top of the Omotesando slope down to Harajuku station has often been called the Champs-Elysées of Tokyo. It once had some of the energy and diversity of that famed Parisien boulevard, but that was then.

Both sides of the street were alive with small shops. The venerable 80-year old Dojunkai Apartment complex— a warren of tiny apartments and tinier boutiques—gave the street a synergistic mix of shabby and cool. Paris sent an ambassador, a small branch outpost of Café de Flore where you could sip coffee outside and watch the passing Tokyo street life. Café Des Pres also had a lively street presence as did the magnificent Aux Bacchanales in Harajuku.

Those cafés are long gone. The Dojunkai Apartments have been been replaced by a sterile shopping mall, and Omotesando is chock-a-block with sleek high-end designer architectural confections of glass and textured steel that conspire to create perhaps the world‘s most expensive wind tunnel.

Yet, one bright spot remains. Anniversaire Café. Near the top of Omotesando street, this lively café serves superb onion gratin soup in winter and fruit sorbets in summer. Sandwiches are good. Salads are fresh. Customers even brave winter rain to sit outside under the awning, warmed  by blankets and the blast of space heaters.

The café is part of a wedding factory, including a faux chapel situated beyond an arched passageway. On certain days, once every hour, newlywed couples pop out of the chapel and promenade through the archway heralded by the café trumpeter and his female accompaniest on the electric organ. Customers at the outside tables are given handbells to ring congratulations to the passing couple.

A sincere kind of phoniness, of course, but the smiles on the newlyweds are real.

Anniversaire Café is real too. You can lounge at an outside table, with a newspaper, a book, or an iPad, and nurse a café creme or a glass of Chardonnay for as long as you as you care to.

You can find Anniversaire Café about a hundred meters down the slope from Omotesando crossing on the police koban side of the street. The café is open everyday.

 

Bistro Petit Salé: backstreet Aoyama outpost of cuisine a la campagne

Friday, November 12th, 2010

If you’ve ever been to France you’ll recognize the red façade and the white lace curtains in the windows of Petit Salé. Unpretentious bistros like this with a tiny counter bar, a curlicue coat rack, hanging globe lights, and mirrors plus oil paintings on the walls, can be found in any village, town, or city in France.

Such standard décor belies, though, what’s on the plate. Chef Inaba doesn’t try to knock your socks off with unusual combinations or exotic ingredients. He’s a sure-handed craftsman who turns out exemplary cuisine à la campagne in generous portions.

His very reasonably-priced menu offers a full set of well-known appetizers (cold and hot) and familiar main dishes. A small selection of seasonal dishes are also chalked up daily on a menu board.

On a recent visit, almost every table seemed to order the “spicy grass” marinade of salmon (1200 yen). Not a euphemism for the smokable herb, this blend of tarragon, parsley, and olive oil anoints and blesses thin slices of pale pink house-cured fish. Another noteworthy starter is the “fourme d’aubert and walnut salad” (1200 yen). If you’ve not tried fourme d’aubert, it is a softer, subtler blue cheese than its brasher cousin Roquefort. Wedges of the cheese nestle under vinaigrette-dressed leafy greens studded with walnut chunks and grains of rose pepper.

Inaba’s take on escargot is interesting and delicious. He foregoes garlic, but adds bits of eringi and abalone mushrooms to the snails, richly flavored with fresh parsley and olive oil (1200 yen).

His main dishes are stalwart. The fish-of-the-day was houbou, the curiously-named blue fin sea robin (1800 yen). Inaba deftly grilled the firm, white filet—crisp skin yet still tender flesh—then framed it in a olive oil-based tomato sauce with slices of new potatoes, fava beans, semi-dried tomatoes, broccoli and capers.

The “chicken confit with hot vegetables” was fabulous (1600 yen). The jidori leg and thigh, roasted until falling-from-the-bone tender, was served with a nicely spiced mustard sauce, watercress, new potatoes, eggplant, bacon lardons, and abalone mushrooms. Precisely prepared and carefully presented, this is picture-postcard-perfect bistro fare.

The only disappointment is the house bread which is bought frozen then baked. Soft centered with no muscle to its crumb, it lacks character, but is okay for mopping up sauce—which you’ll want to do.

When the place is crowded (as it almost always is), the long narrow room can put you elbow to elbow with your neighboring diners. Yet no one minds, for Bistro Petit Salé is the kind of establishment the Paris Michelin Guide would honor with a “Bib Gourmand” mark: a spot for good food at moderate prices.

For the complete Petit Salé review, and more of my reviews, follow this link to Metropolis Magazine: www.metropolis.co.jp/dining/restaurant-reviews/petit-sale/

Bistro Petit Salé: 2-8-3 Shibuya, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3797-3821. Lunch 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner 5:30pm to 10:30pm. Closed Sunday.

Mille feuille and jus de tomate at Le Café de Joël Robuchon

Monday, March 9th, 2009

mille-feuille

Looking at my previous posting you’d think that I only hang out in old joints with aged beans and even more aged bean roasters, but sometimes I need some chic. When that urge comes upon me, I usually head to Takashimaya Department store and Le Café de Joël Robuchon.

Takashimaya — that grand dame of Nihonbashi with her statuary in the entranceways, her high ornate ceilings, and hand-operated elevators with gleaming brass doors and white-gloved attendants — is the perfect venue for Robuchon’s very chic Le Café. Nestled among the boutiques of Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Gucci, it’s a stylish jewel box of a shop sharing much of the ambiance of the chef’s superb restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi Hills.

salon-de-the-interiorThe petit café is simply laid out — black granite floor, dark mahogany walls, and a sinuous red leather banquette backed by glittering glass curtains of diamond-cut crystal beads. The ample tables snuggle neatly into the curves of the banquette with plenty of comfortable space for sitting. Off to one side is an alcove with a sushi-bar like counter surrounding an open kitchen where you can watch miniature dishes of crème brulee as they are sugared and torched for a caramelized glaze, or watch a sweet souffle prepared from scratch.

The café will celebrate its fifth birthday soon and the queues that once snaked past Fendi are gone. You can usually walk in anytime and get a seat. Everyone is made welcome here, and the service, by eager young staff in well-cut maroon and black outfits, is very good. The lunch, including main dish, small salad, coffee and dessert is a bargain at ¥2835.

But I usually come for the cake set and a seat at the sleek counter. It’s a quiet spot to write or read. For ¥1565, you get a pot of excellent coffee and your sweet of choice — I always choose the shop’s most famous creation, the mille feuille with raspberries and vanilla marscapone cream layered between the crisp bird’s nest-like Greek kataifi pastry.

jus-de-tomate1The other day, though, I also tried the jus de tomate. Fresh tomatoes are blended and the juice then left to meditate for three days. Gravity slowly pulls the red solids down and the soul and mind of the juice is clarified and revealed. Tasting the pale green opalescent juice, with the crescent of salt arcing along the rim of the glass, is a revelation.

If you are in the neighborhood, this little oasis on the 2nd floor is well worth seeking out.

Takashimaya Department Store 2F, Nihonbashi 2-4-1, Chuo-ku, 03.5255.6933. Open everyday 10am-8pm (last order 7:30pm).


Mardi Gras in the Ginza

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

 

wild-boar-chestnuts-2

I reviewed Mardi Gras some months ago, but then they declined to give Metropolis, the magazine I write for, photos for the review. The restaurant, I guess, believes it’s appreciated enough already. But this is a place that you ought to know. So I decided to put this review up here with my own photo. Some of the dishes mentioned below are sure to have changed with the season. Get a reservation for later in the evening, so that when you finish you’ll be able to marvel at the night-life water trade business that spills out onto limousine-lined Namiki Dori.

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Walk down Ginza’s Namiki dori past the luxe boutiques showcasing exclusive French and Italian couture and coruscating jewelry from guys named Fred and Harry, and you’ll come to another sort of exclusive luxury — hostess bars and clubs with a nonstop sidewalk dance of young women in kimono or low-cut gowns greeting or bidding affectionate farewells to businessmen with expensively cut suits and expense accounts. In the midst of this water trade extravaganza, there’s another party going on — downstairs in Mardi Gras. Not the raucous Fat Tuesday-type of party, but a celebration of good tastes.

 Chef Toru Wachi is a man with far-ranging ideas. He cooked in France and Italy, then travelled extensively around the Mediterranean taking culinary notes. At Mardi Gras, his intimate little bistro, Wachi creates his own cuisine, rooted solidly in the French traditions of preparation and presentation, but with riffs from Spain, Italy, Provence, Morocco and Cuba.

 Wachi blends influences as easily as Crescent City musicians blend rhythms. To bluesy background licks by Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, or other N’awlins musicians, Chef Wachi lays down some of the tastiest grooves in town.

 Leading the antipasto roster, his tapas-like “pinchos“ are perfect with a glass of wine. This platter is a mix of a dozen hot and cold, bite-sized tidbits such as deep-fried brussel sprouts, marinated mushrooms, roasted cherry tomatoes with olive oil, pork bits with aspic and fresh herbs, or grilled sweet green peppers.

 Another hit on the antipasto chart is the burrata mozzarella with nouveau olive oil. This luscious, creamy cheese from Puglia is drizzled with new olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. It couldn’t be simpler — or better.

 Wachi likes bold, strong flavors, with a backbeat of subtle complexities like the Wild Boar and Chestnuts pictured above. He offers updated French bistro standards like boudin noir, andouilettes, blanquette de veau, and lapin ala provencale, plus Italian specialties like roasted pork loin with Sicilian salt. One of his classic numbers is the Moroccan-influenced “tagine d’agneau” — a slow-cooked, savory and sweet combination of lamb, vegetables, spices, and dried fruits.

 Wachi is continually inventive, creating new dishes that surprise. His Tuscany Hamburg Steak is seared ball of tender, chopped meat with hints of garlic and rosemary. It stands, centered on a snowy white plate, like a mountain coated in a bright red sauce of tomato and red pepper with a green summit of scissor-cut slivers of flat-leaf Italian parsley.

 Wachi offers a handful of desserts, such as fresh kiwi and mango sherbet, creme caramel, and the tart of the day. And something called Viva! Chocolata! — fresh white peach with chocolate sauce.

 The wine list is excellent with some 20 whites and the same number of reds to choose from. A few bottles are in the 5000-yen range but most are more than 6000 yen. A selection of wines are available by the glass.

 If you’re looking for adventure, order the tagine and a bottle of Morocco Casablanca Lager, “The Original Beer from Casablanca,”with the palm trees on the label.

 Here’s looking at you, kid. Play it again, Toru.

 8-6-19 Ginza B1, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03.5568.0222. Open Monday to Saturday. Dinner 6pm to midnight. (L.O. midnight). Closed Sundays. The narrow stairway leading down to Mardi Gras is next to the Otakou oden shop. Look for the small MG sign.


Dominique Bouchet and saké at Isetan

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

bouchet-sake

Chef Dominique Bouchet knows saké.  He knows how to cook with it, how to pair it with food, and how to serve it. He also knows that saké is misunderstood. The French don’t like it much because they think it’s distilled and as strong as Chinese baijiu. And the Japanese are surprised by how well their ancient beverage complements foie gras, salmon, scallops, beef, cheese, or anything else you’d like to pair it with. 

Bouchet is internationally renowned as the chef of Le Jamin, Hotel de Crillon, La Tour d’Argent, and Moulin de Marcouze. But he has left that star-encrusted cuisine behind (though his Paris restaurant is still graced with one Michelin star) to focus on simplicity and elegance. 

He has a decades-long association with Japan and Japanese cuisine and it has affected him deeply. Two years ago he opened the Wa-Bi Salon in Paris as a showcase  for the beauty and passion of French and Japanese products and cooking.

Bouchet believes that saké should be accorded more respect. Last year he collaborated with the venerable saké maker Fukumitsuya to market three sakés especially suited to French cuisine. These “vin de riz” have been packaged in smart Riesling-like bottles and should only be served in stemmed wine glasses.

Through January 20th, you can sample all three “wines” paired with an amuse bouche specially prepared by Bouchet. The light, fruity “Sachi” is paired with salmon, goat cheese, and chives (¥1470). The smooth, crisp, well-balanced “Yuri,” my favorite, is paired with a small selection of cheeses—Crottin de chevre, Cantal doux, Roquefort, and Morbier—and a luscious pear cumin jam (¥1890). The full, rich “Fuku” is wonderfully matched with foie gras de canard and a balsamic gelee (¥1680).

These tastings, in the saké corner of Isetan’s basement food court, run from 2pm to 8pm. Last order is 7pm. Bouchet will be on hand to answer any questions.

French barbecue at Vin Picoeur

Friday, January 16th, 2009

      pig-with-cigar

 “French Barbecue” Vin Picoeur has taken two traditional styles of cooking, a rustic grilling technique from the French vineyards and a time-honored one-pot dish from every French grandmother’s kitchen, and brought them together in a charming little place just a few minutes from the Ginza’s most famous intersection.

 The “French Barbecue” touted on the menu comes from the dried grapevine stems added to the charcoals of the grill to lend their unique, appealing smokiness to whatever’s grilled. And grandmother’s one-pot dish, pot au feu, is meat boiled in water —simple, but surprisingly delicious.

 Vin Picoeur packs a lot of atmosphere into its narrow second floor space. The first thing you notice is the surreal fact of a gleaming white half-a-pig enshrined in glass case behind the counter. The second thing you notice is the pig’s head—with jaunty cigar stuck in its jaws—gazing up at its body suspended from meathooks.

 A 14-seat counter takes up most of the space. And one small table wedged into a corner provides the last 4 seats. The restaurant is always crowded and getting a reservation for one of these 18 seats requires a call at least a week in advance.

 The appeal, of course, is the grilled pork—the freshest in the city—the good wine, and the feeling that you are no longer in the world’s most expensive neighborhood, but unwinding somewhere in the southwest of France. Vin Picoeur encourages this mood by not taking itself too seriously. The menu urges you to imagine yourself eating in the French countryside—even if you don’t feel like imaging it. Porcine memorabilia is everywhere: pig paintings on the wall, pig postcards, piggy banks and pig toys line the shelves. And the service is relaxed and friendly.

 The restaurant, though, is totally serious in its approach to food and value. There are two courses on the extensive menu—2800 yen for six grilled items including pork, chicken, vegetables, and a small dish of pot au feu; and a 4000-yen menu with ten items that will have you loosening your belt. You can also pick and choose from the a la carte menu which includes daily specials such as fava beans grilled in the pod; white asparagus with truffle sauce; foie gras sausages, and duck confit with orange sauce.

 Pork, of course, is the star. And the pig with the gleaming white fat, chilling in the refrigerated case, is provided by a certain Mr. Yoshida from Saitama, who, according to the menu, raises his pigs with no stress. Every Tuesday, a new half hog is hauled up the narrow stairway, and the current resident is unhooked and sectioned up for the week’s grilling.

 The “bara” pork belly-on-a-skewer is described having a “Knock You Dead” taste, and it nearly lives up to its billing. It is very, very good. But pork is not the only thing expertly grilled. Tender spears of green asparagus, wrapped with ham, are lightly cooked until the ham is crispy. Sea bass on a skewer is perfectly done then moistened with a few drops of sudachi citrus. And juicy, full-flavored Tokyo “shamo“ (bantam chicken) from Hachioji puts that chicken from Kentucky to shame. They will even grill an egg, in the shell, until it is soft-cooked.

 The literal translation of “pot au feu“ as “pot on a fire“ does not do the boiled meat justice. On this evening, it was veal tongue—exquisitely tender and very deeply flavored, paired with a lovely chunk of sweet carrot and a ladleful of heavenly broth.

 The wines are well chosen—mostly small, vin de pays wines from the southwest of France such as Cotes de Rhone, Madiran, or Cahors. Bottles start from less than 4000 yen and come from the cellars of the sister restaurant, Aux Amis du Vin, around the corner. But if you want a Romanee Conti Grand Cru, it’s yours for 285,000 yen. This is the Ginza, after all.

 4-3-4 Ginza,Chuo-ku. 03.3567.4122. Open 6pm to midnight. Closed Sundays.


Where is the Bib Gourmand?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Last month, the second Michelin Guide to Tokyo was published with stacks of their books, as thick and blood red as Kobe beefsteaks, piled high in every bookstore. 

But where is the Bib Gourmand? The chubby little icon smiling next to a listing serving good food at reasonable prices? 

Why are only starred restaurants listed?  Why the full-page color photos both interior and exterior?  Why the long, dull, lifeless prose? Why the typos?

Consider this description of Yebisu, a one-starred teppanyaki restaurant in Ebisu: “At each counter, chefs skilfully [sic] grill Japanese and Western ingredients right in front of diners.” Wow, right in front of diners. Isn’t that what teppanyaki means?

Or more: “The head chef pays particular attention to colour, composing dishes in tempting colours.” Maybe the writer ought to pay particular attention to redundancy. 

Or more: “After dinner, guests can move from the teppanyaki counter to sofas for dessert.” A sofa for dessert? Make mine lightly upholstered, please.

With an estimated 200,000 eateries in this fine city, why focus on a place like Arakawa, a steak joint, where lunch is listed at ¥52,500. That doesn’t include the service charge, by the way.

Why only three Italian restaurants? Why no Korean restaurants?  Why no Indian restaurants?  Or any other from the vast panoply of world cuisines that Tokyo offers?  Why no ramen shops? 

When Michelin really starts to get serious about eating in Tokyo; when it replaces dull ad-copy-like prose with terse descriptions of food, specialties, and ambiance; when it gets rid of colorful photos of food and interiors; when it includes restaurants that offer good food at reasonable prices; when it lists not only 218 “starred” restaurants but perhaps 518 restaurants of all types and price ranges; then their little red book will become a real guide to eating in Tokyo—as it is in Paris and many other cities—and not merely a collection of glossy promotional brochures for each starred restaurant.