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SEPTEMBER 4, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 9

Tokyo's Chefs Get a Grip on Europe

Illustration for TIME by Masayuki Chizuwa.

Tokyo has always been a food lover's town, with everything from street stalls selling skewers of grilled chicken to hyper-pricey ryotei serving up buttery slices of raw tuna belly. But the Japanese capital doesn't usually get top billing with New York and Paris as an international culinary center. Until now.

With little fanfare, Tokyo has quietly transformed itself into one of the cuisine capitals of the world, maybe the capital. Where else can you find the world's best Japanese food as well as European nosh on a par with—some say better than—what you can find in France and Italy? Heresy? Believe it or not, it's the French and Italians who are, somewhat sheepishly, fessing up. "I'm Italian, so it is painful for me to say," concedes Elio Orsara, owner of Tokyo's Elio restaurant. "In Tokyo, you can find better Italian food and better service than in most towns in Italy."

French food in Tokyo once meant overpriced restaurants with starchy waiters where the newly rich went to show off. Italian fare was of the American pizza-and-meatballs variety. But in barely a decade, the number and range of French and Italian restaurants have exploded. Today you can choose between Venetian and southern Italian cooking, watch your pizza sizzle in brick ovens and order bread baked on the premises. Japan is a nation that takes food seriously, particularly fish, and it has applied this same zeal to Continental cooking.

Hundreds of Japanese have gone to Europe to learn the secrets of frog legs and foie gras firsthand. They come back trained, experienced and passionate—sometimes more passionate than their peers in Europe, where "people are working for the money," says Philippe Batton, who runs Le Petit Bedon near Tokyo's hip Daikanyama district and heads a local French chefs association.

Tokyo still has its share of eateries offering mediocre fare at breathtaking prices. But the good news is there are now plenty of restaurants offering good value—and even a few bargains. To get a taste of the new Tokyo, try Labyrinthe (81-3) 5420-3584, a short taxi ride from the trendy Hiroo area. Chef Moriaki Sakamoto spent several years in France, then set up shop here three years ago. From the chilled pumpkin soup as rich as ice cream and roast duck seasoned with thin slices of truffle to the dark chocolate mousse cake, every dish is a gem. At $35 a head for lunch it isn't cheap, but Sakamoto somehow manages to offer the same menu from noon until midnight at the same price.


Tokyo's Chefs Get a Grip on Europe
The Japanese capital doesn't usually get top billing with New York and Paris as an international culinary center. Until now

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Chez Pierre in Minami-Aoyama near Nogizaka station offers excellent service, consistantly great food and—by Tokyo standards—reasonable prices: dinner for two with a bottle of wine runs to $150 and up. And don't miss Batton's Le Petit Bedon (5457-0084/86). The atmosphere is French bistro with Mediterranean touches—a semi-open patio done in buff-colored stonework. Batton accents traditional French dishes with some Asian touches (foie gras with fruit condiments spiced with ginger and cinnamon). Leave room for a truly impressive selection of French cakes and pastries. Dinner for two with a bottle of wine runs to about $150-200. Lunch is $35 each.

For cheaper but still great lunchtime fare, try Aux Bacchanales (3582-2225) in the Ark Hills complex, down the hill from the Roppongi entertainment district. The restaurant has a quiet patio out back that's perfect for sipping cool things in Tokyo's sweltering summer. Lunch of fish or meat is $8, not including dessert or coffee. The Casse-Croute (5487-3608) near Meguro station and the L'Espace (5420-0719) near Ebisu, both run by French-trained chef Akito Sasaki, also offer great food at decent prices.

The Italian trade commission estimates there are more than 2,000 Italian restaurants in Tokyo, though the list of truly top-notch places is a little shorter. A good one to start with is Orsara's Elio (3239-6771). Tucked away near Hanzomon station, Elio is an oasis of southern Italian hospitality and cooking in the heart of Tokyo. Elio himself greets you like a long-lost friend and serves up helpings of first-rate food, spiced with colorful stories if you offer him the slightest encouragement. This is a place where you linger over one last grappa without fear of being thrown out—a rare treat in Tokyo. Count on $150 for dinner, more with wine.

La Benzina (3478-7875) near Roppongi offers open-air dining and wonderful hand-made pasta in a comfortable atmosphere. The Piola (3442-5244) near Hiroo lacks ambience but the food is so good it almost doesn't matter. For a simple but superb meal served at wooden benches, try La Volpaia (3260-8767), which offers a lunch menu at $14, including espresso. Bon Apetit—or should that be Buono Appetito? And, oh yes, don't forget to try the sushi.

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