Dining at Trader Vic’s, to me, a native of San Francisco, is like going home. For it was in San Francisco I first met the restaurant which has become a much admired friend. When I gave a reunion dinner for some high school classmates a few years ago, I chose Trader Vic’s, as I knew everyone would go home happy and well-fed.
It had been a long while since I visited Trader Vic’s on the fourth floor of the Hotel New Otani Tower. Why, you may ask, had I let a long time elapse between visits, if we were such good friends? The answer is simple: as a writer of a weekly wine and food column, I am restricted in my dining activities. When I have freedom of choice, I try to find a restaurant to write about.
I noticed there was no change in ambience—not that I had expected any—when my three guests and I sat down to dinner: there was the idealized Polynesian in the decor and the menu cover and the suggestion of the South Seas in the food. As for the last, I found the high standard of quality which the late eponymous Vic Bergeron insisted upon was still in force. It was there from the first bite I took of the barbecued spareribs (¥2,450) to the last spoonful of Trader Vic’s-made ice cream. I had ordered the spareribs along with Spiced Chicken Wings (¥1,500) and Cheese Bingos (¥1,500) with the kirs we were drinking out of the 20 tidbits or pupus available.
My choice of soup was easy. As soon as I see Bongo Bongo Soup (¥1,350) my eyes go blind. The eagerness with which I ordered it influenced my guests, who followed my lead. When my eyes could see again, I noticed I had overlooked other interesting items in that section.
I suppose some day I should try Trader Vic’s Own Soup (¥1,050), for logic tells me that, if the great gourmet thought it good enough to give it his name, it must be good. I also saw a curiosity-tickling one called Boula Boula Soup, which must have been invented by a Yalie working his way through college in Trader Vic’s kitchen—a Yalie who couldn’t spell.
Bongo Bongo Soup has one of those unforgettable flavors, familiar yet subtly different. I was reminded of oyster stew and cream of spinach soup. Later I was told I should have been, as it is a blend of the two. It was more than a mixture of two very good soups, though; for it was better than each individually, proving that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Any gourmet reading this article should taste it before he makes up his list of the world’s ten best soups.
I can recommend without reservation the Indonesian Roast Lamb (¥6,950) as an entree, despite the competition of other exotic dishes like Calcutta Lamb Curry (¥4,250), Ginger Chicken (¥4,250) and Peach Blossom Duck (¥4,150). The lamb was tender and baked to a deep pink. The complex of spices added zing to the meat. I could not identify them, probably because my tastebuds had already been mesmerized by the previous dishes.
Of course, if your tongue is a gastronomic xenophobe, you can have your choice of steaks, barbecued chicken and cornish game hen. For Trader Vic’s offers an extensive menu from which to choose, with sections entitled Meats And Fish From My Chinese Oven, which includes the lamb roast I had; Trader Vic’s Specialties, including New York Steak Malagasy; Curry Dishes; From The Garden, which encompasses all sorts of interesting vegetable dishes; Pake Or Chinese Dishes; and, to place the cart behind the horse, At The Beginning (the hors d’oeuvres); which includes Hot and Cold subsections.
The section which really put my curiosity into high gear was Trader Vic’s Fun And Fast Food, under which were the cryptic words, “Change Periodically.”
I had just finished ordering when I saw a broadly-grinning man approaching. I remember having met him, but where I could not recall. Uh-oh, I said to myself, here’s another one of those embarrassing moments. Someone greets you as an old friend, full of “remember whens,” and you can’t even remember his name.
He solved my difficulty by introducing himself as the man who had taken care of the dinner I had hosted in San Francisco, held in the same room where Queen Elizabeth II had held her dinner party only a few days before, during her visit to San Francisco. He had been in charge of hers, then, somehow, those two events united by his presence, establishes some sort of relationship between the Queen and me. At least, I think so.
The man was Rene Purro, the general manager of Trader Vic’s here. To celebrate the reunion, he insisted I accept a bottle of Calvet Beaujolais Nouveau to drink with my lamb. It went well with the meat.
Purro has an interesting history. Born in the Swiss city of Winterthur, he was introduced to the life of a restaurateur at an early age, when his family took over an Alpine hotel. After learning the basics of his life’s career there, he left home to broaden his horizons, as they say so often. He went to work at the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo and then to the Grand Bahamas Hotel in Bahamas. He joined Trade Vic’s in 1978 and managed the branches in Washington, D.C., Dallas, Kansas City, Portland, San Francisco and New York. He came to Tokyo last January.
Purro told me Trader Vic’s is offering special Christmas menus at ¥15,000 and ¥17,000 and a gala New Year’s Eve dinner at ¥15,000.
Trader Vic’s, Tokyo