by Charles J. Waggon
“Out until 3 a.m., bar hostesses in nurse uniforms? For starters, Charlie, aren’t you a little old for kosupure?” Kumiko stared at me, one raised eyebrow. “And underneath the tracks, Charlie. Eating cheap street stall food.” She’d just read last month’s column.
I tried to explain. When you meet old amigos, risked your life together with way back when, you got reason to celebrate you’re still alive this long. A few drinks, a few stories; before you know, it’s gettin’ drunk outside. Crazy things just happen. Hundred o’clock in the morning, howlin’ at the moon.
But Kumiko didn’t get it. “Let me show you what a nice place is. Not just food, cuisine, Charlie. My regular place. It’s French, and you should try it.”
So a few nights later Kumiko takes me to her regular joint, place called Comme d’habitude. Means “Come as you are” in French, she said. They got a small room with five or six tables, but she gets us seats at the counter, overlooking the open kitchen. There’s Chef Taka Kamatani and a crew of three, hopping around, cookin’ up chow, puttin’ it on plates.
The menu’s got your starters and your main dishes, what change all the time depending on the season. You can order these separately, but Kumiko said the sets are a better deal: ¥5,800 for one of each, ¥6,200 for two starters and one main, ¥7,300 for one starter and two mains, and ¥7,500 for two of each.
Kumiko asked which set. But I said we oughta first choose what we wanted to eat, then pick the set what fit that. Reading the menu, I saw a lot of Japanese ingredients. Kumiko assured me this weren’t no fusion, though. “It’s all French preparation, classical.”
That made sense. Japanese vegetables don’t come fresher any place else. We each picked two starters and one main, the ¥6,200 set. Kumiko says that’s the best deal. Also, with a set you get cheeses, dessert and coffee or fresh herb tea.
I told Kumiko I didn’t need the dessert, and she said they could give me more cheese instead, but insisted, “You’ll want the dessert, Charlie. Trust me.”
They got a huge wine list. Kumiko knows a thing or two about wine, but this time she asked the sommelier. The woman recommended a Haut Medoc Bordeaux, Optima de Chateau Mayre 1998. Wow, one excellent wine, smooth and well balanced. Tasted even better when I found out it was only ¥5,000.
First up was my Smoked Foie Gras and Daikon Terrine, smooth and rich like fine cheese, and Kumiko’s Terrine of Venison what had a bull’s eye of Satsuma sweet potato and apple sauce on the side. Then I got my Organic Vegetables in Nikogori, a jellied soup stock with perfectly cooked lotus root, tomato, daikon radish and what-have-you.
Kumiko’s Lily Root Soup with Ris de Veau was kinda like cream of potato soup but not as starchy, with a hunk of fried veal sweetbreads, amazingly soft and tender.
Main dish time. My Roast Venison Grand Vefour Style certainly surprised me because this didn’t taste at all like the venison from the deer ol’ Harlan and I used to bag up in Colorado. Lean yet tender, with a fine flavor, heaped over mashed potatoes and smothered in a very rich wine sauce.
Of course, Kumiko got her Pan Fried Homard with Mushrooms. A homard’s like a little lobster, and the one Kumiko ate was still floppin’ around when we saw Chef Kamatani cut it in half and start cookin’ it.
Kumiko asked if I knew the difference between this lobster and one that cost ¥20,000 in a fancy restaurant somewheres. When I shrugged, she simply said, “Nothing. They taste the same.”
Next up was cheese, and the chef hauled out this huge stash of every kind you can imagine, and some you can’t. Then dessert. Kumiko ordered me a Caramel Souffle. After it landed, it kept jiggling a short while. She was right—this I wanted. How can something so light have so much flavor? She got the white chocolate mousse in sweet cream soup with fried banana. Again, not heavy, but rich tasting.
This was easily the best French chow I’ve had in years. Everything excellent, consistently, couldn’t think of anything that needed improvement. But the bigger surprise was the bill—food and wine, plus 10 percent service and tax came to ¥20,097.
Kumiko assures me that full-on French like this in a hotel or other fancy joint in the middle of town would run twice as much. And she knows.
Now this is civilized living. I suppose if it weren’t for women like Kumiko, men would live like goats.
3-16-1 Kami Meguro Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: 6 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays and the 3rd Tuesday of the month.
The restaurant is a five-minute walk from Naka Meguro Station on the Hibiya Subway Line and the Tokyu Railways Toyoko Line.