Fine, French favorites in an authentic atmosphere
Dining at Benoit, the latest culinary invention of Alain Ducasse in this part of the world, is just like spending the evening at a fashionable Parisian brasserie — albeit a cleaner and more savory one. Upon passing the foyer, you are immediately greeted by the comforting sight of a proper old-fashioned bar with all the requisite paraphernalia. Then, just like in many establishments in France, those wishing to nurse a drink and enjoy a few olives remain in the bar area while those intent on a proper meal are ushered to the fancier second-floor dining area.
Benoit, which was inspired by a famous bistro in Paris’ 4th arrondissement, circa 1912 and created by French designer Pierre Yves Rochon, is probably one of the prettiest restaurants in Tokyo. Practically every piece of material was brought over from France and installed by French laborers who were specially flown in from Europe for this project. The result is a simple but enchanting vision of French paisley fabrics, leafy plants, checkered floors, graceful art deco-type lamps, and conversation-piece decor such as a tabletop iron model of the Eiffel Tower and oil paintings in ornate gilt frames. Amidst the current preference of most other new restaurants for neutral colors, industrial materials, and cold furniture, Benoit is a particularly welcome breath of warm air that makes you want to just linger over dinner and savor the atmosphere.
A relaxing atmosphere is probably what Alain Ducasse intended — and it certainly helps that his food and wine choices are so enjoyable. For starters, Benoit has one of the best wine-by-the-glass lists in Tokyo, with a decent and rather reasonably priced variety from sunny locales, and a choice between a full glass (120cc) and a tasting glass (70cc) to enable diners to pace themselves. It was also here that I had one of the best Kirs in recent memory, made with (ironically) Greek white wine and regular cassis syrup.
The food itself is upmarket bistro fare that is, happily, more classic than crazy (unlike in Spoon, his popular casual restaurant in Paris, where diners are constantly challenged by highly innovative cuisine). Of course, it has a distinctive Alain Ducasse twist so it’s never boring and it’s cooked with a light touch.
Similarly to Beige, his more formal restaurant in Tokyo, Benoit’s appetizer plates (¥3,400-¥3,700) are divided into food themes such as the sea or the earth, and — depending on your choice — may include small portions of tender octopus cocotte and fish soup, or foie gras pate and a salad. For main courses, on the other hand, Mr. Ducasse and his chef, Massimo Pasquarelli, offer both traditional French favorites like roast pigeon and veal, and a host of Mediterranean dishes. I was very impressed with the mushroom ravioli, which had chunky bits of cepe mushrooms and butter in a tender pasta, and the stylized vegetable tagine, which paired razor-thin slices of carrots and eggplants with plum, pear, and pumpkin in a light turmeric and cumin sauce. Meanwhile, my husband was bowled over by the roast pigeon, which he said was one of the tastiest he’s ever had in Japan.
Benoit is so French that, if you’re lucky, you’ll even be served by the lone French waiter whose properly haughty demeanor just gives everything even more authenticity. Talk about taking a quick trip to Paris.
WHAT TO EAT
The octopus cocotle and fish soup thai came with the Aqua appetizer plate (¥3,600) were big winners with us, along with a lovely mushroom ravioli in a butter sauce (Cappellacci aux cepes, ¥2,600). Among the main courses, i recommend the sage-flavored baby pigeon served with polenta (Pigeonneau de Racan, ¥5,800) and a modern and vegetarian version of the Moroccan dish tagine (Tajine de legumes, ¥3,000). For dessert, you must have the semi-sweet chocolate tart or the nougat glace with strawberries (¥2,000).
WHAT TO DRINK
Benoit has a formidable glass wine list that includes good Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, so you can enjoy wonderful selections with each course. But start your evening with a glass of perfectly made Kir, which Benoit’s sommelier actually makes with white wine from Santorini, Greece (Domaine Sygalas – Asyrtiko 2003, ¥1,000 for 70cc).
WHERE TO SIT
For a romantic evening, get table #1, which is by the window in the flowery salon with a view of Harajuku and the sparkling high-rises ol Nishi- Shinjuku. as well as of the restaurant’s tabletop Eiffcel Tower model.
HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
It’s not cheap, particularly for a brasserie. But then, anything with the Alain Ducasse stamp never is anyway. Plan on spending upwards of ¥30,000 for a dinner for two including several glasses of wine.
WHO GOES THERE
Serious foodies, trendy people, and honest-to-goodness Francophiles who delight in this little bit of Paris in Aoyama.
10F La Porte Aoyama
5-51 -8 Jingumae Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Tel. 03-5468-0881