by Christine Cunanan-Miki
Warning: When entering Attore, the Northern Italian restaurant of the Hotel Seiyo Ginza, you’ll come face-to-face with rather loud billboard signs advertising cheap lunch specials as you descend the stairs from the street-level entrance. Resist the urge to do a U-turn and walk straight through the trattoria and past the open kitchen into the inner sanctum, where a delicious meal amidst the calm, gray-colored surroundings of the ristorante awaits.
If you do persist, you’ll be in good company. Attore is reportedly the favorite Italian restaurant of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s opera- and food-loving former Prime Minister, who reportedly comes over just to eat a bowl of pasta or risotto in the privacy of the adjoining function room. The restaurant has also won the loyalty of one of Italy’s most famous jewelers, who supposedly dines at Attore whenever he is in Tokyo.
However, with its lavender-covered chairs, dim lighting and white tablecloths, Attore seems more like an unassuming, rather nice 1980s Western-style restaurant rather than the regular haunt of illustrious clientele. The food is nothing earth shaking either, but some of it can only be described as simply delicious.
Attore’s Italian food has been adapted to Japanese tastes by Mitsuhiro Tsubota, a young man who trained mainly with famous chef Katsuyoshi Muroi (who heads the Italian food association in Japan), so almost every dish is easy on the taste buds. He cheerfully volunteers that, unlike many others in the trade, he has no cooking experience in Italy and much of his career has been at Attore. What he lacks in pedigree, however, he makes up for with talent and creativity.
Chef Tsubota’s cooking may not transport you back to that favorite restaurant in Milan, but his “Japanized” pasta and seafood dishes will certainly bring you to a place of equal bliss. His style is refined classic, with a penchant for the pleasantly salty. For that night’s seasonal menu (¥12,600), he paired slices of raw and lightly boiled white fish and prawns with tomatoes, avocado and yoghurt for a refreshing starter that hinted of mint and basil (Insalata di Pesce crudo, Coda di Scampi e Pomodoro Crudo); and then mixed hefty slices of bottarga (dried mullet roe) with crispy cucumbers for a cream sauce pasta (Spaghettini Gemma con Bottarga di muggine) that was beautifully presented and perfectly seasoned to bring the noodles to life. For a main course, he sauteed sea bream with lemon and grapefruit, resulting in a tangy fillet that melted in your mouth.
I also ordered spaghetti with sea urchin sauce upon spotting it on the menu; desperate to taste again the most wonderful one I have ever had, which was in a nondescript cafe-restaurant on the island of Capri. My husband and I had ordered a plate each and had been so overwhelmed by it that we ended up eating four orders for lunch. Since that fateful day six years ago, we have ordered this pasta in every single Italian restaurant, and requested it even when it was not on the menu, hoping to relive that lunch—to no avail.
That evening at Attore, I was not very hopeful either and had merely ordered the spaghetti out of habit. When it arrived, it smelled promisingly of a distant sea. “This is the closest one we’ve ever had to that Capri spaghetti,” my husband said after the first delicious mouthful, although Attore’s version came minus tomatoes. With each bite, the sea urchin exploded with flavorful goodness and merged with a garlic and basil sauce that complemented rather than overpowered it. I had to agree. How ironic that in this restaurant where even the chef describes his food as Italian-Japanese, we had finally regained our Capri.
WHAT TO EAT
Perhaps because of its proximity to Tsukiji, the seafood pasta and main dishes were particularly delicious. Start with sauteed prawns, ham and scallops in a pureed bean sauce (Coda di Scampi e Capesante in cami-cia di Speck con salsa Fave seccha, ¥2,625) and the spaghetti with sea urchin sauce (Spaghetti Cemma all’Aglio e Olio con Riccio di mare, ¥2,625) and then order sauteed sea bream and scallops in a butter sauce (Filetto di Dentice e Capesante con Salsa all’Agrumi ¥3,465) for the main course. The Stagione seasonal menu (¥12,600) is also highly recommended.
WHAT TO DRINK
We found two very drinkable wines by the glass: the Vermentino 2004 (¥1,365) is a fruity white that goes well with both pasta and seafood, while the Masseria Maime 2001 (¥1,575) is heavy, strong and pairs excellently with duck and beef dishes.
WHERE TO SIT
The corner tables are the best in the house.
HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
Dinner for two and several glasses of wine will cost upwards of ¥30,000.
WHO GOES THERE?
It’s a mostly Japanese executive and Ginza after-work crowd so the restaurant is at its peak on Thursdays and Fridays from 7-9 pm. We sat next to a group of pharmaceutical executive-types discussing their real estate investments, while two ladies in kimono were being entertained by two young men a few tables away.
Hotel Seiyo Ginza 1-11-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku Tokyo