by Norman Breakes
Chicken, pork, fish, beef, pasta. Chicken, pork, fish, beef, pasta — since when did we have to settle for such a paltry spread of choices in our daily dinning options? It’s tyranny. (Dear vegetarians, if it isn’t already clear from the intro, we’re not speaking for you here.) When you have run through all the international permutations of these basic building blocks of the dinner table and are ready to break free of the routine, here’s where you go: Les Vinum.
Why? Wild game. Hokkaido deer, French quail and pheasant, Japanese wild duck, all delicately roasted on a sumiyaki charcoal grill. Add to this a menu that features fresh oysters, homemade lamb sausage, chicken livers and roast chestnuts, and you start to feel like you have discovered Tokyo’s secret gentleman’s club, a place where there must be a backroom in which you can smoke a cigar, play billiards, read a dusty volume on the history of ancient Rome and cut a deal on the latest insurance bonds for ships departing for India.
Every meal starts with Les Vinum’s well-known chawan mushi, a savory egg custard made with a refreshing, fruity tomato broth, a welcome change on the standard. We went with the flounder carpaccio — well, let’s call it sashimi because this is Japan after all. It was the right choice to unlock the secret of owner Makoto Tokuhara’s establishment; the slices of fish were seasoned with a mix of Japanese ingredients, including the yellow flowers and purple sprouts that decorate many a plate of sashimi, but more importantly, chewy bits of konbu seaweed that at first could have been mistaken for citrus rinds. The lesson? While on the menu the meal looks Western, on the plate it is a considered meeting of Japan with the outside world.
Tokuhara is a sommelier, and matched our fish with a light Bourgogne Aligoté, a less tart version of the wine used in a Kir. A briny fish soup between appetizers and mains came with sides of cheese, garlic and toast that you could add to taste. For the mains, we opted for the quail, plump in the middle and bacon-flavored on the ends, and the deer, a blood red slice of lean meat that was the perfect antidote to the fatty beef of wagyu-fame. A bold and fruity Californian Zinfandel was more than up to the challenge of complimenting these dishes.
In proper fashion, Tokuhara presented our desserts (a devilish chocolate gateau and an apple pie of pure innocence) with a glass of port. We looked for the secret door to the club, but to get in I am sure we’ll have to make a couple more appearances — and that’s hardly a problem.
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