by Christine Cunanan Miki

Almost on a spur of the moment, I recently booked a table at ll Teatro, the Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan- so. My friend and I were looking for a temporary change of scenery that would take us away from the heat, the crowds, and the ultramodern new buildings that are sprouting up like mushrooms and all starting to look alike, when I remembered this unusual oasis of lush greenery in Bunkyo-ku.

We went on a weekday night expecting to have the place to ourselves and were pleasantly surprised to find a full house at dinner, and even two seatings at many tables. The setting was formal—a palette of neutrals and blues, framed floral prints on the walls, a giant Murano chandelier in the middle of the room, and a lovely 14th century three-storey pagoda on view from afar for dramatic effect—but the crowds were lively and some men had even taken off their jackets and ties.

Il Teatro in Tokyo is the sister restaurant of Il Teatro at the Four Seasons hotel in Milan, one of that city’s top restaurants. However, Tokyo’s chef, Leonardo Di Clemente, comes from way down south in the boot of Italy, and his cooking reflects his experience of growing up in a simple town called Bisceglie right next to the Adriatic Sea. His forte is seafood and he uses very little butter, preferring to season his food with lots of olive oil and herbs. His cooking is so refined in taste compared to other Italian chefs and so much more in tune to the Japanese kaiseki style, that I would have sworn he was Japanese if I had not seen his name on the menu at the outset.

Dinner began with a mille-feuille of tuna tartar accompanied by slices of boiled potatoes, a quail egg, some strips of green beans, slices of Sardinian bottarga (mullet), Sicilian grapefruit, and rolled anchovies; all then dressed with lemon juice. It was similar to France’s salad nicoise, but fresher and lighter. I initially tasted the tuna tartar alone and was surprised at its obvious blandness. Then I got the picture. The tuna tartar was the ideal medium to accompany the incredible sourness and saltiness of everything else.

We were also very impressed with two additional starters. Leonardo’s chilled tomato gazpacho, pungent and spicy, was the perfect summer soup. It came with a beautifully grilled scallop sitting on crunchy, baked, flat noodles that had been cut up to form a little bed. The San Marzano tomatoes he used were so flavorful that very little additional seasoning was necessary, save for a few herbs and lashings of vinegar and olive oil. Meanwhile, his pasta dish of ravioli filled with shredded braised duck was excellently paired with a heavy sauce made from Norcia black truffles and Taleggio cheese.

For our main course, we had Leonardo’s special seafood ciambotto. Ciambotto roughly translates as soup with almost anything in it, and in his hometown, apparently people shrug and say “Ciambotto” when they make a mistake. His version was again similar to the French bouillabaisse but just lighter on the tomatoes and sans garlic. Lovers of strong tastes will probably be wishing for a dollop of garlicky mayonnaise, but those who like Italian with more finesse will certainly enjoy this light and refreshing dish as is.

With Leonardo’s style so untypical, it should not have surprised me that the tiramisu we ordered for dessert would come as anything but. Indeed, a tiny pyramid of cream dusted lightly with chocolate and coffee powder was set before us with chocolate filling deep inside. It contained the pure goodness of cream and chocolate, with only a slight coffee aftertaste.

Interestingly, the Four Seasons at Chinzan-so now accepts dogs as accompanied guests in all its rooms, including its best suites. So those who are inclined to make a luxury weekend of it and who are reluctant to leave their pet behind, will be happy to know that Fido will be equally pampered as well. The hotel provides special dog food and water for its four-legged guests.

Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan-so
2-10-8 Sekiguchi, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-3953-2222