by  Christine  Cunanan  Miki

I’m not usually charmed by a restaurant on a first visit, but I left the new fusion restaurant Salt with a smile on my face and still enough money in my bag to think about shopping in Marunouchi afterwards. It’s not often you find a great fine dining experience at a reasonable price in our rather expensive city, but it seems Luke Mangan, Salt’s famous Sydney-based chef and proprietor, has come up with a great formula to keep diners returning.

Mind you, there’s nothing grand about his first To­kyo venture, on the sixth floor of the Shin-Marunouchi building just across from Tokyo Station. The decor is modem but not cold and with some touches of classic trendy such as large reading-type lamps right smack on the center tables. It’s also small, simple, and cozy, but so well-planned that most tables have ample privacy and room to stretch so you don’t feel claustrophobic. My friend Yumi reserved for two and we got one of the roundtables with comfortable high-back sofas that line aside of the room, giving us a good vantage point to observe the goings-on.

I’m also a great fan of Salt’s service, which is—to describe it most accurately—oh-so-very Australian. Everyone was professional, attentive, smiling, and friendly. The staff got our orders right, our dishes ar­rived hot, and our water glasses were refilled promptly each time. In spite of a full house and busy service, Tsutomu Sugahara, our waiter on several occasions, still managed a friendly banter with us on wines and Aussie cuisine.

The ¥3,500 lunch course and ¥8,000 dinner course are highly recommended because these are a good way to sample the talents of this 37-year-old chef who grew up in Melbourne and trained with Michel Roux, a Michelin three-star chef in London, before opening a string of successful restaurants in Sydney. Of course, Mangan only visits Tokyo occasionally; but head chef Shannon Binnie is very able, so you will not be greatly disappointed by his absence.

Salt’s menu is distinctly ‘Down Under’ with a touch of Asian, so almost every dish is paired with at least one exotic ingredient. A roasted barramundi fillet comes with a coconut broth; scampi is smoked with green tea; New Zealand venison is roasted with spicy cumquat and a bitter-sweet chocolate sauce; and Australian quail is fried tempura-style and then served with a sesame and wasabi dressing.

On my first visit, I loved everything in my three-­course meal. For starters, pork belly was deep-fried and then made into a confit with crackling skin, which was then layered with crab and pickled tofu and sprinkled with a tamarind dressing that hinted of lemongrass. It sounds terribly complicated, but the results were so good that I now cannot imagine a better way to eat pork belly. For the main course, I chose a double-beef entree that paired slices of grilled sirloin with a piece of braised beef cheek on a bed of leek cream with lashings of blue cheese. The meats were distinctly different in texture and taste, but both so tender and complementary with the chewy vegeta­bles and slightly sour cheese.

After such satisfaction, I purposely underestimat­ed dessert, believing I could not be three times lucky. However, my deep and dark chocolate  crème brulée was a chocoholic’s dream, although it was too tiny for my appetite. Because I like chocolate so much, I’ve ordered this elsewhere before and have always been served a chocolate pudding masquerading as crème brulée. However, Salt’s version was the real thing. It was perfectly creamy, with the distinctive taste of that favorite French dessert; but the chocolate was not shy about making its presence known either.

Since then, I’ve been back a few more times and the food has always agreed with me, although I have friends who think Salt’s good but who don’t exactly wax rhapsodic about their meals here. On a recent dinner, my husband ordered a seafood entrée, which sounded promising but ended up rather bland, while I happily tucked into a tasty tempura of goat cheese topped with grilled sardines. So perhaps I just hap­pened to pick very well. But one thing’s for sure: this restaurant is going to be at the top of my recommenda­tion list for awhile.

Shin-Marunouchi Bldg. 6F
1-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-5288-7828