Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Osteria Vincero, Shinjuku (三丁目)

Continuing with our neighborhood exploration theme (after the recent Kagurazaka excursions) the EOITwJ staff returned yet again to the greater Shinjuku area following the weekend's exploration of Arakicho. At less than 20 minutes from the office, it's not so onerous to head over here after work.

On short notice, the Scheduling Team reviewed available options and found a semi-casual and highly rated Italian palazzo. We all convened, synchronized watches and agreed survival plans in case we were separated, and began The Long March from the station up to the Moa building in the dark, quiet reaches of northern Shinjuku San-Chome. We only got lost once, trying to be clever but choosing the wrong alley and ending up at a dead end with a small shrine. After some quick prayers for better guidance from the navigation team, we arrived at Osteria Vincero.

Located in the ground-floor corner of an apartment building, Vincero seats perhaps 20 in a warm and cozy room slightly cluttered with wine bottles and Italian paraphenalia (like a commemorative Giro d'Italia cycling helmet in Gazzetto dello Sport's iconic pink). The staff had questioned our Reservations Team closely when we called: "Can you drink wine? If you can't drink wine, don't come here." We could, and the staff quickly set about explaining our options.

This is an interesting approach to menu-ing. You can either order the 3-course Y3,990 a la carte menu (roughly 10 choices for each course, plus Italian water, bread and espresso), order your wine, and pay various service, tax, and table charges, or you can go the all-inclusive Y12,000 'Club Med' 5 course plan which includes the aforementioned 5 courses, glass wine with each course, and all taxes and surcharges. Being a bit leery of this interesting approach, the advanced hour (already 8:30 when we arrived) vs. 5 courses, and the very Tuesday-ness of it all, the Selection Team chose to go a la carte and didn't look back. [Aside: we ultimately saved about Y500 this way, but the Value Committee still felt after the event that it was a good idea.]

The Eating Team took over with a glass of house spumante (from Franciacorta DOCG, imported specially by Vincero) and a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. There's no wine list; the staff say that there are over 7,000 bottle in the cellar, and when you give them some ideas about what you want to drink and what your budget is, they bring back a few selections in the right style and above your specified range. Good stuff, both of these bottles. Bread was chewy and not overly fresh, but tasty, and olive oil was excellent.

First courses included some lightly-cured scallops topped with shredded green onions and other strips of green stuff, napped with a light anchovy sauce (I hate it when food writers say 'napped' or 'teamed', don't you?), and a 'soup' of chick peas and walnuts in tomato paste. The scallops were fresh and good, but the soup set the pattern for dinner - heavy, earthy, complex flavors that tasted like they had been made with care and 'aged'. I mean this to be positive - when I make tomato sauce, I try to make it the day before and leave it outside overnight (not so much in summer). Same with curry. Vincero has got this technique down far better than me, as befits their professional status.

The short pasta with goose ragu (really!) was similarly terrific - oily and massive-tasting, with the bird seemingly confited before being sauced. The 4-cheese penne was a bit less exciting, but extremely creamy due to the inclusion of mascarpone. I thought the portion was too small until the end of dinner, when I realized I was extremely full and shouldn't have complained (mentally).

Special Basque pork (+Y1000) was two thick slices of beautifully grilled buta. Somehow it seemed that the center of each slice was pink while the outsides were well-done, which I think was the result of including two cuts of meat in each slice (demarcated by a thin band of fat). This came with a honey-mustard sauce that was sweet and distracting and a salad of genuine Italian ruccola that was fresh, bitter and delicious. Horo-horo-chou (after seeing this lots of times I finally looked it up, and it's a guinea fowl in English and a pintade in French. They're sold around 1.5 kg, and are supposed to taste like chicken (duh) but with more flavor, fewer calories and more protein. They look more like little turkeys.) was breaded and fried and deposited atop a mound of aged sauce and topped with melted cheese...and a bit average tasting.

Desserts are dead cheap at Y500; the vanilla panna cotta with strawberry sauce was quite average, but the tiramisu was extraordinary. The waiter made a big deal of how it had been assembled only after ordering (actually, the waiter made a big deal of everything, including a solid 2 minutes on the process of making sparkling wine). I was skeptical of this, because I thought the cookies are supposed to soak up the coffee and get soft and mushy and combine with the cheese and all like dat, but I have to say the mix of flavored cheese, granulated sugar, cookies and coffee gradually mixed together over the all-too-short period that we took to get through it, with pleasant contrasts and changes in taste and texture throughout. Great idea.

Looking at the tables on either side of us, we were a bit disappointed not to get the quail, which was sold out after our neighbors order it, but not at all bummed about missing the long course. It included the aforementioned nuts 'n' beans soup, a plate of odd-looking cured hams (odd looking is probably good, I guess), a risotto onto which the chef ostentatiously shaved black truffles...and then we left. Didn't seem like much better value.

This is worth going back to, especially if you're in the area conveniently (big-size store Sakazen and big-shoes store Hikari are both close, all you big men in the audience). The tastes were hearty and interesting, the service was friendly and knowledgeable if a bit talkative, and the level of expense is basically up to your choice of wine - you could keep this under Y10k if you so desired, by not drinking. But I'm not sure if the staff will allow that.

They're proud that they don't have a web site. They also say 'reservations only'.

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