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An International Flavor in the Land of the Rising Sun

August 14, 1986|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — When Wolfgang Puck opened Spago at the Beverly Hills Square in Roppongi, a chic and flourishing district in Tokyo, he had good reason to do so. Pizza has established a strong culinary foothold in the land of the rising sun.

The Hard Rock Cafe, Tony Roma's and Victoria Station did not seem to make a mistake, either. Neither did McDonald's and Wendy's . . . nor even Dunkin Donuts.

Just as sushi makes waves in America, ribs, onion rings, hamburgers, French fries and doughnuts are becoming popular with the Japanese.

Also finding a satisfied audience are the French bistros, patisseries and Italian trattorias now scattered all over town. The Japanese definitely have an ongoing affair with European cuisines.

With Italian fare accepted with gusto, there's an overwhelming picture of not just pizza but pasta, pasta, pasta. One almost wonders whether cannelloni, spaghetti and lasagna are pushing out the somen (fine white wheat noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles) and ramen in this cosmopolitan city.

While comfortably absorbing Western cuisines, Eastern chefs are actually Japanizing (as the Japanese term it) many of these dishes. Particularly popular are pastas and risottos mixed with almost every type of fresh seafood.

Although faced with stiff competition from these other cuisines, traditional Japanese foods such as tempura, sushi, sukiyaki, mochi and rice crackers are still the greatest draw. With about 500,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone, not including the great number of mobile food stalls (yatai) and small underground shops that feed the constant throng of shoppers and commuters in subway and railway stations, there is ample room for all cuisines. (The second-largest city in the world, next to Shanghai, overcrowded Tokyo has a population of about 11 million.)

Nocturnal Dining

A recent visit to Tokyo began with a search for a place to dine at 11 p.m. one evening. We settled for the Almond Confectionery and Restaurant, a spot near our hotel. Well patronized by a young crowd, it featured Japanized Italian-American food. The tastiest dish was a Japanese pilaf, which had thin slices of mushrooms, chopped green onions and some diced vegetables and meat. Like many gohan (rice) dishes, most of these pilafs offer a lot of taste because the raw rice granules are cooked in stock (dashi) flavored with some sake, mirin and soy sauce as well as whatever mushroom or vegetable is used. The spaghetti vongole (with clams in the shell) was far more interesting than the meat-sauce version. Most dishes on the menu were less than $5, a relief from the dreaded thought that we would find everything in this country expensive.

Like many other patisseries we saw, from the plush ones like the Fugetsudo at the Ginza to small shops in subways and department store basements, the Almond bakery glass case displayed a dazzling array of tortes glazed with various fruit-flavored gels plus fine-textured brandy cakes and boxed cookies in all sizes and shapes.

From that first meal on we followed the Japanese pattern, doing as they do daily . . . grazing from place to place on a variety of international as well as local dishes and snacks. The Japanese flair for beauty, color harmony and pristine presentation is impressive. Every confection is perfectly designed. No crumbs are allowed around baked goods. Every fruit and whipped cream garnish must look exquisite and fresh. Often it was difficult to tell whether the confections were real or wax models as the imitation displays realistically simulate the original.

Westerners normally judge pastries by taste, but to the average Japanese consumer, a beautiful appearance is almost as important. The finer bake shops had more to offer where taste was concerned.

Grazing on fresh fruits in Tokyo was expensive, but a most gratifying experience. At a little market near the Ueno Station, a fruit vendor cutting pineapple offered the juiciest, sweetest chunks. He and his fellow vendors took great pride in the neatly stacked cantaloupes and honeydews, oranges, avocados, Japanese pears, strawberries and apples.

Most impressive were the oversize--and luscious--apples, at about $1.70 apiece. They were as big as grapefruit. Smaller ones were around $2.50 a pound. Pink-tinged with no sign of shiny paraffin, the apple skins were as crisp and fragrant as the fruits' flesh was sweet and juicy. A glimpse at a supermarket showed us oversize leeks, daikon , enormous garlic and healthy-looking mushrooms and eggplants.

Coffee houses, some with European ambiance, and quaint Japanese tea shops, called chamise, were everywhere. Popular among women as a place to relax and talk as they drink ocha (green tea), the tea shops offer an assortment of ohagi mochi (pounded rice cake) treats and kanten (seaweed jelly).

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