Couscous - Italian/French
Reviewed by Hamish Forrester
Address - Nakano-ku, Arai 2-27-6
Opening hours - Open every day from 11:30 to 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Telephone - 03-3319-3022
Here is the first and the best (only my opinion)
Cous Cous is about a ten minute walk from Nakano station and is situated in a quiet street just off Waseda dori that you'd not likely go down without a reason. An Italian and a French flag can be seen fluttering in the wind about 50 metres before you arrive. A life size manikin will greet you as you approach a little closer.
Despite the flags it's best to think of this place as a bistro which serves a variety of cuisines which you couldn't really say belonged to any country in particular (his pizza is even less Italian than you). The owner has a real sense for simple cooking though, and I've never been disappointed when I've eaten here.
I've been a regular at Cous Cous for a long time and only decided to share it with the world after much soul searching. Why do I like it? The first reason is that old Scottish favourite: It's very cheap. Sometimes I leave wondering how any restaurant that's this good value can survive. The low prices are partly a result of the owners family connections (farmers) and being good friends with a fisherman. Lunchtime sets are common in Tokyo but this place even has dinner sets for about 1000 yen.
The next thing I really like about Cous Cous is the atmosphere which is very laid back and not the least bit pretentious. The decor certainly isn't high class but you never feel any pressure when you step inside. You can stay as long as you like and although the owners aren't talkative you can feel their friendliness through the food and the service.
Although the evening set menu offers fantastic value I really recommend the specials board which will be brought to your table. Fresh Oysters, Carpaccio, ebi sautee salad, soup, home made bread, any fish dishes........ It's hard to go too far wrong. The deserts are all home made and ridiculously good value. It really would be a crime not to try one.
The wine is nothing special (I admit I haven't tried any of the more expensive bottles) but like everything else here, it's very good value and always drinkable.
To sum up this place is grrrrrrrreat, five stars on my list but everyone has their own way of judging. I know that you value authenticity very highly and Cous Cous really couldn't be said to be anywhere close to authentic French or Italian cooking but good food knows no boundaries, so pop in some time.
Trattoria Il Fornello - Italian ***
(used to be five stars. For the reasons of this demotion, see below)
Address - SH Bldg. 1F 4-7-2 Nakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo 164-0001
Opening hours - 11:45 to 14:30 and 17:30 to 22:00. Open every day, but no lunch on Sundays and holidays
Telephone - 03-3387-5210
Menu - In Italian and Japanese
Credit Cards - OK
In my review of La Bettola I said that its cooks are good, but their food makes you think they have never been to Italy. While well prepared, it lacks personality and a final touch. I could say that also of La Granata and many other otherwise distinguished Italian restaurants. At Il Fornello, though, the food is prepared by one of us, and the difference is obvious.
Il Fornello is small and a little crowded, but friendly and quiet enough. No foreigners in sight: it apparently hasn't been discovered yet.
We started the meal with a very good plate of assorted appetizers, then proceeded with two pasta (tagliatelle with mushrooms and shrimps) and the main dishes. The menu includes a number of excellent spaghetti and risotto dishes, but where it really shines is the meat and the grilled fish, stuff of a quality I have rarely seen outside Italy. The swordfish and the prawns were especially good and a real must. I cannot think of another place where they are so full of flavor and juicy. Try the vegetables. You can have them raw in a salad, sautéed or grilled for 800 yen a dish. We tried the grilled ones, and they were an excellent complement to our fish.
I ended the meal with zuccotto, a dessert (Sicilian, I believe) made with sweet ricotta and candied fruit you won't find so easily here in Tokyo.
The wine list includes some twenty names from every part of the country, for example Sicily, Sardinia, Southern Italy and Piedmont. No foreign stuff. They have Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, Sangiovese, and other classics. They also offer Italian liquors, that are however extremely expensive and in my opinion not worth the money. 1200 yen for a tiny glass of grappa?
The quality is there, no question about it, so I didn't mind the 6000 yen per head the meal cost without drinks. Il Fornello is certainly not for every pocket, but if you can afford it, it's well worth the money. I can think of many more famous, more expensive places (and La Ranarita or Sabatini come immediately to mind) that are not worth half as much.
August 28, 1999
Why "Il Fornello" goes straight from five to three stars:
Some time ago four friends and I had dinner at Il Fornello. After an appetizer and a pasta apiece, we were sated and accordingly proceeded to order five grappas and five desserts.
An embarrassed waiter told us that we HAD to order at least two main dishes. Rules are rules. This of course completely spoiled the fun, because we really weren't hungry any more. Not wanting to make a fuss, we however did order and shared without pleasure the mandatory two plates.
The whole thing had turned us completely off, so we left without the planned desserts and grappas. Forcing us to eat five thousand yen worth of meat, Il Fornello lost five grappas (1200 yen each), five desserts (at least 600 yen each) and five previously devoted customers.
But, more importantly, in any restaurant, whether it's a ramen shop or an expensive restaurant like "Il Fornello", the customer must always be king, but particularly and specifically when you spend as much as you do here. I am not going to spend six, seven thousand yen or more just to be bossed around by a waiter.
So Long, Il Fornello. It was great while it lasted.
Some time in December 2001
Il Primo - Italian ****
Address - Tokyo-to, Nakano-ku, Chuo 5-46-5 Ikeda Bldg 1F
Opening hours - Closed on Wednesday Open from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm
Telephone - 03-3384-3981
Menu - In Italian and Japanese
The first time I went to Il Primo, being a cook myself, I didn't even have to taste the pasta to understand it was excellent. I just had to look at what other people were eating: everything looked just splendid. The rest of the menu is just OK, but owner Shin Yamamoto is right in saying that pasta is his specialty, even though or perhaps BECAUSE he is a heterodox cook (but what the hell, who cares for orthodoxy anyway...). Many of the dishes are as unusual (to an Italian) as they are well invented. At 1800 yen a shot they don't come cheap, but they are worth every penny. The reason I give him only four stars is that the menu offers little more than pasta. Meat and fish dishes are OK, but the choice is too limited, and this has cost Mr. Yamamoto a star.