Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cujorl: Contemporary Cuisine with International Appeal

Melinda Joe is an American-born sake and wine professional living in Tokyo, Japan. She works as a freelance journalist and is the bar editor of the award-winning Tokyo Food Page ( Melinda loves eating, drinking, and witty repartee. Visit her blog Tokyo through the Drinking Glass at

On a recent visit to Cujorl, the conversations that floated between the tables took place in four languages, punctuated with convivial sounds of laughter and the clinking of glasses. This newly opened Shibuya eatery, with its smart, modern interior, Japanese and Italian staff, and bilingual menu, exudes an air of relaxed, cosmopolitan chic. Despite the vaguely Scandinavian-sounding name (the “j” is pronounced as a “y”), the restaurant bills itself as a hybrid trattoria, a term that does little to convey the warmth of the space and the service, but hints at the kind of culinary Esperanto spoken here.

Chef Masayo Funakoshi finds inspiration in fresh, local ingredients and draws upon her diverse background to add international flair to her creations. A trained sculptor fluent in English and Indonesian, she brings an eclectic perspective and innovative spirit to the table. Even with the long hours in the kitchen, at the end of service she wears the cheerful look of a university student on her first day of class. Her youthful appearance, however, belies formidable experience. Chef Funakoshi worked her way around the world in some serious kitchens – Union Square and WD50 in New York City, Astrance in Paris, and Flavors Of in Jakarta – before heading back to Japan.

The appetizers, in particular, demonstrate Funakoshi’s sense of humor and keen eye for texture and presentation. The whimsically named Mushroom Cappuccino with Milk and Sugar?, an earthy mushroom soup capped with white foam, came in a coffee cup, alongside airy cubes of porcini meringue and a small pot of milk. The dark intensity of the broth was skillfully tempered by the delicate sweetness of the meringue. A neat mound of venison tartare was crowned with a quail’s egg yolk, accompanied by weightless shika senbei crackers and a dab of vibrant shiso pesto. Although the venison lacked the gamey depth we’d been expecting, the dish as a whole was thoughtfully composed and offered a pleasant balance of contrasting textures. We were especially impressed by the focused flavors of the tomato jelly, topped with a spoonful of fresh sea urchin, finished with Parmesan and ao-nori seaweed foam.

Though decidedly more straightforward, the pasta dishes made clever use of Japanese ingredients and were equally delicious. Perfectly chewy orechiette was tossed with sun dried tomatoes and a mélange of mildly bitter mountain vegetables. Spaghetti in a tomato-based horse ragu was a delightful surprise - the horsemeat was remarkably tender and subtly flavored. Both paired nicely with a bottle of Rubino Rosso, a robust organic Sangiovese blend from Tuscany. The wine was earthy with firm acidity, offering hints of dried flowers and a dusty finish.

The simply plated mains also veered more toward the traditional in style, but small touches lent a contemporary feel. A maitake mushroom tapenade accented with smoky hacho miso complemented the Japanese beef, grilled over grape vines, perched atop a smooth celeriac puree. The Five Minutes Smoked Pigeon – smoked quite literally for five minutes before grilling – was juicy and infused with flavor. We enjoyed these with the Fattoria La Rivolta Terra di Rivolta ’03, an unusual organic Aglianico with bright acidity and intriguing notes of red berries and Marachino cherry, ending in a smoky finish.

The rich, fruity, but slightly herbaceous Tanca Farra Sella & Mosca Alghero '04 was great with our cheese plate. A blend of Cannonau and Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine was solidly structured with all the ripe, convivial charm of the wines from Sardinia.

The wines are well chosen and fairly priced. The friendly sommelier is happy to offer pairing advice in English, Japanese, or Italian, and will help you navigate your way through the list.

We’re still not certain where they got the idea for the name Cujorl, but we’re sure to be back for the excellent food and wine again soon.

22-8 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku


  1. Interesting comment about Esperanto!

    It's unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    During a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Further information can be seen at A glimpse of the language can be seen at

  2. Melinda,

    That was an amazing post, I have been completely inspired. Your style of writing is completely captivating. And you have convinced me that I need to go back to Japan this October :)


  3. Hi Dawn,

    Thanks for your lovely comment! Please come back to Japan and don't hesitate to get in touch!

    Take care,