For most Americans, reindeer are more fantasy than fact, something akin to unicorns.
They were long ago drafted into lore by becoming the hoofed jet engines for Santa Claus’ flying sleigh. And what kind of real animal would have a nose that glows red like — as any kid knows — Rudolph’s?
So when I recently tried to entice an American friend to go to Swedish restaurant Allt Gott by promising reindeer steaks, she asked, “Is there really such a thing as reindeer?”
Yes, Virginia, they exist and are served in gourmet forms at Allt Gott, a small, unassuming restaurant in Kichijoji that seats little more than a dozen diners and requires reservations.
And when you call for that reservation — some of the staff speak English, so relax — make sure you ask whether they are stocked with reindeer steaks for the day. We didn’t learn the restaurant was out of them until we were seated and ordering. Two demerits for Allt Gott for not telling us during the reservation call.
Still, we had a stellar meal — true to its name that translates to “everything’s good” — with no dearth of deer. Our meals included a salad topped with smoked reindeer strips and another course of roasted fawn venison.
Reindeer still roam wild in the frozen tundra of Scandinavia and Siberia — as well as Alaska and Canada, where they are usually called caribou. The restaurant, however, gets its supply of reindeer meat from a farm on the very northern tip of Japan’s Hokkaido Prefecture, according to owner/chef Takashi Yaguchi, who studied Scandinavian cuisine for about a year in Copenhagen. Several times during the meal, Yaguchi came to our table to introduce the course.
The restaurant is small enough that Yaguchi and an assistant chef are able to handle all of the orders in the open kitchen.
Your best bet for price/variety is one of the three set menus. The most expensive at $65 is the chef’s recommendation set, which varies each day as Yaguchi chooses the two appetizers, salad, fish, steak and dessert he believes are at their best.
We tried the less expensive sets for $38 (appetizers, soup of the day, scallops or oysters, fish or steak, dessert, coffee or tea) and $45 (appetizers, salad, choice of one of four main dishes, dessert, coffee or tea).
Seafood is an important part of Scandinavian cookery, so the cuisine is a natural fit in Japan where fruits de mer is practically a religion.
Among the appetizers were two offerings from Norway: dill-marinated herring with freshly made mustard and marinated salmon. The salmon had a melt-in-the-mouth quality, much more subtle than the vinegar-charged and firm herring that is so popular in Scandinavia.
One appetizer plate included a crayfish and puff pastry filled with whipped avocado and covered with a fish-egg cream sauce.
The soup of the day was a popular Chinese dish made with stewed winter melon with a twist: the soup was gelled and chilled. It was flavor-filled but oh so light, just as a pre-main course soup should be.
The garden salad came topped with slices of smoked reindeer tongue. You don’t find beef tongue on many American tables these days, but back in pre-World War II days it was standard as a sirloin. Pity, though, because the inside portion of the tongue that’s used contains almost no fat and is intensely flavorful.
So, too, were the reindeer strips.
Although disappointed by the AWOL reindeer steaks, we were more than compensated for the loss by the main dish of medallions of fawn venison (the equivalent of veal) covered with a lingonberry sauce. Lingonberries are to Scandinavia as cranberries are to America. Indeed, lingonberries are a smaller, juicier cousin of that sour fruit.
The tart sauce perfectly complemented the rich flavor of the rare venison. Wild red meats are sometimes described as gamey, but that taste is always less intense if the animal has been fed on a farm rather than foraging the landscape. Allt Gott imports its venison from deer farms in New Zealand, Yaguchi said.
Among the desserts were a sherbet of mixed berries — black, blue and lingon — cheesecake and hozuki, a rarely served fruit. The hozuki’s outside membrane resembles a Japanese lantern, and the small orange fruit burst with citric flavor.
No truly Swedish meal is complete without a glass of aquavit, the spirit that has for centuries been the national drink of Scandinavian countries. Distilled from potatoes and often infused with flavors such as cumin, fennel and anise seed, the spirit is said to help digest rich seafood.
I chose a glass of the Norwegian Linie, which is aged in oak sherry casks that have been loaded into cargo holds on ships heading below the Equator. The Norwegians swear that the round-trip sloshing of the liquor gives it the taste they crave.
That’s a transit job not even Santa’s mighty reindeer would undertake.
ALLT GOTTAddress: 2-28-1, 2nd Floor, Shibata Bldg., Taisha Dori, Honcho Kichijoji, Tokyo
Phone: 0422 21 2338
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; closed Mondays.
Directions: Take the north exit from Kichijoji station and turn left. Take a right at the first major street you reach, Kichijoji Dori. Walk to Taisho Dori and take a left. (Taisho Dori is the street just past the Tokyu building, and the blue street sign is set a few car lengths down the lane.) Allt Gott is about 100 yards ahead on the right on the second floor.
Prices: Dinner sets are $38 to $65, which include dessert and coffee or tea. Wine by the glass is about $6.50 and beer is $6-$8.50. Aquavit is $5 a glass.
Reservations: Seating is limited, so reservations are usually required. English-speaking staff is available.