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Sunday, May 13, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

CAF E CULTURE

Sit back, relax and let life pass you by


Summer's on its way, and none of us need any encouraging to make the most of it. There's no better way to celebrate the onset of the hot weather than with a leisurely lunch in the open air. Nothing too heavy, nothing too complicated -- this is the season to start lightening up the diet, anyway. Here are two little places that fit the bill just right.

Cafe Artifagose offers a pleasant patio in Tokyo's trendy Daikanyama district.

Cafe Artifagose may have a clunky name, but that's about the only thing about it that hasn't been worked out to perfection. First, it's got the location: an inner corner of a spacious pedestrian-only square (the self-styled Place de Daikanyama) well away from the nearest internal combustion engine. At the slightest hint of clement weather, they open up the front, and cover the whole plaze with chairs, tables and white canvas parasols.

It calls itself a cafe, but the drink of choice here is very definitely tea, predominantly of the Indian variety. Don't expect to get away by just ordering "hot" or "iced." There is a bewildering array of more than 60 kinds to choose from on the remarkable menu, of which the lion's share are from Darjeeling.

These are grand cru teas, fragrant and uplifting, classified according to the estates where they are grown and only available in the short window of opportunity when each is in season. The best are pricey -- up to 750 yen per one-person pot -- but even the standard-grade Assam makes a fine, revivifying cup. And because this is the good stuff, it must of course be prepared correctly. Each pot is timed and only delivered to your table when it is fully brewed and ready to pour.

But man cannot live on tea alone. Artifagose has an in-house bakery that produces a great range of crisp, crusty breads, savories (try their thin-crust curry-accented pizza) and patisseries, which you pick out for yourself in the shop next door. It also stocks a huge selection of prime cheese, most from Europe and kept in perfect condition. Each of these can be ordered in quantities of 50 grams or more, to have with bread or to nibble alone.

At lunchtime, there is a limited menu of prepared sandwiches, including the very tasty "Abogad Sand" (with avocado and French ham) and a croque monsieur that is second to none in this city in terms of quality and probably has few rivals in France. With a glass or two of beer (Heartland, Guinness or Budweiser) or a bottle of the adequate house wine, you have here all the makings required for a very mellow afternoon.

Unfortunately, this being ground-zero Daikanyama, hordes of other people, predominantly young and female, are likely to have the same idea. At weekends and on holidays, expect Cafe Artifagose to be packed.

Cafe Artifagose, Daikanyama Place 1F, 20-23 Daikanyama, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5489-1133. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday and holidays 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.) Nearest station: Daikanyama (Tokyu Toyoko Line). No credit cards.

Nobody in their right mind goes to Shibuya to relax. But once you're there, you sure as anything need a place to rest your head from the frazzle and the fray. Follow us to our favorite little oasis in the entire area . . .

Scones with margarine and marmite 'grace' the menu at Margaret Howell Cafe in Shibuya.

Make your way up Koen-dori and a couple of blocks back from the Tobacco and Salt Museum, and suddenly you find yourself in a quiet back street with few shops and virtually no through traffic. It's a secluded spot, ideal for a street-side cafe -- obviously the folks at the Margaret Howell Lifestyle Shop thought so, too.

These days, just about any fashion boutique worth its salt in Tokyo has its own in-store cafe, but few are as pleasant as this one. The look is clean, uncluttered, North European contemporary. A rack of design magazines hangs by the window. The minute kitchen occupies an inner recess.

There's only room for one large communal table inside, plus a small counter. But this space is effectively doubled when the windows are opened and the cafe spills onto the broad terrace, where three tables are surrounded by the vegetation of the attached plant shop, screening them off nicely from the street.

The menu exhibits an intriguing Anglo bias -- appropriately so, since the eponymous Ms. Howell hails from that other island nation. But everything is produced with a Japanese lightness of touch that would not be entirely out of place in post-Conran London. It's an approach that will either bemuse or delight any true-blue son of Albion.

The current spring menu includes a delightful pea soup, seasoned delicately with mint, plus a creamy scrambled egg with smoked salmon that is just the thing for a late breakfast. There's quiche and salad, and a very good Ploughman's Plate, featuring cheddar cheese, salad, rich chutney and wholemeal bread.

The scones are served with little side pots of jam and thick cream (not clotted, unfortunately), as are the ginger cake and lemon cake. And uniquely in Tokyo (to the best of our knowledge), Margaret Howell offers toast with margarine and Marmite, a uniquely British combination of flavors that, here, could even win converts from those born outside those sceptered isles.

You can wash it all down with tea or coffee, a glass of wine or cider, Yebisu beer or, even more surprisingly, a bottle of St. Peter's Golden Ale, one of the most gratifying brews in all of Christendom.

Margaret Howell Cafe, 1-13-8 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5459-3721. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed third Wednesday of the month. Nearest station: Shibuya (JR, Toyoko, Inokashira, Ginza and Hanzomon/Denenchofu lines). Cash only.


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