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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001


A gift from the South of France

At this time of year, the frigid streets of Tokyo feel a very long way from the sun-baked hills and turquoise seas of the South of France. But they have cold weather down there too. And for that we should be thankful -- because if they didn't have winter, the local fisher-folk might never have developed their most famous recipe, bouillabaisse.

This is the season when the rich seafood soup of the Mediterranean coast around Marseilles really comes into its own. It's appetizing, heartening and no less effective in wind-whipped Tokyo than it is on the Corniche or the Co^te d'Azur.

In its original form, bouillabaisse is simple to the point of being basic: Whatever was left of the catch that hadn't sold was thrown in the pot with plenty of crabs and other crustaceans, then cooked down with olive oil and herbs. But getting it absolutely perfect is not so easy. To find out what it should taste like, head down to Bandol, the fine little French restaurant that looks down over the mid-section of Aoyama-dori.

They bring it to the table in a large tureen, ladling the steaming hot, deep orange-red liquid into your bowl so its intense aroma wafts up your nostrils and straight to the receptors of your neural pleasure center. As is standard practice, the fish and other solid matter is brought to the table separately. At Bandol you don't get the leftovers of the catch: You are served cuts of cuttlefish, a few plump mussels and morsels of white-meat fish, bass, cod and snapper. It's all prime seafood, cooked lightly to just the right point where it's moist but not overdone.

On the table you will find saucers of the classic Provencal condiments, spicy rouille and garlicky aioli mayonnaise, along with grated Emmental. Add a dash of each to taste, float a slice of crisp baguette bread on top, and dive in. It's a powerful, heady concoction, so delicious you will call for more of their crusty home-baked, herb-flecked rolls to mop up the last drops from your bowl.

You cannot go wrong if you base your whole meal at Bandol around this one dish, which is made easy by ordering the three-course "Provencal" set menu. But there is much more to this place than just bouillabaisse.

Bandol, as any keen oenophile will know, is the area near Toulon whose appellation produces the best wine in all of Provence. It is also the birthplace of owner/manager David Michard, who spent several years working in restaurants around Tokyo before finally opening this place earlier this year. His chef, Osamu Katayama, served his apprenticeship in kitchens throughout France, and he brings a delicate touch to the classic bistro recipes.

To get a good idea of what he is capable of, try the menu degustacion. This is a good value, since it gives you a chance to sample your way through three entrees, salad, fish, meat, cheese, dessert and coffee. But those with trencherman appetites should direct their attentions, as we did, to the a la carte menu.

Our first entree was hot chicken gizzards, skillfully prepared to just the right texture, soft but firm and not a trace of grittiness, served on a bed of salad greens. This was followed by a very tasty cassolette of tender scallops and clams enlivened with slivered courgettes and plenty of Mediterranean herbs.

We would have been quite satisfied if we had stopped after our bouillabaisse. But fortunately, Bandol offers all its main dishes in half portions, so there is no need to miss out on a meat course as well.

The joue de boeuf has been taken off the menu (for the obvious reason), but with lamb, venison and Bresse chicken as alternatives, there is still plenty of choice. The grilled lamb was well-balanced with a savory tapenade sauce. Even more impressive was the roast pigeon, which was presented with small slices of rolled cabbage and ham in a mushroom sauce, and given slices of kyo-daikon to add a strong visual accent.

Naturally, we drank a red Bandol with this. Although Domaine d'Ott is the most famous name in the area, we found the 1995 Hermitage every bit as good (and also better priced). The rest of the wine list is brief and to the point, emphasizing (but not exclusively) bottles from the South of France. However, Michard also keeps a reserve cellar, so ask him if you are after more exclusive vintages.

Bandol is a cheerful place, with a decor as bright and uplifting as spring over the Mediterranean. The walls are daubed a warm terracotta red, the ceiling a Van Gogh sunshine-yellow. Chunky beams run across the room, and photos of Provence look down on tables.

Each day Bandol moves through three different incarnations. At lunchtime, it serves simple, bistro-style set lunches that are popular with Tokyo's French community, as well as the local office crowd. Later in the evening, it turns into a wine bar, where you can sip and snack until the wee hours. But it is at dinner time that Bandol really shows its true colors -- and, of course, that excellent bouillabaisse.

Ishizuki Shoji Bldg. 2F, 2-12-16 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku tel: (03) 5785-3722
Open: Lunch: 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m. (Saturday 11.30 a.m.-3 p.m.); dinner: 6-10 p.m. (last order); wine bar: 10 p.m. till late.
Nearest station: Gaienmae (Ginza Line) and Aoyama-Itchome (Ginza, Hanzomon and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Gaienmae Station (Exit B1) walk down Aoyama-dori in the direction of Akasaka Mitsuke. You will see the steps leading up to Bandol on the right, shortly after the Unimat Building and across from CI Plaza. From Aoyama-Itchome Station (Exit 3) cross the road to the Honda showroom and walk down the left side of Aoyama-dori.
What works: Bright ambience, brilliant bouillabaisse
What doesn't: The chairs are a bit hard for extended gourmandizing.
Number of seats: 26 (plus counter for 3)
BGM: Cheerful pop
Price per head :Lunch 1,200 yen (two courses) and 1,800 yen (three courses); dinner 3,600 yen and 3,950; also a la carte (not including drinks)
Drinks: Beer 800 yen; pastis 400 yen; wine 800 yen/glass, from 2,200 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:French/English/Japanese menu and spoken
Reservations: Advisable, especially around Christmas

Until Tuesday, Bandol will be serving a four-course Christmas banquet, featuring a special bouillabaisse, for 8,000 yen a head. Reservations are still being accepted. Please send all feedback, questions or recommendations to foodfile@yahoo.com

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