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Sunday, June 2, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

The slow train to France


To reach AOC Yoyogi entails an undemanding stroll down a narrow shotengai shopping street in one of those quiet, unexceptional parts of Tokyo you would never have recourse to visit in the normal run of affairs. It's only minutes away from the JR station, but far enough that you feel well removed from all the bustle and hubbub. Just the right location, you will agree, for an establishment that espouses the admirable principles of quality food and leisurely eating.

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You know straight away when you've reached the right spot by the random profusion of flowers, herbs and other foliage that obscure the front of the premises. A large blackboard spells out the menu of the day. A handwritten wooden sign reassures you that they are open for business.

Past the narrow open kitchen by the door you find a compact dining area with white tiles on the walls like the inside of a butcher's shop, but decorated with maps of French wine-growing regions. A steep spiral staircase leads down to a second, more spacious dining room where the curving archway, wooden beams and warm lighting evoke the relaxed feel of a simple hostelry in the French provinces.

In short, the look is classic neighborhood bistro -- albeit with none of the cliches of pastis posters and red-check table clothes -- but elevated a notch or two up the sophistication scale. Likewise with the cooking: AOC Yoyogi serves up straightforward bourgeois bistro fare, but prepared with an attention to quality and detail well above the norm.

Owner Francois Dumas and chef Naomasa Taguchi are both firm believers in the tenets of the Slow Food movement. Wherever possible, they use locally grown ingredients -- organically grown produce, meat from free-range animals reared without hormones and chemicals, and seafood from the wild open seas. They avoid the extra cost this entails by dealing directly with the farmers -- another core value of the philosophy.

At lunchtime, the options are soup and salad (800 yen); a one-plate chef's special plus salad (1,000 yen); or a good-value three-course meal (1,500 yen). At dinner time they offer rather greater flexibility. There is a prix-fixe menu, consisting of two set courses for 2,000 yen, which you choose from a list of eight hors d'oeuvres and six main dishes. There are also supplementary a la carte possibilities, which allow you to structure your meal according to your appetite, budget or the wine you have chosen.

We opened our dinner with a side order of foie gras terrine, the sinfully smooth richness of the meat offset by the slices of fig contained inside and complemented by the conserves of prune and fig with which it is served. One portion is quite sufficient for two (or even more).

Reverting to the set menu, we tried -- and enjoyed -- seared scallops and green asparagus, served on a mixed salad with a cheerful ratatouille of summer vegetables. The scallops were moist and fresh, though slightly overwhelmed in the overall taste mix (we thought they might have been better smoked). The salad greens tasted great.

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Naomasa Taguchi prepares fresh bread rolls at AOC Yoyogi.

Our other hors d'oeuvre was even better. On the menu it's called beignet de anguille de mer -- but in effect it's a French version of that Edokko staple anago tendon. The eel is batter-fried in one long piece in a crisp fritter, which is served on a salad of couscous, drizzled with a thick, dark balsamic-based sauce and topped with coriander and dill. If that doesn't bring a smile to your face (and an appreciative gurgle to your stomach), then your taste buds are surely tired of life.

Chef Taguchi spent more than seven years in France, working his way around Michelin-starred kitchens, and is as fluent with the cuisine as he is with the language. The main courses are all classic bistro favorites -- in our case confit de canard and carre d'agneau in substantial portions, both cooked very properly and presented with a good attention to detail. They are served with a side plate of vegetables -- steamed broccoli florettes, roast baby spuds, grilled maitake mushrooms and "saffron" rice -- to be shared with your dining partner. It's a nice, homely touch you are unlikely to find at other bistros in this price bracket.

But the main feature that distinguishes AOC Yoyogi is the wine. There are 50 or so bottles on the list, and they are all organically grown and certified to be free of synthetic additives. For the past three years, Dumas has been importing these wines through his own wholesale company, Vinbio, which distributes mainly to other restaurants. Now he has the perfect showcase in which they can be tasted.

And while organic provenance is no guarantee of greatness, many of those we tried were very worthy. Among the whites, the crisp Sansonniere (from Anjou) and the mellifluous Frick (Alsace) remain in the memory, as does the red from St. Andre de Figuieres in Provence. The Seguret (Cote de Rhone) was thinner and more acidic than we had expected, but the Chateau de Puy (Cotes de Francs) is a classic Bordeaux.

After 10:30 each evening, AOC Yoyogi segues into wine-bar mode, offering light snacks to go with its good selection of wines by the glass. The cheese plate (a further 1,500 yen) is recommended -- if you still have the stomach space -- as are the desserts (500 yen each). A good selection of coffee, dessert wines and post-prandial digestifs are offered to round off a leisurely and very pleasurable evening.

Since they have only been open a few months, AOC Yoyogi's hours of operation are still in the process of becoming fully crystalized. It is worth phoning ahead to confirm how late they plan to stay open.

AOC Yoyogi
1-43-2 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku; Tel: (03) 5308-7588
Open:12-2 p.m. (last order) and 6-10:30 p.m. (last order); wine bar: 10:30 p.m.-late
Close:Most Sundays
Nearest stations: Yoyogi (JR and Oedo lines) and Minami-Shinjuku (Odakyu Line)
How to get there:From Yoyogi JR Station (West Exit), cross the intersection and head down the street (to the right of McDonald's). Continue past the first lights, then turn right down a small shopping street. AOC Yoyogi is on the left after about 50 meters.
What works: Taguchi's excellent beignet of anago
What doesn't:Why no large-size bottles of mineral water?
Number of seats: 40
BGM: A refreshingly eclectic (and non-intrusive) mix of genres.
Price per head:Dinner course (two courses) 3,000 yen; also a la carte.
Drinks:Aperitifs from 600 yen; beer 500 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 3,300 yen/bottle; digestifs from 1,200 yen.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/French menu; French spoken but little English.
Reservations: Advisable




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