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Friday, May 21, 2004


Bistro browsing for Francophiles about town

Vin Chou subscribes to the contemporary ethos that morsels of high-quality, charcoal-grilled chicken on skewers go just as well with good wine as with fine sake. It's also quite comfortable using herbs, tomatoes and balsamico. But what makes this place so special is the quality of its yakitori ingredients.

News photo
Vin Chou (above) is a gem of a gourmet yakitoriya in an unlikely shitamachi setting; Aux Bacchanales in Kioicho.
News photo

At Vin Chou (which they rhyme with "banjo"), the chicken of preference is prime Date-jidori, one of the finest, most flavorful varieties of Japanese fowl. Rather more unusually, though, the menu also offers Bresse chicken wings, quail, cuts of Barbary duck and halves of squab, all flown in direct from Europe, from the same farms that supply some of the top French restaurants. Grilled over Bincho charcoal and anointed only with a sprinkle of sea salt or a simple soy-based tare dipping sauce, this prime yakitori is why Vin Chou has become a regular port of call for connoisseurs.

There is plenty of other exotica on the menu: prosciutto di Parma to start things off; excellent homemade sausage; salads of watercress or rocket; a good (if diminutive) cheese plate; and a superb vanilla cre^me brulee, prepared from the eggs of the same free-range Japanese jidori fowl you have nibbled on earlier in the meal.

Lest you get the wrong idea, they also offer all the usual bits and pieces of an orthodox yakitori menu -- toriwasa (tender, pure white cuts of raw sashimi breast meat); tsukune (minced meatballs); hatsu (heart), sunagimo (gizzard), kawa (skin) et al. These are backed up by traditional favorites such as bacon-wrapped asparagus; a wonderful, thick, creamy zaru-dofu (fresh tofu) from Saga Prefecture, and yaki-onigiri.

The drinks list is split half and half between top flight jizake -- including taruzake straight from the barrel in winter -- and wine, of which they offer more a dozen well-selected mid-priced bottles, almost all French, from around 2,500 yen. Call ahead to confirm, and they should let you bring your own bottles, subject to a modest corkage charge.

This is yuppie yakitori of the first order, but the bistro look makes it feel almost country casual. You sit at wooden tables with long, hard trestle benches, or perch at the short counter overlooking the broiling area. A couple of tables on the street outside should be coming in to play as the weather warms up. The plain concrete walls display minimal decor, just a few French knickknacks. An eclectic mix of salsa, jazz and blues plays on the sound system.

Anywhere in Tokyo, Vin Chou would be unusual. Here in the back streets of shitamachi, it seems totally incongruous. Yet all is explained when you find out this is the sister restaurant of La Chevre, the excellent little French place that has flown the flag for superior bistro cooking in this far-flung arondissement for more than a decade now.

Uberchef Joel Robuchon visited a few years back and was so impressed that he inscribed a benefaction on the wall: "Au meilleur yakitori du Japon (To the best yakitori in Japan)." After an evening here in the back streets of Asakusa, you are likely to agree that it is definitely worth the the trip.

Since January, Aux Bacchanales has a new branch, ensconced on the street that runs behind the New Otani Hotel in Kioicho, and it's finally starting to come into its own. The look is exactly as you'd expect -- the familiar yellow sign, those rattan chairs and small, round, iron-framed tables, that same menu with the same salade nicoise, croque madame and vin rouge tres ordinaire.

There is no way, of course, it could hope to replicate the late, lamented original in Harajuku. After all, the location and demographic are entirely different. The street it faces onto has far less traffic noise and pollution, but the sidewalk offers fewer eclectic people-watching possibilities. There is no bar to lean up against, no table football to be seen, no cliques of scruffy young expatriate French spivs, no patina, no undesirable rodents.

What it does boast is efficient service with none of the attitude that enlivened and/or infuriated in Harajuku. It has good, solid brasserie cuisine that's competent, if uninspired. Prices are respectable -- weekday lunches for 980 yen; Sunday brunch for 1,900 yen; dinner courses for 4,000 yen.

And best of all, now that the windows are thrown open to the warm summertime breeze, you look out at a most unlikely bank of trees, now at their deciduous best. And that's an aspect that few other sidewalk cafes in Tokyo can match.

Aux Bacchanales, Shin-Kioicho Bldg. 1F, 4-1 Kioicho, Chiyoda-ku; tel. (03) 5276-3422; www.auxbacchanales.com. Open daily 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (lunch 11:30 a.m. 1.30 p.m.; dinner 5:30-10 p.m.)

Bandol, another stalwart of the disparate community of French bistros, has undergone a metamorphosis since we wrote it up some 18 months ago. No longer serving weekday lunches (though still offering weekend brunches), it has now become a friendly, casual wine bar focusing on the increasingly good wine from what it calls the "South of France Sunbelt," supplemented with a la carte cuisine with a Provencale flavor.

Late on Saturday evenings it adopts the guise of a late-night DJ and live spot, with music that ranges from Latin House to roots reggae, African and dub.

Bandol, Ishizuka Shoji Bldg. 2F, 2-12-16 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5785-3722; www.bandol-tokyo.com; open weekdays 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday noon-2 a.m. (brunch served noon-4 p.m.).

Meanwhile, in the narrow backstreets off Kagurazaka, look out for Maison de la Bourgogne, another French-run enterprise whose prime purpose is the promotion and dissemination of the excellent wines from Burgundy. Besides offering wine appreciation classes and retail sales, it has also opened a small bistro-style restaurant and wine bar, with a few outside tables that are perfect at this time of year.

Maison de la Bourgogne, 3-6-5 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku; tel.: (03) 3260-7280. www.wine-bourgogne.com; lunch 11:45 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 5:45-10 p.m.; bar till 2 a.m. Closed Mondays.

Vin Chou
2-2-13 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku; (03) 3845-4430
Open: (Sundays and holidays 4-10 p.m.)
Nearest stations: Tawaramachi (Ginza subway line)
How to get there:From the station take Exit 3, walk up Kokusai-dori, turn down the third side street to the left (at the koban), then take the first on the right (by the Taito Ryokan). Vin Chou is on the left after about 50 meters.
What works: The imported fowl is excellent -- and the local Date-jidori is superb.
What doesn't:Those low tables and benches aren't very comfortable.
Number of seats: 32
BGM: Cheerful French pops
Price per head:Mixed yakitori course 2,800 yen, also a la carte; figure around 3,500 yen total (not including drinks)
Drinks:Beer from 660 yen; cocktails from 880 yen; wine from 550 yen/glass, from 2,800 yen/bottle; sake from 680 yen; shochu from 740 yen
Credit cards: Visa or MasterCard
Language:Japanese menu; English not spoken
Reservations: Reccomended

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