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Friday, Sept. 1, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
A sutando where standards are high
The boom in tachi-nomi (drinking while standing) bars continues unabated. At the traditional end of the spectrum are the rough-and-ready sake and shochu pubs. At the other extreme are more genteel establishments that prefer to call themselves sutando bars. The principles are the same -- no chairs; pay at the counter as you drink -- but the quality and the clientele are very different.
For the past year, our favorite example of the latter genre has been Buchi, a chic but casual bar out on the fringes of Shibuya's Shinsen district. Despite the less than convenient location, it's packed each night with a well-heeled crowd drawn not merely by the fine selection of premium sake (all in "one-cup" jars), well chosen wine and reasonably priced liquor, but also by the remarkably extensive range of food, both Japanese and Western.
It hasn't taken Buchi long to spawn a sister operation, this time in second-floor premises on the Aoyama side of Shibuya. The name, Bongout Noh -- from the French bon gou^t (delicious) coupled with "isn't it" in the owners' Hiroshima dialect -- may sound clunky, but don't let that put you off. This one is far more accessible and every bit as good.
The look is similar -- simple lines with plenty of steel and natural wood, almost Scandinavian in feel, and a huge, curving picture window -- and so is the relaxed atmosphere. As at Buchi, you pay for each item of food and drink as it arrives; the floor staff are all women and the kitchen crew all men. But here they don't serve any sake, shochu or Japanese snacks. Instead, the focus is on wine, with plenty of creative cuisine to accompany it.
The cellar holds more than 100 different varieties of wine, from all the main French regions, along with a good sprinkling from Italy, Spain and the New World. They also keep a score or more open to pour by the glass. This impressive selection was put together by Hisae Iwakura, the dynamic young manager and co-owner of both Buchi and Bongout Noh. A trained sommelier, she knows good wine; she also knows it should be affordable, so most bottles are priced under 6,000 yen -- with many considerably less than that.
But what makes this place so special -- and unique among bars where you stand -- is the quality of the food. The menu is huge, ranging from snacks such as olives, ham (jamon serrano Iberico, naturally) and broad beans in their skins to hearty meat dishes, homemade pasta and even desserts. This means you can feel comfortable dropping by for a quick glass of wine and a single dish (although that takes great self-control), or equally spend an hour or three with friends over a bottle and the makings of a feast.
Chef Hisashi Shoji was in charge at Buchi, but here he is showing even more flair. Like so many cooks in Tokyo, his cuisine is basically French with a Japanese aesthetic, incorporating influences from all over. So besides using classic ingredients such as foie gras, escargots and cuisses de grenouilles (frogs legs), he prepares dishes such as fritters of kisu (swelt-whiting) with tara-no-me (a wild spring herb) and fruit tomato.
A great way to start is to order a glass of Argentine bubbly (just 400 yen) with a mixed hors d'oeuvres plate of Shoji's home-smoked seafood, duck and chicken liver. We also really like his pa^te de campagne and terrine of Challans duck; and the piquant fritters of mushroom or zucchini are not to be missed.
Although the Japanese-only menu is hard to read, especially when the lights are dimmed, you really can't go wrong just picking a dish from each section virtually at random. You might end up (as we did on our first visit) with garden-fresh broad beans charcoal- grilled in their pods; followed by wild green asparagus topped with miniature hotaru-ika squid (guts and all); hearty handmade pasta with a rich venison sauce; and chops of Spanish Iberico pork, again grilled over charcoal.
How can they afford to offer such sophisticated fare? Because Bongout Noh is more than just a gourmet wine bar. Behind the semi-open kitchen, there is a cozy dining room in modern bistro mode, with tables and chairs and wooden shelves along the back wall. Here you can settle in for a more substantial meal. Although the menu and wine list are rather more elaborate, the feel is easy-going, and the volume of the happy hubbub rises almost to izakaya levels.
However, we still prefer the standing bar at the front. It's big enough to hold several different groups, but intimate enough that you're likely to start chatting with the people next to you. To find food and wine of this quality at such very reasonable prices, in a setting that's stylish but informal and which stays open till the wee hours -- this is rare indeed in Tokyo.
Buchi, 9-7 Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5728-2085; www.buchi-bar.com; Open daily 5 p.m.-2.30 a.m.
Sequels to sample
As any moviegoer knows, sequels and remakes rarely match up to the originals, so we're always nervous when good restaurants start to generate spinoffs. Too often the inspiration and concept get diluted and standards start to slip. Over the past year, however, we have been pleased to note a few more exceptions to that general rule.
Tokyo's first proper Portuguese restaurant, Manuel, now has a third branch, following its original bistro-style premises in Shoto, and the considerably more elaborate Casa de Fado in Yotsuya. The latest, which opened in mid-June on the Takanawa high street, is the humblest but the best of them all. Called Manuel Churrasceria, it's little bigger than a hole in the wall. The hard wooden banquette and tiles set into the whitewashed walls evoke the rustic air of a north Portuguese grill.
Unlike the Brazilian eateries of this name, a Portuguese churrasceria is likely to focus no less on seafood than meat. We have not had dinner there yet -- be warned, reservations are essential -- but for lunch recently we were served two charcoal-grilled ma-aji (jack mackerel) with boiled potatoes and a herb-garlic sauce that were as simple and satisfying as any sardines we have ever eaten on the Lusitanian coast. Expect a full review in these pages before the year is out.
Churrasceria, 2-3-22 Takanawa, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3443-5002; www.pjgroup.jp/manuel/takanawa/index.html; Open: 12- 2:30 p.m. (last order 2 p.m.) & 6-11 p.m. (last order 10:30 p.m.); closed Monday.
Hainan chicken rice is such a simple dish, it's hard to do it badly. But you need local expertise or a really good recipe to get it absolutely right. Hainan Jeefan Shokudo has both, which no doubt accounts for the enduring popularity of its initial shop on the northern fringe of Azabu Juban.
Hainan-Jeefan Shokudo2 actually opened last year in the back streets of Ebisu, but we didn't get around to checking it out until the weather began to get as hot and sticky as in Singapore. Thankfully, they have not messed with the original concept or the no-frills, vaguely postcolonial look. Here, though, there is plenty of window space opening onto the street, and the menu of basic, hawker-style dishes has been supplemented by the addition of a very tasty "special marinated roast chicken" that lives up to its name.
Hainan Jeefan Shokudo2, 1-21-14 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3447-3615; Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (Saturday & Sunday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.); dinner 6-11 p.m.; closed third Monday of the month.
One of the Food File's longtime favorite dining-bars, Adan, has spawned another sibling, this time in Shibuya. Unlike Tahiti, close to the Nezu Museum, which features excellent Thai food, the influences at Adan Ohana Gallery are equal parts Hawaii and Okinawa, making it a funkier, more intimate version of the original in gloomy Mita.
The location, way past Tokyu Department Store in the direction of Yoyogi, is remote enough to discourage the dilettantes. But it hasn't taken long to generate a strong local buzz among those who live or work near to NHK. Regulars tend to huddle around the miniature counter downstairs, while others haul themselves up the rather precipitous stairs to while away the hours up in the more comfortable second-floor dining room.
Adan Ohana Gallery, 7-8 Kamiyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5465-7577. Open daily, 6 p.m. till late.