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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008


A fine bistro life in Kagurazaka

At long last it's safe to come out from under the air conditioning. The heat has finally broken, our appetites have perked up, and there are some long, balmy evenings ahead — perfect for some leisurely outdoor dining.

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Maison de la Bourgogne, a lively bistro in Kagurazaka, specializes in the wines of France's Burgundy region. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

Tokyo has never been a great city for open-air restaurants. Hardly surprising, given the unforgiving midsummer climate and the vagaries of the typhoon season. For that reason, we've never built up a long list of good alfresco tables. But at least there is Maison de la Bourgogne.

Open some four and a half years now, this friendly, lively bistro was initially set up as the shop front for a wine-importing business specializing, as the name suggests, in the fruit of the vine of the Burgundy region. Since then it has expanded from a simple wine bar with a couple of tables to a full-fledged restaurant. And thanks to its generous patio with a dozen tables, it has become one of the focal points of the French community who make the Iidabashi/ Kagurazaka/Ushigome quadrant their home away from home.

Above all, it's the location that makes M. de la B. worth knowing. Not that it's particularly scenic: The overhead awning is as much to keep out the banal surrounding architecture as the sun or rain. But it lies down a narrow side street, far enough from the main Kagurazaka drag that you hear nothing of the traffic and hurly-burly. A belt of shrubbery screens off the few passing pedestrians. Once ensconced, there is little to distract you from your meal.

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Sauteed pork with cardamom sauce

These days the menu pays only cursory homage to its namesake region. Besides Burgundian classics, such as Coq au Vin or boeuf Bourguignon, you are just as likely to find Alsace-style choucroute (sauerkraut) or Provencal pissaladiere (thin pizza laden with anchovy and black olives). Straightforward, uncomplicated bistro cuisine is the name of the game, with meal prices that are eminently affordable.

At lunch, you eat well for ¥1,600 (two courses plus coffee) or more simply (salad or soup plus souffle or risotto) for ¥1,200. At dinner, three fixed-price meals are offered (¥2,980 for two courses; ¥3,980 for three; ¥5,600 for four), each of which allows for plenty of options. There is also a considerable a la carte menu.

The starters demonstrate both a solid grasp of bistro basics and a few touches of creativity. Our pate de campagne was a standard-issue tranche of coarse-cut meat, with some salad greens and cornichons on the side. The terrine of sanma (saury pike) was rather more adventurous, with the minced fish attractively arranged on a bed of soft-cooked potato.

The main dishes cover a similar gamut of proficiency. The Coq au Vin was just as it should be. The chicken — hardly the rooster of the traditional recipe — was tender, bathed in a flavorful red- wine reduction sauce and served with a dollop of creamed potatoes that hit the spot nicely.

Our other dish, sauteed pork, was more delicate and colorful; cooked lightly to just the right side of rare and surrounded with steamed vegetables, it boasted a sauce in which the flavor of cardamom was discernible but never overwhelming.

Desserts are adequate, but not the kitchen's strongest point. The creme bru^lee au cafe was too sweet, its coffee aroma insufficient; the chocolate mousse would also have benefited from less sugar and a deeper chocolate presence. But this we'd expected (from previous visits), and so we made up for it with a side order of creamy white chevre and Epoisses de Bourgogne (delectably ripe and pungent) from the excellent cheese platter, with which we finished up the last of our wine.

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Show me the way: Maison de la Bourgogne's sign to La Cabane

M. de la B.'s virtues are admirable: well produced, uncomplicated cooking; friendly and prompt service from the waiters (all French); and appreciative diners. But two areas continue to detract from our overall enjoyment. First: Better bread please! Surely it's not hard to find baguette that's less bland, especially in this Francophile part of town.

Second: The thick, hard-bound tome that constitutes the wine list reveals a remarkable cellar of great Burgundy, both red and white; however, it is seriously top-heavy. At dinnertime there are no bottles for less than ¥5,000 and only a very few for twice that much (at lunch there is one bottle for ¥3,800). Of course we love quality Burgundy and understand how much it elevates a meal. But bistro fare of this caliber cries out for wine of similar affordability.

Until that happens, we are left with two possible strategies for our next visit. We could stick with wines by the glass — there are half a dozen offered, ranging from ¥900 to ¥1,600. Or we could splurge on a bottle of something nice, order a simple meal from the basic menu (starter and main course, without dessert), then make the cheese plate the central focus of the meal. Voila!

T here is in fact a third strategy, one that we checked out recently. Early last year, M. de la B. opened a spinoff operation about a couple minutes' walk down the same street. Called La Cabane — roughly translated as The Shack — it looks as homespun as the name suggests, done out inside with tasteful retro decor. It's not a wine bar, but a cheese bar. A considerable selection are stocked, not just from Europe but from further afield, which form the basis for a small range of cooked dishes and salads. Clearly this is also a great place to explore the M. de la B. wine cellar. They even have a small veranda — perfect for autumn evenings.

La Cabane is at 26 Fukuromachi, Shinjuku-ku; Open: 6 a.m.-11:30 p.m. (closed Mon.); (03) 3260-8150

Maison de la Bourgogne

Location: 3-6-5 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
(03) 3260-7280

Open: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 6-10 p.m. (last order); weekends and holidays: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 3-6 p.m. tea time; dinner 6-9:30 p.m. (last order)

Nearest station: Iidabashi (JR, Nanboku, Yurakucho and Tozai lines)

How to get there: Leave Iidabashi Station by Exit B3, turn right and walk up the Kagurazaka slope. Just after the Circle K store, take the next small side street on the left. Maison de la Bourgogne is at the end, just where the street curves to the right.

What works: The patio area is perfect at this time of year.

What doesn't: If only the quality of the bread matched that of the wine.

Number of seats: Main dining room 30, plus 20 outside

Smoking: Smoking permitted only on the patio

Price per head: Lunch courses from ¥1,200; dinner from ¥2,980 (5 percent service charge at dinner).

Drinks: Beer from ¥650; wine from ¥950/glass, ¥6,500/bottle; digestifs from ¥1,050;

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese/French menu; French and English spoken

Reservations: Advisable

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