Category Archives: wine

Shonzui 祥瑞 – Raising the (Natural) Wine Bar

Bio-organic, vin du naturel, shizenha, hipster juice – whatever the epithet – like them or not, natural wine is here to stay. IMG_6640 There has been much media fanfare surrounding the bevy of new natural wine bistros that have sprung up around the city; most notably Ahiru Store, Beard, Standing Bar Waltz, and – my local – Le Verre Vole. But this boom may didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor did it happen overnight. It was the result of pioneers like wine importer Francois Dumas and Shinsaku Katsuyama, a renowned restauranteur and bon vivant, whose passion and forethought broke open the market and brought this previously undervalued genre to the Japanese public’s attention.  In fact, if it weren’t for the efforts of these early Japanese enthusiasts some of the labels we enjoy today wouldn’t be on the market. In the early 90′s, when natural winemakers were struggling to find a market for their wine in France, it was Japanese wine buyers who came to the rescue, buying up to 80% of some of wineries stock, thereby establishing Japan as the biggest importer of natural wine in the world and saving cash strapped winemakers from certain financial ruin. IMG_7736 It would seem that the significance of these early vanguards is not lost on the new generation of bistro du vin owners. When I asked Le Verre Vole’s Ryo-san where he choses to dine out on one of his rare nights off, the answer was emphatic: Shonzui – a Roppongi institution run by the aforementioned Katsuyama-san.

Established in 1993, on the ‘right’ side of Roppongi (away from the sleazy strip clubs and gaijin watering holes of Gaienmai-dori), Shonzui has long held a reputation for its excellent wine selection and hearty bistro fare. In days of old, Katsuyama-san, whose unassuming and jovial character belies this incredible wine knowledge, worked the floor as both host and sommelier, serving rustic dishes inspired from his his extensive travels throughout the wine regions of France. festivin2012_0823_MwebThese days he has handed these duties over to a young talented team, so he can devote time to his new Chinese BBQ venture, “Lucky”, promoting natural wine through his Festivin project, and pursuing his other great love, jazz. Shonzui interior On a chilly spring evening, Ryo-san rallied the troops for an evening at his favourite dining room. We were a curious multi-national and multi-generational coterie, comprised of la families Le Verre Vole (including the angelic, 9 month old, Anjou) the babes of Standing Bar Waltz (wife and newborn – sadly Papa had to work), two Frenchmen, a Norwegian, and yours truly. We were warmly greeted by the dapper maitre d’, Tsubo-san, and immediately treated to a bottle of wine to kick off our festivities. IMG_7689 Complements of the house: a bottle of Gilles et Catherine Verge’s Pétillant Naturel Bulle à Zéro, from Viré, in the Mâconnais district of southern Burgundy. The vividly yellow appearance and slightly oxidised apple aromas of this semi-sparkling chardonnay were more reminiscent of a Jura-style than something I would associate with the south of Burgundy. I was later to learn that the Verges, who only make san soufre wine due to sulphur allergies, lift the lids of the vats during the vinification process to encourage oxidisation and to allow nutty flavours and cider aromas to develop. Is it me, or do the bourgeoisie seem to have terribly delicate systems these days? All cynicism aside, the zesty lemon honey and limestone flavours combined with a soft effervescency made it a pleasant enough start to the night. Kajiki maguroThe blackboard menu lists an array of simple, unpretentious and unabashedly meat-driven bistrot fare. But in all my visits I’ve never ordered from it. Instead, I seek inspiration from the counter, where a selection of proteins stand resplendent: whole Bresse chickens trussed and ready for roasting, enormous steaks of aged wagyu, and, on this evening, a huge cross section of kajiki-maguro (swordfish) – a welcome sight to someone with pescatarian tendencies. After preferences were sort, we sat back and relaxed as the kitchen went about plying us with plate after heaping plate of flavoursome rustic food. IMG_7690First up, “The Boucherie’s Plate”. Amongst the charcuterie assortment: roast pork, parma ham, roast pigeon hearts, terrine de campagne, cornichons, and pork rilette, which we liberally heaped onto crusty slices of freshly baked campagne bread. IMG_7710Les Vieilles Vignes des Blanderies 2006, a beautifully composed Chenin Blanc from Domaine Mark Angeli, in Anjou. Like the Verges, Angeli has demoted all of his wine to the humble ‘Vin de Table’ status in protest to the appellation’s rigid regulations and refusal to reduce the use of pesticides in the region. In fact, this became an emerging theme throughout the night. Kajiki saladThe kajiki-maguro appeared table-side in the form of a protein-packed salad made with rocket and home cured sardines. It was as generous in flavour as it was in proportion. IMG_7723Our lively conversation was briefly interrupted when a pot of live lobster was brought to the table for our inspection. Would this be to our liking? Indeed it would! Lobster Quickly dispatched by the chef, the lobster, along with two of its friends, returned grilled with a liberal saucing of herb butter. But where were the claws? Lobster gratinThey arrived atop a wickedly rich and decadent dish of oven roasted potato gratin. Swoon! EponaAnother Chenin, and yet another Vin de Table: Domaine Griottes’ Epona, from Lambert du Lattay, in the Loire. Made by Patrick Desplats and Sebastien Dervieux, two wild and wooly rebels of the natural wine movement, who espouse an ultra-traditionalist non-intervention method; no SO2 or additives, and  wild yeast fermentation. The Epona charmed with its subtle bouquet and fresh, mineral taste. A nice counterbalance to the rich creaminess of the lobster gratin. IMG_3865   An old friend from the North: Domaine Gérard Schueller. Somewhat of a firebrand, Bruno Schueller’s winemaking philosophy is based on bio-dynamics, but his idiosyncratic style and aversion to regulations, particularly those of the INAO, mean that his wine seems to defy easy classification. His minimal intervention approach; using only a tiny amount of SO2 at bottling, as well as lengthy fermentation & maturation periods results in vivid, lively wine with nice balance & depth. I’ve also noticed a bit of bottle variation  – possibly due to poor storage conditions post-dispatch from the winery.

Having enjoyed the Gewurtztraminer & Riesling from Schueller in the past, I was interested to try the Pinot Noir. Pale ruby in hue, with an abundance of fresh raspberry & rhubarb aromas. Slightly petillant with bright acidity and a distinct minerality – this is a great quaffing wine for a summer bbq… but sadly, lacked the body & structure to stand up to our hearty steak dinner. WagyuHoly wagyu! We were presented with two strapping sirloin cuts of aged Yamagata-gyu, each weighing around 900 grams. The red meat deprived Norwegian literally started purring at this stage. Steak Frites Steak Frites 2 IMG_7735La vache! Two heaving boards of perfectly rendered sirloin, cooked to the rare side of medium-rare, with simple accompaniments of duck fat roasted potatoes and dressed leaves. A reverent hush fell across our table as members savoured the pleasure of each flavour-releasing chew. From all accounts it was a succulent flavour-bomb of well cooked cow. Tsubo-san The mothers and babes bid us farewell, and with their departure the games began – Tsubo-san acting as our incorrigible enabler. Sensing our desire for something more robust, Tsubo-san appeared with a selection of more hearty varietals. After giving a detailed and eloquent description of each wine, a clear winner emerged… Les Balatilles Les Baltailles! This san soufre gamay, from the Beaujolis vineyard Domaine Phillipe Jambon, was an absolute stunner: rich and intense with dried fruit, bitter chocolate and umami flavours. In this instance its ‘vin de table’ moniker works well, because has it been labelled ‘Beaujolais’ one might have expected something much lighter and less structured in the glass. 2008 Domaine Léon Barral Faugères Valinière As with namazake, I find that when you drink natural wine the aroma and flavour are masked by the haze of it’s fresh unpasteurised character. I register that it’s a natural wine, rather than get any sense of terroir or grape. Not so with this 2008 Domaine Léon Barral Faugères Valinière. Clean and well balanced on the nose, with plum, dark berry and pleasant mineral notes. The flavour was a revelation. Made with 80% Mourvedre and 20% Syrah, and aged two years in barrel, it was full and lush on the palate, with nicely integrated tannins and acidity. The clarity and precision of this wine are a testament to the craftsmanship of Didier Barral, a biodynamic vintner, who eschews the use of sulphur, filtering and fining. Definitely worth seeking out. Bacchanalia As the evening progressed, and more bottles were produced, the bacchanalia increased and soon the line between patrons and staff blurred. We took the ‘cheese course’ standing at the bar, the chef shaving slices of aged comte onto our hands in between slugs from his wine glass. Some Roquefort appeared and immediately disappeared, along with bowls of Shizuoka strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar. And on and on the wine kept following… IMG_3867 At 2am, red-cheeked and full-bellied, we reluctantly bid adieu to our generous hosts. It had been an evening of good honest food, vivid wine and exceptional hospitality – a night with good friends that will be indelibly etched in my memory.

At some point during the festivities, a marker had been produced and a drunken message was scrawled amongst the tributes on the wall. “Forget Michelin,” someone had written in wobbly cursive script, “this is the real star dining experience.” Someone may have been seriously sloshed, but as the saying goes, “In vino veritas!”

UPDATE: Sadly, Tsubo-san has departed from Shonzui. You will find him at Le Cabaret, working the floor with his usual charm.

 SHONZUI 

03-3405-7478

Tapas dining in the heart of Tsukiji Fish Market: Uogashi Bar Tamatomi – 魚河岸バル 築地 TAMATOMI

Wandering through the narrow alleyways of Tsukiji’s outer market after dark is a fairly surreal experience. There is no trace of the drama and energy of the early morning operations, when the world’s largest fish market is a buzz with action: wholesalers and retailers noisily touting for trade, lorries whizzing perilously through the maze of streets, narrowly missing (or perhaps aiming for) the crowds of gaping, SLR totting tourists who descend on the area, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. After hours the place is eerily quiet. Shops are all shuttered. The sightseers are gone. The only sign of life comes from men in white sushi shop uniforms standing forlornly outside a brightly lit, and depressingly empty, 24-hour chain store.

Tsukiji Tamatomi

But what lured me to the area was not the prospect of a cheap sushi dinner, rather a seat at one of Tokyo’s best kept secrets: Uogashi Tamatomi, a tiny 10 seat tapas bar which continues to do a bustling trade while the rest of the market sleeps.

Born and raised in Tsukiji, owner and chef Takamasa Mochizuki is a true Edo-ko. For four generations his family has made a humble living catering to the needs of the local workforce; former incarnations have been a condiments store, an o-bento shop, and more recently a tobacconist. So when Mochizuki-san inherited the space, relatives advised him to open a donburi or sushi shop – both sure-fire sources of revenue; advise that he promptly, and willfully, ignored. Travels had broadened his horizons and firmed his resolve. His dream was to open his own casual eatery where his friends could enjoy the best of Tsukiji’s produce with Mediterranean flavours, washed down with a chilled glass of his preferred tipple, Lambrusco.

The dimensions of the space are impossibly small. The whole counter has to reorganise themselves each time a new customer enters to take their seat. It’s so small in fact that there is no space for a bathroom. But somehow this just adds to Tamatomi’s charm. These little inconveniences are insignificant when compared to the excellent food that comes out of the miniscule kitchen each night.

Given its location, there is only one protein on offer: fish – and plenty of it. For a non-mammal eater, like myself, his weekly changing menu is a pescetarian’s delight. During the summer months, heat ravaged constitutions can be revived with a light and refreshing dishes like this new season sanma (Pacific saury) capaccio.

Or perhaps a shime-saba salad with a bright balsamic dressing.

This amadai (tilefish) dish was notable not only for being beautifully cooked, but because it served unscaled. Mochizuki-san had grilled it in such a way that the scales had become papery crisp; adding an interesting textural element to the dish.

But it’s in winter, when fish is most bountiful and delicious, that I return to Tamatomi with almost maniacal devotion. And I’m not alone – it’s the most difficult season to secure a booking.

Case in point: this crudo of kanburi – thickly marbled cubes of winter yellowfin which had been caught in the frigid coastal waters of Toyama. The beauty of this dish is the simplicity of its preparation: cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of lemon. The seasoning was perfectly balanced to enhance, rather than mask, the exquisite flavour of the fish.

The raw delights continued with a dish of tairagai (razor clam) capaccio, dressed in a piquant herbal marinade. I adore the texture and sweet succulence of this bi-valveespecially with sharp flavours to cut their richness.

The Mame Kinki (baby thornhead) fritto was light, crispy and delightfully fun to eat.

While wine is available by the bottle, there is a by-the-glass selection of a red, a white and, of course, a Lambrusco. All are pretty decent, and – at only ¥500 a pop – very good value for money.

Initially, I wasn’t quite sure of the logic of pairing Lambrusco with fish, but my God did it make sense once I had my first taste; light, refreshing and with a good amount of acidity to cut through the rich olive oils that Mochizuki-san uses so liberally.

Lambrusco is a much derided wine due, in part, to the glut of mass-produced, cloyingly sweet swill that saturated the North American market in the ’80s. In recent years, however, it has undergone something of a revival, with small producers cutting back yields, improving grape quality, and utilising traditional winemaking techniques. The result is a far cry from the cherry-cola like alco-pop of yore – this is now a wine to be taken seriously.

The ‘genuine’ Lambrusco of the Emilia-Romagna region is young, fresh, with the flavour of fresh berries anchored by a faint earthiness – and it’s almost never sweet. Its gentle frizzante sparkle, acidity and dry finish make it a perfect partner for rich, olive oil based dishes.

Tamatomi’s house Lambrusco, Cavicchioli Amiable, is a very reasonably priced entry point to this underrated style. It’s simple, light and zesty, thought not much in the way of tannins or body, but a charming and very drinkable wine, nonetheless.

Foremost amongst the superior producers is Manicardi, from the hilly Castelvetro region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s difficult to resist its lively violet foam, wild berry flavours and dry, savoury finish. This wine pairs beautifully with roasted fish.

And roasted fish doesn’t get much better than Oma maguro. Available for only a limited season (October to December), and caught using the labour intensive ippon zuri method – single-hook hand-line fishing – which is unique to the area that gives it its name, Oma is regarded as Japan’s highest quality, and therefore most expensive, bluefin tuna. While the up-market sushi shops of Ginza snap the prime belly meat, Mochizuki-san prefers to use the more humble, and less expensive, off-cuts such as this jawbone; oven roasted to golden perfection so that the meat literally fell off the bone. The gamey, rich flavour of the meat was enhanced by an infusion of fresh thyme – elevating this simple dish to something quite heavenly. Served with a side dish of rocket salad tossed through with a Reggio Emilia balsamico dressing, this was indeed a hallelujah moment.

Tamatomi was born out of Mochizuki-san’s refusal to confirm to conventional ideas of what a Tsukiji eatery ‘should be’, and in doing so he has created a unique dining experience where the strict rules that apply to fish & wine do not apply. He serves apologetically simple, well executed food and easy-drinking wine without superficiality or artifice. For me, that’s a recipe for success – and why converts like myself continue to make the pilgrimage his small but inviting door.

Closed on Sundays and all Tsukiji Market holidays. No English spoken. No English menu. If you don’t speak Japanese think twice, or take a friend who does. Reservations at least one week in advance. 

Uogashi Tamatomi
03-6278-7765

Tokyo Natural Wine Bistrot: Le Verre Volé à Tokyo, Meguro – ル ヴェール ヴォレ ア 東京、目黒

Still reeling from Paris-syndrome? Well fear not, a little slice of the 10th arrondissement can now be found in the safe confines of Tokyo’s 23 wards. A brisk 10 minute walk from both Meguro and Fudomae stations, Le Verre Volé à Tokyo is located a little off the culinary map, on Meguro-dori – an area more commonly associated with uber-chic design stores than dining options.

Despite the frigid December weather, on the night we visited, it was bustling with patrons. Obviously word has gotten out about the good food, great wine selection and amiable service of this newly opened eatery. (The dim lighting and full capacity meant it was difficult to take interior shots, so here are some I pinched from the designer’s website)

If this tiny wine bistrot looks like it has been transplanted from the streets of Paris, that’s because it has. The original Le Verre Volé, is a thriving wine shop/restaurant hybrid in a hip neighbourhood near Canal St. Martin. Set up in collaboration with the owners and a French designer, Ryotaro Miyauchi, has created a store which is Boho-Parissenne in both taste and aesthetic.

The speciality here is natural wine, thoughtfully selected from France’s major wine areas, as well as some small producers from far-flung corners of the country. The walls of the narrow space are lined with a diverse range of bottles for purchase, as well as blackboard menus which list a few varieties by the glass. Bottles start from ¥3,500, and staff are more than willing to help guide you through the selection process.

We snuggled into our seats at the copper-topped counter, and promptly ordered a glass of ‘Welcome Abroad’, from Domaine Mosse; a small natural winery situated in the heart of the Loire Valley’s Coteaux du Layon appellation. This fragrant, biodynamic Chenin Blanc was initially quite sweet on the palate, but was balanced out by the nice clip of acidity and dry finish. A rich and dangerously drinkable wine.

The menu offers a small selection of entrees and plats of simple French bistro fare, made with local organic produce. As my companion and I had constitutions which were suffering the effects of the bonenkai season, we ordered gingerly.

We started with light, though fairly pedestrian, plate of smoked salmon marinade.

My dinner date became quite animated upon tasting the baguette, declaring it to be as good as the bread she gets from her local Denen-Chofu bakery, Bigot, which we were to discover was exactly where it hailed from.

A pretty plate of hirame (flounder), red daikon and coriander ceviche. The fish was deliciously tender, and a light marinade ensured that its delicate flavour was not overwhelmed.

The slightly reductive nose on Domaine Valette’s MâconVillages 2010 Chardonnay, told me that this was indeed a sans soufre (no added sulphur) natural wine. As I haven’t had the best of luck with non-sulphur wines I was immediately apprehensive. However, my trepidation eased upon tasting its well-balanced, subtle fruit flavour. 
In comparison, the Touraine ‘Le Brin de Chèvre’, Clos de Tue Boeuf, made from the local Menu Pineau grape, was much more aromatic and vibrant. While a little short in the finish, it was a pleasant wine to match with seafood.

After a couple of wines, our resolve to only order entrees melted. Who were we kidding? Christmas isn’t a time for austerity.
From the plats menu: Tara (cod) poêle with bio-organic vegetables and an ume beurre blanc. The fish was moist and flaky, but could have done with some citrus to counteract the intense buttery sauce.

The boudin noir (pork blood sausage – here it is served in a terrine shape) is a popular dish on the Paris bistro’s menu, and judging by the number of plates of it that I saw whizzing out of the kitchen, it’s being enthusiastically received by Tokyo diners, too.

The richness of the mains had done us in, so dessert was off the cards. Instead, we decided to get our calories in liquid form, with a glass of Domaine Mosse Anjou: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc. It had a wonderful dark berry aroma, and a rich and yet fresh flavour which was supported by a fine tannic structure. An expressive and approachable wine.

Apart from the Domaine Valette, all of the wines we tried that evening listed the addition of sulphur on their labels – something I am sure vin au naturel purists would sniff their noses at in contempt. Intrigued, I asked Miyauchi-san about his personal philosophy towards natural wine. The upshot of our conversation was that his selection process is based solely on taste and quality, not methodology. Some of the wines he stocks are unadulterated san soufre, some are biodynamic and loaded with sulphites, others are somewhere on the spectrum between the two, but all taste good in the glass. This pragmatic approach may have a lot to do with the fact that he spent time working at Domaine Mosse (and also explains why its wines feature prominently on the menu), whose philosophy involves natural fermentation with minimal intervention, along with sparing use of sulphur to avoid the excessive oxidation that is so prevalent in most natural wines. I only wish more natural wine sommeliers adhered to the concept of taste over ideology – it would certainly take the Russian Roulette anxiety out of ordering.

Throughout the evening, service was courteous and professional – none of that infamous brusque French attitude here. As the tables cleared and customers thinned out, I was able to chat with the staff about our favourite places to dine out in the City of Lights. I was delighted to discover that the head waiter had worked in the kitchens of some of Paris’ most lauded bistros: Chez Michel, Les Cocotte and – my personal favourite – Chez L’Ami Jean. Why his experience isn’t being utilised in the kitchen beggars belief! Mottainai, to be sure, but at least it gives you a measure of the talent on offer here. 

Le Verre Volé à Tokyo is the ideal venue for a leisurely boozy meal of small plates and interesting wines. And as the New Year dawns, I have made a resolution to return – in fact, I’ve re-booked already.

Le Verre Volé à Tokyo
03-3713-7505

Tokyo Food & Natural Wine: Ahiru Store, Yoyogi-Koen – アヒルストア、代々木公園


Although it opened in 2008, I only came across Ahiru Store last year, when I made note of its strong ranking on tabelog during one of my regular late night trolls for inspiration. A few days later, it was splashed all over the pages of Brutus magazine’s wine bar edition and,  needless to say, as soon as Ahiru Store was given that local style barometer’s seal of approval, seats (and even standing room) at the tiny bistro were immediately among the most coveted in town.

One year on and the buzz shows no sign of abating. From the moment it opens at 5pm till the last orders are called there is a constant line of customers patiently queued outside Ahiru’s door. 


Standing in line on a small backstreet in Yoyogi-Koen, your appetite is teased by the heavenly aromas of roasting meats & herbs that emanate from the small kitchen and a tempting window display of freshly baked breads – it can be a torturous wait. But persevere and the pay off is some seriously good eats.


If you are lucky you can snag a stool at the counter, otherwise you will have to make do with space around one of the wine barrels that double as tables for standing patrons. 

 
Owner and sommelier, Teruhiko Saito, is a busy man. He spends the entire evening in a state of constant motion: turning over tables, taking orders and preparing appetisers. He also runs a tight ship, so be prepared to order your drinks straight away. You can choose from the selection of bottles (mostly French) displayed on the wall, or from the daily selection of four red and white options by the glass (¥800). Although he is a harried man, Saito-san is generous in giving descriptions and helping customers make selections from his vast selection of shizenha (natural) wines; a genre is he obviously passionate about.
 

‘Natural’ has usurped organic and biodynamic to become the latest buzzword in wine.  But what does it actually mean?
 
Well, there is no official definition of natural wine, but essentially its organic or biodynamic wine made with minimal intervention: no additives or tricks of technology. In other words, natural wine eschews commercial yeasts, preservatives and (in France) sugar – yes, it’s considered a chemical in the natural viticulture world. The result is a naturally fermented ‘naked’ wine, low in sulphur, and, as it is made in small quantities from single vineyards, it is said to better capture the characteristics of the terroir and grape.

 
Hipsters, who love to fetishise the authentic, have been quick to champion the natural wine movement for its old school techniques and anti-establishment ethos. In fact, they will probably delight in telling you that they were drinking it ‘before it was cool’…groan! But its popularity can’t just be attributed to Williamsburg residents and the wearers of ironic spectacles alone; for equally ‘on trend’ individuals and restaurants that adhere to a foraging, slow food philosophy, natural wine has been fervently received as the logical accompaniment to farm-to-table cuisine. 
 
 
Japan has become one of the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines (some French makers saying that it accounts for more than 50% of their exports), which is hardly surprising given the public’s concern about the origin and purity of food in the wake of last year’s Tohoku disasters. Another practical reason for its popularity here is that the Japanese have a hard time metabolising alcohol, so the low sulphur levels in make it an ideal choice for their constitution. A cynic like me would also add that it could also due to Japanese consumers susceptibility to aggressive marketing (the annual Beaujolais Nouveau mania being case in point) and a cultural tendency to equate purity with quality.

Natural wine has been heralded by some as the future of viticulture, and dismissed by others as ‘faddish, fault-indulgent hippie juice’, with Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker going one step further by declaring it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers”. It’s hard to disagree with the philosophy and ethics behind the genre, so why does this wine have aficionados so staunchly divided, and more importantly, how does it taste? Well, that’s exactly what I came to Ahiru Store to find out.
 


Intrigued by his description of apples and calvados, I ordered La Treille Muscate’s Vendange Tardive 2008, from the Haute Corbieres area of Languedoc-Roussillion – a blend of macabeu & pinot gris. The wine had a peachy hue, with the taste of over-ripe apples and honeycomb, marred by musty sherry notes and a staleness that I would describe as oxidised. It would seem that Saito-san’s description of calvados was a literal one, as it definitely tasted like a fortified wine – albeit one that had been filtered through an old Gallic sock. Why this was being recommended at the onset of a meal was beyond me. Not a great start to the evening.

On a brighter note the food here is excellent. Saito-san’s sister, Wakako, is at the helm in the kitchen, preparing rustic, home-style French fare with aplomb. 

We started with a basket of their in-house baked breads: potato & rosemary focaccia and a moreish wedge of the onion pain de campagne. Both were outstanding. I should mention that you don’t have to dine-in to sample their selection – it can be bought from the door as take-out.

 

The bread was also put to good use mopping up this simple preparation of haricot beans cooked in olive oil with sage, and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.

A salad of avocado and octopus with a wasabi infused olive oil and garlic dressing. Generously portioned and delicious. 

I still have cravings for the parmesan and sesame studded grissini, which come tied with ribbons of prosciutto ham. Devilishly addictive. 

After requesting something a little dryer, I was served a glass of Cheverny “Les Perrieres” 2011, by Christian Venier. As soon as I put the glass to my nose, I was hit by the pungent smell of wet stone and tarragon vinegar. My first sip only served to confirm my initial suspicion – the wine was spoiled, acetic and all together unpleasant. I didn’t know whether to send it back or toss it over my salad. Of course, I couldn’t send it back as this is how it was suppose to taste; its fermented in a tank with a loose seal to encourage oxidation which, when properly managed, creates umami characteristics – or vinegar, when it’s not.

Down but not out, I ordered a glass of the Cheverny La Pierre aux Chiens, again by Christian Venier (pictured above, next to the La Treille Muscate). It is worth noting that all of the wines at Ahiru Store are served chilled – even the reds – due to their unstable nature and propensity to spoil. It was a smart, light-weight pinot with the flavour of cherry, cranberry and a touch of earthiness. While quite drinkable, it was a little too light in my opinion – more like a grape juice than pinot noir. By this stage I felt like asking, “Can I please have a wine that tastes like wine?

 
I sort solace in a delicious plate of sanma confit. Its slow cooking in oil had rendered the meat meltingly soft, and I greedily devoured it, head, bones, tail and all. 
 

Everything at Ahiru Store is produced in-house, from the pickles to the tasty selection of sausages which Saito-san grinds and stuffs himself. As I don’t eat meat, it was up to my companion to ‘take one for the team’ with a hearty plate of pork and shallot sausage with potato salad. They then proceeded to ignore me as they were transported to piggy heaven. I was informed that it was as substantial in taste as it was proportion.


A subsequent visit resulted in much better luck with the wine. This 2010 Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, from Tracy-sur-Loire, had pleasant ripe grape and pear aromas, with a fuller body than one would expect from a sauvignon blanc. It was refreshing with a nice balance of acidity – very drinkable.  

 

There was an audible ‘pop’ on opening of the Vin d’Alsace Laurent Bannwarth Riesling 2010 (second from the left), which indicated this wine was very much ‘alive’. It had a herbaceous nose which opened up to reveal some flinty notes and a touch of calpis (???). The taste was of bright fruit, with a lively yoghurty tang. An unusual expression of riesling, but an interesting one none the less. 

This La Lunotte Haut Plessis, made with a rare Loire grape called Menu Pineau, was a bottle of liquid sunshine. Slighty cloudy in appearance, with aromas of citrus and, err.. sauerkraut. It was light and dry with vibrant acidity that made me wake up and take notice. Something worth revisiting in the hot summer months.

It was the night before a public holiday and, as last orders were called, Saito-san dimmed the lights, turned up the Kraftwerk and popped some bubbles – he clearly had recreation on his mind. Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot’s 100% chardonnay sparkling Cremant du Jura was fresh and crisp with a complex texture, cut through with a slight acidity and layers of mineral notes. A little more savoury than I like my bubbles, but quite enjoyable.

I applaud the ‘less-is-more’ debate that the natural movement has instigated in the greater wine industry, and believe that a shift backwards, to less chemical intervention and more conscious production, will ultimately be a step forward. Over the past few months, I’ve had some ‘ahh’ moments: well crafted, vibrant wines, such as the Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, have definitely opened my eyes to the enormous potential of the natural genre. However, what is stopping me from jumping on the natural wine bandwagon is that when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are atrocious! A disproportionate number of the wines I’ve tasted were funky (in a bad way), overly acidic and unpleasantly weird. Rather than being pure expression of the terroir, these wines would best be described as micro-bacterial disasters – a result of natural wine makers focusing too dogmatically on the process, and not enough on the quality of the end result, perhaps? So for now, I remain firmly on the vineyard fence.
 
What I am sure of, however, is that Ahiru Store deserves all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. It’s a lovely neigbourhood bistro, serving well prepared, produce-driven food at reasonable prices. I love the buzz the informality here. 
 
So regardless of where you stand on the ‘natural vs. conventional’ spectrum, if you approach the wine with an open mind, you will walk away from an evening at Ahiru Store delighted.  
 
NB: Reservations can be made for no later than 6:30pm. 
 
03-5454-2146
 
 

Tokyo Standing Bar: Fujiya Honten Wine Bar, Shibuya – 富士屋本店ワインバー, 渋谷

Kicking around the south side of Shibuya Station after Funkommunity’s epic first gig in Tokyo, we were feeling peckish, but indecisive. Not wanting to commit to a sit down meal, we headed to Fujiya Wine Bar, an offshoot of the infamous tachinomiya, Fujiya Honten. The original is a bit of an institution and the preferred watering hole for local oyaji who like to drink cheap and eat even cheaper – nothing is over ¥500. But that grimy dive bar is a far cry from its sparkling new standing bar, which is designed to target the youngermore urban demographic that frequent the area.


No oyagi here, it’s mostly dating couples and young professionals, but the basic ethos is still the same: a huge selection of bargain basement priced wines and inexpensive small plates of pan-European fare served without any airs or graces. 
    


The wine list is a thick wad of laminated cards of that profile a vast selection of inexpensive new and old world wines. Prices range from ¥1,600 – ¥4,500, but most hover around the ¥2,500 mark. There are also about 20 red and white wines available by the glass for ¥500. Go for a bottle, because what you can’t drink, you can take home. And given that the prices are just a few hundred yen higher than retail, that’s a pretty good deal!

I was tempted by the Hugel Riesling, but as the music had shifted our thoughts to The Land of the Long White Cloud, we opted for a bottle of Old Coach Road Chardonnay, the economy label of Siegfried Estate; a winery renown for making of some consistently good New Zealand whites.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, tachinimoya are a great option for those in need of something ultra casual; you can drink order a drink and a plate then move on, or (as in our case) order cheap booze and food for as long as you can bear to stand. Generally, food is snacky and fairly underwhelming – drinking being the main focus. So it was pleasant surprise to discover that the dishes being pumped out of Fujiya’s small kitchen were both generously proportioned and tasty. 


Table menus and blackboards list a variety of tapas and izakaya style dishes priced between ¥500-¥800. Apparently an English menu is available, but, as is so often the case, it only has their standard items – you will need to as for the daily specials.   

I handed over ordering duties to The Stylist, as I did the obligatory Instagram photo documentation, and it seems that he was hungry, because we soon ran out of table space to accommodate it all.

A mixture of olives and pickles. Sure, they were straight out of the bottle, but at least they weren’t stingy with the portions.

Tai capaccio. Not so keen on the cherry tomato garnish, but the marinade was tasty and the fish nice & tender.

The Poor Man’s Caviar, or caviar d’aubergine, was nicely seasoned but lacked the smokiness of charcoal grilled eggplant that is the hallmark of the dish.

The elaborate saucing of the dishes made me wonder if there was a frustrated artist in the kitchen. Our caprice salad may have been made with hot house tomatoes and commercial mozzarella cheese, but the post-impressionist flourishes of basil dressing enlivened it nicely.

Kani-miso a la Jackson Pollock? A playful interpretation of an izakaya standard: crab meat deep fried in a thread-like patter with tobiko and a creamy kani-miso (crab entrail) sauce.

Kaki (oyster) and spinach gratin with a crunchy parmesan topping. Piping hot, creamy and packed with flavour.

Did they know we were coming? An order of lamb chops and sweet potato (or kumara, as we call it back home) was an obvious choice for a group of displaced Kiwis. The meat could have done with a little more resting, but judging from the oohs and aah’s from around the table, it was a hit.

The boys give their seal of approval. Last orders were called at 10:30, and by that they meant, “Drink up! We’re closing at 11pm.” Sure enough, at 11:01 – on the dot – we found ourselves on the pavement looking for a venue for our nijikai.

While the send-off may have been a little perfunctory, Fujiya Honten Wine Bar had served its purpose: we had full tummies and a cheap wine buzz. Its combination of good food and wine, low prices and convivial atmosphere make this standing bar a great option if ever you find yourself at a loose end on the south-side of Hachiko.

Fujiya Honten Wine Bar 
03-3461-2128

Tokyo Food: Du Barry, Ikejiro-Ohashi – デュ バリー, 池尻大橋

Du Barry. The name immediately inspires images of French history’s most notorious trollop, Madame du Barry. A woman of humble beginnings who brazenly ascended French society, right into the boudoir of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In the spirit of aging disgracefully, a restaurant named in honour such a licentious lady seemed a fitting choice for this year’s birthday festivities. 
Located in the well-heeled residential neighbourhood of Ikejiri-Okejiri, Du Barry opened two years ago at the height of the Neo-bistrot boom. A sophisticated yet affordable restaurant, serving a modern take on regional French cuisine, in a space best described as contemporary Tokyo chic, Du Barry is a welcome relief to the chintzy accoutrements and overblown prices that one so often associates with French dining experiences in Japan.
The kitchen is headed by Katsuyoshi Yamada, a young chef who earned his stripes in Michelin ranked French restaurants such as the two-starred Feu, in Aoyama. His menu is made up of standard bistrot dishes reinterpreted with Japanese flavours and local organic produce. While it is possible to order a la carte, most – us included – opt for the 6 course prix-fix menu, which at ¥4,200 is very good value for money.

Homemade bread and anchovy stuffed olives gave us something to nibble on as we perused the wine list, which was comprised of fairly young vintage varieties from across France and… my homeland, Nouvelle Zelande – quelle surprise!

We toasted with a bottle of Petit Coteau Vouvray lesTuffières Methode Traditionalle – bubbles on a beggar’s budget. 

Apparently, cauliflower was once all the rage at the court of Louis XIV – who knew? Du Barry pays homage to this humble brassica’s regal past by featuring it in various forms at the outset of each meal. We started with an amuse of the King’s preferred preparation: cooked in butter with a liberal sprinkling of nutmeg. 

My friends know me well. This year’s treats included a stinky wheel of Burgundian Vieux Chambolle (similar to an epoisse), and a sliver of Roquefort Papillion, from the excellent Tokyo fromagier, Fermier, plus wine from one of my favourite New Zealand wineries, Ata Rangi. Cheers my dears!

We progressed onto a carpaccio de poisson et d’aubergine parfumé au safran, which I paired with a bottle of Lawson’s Dry Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – and subsequently failed to document. The madai was beautifully soft, without even the smallest trace of connective tissue. The flavours and textures of the dish all worked well together. Yummo!

The next course on the menu was a salmon mousse gateau layered with Tasmanian smoked salmon and basil vinaigrette, however I was able to negotiate substituting this for their signature dish of shirako meunière and brandade from the à la carte menu. Both were decadently rich and well complemented by the dry, refreshing Hugel Gentel 2009 we drank with it.
We followed the Hugel with another Alsace wine, this time a bottle of 2008 Pinot Blanc by Pierre Frick, an Alsatian winemaker who is one of the pioneers of bio-dynamic wine in France. He is also well-known for his virulent attacks on GM crops This aromatic wine, which is vinified without sulphur, was notable for its lovely colour and pleasant stone fruit notes. 

The fourth course dishes of gratin dauphinoise and salade de légumes chaud (grilled seasonal vegetables), were effectively the sides to our main course which was served at the same time. Both were prepared with liberal amounts of butter. Well, if it ain’t artery-clogging, it ain’t French.


The poisson du jour was a pavé of Oita saba (mackerel) in a red peppercorn and balsamic reduction. Perfectly cooked, but could have done with more sauce. 

My companions choose to get their protein in the form of a warming dish of veal cheeks slowly braised in marsala sauce. The meat was so tender that it fell apart with the touch of your fork; no knife required.

The kitchen, once again, obliged my request for an off menu item: a trio of aoi ringo (despite the name is actually a green apple), mango and strawberry sorbet. I know that may seem like the most unlikely choice of birthday ‘cakes’, but for me the clean and refreshing flavours of sorbet are the perfect way to end a rich and buttery meal.

The rest of the table oohed and ahhed over their matcha and adzuki bean mille-feuille with vanilla cream.

A light and fluffy creme D’Anjou, served with our choice of coffee or blended tea, rounded out the meal. 
Well feted and well fed. Overall, my impression of Du Barry is good food and great service, all at a very decent price. Its stylish yet thoroughly casual atmosphere lends itself perfectly to a relaxed weeknight dinner with friends. 


I look forward to dealing with the challenges of the year ahead as I’ve always dealt with life’s challenges: with a strong drink in my hand. On that note, it must be time for some rum. Off to Bar Julep!

Du Barry
03-6450-8177

Tokyo Food: Higashiyama, Nakameguro

January 29th, 2011
This birthday I was given a clear directive from friends: no Japanese food, and I can’t make the reservation. Harsh! Well, I suppose they did have just cause given that last year I had taken them to an izakaya that, despite having high ranking on tabelog (I was yet to discover the disparity between rankings and reality), was abysmal and resulted in the entire party coming down with food poisoning.
However, after employing a little diplomacy, I was able to wrestle back control with the compromise of a Japanese restaurant in the painfully hip environs of Nakameguro.

Named after the chi-chi neighbourhood it is located in, Higashiyama is patronised by local tarento, the design/fashion clique and a small coterie of foreigners who have no doubt stumbled across praising reviews – that damn ‘the New York Times effect’. From the street, there is little in the way of signage to indicate Higashiyama’s existence, but once you make your way along the path to the rear of the building, an open courtyard is revealed with a striking water feature bathed in subtle lighting.
Higashiyama is the flagship restaurant of the Simplicity, a design company which promotes its vision of bringing Japanese lifestyle and culture to the global stage through the fields of architecture, interior design, food and food related design products. 
Before being seated, guests are lead to a dimly lit alcove, which is in effect a showcase for the wabi-sabi designs produced by the Simplicity workshops. 

On display are ceramics, tableware, woodwork, metalware, along with a selection elegantly presented Japanese sweets from their wagashi shop, Higashiya… all conveniently available for purchase, of course.

Counter seats overlooking the immaculate kitchen would be my preference, but given the number in our group it was impractical. We were more than happy, however, with seats at the large communal table in the central dining room. There are also smaller tables set along the atrium windows with views over the courtyard for more intimate dining. 

The attention to detail is impressive. The place settings, with thick cotton napkins, metal chopstick holders and hand-crafted ohashi, beautifully complement the food. 

The menu could be best described as contemporary Japanese washoku utilizing the best of seasonal and locally sourced produce. The menu is available a la carte or there is a choice of prix fixe courses which range from ¥3,500, for a 2 course option, to a more elaborate ¥8,000 wagyu course. We stumped for the ¥3,500 course with two of us supplementing our course with sashimi moriawase (for me), and a gobo & nanohana (burdock root and rapeseed greens) salad in a goma & kurumi (sesame and walnut) dressing (for the Greek).
A simple appetiser of homemade tofu and lightly pickled Kyoto vegetables started the meal. The silken tofu was accompanied with Iburi Jio sea salt, from Akita, which is smoked with cherry wood. The wonderful smoky flavour and aroma that this artisanal salt imparted to the dish was a revelation. So good, in fact, that I kept nibbling at it long after the tofu was gone. 
All this talk of food, and I have failed to mention the drinks menu, which is comprised of a good selection of sake, shouchu, as well as French & New World wines from some fairly reputable vineyards. I was tempted by rieslings from Serensin Estate (New Zealand) and Hugel (Alsace), but bubbles were the order of the day, so we selected a pleasant semi-seco Cava instead.

Confusion reigned, however, when two large platters of sashimi arrived along with a large ceramic bowl of the gobo and nanohana salad. Impressed with the generous portions, we greedily dived into the food before the realisation slowly dawned on us that our waiter had ordered each dish for the whole table. An expensive mistake which took our economical course option to well over ¥6,500 per person. 

An entree of Hokkaido snow crab, kazunoko (dried herring roe), micro greens and yuzu salad arrived in an impressive urushi (lacquerware) bowl. The contrasting flavours and textures of the soft, sweet crab meat, the spongy, crunchy kazunoko, and the crisp zesty vegetables made for a bit of a party in my mouth, and brought smiles to the all the faces at the table.

The main course of Iwate roast pork with quince sauce and wilted greens was deemed moist and delicious by all assembled.

All except me, of course. Due to my non-meat eating ways, the kitchen kindly allowed me to order a main from the a la carte list. My teriyaki glazed buri (yellowtail) steak was served with its traditional accompaniment of grated daikon, and some grilled sweet potato – yum! The glaze was sweet and smoky, and the fish was grilled to what seems to be the standard Japanese level of ‘done': cooked all the way through, though I personally prefer my fish cooked a little under. I also thought the dish lacked some acidity, and was screaming out for a big wedge of lemon; a small quibble easily remedied once the required citrus was procured from the kitchen. Again, the presentation was spot on, and I seriously contemplated smuggling the gold leaf urushi plate home in my bag.

A covertly orchestrated platter of matcha and vanilla panacotta was the surprise finale to the meal. Decadently rich, without being cloying and mellowed out with a warm bowl of houjicha, it was the perfect note to finish on. Note the candle holder is a big chunk of mizujokan… God is in the details.

Overall, a pleasant meal was had by all, though our experience was slightly soured when then bill arrived; with drinks, the total came to around ¥9,000 per person. Therefore the waiter’s ordering snafu had added an extra ¥3,000 to each person’s meal. As it was a special day my companions, bless them, preferred to pay up rather than make a fuss, which was incredibly generous and gracious of them. Definitely a lesson learned.

No good night out is complete without a 二次会 (after party), so the more robust drinkers in our group (the Greek and I), carried on the festivities in the lower level Higashiyama Lounge. Accessed by diners from the restaurant or via a discrete street entrance, the lounge bar is a destination in itself. The interior is a continuation of the industrial minimalist design of the main building, with the noir-ish lighting, luxe seating and jazz/soul BGM creating a sense greater intimacy. Supping Ron Zacapa 20 year Guatemalan rum in this environment one could easily forget the passage of time. And indeed we did. So if points were based on the hour one stumbles out the door, Higashiyama would be awarded an impressive 5 and a half stars (hick!)… minus 2 for the dent to the wallet.
03-5720-1300

Tokyo Food: Vinoteca, Midtown, Roppongi. ヴィノテカ、六本木

May 30th.
I have rotten luck. I never seem to win anything! The 2002 World Cup being case in point: I drew China and Saudi Arabia, in my company’s sweepstake; teams that placed 31st and 32nd, respectively. Groan! So, it was an enormous surprise to receive a small windfall in the form of a ¥5,000 dining coupon, courtesy of Tokyo Midtown, to be redeemed at Francis Ford Coppela’s Vinoteca restaurant. Brilliant! Okay, so it wasn’t the the free course meal for two at Ten-Estu that I had actually entered the draw for – given my track record, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.


The 360 degree wine cabinet, which doubles as the entranceway, set the scene; we were departing from the shopping mall and arriving in Californian wine country. – Though I must say it did feel slightly sacrilegious to trod over such precious vessels.



We were greeted by the gregarious maitre d’, Patrick. A man who is obviously so secure in himself that he sports a waxed moustache that would make Kaiser Wilhelm II blush. I was quite prepared to be fond of him until he indulged in a lengthy, and explicit, discourse on another diner’s genitalia – don’t ask! He shall be referred to from this point on as Mr Inappropriate-Trousers.
We were not seated at the elegant ‘river’ counter that winds serpentine like along the expansive windows, but rather at a linen dressed table in a quiet alcove off the main dining room. Mr Inappropriate-Trousers assured us that it was an upgrade, and given there were three in our party, I begrudgingly had to agree with him.


A selection of fresh bread was quickly served, with a ramekin of extra virgin olive oil, which gave us something to gnaw on as we perused the food and wine menus. Wine menu is a bit of a misnomer – it’s more like an almanac. The list is dominated by wines from the Napa Valley area and Coppela’ own winery – natch – as well as a comprehensive selection of Italian varieties which complement the Cali-Italian menu.
Given we had all chosen vegetable and fish dishes, we settled on an Italian Pinot Grigio – whose provenance I have completely forgotten – a crisp, light-bodied wine with the spritzy flavours that are characteristic of this variety.
I was a little miffed with the fact that MR I-T not only failed to present the bottle before pouring, but then went on to pour himself a generous quarter glass to taste from. It may have been over a decade since I worked as a sommelier, but surely dining etiquette hasn’t regressed back to the days when it was assumed that madam knew nothing about wine.
I bit my tongue and turned my attention to the amuse bouche of salmon mousse, which proved to be rich, creamy and utterly divine.


The bagna cauda was an elegantly presented homage to the seasons, with the gobo and black daikon adding interest to an otherwise cliched restaurant offering. The accompanying anchovy sauce, however, was more of a cream dressing, and lacked any discernible relation to the salty fish that gave it its name.


Thankfully, sardines came to the rescue in the form of the pesce marinato, which was simply dressed with citrus, oil, and a peppery rocket. Yum!


A double order of Scampi al forno, jeweled with tobiko, soon followed. The meat was so juicy and sweet, that I dispensed with cutlery all together and sucked the little crustaceans clean.


As Vinoteca prides itself on its handmade pasta and artisanal olive oil, we were expecting great things from the carbohydrate portion of the meal. The pasta was indeed cooked to perfection, but sadly the anchovies in the Spaghetti con acciughe e cavolo had gone awol, which left the dish bland and under seasoned.


Mr I-T returned to tempt us with the dessert menu, but we were not swayed. It had been a patchy meal with equally patchy service, and at ¥5,000 per head, after our our coupon had been deducted, it definitely didn’t win any points for cost performance.

Just my luck, eh?

Vinoteca
03-5647-8301