Japan Eats

Bar review: Teppei (Kagurazaka)

Escape busy Waseda Dori and discover one of Kagurazaka’s best kept secrets.

Teppei offers a wide variety of shochu and umeshu.

Teppei offers a wide variety of shochu and umeshu.

Getting there is half the fun. Across from Zenkokuji Temple in the center of Kagurazaka, between a fire escape and a clothing store, there’s a claustrophobic alleyway just wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Walk twenty meters along this narrow path and you’ll come to Teppei, a bar which combines serious drinks with obanzai style cooking.

The interior is attractive wood panel affair, and while somewhat cluttered, it wouldn’t be out of place in small-town Kyushu. A wooden counter runs the length of the downstairs area. Directly opposite, shelves lined with some two hundred bottles of shochu. Take a seat at the bar and not only can you nod to your drink of choice, but you can look on as the staff work the charcoal grill in the kitchen. Behind the barstools there’s also a raised tatami section with shoes-off table seating for about a further dozen or so.

It’s a safe guess that for many customers, Teppei is all about the shochu. Devotees of Kyushu’s famous spirit will have no trouble locating familiar favorites – all of the top Kyushu distilleries are represented. Those seeking something sweeter will no doubt be happy with a three page umeshu selection. Elsewhere, there are beers, four types of sake and five types of chuhai on offer. Oh, and let’s not forget Teppei’s range of seasonal sours (right now it’s sudachi, yuzu and daidai from Tokushima, squeezed by hand and served with honey). Suffice to say, the bar is well stocked.

Cucumber with homemade rayu.

Cucumber with homemade rayu.

But what elevates Teppei above most of Tokyo’s other shochu bars – in fact, Tokyo’s bars in general – are its vegetable-oriented otsumami. Yes, meat on a stick may be Tokyo’s go-to bar snack, but there’s a lot to be said for pickles, fried vegetables and salads when you need something to cut through all that alcohol. Few bars take their finger food as seriously as this one, and if you’ve dropped by for a drink rather than a full-blown meal, there’s plenty to choose from. Teppei specializes in sun-dried fish, some of the more eye-catching items being the anago, nodokuro, kinki and sardine nukazuke. Then there’s the yasaiyaki (grilled vegetables) which customers select from a basket of fresh vegetables brought right to your table.

On the night we visited, still recovering from a lengthy lunch, we’d planned for nothing more than a quick drink. All that changed when we saw what our neighbors at the bar were eating. We promptly ordered the chopped cucumber with homemade rayu, followed by the spring cabbage seasoned with jako (dried baby sardines) and sesame seeds. Both were excellent, the rayu lending the cucumber dish plenty of flavor and the ‘salad’ the kind of dish you can imagine your Kyushu grandmother preparing alongside family meals.

Salad seasoned with jako (dried baby sardines) and sesame seeds.

Spring cabbage seasoned with jako (dried baby sardines) and sesame seeds.

The bar does have its flaws – our barman radiated ‘new guy’ and more than once had to be directed to a particular bottle on the shelves. Then again, it’s probably not everyday some Australian comes in and starts ordering off menu. A slight lack of space between the bar stools and the tatami area was our only other gripe.

Teppei offers excellent food, a lengthy drinks menu and plenty of atmosphere. Those who prefer their bars neither rowdy nor restrained will find much to like in Teppei’s brand of stiff drinks and unpretentious cooking.

Directions: From Kagurazaka station (Tozai line) follow Waseda Dori down toward Iidabashi station. When you reach Zenkokuji Temple turn left at the tiny alley hedged between the wine bar and the clothing store. Teppei is 20 meters ahead, on the left just before the T.U.C window.

Tel: 03-3269-5456
4-2-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
17.30 – 23.00 (L.O.)


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Bar Review: Kuriya Jube (Matsumoto)

Tony Alexander samples locally-made sake in Matsumoto, Nagano.

Finding pretty good pubs and sake bars in Japan isn’t that difficult. However, finding one with a strict code, where you are asked upon entering, “Do you love sake?” by a knowledgeable bar master is rare.

Sake and sashimi

Sake and sashimi

The customers who frequent this establishment claim that the sake is their main reason for coming here, as the food menu is quite modest. The bar master is a traditionalist and maintains an austere atmosphere in his izakaya, which, to me, only adds to the allure and charm. No raucous, smoke-filled main street pub, this quiet place is located down a dimly lit street and people come here to drink the rare pricey stuff, not chatter about nonsense. It’s straight-laced and I love it that way. Kuriya Jube is at the top of a short list of places which specialize in the sake drinking experience.

The wooded interior and soft lighting make this sake pub really attractive. The whole bar counter, where I recommend sitting, is made of cedar. I love the quaint, traditional feel of the wood counters and zabuton. Even the sake cups are made of cedar, matching the bar counter and the whole mood of the place.

The key here is jizake! That’s right, the locally-brewed stuff that’s hard to get your hands on. Oftentimes, when people step into an izakaya, they get carried away with all the national sake brands they see on display and in the refrigerator. To each his own, but I measure a sake pub by how many locally-brewed sakes they have available: Stuff that you only can get there, or through a friend of a friend.

The menus here, with a long list of local and national sakes to choose from, are handwritten. On my last visit, the drinks included: Metobano Izumi and Sasa no Homare from Matsumoto and Suiro from Suwa City, as well as Yoakemae, Tatsunocho, and Shinanotsuru Tokubetsu Junmai.

The fare that evening went perfectly with our sake. There was hobo fish, which was superb and fresh, like it was just caught; deep-fried breast of chicken, lightly seasoned; fried tofu on a stick; duck – really simple, yet delicious; battered, deep-fried pork with hot sesame sauce: absolutely none of which overpowered the sake. And then there was the ichijiku goma cream made from cheese, yoghurt, and sake, which was a complete hit with the ladies.

Price range: 3,000-10,000 for two people.
No English menu available
Conveniently located about a 10 minute walk from Matsumoto Castle
Cash only
Hours: 18:00 ~ 24:00
Phone: 0263-37-9100

Restaurant Review: Demode Queen

Burgers and fries. What kind of pie?

Perhaps more than any other city, Tokyo is built around speed. From the moment city dwellers stumble out of bed in the morning they are consumed by a need to keep to a tight schedule. 6.00 Wake. 6.05 Check email. 6.10 Prepare the kids’ breakfast. So it goes for the rest of the day – a never-ending quest for maximum efficiency.

Demode Queen

Cheese avocado burger

And lunch (if you even take lunch) usually means a quick bowl of gyudon or a bento at your desk. Slow food? Forget it. There’s just no time to relax. No time to take a break.

Perhaps in order to counter Tokyoites’ workaholic tendencies, there are now some fifteen public holidays each year (a relatively high number compared with the ten federal holidays in the US or the nine in the UK). Not that it makes all that much difference – rather than enjoy the time off, many Japanese simply use such occasions to work from home.

I had no such thoughts one recent Friday – my first day off in a month. Despite some shitty weather (a blast of cold air more appropriate to the Siberian steppe than Tokyo the Urban Heat Island) a friend and I were determined to make the most of our officially mandated lethargy. What we needed was somewhere to hang while mother nature worked out her issues. And in Demode Queen, we lucked out.

Demode Queen is an American diner. A very good diner. Hidden one of the small streets to the north of Shibuya Station, a visit to Demode Queen is to be reminded that not all of Shibuya is catering to the maru-kyu crowd. And what’s more they serve Tex Mex, which is a rarity in Japan.

Up two fights of stairs and possessing a large balcony, Demode Queen is a large, somewhat industrial space with sofas and plenty of room to spread out. The interior is dimly lit, the music laid-back rock – just right for afternoon cocktails. In a move I would quickly come to appreciate, a large heater had been placed at the entrance to ensure those seated near the entrance wouldn’t freeze.

On arrival customers are greeted a large, grubby four page ‘Grand Menu’, and it ticks all the boxes. Burgers, Pizza, Pasta, Mexican. We opted for a Cajun burger, a cheese avocado burger and a Margherita pizza.

The standout dish was the Cajun chicken burger. The chicken was excellent – juicy with just the right level of spiciness. The cheese avocado burger, meanwhile, was served with a thick barbecue sauce. Both dishes came with a generous helping of fries. Good too was the pizza – the Margherita had that thin Neapolitan crust popular in Japan, and was topped with fresh basil. Demode Queen also carries an extensive drink menu, which runs the gamut from beer and cocktails to coffee and milkshakes. Particularly good are the mojitos – strong and worth the 1000 yen price tag.

The staff, a motley bunch of hipsters (tatoos! hats!) aren’t about to fawn over you, but frankly that’s one of the things I like about the place.

Alas, neither of us had space for dessert (it was the best we could do to remain upright after the burgers) but the menu includes that diner favorite, apple pie (800 yen) served with your choice of ice cream and sauce.

Somehow by the time we’d paid our bill and wandered out into the melting snow, five hours had passed.

Directions: From Shibuya Station, cross toward Starbucks and walk all the way up Sentagai. When you reach the end of the street, turn right and then take the first left (the residential-looking street with the metal rail separating the cars from the pedestrians. Turn right when you get to a path that opens into a street. Demode Queen is on your left, above Paradise Macau.

Tel: 03-3780-5232
Sai Bldg. 3F, 39-5 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0042
Demode Queen does not take cards.
Mon – Sat 11:30 to 05:00 (L.O. 04:00)
Sun 11:30 – 23:00 (L.O. 22:00)


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Bar review: La Cave Idéale (Kagurazaka)

This wine shop doubles as a standing wine bar and is open from 11:00 to 24:00 every day. Three round tables in the center of the shop allow customers to gaze at the bottles in the glass cases while drinking a glass from the ever-changing lineup displayed on the ‘tachinomi counter’. Wine is typically 500-2,000 yen per glass.

Finger food are also available for purchase with a small variety of cheeses, olives, and other snacks (mostly 300 yen) being peddled from the glass cooler perched on the counter. A small two-piece pack of bread is 50 yen, and don’t be afraid to use the toaster located on the wall opposite the register.

As mentioned before, the wine selection changes periodically as this shop imports directly from vineyards

'Tachinomi' is Japanese for 'drink while standing'.

and dealers in France. That means that they often have wine that you can’t get in most other places.

The “Domaine des Chênes — Le Mascarou 2005″ was dry enough for my liking and was priced at 900 yen per

glass. Another wine that I tried was the “Domaine du Pas de L’Escalette — Ze rozé 2008″ (700 yen/glass) which is apparently one of their monthly featured wine selections and will be replaced soon.

This shop is very well-lit, so it’s often a quick stop on the way somewhere else for business people and small groups of friends. The staff is very cheerful and helpful, and the paintings on the wall would be in my living room if they were up for sale.

Directions: From exit two of Kagurazaka station (Tozai subway line) go left and walk for about 30 seconds. La Cave Idéale is on the left just after “M’s”. You can also take exit one of the station and turn right. The wine shop will be on your right before “M’s”.

Bar/Café Review: Pagliaccio Trattoria (Tokyo/Marunouchi)

This trattoria is a wonderfully decorated café/bar in the middle of the decidedly swank shopping streets behind the two Marunouchi towers keeping watch over Tokyo train station.

If you’re looking for a nice place for lunch, Pagliaccio is an excellent choice. The café menu consists of nine pasta dishes and one salad. The green salad is very generous at 780 yen and will easily accommodate two light eaters if teamed with one of the pasta dishes or a dessert. As for pasta, try the green tagliolini with sausage and broccoli (980 yen) or the linguine with clams and mussels (1,500). You won’t be disappointed.

And the desserts are quite nice as well. All priced at 700 yen, selections such as the tiramisu and the strawberry raspberry blueberry tart are worth repeat visits. An assorted dessert plate is also available for those that have walked enough to deserve the extra calories (1,500 yen).

This trattoria sports a full bar as well. Draft beers such as Hoegaarden cost 900 yen while their 14 bottled beers range in price from 600-950 yen. Cocktails start at 750, and wine by the glass will set you back at least 700 yen. Whiskey is priced on the steep side with a single pour of Jack Daniel’s tagged at 800 yen. The top of the price range is Hibiki 17 yrs. at 1,800 for a single and 3,400 for a double.

Coffee and tea average 600 per cup, and soft drinks are priced in the 500-800 yen range.

This is a great place to meet friends, clients, or colleagues, but there’s very little privacy, so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re after. Including the seats out front and the stools at the bar, Pagliaccio Trattoria can seat around 100, and you’ll feel right at home if you’re wearing a suit. You’d do well to hope for a bit of a crowd as the staff has been known to play poppy American country music at a level that people can actually hear.

Regardless, this is a wonderful café in which to spend a slow lunch or down a few before moving on to the Cotton Club for a jazz show. Expect to pay around 2,500 yen per person for lunch or 1,500 for coffee and dessert.

The café is completely non-smoking during lunch, but it switches to pro-smoking at around three. That said, if you arrive before the lads get out of work, then the English-speaking staff might be able to find an area where you’ll be relatively untouched (the place is big enough).

Directions: From Nijubashimae station (Chiyoda subway line) take exit four and walk straight when you hit street level. Take your second right and walk straight.  From the South Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station (JR, Marunouchi subway line, etc.) find the Marunouchi building and walk down the street on the left side of it (heading perpendicular to the train tracks). Turn left on the street that runs behind the Marunouchi building. Pagliaccio Trattoria is at the end of the block on your right. It’s on the corner next to “Tumi”, right across from “Kate Spade”.

Website: http://www.kiwa-group.co.jp/restaurant/a100446.html

Guru Navi: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a634284/

Directions: 100-0005 Tokyo-to Chiyoda-ku Marunouchi 2-2-3 Nakadori Bldg. 1F

Telephone: TEL 03-6273-4486

Boozehound: Bar Albatross (Shinjuku)

If it weren’t for Tokyo’s ongoing economic troubles, Golden Gai – that shanty town wedged between Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine and Kabukicho – could well have been turned into condos or (worse!) a Mori-style shopping precinct. After all, it was repeatedly targeted by developers in the bubble years. Somehow this ramshackle collection of bars (about 175 at last count) survived the heady 80s and early 90s. Hanazono Hills was not to be.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Golden Gai is that it manages to be both determinedly nostalgic whilst never lapsing into self-parody. Anyone who has visited Harajuku or Yokohama’s Chinatown will be familiar with Japan’s penchant for Disneyfication (take something unique, extract anything controversial and wait for the tour buses). Thanks to a new generation of bar owners, however, Golden Gai retains what made it interesting in the first place – individually-themed bars, cramped seating and the whiff of a sordid past.

Hidden on dimly-lit 5th street is a two and a half storey wooden building that enjoys all of these qualities. Bar Albatross resembles a dolls-house with its scaled down furniture and narrow wooden stairways. Burgundy walls are adorned with picture frames and a chandelier hangs from the upstairs ceiling. Make it all the way to the ‘attic’ space above the second floor and you’ll get a great view of the regulars chatting and drinking below.

The bar has a fairly extensive menu mostly priced around the 700 yen mark. There are beers, shochu and a wide variety of spirits on offer. On my last visit I stuck to the relatively unadventurous Moscow Mule, but you’d do well to sample some of the bar’s other cocktails.

The staff are friendly without being overbearing. If downstairs is full, latecomers are encouraged to go upstairs where there is a second bar with space at one long counter. It can be somewhat nerve-wracking watching tipsy guests wobbling up the rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, but most seemed oblivious to the threat of falling.

Given that the seating fee is a low 300 yen per person,  the bill works out to be inexpensive. And the sit-down charge includes a small otooshi – nimono or some similar nibble to balance all that alcohol.

With places like Bar Albatross, Golden Gai’s future has never looked brighter.

Bar Albatross is located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku. Go out of the East exit of Shinjuku Station and turn left. Cross Shinjuku-Dori and make your way to Yasukuni-Dori. Turn right and then left into the park beside Mr Donut. Go through the park and then continue past Champion. The bar is on the right side of 5th street, four narrow alleyways after the karaoke bar. Look for the sign above the door.

Address: Kabukicho, Golden-gai (5th street), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3203-3699
Home Page http://www.alba-s.com
8:00pm-05:00am