Japan Eats

Café Review: Phonic:hoop (Shinjuku)

Far from the madding crowd… Marcus Lovitt asks why cafés like Phonic:hoop are so hard to find.

Downstairs at phonic:hoop

Downstairs at phonic:hoop

Grabbing a quick bite in Shinjuku can be frustrating, especially at lunch, when its office workers launch an all-out assault on every café and restaurant within a five-mile radius. All too frequently, the hungry café-goer is forced to wait in line and contemplate such mysteries as why Shinjuku has so little indigenous café culture. The high rent? That would seem unlikely, given that café-rich Omotesando or Shibuya actually charge more on average for a first floor retail space. A preference for big chains? Perhaps. If you’re willing to wait there’s the faux Starbucks, Excelsior, or the smoky Doutor. The much nicer Tully’s even has drinkable drip coffee.

But where are the independent cafés? Where can the harried shopper kick back with a coffee and a snack, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to run into him or her on their way back from the condiment bar with a oversized cinnamon-dusted full-cream mochaccino?

Only ten minutes walk down busy Yasukuni-dori is Phonic:hoop, a café/bar which goes a long way toward redeeming Shinjuku for its long lines and bland chain cafés. Even better: it’s situated on two spacious floors of an office building only a short distance from Tokyo’s major department stores on Shinjuku-dori.

In front of you as you enter is the first floor bar. It’s a bright, sunny affair thanks to a series of floor to ceiling windows. To the right, a pair of vintage sofas. The high ceiling and polished concrete floor add to the feeling that you’ve stumbled into Tadao Ando’s lounge. Downstairs is more intimate, with a dozen or so non-smoking tables. Antique Singer sewing machines, piled with books and magazines, separate the tables below the stairs. It’s a lot less kitschy than it sounds.

Hanbagu with rice

Hanbagu with rice

But what makes a bigger impression is the music. It figures that any place called Phonic:hoop is going to take its tunes pretty seriously, and here it means a trippy Eno-like soundtrack which somehow never overwhelms conversation.

The lunch set menu (1000 yen) changes daily, but expect to find such things as a “beef plate”, “curry plate” and a so-called “p:h plate”. All are served with a light vegetable and egg soup. As part of the set menu, customers can choose between coffee, tea, and grapefruit juice.

While Phonic:hoop is more a licensed café than a fully-fledged restaurant, the portions are more than generous. On my first visit, I tried the curry plate, which turned out to be chicken cooked in a thick, sightly sweet sauce. While it didn’t really register on the heat index, it made great comfort food. On a subsequent visit, we ordered the “beef plate” – hanbagu with rice (pictured) and the curry. The Salisbury steak, accompanying rice and salad was more than filling. The “Vietnamese chicken curry”, meanwhile, turned out not to be very Vietnamese at all – a mild Thai-style dish that (we agreed) was delicious.

Lunch break over, it was back to the less sonorous sounds of the street with it’s shoppers, touts, and tourists.

Directions: From Shinjuku Sanchome Station, take exit C7 and walk straight ahead to Yasukunidori. Cross this street and turn right. Phonic:hoop is approximately 100 meters down, on your left.

Tel: 03-6380-6604
Sky Building. 1F
Hours: 12:00-15:00, 18:00-29:00 (weekdays) 12:00-29:00 (Saturdays) 12:00-24:00 (Sundays and holidays)

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Cafe Review: Artisan Coffee, Fukuoka

Kupa Hokianga reviews Artisan Coffee in Fukuoka

Recently, a friend of mine took one of his colleagues to a cafe I recommended for its excellent macchiato.
The coffee arrived at their table, the ham-handed colleague managed to spill his before tasting it. My friend offered to order another, but the guest responded, “Ah, doesn’t matter; I’m more a Starbucks kind of guy.”

My heart sunk when told. I’m not sure what the moral is here, something about a horse and water.

Artisan's Rocket espresso machine in action (Photo: Neil Witkin)

My wife’s friend recommended I try Artisan Coffee, a 12-seat, slightly bohemian cafe in Hirao (Fukuoka). It’s off my normal route, but the sample of their beans I received suggested it was worth a visit.

Takamiya-dori is a busy road in a prosperous residential part of town. When we arrived, the small cafe, which could be described in a 1980 Vogue magazine as “shabby chic”, was empty of customers. I ordered an espresso and my wife selected a caramel latte.

While making polite conversation with friends, I watched the barista out of the corner of my eye as he calibrated the grinder setting one notch to the right before a quick test into the palm of his hand, then fresh ground a dose of dark roasted beans before effortlessly swiping the port-a-filler level; a gentle tamp and tap and a few seconds later the extraction had started. My demitasse arrived with a perfectly proportioned warmed spoon on the side.

The espresso was near faultless – the crema maintained structure, the temperature was perfect, and the caramel sweetness from the bean came through with just a hint of bitterness. The macchiato I ordered next was excellent and is now my coffee of choice.

I cannot comment on my wife’s afternoon caramel latte as that drink at that time of day goes against everything I believe in. I took her word for it when she said it tasted fantastic and the rabbit face latte art was kawaii.

Artisan Coffee is a must-do, mainly because they consistently get the coffee basics right and to a high standard and the starchy Japanese cafe culture is tossed out the window.

The barista critique and my coffee snobbery aside, if you just want nice coffee and don’t mind mismatched decor, grab your favorite magazine, turn off your phone and enjoy this small indulgence. You will not be disappointed. The cappuccinos are creamy, the macchiato is full-bodied and the barista is working on his flat white.

Food selection is limited, so don’t arrive hungry, but there’s a relaxed, informal ambiance and outdoor smoking tables. Coffee prices start at 380 yen, which is exceptional value. Surprisingly seating always seems to be available. Their primary bean is Fidalgo Bay (organic shade grown), the espresso machine is a single-head Rocket.

This article has been edited. The original version misspelled Fidalgo. This has now been corrected.

Artisan Coffee is located on Takamiya dori. If accessing from Hirao station, it’s about 5 minutes’ walk on the right as you head towards Yakuin station. Open 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., six days a week. No website.

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

Café Review: Margaret Howell Café

Fronting half of the establishment, this café provides an alternate entrance into the Margaret Howell world of clean-cut clothing for both men and women. On a side street up the hill from TGI Friday’s in Shibuya (and just around the corner from Craftheads), this little café is a delightfully quiet lunchtime option for shoppers who have found themselves on the north side of the Shibuya craziness.

Highly recommended are the limited, but delicious, lunch sets. The ‘Sandwich’, ‘Quiche’, and ‘Season’ (changes monthly) plates are all under 1,400 yen and include a main dish, soup, and drink. The chicken sandwich isquite good, and while the soup of the day (potato and celery) wasn’t exactly to die for, the cappuccino was just what the doctor ordered while sitting in the small open-air interior of the shop with the sun shining through the floor to ceiling windows.

For the record, this is one of the few cafés in the immediate area that actually has a no-smoking section (a practical choice given that the café opens right into the clothes shop itself). The generous outdoor seating is, as one would expect in Tokyo, puff-friendly, but there’s enough space between tables for this to not be too much of a factor (depending on the wind of course).

Serving lunch/brunch from 11:00, the modest menu errs on the sweet side while providing enough variety to keep those in search of light fare happy. Scones, cakes, coffee, and tea range from 400 to 700 yen. Go ahead and try the carrot cake (600 yen) with an iced latte (680). Laze around long enough and you might find that a glass of mulled wine (700) will suit the slow swing of the afternoon.

Fresh OJ and lemonade (630) might be logical options if you’re hoping for a bit of brunch. A regular coffee (530) and toast with butter and jam (380) would be the perfect complement on a sunny morning on this alarmingly sedate back street not seven minutes walk from Hachiko.

For those in search of an alcoholic beverage, there’s Yebisu (690) and a couple of imports (790) available for beer drinkers. Wine by the glass is 700 yen, or you can spring for a bottle of the house selection for 4,200.

Click here for a map, or click here for the Guru Navi page (Japanese).

Directions: From Hachiko go up the street on the right side of the corner building with Starbucks and Tsutaya in it. Keep going straight until you pass Tower Records (on your right). Take the left after Tower Records and then take an immediate right just before TGI Friday’s. Walk straight until the small road forces you to turn left. Take the next right and walk straight for about 50 meters. Margaret Howell café is on the right.

Café Review: Tokyo Apartment Café (Harajuku)

I’d first visited this café several years ago when I’d just arrived in the country. Being a snobby ex-barista from Wellington I was disappointed to find that coffee and cafés in “cool Tokyo” were mostly chain places with automatic machines. Apartment Café was one of the places which gave me hope that Tokyo did indeed have a café culture worth getting excited about.

Apartment Café

Apartment Café

Apartment Café uses Illy beans, imported from Italy. Having recently visited an Illy brand café in Yurakucho I can happily report that the barista at Apartment Café can actually create something good with them!

My first coffee of the visit is a hot café latte – a distinction that needs to be pointed out in Japanese cafés. The café is busy, but not frantic, so my coffee is delivered promptly. The milk has been spun and stretched quite well, though the finished product is not as shiny as you would really like. Still, no complaints. This coffee is smooth. The shot is nicely done, too. The finish was suitably smooth, though I think it was a single shot. A double of these Illy beans might be a bit rough. The temperature of the coffee was good, too. Quite often, especially at the chain cafés, the baristas rely on a temperature gauge in the milk jug rather than their hand. The two baristas I’ve seen here at Apartment Café are using their left hands on the side of the jug and are getting good results – no boiled or burnt milk here.

The bean hopper on the grinder looks to be three quarters full, but the baristas are only grinding beans as necessary. Good. Ground beans exposed to air have a shelf life of about 5 minutes. If they’ve been sitting there for longer the cup that arrives at your table won’t be as good as it could be. Both baristas are stretching milk without too much noise, meaning the milk will be thick and smooth, not big and bubbly. One thing I have noticed though is that they are not wiping out the basket between shots. Grounds left in the basket from the previous shot can make a coffee quite bitter. However, the shots are going straight into the cups, not into a shot glass. This means that the crema is intact when the milk is poured, resulting in a better looking coffee.

I’ve got time for another coffee, so an espresso is in order. While waiting for it, I’d best mention the prices. This espresso is setting me back 500, while a latte goes for 550. Not really an Excelsior or Doutor price, but one that café patrons in Tokyo can expect if they’re after something made well. It would seem that tax isn’t included. The total is 1,102 yen.

The espresso has arrived, so let’s take a look. This is a single as well, and looks to have been quite a long pour. The crema isn’t really what you’d call great – there is a big hole in the middle. The first sip was ok, but the second starts hinting at some real bitterness. I can’t get any indication of the sweetness that a good espresso should have. After a bigger gulp towards the end, and the initial shock of that, the flavour does settle out a bit, but really it didn’t impress me as much as the latte did.

The Tokyo Apartment Café @ Harajuku – certainly worth a visit and a warming milky coffee.

The café itself has a very cool feeling to it – lots of dividing walls about the place so you feel you have your own little part of what is actually quite a big place. The music is cool, décor too. The drink menu is good, though not too extensive, and the food going past me to waiting patrons looks pretty good too. It’s easy to find, right on the corner of Omotesando-dori and Meiji-dori, or just past Softbank if you’re walking down the hill from Harajuku station.

Open 365 days a year. www.harajuku-ac.com 03-3401-4101.
Green Fantasia 1F, 1-11-11 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo.