Japan Eats

Restaurant Review: Smokehouse (Harajuku)

Tokyo has well and truly discovered the pairing of American-style BBQ and craft beer.

Grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat

Grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat.

TY Harbor Brewing has a wonderful restaurant out on Tennozu Isle (or however you spell it) that has boasted a top-notch kitchen for several years. The beer’s pretty good, too, and getting better, but you still get the sense that most folks dining there aren’t really there to see how the brews are coming around. However, make no mistake, TY Harbor is no slouch in the brewing department, and they’ve recently found a new way to get their beers out there to the red-blooded folk on the west side of town.

It’s called the Smokehouse.

The Smokehouse is on Cat Street not far from that warehousey second hand shop that features brand name kit previously owned by folks who couldn’t fit into it either. Over the course of several visits, I managed to make my way through much of the food and beer menus.

During my most recent trip, I had the Chopped BBQ Pork (¥1,700) which is fall-off-the-bone soft with a notably smokey flavor. It comes with a side of coleslaw and a muffin, which was somewhat sweet for my taste. The Smokehouse cheeseburger (¥1,500), meanwhile, is fantastic – the perfect balance between soft/crunchy, savory/sweet. Certainly in the running for the best burger of its kind in the city.

Chopped BBQ pork, Carolina spicy vinegar

Chopped BBQ pork, Carolina spicy vinegar

I was also able to try the grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat (again served with a large helping of fries). This too had plenty of flavor, and maintained its structural integrity despite the presence of tomato, the juices from the chicken and a generous coating of sauces.

Where Smokehouse really excels, however, is in its selection of sauces. Each table has a selection featuring names like “Voodoo Hot”, “House Pit”, “Porter Pepper” and “Carolina Vinegar”. We fancied the herb-rich House Pit, which we were soon squeezing on everything, particularly the crunchy fries that accompanied the burger.

You also can’t go wrong with a side of Chili Cheese Fries (¥900) or a small bowl of Home Style Mac-n-Cheese (¥400). Calories be damned.

All of T.Y. Harbor’s regular beers are on tap with 420 ml (14 oz) glasses for ¥800, and 250 ml (8.6 oz) pours for ¥480. My favorites are still the Pale Ale with its balanced cascade hops and bready malts, and the Imperial Stout which goes from sweet to bitter as it travels toward the back of the palate. There are also always at least a few guest beers on tap that are more expensive but will generally be worth your while, and the spirits list sports more than 20 labels of bourbon, rye, and other craft whiskies from all over the US. The wine list is 10 bottles long (five red and five white) with all priced at ¥5,000.

Smokehouse cheeseburger

Smokehouse cheeseburger

Directions: From Harajuku station, walk down Omotosando-dori and turn right just after Shakey’s onto Cat Street. Smokehouse is about 150 meters down, on your left.

Tel: 03-6450-5855
2F, 5-17-13 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
11:30 – 15:00 (L.O.) & 17:30 – 22:00 (L.O.); Weekends, holidays 11:30 – 22:00 (L.O.)


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Restaurant Review: Sumibi Yakiniku Suehiro (Kinshicho)

The menu features a wealth of choice pork and beef cuts for the grill.

Upmarket yakiniku on Tokyo’s east side.

Located about a three minute walk from the south exit of JR Kinshicho station, Suehiro is a superior choice for anyone looking for yakiniku in eastern Tokyo.

There are a number of sets and course meals to choose from, and they range in price from 3,980 yen to just over 13,000 yen per person. The circular grills are embedded in the tables, and you cook the meat yourself just like at most yakiniku restaurants.

The restaurant itself has a chic modern feel to it with low lights and lots of two and four-person booths and rooms. There are about 50 seats in total, so be sure to reserve a table if you’ll be dining at peak ours on a weekend.

You can also order as you go from an extensive a la carte meat menu. The karubi-shio (¥1,050) and hotate (¥880) are tender and excellent when grilled lightly. The tokusen harami at ¥1,800 per serving is some of the best we’ve tried.

There’s also a decent selection of sides such as kimuchi (¥480) and chapuche (¥750). We recommend leaving some room for a post-grilling bowl of cold reimen (¥1,000) or hot buta kimuchi chige (¥1,300) depending on what the weather’s like outside.

Throw some fish on there as well.

Draft beer is ¥490, and Suehiro has an izakaya-level selection of everything else that you’d expect to find. Everything from wine by the glass to shochu to highballs are priced at about 500 yen each, and all-you-can-drink plans are available.

Suehiro is the newest of a family-run, two-shop chain. The original restaurant is on the north side of the station, and the shop detailed here was opened a few years ago. Both are excellent, but we prefer this one because the service is quick and courteous, and the kimuchi moriawase is delicious.

All in all, you can expect to spend between four and six thousand yen per person at Suehiro.

Tel: 03-5669-1529
Sumida-ku Edobashi 3-8-12
Kinsia Annex 2F
Hours: Mon – Sat 17:00 to 7:00 (L.O. 6:30)
Sun/Holidays 16:00 to 7:00 (L.O. 6:30)

Note: Check Suehiro’s listing on Guru Navi and Hot Pepper before you go. They often have coupons for freebies and discounts on course meals.

Map:

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Restaurant review: Bills (Odaiba)

The third incarnation of this Australian café will win over the kids.  But will adults see past the shopping center location?

The Irish have been putting up with it for years. Wherever you go, there’s an Irish pub to tempt you with a carefully packaged cultural experience that has little, if any relationship to what you’d find on the street corners of Dublin. With their unread copies of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and embossed plaques proclaiming the virtues of Guinness, such places are little more than pastiche, inducing a longing for a simpler time, even if that never existed in the first place.

Ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter.

Ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter.

Odaiba, the man-made island in the middle of Tokyo Bay, is the Japanese home of foreign-inspired kitsch. Forget theme parks, chain restaurants or resorts – Odaiba has enough to make even a cryogenically frozen Walt Disney wince. Whether its the VenusFort shopping center, the ‘life-sized’ Gundam or the “Oh-god-what-were-they-thinking” replica of the Statue of Liberty, Odaiba successfully blends commercial interests with cultural naivety.

So we come to Bills. Named after Australian owner/chef Bill Granger, Bills sets out to be “a warm, open interior inspired by Bill’s own home, accompanied by friendly service and a simple yet lively menu centered around the freshest ingredients.” This is Granger’s third Japanese venture, the first being in Shichirigahama, followed by a second branch on Yokohama’s waterfront. A fourth restaurant baring the name opened April 18th in Tokyu Plaza, Omotesando.

When we arrive, the staff quickly guide us to a long bench in the center of the main room. Our waiter is all smiles when he takes our order.

Friendly service“? Check.

At 11.30, the menu is yet to switch from breakfast to lunch, but  no matter. We go with the scrambled organic eggs with toast and a serve of Granger’s signature ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter. I order a black coffee, which the Japanese waiter repeats back in impeccable Australian: “One long black…” Granger, it seems, likes a hearty start to the day – there’s also a ‘full Aussie breakfast’ with toast, mushrooms, bacon, roast tomato and chipolatas, and lengthy list of sides to be had with your eggs. At lunch, you can opt for a wagyu burger with lettuce, beetroot, zucchini pickles, tomato relish, and herbed french fries. Room for more? Try the pavlova with passion fruit and cream. The menu is high on calories, and in that respect, very Australian.

Scrambled organic eggs with toast

Scrambled organic eggs with toast

A simple yet lively menu“? Wagyu burger aside, it’s a fair claim.

But as for “a warm, open interior inspired by Bill’s own home“? Well…

Here’s the problem: Bills is at one end of a giant shopping complex. While the restaurant may aspire to bringing the atmosphere of an Australian café to Tokyoites, it struggles to overcome the sterile confines of its location. Clearly a lot of money has been poured into the fit out, but it’s more IKEA cafeteria than suburban coffeehouse. It’s hard not to view Bills as yet another theme park concession.

When the food arrives, it doesn’t disappoint. The rich scrambled eggs are excellent, although I could have done without the extra pill of butter on the toast. The famous hotcakes are pretty darn good – much lighter than anticipated. And that honeycomb butter is the kind of thing you’ll want to recreate at home. Be warned, though: order hotcakes during the lunch hour crush and they will take at least 20 minutes to appear.

Everywhere there are mums and toddlers. Indeed, Bills may be the most child-friendly restaurant of its kind in Tokyo. There’s no smoking section and they offer a kids menu. For a time, I realize I’m the only male customer not under 18 months.

Look past the packaging and there’s a lot of good here. The food’s excellent (although frankly overpriced – lunch will set you back close to 2000 yen), the staff professional and it’s one of the few restaurants in Tokyo that not only welcomes children but goes out of its way to be family friendly.

If only it weren’t in a 600 ft long shopping center.

Directions: Exit Kaihin Koen station (Yurakamome line) on the water side and follow the signs to Decks. Bills is just inside the glass doors in the building to your right.

Tel: 03-3599-2100
3F Decks Seaside Mall
1-6-1 Daiba, Minato-ku
Hours: 9:00-23:00 (daily)
http://bills-jp.net/


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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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Restaurant review: Old Thailand (Iidabashi)

Solid Thai food for those who prefer to be stirred rather than shaken.

A couple of years back I was fortunate enough to see a musician friend play Tokyo’s famous Blue Note Jazz Club. It was a great show, and afterwards we sat down to talk about how the gig went. As we ran through the set and talked about the players, I made some off-handed remark about how much I loved the opening piece – a wild, cacophonous explosion of sound, the likes of which is rarely heard at a Japanese club. “Yeah, the chaos,” he replied “it’s the one thing we’ll play like that in Japan. Back in the States, most of our set is like that. But after years of playing here, we learned that Japanese audiences don’t go in for chaos. Now we dial it down when we play Tokyo.”

Khao soi

Chiang Mai's famous khao soi.

Anyone who’s explored Tokyo’s so-called ‘ethnic’ food scene will spot the similarity to what happens when a Thai, Indian or even Vietnamese restaurant opens. Strong flavors, be they spices like chili or cumin, or herbs such as cilantro (coriander) are quickly brought down to a level more acceptable to the majority of Japanese customers.

Prior to visiting Old Thailand, we were assured that despite being part of a restaurant chain, their dishes were pretty authentic, and certainly the familiar ‘chili scale’ illustration (one chili meaning not particularly hot, three meaning pretty darn hot) suggested that we’d be swabbing our faces with oshibori in no time.

The lunch menu offers all the Thai standards, and then some. Khao man gai (boiled Thai-style chicken with steamed rice),  kaeng khiao wan (green curry), and tom yam-flavored noodles head up the menu. Elsewhere, a ‘new lunch menu’ offers a green curry with shrimp and avocado, as well as a personal favorite – khao soi (noodles in a soupy chicken curry).

We ordered khao soi and pad ga prao kai (minced chicken cooked in basil) and were impressed when both dishes arrived in a matter of minutes. The khao soi was a pretty good approximation of what one would find on the streets of Chiang Mai, albeit somewhat oilier and containing the kind of thin ramen noodles which tend to clump together. Still, pretty good for a dish that many Japanese are yet to discover.

But it was the ga prao that dominated conversation. It was surprisingly bland, with none of the flavor we were expecting. Where was the promised ‘three chili’ spiciness? Clearly, this was a case of a Thai classic being modified to suit local tastes. Now, this isn’t always a bad thing (the Japanese have reworked countless foreign dishes to great effect) but here the result was mildly disappointing.

Old Thailand delivers plenty of ambiance, and the long lines suggest this is a popular destination for Iidabashi’s office workers come lunchtime. But if, like me, you like your Thai liberally seasoned with chaos, I suggest you ask ahead.

Directions: Turn left from Exit B2A of Iidabashi station. It’s 3 minutes walk across the bridge and on the second street to your left.

Tel:03-5212-4566
2-3-8 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku,
Tokyo-to, 102-0071
Hours: 11.30 – 15:00 (L.O. 14.30) and 17.30 – 23.00 (L.O. 22.00)
http://www.sscy.co.jp/oldthailand/


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Restaurant Review: EAT (Gaienmae)

Tokyo has plenty of burger restaurants, but few as good as Gaienmae’s EAT.

Beef patty on top, veggies below.

What happens when you pair Kobe beef with a decent chef? Hands-down some of the best burgers in Tokyo.

The chef, MICHI, who has brought his talents back to Japan after opening a successful fusion restaurant in Los Angeles, found a hip little space in the ritzy Gaienmae district of downtown Tokyo to open his American dining burger shop, EAT.

The restaurant seats about a dozen people at one time, but the casual and bar-like nature of the place belies the quality of the fare. Yes, it’s an American burger stand, but EAT specializes in Kobe beef patties, and that alone sets it apart from the small upper echelon of burger joints in this town.

We started with a garden salad of fresh greens, mushroom slices and tomato wedges, and then moved on to a dish of EAT’s fresh French Fries. Don’t be alarmed by the counter-rattling thud. That’s just the sound of the cook running a whole potato through the slicer.

After that, it was on to the burgers. We sampled a cheeseburger and an avocado burger, and both were delicious. The Asanoya rolls are toasted until firm on the grill, and the vegetables are as fresh as everything else on the menu. MICHI’s burgers are stacked so that the juices from the beef patty and the sauce on top won’t waterlog the bottom half of the roll so long as you eat at a normal pace. For those that eat more ponderously, there are paper burger sleeves available to help keep your meal out of your lap.

EAT also has lunch sets that include a small portion of homemade fries with your burger of choice. The few times that we’ve visited, there have always been customers coming in to take advantage of the restaurant’s takeout service.

Great burgers just a short walk from Meiji Jingu Baseball Stadium.

The only thing that we could fault the place for was the English translations on the menu. The misspellings were thorough and comical. But perhaps that just adds to the charm. And one thing to be wary of, especially if you have English-speaking children with you, is that the music selection is uncensored (Internet radio channel, perhaps).

EAT has a brief bar menu that features a few imported bottled beers and lots of cocktails. Expect to pay between 1,700 and 2,500 per person for the three dishes mentioned above plus one drink. As with many places, the cost drops if you stop by for lunch.

Directions: This burger stand is about three or four minutes on foot from Gaienmae subway station. Using the route-finder on our smartphone, we walked to EAT from JR Harajuku train station in 20 minutes.

Tel: 03-6459-2432
2-12-27 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku
Hours: 11:30-15:00 and 17:30-22:30 (Weekdays), 11:30-15:00 (Sundays)


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Restaurant Review: Yama to ten (Shinjuku)

Soupless in Shinjuku

Spicy abura soba

Spicy abura soba

Abura soba shops are popping up all over town these days. A lot of the shops that specialize in this soupless style of ramen serve abura soba and not a whole lot else. The fact that restaurants can have only one item on the menu is clear testament to the popularity of this dish.

Yama to ten (山ト天) in Shinjuku diversifies a bit by featuring a few in-house versions of abura soba as the centerpiece of a modest izakaya menu.

Highly recommended is the spicy abura soba (辛味温玉) which will set you back 600 yen. Heap some freshly chopped onions on top, douse the whole thing with vinegar and raayu, and then mix it all together with your chopsticks. The soft ramen noodles soak up the oils nicely, and they play well with the onions, chashu, bamboo shoots and shredded bits of dried seaweed.

There’s also the standard abura soba for 500 yen and a couple of other options that usually run in the 600-700 yen range.  For those who are better with colors than with kanji, the spicy abura soba is the big button at the top of the ticket machine that has a red background (second from the left).

The shop’s modest menu is also tucked full of izakaya-style dishes that go well with a beer. Everything from gyoza (380-480 yen) to a side of kimchi (290 yen) to sausages (480 yen). A draft beer goes for 420 yen, and the rest of the drinks menu mostly deals with shochu-base drinks such as sours, hais and umeshu (most are 380 yen). You can also order a half bottle of house wine for 980.

Because it’s an izakaya, the whole place is smoker-friendly. If you’d like to avoid the fumes, then we suggest stopping by after the busiest lunch hours and before business picks up again at around 6 PM. They have some tables off to the sides of the counter that are mostly untouched by smoke when the place isn’t busy.

Directions: Yama to ten is part of a new izakaya-themed, mostly open-plan dining area on the MB3 floor (the ‘M’ is not a typo) of Odakyu Halc. In other words, go to Bic Camera near JR Shinjuku west exit and head downstairs. The main entrance is down the stairs that are located near the B2 entrance of Odakyu Halc supermarket.

Tel:03-6302-0405
Odakyu Halc (Haru Chika)
Hours: 11:00 – 24:00 ( LO 23:30 )
Tabelog review (Japanese): http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1304/A130401/13119474/


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Restaurant Review: Ivan Ramen (Rokakoen Station)

Christopher Pellegrini samples the noodles at Ivan Ramen

You should definitely try Orkin's roasted tomatoes (Roast Tomato Meshi).

Ramen is one of those dishes that people will travel considerable distances to consume. It’s kind of like the trouble die-hard fanboys go to when trying to get their hands on a freshly released edition of a franchise–they’ll wait in line for it. They’ll make plans days in advance to be in another part of the country just to have dibs on the best seats for the big event.

And if you understand that, then you can comprehend with reasonable accuracy the lengths to which true ramen fans will pursue their addiction. They’re as obsessive as any other foodie out there, and in many cases more so.

And while I’m not the fanboy type, I must admit that I planned nearly a week in advance to visit Ivan Ramen, a corner ramen shop less than 10 minutes on foot from Rokakoen station in Setagaya Ward (Keio Line) that is owned by American chef, Ivan Orkin.

The shop is a very simple square with an L-shaped counter and space for about 10 customers. There is nothing significant going on with the decor, and the concrete-floored kitchen space is both well-organized and spotless. The focus is clearly on the food at Ivan Ramen, and that’s how it should be.

Ivan Orkin is something of a celebrity both for successfully wedging his way into the secretive ramen world here in Japan and for doing things his own way. His ramen soup is not rammed with lard as is customary, and he makes his own noodles with a dough that utilizes three types of flour. There’s also a very strong dependence on fresh ingredients. In that sense, even though this is technically ‘B-class’ Japanese cuisine, and is often referred to as fast food, dining at Ivan Ramen does not exact as much of an attack on one’s health as ramen customarily can.

After ordering your food from a ticket machine out in the alley, diners are encouraged to find a seat and enjoy the soft music playing in the background for just a couple of minutes. Jazz was on the airwaves when we visited, and we were grateful for the attention to detail on the proprietor’s part.

The wait doesn’t last long at Ivan Ramen. Most orders will be in front of you in less than a couple of minutes. Ivan himself explained recently in the first edition of Lucky Peach that his ramen noodles take 40 seconds to boil, but we were still surprised how quickly our meals arrived.

One special currently on the menu at Ivan Ramen is the “Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka” which is a blend of garden

Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka Ramen

salad and cold soup and all with a bit of Chinese cooking thrown in for good measure. And we were pleased that we grabbed one of these (only 15 are served daily) because the freshness of the ingredients (the tomatoes are absolutely out of this world!) and the marriage of the soup and noodles led to an exceptional and filling meal.

It’s important to note that the specials change regularly, so it’s worth it to either check the restaurant’s website or make a return visit every once in a while.

We also tried the Cha-shu- Spicy Red Chili Men (noodles) and the Roast Tomoto Meshi (rice). The former features the house’s signature thin ramen noodles and a small puddle of chili soup with half of a hard-boiled egg bobbing in the shallows. The regular menu also sports several shio and shoyu-base ramen dishes, tsukemen, other sides, a ‘beer of the day’ for 400 yen, and homemade ice cream.

Ramen dishes are mostly priced between 800 and 1,000 yen with topping upgrades such as extra cha-shu- and menma costing 100 yen each. A range of rice bowls range from 200 to 800 yen and are available in two sizes.

It’s very difficult to go wrong at Ivan Ramen. We would highly recommend anything with Orkin’s roasted tomatoes in it. The preponderance of fresh and healthy ingredients in Orkin’s creations will make you rethink whether ramen is a Japanese version of fast food.

And for those who enjoy the innovation that is part and parcel with his take on ramen, then you are encouraged to visit Ivan Ramen Plus, a second shop that he opened last year.

3-24-7 Minami Karasuyama, Setagaya-ku Tokyo, 157-0062
(Rokakoen station on the Keio Line)
Ph: 03-6750-5540
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 5:30 PM – 10:30 PM (closed Wednesdays)
Sat, Sun and Nat’l Holidays 11:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Also closed the 4th Tuesday of every month.
http://www.ivanramen.com/top_en.html


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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)

http://www.ph-hp.jp/


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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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