Far from the madding crowd… Marcus Lovitt asks why cafés like Phonic:hoop are so hard to find.
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.
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.
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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The other curry
Ask any Japanese for a list of their favorite dishes, you can be sure ‘curry rice’ will be one of them. Introduced to the country by the British during the Meiji era (1869–1913), this mix of curry roux, meat and vegetables is typically served alongside Japanese rice, and has since become something of a national obsession.
There is, however, another type of curry which has gained popularity as a regular addition to Japanese cafe menus. So-called ‘Dry curry’ is made from minced meat and vegetables which are squeezed to remove any excess liquid. It is easy to prepare and makes an excellent (read ‘less messy’) addition to an obento.
Ingredients (serves 3 – 4 people)
200 g cucumber
300 g tomato (2 tomatoes)
50 g celery
70 g onion
40 g radish
200 g minced pork
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
20 g of ginger
10 g garlic
2 tablespoons of curry powder
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
First, prepare the dry curry itself. Warm a pan with 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and cook the finely chopped ginger and garlic over a low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until you sense the smell rising from the pan.
Add the minced pork and cook over a medium heat until the color has changed. Next, add curry powder and mix well, then turn off the heat. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce as soon as you turn off the heat. Stir.
Cut off both ends of the cucumber and thinly slice like an accordion. Cut again into bite-sized pieces (3-4 cm in length). Slice the celery diagonally into 5 cm pieces, and the onion into bite-sized wedges.
Places each of these vegetables into individual mixing bowls. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of salt over them (preliminary seasoning which removes some of their harshness). Let the vegetables stand for 5 minutes until they become a little soft.
Slice the radish thinly and cut the tomato into quarters or smaller-sized wedges. Now, squeeze the cucumber, celery and onion to extract any excess liquid.
Place the cucumber, sliced onion and sliced radish into the dry curry and mix the ingredients together. Add tomato to the curry and mix one last time before serving.
There’s enough space in this shop to bring friends, but the counter facing the kitchen is ideal for people dining alone. It’s worth taking your time to work your way through both of the menus because if you don’t you might miss something. And to my mind there are at least half a dozen main dishes on the menu worth trying. The beauty of this place is that there are lots of options–way more than you normally get in a curry shop.
Basically, the menu can be divided into three main sections: regular curry dishes; specialty curry dishes; and their popular–and spicy–curry nabe (hotpot).
The last time I was there, I went with the chicken curry from the regular menu (pictured above). Moderate spice with very juicy chunks of chicken and a decent load of onions for 650 yen. They also have a kid’s curry (in a heart-shaped bowl) and vegetarian curry for the same price. The regular curry menu starts at 500 and tops out at 880 yen for the “jumbo fried shrimp curry”. Additional toppings are available for between 50 and 100 yen. Side dishes, such as a potato and bacon salad, kimchi, and chicken wings, are all priced in the 250-850 yen range.
And then there’s the specialty menu. The dishes in this section are all being pushed by a different celebrity. K1 fighter, Musashi, wants you to try his spicy curry, which ranks four out of five on their in-house scale, that features a beef steak perched on top (1,020 yen). Or you could try the relatively mild chicken and onion curry endorsed by actress Chisato Morishita (850 yen). There are a few others, and it’s possible to do a half-and-half meal with two of the celebrity selections for an additional 100 yen.
Also, keep in mind that you can get half portions of the specialty curries for 500 yen. For whatever reason, this information is only listed in the drinks menu.
Then there’s the curry nabe which looks very, very Korean in its presentation and starts at 950 yen per person. There’s some fire involved, and you can choose your own adventure on the aforementioned five-tiered spiciness scale. Those who like spiciness should be fine with a level three or four.
Several set options are available with the curry nabe. The simplest of these involve adding some kind of noodle or rice to the leftover spicy soup when you’re done with what was floating in it. A plain white rice set is 200 yen while cheese risotto will be an additional 500 yen per person. Or you can go a bit bigger and ask for one of the two multi-course sets that are available. They both set you up with a couple of different celebrity curries, a side dish or two, the curry nabe, and dessert. The two versions of this set are priced at 1,980 and 2,480 yen per person, respectively.
But this is the type of curry shop that also wants you to stay and drink. You can add a 90-minute nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) option to the two most expensive curry nabe sets for an additional 1,500 yen per person. The nomihoudai is actually advertised as being two hours in length, but they pull a ‘last call’ routine at the hour and a half mark.
If you’re just ordering by the drink, then there are a few options available. Draft beer (regular Malt’s) is 480 yen while a bottle (Premium Malt’s) is 600. Whiskey highballs (Kakubin) are 390, and Cassis and Dita cocktails are 550. Wine is 500 yen per glass and soft drinks are 400. They have two umeshu available for less than 600 yen, and you can get potato or barley shochu for less than five. Sours are 450, and a bottle of Korean soju (they don’t sell it by the glass) will set you back 1,280 yen.
The curry and the flexibility of the menu make this place worth a look. It’s also one of the cheaper places to eat in the area immediately surrounding the TBS building in Akasaka and located right next to exit two. They apparently have a sister shop in Shibuya.
Cost per person: 1,000 to 4,000 yen
GuruNavi page: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a223300/ (includes a map and partial menu)
Directions: From exit two of Akasaka station turn left and walk about 10 meters up the sidewalk. Entertainer Curry Kitchen is in the basement of the first building on the left (Lotteria on first floor).