Browsing articles in "Restaurants & Bars"
Mar 4, 2013

Que Sera Sera

Que Sera SeraWhen I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what will I be. She didn’t mention anything about reviewing restaurants in Tokyo, which just goes to show how life’s set menu can turn up some interesting ingredients. Recently, on a quiet Ginza back street near Shimbashi station, an unexpected array of flavors was presented to me at Que Sera Sera.

The restaurant is a stylish jigsaw puzzle of materials sourced from all over Japan, which blend together under warm, atmospheric lighting to produce traditional décor with a modern sheen. One wall is tiled with Japanese roof slats from Kishu, another is white marble threaded with black. The ceiling is ribbed with bamboo canes, and the counter, at which we sat, is one solid piece of gingko wood.

Prices are not cheap, but in Japan paying a bit more tends to assure you are treated like royalty and fed as if your innards were made of priceless gossamer. It was with this spirit that we chose the premium seven-course osusume set menu (¥12,000 per person without drinks)—though other options go down to ¥7,500, which exchanges the meat course for baked fish.

In immaculate kimono and adorable apron, the okami-san Yuriko fulfils the traditional role of maître-d, hostess and sometime server, bestowing the space with a relaxing, homely quality. For those having trouble with the Japanese menu, don’t be fooled by Yuriko’s reticence in English—her culinary vocabulary is second to none.

Our initial appetizer was a gorgeous swirl of homemade yuba (tofu skin), with seaweed and sweet shredded crab. Five seasonal tidbits followed, whose perfect arrangement would have made the Rain Man blub into his poker chips. The star of these was a slice of seared wagyu sushi (a hint of the broader beef experience to come) accompanied by those peculiar Japanese roots that seem to have been foraged from underneath a magic toadstool: a cube of implacable taro, a not-particularly-giant giant butterbur, mini-potato-like koimo, and a chunk of moist scallop. As I was working out how to eat them while still preserving the aesthetics of the dish (that could easily be included in an avant-garde sculpture exhibition), the sumashi soup arrived. Miso soup’s clear and more stock-like cousin, this particular sumashi contained some Japanese greens, an artistic carrot and a divine dumpling of minced quail. As was intended, the soup and assorted knick-knacks combined to create a harmonious balance.

At the counter I was able to watch chef Norikazu—advised at Que Sera Sera by a former executive chef of Conrad Hotel Shiodome—slicing open limes that were not limes. Nor were they oranges. This was to be the defining ingredient of the night: the daidai. The flavor of this Asian citrus (no, it’s not yuzu) lies between lime and orange, and the taste still tingles on my tongue.

Our first experience of this Eden-like fruit was in the homemade ponzu sauce into which we dipped the delicacy-of-the-day—anago sashimi. This was the first time I’d eaten freshwater eel raw, and my nervousness was eliminated by its tender white meatiness, laced with a succulent line of fat.

Then came the masterpiece: 120 grams of seared wagyu beef, buttery in consistency with the perfect rare center. A daidai wedge was provided which I squeezed liberally over the meat, to eat piece by juicy piece. À la carte, the dish costs ¥6,000, and I have to say it’s worth every yen.

Pickles arrived to clear the palate, and the traditional finisher of liquidy rice-and-egg, zosui, which was taken a giant step up with several shelled oysters. The dessert of homemade “golden sesame blancmange” left a sated, elated feeling, and the warm goodbye from the okami-san painted some sunny Doris Day optimism on the cold night outside.

3F Soirées de Ginza 2nd Yayoi Bldg, 8-7-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3573-5188. Nearest Stn: Shimbashi.
Mar 4, 2013

Garlic dining at its finest: Top 5

Garlic ice cream at Hajime no Ippo

Garlic ice cream at Hajime no Ippo. Photo by Brandi Goode


Hajime No Ippo is one of Tokyo’s original ninniku restaurants, located in the entertainment district of yore, Kagurazaka. Established in 1995, nearly all of its dishes contain “white fukuchi” garlic, an esteemed varietal from Tenmabayashi, Aomori Prefecture.  Standout dishes include the grilled tuna neck with balsamic butter (¥1,480), the angel-shrimp garlic cream linguine (¥1,380) and the garlic ice cream (¥580), which is studded with chips of caramelised garlic and comes topped with a whole braised clove. 4-5 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3260-3500. Nearest stn: Iidabashi.


With mounds of garlic in every dish, this restaurant lives up to its robust reputation. Their towering garlic toast is actually a vertically standing baguette with a heap of roasted garlic smothered on top. Tuck in to some oysters with garlic sauce to turn your date on—and off, at the same time. Garlic clove and chili icons on the menu indicate each dish’s power (the toast clocks in at four cloves). 1-26-12 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3446-5887. Nearest stn: Ebisu.


So nice, they named it twice—and serve it with rice. Specialties include whole roasted cloves of garlic, garlic toast with baked cloves served on a baguette (horizontal, this time), garlic rice and gourmet sautéed garlic mustard pork. 1-26-2 Shoto, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5478-2029. Nearest stn: Shibuya.


This popular chain of garlicky restaurants was first opened in Yokohama’s Motomachi area in 1993 and has since spread to 18 other locations across Japan. They offer typically tasty, but not too drastic, ninniku-filled renditions of Western-style dishes like garlic rib-eye steaks, pan-sautéed shrimp in garlic lemon butter sauce, jambalaya rice and garlic pizza. Station Core B1F Queen’s Square, 2-3–8 Minato Mirai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama. Tel: 045-682-2870. Nearest stn: Minato Mirai.


The name is the same, but this version of Ninniku-ya is a chain scattered about the Tokyo department store landscape. Shoo the shopping queues with only a breath after breaking for some garlic ishiyaki bibimbap, hanba-gu with garlic sauce and a garlic-shaped white sesame cake with sorbet to sweeten you up. Various locations: Shinjuku Takashimaya Times Square, Lalaport Tokyo Bay, Mona Shin-Urayasu, Lumine


Mar 3, 2013

Watering Hole

Watering Hole

Japan’s homebrew hero Ichiri Fujiura and his wife Michiko Tsutsui, a former manager at Vivo, have pooled talents to bring thirsty Tokyoites a new addition to the jibiru circuit. Watering Hole promises a nice marriage of domestic and international selections, with big hitters such as Stone and BrewDog alongside local breweries like Isekedoya and Harvest Moon.

The nineteen taps—handmade by Fujiura—plus two hand-pumps mix creative choices and crowd-pleasers. Beer styles run the gamut from pilsner to barley wine, with something to satisfy every taste. Better yet, next year the couple’s adjacent brewery, Tharsis Ridge, will add its own craft beer to the lineup. Most pints run ¥1,000-¥1,300; a better deal than the half-pints, which start at ¥750. The indecisive can spring for a beer flight for ¥1,000.

To start, I opted for Beer Buddy’s New Zealand IPA, a hoppily crisp beer that suited the weather perfectly. My partner went for Nihonkai Club’s Bohemian Style Pils, and ended up with a glorified Ebisu. Not bad, but not great. We quickly moved on, ready for something heavier. Epic Brewing’s Rio’s Rompin’ Rye and Ballast Point’s Tongue Buckler seemed to fit the bill.

At 10 percent ABV, many bars serve the latter in a smaller snifter or tulip glass. Watering Hole gives you a pint. This alters the flavor slightly, emphasizing the hops more than the sweetness, and it proved the favorite. Epic’s Rye, on the other hand, seemed heavier and cloudier than on a previous tasting. We asked if it was the bottom of the keg.

Let me tell you: this staff knows their stuff. We found out how long the keg had run, that it was from the middle, and that it was a live beer, accounting for the taste change. Even more impressive was the friendly, helpful manner of the answer. These are people who love their beer.

On our way to being sozzled, we deemed it an appropriate time for food. The menu is small but varied. The organic green salad (¥700) is fresh and generous, but the dressing underwhelming. We wished we’d ordered the sausage (¥600)— we salivated every time the sizzling platters went out. The fried hops (¥350) come with a warning on the menu—“bitter!!”—but the flavor is nuanced. They paired nicely with the heavier-bodied Rye; less so with the already complex Tongue Buckler.

Luckily for jibiru fans this bar lives up to its name, offering a good range served by helpful staff, and decent food alongside. Skip the water, and drink more beer.

Open daily 3-11:30pm. 5-26-5-103 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku.

Feb 25, 2013

Cafe Soul Tree

Cafe Soul Tree

Courtesy of Cafe Soul Tree

Walking west from Futako Tamagawa station along the Tamagawa river’s verdant park belt reminds you that Tokyo isn’t all tarmac and high rises. In fact, this area is lush and green this time of year and if Japan observed Daylight Savings Time (See “The Last Word,” Metropolis #952) it would be swarming with people in the evenings on summer nights.

The perfect time and place, then, to enjoy some cold beer, food, friends and lazy summer evenings—the aim of Café Soul Tree.

Café Soul Tree sits in a refurbished garage complete with Route 66-style weathered siding, a big sliding garage bay door and a low-slung wooden deck outside equipped with a gas barbeque. Inside, the spacious interior is open and airy with a high vaulted ceiling. Tables big enough for large groups sit center and smaller ones with leather library chairs dot the periphery. Over the bar at the back, a mezzanine studio looks out over the minimal wood, leather and concrete décor.

Fans of craft beer will appreciate Saitama’s Coedo beer on tap. So first things first, we ordered a round of shiro (white), kyara (original) and shikkoku (dark) for ¥700 apiece to whet our whistle. The shiro, a wheat beer, was light with a citrus zest but verged on sweet, while the dark shikkoku was all burnt chocolate and coffee—very mellow, understated and easy-to-drink. The favorite was the kyara, though, an amber pale ale with a refreshing hoppy taste, but not overtly in your face.

To a soundtrack of acid jazz and easy house music, we selected a spinach, bacon and kinoko salad (¥900) and their homemade “juicy” sausage. While it’s hard to disappoint with a salad, the sausage was another matter. At ¥1,000 yen, we were presented with a single, regular-sized arabiki sausage. Further, the coarse filling had neither spice nor special seasoning.

The homemade smoked wings (¥900), certainly mixed well with the beer, but again, disappointed with a distinct lack of flavor.

Better were the spare ribs in Coedo beer (¥1,200), slow cooked and stewed nikomu style. Definitely the standout of the night: soft, tasty with buttery fat that literally fell off the bone.

As the music morphed to James Brown and soul, we perused the library of pop art anthologies from the US and books featuring Japanese impressions of the highway Americana that inspired the restaurant. Time to get your kicks in Niko Tama.

Open daily. Café time 11:30am-5pm; bar time 6pm-1am. 3-2-15 Kamata, Setagaya-ku. Nearest station: Futako Tamagawa.

Feb 25, 2013



Jeff W. Richards

When I first entered Gaburiya ten years ago I didn’t even know what an izakaya was, but a memorable cocktail and delicious grilled skewers have kept me coming back despite its tiny smoke-filled space. It’s time you tried it, too.

Once inside (difficult on Friday and Saturday nights) it’s always the same drill. First off, no matter your drink of choice—the Gaburiya opener is the vodka nama grapefruit (¥680). The grapefruit is freshly squeezed for each drink right there at the bar (turns out the reddish cheaper fruit make for better juice). Trust me, you’ll want to order another round as soon as your first arrives.

Next, the maguro no satoyaki in olive sauce (¥300 each). Be quick on this one as they run out most nights. This is their signature dish, and what keeps me coming back. The tuna—squared and skewered on a stick—is lightly seared on the outside, delightfully raw on the inside and drizzled with a near perfect olive sauce. I’ve been trying to figure out the recipe for a decade now and I know this much: diced olives, garlic, sardine, lemon, and pepper in virgin olive oil. Order two per person. Better yet, order three because you’ll order more once you try it.

While you’re at it, order from over 60 different kinds of yakitori, (from ¥180). Get the sasami (chicken slightly grilled outside, practically raw inside, served with wasabi), and the tsukune (grilled minced chicken)—one shio kosho (salt and pepper) and one tare (sauce).

Always a good sign for quality restaurants in Japan, it’s packed with young, upwardly mobile, trendy young women. This ain’t your aging salaryman izakaya (despite being filled with smoke). The soft-lit dark wooden counter and seating area is scarred from scrapes with Louis Vuitton handbags and flashy baubles. A sunken private table near the entrance is available for groups, but you don’t want that. This is one of those places where it’s better to sit in the thick of it all.

Round out the chicken and tuna with yaki onigiri (grilled rice ball, ¥380) done yakitori style on a wooden skewer and served with soup for dipping.

Now you’re on your own. Be adventurous. Ask the long-serving tencho (the manager—who doesn’t speak much English, but loves the practice) for an osusume (recommended) menu item. You can’t go wrong with the deep-fried Camembert or your straight-shooting negima (grilled chicken and green onion). Or try the hotate (scallop): grilled open-faced and in their shell with a little white wine sauce.

Collect some points to use on your next visit at the cash desk when you head out. Just don’t wait ten years to tell anyone about it.

Open daily 5:30pm-4am. 2-6-1 Minami-Saiwai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama. Nearest Station: Yokohama.
Feb 25, 2013

Genka Bar

Genka Bar

Courtesy of Good Beer Faucets

Sometimes, membership has its privileges, and other times, it just means really cheap booze. In an unassuming gray building a stone’s throw from Gotanda station, this bar makes that clear right from its name, genka, which means “cost price.”

Upon entering, we hand over ¥1,500 to the smiling staff. This will gain us access to a wide menu of drinks priced at cost. It’s not nomihodai, but then, which nomihodai offers up premium single malts and martinis anyway? It’s a busy Thursday and some customers are sent upstairs to the “lounge” area, some to the main floor. Segregated groups of cocktail-sipping ladies and draught beer-slugging guys have their cheap, black jackets thrown over seat backs. It’ll be a salaryman and OL free-for-all if the fire alarm goes off.

We open the large, varied drinks menu, slobbering to see the discounts. We’re not disappointed. So low are the prices, you could work your way through the menu like a book (skipping anything with the words “calorie off” or “cassis”). My partner in crime and I started with a Bass Pale Ale (¥250) and a Guinness (¥300).

Before we’d drained them, we were already flipping to the whiskies. I got a Taketsuru 21-year-old (¥420) and he opted for the Lagavulin 16-year-old (¥300). Other options include Ardbeg (¥210), and some Glens (’Livet and ’Fiddich) for ¥120.

The décor is not much, but what do you expect from a Costco-priced bar? Red paint overwhelmingly adorns the black interior, and the plywood counter seating wouldn’t be out of place at your local tachinomiya. What would be, though, is the cool Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf crooning out of the speakers. A lively and enthusiastic clientele, younger than the denizens of oyaji-infested the local yakitori joints, only adds to the appeal.

As you loosen your tie and settle in for a third or fourth drink (Dirty vodka martini? Porfidio tequila? Negroni? Each ¥120), it’s time to mull the food options. The speed menu offers prepackaged items liked mixed nuts, potato chips and dried fruits (from ¥90), but others like the Camembert cheese plate (¥300) or salami and olives (¥150) constitute better fare. Other items we devoured were the roast beef plate (with a tasty horseradish sauce—¥300), maguro carpaccio (¥270), and crudités with dip, to feel healthy.

At the end of the night, after meeting the challenge to sample pretty much everything on the drinks menu, we tottered gingerly to the register, where we each doled out another ¥2,500. All told, the evening cost a little under ¥8,000 for the two of us—including entry fee, drinks and food. Don’t be dismayed if you can’t get a seat, Genka Bar fills up fast. It’s hardly surprising.

Open Mon-Sat 4:30am-1:30am, closed Sun. 2-3F Nozu Bldg, 2-5-8 Nishi Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku. Nearest stn: Gotanda.

Feb 18, 2013

Kita Aoyama Salon

Kita Aoyama Salon

Courtesy of Transit General Office

Just steps from Gaienmae exit 3, in the Sign Café building, is an oft-overlooked door, easily mistaken for a service entrance. Beyond, however, is an intimate, gothic den of liquidity.

Upon entry, the dimly lit interior of Kita Aoyama Salon cloaks you in privacy no matter where you sit. There’s not much to see in the ambient soft lighting and candelabra glow bouncing off dark wood walls. We choose the stunted bar stools allowing us to check the goods. Better yet, most of Salon’s elixirs are not on the menu. Like any good bar, the bartenders prefer to find out what you like and match the drinks to suit.

Special cocktails involve custom infusions, bitters and homemade syrups. These, like the elderflower grenadine or the ginger-and-lemongrass syrup, go into drinks such as fresh-fruit martinis or to spike up something traditional—in our case a zippy pineapple Moscow mule (¥1,400).

We asked about their bottled beer and chose a Lion stout (¥1,000) from Sri Lanka out of that night’s varied off-the-menu selection (including Jever from Germany, and Duchesse de Bourgogne from Belgium, ¥1,400). We paired it with some soft homemade beef jerky marinated in soy and sugar (¥700) and let our eyes get accustomed to the dark.

Salon is now focusing on an earlier—and hungrier—crowd. A slight increase in the lighting means customers can now see their food. With the help of a small flashlight, we ordered the special dry curry with rice (¥1,400), aged for 100 hours and containing 34 spices. Not too hot, it kept our taste buds guessing—tamarind, cinnamon, apple, pickled onion and dry fruits? The steak (¥1,600) came served with fries to soak up the roast-like gravy. They also serve a salty bagna cauda with fresh vegetables (¥1,000).

Bartender Kosuke Hidaka cleverly recommended cocktails based on our conversations. First was a gin and tonic with hyuganatsu, that purely Japanese crossbreed of lemon and yuzu (¥1,200). Simple. Refreshing. Unique.

We noticed a few bottles of absinthe and had to ask. Hidaka duly whipped up a concoction with muddled mint, lime and sugar. He added Beefeater gin, some Carib and house syrup, then dropped in a bomb of Marilyn Manson’s Mansinthe and set it before us. “This,” he proclaimed, “is a Cheap Mojito.” At ¥1,350 we were inclined to disagree, but it was strong and biting, and left us floating up the stairs when we left, with thoughts from the green faerie muse.

Feb 18, 2013



Sydney restaurateur and chef Bill Granger’s fluffy scrambled eggs (¥1,200) have won plaudits from Bondi to Broadway, though his purposeful lowercase spelling and lack of apostrophe might drive editors bananas. Better to focus on his banana hotcakes (¥1,400), that are captivating diners at his new venue smack in the middle of Harajuku.

Tokyo’s best or not, they’re certainly a contender. Airy yet substantial, the fun in the signature banana and ricotta hotcakes is biting into a surprise pocket of soft cheese. Honeycomb butter adds a touch of sweetness but stops short of being cloying. For a healthier breakfast, try the Bircher muesli (¥700) with apple, strawberry and almonds [see feature for more breakfasts].

Commanding the top floor of the new Tokyu Plaza, the latest bills incarnation is spacious, bright and cheery, a welcome respite from the adolescent madness below. Granger’s brunch classics, most large enough to share, are served throughout late afternoon. A colorful mix of green, yellow and red, the sweet corn fritters with roast tomato, spinach and bacon (¥1,400) were let down by oiliness, but an elderflower cordial soda (¥700) kept the grease in check.

Apart from frappés, juices and smoothies (around ¥700), Antipodeans will be charmed by the flat white (¥600) on the coffee menu—worth its price.

Lunch choices are spare but substantial. The exception is the wagyu burger (¥2,000) with zucchini pickles, fresh tomato and herbed French fries, which my companion views as aimed at ladies in need of an iron fix. Better luck for the ravenous is the BLT (¥1,300), also with fries. Straightforward—as are most of Granger’s dishes—the sourdough bread lends a weighty bite while mustard aioli provides a tangy balance.

Granger might have stoked his reputation as the brunch king, but those looking for “Australian” creative café fare should visit in the evening. Though the lentil and labne cheese fattoush (¥1,200) is a fine veggie dish, bills mainly targets those with a pescetarian penchant. The fish carpaccio salad with grapefruit, radish and dried capers (¥1,200) is an inspired warm-weather choice, and well-paired with one of many Australian wines on offer, such as the Wynns Coonawarra 2010 Riesling (¥800 per glass) or the crisp and bracing Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc (¥1,000).

Others might be swayed by the swordfish with a spicy capsicum sauce (¥2,000), or grilled pork with corn salsa (¥1,800), and sides such as garlic mashed potato, and sautéed greens (¥500).

For dessert, bills’ shareable pavlova (¥800), topped with passionfruit and fresh cream, is a sunny salute to the southern isles.

Feb 18, 2013

Quirky cafés

 Nanjya Monjya

Treehouse café Nanjya Monjya: photo by Jessica Kozuka

If you don’t fancy waiting in line for your cup of Joe, try these offbeat watering holes.


The short menu might be limited to curry, French toast and pizza, but, let’s be honest, the food choices were never going to be the main draw of this treehouse café. If you think you’re the only person in the area looking for an excuse to recapture their lost childhood, mind, you can think again – and be prepared to queue.
Open Fri-Sat non-5.30pm, closed Sun-Thu. 5-55 Mitsuzawahigashi-cho, Kanagawa. Nearest stn: Mitsuzawashimo.


If, for some odd reason, you are nostalgic for the days of school lunches, sit at a tiny desk in a tiny chair and eat tiny dishes commonly served in Japanese schools.
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2pm, 6-11pm, closed Sun. 1-4-4 Moto-Asakusa, Taito-ku. Nearest stn: Shin-Okachimachi.


Relax in a place that looks like your office, at Office. Just try not to get crumbs in the keyboard.
Open Mon-Sat 7pm-3am, closed Sun. 5F Yamazaki Bldg, 2-7-18 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Nearest stn: Gaienmae.


Goats are the new cats. Hang out on the terrace with Sakura and Chocolat, the owners’ pet billies. Just keep an eye on your waffles.
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-4am. 1F Shinoda Bldg, 23-3 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku. Nearest stn:


If you thought maid cafés were the nerdiest coffee spot, Handazuke Café is a step up. It doesn’t even serve food—or drinks (customers bring their own). It does offer free use of a soldering iron and other tools, though, so you can build electronic gadgets (possibly a coffee maker?). They even have workshops, a live webstream—and it’s free.
Open Mon-Fri 6-8:30pm, Sat-Sun 1-6pm. 11-14-6 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku. Nearest stn: Suehirocho.


This one is sure to make your kids—or the kid in you—squeal in delight. The café is built around a huge model train display with several locomotives whipping around the tracks. There’s also plenty of train-themed food and a trinket shop.
Open Mon-Fri 11am-11pm, Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 11am-8pm. 1F Shin-Yurakucho Bldg, 1-12-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. Nearest stn: Yurakucho.


Not many Japanese homes have room for a bulky sewing machine, so what are crafters to do? Head to Nico, where they have 11 machines of different types for you to use, as well as all the other tools of the dressmaking trade. And coffee, of course.
Open Tue-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-5pm, closed Mon. 103 Arai Daiichi Mansion, 7-19-16 Kamisoshigaya, Setagaya-ku. Nearest stn: Sengawa.

Feb 11, 2013

Slappy Cakes

Slappy Cakes

Courtesy of Slappy Cakes

What better way to celebrate Pancake Day than with a visit to this new breakfast outlet. In a country where massive egg mixtures are heaped onto hot plates at tables and cooked by customers, it’s no surprise someone is applying the Western breakfast ideal to the formula. What is surprising is the idea came from Portland, Oregon. Slappy Cakes has just opened only its second worldwide branch here in Tokyo (7F Lumine Est, 3-38-1 Shinjuku;, allowing a fresh continent’s citizens to fry extravagant pancakes at their table—while imbibing breakfast cocktails. We don’t know what breakfast cocktails are, but they sound great.