Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2008

Photos by Kenichi Shimada

Photos by Kenichi Shimada

Who would have thought gourmet espresso went so well with a soy-cheese, tomato and onion sandwich? An odd match indeed, but par for the course in the town of Sarugakucho, whose kanji literally mean “monkey fun town.” This area is home to funky street-fashion boutiques and cafes where the baristas don’t wear green aprons. It is also the location of Asuka, a recently opened vegetarian restaurant that also serves dynamite Joe.

Asuka’s street-side façade is all glass except for a white wooden door. Inside, the relaxing vibe is reinforced by a silver mountain bike in the corner, magazines on the bookshelves, and a small terrarium-style herb garden in the main dining area. The shop is owned by Asuka Hashimoto and staffed by equally cheerful young women. Hashimoto does a good job of putting her customers at ease, and that has as much to do with her calm demeanor as anything on the menu.

We sat at the small table near the front, and hurriedly paged through the relatively short menu. Though dismayed to learn that the set meals must be ordered two days in advance to allow the kitchen time to source ingredients, we made a series of à la carte selections, along with a bottle of 2004 Le Petit Lassole (¥4,200). We groaned when the wine arrived chilled, but we gave the French red a chance—and were pleasantly surprised.

The first item to arrive was a large vegetable salad (¥1,200) with homemade, anchovy-free Caesar dressing. Next out was an assortment of whole-grain bread and three vegetable and bean spreads (¥1,100), followed by the highlight of the evening: juicy soy “chicken” nuggets (¥950), seasoned with garlic and black pepper.

Photos by Kenichi Shimada

Photos by Kenichi Shimada

Our main dish was the soy-cheese and veggie sandwich (¥1,500). Though we weren’t pleased with the price, that was our only complaint about this delicious entrée of whole-grain toast, tomatoes and grilled onions smothered with melted “cheese.” We finished our meal with a soy mocha (¥750) and a latte (¥700). All of Asuka’s coffee drinks are organic and available in decaf—a rarity in Tokyo.

During a previous visit, for last summer’s World Barista Championship, Asuka hosted a dinner party for the competitors. Halfway through the meal, a group of coffee connoisseurs crowded around the espresso machine in the kitchen and started a spirited contest to see who could create the best “latte art.” We then proceeded to drink enough caffeine to keep us up through a full-length kabuki production.

Bottom line: if the drinks and food here are good enough for the best in the business, they’re certainly good enough for us.