Get a taste of the Mediterranean at this diminutive Koenji bar


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2009

Photo by James Hadfield

Photo by James Hadfield

Tokyo is famed for its small restaurants and bars—cozy, hole-in-the-wall places that are often no bigger than a living room. Most people will have their own personal favorites, and one of ours is Izarra, a popular haunt for locals in Koenji.

This tapas bar is certainly intimate, consisting of little more than a counter, where you can sit and strike up conversations with other customers, and a few small tables that seat a maximum of three or four people. An FC Barcelona flag is proudly positioned in one corner, and though you definitely couldn’t mistake Izarra for a sports bar, the master will have the small television set switched on during major soccer matches. Mention Barca’s victory in this year’s Champions League and he visibly brightens.

Named after a sweet liqueur from the French Basque country, Izarra has been running for ten years now. The owner whips up small Japanese- and Mediterranean-style dishes to accompany the alcohol, drawing on his experiences living and traveling in France, Spain and Brazil. The tapas concept of snacking while enjoying a few drinks suits Japanese tastes well, and Izarra has proved a hit with women as well as men. Female customers will often stop by in groups, or even on their own.

If you want to start your night with a bang, order a Caipirinha (¥700), the fearsomely strong Brazilian cocktail, or its vodka-based cousin, Caipirosca (¥600). Wine is sold by the glass (¥350-¥700) or bottle (¥1,900-¥5,900), and you can get into the summer spirit with some expertly made sangria, available by the glass (¥500) or decanter (¥1,800). A basic draft beer will run you just ¥350.

Izarra is one bar where you needn’t worry about eating before you go, either. The owner spends each afternoon preparing food for the evening, placing an emphasis on simple flavors and fresh ingredients. Dishes range from ¥300 to ¥950, and are ideal for a casual dinner with a date or friends. Start with a snack of pistachios, green olives or vegetable sticks with dip (¥300-¥400 each), then continue with a cheese plate (¥950), Japanese-style dishes such as chikuwa and cucumber marinade (¥400), or Mediterranean classics like tortilla de patatas (¥450). If you can’t decide, just ask for the “otsumami moriawase” and the owner will whip up a selection of whatever happens to be at hand.

The food menu is supplemented by a choice of daily specials, all served with bread (¥700-¥950). Expect hearty soups and stews during the winter and refreshing dishes like Moroccan-style tomato salad in summer.

Izarra isn’t exactly the kind of place you’d go out of your way to visit, but if you’re planning a tour of the highlights of the Chuo line, it’s a mighty fine spot to begin or end your evening.