Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2009
Bars and restaurants in Tokyo with worthwhile wine lists have adapted themselves to local drinking culture. Thus, many are tiny boites by necessity, rather than any romantic hark to halcyon France. Yet the selection of available wine—despite Japan’s paltry annual consumption rate of 2 liters per capita—is almost as good as London or New York, and arguably superior to anywhere else in Asia. At the best of these places, tradition and idiosyncrasies mingle with superb wine service and creative food with guts. At the worst, the paté is bland and the bread white, soft and sweet.
Shonzui and its charismatic owner Katsuyama-san specialize in wines from France that are made organically, often with minimal sulphur dioxide. These wines can be inherently pure and delicious, or vile and oxidized. Vive la différence! Shonzui’s cooking is honest, robust and French with a Japanese twang. Original ’60s rock prints and paraphernalia are balanced with generous portions of charcuterie and cheeses until late-night. A wine joint with soul! Try the superlative Hochkirch Riesling from the wilds of southwestern Victoria at around ¥8,000, or the imaginative selection of juicy cru Beaujolais from artisans like Jean-Paul Brun and Thevenet.
Owner Jiro Kinsoshita is the ambassador for Australian wine in a city that more readily embraces France and Italy. Old Vine offers a menu redolent with fine Australian produce and older, “hand smuggled” vintages from Jiro’s luggage. There’s also a list of non-Aussie wines to sate the dogged brand-seekers, but I am not quite sure why—it’s sort of like asking for fish in a steakhouse that serves Barossa wines, which Jiro loves. Drink by the glass from the high-tech storage system. Legato
Legato prides itself on its cityscape views, a contemporary menu, and an all-encompassing, ¥4,500 wine list. (I profess interest here, as I help maintain the list.) There is also a reserve selection—or whatever you want to call a more comprehensive list—which is possibly the finest in Tokyo, dare I say so myself. Legato is not deep on Bordeaux or Burgundy, but it boasts a highly diverse selection of artisan drops found in few other places—fun to drink and fairly priced. All wines are classified according to flavor profile rather than country or grape. The selection of Rhones and Aussies is particularly strong, with Pizzini Sangiovese/Shiraz from the ¥4,500 list, and the Nebbiolo from the comprehensive tome a particular favorite.
Upon entering this tiny Ginza restaurant, customers are confronted by a gaffed pig behind Perspex, which I imagine is meant to give an idea of the cooking—BBQ and yakitori. The world’s greatest chicken, poulet de Bresse, is imported from France, and all the food is grilled over bincho charcoal. The wine list is one of the finest in Tokyo despite the amusing spelling mistakes. Foillard’s Morgon Cote du Puy ’06 is a perennial favorite at ¥6,800. Service and stemware are fine to boot.
The view looking out over a parking lot belies Vin Ciero’s greatness. The food is superb, with a three-course menu for ¥3,800, often with marginally legal Italian hams and sausages rounding out pastas, game and fish. The wine list is par excellence, with a passionate chef versed in southern Italy and the good life. It is hard to recommend specific wines, as the selection is capricious and dependent on the travels of owner, Sato-san. The selection of whites from the obscure Alto Adige is always fascinating.
This captivating trattoria in Shibuya is produced by Tokyo’s trendy Buchi group (Buri; Kinsai). The chef, a young Japanese lass with international experience to burn, worked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and WD-50, among other luminaries. She and I agree that while the quality of food in Japan is very high, eating non-Japanese is not always fun. Cujorl is different with tactfully conceived creative Italian fare and a solid, well-priced, Italian-focused wine list. Mastroberardino’s Radici, one of the finest of all aglianicos from Campania, is a steal at ¥8,600, although there is plenty at around ¥4,000. Like the other restaurants in the group, though, the list is pixilated and littered with wines that have no place with the theme and smack of tokenism.
7-10-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3405-7478. Open 6pm-2am daily. Nearest stn: Roppongi.
1-10-6 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5771-2439. Open Mon-Sat 5pm-4am. Nearest stn: Hiroo or Roppongi. www.oldvine.jp
15F, 3-6 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5784-2121. Open daily 11:30am-2am. Nearest stn: Shibuya. www.legato-tokyo.jp
4-3-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3567-4122. Open Mon-Fri 5:30-11:30pm, Sat & hols 4-11pm, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Ginza.
5-1-13 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-5367-1967. Open daily 6pm-1:30am. Nearest stn: Shinjuku-Gyouen.
22-8 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5784-5818. Open daily 11:30am-midnight. www.to-vi.jp/cujorl