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The pride of the neighborhood

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Mannebiches is the Tokyo neighborhood bistro par excellence. Tucked away, well off the main drag, in a part of town better known for its traditional shitamachi values, it does not trumpet its presence to the city at large. Instead, it is content to serve up first-rate French food without fanfare or pretension for a local populace that yearns to eat out at modest expense without having to dress up and trek downtown.

At the same time, though, this is not just another place to be lumped in with the ever-burgeoning crowd of low-end local French eateries (of which Pas a Pas is the much copied blueprint). Mannebiches stands head and shoulders above that crowd, setting a whole new yardstick for the genre.

There is no attempt at an “ethnic” French look. The tables are not covered in red checked cloths. There are no guttering, wax-dripping candles stuck into empty Beaujolais bottles, no tricolor flags or postcards of the Eiffel Tower.

The interior is clean and spacious, with tiled floors, simple wooden furniture and off-white walls that hint obliquely of Provence. Outside a small herb garden struggles to survive in the muggy downtown climate. White canvas parasols provide shade for a couple of outdoor tables — used only for waiting customers.

The man in charge out front is Kazuhiro Yamamoto. In the kitchen, chef Oyagi and his young but very competent kitchen crew turn out a southern French-accented cuisine that is creative enough to draw diners from well beyond the immediate catchment area. Their formula is familiar — a fixed-price, four-course dinner for a very reasonable 3,800 yen (with small supplementary charges for the more elaborate dishes). You are given a choice of six starters, eight main dishes and five desserts. The menu, which changes on a daily basis, is inscribed (though only in Japanese, unfortunately) on a small blackboard that is brought around to your table.

The meal starts with a platter of mixed hors d’oeuvres, much in the mode of an antipasti misti plate. This might feature a small mound of caviar d’aubergine (a savory puree of eggplant in the Provencal style); finely slivered, sweetly marinated carrot; a taster of seafood; a scoop of homemade pate; and a mouthful of salad vegetables.

Next up is your choice of starter. On our most recent visit we tried the carpaccio of dorade — fine slices of premium snapper with a marinade of olive oil and balsamico. This was topped with young shungiku as crisp as arugula and with barely a hint of the perfume that makes chrysanthemum leaves so hard to eat in their raw state (the secret lies in soaking them in fresh water), and scattered with shards of Parmesan.

Other notable mentions include the gratin of mussels, served piping hot in diminutive ceramic pots; the lobster salad; and Yamamoto’s confit of foie gras, a creamy pate of goose liver encased in pork meat, studded with green pistachios and served with a few vinegar-pickled cornichons and other vegetables.

You are offered an unlimited selection of crisp, warm breads — rolls, baguettes or country-style pain de campagne. When Mannebiches first opened, back in 1997, these were prepared in-house, filling the premises with the golden aroma of fresh baking. Now, all the bread is made at their new bakery, just a short ride away near Kasuga.

But the handsome oven, set into the back wall of the restaurant, is still very much in use. The menu strongly features roasts, chiefly lamb, kurobuta pork and duck. The carre d’agneau (two generous chops of lamb) is juicy, delectably infused with rosemary and well supported by a serving of ratatouille-style Mediterranean vegetables with a colorful pesto sauce.

The highlight of our recent meal, however, was the joue de boeuf — melt-in-the-mouth tender chunks of beef cheek. Unusually, this was cooked down in white wine rather than red, resulting in a less dense structure that is perfectly suited to the warmer weather. A dash of cumin was also added to the rich gravy, imbuing it with a subtly spicy underflavor that complements the meat perfectly.

The all-French wine list is limited but quite adequate. There are good desserts and coffee to round off the evening. The service is friendly and attentive without any attempt to hurry you through your meal. All in all, Mannebiches achieves a winning equilibrium of quality, ambience and price that comes as close as anywhere in Tokyo to the ideal. It’s the kind of place we all wish we had in our own neighborhood. It’s also plenty good enough to cross town for.

At lunchtime, Mannebiches offers a two-course set menu for 1,500 yen and a more extensive three-course lunch for 2,000 yen.

The new Mannebiches Atelier bakery is also worth a detour, although it’s a 15-minute walk from Nezu. 1-2-2 Nishikata, Bunkyo-ku; tel: (03) 5804-4242. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Nearest station: Kasuga (Oedo Line).