‘Tis the season to be merry, but too many office parties, bonenkai drink fests and lavish yearend dining can quickly take their toll. In the face of hectic schedules and chronic overindulgence, the only remedy is to slow down and concentrate on the fundamentals — good, satisfying food; fine wine; and simple, uncomplicated surroundings.
Vin Picoeur fits the bill just right. It’s a cozy little place, tucked away on the second floor above a diminutive wine merchant on a back street just off the main drag in Ginza. This may sound obscure, but you will understand why it is worth tracking down when you learn that it was set up as an offshoot of Aux Amis des Vins, a casual restaurant-cum-wine bar that remains one of our favorites in this neighborhood.
It’s a classic one-counter operation, with just enough room for 14 people to shoehorn themselves in along the open kitchen. Elbow room is adequate, if not generous, but there’s little clearance to squeeze past, so instead of proper chairs you have to perch on basic (and not entirely comfortable) stools. Unless, that is, you arrive (or phone in your reservation) in time to secure the small table at the back of the room, which is equipped with four upright wooden farmhouse chairs.
Vin Picoeur describes its genre as “French barbecue” — and the centerpiece of the restaurant is the charcoal grill — but it looks and functions much like an izakaya. Think kushi-yaki and oden, but given a totally Western twist. French chanson music is on the stereo, but little else has been done to provide a European ambience. Although the condiments are in a purely Western vein — coarse fleur de sel sea salt, grated horseradish and three types of mustard — chopsticks are provided along with forks. Decoration is minimal: You are there for the food and, even more so, for the drink.
Apart from beer (Hoegaarden and Guinness) and a selection of aperitifs, the drinks list is entirely devoted to wine. As at the parent operation, Aux Amis, there is a stupendous choice, ranging from very reasonable vins de table to rare vintages that would not disgrace a three-star banquet.
While the primary focus is the Burgundy region, they also stock plenty of other tasty (and better value) bottles from the Midi region of southern France. Matsuoka-san, the young manager-sommelier, knows his wines well, and on our visit last week he helped us pick out a deep, well-structured Faugeres (Leon Barral, 1999, 5,500 yen) that hit the spot perfectly in terms of both flavor and budget.
He will also help you work your way around the menu. There are two set courses (2,800 yen and 4,000 yen) showcasing Vin Picoeur’s excellent grilled dishes, notably their pork, which is imbued with extra flavor from the vine twigs they burn atop the charcoal as it is grilling. We prefer to order a la carte, since that offers a far wider selection of other meats, including lamb, venison, chicken and duck, as well as some seafood.
Whichever route you take, be sure to start off with a serving of their smooth, dark, creamy chicken liver pa^te, which is so good you will order up more of the thin baguette slices to make sure nothing goes to waste. The scallops in their shells were less successful. The sliced black truffles on top had the aroma (and texture) of cardboard. But that was the only disappointment of the evening.
Soft-cooked eggs in their shells. It sounds banal, but this is one of the highlights of any meal at Vin Picoeur. These are free-range eggs from a small village in Hokkaido, slowly grilled until perfectly done. Scoop them out of their mottled brown shells and sprinkle on a pinch of sea salt. You will never taste better eggs in Japan unless you raise your own chickens.
They cook their fish and vegetables equally effectively. Although the portions are small, our suzuki (sea bass) was perfectly grilled, its skin crisp and its white flesh glistening and moist. Grilled asparagus spears wrapped in bacon is a yakitori standard, but here it complements the wine just as well.
Ditto with the garlic. The six small cloves on the skewer are slightly under-grilled, to retain their inherent piquancy along with a slight crunchiness of texture. But if you prefer your garlic soft, sweet and gooey, then just ask them to cook it slightly longer.
Next up, lamb — delicate chops from Tasmania. Slightly smoky in flavor from the charcoal, but a beautiful light pink on the inside and with plenty of rich fat, this is so tender you know it’s not mutton dressed to deceive. And how could we leave without tasting their fabulous duck? It is served with whole chestnuts (sweet but not sweetened) and a dribble of “wine” sauce that’s so dark and savory you’d swear it contains Marmite or some other yeast extract. That is no complaint: It’s a heavenly combination.
We had just enough room to try the pot au feu — “French oden,” as they call it — not the pork or veal tongue, but the wonderful, long-simmered vegetables. They have leeks (French poireaux); melt-in-the-mouth kabu (turnips of the delicate Japanese persuasion); thick rounds of daikon; and sweet, sweet onion. These are served up (just as oden is) with a good amount of the simmering stock.
This lip-smacking broth has been on the go in their kitchen for two years now, ever since they started, topped up constantly with extra chicken bones and whatever else they opte to toss in the pot. Again, it is so deeply, gravy-rich yeasty it’s hard to believe they haven’t enhanced it with soy or yeast extract.
Do yakitori and oden go with wine? Not (to our traditionalist thinking) if made with dashi stock and seasoned with shoyu. If chicken stock is used and the only savor comes from sea salt and herbs, then they make a brilliant combination with good wine, as Vin Picoeur proves. However, if so, is it valid for them to be called by their Japanese names?
When you reach this level of pondering — sipping your wine and musing on the finer things — then you know the pressure is off. Spending a slow evening at Vin Picoeur, or merely dropping in for a glass or two and a couple of skewers of meat, is just what the doctor ordered.