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Maru 3-kai: Maru steps up one more floor

by Robbie Swinnerton

Location, location, location. It’s the cardinal rule, the holy trinity of real estate, the prerequisite for success in many a trade — and almost an essential for any restaurant. So how come one of Tokyo’s most happening little diners is in a part of town that few people would ever consider their first choice of an evening destination?

For most of us, Hatchobori is just a name on the subway map on the nether side of Tsukiji. Venture above ground and you find a faceless, charmless commercial district. And yet it’s now drawing crowds from far and wide, and they are there for a single reason: the excellent little wine bar/grill known simply as Maru.

Like the neighborhood, Maru is nothing special to look at, but it has plenty of history. The story starts with the Miyataya sake shop, a family-run operation that’s been in business now for seven generations. As with many other liquor stores, it had a counter in the back of the premises where customers could enjoy a drink. Eventually, to stand out from the pack, it began serving wine alongside sake and shochu, with an increasingly elaborate range of bar snacks.

Long before tachinomi standing-only bars became a citywide phenomenon, Maru led the way. Such was demand that it soon opened a dining room upstairs, with a couple of dozen seats and a charcoal grill in the center. Apart from the emphasis on wine, it was just as cheerful and affordable as any local izakaya (Japanese pub).

From the outset, the principle was brilliantly simple: You select your bottle from the shelves of the retail shop; carry it up to the second floor; and the staff open it for you for a minimal corkage fee of ¥500. Not surprisingly, it was an instant success. Word spread, and again Maru soon found it was turning people away.

So last year Maru expanded once more, moving into the floor above. But instead of merely copying their existing formula, it upped the ante again: The menu is more elaborate, the preparation rather more refined. But the unpretentious feel remains, as you can easily tell by the name its owners chose: Maru 3-kai (pronounced “San-kai,” it just means third floor).

The look is strictly utilitarian, with no attempt made to prettify the room. An open kitchen runs along one side. The opposite wall is covered with shelves of wine (you don’t carry your own bottle from below, and prices are rather higher than downstairs). The tables are wedged in close together, and there’s little elbow room at the counter, either. That’s all part of the charm.

None of this matters once the food starts arriving. We like to open with some dry fino sherry, or perhaps a glass of the champagne that’s usually on ice at each table. With this, we order a mixed plate of ham, freshly carved off the haunch. Alongside the fragrant Italian prosciutto di Parma and dark, chewy Spanish jamon serrano (premium jamon Iberico bellotta of course), it also offers the far less common (in Japan) noir de Bigorre, a delectable ham from the Gascony region of France with plenty of rich, buttery lard — the porcine equivalent of otoro tuna.

The cooking covers a broad spectrum of mostly southern European influences, all reinterpreted with a subtlety that is unexpected in these surroundings. Another starter we highly recommend is the hotate sarada, crisp salad greens (organically grown, the menu says), topped with lightly sauteed scallops.

If you ‘re lucky, the kitchen will also be serving its onions stuffed with ratatouille: The onions are baked whole in foil, then chilled, sliced open and filled with a generous portion of soft-cooked Mediterranean vegetables. The taste is every bit as good as the handsome presentation of the dish.

The basic menu — though not the specials of the day — has been translated into English, complete with idiosyncratic titles such as “Maru Standby” or “Fishies.” But its main focus is the range of dishes prepared on the teppanyaki- style plancha grill or over the charcoal grill in the center of the kitchen.

It offers a very generous rack of lamb, cuts of wagyu beef and premium pork, as well as a selection of grilled vegetables or shiitake mushrooms. On our last visit we ordered the breast of wild French duck, and watched as it was first seared on the plancha to seal in its juices, then placed over the charcoal to absorb the aromatic smoke, and presented with a drizzle of sweet-sour groseilles (French redcurrants).

By this time we had already downed a plate of homemade pasta, papardelle with a creamy mushroom and mascarpone sauce. We had also polished off our bottle of Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc (¥5,000 for this good New Zealand is fair value) and were sampling the range of French red wines by the glass.

Don’t get the wrong idea, this is not a well-polished operation: Order mineral water and they’ll plonk a large plastic bottle of Volvic (1,500 ml; ¥500) in your wine cooler. Nothing better encapsulates the Maru 3-kai ethos.

By the early evening the room is likely to be packed, noisy and smoky. You will probably have struck up a conversation with the people at the next table, and even exchanged a drink or two. It is this combination of quality cooking and no-frills izakaya ambience that makes Maru 3-kai such an enjoyable experience.

Kitchen Cero: a tasty new haunt in Meguro

The back streets just to the east of Meguro JR Station are another area that is emerging from obscurity. Not so long ago this was an insalubrious haunt for down-at-the-heels salarymen. Now it’s gentrifying fast, with a bevy of promising new restaurants and cafes. The best we’ve tried is Kitchen Cero.

Open since last autumn, this bright, cheerful hole in the wall is notable not so much for its diminutive size (a dozen seats arranged around an open kitchen, plus a couple of small tables by the door) nor for the sophisticated look (linen napkins; gleaming globes for the wine), but by the fact that it’s staffed entirely by women.

Its menu, which changes daily, encompasses a range of tapas-style starters; Spanish classics such as tortilla potato omelets and paella; Asian influences, such as croquettes of yama-imo yam with foie gras or batter-fried fish with a salty nam pla seasoning; excellent homemade pasta; grilled meats a la plancha; and a good range of desserts.

On top of this, Cero has a considerable wine cellar. You can either pick out a bottle from the shelves fitted along the walls or work your way through its selection of wines by the glass, of which it usually offers as many as 20, starting from ¥600.

If the template for Cero seems familiar, that’s because it’s the latest in the line of restaurants operated by ToVi, the company behind Bongout Noh, the popular wine bar in Shibuya, and Kinsai, the excellent modern Japanese restaurant in Naka-Meguro.

So what’s not to like? Cero stays open well past midnight, making it ideal for a post-concert snack. And in the warm months, the tables by the door are open to the street. The only negative in our book is that it’s not no-smoking. And that it’s too damned popular.

2-13-44 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa-ku; nearest station Meguro (JR Nanboku, Mita and Meguro lines); open daily 5 p.m.-1 a.m. For more information call (03) 5791-5715 or visit www.to-vi.jp