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Fujiya Honten Grill Bar: cheap and tasty eats on your feet

by Robbie Swinnerton

Now that the holiday feasting is just a fast-fading memory, it’s time to tighten the belt and rein in the spending. No more high-end splurges: These days we’re staying strictly street level.

Not that we’re complaining: We know plenty of places to eat and drink well without breaking the bank. And when it comes to settling in for a simple session with some good, affordable wine and food to match, few can hold a candle to Fujiya Honten Grill Bar.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it was set up by Fujiya Honten, the cult-classic standing-only wine bar close to Shibuya Station. It also shares most of the same core values: a massive selection of budget wines that cost little more than you’d pay for them retail; a total lack of pretension and wine snobbery; and not a single chair to sit on in the entire house.

The ethos may be the same, but we like the new Grill Bar (it opened last August) a lot more. It has the easy-going ambience of a neighborhood restaurant, rather than a drop-in bar. Sangenjaya is only a couple of stops by train out from Shibuya, but it’s peaceful. People actually live there.

We also give Grill Bar bonus points for its humble low-rise premises. It has taken over a single-story building formerly used as a tsuri-bori, a shop selling supplies for koi fanciers, complete with its own pool filled with goldfish. Apart from the name over the door and the gleaming extractor pipes fitted on the roof, the outside looks little changed.

The interior is no-frills postindustrial, with walls of matte gray corrugated plastic, sheets of shiny stainless steel, and basic wooden counters and tabletops. The old shop’s original sign now hangs above the bar. Meanwhile, the area in the middle where anglers once sat and hooked their own colorful fish is now occupied by a substantial kitchen.

Much more than the bar snacks implied in its name, Grill Bar turns out an extensive range of food good enough to match any bistro in town. There are four chefs (versus just one sommelier and one waiter) and it’s clear they’re not a tag-team of cooks who’ve learned on the job. They are properly trained in both techniques and presentation.

If there were a menu, it would run to several pages. Instead, the day’s offerings — and there are scores — are chalked up in multiple rows on blackboards running under the eaves across three walls.

Even with keen eyes and a supple neck, it’s impossible to take them all in at once. The options range from simple starters to a range of pastas and a large number of more substantial dishes (virtually all of them less than ¥1,000). Our strategy is just to pick out a couple of items — they’re all intended to be shared between two or three — then continue slowly scanning as we sip and nibble.

We invariably start with some cold cuts (three types of Italian salami) or olives to go with our first drink — usually Aussie Chandon bubbly, or in this chilly weather, the hot wine — plus some French fries or grilled vegetables, while we decide on pasta and main courses.

Having been to Grill Bar a few times now, here are some of the dishes we’ve tried and enjoyed. They are unlikely to be on the menu year-round, but most should be in season for a while longer.

“Lisbon-style” grilled sardine (¥550): a single fish lightly salted and skewered over the electric grill (at these prices you can’t expect charcoal), served with a wedge of lime and a rosemary-infused olive oil. Looking stunning on the plate, and tasting just as good, this was worthy of any bistro in the city.

Ankimo (monkfish liver) and togan winter melon (¥800): At most Japanese restaurants you are given only a small portion of this super-concentrated seafood, often dubbed foie gras of the ocean. But here you get the entire organ, which is larger than your fist and very rich indeed. Served on a thick slice of simmered winter melon, bathed in a light, almost Japanese-style bouillon, this was a standout, if only because we have never before eaten so much monkfish liver at a single sitting.

Gnocchi in a creamy sauce packed with the umami savor of semidried tomato and Parmesan (¥800).

Caesar salad (¥650): Served on a large wooden tray, this was made with mixed leaves rather than romaine lettuce, but came with plenty of bacon and croutons and a generous daubing of mayonnaise. Not delicate by any means, but highly effective.

Galette de sarrasin (¥750): a hearty buckwheat pancake topped with egg, cheese and nicely browned strips of juicy ham. This was nothing like you’d find in Brittany or the better galette restaurants of Tokyo, but nonetheless tasty and filling.

Meanwhile, the wine menu poses challenges of its own. Around 120 different bottles are listed, almost all under ¥4,000 (and the cheapest a barely credible ¥1,900). Every day, about 16 of these are available by the glass or carafe (from as little as ¥400). Mainly European, but with a good sprinkling of New World wines, most of the cheapest options are very ordinary tables wines.

But there are also some good discoveries to be made, especially in the upper range. The other day we drank a nice, sharp Austrian Gruner Veltliner, and then a golden, straw-colored Salento Bianco (from Puglia in the south of Italy). This we followed with a well-structured red Bordeaux (Cha^teau Lamothe- Vincent). We were well guided in matching the wine with our food by Yuzo Kato, the affable in-house sommelier.

With this much choice for both eating and drinking, the temptation is always to order too much. But, as we have found out on more than one occasion, the biggest problem at Fujiya Honten Grill Bar is not that you will overeat — nor that you will spend too much. The problem is that your legs will give out long before your stomach and your wallet ever do.