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Keats House: Simple nourishment that tastes like poetry

by Robbie Swinnerton

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” Those oft-quoted words by the romantic poet John Keats resonate here in Japan no less than in his native England. Now, two centuries after being penned, they are the inspiration for a splendid little cafe-restaurant in one of Tokyo’s lesser-trod neighborhoods.

The name, Keats House, gives the wrong idea, at least to European ears. You expect a genteel, aristocratic residence with a fusty academic air; what you find is a handsome old Japanese building transformed into a lively modern space where you can shop and browse, sit and relax, or settle in for simple meals of wholesome home-cooked food.

Built half a century ago, this traditional wooden two-story house is indeed a beautiful edifice. Until recently, though, it was moldering away, boarded up and abandoned. It seemed unlikely to survive. Now saved and lovingly restored, it has been brought back from the brink and given a distinctive new lease of life — if not for eternity, then at least a good few years more.

Keats House is also bringing a much-needed injection of vim and style to Yutenji. This sleepy residential area is only minutes away from trendy Naka-Meguro by train or bus but is generally overlooked. It stands on busy Komazawa-dori, right by the retro sign marking the entrance to Yutenji’s old-fashioned shopping street.

The original shop space on the first floor, inside the rattly sliding glass doors, is now a boutique selling whole-wheat bread, nonadditive foods, biodynamic wine and “lifestyle goods.” One wall has shelves of herbs in jars and plain brown packages. There are small sections of natural cosmetics and kitchenware — bowls, bento lunch boxes and chopsticks — plus wooden buckets and stools to bring a traditional touch to your modern bathroom.

The dining area is out back, in the area that used to be the yard. A basic annex of timber and clear plastic has been tacked on to the original structure and furnished with a mishmash of odd tables and chairs. The feel is casual, not quite back-to-nature but definitely informal — especially if you find yourself sharing one of the long trestle tables, with their rickety rustic benches.

The food is equally uncomplicated. Meals are served on large, chunky wooden platters and feature plenty of vegetables and whole grains, small side dishes and salads, and bowls of soul-warming stew and gently aromatic curries.

Just about every meal includes a heaped serving of genmai (brown rice) cooked together with a mix of other grains, such as red rice, millet and barley. Besides making it more nutritious, this gives it a more complex flavor and a chewy texture.

These days, genmai is not so uncommon on Tokyo menus (in decades past, it was stigmatized and shunned, considered little better than animal food), and that is fine by us — but only when it is cooked properly. Thankfully the kitchen crew at Keats understand that whole grains need to be cooked under pressure to make them digestible, and that an ordinary electric rice cooker will not suffice.

Keats is not a vegetarian restaurant — there are several fish and meat dishes each day — though nonmeat-eaters and vegans will feel at home. It follows the macrobiotic ethos of shunning artificial additives and refined sugars, and incorporating very little dairy food. That means the stews are thickened with soy milk rather than cream, and desserts sweetened with maple syrup.

The one exception to the nondairy rule that we have come across so far has been the Keats waffles, which are served with whipped butter to go with the maple syrup. Here again, the basic waffle mix is prepared not from refined white flour but a mix of whole grains, giving an extra bite and flavor.

To date we have only been to Keats during the daytime, either for lunch or for leisurely afternoon coffee. Even though the dining “room” is equipped with space heaters, it’s still been too drafty even in the middle of the day to consider sitting there at dinner time.

But there is an alternative. If you book ahead or ask nicely, they will show you to the private room on the second floor of the old building. With its high ceiling, wooden beams, original antique glass in the windows and 1960s sofas and chairs, it’s just the place to relax with a cocktail or a bottle of the natural wine on sale in the shop below (a corkage fee is charged, from ¥1,500 to ¥3,000 depending on the price of the wine).

It feels like a wonderful little time bubble. This is where you fully appreciate what a fine job has been done on refurbishing this old building — and what would have been lost if it had fallen prey to the developers. Having only opened in November, these are still early days for Keats House, and plenty of new ideas are being implemented. One is the biweekly vegetable market that is held on the sidewalk outside the shop. This is organized together with Enishi ( www.enishi.jp ), a produce store in Tokyo’s Hakusan district, and takes place on Monday and Thursday afternoons.

There are two significant reasons why Keats House works so well. First, the kitchen and menu have been put together in collaboration with Chaya Macrobi ( www.chayam.co.jp/restaurant ), one of the most experienced producers of macrobiotic food products.

Besides running its own restaurant (in Shinjuku Isetan department store), Chaya Macrobi also operates a number of smaller outlets, including in Hibiya and Shiodome. Its vegan cakes and other desserts are particularly good, and are on the menu at Keats House.

The other factor is that Keats House was set up by the same people who are behind Bissori, the remarkable “open-air” Korean restaurant in Ebisu ( www.bissori.jp ), reviewed in these pages last September. Besides their obvious commitment to serving quality food, they also have an established pedigree in interior design, having completed many other restaurant and shop projects in South Korea.