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Atelier d’I: Plenty of wine — and food to match

by Robbie Swinnerton

For the longest time, one of our most vociferous complaints about Tokyo was that there weren’t enough wine bars worthy of the name. These days, thankfully, we are spoiled for choice in every price range. One of the best of the new crop we’ve discovered recently is Atelier d’I in Shirokane.

Open since March, it stands on the spot formerly occupied by Chez Tomo, a small neighborhood French restaurant that gained such a following (plus a Michelin star) that it became one of the hardest tables in the area to book. Since chef Tomoji Ichikawa decamped to ritzier pastures uptown — Chez Tomo now sits astride the top two floors of the sparkling new Pola Building in Ginza-Itchome — its erstwhile premises have reincarnated in a far more accessible form.

The look could hardly be more different. Out went the sleek, chic restaurant decor, crisp lighting and even crisper-dressed waiters. In came bistro-style furniture and a bar counter, with earth tones and wood throughout. One wall is clad entirely in rough-hewn timbers (Australian railroad ties, we were told); the other sports panels of warm brown leather. Though it’s far from casual, the feel is intimate and comfortable.

There’s also an elegant side room with generous windows onto shrubbery and no sight at all of the street. With its discreet down lighting and smoochy vocal jazz music kept reasonably low, it’s designed so you can settle in for the evening, relaxing and chatting or flirting over a bottle or two. Or join the local late-night crowd — the kitchen stays open till 2 a.m., even on Sundays — and drop in for a leisurely snack or postprandial digestifs.

But there is continuity too. This is still designer-casual territory and the wait staff are just as respectfully precise and formal. More importantly, though, Ichikawa remains in charge overall (that’s his initial in the awkward-sounding name), which means the focus on French cuisine is unchanged.

As his head chef here, he’s brought in Keiji Ota, who used to run the kitchen at the now-closed Marunouchi branch of Labyrinthe. He’s got a great touch, and delivers a delectable menu of robust, modern brasserie fare that dovetails perfectly with the wine selection.

The great thing is that you don’t have to order a full meal as soon as you sit down: You can pace yourself, pick a couple of starters or skip straight to the cheese plate. That’s what makes L’Atelier d’I a wine bar, not a restaurant. Better yet, it’s not a wine- snob sort of place. You don’t have to spend hours poring over the list and, apart from a couple of trophy burgundies, there are only a few bottles above the daunting ¥10,000 mark, and a good many for almost half that much.

Apart from the one fino sherry and a couple of ports, everything else is French, with one notable exception: kishu ume wine from Wakayama. This is a genuine fruit wine, quite different from shōchū or sake-based umeshu, and it makes a very refreshing alternative to Champagne at the start of the evening, to go with the obligatory opening nibbles (for which there is a ¥300 cover charge).

If you’re ordering by the glass or carafe — a good strategy given the range of the food — there’s a simple illustrated menu offering half a dozen each of reds and whites. From Alsace Riesling and the easy-drinking wines of southern France to the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux, there’s plenty enough quality here to cover repeat visits.

Given the current emphasis on hearty autumn-winter recipes, it’s those full- bodied reds that are likely to hold your attention most. Chef Ota clearly loves his organ meats and more unusual cuts. His current menu features calves’ hearts (as a salad) and kidneys (note: If you spot rognons on the menu, that’s not a spelling mistake for “onions”) lightly cooked as a meuniere.

If you want lighter options, there are salads and a few seafood items. The asari clams simmered in white wine with shredded burdock made a tasty hors d’oeuvre, and we had to put in an order for baguette and echire butter so we could mop up all the juices.

But the dishes we rate best are mostly at the meat end of the menu. We thoroughly enjoyed the tripes a la mode, honeycomb tripe oven-baked in a heavy casserole with a lovely rich sauce. Ditto the boudin noir, which came with a generous mound of creamed potato. And then there was the excellent confit de cuisses de lapin, rabbit leg meat served in a crisp nest of phyllo pastry.

One more standout is the couscous royale. Each of the elements is served separately: the couscous in its double steamer; a rich broth of lamb, chickpeas and root vegetables; and a plate of grilled meats on a sturdy brochette: a delicate lamb chop cooked nice and rare; a small sausage (called a chorizo but not at all piquant); and morsels of chicken. A saucer of spicy harissa sauce comes separately, so you can crank up the heat factor to taste.

We’ve barely delved into the dessert selection yet, but it certainly seems up to scratch, judged on the quality of the rich marquise au chocolat, a rich slab of chocolate terrine made with rum and meringue. There are also a few good dessert wines, including a lovely Banyuls.

Shirokane’s busy little shopping street remains a motley mix of old and new, stylish and down-home, and Atelier d’I seems to fit in far more comfortably than Chez Tomo ever did. With the yearend celebration season approaching fast, it’s likely to be one of the hottest tickets around.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.