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Light meals for Tokyo’s long, sticky summer

by Robbie Swinnerton

Summertime, and the living is far from easy in the city. Stuck in the middle of the heat island, appetites fray and taste buds wilt like yesterday’s lettuce. Simple snacks are called for, not major meals, with copious quantities of liquid sustenance too.

Whether it’s tapas and wine you fancy, burgers and beer or sakana tidbits with sake or shōchū, Tokyo has no shortage of places where you can graze to your heart’s content. Here are a couple of recent arrivals — and an old favorite — that are worth knowing if you find yourself in their respective parts of town.

San Francisco Peaks

There’s a brand new face on the block at the Sendagaya side of Harajuku — opposite one of the two Diesel stores on Meiji-dori — and a whole new genre too. San Francisco Peaks is positioning itself as Tokyo’s first ever specialist gourmet hot dog cafe/diner.

It’s a good-looking place, well worthy of its location in this fashion-centric neighborhood: a two-story freestanding building with an eye-catching red brick facade, large windows and a small terrace overlooking the street, and no less than you’d expect as an offshoot of Cafe Hohokam, the classy burger joint just down the road. Adding to its pedigree, excellent premium burger shop The Great Burger is also involved behind the scenes.

To reach the dining room, you head past the kitchen and upstairs. But before you do, check out the menu on the wall, or peer into the display case next to the stylish Faema espresso machine at the counter by the entrance.

You get a choice of eight different pork sausages, and they come in a remarkable range of flavors, from Wild Rosemary and Garlic or Chipotle with Smoked Cheese to Red Hot Chili Pepper or Santa Fe Jack & Jalapeno.

Don’t worry if you don’t eat pork: SFP can provide bangers made with beef (with nutmeg and almond), chicken (lemongrass and garlic), lamb (black olive and mint) or even venison (with cranberry in the mix).

There’s almost too much choice. Once you’ve settled on your sausage, pick a couple of toppings — grilled onions, marinated sweet peppers, sauerkraut or jalapenos. You also get fries, chips or hash browns to go on the side.

And how do they taste? Rather more muted than you’d expect from the list of ingredients, with the jalapeno raising nary a tingle on the taste buds. However, they’re cooked to order, nicely presented and have a whole lot more character than the generic rubbery wieners that give hot dogs such a poor reputation in this country.

The rest of SFP’s menu is devoted to classic all-American diner food. Buttermilk pancakes, various omelets and French toast: Just the ticket for those craving breakfast comfort food throughout the day.

But as evening falls, it’s likely to be the 12 taps of draft beer — including a good selection of Japanese craft ales, such as Baird and Sankt Gallen — that draw in many a punter. That compact terrace could be just the place to while away a summer evening.

San Francisco Peaks, 3-28-7 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5775-5707. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Nearest stations: Harajuku (Yamanote Line) and Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda and Fukutoshin lines). Hot dogs from ¥950; beer from ¥650/half pint (275 ml). English menu; English spoken.

Brasserie le Zinc

Across town, the warren of streets around Kanda Station has always been one of Tokyo’s quintessential old-school carousing districts. But change is arriving even here among the traditional watering holes, and there’s no better example than Brasserie le Zinc.

Equal parts wine bar, bistro and salaryman “standing bar,” Zinc — it’s pronounced the French way, “Zank” — sits halfway along one of the narrowest alleys in the area. You’d barely notice it among the modest izakaya taverns on either side, were it not for the glowing rotisserie machine by the entrance. Inside, though, you find this 50-year-old two-storey wooden building has been refurbished to match its current incarnation: serving surprisingly good French brasserie cuisine with a strong Basque accent and a highly affordable range of wine.

Downstairs you stand and nurse your drinks at upturned barrels or prop up the counter — yes, it is made of zinc and white tiles, salvaged second-hand from a now-defunct Parisian bistro — which runs along the narrow open prep kitchen. The mismatched tables and chairs on the second floor have likewise seen better days, but seem to fit the old timber-frame building perfectly.

The menu, chalked over one entire wall, is not just extensive, it’s a lot more sophisticated than you’d expect from the neighborhood. The chef spent three years in Europe, most of that time in the Pays Basque close to the Spanish border. He bakes his own focaccia and quiche, stuffs his own homemade garlic sausages and produces excellent, hearty farmhouse dishes such as lamb terrine, cassoulet or axoa, a Basque specialty made from ground beef and lots of spicy Espelette pepper.

He also has plenty of lighter recipes for the summer months. The marinated ayu sweetfish hits the spot just right, especially with a glass of chilled Chardonnay (¥500 for a well-filled glass); and his lamb terrine and smoked duck pair nicely with the Pays d’Oc Pinot Noir (also ¥500).

The house wine (from ¥380) is even more affordable; and there is also a wide selection of local and Belgian beer (from ¥500). Ditto with the food menu, which boasts little over ¥1,000. These are honest prices that reflect the neighborhood and the spending power of the local clientele — and in no way diminish the quality of the food and drink.

Before heading over to Kanda, a couple of caveats are in order. The temperature inside Zinc is hot enough at the best of times if you find yourself standing close to the rotisserie; in summer it can be nigh-on unbearable. But if you’re eyeing those tables upstairs, be aware that they are invariably booked solid, especially on weekdays. Just as you’d expect in this salaryman territory and with food this good.

Brasserie le Zinc, 1-7-1 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3251-2233. Open 5-11:30 p.m.; closed Sun. Closest station Kanda (Ginza, Keihin-Tohoku, Yamanote and Chuo lines). Japanese menu; some French spoken. Wine from ¥380, beer from ¥500.

Menki Yashima

Summer is without doubt noodle season — and nowhere in Japan are they enjoyed more than in Tokushima Prefecture. There’s no need to travel all the way down to Shikoku to enjoy the regional specialty: Sanuki udon counters are widespread in Tokyo these days. Few, though, can rival the hands-on, down-home feel and flavor of Menki Yashima.

Even before moving into its present premises close by Yoyogi-Hachiman Station — it was formerly tucked away in the heart of Shibuya’s Udagawa-cho — Yashima had established solid cult credentials. Now you’re likely to find a line outside most days, with aficionados prepared to wait half an hour or more. They gather by the rustic-looking entrance because the noodles at Yashima are made the traditional way, rolled out, chopped and cooked in front of your eyes. Exactly the way it’s been done for centuries in the udon heartland.

The standard topping for Sanuki udon has always been seafood tempura. At Yashima, this too is prepared in the age-old way, cooked fresh to order and served piping hot from the deep-frying wok. Not that it’s refined in any way: The batter is thick, roughly formed and browned unevenly. But the crisp texture and rich taste make a perfect match with the neutral flavor and solid texture of the wheat noodles.

Choose from ebi (prawn), anago (conger eel), hotate (scallops) or the house-special, geso (squid tentacles), either individually or in combination. You also need to specify if you want your noodles hot or chilled, in soup or on a zaru tray. From this point, it will take a good 10 minutes for your meal to be delivered. There’s plenty to divert your attention during this further wait.

From the counter, you can watch the chefs at work. If you’ve been seated at a table, you’ll find yourself right next to a wall-length display case of colorful toys and knickknacks, signs and advertisements, all dating from the 1960s and ’70s.

It’s not supposed to be art, nor is it in any way unique. This is just the chef’s personal collection of retro memorabilia, as unpretentious as his noodles — and as idiosyncratic as the restaurant itself. No matter how popular and how many people are waiting, Yashima closes no later than 5 p.m., and often earlier if the noodle dough runs out.

Menki Yashima, 1-45-13 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5454-0568. Open 11:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. (if stocks last); closed Tues. Nearest stations: Yoyogi-Hachiman (Odakyu Line) and Yoyogi-Koen (Chiyoda Line). Japanese menu; no English spoken. Noodles from ¥600. www.menki-yashima.co.jp. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.