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Beard: Foodies will grow to love this brilliant brunch

by Robbie Swinnerton

Beard. What sort of name is that for a restaurant, least of all one serving French-inflected food? And what chef would have the word daubed in orange paint across his front door, on the diagonal no less? One with a quirky sense of humor, of course. And, obviously, one who sports facial hair.

Shin Harakawa, it is fair to say, is not afraid to do things a bit differently. You can tell by his choice of location. Beard sits on its own in a quiet residential area close by the Meguro River but a considerable walk from the nearest main street and even further from the buzzy bright lights of Naka-Meguro.

It’s as if he is aiming to create his own neighborhood where one does not yet exist. Who knows, that might happen. Harakawa has certainly put together the kind of easy-going, welcoming local bistro hangout that most people would love to have close by their homes.

Formerly a nondescript clothing store, it has been given a total makeover inside and out, with wood pillars rising to a high ceiling, a handsome back wall of red brick and some seriously eclectic decor. The trophy deer’s head over the entrance to the restroom — or Pipi Room as the sign, also in orange paint, proclaims — is nothing compared with what you find on the other side of that same door.

Beard has a cozy, intimate feel, whether you’re relaxing into a leisurely meal or just there for a glass of wine or two to decompress after work. There is just room for four bar stools in front of Harakawa’s open kitchen, a convivial table for four by the window, plus a couple of two-seater tables further back. There are also corners where you can stand and nurse a drink if all seats are taken.

That has often been the case since Beard opened in early July. Even though it has got very little media coverage as yet, the word-of-mouth buzz has already spread. Harakawa has built up a fan base from his time in charge of the kitchen at Uguisu, a little cafe/wine bar in Sangenjaya that enjoys a strong following among aficionados of natural wines. Not surprisingly, his menu and wine cellar at Beard have a similar slant, scaled down to match the size of his premises.

Although he varies the composition of the menu almost daily, there will always be three or four main dishes, a similar number of salads, and a range of smaller starters. All are large enough to be split between two (or more). So the recommended strategy is to start with some nibbles to go with your first glass — a plate of salami, olives or the marinated sardines — then a more substantial starter, perhaps one of the pates or terrines, and a main dish to be shared.

Harakawa puts together some terrific salads. This summer he was serving one with wedges of delectable roast beet tossed with plenty of red chicory, generous chunks of Gorgonzola (creamy, rather than overly piquant) and juicy fresh figs, scattered with crisp walnuts and morsels of dried fig too, all lightly anointed with a honey-accented dressing.

The main courses are substantial and well put together, with a choice of fish, chicken, lamb, pork or sirloin steak. The lamb shank served on thick chunks of zucchini with a rich, creamy sauce is particularly recommended, and evidence that he has a natural flair for bistro cuisine of this kind.

Harakawa’s laid-back style and lightness of hand in the kitchen belie the fact that he started late as a chef. He had already spent the best part his 20s in the travel industry before the epiphany — it was dinner at the excellent little Ebisu bistro Pot Bouille — that made him want to change tack and become a cook.

He apprenticed his way through several kitchens of repute, in both Japan and France. But his cooking skills are also influenced by having lived for several years in Canada. And that explains a very different facet of what he is doing at Beard.

Every Sunday morning, Harakawa comes in to cook one of the tastiest little brunch menus in town. He roasts and blends his own granola. He also whips up tasty mascarpone-based sourdough pancakes, which he serves with butter, a small pot of maple syrup and fresh fruit on the side.

For those with proper appetites, look no further than his superb open-faced piperade sandwich: He slices open a hearty bread roll and spreads it with a generous layer of the seared, marinated Mediterranean vegetables; on top of this he balances a thick slice of his excellent home-cured bacon and an egg fried sunny-side up, serving it with a small side salad and a garnish of basil leaves. It’s outstanding.

Harakawa says Beard is “the kind of French bistro you’d find in North America, but transplanted to Naka-Meguro.” It makes sense once you have met him and eaten his food.

Barely a month after Beard’s grand opening, Harakawa shut up shop and flew off to California for a couple of weeks to join in an anniversary event at the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse. What sort of chef would do that? One who does things a little bit differently.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.