The red-framed doors and purple canopy that mark the front of Le Verre Vole a Tokyo are a cheerful sight at any time of year. In the chill dark dead of winter, their glow is even more welcoming, especially if you’re arriving on foot.
Tokyo’s best new bistro is not hard to find, but it’s set well away from any of the bright-light areas where the city’s mainstream nightlife is concentrated. Instead, it has touched down on a quiet stretch of Meguro-dori populated by interior-design stores and vintage-furniture boutiques.
Which is just as you’d expect from the first overseas offshoot of one the buzziest new-generation Parisian bistro/wine bars. It’s a long way to the Meguro River from the Canal Saint-Martin — the once-grimy neighborhood in the French capital that the original Verre Vole helped make hip — but the transition has been seamless.
In large part, that is thanks to proprietor Ryotaro Miyauchi. He worked in France for seven years, close to four of them at Le Verre Vole, and has assimilated the lively, friendly, informal style that characterizes the contemporary Paris bistro scene.
Le Verre Vole a Tokyo has an enthusiastic but stylish, crafted feel. Sturdy second-hand wooden tables; a score of mix-and-match chairs; retro lamp shades over the small counter (not zinc but gleaming copper); and nary a check tablecloth nor Tricolore to be seen.
Instead, almost all available wall space is filled with shelves arrayed with bottles. Wine is a key part of the equation at Verre Vole, and Miyauchi stocks a considerable cellar. Apart from the eight or so bottles he selects each day to serve by the glass, there is no actual wine list. Just point out a bottle you like the look of — each is marked with its price, generally in the ¥4,000-5,000 range — or get him to suggest a few ideas.
Miyauchi got experience at a number of small-scale winemakers during his stay in France, so he knows his oenology. But he’s also a trained chef, so the food menu is every bit as important. He has brought several classic Verre Vole recipes back with him, and although he is not in the kitchen, he oversees everything that goes out.
There are half a dozen starters and the same number of main dishes, chalked in Japanese on a blackboard brought to your table. Everything is a la carte and intended for sharing.
So what’s good right now? From the starters, the pate en croute is excellent, with substantial chunks of liver and other organ meats wrapped in a fresh pastry case. So too are the vinegar-marinated iwashi sardines, which are served on a bed of wine-simmered red cabbage.
The Basque-style leek and bacalao potage is thick and comforting, albeit over-salted (or rather, the salt cod had needed longer soaking). Another hit was the fritters of creamy shirako (cod milt) and eringi mushroom, albeit also rather too salted, and the pairing with Goutte d’O, a crisp white vin artisanal from Anjou, was spot on.
The cassoulet, served in a heavy enameled casserole, is perfect cold-weather food. But one dish that should be available year-round is the boudin noir, a Verre Vole classic that is closer in style to British black pudding than traditional blood sausage. It is served in large tranches that are lightly grilled and crisped, with pureed potato and a dab of onion marmalade; this is a boudin noir anyone will enjoy.
One homegrown dish that may never make the journey to Paris is the tako “risotto.” Made with inky-black Japanese sticky rice (mochigome), it arrives topped with a single thick, spiraling octopus leg, chewy suckers and all.
Among the desserts, the tarte au citron is as lemony-sharp as it should be. The generous scoops of dark mousse au chocolat are daubed with plenty of tart raspberry coulis. And for those who love rice pudding, look no further than the riz au lait.
More about the wines: They are all from organic or biodynamic provenance, but you’d never know just by tasting them. None have the wild yeasts, the barnyard off-flavors or acetic tang too often associated with so-called “natural” (in Japanese, shizen-ha) wines.
From the start, this has been the hallmark of the Verre Vole in Paris. The wine is selected not for purity or ideology, but for flavor and for matching with food and leisurely conversation. Most gratifyingly, nothing of this admirable ethos has got lost in the move to Meguro.
Le Verre Vole a Tokyo has been open three months now and the word is definitely out. Even on an icy Sunday night recently, there was a capacity crowd and people were being turned away. Reservations are highly advised.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.