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Foraging for steak frites in Tokyo? Follow a Frenchman

by Rebecca Milner

A friend — a French chef who happens to be Japanese — once told me that the reason so many Japanese chefs chose French was because it was considered the world’s most challenging cuisine. But the same over-achiever attitude that gave us so many French restaurants in Tokyo means that many of them serve “fussy French,” meaning that elaborate terrines show up on menus more often than steak frites.

For suggestions of where to find more quotidian food in Tokyo, I polled my French friends and acquaintances. Some names that came up regularly were such established franchises as Aux Bacchanales, that eerily authentic brasserie, once a Harajuku icon and now a series of restaurants in Akasaka, Kioicho and Takanawa (plus bakery and cafe outposts in Ginza, Higashiyama, Kyoto and Hakata); and  Le Petit Tonneau and Aux Amis, both reliable purveyors of pate and confit.

On the subject of Aux Amis, one friend was particularly enthusiastic about one of the restaurants in its group: Vin Picoeur (2F 4-3-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3567-4122) This small Ginza restaurant favors intangible atmosphere — the volley of orders, the buzz of conversation and the heady smell of grilling meat — over decor. It’s a cozy place, with most customers sitting elbow to elbow at the counter. Considering its location, and enviable wine collection, it is also relatively reasonable (and thus usually packed).

The same friend raved about Marzac (2-2-3 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6418-5063) a relative newcomer on the bistro scene. The bavette — a French cut of beef similar to skirt steak — is superb, he says. It’s magnificently tender and the portion exceedingly generous: Marzac, too, is excellent value. Just last September, a new outpost, Marzac 7 (1-14-5 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; [(03) 5459-6029) opened in Nakameguro, along the Meguro River. A tiny corner shop that’s all windows, it promises to be an attractive destination come hanami season. I can only hope they set up a wine stand out front for the occasion.

Francophiles who have been around Tokyo for a number of years will surely remember Trocadero in Shimokitazawa, where the wine flowed until the last customer stumbled out sometime in the early morning. Though Trocadero is gone, one former staffer, known simply as Kyosuke, has gone on to open Petit Debút (2F 2-33-7 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3468-9222) just down the road.

Keeping in the Trocadero vein, Petit Debút is the sort of place where you can grab a seat at the counter by yourself, choose from one of over a dozen wines by the glass, find conversation and completely lose track of time. The hors d’oeuvres platter comes with a wonderful assortment of pickings, such as pork rillettes; the main menu has classics like mussels in white wine and onion soup; and the bill doesn’t usually sting in the end. Though only three years old, Petit Debút has the look of a well-aged bistro, with dark wood and mustard (or nicotine?) colored walls.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.