Sometimes you just want to hunker down somewhere simple. You’re not looking for anything cutting-edge or fancy, just a place where the welcome is warm and the food is good, plentiful and satisfying — and ditto the beer. If you’re anywhere near the Koenji neighborhood just west of Shinjuku, there is a high probability that Craft Beer Market is the kind of place that you’re looking for.
When it opened just over a year ago, this was the fifth location of the ambitious, dynamic CBM chain. Since then three more have followed, including one in Sendai, the first outside Tokyo. All dispense 30 different beers from smaller breweries around the country, at prices that are enticing to hard-core ale enthusiasts and neophytes alike. And all have substantial food menus that go well beyond the standard parameters of pub grub and bar snacks.
CBM Koenji follows this same formula that is proving so successful. But while it springs from the same DNA, it has a character all its own.
Where the other branches have tables set out in narrow rows — reminiscent of school dining halls, and usually with a similar level of hubbub — at Koenji, the dining area is smaller and calmer, the tables are lower and have chairs with backs, which encourages you to take your time and settle in for the evening, or even from lunchtime, if it’s one of those days.
It feels less like a pub than a lounge that also serves great beer. The first thing you see on arrival is not the impressive array of taps — set into a wall of brilliant white tiles at the back of the premises — but the chef, working the charcoal grill in his open kitchen. This is a statement of intent and, by and large, it’s successful and surprisingly sophisticated.
The options from the grill range from herb-fed Sangenbuta pork dressed with dried tomato and tarragon to Kagoshima Kojun chicken with a sauce of red wine and fiery yuzukoshō (citron and green chili paste). There’s lamb chuck cooked on the bone, simply served with grain mustard. And the Australian steak comes with a beer-miso sauce and fries. At just ¥980 per dish (¥1,980 for an assortment of three), these are still pub prices.
Although advertised as charcoal grilled, these meat dishes are in fact triple-cooked: first dunked briefly in a deep-fryer, then seared over the charcoal and finally crisped up in the oven. It’s a shortcut, but the only thing that matters is the flavor. The young chef has clearly learned his skills at cooking school.
That assessment is backed up by the substantial list of appetizers (¥300 to ¥700). Don’t miss the avocado fritters garnished with Hawaiian black charcoal salt or the roast Kita-Akari potatoes, which match the meats better than the fries.
So what makes this branch of Craft Beer Market so distinct from the others? The layout of the premises plays a part, as does the easygoing atmosphere created by the youthful staff. But the main reason may simply be the location. Koenji is just that sort of neighborhood.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.