One usually doesn’t go to Tsukiji to get a fine cappuccino or a poppy-seed sponge cake soaked in liqueur. Yet just a few minutes away from “Tokyo’s Kitchen,” where pricy cuts of maguro are noisily auctioned off to the highest bidder, Bellini’s Italian Bar offers businesspeople and tourists alike a pleasant respite.
Though BIB is not exactly a kissaten, with perfectly prepared cappuccinos and unique desserts, it definitely qualifies as a comfort zone between appointments.
Making its splashy debut in 1997, it is the only “Italian bar” belonging to the Bellini family of trattorias, cafes and pizza/pasta shops scattered throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area. The choice of moniker, says Kuniaki Hashimoto, BIB’s general manager, was inspired not by the genius of early Renaissance painting (Giovanni Bellini, 1426-1516), but by the peach schnapps and champagne cocktail dubbed a “Bellini,” reportedly first served at a bar in Venice.
With its brick and glass storefront, BIB easily stands out on a street full of fish stores. The interior offers an artfully designed L-shaped space, with forest green and momiji red chairs and tables complimenting the terracotta tile and dark wood floor. Shelves full of imported wines, Italian sauces and pickled vegetables lead to two more festively decorated rooms where guests can enjoy full lunches and dinners or book small private parties. (Note: Full meals feature organic vegetables grown in Bellini’s own fields in Gunma Prefecture.)
The idea behind BIB, Hashimoto says, was to provide nearby Dentsu employees with an alternative to the multitude of sushi shops. Indeed, lunchtime and happy hour are hopping with ad executives, cell phones glued to their ears. Between 3 and 5 p.m., though, BIB becomes a quiet oasis in the concrete jungle, a perfect time to update your Palm Pilot, appreciate an espresso and let your eyes glaze over 10 different Italian-inspired desserts.
In the shining showcase just a few chairs away, the choices (different daily) are all seductive. Prepared at a central bakery in Nakano, the mousses, puddings, tarts and cakes were created by Kentaro Nagaoka, who studied at the European-inspired Kihachi kitchen (see September 1999 Kissa Kultur).
Although the treats look as if they were flown in fresh from Rome, closer inspection of the handwritten katakana descriptions reveals otherwise. “The basic policy,” explains Hashimoto, “is not to just copy Italian desserts, but to re-create them using locally available ingredients.” Perhaps that explains the popularity of luscious tarts featuring the Hasukappu berry, which is only grown in Hokkaido. But if seasonal fruit and such don’t appeal to you, there is the ever-present tiramisu, which, Hashimoto quips, “is still king.”
BIB is proud of how it fuses two cultures. To explain the Bellini philosophy, the restaurant offers a colorful brochure which exclaims, “We are Tokyo Italians!” While adapting Italian desserts to satisfy the Japanese palate might be acceptable, BIB does not feel compelled to jump on the Starbucks bandwagon and serve flavored concoctions. Its short list of teas and Italian coffees are bona fide and beautifully served, bringing one closer to an understanding of “the finer things in life.”
Knowing how discriminating today’s coffee drinkers are, BIB’s staff are required to attend a seminar (put on by coffee giant, UCC) every three months to learn about quality coffee beans and the best way to store them. They are also taught to make sure each customer feels special.
Indeed, the service was excellent and informative: The table staff happily rattled off minute details of how each calorie-rich dessert was made, gently floating a sample plate of choices beneath my nose. So much for my New Year’s resolution.
There are lunchtime specials, but dinners can bite into the wallet. Still, if you’re just looking for quality afternoon refreshments, you can have your cake and eat it too for under 1,000 yen.
Hashimoto hints that being in Tsukiji is somewhat of a challenge, but using his “We are Tokyo Italians!” voice, he says, “Try us — you’ll like us!” No arguments there.