We finally made it to Shonzui the other day. Not that it’s particularly hard to find, it’s just that it has taken us far too long to get around to visiting this friendly little wine bar down in Roppongi.
Shonzui has been with us since 1993, but it’s always shunned the limelight. Unlike so many other establishments that were spawned during the early years of Japan’s infatuation with wine, it’s a laid-back, undemonstrative place that feels as if it should belong in one of our neighborhood drinking alleys — Koenji, perhaps, or Shimokitazawa — not here, within spitting distance of the soft, fleshy underbelly of Minato Ward.
Like so many of our most idiosyncratic eating and drinking spots, Shonzui is the product and reflection of one man’s vision. Owner-cum-manager Shinsaku Katsuyama is the kind of affable person you’d expect to find behind the bar of a nomiya. He has decorated his establishment simply, with with tiles on the floor and Havana cigar boxes plastered into walls the color of terra cotta. He keeps the lights down low and the soundtrack alive with a constant stream of mellow rock music (Chicago blues and Steely Dan for most of the evening during our visit), selected from his extensive collection of original vinyl. He does have beer — Kilkenny, Super Malts or Hoegaarden on draft — as well as a fine selection of single malts and aged rums. But Katsuyama’s main focus is on the fruit of the vine.
He may not dangle a sommelier’s badge from his chest, but he still knows his wines. The list is compact but well-chosen, not overpriced, especially by the standards of this area, and concentrates (but not exclusively) on good-value, lesser-known French appellations. He keeps half a dozen reds on the go for dispensing by the glass and the same number of whites. But tell him the kind of wine you are after, and chances are he will be able to pull out something special that he’s either keeping in reserve or that hasn’t made it onto the list yet.
Katsuyama also does duty out in the kitchen, and his cooking is simple and hearty in a demonstrative, masculine way that is testimony to his love of rural France and the time he has spent visiting the byways of southern Europe. Try his homemade rillettes or the excellent pa^te, stuffed with liver and surrounded by a prodigiously thick “rind” of white lard. This he serves with excellent bread, dark pain de compagne, which he sears over the barbecue grill to bring out its flavor. You will also be served a large jar of baby cornichon pickles, which you help yourself to using wooden tongs.
Sauteed cabbage with anchovy, salade nicoise, sauerkraut with sausage, a plate of perfectly ripe cheeses that make no attempt to disguise their full-on pungency . . . these are the kind of no-nonsense foods you will find on his menu. It’s all written in Japanese, but Katsuyama (or his assistant) usually has plenty of time to explain everything. The sauteed scallops and mushrooms were good — plump scallops with shiitake and maitake in a rich sauce — but the best thing on the menu is the jidori shioyaki. Liberally seasoned with salt, pepper and plenty of thyme, the nuggets of chicken are grilled till they are crisp and gleaming on the outside, juicy and succulent inside.
There is only one other place we know of in Tokyo that combines such full-on flavors and resolute cooking styles with quality wines — and that is our old favorite Grape Gumbo, in the back streets of Ginza’s east side. You will not be surprised, then, to find that Katsuyama owns both places and that Shonzui is where he developed the formula that has proved so successful down at the larger, more accessible Grape Gumbo.
You will also understand that Shonzui may not be the best place to go on a first date, and certainly not if you are in search of dainty, haute cuisine banquets accompanied by rare crus poured by simpering wine waiters. But if you’re looking for somewhere to kick back and relax with friends, a good bottle and some hearty home cooking, you couldn’t do better.