Helmsdale is not so much a pub as a shrine to the “water of life,” known to the ancient Gaelic peoples as uisge beatha and to their modern-day descendants as whisky. Almost every inch of space is devoted to it, from the groaning shelves of classic single malts arrayed behind the counter to the empty whisky cartons that almost totally obscure the window.
This cozy little hideaway, up on the second floor of an unremarkable building near the Red Cross Hospital, boasts one of the best collections of rare whiskies in Tokyo. They list 300 single malts on their special drinks menu, some as old as 30 years and with prices of up to 10,000 yen a shot.
Yet there’s nothing snobbish or cliquey about Helmsdale. They are no less welcoming if you just want to cradle a pint at the bar and watch the constant reruns of English football games on the flickering (but muted) television above the bar. Lovers of unusual bottled beers will be happy to make the acquaintance of Dark Island and Black Cuillin, two intense, flavorful ales from small-scale breweries on Orkney and Skye respectively.
This enthusiasm for things Scottish also extends to the dinner menu at Helmsdale, though many of its dishes hail from south of the border. The starters include kippers, smoked salmon and warm Scotch eggs of far greater delicacy than you would find in the British isles, the lightly crisped layer of piquant sausage meat enrobing hard-boiled eggs that are still moist and fresh.
Welsh rarebit and Cornish pasties are still unusual in Tokyo, but even so are not as exceptional as haggis. Helmsdale’s version of this Scottish classic is a dark patty of ground mutton mixed with oatmeal and served with the requisite neeps and tatties (turnips and mashed potato). Purists might grumble that the quality of the meat is too good (not enough minced offal, they would say) and that it’s probably not steamed in a sheep’s stomach. Our only complaint was with the dram of whisky that was poured over the meat. This is a just a gimmick: Neat single-malt does not enhance the flavor, it just overpowers the taste buds.
Ditto with their patent whisky pasta. The tagliatelle ribbons are fine on their own, in a rich cream sauce served with salmon and a small taster of haggis. But don’t let them spoil this by pouring booze on top of it; drink it separately.
Helmsdale’s fish ‘n’ chips, on the other hand, are first rate. Served in English-language newsprint, to give it that authentic extra savor, they are unarguably the best in town. The chips are well-cooked wedges with a tasty tartar sauce. The fish — either cod or the slightly less expensive but equally good halibut — is white and perfectly tender. The batter is thin, light and a beautiful golden brown, almost worthy of a tempura chef.
If truth be told, this is far closer to Spanish fritos that the coarse, greasy English version of the dish. In fact, there is a distinctly Iberian vein running through the menu. You could construct a whole meal from chorizo and lomo ham, olives and dried mullet roe, followed by frittered zucchini and fish, closing with the Spanish cheese plate. Wash it all down with rare Lustau sherries, wines from Penedes or Portuguese vinho verde.
Even so, it’s clear the folks at Helmsdale are dyed-in-the-wool Celtophiles, and the crowd they attract are kindred spirits. No matter if the drinks are whisky, wine or beer, what unites them is their love of the highlands and islands of Scotland.
Helmsdale’s small sister shop in Ebisu — Inishmore by name — is about to reopen April 1 in new, larger premises, about 5 minutes walk from Yebisu Garden Place. 3-14-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5791-3824.
In Belgium, the pleasures of the table are not much more sophisticated than those of the British Isles. The food is best described as hearty and satisfying. The beer, though, is among the best in the world. This impression was reinforced by a recent visit to the Nishi-Azabu branch of Brussels, the first and still the best group of specialist Belgian pubs.
Simply furnished with antique wooden tables and chairs that don’t match, there is little to distract your attention from the serious task at hand — exploring the extensive selection of beers and matching them with Brussels’ excellent Belgian-style cooking.
On the recommendation of Nosaka-san, Brussels’ knowledgeable and ever-attentive manager, we tried a full-bodied brew called Fantom, which was the perfect accompaniment to our Tohoku mussels steamed in white wine, followed by a selection of tasty sausages, also served hot. We found the same beer went just as well with frites (fries) — they do a great version of Belgium’s national dish — as it did with the meat and cheese with which we rounded off our meal.
Most of the bottles stocked by Brussels are complex, heady brews, especially the heavy Trappist beers with alcohol contents of over 10 percent. These are best sipped slowly, as you would a wine — all the more appropriate because you’re paying almost as much.
But the warmer weather at this time of year seems to call for lighter-bodied drinks. One that fits the bill is kriek, the traditional cherry beer of the Low Countries. Despite its attractive, cherry-cola color, kriek has a tart flavor with intriguing yeasty undertones, which derive from the natural fermentation still used in the best breweries.
What better way of greeting the arrival of the blossoms than by raising a few glasses of this refreshing beer? Do not be surprised to see us down at Brussels after a hanami session in Aoyama Cemetery.
Brussels, 3-21-14 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 5413-5333; www.brussels.co.jp Open 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. (Saturday till 11 p.m.); closed Sunday and holidays. From the Nishi-Azabu crossing, walk toward Roppongi past the police box, and turn right at a shop called Merveille. Take the next left and you will see Brussels straight in front of you on the mezzanine level.
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