Every year around this time we get the same plaintive inquiries: “Isn’t there anywhere half decent in this city where you can eat outdoors?” And, as always, the answer is “yes — and no.”
If you’re just looking for a place that flings open its door and a couple of windows to the balmy (and particulate-rich) street air, there is no shortage of choice these days. But if it’s an honest-to-goodness, out-in-the-elements, skies-above-you alfresco experience you’re after, then the options are much more limited.
But they’re not nonexistent: Leave it to Tokyo’s French community to show the rest of us how it’s done. One of their best-kept secrets — and a place that we always like to go back to when the weather gets warm — is Brasserie Bernard’s branch in the tranquil, leafy campus of the Institut Franco-Japonais in nether Ichigaya.
There is nowhere else remotely like it in the city. Tucked away behind the modern architecture of the school buildings, you find a wide lawn surrounded by stands of tall deciduous trees. A cluster of sturdy wooden tables have been set out, shaded by canvas parasols, some of them plain and white like the tablecloths, others extolling the virtues of Evian water.
The restaurant itself is nothing to look at, being a low wooden shack with the slightly run-down conviviality of the 19th hole at some provincial golf course. You would be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto a private club — and indeed the in-house faculty, who (along with students and other Francophiles) account for most of the clientele, like to treat it that way.
It’s all casual and honest, but laid out with a sense of style — much like the food, in fact. If you’ve visited Bernard’s main restaurant in Roppongi, you know that he serves up an excellent, no-frills brasserie cuisine. At Ichigaya the menu is even more straightforward and homely.
The basic lunch, as chalked up on a blackboard, offers either one course (1,400 yen with coffee) or two (1,650 yen, also with coffee, but with dessert available for a small supplement). When we dropped by last week, the two-course menu opened with a homemade rillette maison, the dab of creamy, lard-rich meat complemented with just the right amount of green salad and served with slices of baguette.
For the main course, you are given the choice of meat or fish. We plumped for the fillet of swordfish (espadon poele au vinaigre) and did not regret it. The fish was pan-fried to a light golden brown and presented on a bed of ratatouille-style summer vegetables with a sauce gently infused with red wine vinegar. We rounded things off with a simple mousse au chocolat and a cup of coffee.
It’s the kind of bistro cooking, simple and effective, that you expect to find in France (but don’t always). Service is friendly but slow, though that’s of no consequence when you’re tucked in with a glass or two of wine. Just sit back and listen to the insects buzzing (but still no mosquitoes yet), the wind soughing through the leaves and the muffled sounds of the city far, far in the distance.
Unfortunately, the outdoor tables in this idyllic setting are only used at lunchtime. At night, Cafe Restaurant Bernard serves dinner inside, which is pleasant enough — though later on in the evening, you may find yourself breathing cigar smoke instead of the night air. However, by coincidence, there is another place close at hand where you can start or finish the evening under the stars.
Compared to just about anywhere else in the city (other than the Institut Franco-Japonais, Canal Cafe has a location that is hard to beat. What could be more pleasant than nursing a bottle of wine on a mellow evening by the limpid waters of the Sotobori Outer Moat close to Iidabashi Station?
It’s a simple wooden structure built right over the water, giving you a full-on view of the boats and the wildlife (carp, ducks, even the occasional cormorant) — not to mention the sardine-can Chuo Line trains crammed to the gunwhales with commuters.
The facilities are basic and the food is nothing to get excited about — standard-issue derivative Italian of the kind we know so well in Tokyo. Nor is it a bargain, with courses starting from 3,000 yen (starter, pizza or pasta, dessert). But the setting is so pleasant you can forgive just about anything, and at weekends you may find they have laid on live music (with an extra cover charge).
They also have a self-service counter from where you can take snacks and light refreshments to a separate seating area by the water during the daytime.
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