Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Pot-Bouille's recipe for success: just keep it simple

by Robbie Swinnerton

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Parisian banlieu decor; no-frills wooden tables in cozy proximity; Pernod and Lillet bottles on the shelf behind the bar; the obligatory espresso machine; a short wine list; and a menu of brasserie staples chalked on a blackboard brought round to your table by a waiter dressed in an ankle-length apron.

In the two decades since the concept of the budget bistro touched down in Tokyo (thanks to Yotsuya’s legendary Le Monde des Chimeres, followed soon after by Pas a Pas), it has almost become a cliche. The look — the menu, the checked tablecloths — has all become so standardized, we barely bother to register new arrivals as they continue to spring up in obscure spots all around the city.

One place that has immediately caught our attention, however, is Pot-Bouille. This modest little bistro tucked away in nether Ebisu is as typically French as a Zola novel. But the important thing is not just that it looks the part — the cheerful yellow awning outside; white cotton half-curtains over the windows; ocher walls with brown wooden paneling; linen tea towels on the tables in place of formal table cloths; Michelin guides arrayed on bookshelves by the kitchen — it also gets the feel exactly right. It’s casual and comfortable. The welcome is personal. The place exudes a palpable buzz. Everyone’s enjoying themselves.

It should not be surprising that Pot-Bouille works so well. After all, this is the latest venture from Naoki Fukushima, who for many years was the man in charge of Aux Bacchanales — the sassy sidewalk cafe/brasserie in Harajuku that raised the bar and wrote the template for all subsequent casual French restaurants in Tokyo — and who’s has also been involved in several other eateries we have praised over the years. He understands, better than most, that keeping things simple is often the best recipe for success.

The wine list here is not a multipage tome filled with heavyweight (and wallet lightening) big-name vintages. Instead, it offers a score or so of well-chosen, reasonably priced bottles, half of them Burgundies, the rest from the Rho^ne and Midi (and, remarkably, none at all from Bordeaux). All of them go for less than 10,000 yen. Four are available by the glass.

The food menu (currently inscribed by hand in Japanese only) is equally straightforward. There are half a dozen choices of hors d’oeuvres, a couple of soups, and half a dozen main dishes. All derive from the basic brasserie tradition, but everything is executed with great expertise.

Our salad was simplicity itself. Slivers of Spanish jamon serrano, freshly carved from the whole ham that Fukushima displays proudly at the bar, were mixed with tender young rocket leaves and dressed solely with oil and vinegar. With ingredients this good, that is all you need.

Substantially more kitchen skills are in evidence with the Provencal iwashi “sardines.” Crisp cakes of grated potato are topped with a delicate sauce of fresh tomato as well as with a couple of fillets of the pan-fried fish. Arranged with a drizzle of pesto, this was an excellent demonstration that the kitchen here knows exactly what it’s doing.

A brasserie is really no place to go if you don’t eat meat — but the vegetarian in our party was more than pleased by the plate of tasty grilled goats cheese, served with green beans, apple and walnut. As a main course, the refreshing gazpacho had to suffice, supplemented by plentiful refills of bread — a hearty, whole-grain pain rustique from the Maison Kayser boulangerie in Takenawa.

But meat rules when it comes to the main courses. Ignoring the choucroute with pork and the fromage de te^te, we chose the homemade sausage — two chunky bangers of salted pork shoulder meat tied with string, lightly browned and served up with a hefty slice of back bacon, creamed mashed potato and a side order of simmered lentils.

We enjoyed our lamb couscous every bit as much. Along with the simmered morsels of dark meat, root vegetables and chickpeas, they also include a delectable merguez sausage of spicy lamb. And they bring a jar of fiery harissa paste to the table, so you can spice it all up to taste.

The confit de canard, while technically proficient, was the least interesting dish we tried. The duck meat was cooked to a tee but more variety was needed than its rich gravy and the side dish of diced potatoes could provide. Likewise, the desserts are standard issue (chocolate mousse, tarte aux fruits, creme brule and the like), though totally adequate.

Simplicity is the name of the game here, and it’s made to look easy thanks to the great competence of the staff — most of them veterans from the Aux Bacchanales empire. They know exactly what they’re doing, and so does Fukushima as he bustles about the place, greeting old customers and new with his customary enthusiasm. The man’s done it again!