Sekirei: In a beer garden of heavenly delights

by Robbie Swinnerton

The grass is as closely mowed a croquet lawn. In the distance, conifers jut into the early evening sky. The air is sultry, the city traffic just a far-off hum. A waiter wearing a black bow tie delivers a tall glass of frothing beer to your table. You sink back in your armchair. Summer’s here, and there is nowhere better in Tokyo to enjoy it.

As you may have already guessed, this is no ordinary beer garden. We are in Sekirei, one of those special little oases that make life in Tokyo — even in summer — not just bearable, but memorable.

The Meiji Kinenkan abuts the expansive (and strictly off-limits) estate of the Imperial Palace Detached Guesthouse. In the normal run of affairs, there is little reason to go there, except if you are attending one of the lavish weddings or upmarket functions that take place inside. Most of the time it feels genteel and rather stuffy.

But every year on June 1, it lets its hair down just a little. Sturdy wooden tables are placed under the manicured pine trees overlooking that wide expanse of lawn, along with comfortable rattan-look armchairs; the Garden Beer Terrace (Sekirei’s official description) is open for business again.

This is what you do. Because they don’t take reservations, you should aim to get there at least half an hour before the opening time (5:30 p.m. at the weekend; an hour earlier on weekdays). Otherwise you risk having to wait until people start leaving, which could be as late as 8 p.m. Until last year, they used to take names on a list, so you could go away until they called you. That system has changed, and now it’s first come first seated.

The best reason for getting there in good time is to secure a good vantage point. We like to sit with our backs to the modern annex, facing the older buildings with their traditional architecture and sweeping tiled roofs.

The food is never the main reason for going to any beer garden. And although there it does feel rather institutional at times, Sekirei has much more to choose from than fries and chicken wings.

It’s run by Asahi Beer, so inevitably most people order pitchers of SuperDry. But they also offer a rather more interesting amber ale, Kohaku-no-toki, from one of their regional breweries, which is served in tall, slender glasses with a stiff head of foam. Besides standard cocktails, sake and shochu, there is a short wine list — the Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc caught our eye, although the house wines (Mouton Cadet Chardonnay or a sweetish Riesling) are barely worthy of mention.

The food menu, which is helpfully illustrated with photos, offers a similar choice. There are Japanese snacks — think elegant izakaya fare — as well as light dishes in the Continental mode, and also a few fusion items that attempt to span the divide. We found the chilled edamame (green soybeans), served with broad beans and mangetout peas, had lost much of their flavor; but there was much else of greater interest.

We especially enjoyed the delicate cre^pe de sarasin (buckwheat gallette) stuffed with ham and topped with a warm poached egg and a few salad leaves. And we also gave the thumbs-up to the maguro no tataki — fine slices of raw tuna, lightly seared around the edges and served with garlic chips, green soybeans, coriander leaf and red peppercorns, anointed with a mustard dressing.

Another fusion effort that was interesting, if not totally successful, was the chilled Italy-meets-Korea capellini pasta. Served in a bowl with shrimp, mizuna greens, bean sprouts, slivers of cucumber and a chilled poached egg, it came with a thick, spicy reimen sauce on the side, to jump-start the taste buds.

However, as we have pointed out, Sekirei is not about the food, but entertainment of a very different kind. As dusk falls, gas braziers are lit. Later on, a lighting crew appears and starts positioning floodlights. Finally, when darkness has fallen, around 7:30 p.m., the performance begins.

A petite woman dressed in lavish kimono picks her way out barefoot to the center of the lawn and starts to dance in the traditional style of nihon buyo. It lasts only about 15 minutes, but it is entrancing. Finally, when she has finished, you can go out and pose with her and have a Polaroid shot taken with her (free of charge) as a souvenir of a remarkable evening.

Like we said, Sekirei is no ordinary beer garden.

Sekirei will be open through Sept. 9, but on the final night (and occasionally before that) there will be a special event, featuring live music, for which there is a special supplementary charge. All details are given (in English and Japanese) on their Web site.