Tokyo is awash with wine these days. Any restaurant that wants to be taken seriously — and, more importantly, has high overheads to cover — must boast a well-stocked cellar, preferably glass-fronted, carefully illuminated and strategically placed in full view of the dining room.
Some would say this is a measure of Tokyo’s sophistication, but we’d beg to differ. A far better indication that the city has come of age, in wine terms at least, is the growing spread of simple, unpretentious wine bars in areas formerly known for cheap shochu spirits and happoshu ersatz beer.
To see what we mean, just take yourself down to Fujiya Honten. Not long ago this was a nondescript sake shop catering to a shrinking retail trade in the shabby quadrant southwest of Shibuya JR Station. Alert to the winds of change, the owners decided that there was better business to be had by turning it into a wine bar — not a suave sommelier lounge but, staying true to their roots, a cheerful down-market tachinomi (standing-only) joint.
At night it looks almost chic, with a horizontal slit of window running across the width of the premises. In daylight you see this is just crude chipboard tacked over the original glass shop-front. Likewise inside: the layout is classic tachinomi — a long counter extending along three sides of a functional bar area, with a barrel in the middle and tables around the outside wall to perch your drinks on.
For such a modest setting, they offer a remarkable number of wines: 50 different kinds, mostly French but with the New World also well represented — none of them priced over 5,000 yen and the cheapest a mere 1,600 yen for the bottle. Just in case you’re not acquainted with this budget end of the wine market, they have a ring-bound clear file of advertising leaflets, so you can at least choose by the label.
They can also offer more than a dozen options by the glass, from 400 yen up. Sure, these are mostly generic plonk, but at such thrift-shop prices, who’s complaining?
Dropping in just before Christmas, we got into the mood with a glass of each of their Aussie sparklers — Green Point (500 yen), and Yellow Tail Bubbles (a bargain-basement 400 yen). Both were plenty good enough to induce seasonal cheer and goodwill.
Sipping on a more than adequate Co^tes du Rho^ne (500 yen), we perused the food menu chalked on the walls just above head height. From the mix of tapas-style snacks and izakaya standards, we picked out salami of Spanish Iberico pork (300 yen) and a caprese salad (mozzarella cheese and tomato, 550 yen). Whether you choose penne alla gorgonzola (600 yen) or buta no kakuni (soy-simmered pork belly, also 600 yen), they give you waribashi chopsticks to eat it with.
These snacks are not intended to staunch the appetite so much as to help the wine down and give you the energy to remain standing. At Fujiya your legs are likely to give out long before your wallet.
The idea that a wine bar can be as down-home simple as a local izakaya, and just as easy on the budget, is certainly nothing new. Over in Iidabashi, Le Train Bleu has been proving the point for eight years now.
Shoehorned into a space that would be considered cramped even for a ramen shop — you literally have to squeeze sideways to get to the back — it can seat precisely 13 customers at the counter and four more at a shelf-like table wedged into a distant corner. And yet somehow they manage to keep as many as 80 different wines on hand.
Manager Rentaro Maruyama sports a sommelier’s badge, as does his assistant, and they both certainly know their wine. But they are not in the slightest perturbed by customers ordering the very basic Italian vino di tavola (Sangiovese or Trebbiano, at a scarcely credible 290 yen per glass, 1,600 yen for the bottle). Tellingly, the wine list is arranged not by country of origin or varietal, but in ascending order of price.
Ask Maruyama to uncork something rather more serious, though, and he’ll give you plenty of good recommendations. His current selection of wines by the glass includes a fine Crozes-Hermitages white (value at 900 yen); a velvety German pinot noir (Mayer-Nakel Spatburgunder, also 900 yen); and a chewy, tannic Spanish tempranillo (Marques de Requena Riserva, from near Valencia, 840 yen). All are well worth trying.
Given that the kitchen is little more than a cubbyhole at the rear, Le Train Bleu cranks out some more-than-decent edibles, too. There are grilled meats, salads and fresh seafood dishes, plus a good selection of pastas (from around 800 yen). Add in a taster of cheese (as little as 320 yen each, or a mixed platter for 800 yen), and it’s not unfeasible to spend an hour or two there, sipping and nibbling, and still expect change from a ¥5,000 note — and that’s for two people. And if you find you can’t finish your bottle, Maruyama-san will wedge the cork back in the top and give you a plastic bag so you can carry it home.
Friendly, casual and lively it may be, but Le Train Blue is so small and so popular that it’s often impossible to get in. It’s also starting to look rather battered and grubby. So we were delighted to find that it has recently spawned a spinoff at the upper end of Kagurazaka.
Although it can seat even fewer customers — just nine at the counter and six at tables — the new branch (they refer to it as Le Train Bleu Iwatocho) feels a lot more spacious. And with its sharp paintwork in royal blue and white, striped awning and spiffy new furnishings, it represents a distinct move upmarket.
In fact, it’s quite smart enough for a date or even a casual te^te-a-te^te with your bucho (section chief). But that doesn’t mean it’s abandoned its principles. Prices are only marginally higher here (from 490 yen per glass for wine, or 2,400 yen per bottle), and the food selection is similarly affordable, though served with rather greater polish.
The sign on the window spells out their philosophy. Loosely translated from the French, it says: “Originally, wine is not a luxury product but a drink of the people. With us, you don’t need great erudition. Discover the wine you like and enjoy it with a few side dishes.”
Although anywhere this friendly, welcoming and easy on the wallet is worth knowing about, neither branch of Le Train Bleu bears crossing town for (especially since there’s a high likelihood you’d find them full). The good news is that wine bars of this kind are opening in more and more neighborhoods across the city.
Now that’s what we call sophistication.