Whatever happened to Tokyo’s love affair with the cafe-brasserie? A decade ago, the entire city seemed ready to embrace the Gallic ethos of sipping coffee and nibbling on croissants (or pastis and salade nicoise) while indulging in the leisurely sport of people watching.
Led by Cafe des Pres and Aux Bacchanales, the 1990s saw a sudden proliferation of sidewalk cafes, especially around the Omotesando-Harajuku-Shibuya axis. Sadly, most are long gone, chased from the scene by rising rents and the baneful influence of Starbucks and its ilk. The few that are left feel like relics from another century.
That is certainly not the case with Viron, on the ground floor of the Tokyo Building in Marunouchi, and not just because it’s only been open a year or so. Much more it’s about atmosphere and attitude, and the demeanor of the staff.
In that respect, it bears a resemblance to the original Harajuku branch of Aux Bacchanales, still lamented by all who frequented it. It’s also similar in that, along with the cafe-bar, it runs an excellent bakery and a very fine brasserie-style restaurant.
Viron is one of the leading boulangers of Paris (and much of France) and is especially noted for its trademark Retrodor baguettes, which follow traditional preparation methods, instead of the shortcuts of precooking and freezing adopted by most modern “fast-food” bakeries in France.
In Tokyo, the recipe is replicated using unbleached flour specially milled and shipped from France. The bulky sacks stacked just inside the front door are the first indication that they don’t take short cuts. The long loaves have significantly better flavor and texture than the average commercial baguette (either here or in Paris) and are used in several of their take-out sandwiches.
Then there is the bar, a real zinc counter just about big enough for 10 people to balance ashtrays alongside their cafe espresse, vermouth or vin ordinaire. There is a short menu of appetizing bar snacks, such as rillettes of pork, pommes frites and plates of sausages or cheese. These can also be taken al fresco, at one of the tables outside, offering views of the passing Yamanote Line trains.
But it is the dining room that really gives Viron its air of authenticity. Despite the long, thin floor plan, it feels spacious and airy thanks to the high ceiling and glass doors running the entire length of the room. The seats are a cheerful red, as are the high velvet curtains that screen off the auxiliary dining area when it’s not in use. Save for a few black-and-white photos of Parisian street scenes, there is little decoration. The look is understated, polished. Before you even see the food, you can tell this is not a slap-dash glorified bistro.
Not that the cuisine is in any way haute. Cassoulet; choucroute; confit de canard; riz de veau; pot-au-feu: all the traditional brasserie staples are there. It is solid fare, with all corners of France represented, cooked impeccably and served in large portions best enjoyed at long, leisurely meals, with lots of wine.
The man in charge of the kitchen is Eiji Yamada, a chef in his early 30s with a love for the cuisine of the Lyon region. Although he has not spent much time in France, he spent his formative years in the kitchen at Aux Bacchanales in Harajuku, and much of the joie de vivre of that eatery still remains in his cooking, albeit leavened with the touches of refinement expected in such an upmarket area as Marunouchi.
To date, the best thing we’ve eaten at Viron has been Yamada’s superb confit d’oie. The goose leg was prepared exactly the way it should be, with plenty of moist flesh, its rich skin beautifully crisped and not overly salty. It came with hearty skillet-fried Lyonnaise potatoes and a generous pot of Dijon mustard. It was brilliant and large enough (by Tokyo standards) to share between two — a good strategy if you are thinking of also ordering a starter and dessert.
While Yamada’s main courses adhere to traditional regional values, both in richness and portion size, entrees are lighter and more inventive. His pa^te de foie de volaille is a small, intensely flavored scoop of smooth, creamed chicken liver, served with a barely conspicuous drizzle of caramelized Sauternes.
To close, they offer tantalizing desserts. Order the rhum baba and they let you slosh on the dark aromatic liquor straight from the bottle. The tarts are baked in house — if you’re lucky they will be offering the Mirabelle plum version. Or pig out on the chocolat Liegeois, a parfait of whipped cream and rich Belgian chocolate. You are likely to find you have eaten yourself to a standstill.
Lunch here is necessarily less involved, since it’s designed with the office crowd in mind. The daily specials are a reasonable 1,200 yen for a main course. We were more than satisfied with the boeuf grille, a thin steak of Aussie beef, medium rare but tender, which came with a delectable peppery sauce and a bed of creamy mashed potato. The breadbasket, a quaintly rustic punnet lined with canvas, is replenished frequently, although you have to pay extra (450 yen) if you want butter — premium beurre d’Echire.
Our only grumble was with the wine — not the upper end of the list, of course, but the basic house reds served by the glass or carafe. They are very ordinary and tannic, especially the cheapest (a generic Languedoc Syrah), though the equivalent in white (a Viognier from the same company) was passable.
What happened to Tokyo’s cafe-brasseries? A few survivors
In the mid-1990s, Tokyo cafe society revolved around the twin poles of Aux Bacchanales in Harajuku and Cafe des Pres in Omotesando. Neither location has survived the unforgiving maw of time and redevelopment, though both businesses still run other branches.
The original Cafe des Pres is still around and has kept its glass frontage open to the street (weather permitting) since 1993. It remains a relaxing place to pause, read, trawl the Internet, rendezvous with friends, or just gaze out at the traffic on Gaien-Nishi-dori.
Cafe des Pres, 5-1-27 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku, tel. (03) 3448-0039 (across from Hiroo Station’s Exit 3)
Aux Bacchanales now has three outlets in Tokyo: in Ark Hills, best for dining; a cafe on the Hibiya side of Ginza; and our favorite, in Kioicho, Chiyoda Ward, a tranquil setting close to the Hotel New Otani — as well as in Kyoto and Hakata. All sport the requisite brasserie look but lack elan and vibrancy. Likewise with their brasserie fare: fine if you happen to be in the neighborhood but hardly worth crossing town for.
Aux Bacchanales Akasaka, Ark Hills Building 2F, 1-12-32 Akasaka, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3582-2225; www.auxbacchanales.com/
Aux Bacchanales Ginza, 6-3-2 Ginza Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3569-0202
Aux Bacchanales Kioicho, 4-1 Kioicho, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5276-3422. Open 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
Aux Bacchanales Kyoto, Cocon Karasuma 1F, 620 Suiginyacho, Shijo-sagaru, Karasuma-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Aux Bacchanales Hakata, Fukuoka Tenjin Daimaru, 1-4-1 Tenjin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka; tel: (092) 762-7373
The only place in Tokyo that really delivers the right sass and savoir-faire is Brasserie Aux Amis, just around the corner from Viron, in Marunouchi. It’s not perfect: there are only a couple of tables out front; the bar-counter is tiny; the seating is cramped and the waiters pushy; and, thanks to the considerable wine list, the bill always ends up higher than you anticipate. But as written here in November 2003, the decor is suitably authentic and the cooking hugely satisfying. Best of all, it gets the ambience right. We’ll doff our beret to that.
Brasserie Aux Amis, Shin-Tokyo Bldg. 1F., 3-3-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 6212-1566; www.auxamis.com.