Isn’t it about time that galettes — those skinny, savory, nut-brown buckwheat pancakes born in Brittany but now ubiquitous in French cuisine — took this country by storm?
They’re light, tasty and wholesome. Much like pizza, you can top them with any combination of ingredients. Unlike pizza, no bulky brick oven is needed, just a simple flat griddle. And it’s not as if they’re exotic: Buckwheat is eaten almost daily here in the form of soba noodles; and everyone seems to like sweet crepes. It’s a no-brainer: They should be all over Japan.
And they will be, if David Moreul has anything to do with it. Besides running his own specialist galetterie, this native Breton also holds professional courses, teaching chefs from around the country the techniques for preparing these delicate pancakes.
His instruction is clearly much needed, judging from the number of places in Tokyo that manage to get away with galettes that are mediocre or just plain wrong. To find out how it should be done, we made the short ride out to Sasazuka, just west of Shinjuku, to Maison Bretonne, the restaurant that Moreul runs with his wife, Eiko.
Open almost exactly two years, it’s a cozy place that seems perfectly at home on the old-style shotengai (shopping street) that leads from the station. It has an easygoing neighborhood feel, and it stays open throughout the afternoon for anyone who wants to drop in for a snack — just as a creperie would in France, and, indeed, as a traditional sobaya would in Japan.
The Moreuls serve much more than just pancakes. Both are trained chefs (they met while working in Brittany) and prepare a good range of local specialties. Seafood features less prominently than you’d find on the Atlantic coast, but there is plenty of the hearty rustic fare you’d get inland: rich lamb pa^te and warming soups; pickles homemade in cider vinegar; chicken casserole; and even kig ha farz, a traditional winter pot au feu made with buckwheat dumplings that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Asia.
Not surprisingly, kig ha farz was not on the menu last month: Much lighter fare was called for. We chilled out with aperitifs made from the organic farmhouse cider the Moreuls import directly. It’s a rough brew that reminded us a good deal of British scrumpy: gently fizzy, refreshingly tart and with plenty of rustic character.
We started with a plate of the amuses galette, small squares of folded buckwheat pancake topped with bite-size chunks of summer vegetables — courgette (zucchini), aubergine (eggplant); and navet (turnip). Light and attractively laid out, this was just the thing to kick-start our appetites in readiness for the main event: galettes with all the works.
The choices range from basic — with egg (cooked sunnyside up but still molten), ham or cheese — to pig-out lavish. We were tempted to go the whole hog and order one with mushrooms, potato, pork and various types of cheese. But we will keep that pleasure for a future visit in cooler weather.
Instead we ordered the complete: egg, ham and Gruyere cheese with more of those seasonal veggies, salad greens and tomato slices, all arranged on a crisp galette. Colorful and attractive, it was close to being the perfect combination, especially at this time of year.
Maison Bretonne is not the first place to serve up this most distinctive of regional cuisines. The pioneering work was done over a decade ago by the excellent Le Bretagne restaurants, first in Kagurazaka and later in Omotesando (and now with branches all around the city). This is where Moreul began his career in Japan. Now he and his wife are taking their specialty to the next level — demonstrating that galettes, when they taste as good as theirs, are worthy of any neighborhood in Japan. But until their efforts bear fruit, the only place you will get to eat their fine cooking is at their own little place in Sasazuka.
For information and menus in English, visit www.eatpia.com/restaurant/maison-bretonne– sasaduka-french
By happy coincidence, the flavors of Brittany and adjoining Normandy are the focus of the third and latest chapter in the “Tour de France Gourmand” series at Joel Robuchon’s small stable of bakeries in Tokyo and Yokohama. For two months, through the end of October, the standard array of excellent breads, cakes and patisseries will be supplemented by a range of baked goods, sandwiches and artisan food products representing those two regions in northwest France.
Just as you’d expect, the patisseries are superb. Our outright favorite is the far Breton aux pruneax, a small moist eggy cake enveloping a puree of boozy prune. But running a close second is the kouign amann: two versions of this classic Breton pastry, one with a filling of apple, the other with nutty vanilla, both perfectly complementing the flaky, sugary pastry.
Tying in nicely with this promotion, the Robuchon cafe in Marunouchi Brick Square offers a selection of savory galettes on its regular menu. And very fine they are too, whether you keep things simple with the impressively vertical green salad and ham, or put on the ritz with the Perigourdine, with foie gras and truffles drizzled with balsamic vinegar. What else would you expect from the man with the most Michelin stars on the planet?
Boutique de Joel Robuchon, Marunouchi Brick Square, 2-6-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3217-2877; www.robuchon.jp/marunouchi. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; nearest stations: Tokyo (JR and Marunouchi lines), Nijubashimae (Chiyoda Line).