Guacamole and merguez sausages on the menu, salsa and bossa nova on the sound system and not a check tablecloth in sight: Pignon is a far cry from the average bistro. But then again, owner-chef Rimpei Yoshikawa is anything but a typical Tokyo French chef.
He drives an old Citroen 2CV better suited to 1960s Paris than the outer fringes of Shibuya. He prefers T-shirts to chef’s whites, tying his hair back in a ponytail as he works. And he runs his friendly, laid-back restaurant like an extension of his own dining room.
The look may be casual and slightly bohemian, but make no mistake: Yoshikawa has paid all necessary dues, both in Japan and France. He spent seven years at a high-end Tokyo restaurant, but after working for a while in Bordeaux, he realized his calling lay not in haute cuisine but the hearty, soulful everyday dishes of the bistro.
His cooking is as appetizing and authentic as it is affordable. From his aromatic duck confit to hearty roasts of lamb, pork or venison that he whips from stove top to oven and then onto the plate, the bottom line is that not only do you eat well at Pignon, you do so with enjoyment.
Where to begin? There are always a couple of tempting fresh-cooked quiches arrayed along the kitchen counter. Yoshikawa also puts together a very satisfying charcuterie platter featuring homemade liver pate and country-style terrine with Spanish Iberico salami and Parma ham, plus plenty of olives, pickles and slices of fresh fig.
But the house-special starter is his signature guacamole. The carefully constructed mound of coarse-mashed avocado is seasoned with lime and jalapeno, topped with seafood — either shrimp or sliced octopus — and then covered with diced red onion, tomato and cilantro.
Why serve such a classic Mexican dish at a French bistro? “I just like guacamole,” says Yoshikawa. When it’s made with this kind of sophistication and pizzazz, who doesn’t?
Ditto with the North African elements. The lamb merguez sausages — two per serving, nicely browned and served with extra harissa hot sauce on the side — remain on the menu year-round. Couscous features regularly too, supplemented by a spicy Moroccan salad in summer.
There are other subtler influences at play, too. Last year Yoshikawa visited Chez Panisse, the iconic Californian restaurant, traveling together with Shinichiro Harakawa, owner-chef of Beard in Meguro. They are friends and kindred spirits, both bringing an intense focus and independent attitude to their work.
When Pignon first opened on the Kamiyama-cho shopping street, it seemed out of place so close to the blare and glare of Shibuya. Four years later, it’s an integral part of this increasingly eclectic area. With its front open to the street and its warm buzz leaking out into the evening air, it feels like the quintessential neighborhood bistro.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com