Food & Drink

Pommeke makes fries the main dish

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo boasts plenty of Belgian culinary spots, from beer bars to chocolate shops. Chef Bart Sablon even points out that there is a Belgian waffle store right around the corner from Pommeke, a recently opened operation where the 39-year-old works as executive chef. “That’s a total coincidence, though,” he says.

“We aren’t a Belgian beer bar, or even a Belgian food restaurant. We are filling a very specific gap,” he says. That gap? Belgian-style fries.

Pommeke (03-6804-5884, 2-12-27 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, www.pommeke.jp/en) aims to bring the experience of a Belgian frituur — a shop that focuses on fries — to Japan’s capital. Opened last month near Gaienmae Station, the cozy spot features standing-room only, a handful of Belgian brews on tap and three Flemish side dishes. Sablon, though, makes it clear what food is the star here.

Sablon has been cooking since age 8, primarily because his mother was a cook.

“She taught me how to make the dishes here,” he says. “Even today, I’ll still ask her questions.”

Hooked at an early age, Sablon studied cooking and, after graduating university at 21, found work as the executive chef at the Belgian Embassy in Tokyo. He was the youngest cook to hold said position. It was his first time outside of Europe, and he found himself cooking dinner for many high-profile guests, including members of the Imperial family.

“At that time, there were only a few Belgian restaurants,” he says. “The beer bar business was starting to take off . . . and the waffles industry was hot.”

Sablon filled in any missing tastes —such as fries — at special dinners held at the embassy. He held the position until 2003 and then returned to Belgium to work at restaurants before focusing on the logistics of food as a buyer.

“I started a hamburger business too, but sold that to make this a reality.”

The plans for Pommeke started taking shape in 2013, when Sablon visited Tokyo on vacation. He met up with Rob Van Nylen, a fellow Belgian who settled in Tokyo in 1996, and a friend from his embassy stint. The two drew up the idea for a shop devoted to Belgian fries.

“There are over 5,500 stores in Belgium selling just fries, which is a big number for a relatively small country,” Van Nylen says. “It was surprising that Tokyo had none.”

Not to say the city lacks stores focused on deep-fried spuds. Robson Fries in Shimokitazawa specializes in the Quebec dish poutine, while And The Friet in Hiroo offers a “premium” fries experience, allowing customers to choose what kind of potato they want and a variety of exotic sauces. Even convenience store chain Lawson recently rolled out “premium french fries,” boasting that they’re even made from European potatoes.

Van Nylen refers to these other venues as “specialty shops,” and he and Sablon emphasize that Pommeke offers “real Belgian fries” — a statement plastered all over the store’s website and the physical space’s walls. This isn’t just branding — there are strict rules regarding what qualifies as “Belgian fries,” to the point a Belgian Association of Frituurs (Navefri-Unafri) exists to decide what shops qualify. Pommeke is one of the only stores that is part of the organization based outside Belgium.

“The fries have to be between 10 by 10 mm and 12 by 12 mm in size,” Sablon says. “Unlike in other countries, Belgians use the best quality potatoes for the fries.”

“The way we prepare our fries is like a soccer match,” Van Nylen says. “They get fried once, and then take a break for about 15 minutes. Once the customer orders, they go in for a second time at a higher temperature.” After that, they get put in a paper cone and customers can eat them with their hands or small plastic forks preferred by Belgians.

The fries, produced in the Belgian municipality of Leuze-en-Hainaut and offered only at Pommeke in Japan, are what Van Nylen refers to as “fries 2.0.”

“They are an improved version of what’s in Belgium for the Japanese market,” he says. “They are crispier, they stay hotter longer and contain a high volume of potato mass.”

A few tweaks have been made for Japanese palates: Pommeke uses less salt than in Belgium, and sauces are served in individual dishes rather than smothered over the fries themselves — the Belgian way.

Regardless of how they’re served, the sauces — all made in house, save for the ketchup — make the crispy fries even better. The go-to Belgian condiment, mayonnaise, is made fresh throughout the day in front of customers, and it packs more of a punch than anything available at the supermarket. The highlight, though, is the spicy samurai sauce, which Sablon says is a popular variety of sauce in Belgium.

Rounding out the food menu are three Belgian side dishes: a tender Flemish carbonade, meatballs in tomato sauce and vol-au-vent.

Sablon and Van Nylen say business has been good since opening in late December. On this Saturday evening, the store has a constant stream of people coming in to eat. It keeps Sablon busy, as he dashes around throughout our interview to tend to the fries.

Despite being only a month old, plans are moving forward to open more Pommeke restaurants in Tokyo. Van Nylen says he can’t reveal much, but says there is a good chance the next branch of Pommeke, to be announced in a couple of months, will be near a major train station.

Until then, the pair will focus on serving up an authentic Belgian experience while making sure visitors know where the primary dish comes from. “If you say ‘french fries’ too many times, you get a yellow card,” Van Nylen jokes. Sablon says Pommeke has gotten one huge seal of approval to date.

“My mother flew out for the grand opening and her mind was blown,” he says. “She said it was great.”