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Japan’s French bistro dining keeps the focus on the food

by Alex Dutson

Each year, approximately 20 Japanese tourists are struck down by a rare and mysterious disorder.

At least 19 of them will be idealistic young women in their early 30s. They will suffer acute, gnawing anxiety, breathlessness, and then deep depression. They will be stretchered to airplanes for the only known cure, which is to return to Japan and never again set foot in the French capital.

Paris Syndrome, as the condition is known, is an amusing phenomenon with a very real provenance. According to psychiatrist Hiroka Oka, who first documented the affliction some 20 years ago, the root cause is a mismatch between deeply romantic Japanese expectations of Paris, and what it actually delivers.

When you’ve lived in Japan a while, though, this starts to make sense. After all, Japan specializes in very particular kind of Frenchness. The kind peddled at Joel Robuchon’s Yebisu Garden Palace, or the pristinely preserved French diplomats’ house at Kobe’s ijinkan complex.

The kind that prompts the annual march of high schoolers to the Mont Saint-Michel in France, and the endless exhibitions of Monet, Manet and Cezanne at art galleries across the land. The basic idea? France is synonymous with high style, and this primped, buffed and gilded fantasy of paneled walls, crystal chandeliers and antique mirrors is to be worshipped wherever it is found and reproduced wherever possible.

Perhaps I sound bitter. I’m not. In fact I have no problem with clumsy anachronism, except of course when it intrudes on my dinner. And it has. At Robuchon. And I love Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire, and all the other chefs who dare to riff on the great repertoire of French neoclassicism.

But not when their cooking is forced to take a back seat to show-off stiff formality and the pursuit of colonial aesthetics, and especially not when my retinas are being seared off by endless flash photography by other diners.

So for the time being, I’m saying this: the most genuinely enjoyable French meals to be had in Japan, where you can a) relax and b) focus on the food, are in the bistros.

Bistros like Bec in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture. Dining at Bec (Suteitsuan 1F, 4-2-2 Nakayamate-dori, Chuo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo; 078-321-0346) is an exercise in casual, albeit refined, casual. Chef Tatsuya Kishimoto, 39, is a one-man operation, and his menu is therefore necessarily limited.

Wine is listed on the menu simply as “red” or “white,” with prices from ¥1,000. When you come here, you put yourself in his hands.

But while you’ve been eyeing the menu amid the moody orange lighting, Kishimoto has already discerned what you really want. You know when he suggests the pate that it’s what you wanted all along, and that the pressed Challons duck in a balsamic and orange sauce was really quite inevitable.

So, too, with the glasses of wine, no two of which are ever the same. The dense, whorled slab of pork liver pate gets a generous pour of Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. A country-style garbure soup of white beans and a Dijon-oriented lentil salad provide a brief interlude to the duck that is served alongside a more upfront Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre Rhone wine blend tasting of dark fruits and spice. A blue cheese omelette ordered off-menu is a faultless finale of buttery indulgence. Bec is all deliberate and all exquisite. Expect to pay ¥12,000 for two.

Osaka’s Bistro D’Anjou (2-6-18 Shinsaibashisuji, Chuo-ku, Osaka; 06-6211-6085; www.anjou.co.jp/shop/bistrot) is the place to go for a bustling, and perhaps more traditional, brasserie experience. The city’s oldest French bistro has the requisite red-checkered tablecloths and blackboards, liveried waiters and plenty of Belle Epoque glam.

Crucially, none of this is overpowering, and the focus is squarely on the dining. Come with friends for a long lunch and solid takes on good-natured bistro classics; garlicky escargots, wild rabbit in a creamy sauce of chanterelle mushrooms that tastes of windswept hillocks, and cotelettes d’agneau (sweet lamb ribs encrusted in herbs). The theatrically inclined will want to order the coq au vin, served straight from the cocotte with a velvety quenelle of mashed potato, while the white asparagus sauteed with bacon is the stuff swoons are made of.

Profiteroles and creme brulee are on offer for dessert, and courses start at ¥2,400 per person.

If you’re willing to book 3-4 weeks ahead (because it really is that popular) then charming little L’Amitie (Shibahara Bldg. 1F, 2-9-12 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-5272-5010) is a really unbeatable spot for low-key French dining, with wallet-friendly lunch and dinner courses priced at ¥1,200 and ¥2,700 and portions sized for maximum indulgence and devastation to the waistline.

Be sure to try the confit de canard of braised duck cooked in its own fat; its meat so soft, its skin so crispy. Or the crunchy endive, walnut and apple salad with creamy Roquefort cheese. Or the firm-yet-savory lange du boeuf topped with a row of pickles. Better still, go in a group and order them all. There’ll be plenty to go around.

As you waddle between narrowly spaced chair backs on your way to the door, with a full belly and a liver that’s been so basted in excess calories that it’s considering a future career as pate, consider how the formation of that inevitable grin beaming across your face is entirely down to what you’ve eaten, and in no way at all related to chandeliers, waistcoats or gilded mirrors.

An old friend from Toulouse once said that French cuisine is “born out of arrogance, an obsessive quest for refinement, and a deep appreciation for terroir (regional ingredients).” Let us empty our wallets for the latter two.