I heard about Ai to Ibukuro — a cozy little Japanese-French restaurant in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya district — through a friend who likes to visit it when celebrating birthdays and anniversaries with the entire family. It can be a challenge to find restaurants that don’t simply allow but actually welcome children — and that number quickly dwindles when it comes to proper French cuisine.
Run by husband-and-wife team Shinsaku Suzuki and Emi Ishida, Ai to Ibukuro (literally, “love and stomach”) is a tiny restaurant with a big heart. The restaurant’s unusual name is based on two of the most basic human needs, love and food, and the couple’s belief that eating together fosters love.
From its name to its carefully curated ingredients and wines, Ai to Ibukuro is a restaurant with a vision and, as it turns out, quite the social conscience.
“We wanted to cater to those at a disadvantage when it comes to eating out, like those with disabilities and families with young children,” Ishida says. The wheelchair- and stroller-accessible establishment is also equipped with a changing table and high chairs for babies and toddlers.
The restaurant participates in “welfare trade,” where items are purchased at fair prices from social welfare facilities. It sources many of its ingredients — including bread, eggs, sausages and vegetables — from establishments staffed by people with disabilities.
“We appreciate the care that goes into making the products, from the sausages that are preservative-free and made by hand, to the bread, which was love at first bite,” Ishida says with a laugh.
The menu focuses on Japanese ingredients, including domestically produced organic and pesticide-free produce and Japanese wines. Even their meat is sourced from farms that use feed that is free of chemicals and, when it is available, the restaurant serves free-range, grass-fed beef.
My 4-year-old and I sampled the kid-and-baby offerings on the menu, which features a selection of dishes for every age group: from the Chef’s Special Baby Risotto for babies eating solids (¥550) to the Kid’s Plate for toddlers aged 18 months to 5-years-old (¥850) and the Kobukuro Course, a four-course meal with kid-sized portions for children ages 6 and up (¥1,800).
Our favorite was the Kid’s Plate, with its artistic arrangement of sauces and bite-sized servings. A far cry from the usual kid-friendly fare of chicken nuggets and French fries, this Kid’s Plate caters to the little connoisseur, with a regularly changing selection of meats, fish, vegetables, soup and bread. As tempting as it may be, try not to fill up on the delightfully fluffy bread made with rice flour and flavored with a blend of herbs.
Our plate featured a colorful selection of tender sauteed pork strips, seared bonito, steamed mushrooms, beets, pea soup and, my personal favorite, a tri-color carrot salad. My daughter literally inhaled and licked the bowl of pea soup clean (we are working on those table manners) — a slightly sweet and creamy blend featuring the seasonal ingredient.
Perhaps it is the Japanese influence, but the food here does not suffer from the heavy sauces and overly rich flavors that can at times beleaguer French cuisine. Ai to Ibukuro offers a true culinary experience for the entire family, and will have baby eating like a little gourmand.
1-15-13 Taishido, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Mondays and every third Tuesday; Call 03-3411-1296 for reservations; No English menu; some English spoken; High chairs and changing table available.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5