It’s gyōza time. These 1½-bite pan-fried dumplings — crisp and brown underneath, moist and meaty inside — may have their roots in China, but they’re as deeply embedded in Japanese hearts and the daily diet as ramen and chahan (fried rice).
In the past, gyōza always played a subsidiary role. They were what you ordered while you decided what you really wanted to eat, the snack to accompany the first, thirst-quenching flagon of draft beer while waiting for the main course.
But things are different these days: No longer content to play second fiddle, gyōza have started topping the bill, or at least sharing the spotlight.
This is certainly the case at the sparkling new Champagne & Gyoza Bar — that’s the name on the awning over the door, although officially in Japanese it’s called Stand-Cham-Shoku — which has just opened in Akasaka. The idea isn’t unprecedented. A more compact prototype branch has been operating in Shimbashi since last year, but this latest version hones the concept to perfection.
First impressions are positive: It’s bright, welcoming, accessible. You perch on simple stools at a counter that runs three sides of a compact open kitchen. The layout feels more like a gleaming, pristine version of a ramen shop than a bar devoted to bubbly.
But scan the list and you’ll find at least 30 kinds of Champagne, ranging from basic bottles all the way up to vintage magnums with six-figure price tags. You have a choice of four by the glass, with special promotions of lesser-known brands and happy-hour reductions until 6:30 p.m. each evening.
Better yet, there’s plenty on the food menu besides gyōza to keep you sipping. The stand-out cold cuts include San Daniele prosciutto, good pork rillettes and country-style pate, excellent cured Hokkaido venison (listed as “Deer’s Fresh Ham”), and a very tasty smoked duck “pastrami.”
The beef ragout and the honeycomb tripe work well as hearty cold-weather fare, although you may be tempted to defect from Champagne to red wine or even beer. And if you order the kimchi selection, prepare to be amazed: what arrives may include pineapple, papaya and other exotic takes on the Korean piquant pickles.
But at the end of the day, it’s the gyōza that really shine. Made in batches of six or 12 — they’re small and delicate enough that half a dozen just isn’t enough for one person — you get to decide whether you want them plain or redolent with garlic. They’re served with four different dips, the spicy sesame-miso being probably the best, and a choice of chili or truffle oil.
So is this really an attempt to elevate gyōza in our estimation, or just another way to peddle Champagne by making it feel more street-level? Who cares? When it’s as well put together as this, they go together beautifully.
Gyōza from ¥500; Champagne from ¥880 (from ¥500 in happy hour); English/French menu; English spoken; Robbie Swinnerton blogs at tokyofoodfile.com.