Izakaya Vin, Shibuya
Say "izakaya" to a Tokyo local and he or she will conjure up thoughts of a great casual night out drinking and eating in a setting of neighborhood conviviality. There are literally thousands of izakayas sprinkled throughout Tokyo, but my favorite is just a little different.
Izakya Vin is a short walk from Shibuya station. Its prime position on the corner of a bustling bar and restaurant row means that you can’t miss it. Even from the street, Izakaya Vin stands out from its yakitori and nabe selling neighbors; it’s larger, definitely, and just a bit more sophisticated. But don’t let this put you off, as many a great night is to be had inside.
Typical of an izakaya, the ground floor has an open kitchen, counter seating and a couple of small tables. The upstairs accommodates larger groups and parties. Sit at the bar and watch as, incredibly, eight staff members cook, prep and decant in a very small space. The vibe here is French: French food, French wine, and best of all, champagne.
Not only that, but it’s all available by the glass. The waiter charged with serving the wine may or may not be a sommelier (there are no tell-tale golden grapes on his uniform), but his knowledge and love of his subject is obvious. Here you can try wine from most of the major French vineyards, as well as some New World wines if you wish. It’s a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast without the expense of buying the whole bottle—although that’s an option, too. The waiter not only fills your glass, but is also happy to chat in Japanese or careful English about your selection. We sampled a Meursault and a Pauillac on our last visit.
Champagne from vineyards big and small is also available by the glass, and it is worth trying the waiter’s suggestions, particularly for the smaller, lesser known labels. Or stick with the tried and true mega producers and remember, only French bubbles can be called champagne.
The food on offer is classic bistro style. We started with some mixed olives and a pork rillettes followed by a dish of pâté. Set on a base of cognac infused figs, the pâté was simply magnificent. Snapper in balsamic with white asparagus in raspberry vinegar and a veal terrine completed a very French style meal. Other choices that night were duck confit, beef and veal ragout, and venison patties. The menu is fulsome, but vegetarians may need to eat before they leave home.
The starters are somewhat similar in size to a serving of tapas, so it’s best to order a couple to share. The mains are generous and can easily be shared, which is very unusual in a typical izakaya.
Desserts are made in house and have a distinctive French flavor to them. Blancmange, crème brûlée, sorbets and apricot tart were on offer the night we dined. The passionfruit sorbet was homemade, fresh and delightful.
Izakaya Vin is that most enjoyable of places; casual yet refined, fun but edifying, and most of all, a great night out.
Address: 1-5-7 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Open: Daily, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.