You can sigh in relief, Tokyo has its own Le Verre Volé... The French iconic natural-wine restaurant (and caviste) has now its mirror venue in Meguro, close to Ebisu and Shibuya, not exactly the worst location for a restaurant. It opened last november (2012) and it is already among the top destinations for the natural-wine lovers in Tokyo, some of them having already visited the Paris venue during a travel in France. Its owner Ryotaro Miyauchi learnt his skills while working several years in France including at Le Verre Volé-Paris with Cyril Bordarier.
It takes a mere 10-minute walk maybe to reach Le Verre Volé from the Meguro station, an easy stroll along a large avenue with a mix of shops and other businesses. the avenue (named Meguro-dori) is wide and busy near the Meguro station but it's much more quiet when you reach Le Verre Volé on the right-hand side, the shops turning more artsy too, I spotted a couple of designers shops or something like that, including furniture shops. The area is also into fashion stylists if I remember and it has a particulat flavor in this regard. This visit to Le verre Volé was a good opportunity to discover another spot on the Tokyo map, which is healthy, because if you're not careful you end up going always to a handful of destinations in this huge city, when in fact it has so many neighborhoods with their own something.
I crossed the Meguro-gawa, which is also one of the destinations for hanami. Rivers are looking like canals in Tokyo, from a European perspective, that's because they've been built along and remodeled for so many years I guess. Meguro-gawa can't be compared to the Canal Saint Martin which flows 20 meters from the Paris'Verre Volé, but there's still something of the 10th arrondissement here, not too expensive and in the same time quite close to magnet neighborhoods like Ebisu and Shibuya.
Looking at all these bottles of French artisan wines on the wall, all being cuvées made without additives__often without added SO2 either__ makes you feel concretely how far the import of this type of wines has gone in Japan, where in spite of the distance you seem to find the last minimalist cuvée of the most daring non-intreventionist French vintners. Some of these cuvées aren't even found in France and are custom-made and wholly exported here in Japan, like Puzelat's Vin Coeur Cul which is maybe named this way in reference with Japanese import company Vinscoeur.
I visited the place early in the evening, around 6pm so that I could interview Ryotaro-san without interfering with the service. This was a weekday but there were already several phone calls at that time for reservations, so I think that the restaurant is quite busy already after a few months of existence.
The bottles here cost almost all between 5000 Y and 6000 or beyond, which is clearly beyond my means. Back in France, I'll lobby the vignerons to prevent them from selling all their wines here, or we might be compelled to go back to the supermarket for our vinous needs...
The wine cellar is in the back, it's air-conditioned and fit for the heavy temperatures of summer, you can see the glass door on the right near the counter where Ryotaro notes reservations for the next evening.
Ryotaro-san arrived in France in 2005 and worked initially in a Japanese restaurant, at Ozu near the Trocadero. That's where he had the opportunity to taste and drink natural wines, and he liked that. Then he worked with several vignerons across France : Agnès & René Mosse in Anjou (Loire) where he stayed during the harvest and the vinification a couple of months after. He worked also with René-Jean Dard at Dard & Ribo (Northern Rhone) and with Jean-Yves Perron in the Savoie region. This all helped him understand the winemaking behind these wines he loved.
In 2008 he began to work with Cyril Bordarier at Le Verre Volé (the original wine venue in Paris), where he finetuned his knowledge of natural wines and learned to cook and prepare the food and understand the food wine pairing too. This rich experience in one of the hottest wine restaurant lasted until november 2011. When he was in Paris, he lived near Le Chateaubriand, Avenue Parmentier, another hot venue in eastern Paris.
Back in Japan, he opened a restaurant where he wanted to reproduce the magic of the food and the wines he had come through near the Canal Saint-Martin. The Paris restaurant let him use the name and trade-mark style but this restaurant is his own, it's not a joint venture with the French Verre-Volé.
Like in Paris, this is primarily a wine restaurant but with this bar counter in the back he can also serve glasses of wine. There's not this administrative hurdle, the alcohol license (called Licence IV in France) which is why some French wine venues serve wine with food but are not legally allowed to serve a glass of wine by itself. Here are the few wines that were served by the glass when I dropped at Le Verre Volé :
Vin de Table Crémant du Jura Domaine de l'Octavin (sparkling) 1000 Y; Champagne Jacques Lassaigne Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blanc 1500 Y; La Désirée (white) Marc Pesnot 750 Y; Bourgogne white Chitry 2008 Alice & Olivier De Moor 950 Y; Crozes Hermitage white Dard & Ribo 1200 Y; Côtes du Rhone red Nouveau 2012 Marcel Richaud 800 Y; Patapon Chapelle 2011 (red pineau d'aunis) Nathalie & Christian Chaussard 900 Y; Beaujolais Fleurie "le Printemps" Yvon Métras 1200 Y; Vin Jaune (forgot to ask from whom) 1500 Y.
Otherwise, it is important to say that unlike in Paris all the bottles on the wall are empty, considering the temperature challenge here. I was impressed to see a large selection of wines by Dard & Ribo (these particular bottles are full but that maybe because René-Jean Dard was here not long ago. L'Anglore wines are here too but alas sold out, and from what I understand Pfifferling's wines are sold out not only at Le vere Volé but Japan wide....
Ryotaro-san sources his wines through no less than 7 or 8 importers, like Racines (Mrs Goda), Junko Arai, Nomura Unison, Vinscoeur, Cosmojun (Junko Arai)... There are many tastings featuring artisan vintners vinifying without additives in Tokyo, so he can keep an eye on the new cuvées and the new players.
About the type of people who come here, Ryotaro-san says that maybe 70 % of them are women, now that is some news ! Could it be that the natural-wine success in Japan would be fueled by the Japanese women who found something unique in these wines ?
I think indeed that beyond the convincing experience of drinking these wines (nobody is immune in that regard), the Japanese women also appreciate the digestibility and a better, natural integration of the alcohol within the other elements of the wine.
We're often surprised of the easy-drinking nature of these wines, without the usual unwanted side effects. He says that women often ask for "light wines" when ordering, and they tend to order wines from Beaujolais, Jura and the Loire.
I wonder if the success of natural wines among the Japanese could be also related to what we call Umami, a Japanese concept of taste which includes the savoriness and the liveliness. Umami is not about aromas, "by itself, it is not palatable", says the linked page. This is it, it's about a diffuse feel of savoriness and that's why, I think, the Japanese aren't put off by the fact that they don't find in the natural wines the traditional display of aromas considered the norm by the European old school of wine.
Asked how he viwed the evolution of the consumption of this type of wines in Japan, he said in substance that while still a minority thing here, there was a definitive move by a growing number of consumers toward natural wines. He said that himself, once he began to drink these wines, he couldn't drink anymore classical Bordeaux and conventional wines like he used to do before. People here are surprised by the original expression of these wines, their character, their freshness; the wines smell different if bizarre sometimes, another thing is that people feel good while drinking them, and they don't have headaches the following morning.
The dinner menu is written on blackboards on the side, I guess they hold these boards at the tables so that people can choose. It was partly written in French, so I remember that among the main dishes there was boudin noir (blood sausage), Confit de Canard, cassoulet pour 2 personnes, poulet rôti etc... and these dishes cost 1500 Y to 2000 Y and one was 3200 Y (probably the cassoulet for 2 people). there were 9 entrées, most priced between 800 Y and 1200 Y and 2 were above. There were 3 desserts at 700 Y. If you needed water to pause between sips of wine, they have Badoit.
I didn't stay for dinner but you can see a few pictures of the fod on this Japan Times profile. More dish pictures on this blog in Japanese. More pictures on this story in English. We learn there that the waiter also spent time working at several good restaurants in Paris. And take a look at this post by Cyril Le Moing, a French vigneron from the Loire who lives several months a year in Tokyo (his girlfriend is Japanese).