The Artisanal Spirit of a Neighborhood Tokyo Bistro
When introducing Tokyo’s dining scene to foreigners with no experience of the city, I would of course pick a Japanese restaurant, but for those who've had their fill of sushi and grilled fish, my favorite spot is a neighborhood French eatery called Bistro Fève. A one-room space, operated by a culinary couple, with recipes that emphasize the original taste of the ingredients, and a steady clientele of regulars happily quaffing generous glasses of red wines, it is to me a pure representation of Tokyo’s artisanal ‘human scale’ culinary scene.
The artisanal spirit of Tokyo restaurant culture is partly explained by the human scale of its eateries and the total time commitment of the owner-chefs. As the example of Bistro Fève shows, these include many married couples. The Kawamuras' interpretation of the spirit of French bistro for a Tokyo neighborhood involves not only downsizing to a tiny space tucked under the train tracks but upgrading the dainty portions typical of Japan's French restaurants to offer customers the experience of a satisfying bistro meal.
The Kawamura husband-wife team started Fève seven years ago, both having begun their restaurant careers in their teens. Every night, she busily rushes from table to table in the front, acting as server, busser, sommelier and occasional sous chef. He silently busies himself behind the counter at the stove and grill. Fève is most famous for its meat dishes, and my family’s favorite is the lean rare Hokkaido venison served in a bed of raw and blanched seasonal vegetables.
In the midst of the Italian boom of the 1980s, Mr. Kawamura first learned Italian cooking. At least as it was done at the time in Japan, Italian cuisine offered little room for expressive design especially in the desserts. French pastry would be a place he could do something creative, and branch out on his own. It was at the time that he was learning French cuisine in Japan that he met his wife.
They both went to Europe separately to develop their careers, eventually ending up together in France. He started out in Germany learning to make sausage. Then he found a bistro in France near where his wife was already working. Language was not important for him. Rather he learned by watching and doing. Although his stay in France was only half a year, for Kawamura this was the key formative experience. “Knowing the perspectives of French people is very important,” he said.
His goal is to make Fève into a French style bistro, the kind of place you can go and fill yourself up, like a family-style Japanese shokudo, not a formal kaiseki restaurant where the presentation of the food is more important than the satisfaction of eating. Among Japanese, he said, the idea of the bistro is not yet well understood.
Neither of the Kawamuras is from Tokyo. When they were thinking of starting their own place, they were living in Mitaka. She liked the nearby area of Nishiogi because of the antique shops, and they went over to look around for a possible space. “One day after midnight we were riding our bicycles past here and saw a blue awning and a for rent sign. He immediately thought he wanted this.” The next day when they inquired the real estate agent informed them restaurants were not welcome, but when they discussed with the owner who still lives above the restaurant, he said okay. “We were lucky.”
Only about sixteen people can squeeze into the tiny place at any given time, and sometimes, it is not convenient. For example, it lacks any closet space. However they were also free to design the place themselves with a little professional advice. For him, working behind the counter allows him to communicate with customers and see how the food is being received. The two of them can design the menu and dishes together.
Like many other small restaurants in Nishiogi, they avoid publicity, preferring to slowly build up a clientele of local regulars. This was a slow process. The period after the earthquake in 2011 was especially difficult, because many of their regulars left the city, especially the foreigners. But now the place is packed nearly every night, and eighty percent are locals. The Kawamuras have made their interpretation of French bistro culture part of the local texture of the community. (Farrer, Dec. 15, 2015, edited March 15, 2017)