Café de L’Ambre

Details from the front of Tokyo's Cafe de L'AmbreSo far in covering Tokyo’s Coffee Spots, I’ve written about Maruyama Coffee, a modern take on a traditional Japanese, service-oriented coffee shop and Kaido Books & Coffee, which any aficionado of western, third-wave coffee shops would instantly recognise. For today’s Coffee Spot, however, I wanted to write about Café de L’Ambre, a traditional Japanese kissaten.

This is a very different beast, more akin to a bar than a coffee shop. In the case of L’Ambre, all the coffee is roasted on-site on a pair of small roasters at the front of the store, while coffee is made and consumed at the back, in a long, low, smoky room with a counter/bar on the left and a handful of tables on the right.

If you can, sit at the counter, the further along the better, where you can watch your coffee being prepared for you using a linen filter. This is really old-school: no scales, timers or temperature-controlled kettles. It’s coffee as a performance and although the end result might not please everybody, it’s an experience I would recommend trying. Be warned, though, L’Ambre allows smoking and it’s pot-luck whether you end up sat next to someone lighting up a cigarette.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • On a back street in Ginza, downtown Tokyo, just follow your nose...
  • ... which will lead you to this, otherwise easily-missable, establishment.
  • The signs by the door tell you that you've come to the right place: Cafe de L'Ambre.
  • Before you go in, take a look at the little window to the right, particularly if it's open.
  • Inside you'll see not one, but two, coffee roasters (honestly, there are two in there!).
  • Heading back to the door, which is recessed on the left...
  • ... there's a lovely window-display of crockery and coffee pots to the right.
  • Inside, a corridor leads past the roastery on the right...
  • ... where another window gives you a second chance to see the roasters at work.
  • Obligatory sack of green beans shot.
  • At corridor's end is a cash desk. If you're just buying beans, you need go no further.
  • If you do want to drink coffee, wait by the desk to be seated, either at the counter...
  • ... or at one of the round tables on the right.
  • Best option is to go for the counter, though. Here's the view from the back.
  • The counter curves around at the end to squeeze in a couple of extra seats.
  • The lighting's quite low, by the way. This is closer to what the naked eye sees.
  • The leather chairs all swivel, by the way, cleverly mounted on a raised, tiled footrest.
  • This lovely lamp is at the far end of the counter.
  • Meanwhile, these pictures adorn the wall above the tables.
  • Everything's old-school at Cafe de L'Ambre, and this includes the toilet!
  • When you're seated, a menu and glass of water appear, as does an ashtray.
  • Page one of the menu: regular coffee and coffee concoctions...
  • ... and page two, where things get interesting. Check out that selection. And the prices!
  • Once you've ordered, your coffee is prepared behind the counter.
  • Key to the whole operation, these kettles simmering away on gas burners.
  • Step one: your coffee of choice is ground (coarsely) and offered for you to smell.
  • While you're doing that, your cup's warmed, the coffee's put in a linen filter & we're off!
  • No scales, timers or temperature-controlled kettles here. It's all done by eye.
  • At first the water is dribbled onto the grounds, just enough to wet them through.
  • Then we move to a steady pour. Note that the kettle's stationary: the filter is moved...
  • ... constantly, in a circular pattern, under the flowing water.
  • The key is to pour the water onto the surface of the grounds.
  • Water is never left standing on top of the grounds.
  • Almost done. The coffee grounds have expanded to almost fill the filter.
  • And that's it, we're done. However, what you can't see in these pictures is...
  • .. the copper pan that the coffee has been filtering into.
  • The coffee is poured from the pan into the prepared cup in front of the customer.
  • I absolutely loved the ceremony of the whole process by the way.
  • I should point out that it's expensive: anything from £5 to £8 for a cup of coffee.
  • With a final flourish, the coffee is poured into the cup...
  • ... which is turned and presented to the customer. Such a pretty cup too!
  • I rounded things off with coffee jelly with ice cream, plus a shot of coffee liqueur.
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Café de L’Ambre has been going since 1948, putting it on a par with London’s Bar Italia, but not quite in the same league as Café de Flore in Paris. However, in an industry where being 10 years old makes you venerable, it’s in another league! It’s also quite famous, making it into mainstream guidebooks, although I have Commodities Connoisseur and Bexs of Double Skinny Macchiato to thank for bringing it to my attention.

L’Ambre is in Ginza, on a back street running parallel to the main drag. Set back a little from the street, L’Ambre’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place, although at least the narrow store front has decent external signage. However, it’s relatively easy to find, at least on roasting days: I could smell it from down the street!

Before going through the recessed door on the left, take a look through the window on the right, particularly if it’s a warm day and there’s roasting going on, since it’s likely to be flung wide open. Inside you’ll see a tiny room with not one, but two roasters, going full-tilt.

Back inside, there’s a narrow corridor running alongside the roastery, offering further opportunities to watch the roasters in action, but be careful not to block the door! At the end, a tiny cash desk/retail counter partially blocks your way. You wait here to be seated on the way in, and pay here on the way out.

Beyond the cash desk, things widen out a bit, but L’Ambre’s still a low, long, narrow place with a subterranean feel to it. Seven, round, two-person tables line a red-leather bench against the right-hand wall. All bar the first are pushed together in pairs to form four-seaters, but I suspect that the arrangement’s flexible.

On the left, however, is where you want to be. A wooden-topped counter runs the length of the room, curving at the end to squeeze more seating in. In all, there are 10 red-leather bar stools, each mounted on a raised, tiled footrest. If you can, grab a seat right at the curve for the best view of the coffee being made.

Once seated, a menu and glass of water appear, the latter being continuously topped up throughout your stay. The barista takes your order, then makes your coffee behind the counter. There’s quite a selection on the menu, including a variety of origins. What struck me was the aged coffee (green beans deliberately aged in barrels to improve the flavour), so I had to try one, selecting the 2004 Kenyan. The barista asked if I wanted light, medium or strong, which I initially assumed was down to the roast, but am now more inclined to think is down to the coffee/water ratio. Either way, I went for medium.

I was fortunate to be sat right at the curve in the counter, having the spectacle of my coffee (and everyone else’s) being prepared directly in front of me. For a detailed description of the process, check out the gallery, although third-wave purists might want to skip that bit!

So, what was it like? Well, most importantly, I enjoyed it. It was recognisably coffee, but had notes that I’d not had before, although things became more familiar towards the bottom of cup.  I put the unfamiliar flavours down to the ageing process, although whether it “improved” the coffee, I can’t really say. On the whole, though, I think I prefer my coffee un-aged, thank you.

Although L’Ambre only serves coffee, there are a few coffee-based desserts at the bottom of the first page of the menu. I was recommended the coffee jelly with ice cream, plus a shot of coffee liqueur. This definitely tasted of coffee, particularly the liqueur, and had an interesting texture. I enjoyed it, was glad that I tried it, but I’m uncertain if I’d have it again.

A word about the atmosphere in L’Ambre. There are no windows and the lights are quite low (although not so low that you’d struggle to read). However, smoking is allowed and, in that confined space, the solitary person smoking while I was there was bad enough. I’m not sure I’d have stayed for long if another person had lit up.

8-8-1 0-1 5 GINZA • CHUO-KU • TOKYO • 104-0061 • JAPAN
www.h6.dion.ne.jp/~lambre +81 (0) 3-3571-1551
Monday 12:00 – 22:00 Roaster L’Ambre (filter only)
Tuesday 12:00 – 22:00 Seating Counter, Tables
Wednesday 12:00 – 22:00 Food Coffee Desserts
Thursday 12:00 – 22:00 Service Table
Friday 12:00 – 22:00 Cards Cash Only
Saturday 12:00 – 22:00 Wifi No
Sunday 12:00 – 19:00 Power No
Chain No Visits 14th April 2017

If you like the sound of the traditional Japanese kissaten, but would like to try somewhere slightly less smoky, then I can recommend Chatei Hatou in Shibuya [coming soon to the Coffee Spot].


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