Bluebottle is something of an institution in California, with numerous outlets in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. From its base, Bluebottle has spread both east, with branches on the east coast, ranging from Miami to Boston, and west, where it’s crossed the Pacific Ocean to Japan, with a solitary branch in Kyoto and seven in Tokyo.
My relationship with Bluebottle in the US has been a bit hit and miss, liking some places, but not others. However, based on my limited experience in Tokyo, I’m smitten by Bluebottle in Japan. The branch in Aoyama was around the corner from my office when I visited in April last year, one of a cluster of excellent coffee shops, all within easy walking distance of the office, that include Japanese café/roaster Sarutahiko Coffee and two further foreign-influenced coffee shops, Coutume and Café Kitsuné, both of whom have their roots in Paris.
Bluebottle serves a single-origin and blend on espresso, with another single-origin and blend on pour-over, plus two more single-origins on syphon. There’s also a concise breakfast/lunch menu and a selection of cakes. Of all the places I visited in Japan, it is the most American in terms of service and style.
The delightful Nem Coffee & Espresso is definitely the hidden gem of Tokyo’s speciality coffee scene. Located south of the Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park, Nem is tucked away down a narrow, pedestrian alley, so much so that you think you’re walking into a residential neighbourhood to visit someone’s house, which is not as far from the truth as it seems. The coffee shop is on the ground floor of an old house, painstakingly renovated/converted by the owners, a married couple who live upstairs, Nem opening for business in May 2016. The result is a small, but delightful space, with windows front and back, with a very Japanese feel to the architecture, but a very western feel to the coffee shop itself.
Talking of coffee, Nem has a concise menu, drinks split between “black” and “with milk”. There’s a house-blend on espresso (from Switch Coffee) and two single-origins plus a decaf (from Nozy Coffee) on filter through the cafetiere. There’s also tea and hot chocolate, plus a small food menu, with a choice of two cakes. Small is definitely the name of the game at Nem, with all the food being cooked to order in a compact, open kitchen behind the counter.
Sarutahiko Coffee is a small, but growing, coffee shop/roaster chain in Tokyo. This branch shares space with a bookshop and travel agent in HIS, a multi-level shop on a quiet street near my office, one of several excellent coffee options within a five minutes’ walk. It’s also another recommendation from the Commodities Connoisseur (although he visited the flagship Ebisu branch).
Sarutahiko roasts all its own coffee, a considerable selection of which is on sale at the Omotesandō branch. There is a variety of espresso-based drinks, either hot or over ice, while there’s a large range of single-origins (six) and blends (five) available as pour-over using the V60. Although there’s plenty of seating, the Omotesandō branch is rather unusual in that it only serves coffee in takeaway cups, so be sure to bring your own.
Sarutahiko has several neat features. For example, although it’s counter service, you are given a playing card when you order, with an identical playing card being put down on the counter with your coffee, so you know which one is yours. On the retail side, each coffee has a card with tasting and origin notes, with the card’s colour indicating the darkness of the roast. Genius!
The Local Coffee Stand was a chance discovery in Tokyo, conveniently located halfway along my walk from my hotel in Shibuya and the office in Minamiaoyama. I passed it on the second day, when the A-board caught my eye, and the following day, I popped in for a cappuccino to take to the office with me. Of all the places I visited in Tokyo, it perhaps reminded me the most of a western, third-wave coffee establishment in layout as well as look and feel. It also kept what I call “western hours”, opening at 8am, whereas a lot of more traditional Japanese coffee shops don’t open until 10 o’clock or even noon.
The Local was set up by the people behind Good Coffee, an online resource for finding good coffee in Tokyo. The coffee shop, which showcases roasters from around Japan, is on the ground floor, while the floor above is used by Good Coffee as its training centre and coffee academy. The Local’s not a huge spot, with space for maybe a dozen people in the seating area at the back, with three more at the counter. There’s espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over, plus cake for those who are hungry.
So 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.
It’s almost been two weeks since I set off from Heathrow to fly, for first the time, to Japan. You can read about my (lack of) preparation for the trip and my thoughts about it in the previous Travel Spot. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of my trip, including where I went and what I did, I’m taking a different approach with this Travel Spot, concentrating on my general impressions of Tokyo and, in another post, Japan (at least, those bits that I visited).
My trip’s been split into three parts. Part I involved three nights in Tokyo where I was pretty much getting over my jet-lag and gentling exploring random parts of the city. Part II was work, a Monday to Friday meeting that was ostensibly the purpose of the trip and involved moving to a swanky hotel in Shibuya (think Piccadilly Circus/Oxford Street or Times Square). Part III, the bit I’m on now, sees me exploring Japan by train for a week and will be covered in another Travel Spot.
Back to this Travel Spot, where I will kick off with some general observations about Tokyo, before moving on to talk about coffee shops and other matters.
Kaido Books and Coffee is just down the street from my third (and final) hotel of my trip. I’ve done extremely well when it comes to good coffee near hotels/work on this trip and Kaido (plus a branch of Blue Bottle at Shinagawa Station) is the icing on the cake. It was also an unexpected surprise, a random discovery as I explored the rather lovely residential street I found myself staying on.
Kaido Books and Coffee does what it says on the tin: a book shop combined with a coffee shop. In fairness, though, it’s more like a coffee shop with plenty of books. In fact, I didn’t see anyone buy a book the whole time I was there! It seems that the books are more for the customers to browse as they linger over their coffee.
Kaido serves coffee from And Coffee Roasters and Ishikawa Coffee, although while I was there, all of the coffee on offer was from And Coffee. There was a choice of three single-origins (two Ethiopians and a Brazilian) on pour-over through the V60, one of which was also available on espresso. Kaido does a limited range of food, which includes a small cake selection.
My first Tokyo coffee experience was down, in part, to the excellent Commodities Connoisseur and also to serendipity. Having done very little planning for this trip, I had picked my hotel for the first part of my stay almost at random. On arrival, I was delighted to discover that it was across the road from one of Commodities Connoisseur’s recommendations, Maruyama Coffee.
Maruyama Coffee is a roaster based in Karuizawa in the mountains northwest of Tokyo and founded in 1991 by Kentaro Maruyama. Nishi Azabu is the sixth store, one of three in Tokyo. It’s a lovely space, with plenty of seating and full table service. Although not a traditional Japanese coffeehouse (as I understand them to be), it was a very Japanese experience, far removed from the typical (western) third-wave café.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is the vast array of coffee on offer, which can be had principally through the humble cafetiere, although there are also options for Steampunk, Cores pour-over cones and espresso. If you are hungry, there is a small breakfast menu (08:00 – 10:00) and a decent selection of cake. There’s also a huge retail section, including beans, coffee-making equipment and a range of other products.
This is a slight departure from my normal Travel Spot series, less recording what I’ve done, more advanced warning of what’s coming. Whether I expand it to recap my travels remains to be seen, but for now it can stand as a reminder of an increasingly busy year!
You see, I’m off to Japan. I’ve known about it for a while now. I booked the flights in early February, but only really started planning the trip at the weekend. For reference, today’s Wednesday and I’m leaving for the airport at noon!
This is very unlike me. Normally I’m a thorough planner and preparer, even if I then use my plans as a basis for improvisation rather than rigorously follow them. I suspect that I’m a bit of nightmare to travel with, so it’s just as well that I travel alone most of the time.
I’m back with British Airways after dabbling with various airlines over the last year. It’s the one part of the trip I have planned: my exit-row aisle seats are booked and I’m looking forward (honestly, I am) to 12 hours on a 787. It might give me a chance to do some preparation for this trip!