Fuji Kitchen & “Coffee Western” Kitayama in Shitamachi

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Just a short walk from the red-lantern entrance to Sensoji Shrine in Asakusa, Fuji Kitchen is a trip. Two women of a certain age, dressed stylishly in black with pearl necklaces and gold chains, have been running this tiny establishment for over 40 years. The pint-size interior has a nautical feel with pinewood wall planking held in place with rows of iron nails. For some reason, an old flintlock rifle is prominently displayed on a rack. From the small speakers mounted on the ceiling comes a soundtrack from the 1970s when the ladies wore jeans: The Who, The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, Janis Joplin, The Band. The grey-haired chef in his white T-shirt and jeans can be seen in his very narrow kitchen from the six-seat counter. Three other tables fill up the few remaining square meters.

Fuji Kitchen serves the beefiest beef stew I’ve ever tasted. The menu boasts that the demi-glace sauce simmers for a week in preparation. The two fist-sized hunks of beef are lusciously tender with each bite almost melting in your mouth. They are served with four unadorned penne pasta pieces, two green beans, two thick rounds of glazed carrots, a spoonful of Gratin Dauphinois potatoes, and that dark, chocolate brown demi-glace sauce over which one pearl-necklaced lady pours a small vial of cream just before serving.

The stew costs 2700 yen. Rice or bread is extra for 300 yen.

The clientele here is of a sort you won’t find elsewhere in Tokyo: no youngsters, mostly regulars who have been coming here for decades. The two matrons exhibited a slight shyness at having a foreigner take a seat at the counter. But once I demonstrated that I could speak Japanese and commented favorably on the 1970s background music, they smiled.

To find Fuji Kitchen, instead of entering the shrine under the red lantern, take the left-hand lane that parallels the entrance. You’ll spot the orange and brown awning about 60 or 70 meters down the lane.

They are open for lunch from 11:30am to 2:30pm and dinner 5:30pm to 7:30pm. Closed on Tuesday and Wednesdays.

Fuji Kitchen: 1-20-2 Asakusa, Taito Ward. Tel: 03.3841.6531

After this beef stew, a walk and a cup of coffee would be in order. A short subway ride away in Ueno (four stops on the Ginza Line) is on of Tokyo’s most unusual kissaten, Coffee Western Kitayama.

When I first discovered this kissaten, a couple of weeks ago, I entered the shop and was immediately told by the proprietor, a portly, dapper gentleman in a crisp white shirt and black bow tie, that I couldn’t enter and would have to leave. He ushered me outside, saying that only “kawatta okyaku-san” or “strange customers” could enter. He pointed to a notice taped to the front entrance and read it to me. “No photographs, no talking about business, no laptop computers, no reading.” He explained further that sometimes customers would get angry and arguments would ensue because they didn’t know or didn’t agree with these rules. “Besides,” he said, “we are not open now. We are on a break.”

When I explained that I had come from far away Mitaka to sample his coffee, he relented and let me in.

This kissaten began in the mid 1960s, a few years earlier than the Fuji Kitchen, and nothing much inside has changed since. Every available space is filled with large burlap bags of coffee beans stacked five or six high. They crowd the few tables and threaten to topple over onto the counter or the upright piano. Near the entrance is a venerable roasting machine which is fired up several times a week.

On the top of the piano sits a bronze bust of a famous jazz pianist. I knew the face but couldn’t remember the name. When I asked who it was, the owner said it was his father, Count Basie. From then on I called the owner, “Basie-san.”

His wife and son fill out the staff. She recommended the A Set or B Set. The A Set (1500 yen) was a cup brewed with “old beans” fifteen years old and included the “Shizuku,” a chilled concoction that followed the coffee. The old bean brew was served after several long minutes of preparation. When I asked “Basie-san” what the Shizuku was, he said it was difficult to explain and it was a secret. Meanwhile, several other customers entered the shop unaccosted by the owner.

The brew was excellent. It was served in an elegant bone-china cup along with two kinds of sugar—large crystals and granulated. The little milk pitcher was served in a tiny dish with a chunk of freshly chiseled ice leaning against it to keep it cool.

Several notices were taped along the counter stating “No Photographs” so I could not take a picture of the coffee or the interior. After I had finished the coffee, I was served a small “kuchinaosu,” a palate cleanser sip of hoji cha, I believe. Then came the chilled Shizuku in a tiny stemmed shot glass. It was dark, like a coffee liqueur, with a white foam top. When I asked what this was, perhaps a cold-brewed Dutch drip concoction, the proprietor answered in English, “My original. Only me in the world.” Then he immediately asked in Japanese, “Did you understand my English?”

I assured him that I did, and that the Shizuku, whatever type of coffee drink it was, was perfectly delicious. The proprietor beamed.

The rules at Coffee Western, I later found out, are in place so that customers focus on drinking and enjoying the coffee. The philosophy here is if you want to work on your computer or read and ignore the coffee, then you should take your trade elsewhere.

When I had finished, we exchanged meishi and I found out the owner’s real name was Kitayama. I asked him if it would be okay if I came back again to be a customer. “Of course,” he said with a big smile. He followed me out the door, waited for the light to change so I could cross the street, and bowed to me as I made my way to the other side of the street.

Coffee Western Kitayama: 1-5-1 Kamiya, Taito Ward. Tel: 03.3844.2822. Closed Mondays. From Ueno Station take the Iriya exit and the kissa is about a 5-minute walk.