HK Traveller kindly pointed me in the direction of Les Vinum in the Nishi Azabu area of Tokyo, so I booked a table and went last night. What a wonderful little place, what incredible value for money!
It is a sumiyaki and wine restaurant. That is to say, its main focus is on meat slowly grilled over charcoal, and wine to accompany the meal. It is a small, cozy place with a counter around the cooking / barbecuing area, and a few tables. The choice of meats includes the usual, like pork and beef, but also features grilled rabbit from Nagano, French duck, quail or minced pork combined with minced foie gras. What they all have in common is that they are absolutely delicious, beautifully executed over bincho charcoal. I am told that when in season, the restaurant also features a large variety of game.
We ordered the omakase menu of 6 courses, which at 4,800 Yen was a bargain. As usual in Japan, you just tell them what you like and don't like, and the chef puts the meal together. Ours kicked off with some lovely chawan-mushi with a subtle duck broth, then we had some heavenly foie gras terrine (exactly the right temperature, which for some reason is no mean feat as most restaurants serve it too cold and stiff), followed by a sardine, garlic and maitake mushroom combination which screamed for an unoaked chardonnay or crisp white, which we got in the form of a glass of Nikolaihof Green Veltliner. More on the wine later.
After the sardines, we had the aforementioned minced pork / foie gras grilled balls (like tsukune), followed by wonderfully medium rare grilled duck. I had cheese for dessert and a friend I was with had the mille-feuille.
Now for the wines: the restaurant is big on wine, and combining wine with Japanese food. The wine list has a very large section of wines which all cost 4,400 Yen. Anyone who has been to Tokyo, in particular to the very upscale Nishi Azabu neighbourhood, will appreciate how cheap that is for a restaurant. The choice of wines also demonstates that whoever selected them understands wine; it would have been very easy to pick more obvious, and qualititatively much worse, wines to offer for 4,400 Yen.
The by-the-glass selection is also very impressive. Nikolaihof is one of the better producers of Green Veltliner, the Austrian white wine grape, which at its best (mainly in the Wachau region of Austria) provides a fresh, peppery and balanced white wine. There also was a Chassagne Montrachet from the tropical year 2003, a bit much for me normally, but that one was unusally balanced for a burgundy of that vintage. Furthermore, we had a 2005 Macon, the cheap man's burgundy, which again was excellent for a Macon. The Sauternes I had with the foie gras was exceptional for a Sauternes of that price range.
Red-wine wise, there was a decent burgundy Pinot Noir as well as some wonderful Languedoc wines. (There were more by the glass wines to choose from, but I only had the above). Languedoc wines can be incredibly good value in Japan - they don't have a name yet, like their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts, so shops and restaurants cannot sell them at high prices, resulting in some real bargains. Years ago most Languedoc wines were cheap bulk wines, but they now produce some real quality at sometimes laughable prices.
All in all, a real fun experience for relatively little money. And afterwards, you can go to Elevage, a rare wine bar which is a few steps further down the same side of the street.
Thanks again to HK Traveller for the tip.