Roppongi’s Café Sakura serves as a restaurant and seating area for a bundle of businesses under the same ownership. There’s the Café with table service, the Wine Shop Sommelier (retail wines straight from the vineyard at considerable discount), L’Atelier du Pain (a Japanese-style bakery and cheese shop) and the French patisserie Coco Ange. Put them together and they enjoyably represent a Japanese take on the Western idea of “happy hour.”
As a wine bar, Café Sakura functions along the lines of most international wine-friendly places and offers a large array of mostly Old World and South American bottles. The retail wine shop employs several sommeliers who not only pick the wines, but also travel to vineyards to purchase directly from the vintners and pass along the savings to customers of both the restaurant and wine shop. Bottles are nestled in wooden crates in the shop for browsing. Prices range from an affordably cheerful Chilean sauvignon blanc to heady Lafite and iconic Bordeaux. If a wine isn’t available on the restaurant wine list, patrons are welcome to purchase a bottle in the wine shop and bring it to their table for a sensible corkage fee (usually around US$20). If we ever win the lottery we might show up and buy one of the bottles of Château Mouton Rothschild that they have dating as far back as 1945! Until then, we’ll probably order a $20 bottle of pinot from the menu.
During the day, the restaurant offers savory lunch sets to the hordes of workers who pour out of Roppongi Hills each afternoon. The wood-burning oven churns out gorgeous Japanese- and Italian-style pizzas. Fine pastas change daily. Choose an outstanding vongole or a spicy, tasty Japanese cabbage and baby anchovy spaghetti dish and pair it with a salad of field greens, creamy soup and choice of beverage for a nominal additional “set lunch” price. When choosing a hot coffee or the outstanding iced coffee, it’s difficult not to indulge in something from the Japanese bakeshop, or choose a delicate French pastry or cheesecake.
At Café Sakura, lunch can last all day. Tokyo restaurants that offer lunch usually require that you place your order by 1 or 1:30 p.m. and firmly close the door by 2 p.m. If you arrive at 2:03, there is rarely a smile and a wave to come on in anyway because most restaurants shut down tight and on time. But at Café Sakura, one can linger over the set lunch or even start happy hour any time before 5:30 p.m. Before that, guests are invited to visit the Japanese-style bakery or French patisserie to snag a Japanese-style meat bun, cheese-melt bagel, adzuki bean-studded roll or jewel-like sweet, heap their selections on a tray and head for the café to eat while they sip a glass of wine. Many times we’ve been efficiently consuming our lunch, content that we’ve covered all the food groups and feeling healthy, only to notice another guest devouring a sticky bun or mass of carbs and washing it down with a glass of Champagne, perhaps between business meetings or out on the town, alone for the day.
During the “official” happy hour that kicks in at 5:30 p.m., a glass of wine can be had for around $3 and a beer for $5. There are pintxos and tapas available at very reasonable prices. By around 7 p.m., dinner begins. The restaurant winds around a wood-fired pizza oven with cozy tables and seating areas. Wine-glass chandeliers illuminate the room as it fills up with neighbors and people working in the area. Order a bottle, buy a bottle or sip wine by the glass as food rolls out of the open kitchen.
At first glance dishes seem quite Western, but they turn out to be more of a Japanese take on wine-friendly foods. Appetizers range from raw Japanese vegetables gathered from the café’s own farm in Miura near the base of Mt. Fuji and served with an anchovy sauce, to a Caesar salad with snow crab, a suzuki (sea bass) carpaccio or tako (octopus) in its own ink. We love the local oysters either grilled or raw. Sakura sources everything locally and buys daily from dedicated fishing boats out of Misaki, a peninsula on the Pacific coast. Dinner pastas include a linguine with sea urchin “macchiato” and a vongole with karasumi, dried Japanese mullet roe. One night we couldn’t resist Japanese rice risotto with summer truffles. Pizzas tend to incorporate Western-style ingredients like grilled pork with artichokes and cherry tomatoes, seasonal wild mushrooms with smoked mozzarella or spicy pork and chickpeas. Entrees, which rarely go above $20, include simple charcoal-grilled fish, pork and roasted lamb. They often cook wild boar over charcoal.
Those French pastries gleaming like jewelry as we enter past the patisserie never seem to leave our mind. Sakura’s food is quite light and there’s always room for dessert. Food is served until 11:30 p.m., which is quite late for Tokyo. Menus are in Japanese with English translations. The staff is friendly and always helpful. Nothing is ever rushed and they always endeavor to make each hour happy, no matter what time.