Although it opened in 2008, I only came across Ahiru Store last year, when I made note of its strong ranking on tabelog during one of my regular late night trolls for inspiration. A few days later, it was splashed all over the pages of Brutus magazine's wine bar edition and, needless to say, as soon as Ahiru Store was given that local style barometer's seal of approval, seats (and even standing room) at the tiny bistro were immediately among the most coverted in town.
One year on and the buzz shows no sign of abatting. From the moment it opens at 5pm till the last orders are called there is a constant line of customers patiently queued outside Ahiru's door.
Standing in line on a small backstreet in Yoyogi-Koen, your appetite is teased by the heavenly aromas of roasting meats & herbs that eminate from the small kitchen and a tempting window display of freshly baked breads - it can be a torturous wait. But persevere and the pay off is some seriously good eats.
If you are lucky you can snag a stool at the counter, otherwise you will have to make do with space around one of the wine barrels that double as tables for standing patrons.
Owner and sommelier, Teruhiko Saito, is a busy man. He spends the entire evening in a state of constant motion: turning over tables, taking orders and preparing appetisers. He also runs a tight ship, so be prepared to order your drinks straight away. You can choose from the selection of bottles (mostly French) displayed on the wall, or from the daily selection of four red and white options by the glass (¥800). Although he is a harried man, Saito-san is generous in giving descriptions and helping customers make selections from his vast selection of shizenha (natural) wines; a genre is he obviously passionate about.
'Natural' has usurped organic and biodynamic to become the latest buzzword in wine. But what does it actually mean?
Well, there is no official definition of natural wine, but essentially it's organic or biodynamic wine made with minimal intervention: no additives or tricks of technology. In other words, natural wine eschews commercial yeasts, preservatives and (in France) sugar - yes, its considered a chemical in the natural viticulture world. The result is a naturally fermented 'naked' wine, low in sulphurs, and, as it is made in small quantities from single vineyards, it is said to better capture the characteristics of the terroir and grape.
Hipsters, who love to fetishise the authentic, have been quick to champion the natural wine movement for its old school techniques and anti-establishment ethos. In fact, they will probably delight in telling you that they were drinking it 'before it was cool'...groan! But its popularity can't just be attributed to Williamsburg residents and the wearers of ironic spectacles alone; for equally 'on trend' individuals and restaurants that adhere to a foraging, slow food philosophy, natural wine has been fervently recieved as the logical accompaniment to farm-to-table cuisine.
Japan has become one of the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines (some French makers saying that it accounts for more than 50% of their exports), which is hardly surprising given the public's concern about the origin and purity of food in the wake of last year's Tohoku disasters. Another practical reason for its popularity here is that the Japanese have a hard time metabolising alcohol, so the low sulphur levels in make it an ideal choice for their constitution. A cynic like me would also add that it could also due to Japanese consumers susceptibility to aggressive marketing (the annual Beaujolais Nouveau mania being case in point) and a cultural tendency to equate purity with quality.
Natural wine has been heralded by some as the future of viticulture, and dismissed by others as 'faddish, fault-indulgent hippie juice', with Wine Advocate's Robert Parker going one step further by declaring it "one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers". It's hard to disagree with the philosophy and ethics behind the genre, so why does this wine have afficiandos so staunchly divided, and more importantly, how does it taste? Well, that's exactly what I came to Ahiru Store to find out.
Intrigued by his description of apples and calvados, I ordered La Treille Muscate's Vendange Tardive 2008, from the Haute Corbieres area of Languedoc-Roussillion - a blend of macabeu & pinot gris. The wine had a peachy hue, with the taste of over-ripe apples and honeycomb, marred by musty sherry notes and a staleness that I would describe as oxidised. It would seem that Saito-san's description of calvados was a literal one, as it definitely tasted like a fortified wine - albeit one that had been filtered through an old Gallic sock. Why this was being recommended at the onset of a meal was beyond me. Not a great start to the evening.
On a brighter note the food here is excellent. Saito-san's sister, Wakako, is at the helm in the kitchen,
preparing rustic, home-style French fare with aplomb.
A salad of avocado and octopus with a wasabi infused olive oil and garlic dressing. Generously portioned and delicious.
I still have cravings for the parmesan and sesame studded grissini, which come tied with ribbons of proscuitto ham. Devilishly addictive.
After requesting something a little drier, I was served a glass of Cheverny "Les Perrieres" 2011, by Christian Venier. As soon as I put the glass to my nose, I was hit by the pungent smell of wet stone and tarragon vinegar. My first sip only served to confirm my initial suspicion - the wine was spoiled, acetic and all together unpleasant. I didn't know whether to send it back or toss it over my salad. Of course, I couldn't send it back as this is how it was suppose to taste; its fermented in a tank with a loose seal to encourage oxidation which, when properly managed, creates umami characteristics - or vinegar, when it's not.
Down but not out, I ordered a glass of the Cheverny La Pierre aux Chiens, again by Christian Venier (pictured above, next to the La Treille Muscate). It is worth noting that all of the wines at Ahiru Store are served chilled - even the reds - due to their unstable nature and propensity to spoil. It was a smart, light-weight pinot with the flavour of cherry, cranberry and a touch of earthiness. While quite drinkable, it was a little too light in my opinion - more like a grape juice than pinot noir. By this stage I felt like asking, "Can I please have a wine that tastes like wine?
I sort solace in a delicious plate of sanma confit. Its slow cooking in oil had rendered the meat meltingly soft, and I greedily devoured it, head, bones, tail and all.
Everything at Ahiru Store is produced in-house, from the pickles to the tasty selection of sausages which Saito-san grinds and stuffs himself. As I don't eat meat, it was up to my companion to 'take one for the team' with a hearty plate of pork and shallot sausage with potato salad. They then proceeded to ignore me as they were transported to piggy heaven. I was informed that it was as substantial in taste as it was proportion.
A subsequent visit resulted in much better luck with the wine. This 2010 Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, from Tracy-sur-Loire, had pleasant ripe grape and pear aromas, with a fuller body than one would expect from a sauvignon blanc. It was refreshing with a nice balance of acidity - very drinkable.
There was an audiable 'pop' on opening of the Vin d'Alsace Laurent Bannwarth Riesling 2010 (second from the left), which indicated this wine was very much 'alive'. It had a herbaceous nose which opened up to reveal some flinty notes and a touch of calpis (???). The taste was of bright fruit, with a lively yoghurty tang. An unusual expression of riesling, but an interesting one none the less.
This La Lunotte Haut Plessis, made with a rare Loire grape called Menu Pineau, was a bottle of liquid sunshine. Slighty cloudy in appearance, with aromas of citrus and, err.. sauerkraut. It was light and dry with vibrant acidity that made me wake up and take notice. Something worth revisiting in the hot summer months.
It was the night before a public holiday and, as last orders were called, Saito-san dimmed the lights, turned up the Kraftwerk and popped some bubbles - he clearly had recreation on his mind. Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot's 100% chardonnay sparkling Cremant du Jura was fresh and crisp with a complex texture, cut through with a slight acidity and layers of mineral notes. A little more savoury than I like my bubbles, but quite enjoyable.
I applaud the 'less-is-more' debate that the natural movement has instigated in the greater wine industry, and believe that a shift backwards, to less chemical intervention and more conscious production, will ultimately be a step forward. Over the past few months, I've had some 'ahh' moments: well crafted, vibrant wines, such as the Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, have definitely opened my eyes to the enormous potential of the natural genre. However, what is stopping me from jumping on the natural wine bandwagon is that when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are atrocious! A disproportionate number of the wines I've tasted were funky (in a bad way), overly acidic and unpleasantly weird. Rather than being pure expression of the terroir, these wines would best be described as as micro-bacterial disasters - a result of natural winemakers focusing too dogmatically on the process, and not enough on the quality of the end result, perhaps? So for now, I remain firmly on the vineyard fence.
What I am sure of, however, is that Ahiru Store deserves all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. It's a lovely neigbourhood bistro, serving well prepared, produce-driven food at reasonable prices. I love the buzz the informality here.
So regardless of where you stand on the 'natural vs. conventional' spectrum, if you approach the wine with an open mind, you will walk away from an evening at Ahiru Store delighted.
NB: Reservations can be made for no later than 6:30pm.