Sitting alone at Café de l’Ambre, neatly filed away down a Tokyo side street just a block away from Shimbashi station, I put down my rucksack that contains my trusty iPad, a useless wooden toy courtesy of JAL and my current book (Amanda Craig’s Lie of the Land—highly recommended), and then peruse the menu. It’s not long or fancy—just a double-sided laminated page. The sign on the door had forewarned that choices might be limited.
It read: “Coffee only.”
Just coffee? No chocolate brownies or cakes with pretty sprinkles? Don’t tell me there’s no wi-fi...
Limited to a single beverage might disappoint the paying customer in any other café. On the other hand, this is not any other café. Thousands of coffee shops, or kissaten, populate this endless metropolis, yet it is Café de l’Ambre that attracts pilgrims far and wide. At the far table, a portly American gentleman in his mid-50s sits quietly on his own, keenly observing the baristas diligently working away behind the seated counter. Japanese workers, whether in a shop, restaurant or a bar, always look busy because their mindset is one of discipline, hard work and attention to detail, whereas the French look busy when there is nothing to do and the English, busy wondering what time they can clock off.
The sounds of clinking cutlery and steam blend with light chatter. Fortunately, this is not a Japanese establishment that insists upon the silence, the reverence of a sacred shrine. I had been welcomed inside, not always the case as a gaijin in Tokyo; the staff seem relaxed, friendly whilst clearly focused on the task at hand, enjoying their job. At the adjacent table sit three young Koreans, early 20s. They take selfies with the menu, chatter excitably. Despite my comprehension of Korean limited to the lyrics of Gangnam Style, it is clear that for them, this is an event. They enter highly animated discussion with wild gesticulation about which coffee to order. I have never seen that in Starbucks, though that said, I am a Starbucks refusenik and have never been to one. One dude, with long hair and a moustache, probably a fan of freeform jazz, lights up a cigarette. For Christ’s sake... This is not Greenwich Village circa 1965. I am tempted to ask him whether he can stub it out. What’s Korean for that? In a huff, I pick up my book (Amanda Craig...Lie of the Land...have I told you how good it is?), launch a disgruntled expression in his direction and a throaty cough.
Right now, where is that coffee?
Aesthetically, there is nothing unique about Café de l’Ambre. It is small and cozy, just one counter and three small tables along the opposite wall, the interior sufficing with tenebrous light. A large coffee grinder dominates a cubicle on the right hand side as you enter, with jars of coffee beans perched on shelves opposite, each labeled in katakana with year and price. Some might call the interior a bit drab and overdue a refurbishment, but to me it is opposite. I like it exactly as it is—unpretentious, simple and full of character. A refurb would wipe away its story. In any case, people flock here for the coffee, not the decor. It feels cut off from the rest of Tokyo, solipsistic, occupying its own world. That is common in Tokyo, where many bars and restaurants hide away on the umpteenth floor of nondescript buildings all squeezed together, impossible for tourists to find. Whereas in other cities cafés yearn to feel connected to the city and part of its metabolism, here in Tokyo the outside world tends to finish at the entrance. Look at any modern coffee bar in London or New York, most facades consist of large glass panels so that passers-by can peer inside, enticed by communion into the goldfish bowl. Hey stranger...come inside...join us for a coffee. Café de l’Ambre is almost the opposite. Once you have managed to locate it, you could easily walk past without noticing, as I suspect I have done before. There is something a little surreal about the place, one step outside reality. Café de l’Ambre could be the setting of an opening paragraph in a Haruki Murakami novel. Maybe it is?
Then, there is the smell of freshly ground coffee beans. It is one inextricably linked with childhood. A Jurassic coffee grinder used to be housed in a local convenience store in Leigh-on-Sea, just like the one in Café de l’Ambre. The door would jangle open and then that potent tang of coffee beans did not waft over you, but smacked you across the cheeks. It probably made an impression because, in those days, we would only ever drink Nescafé. Like a handful of aromas, here in Tokyo I am instantly whisked back to my five-year-old self, gazing incredulously up at this noisy contraption pumping out such an intoxicating bouquet. That corner shop is now a co-op. The coffee grinder was dismantled many years ago. But they do sell Nescafé.
Two things distinguish this kissaten, coffee notwithstanding. Firstly, it is soaked with history. Secondly and uniquely, until someone corrects me, the coffee beans are aged over many years. Proprietor Ichiro Sekiguchi first opened his doors in Ginza back in 1948, and remarkably, as far as I am aware, he is still around to this day. This makes him 103 years old, which is probably regarded as youthful in Japan. Before the Second World War, he worked as a sound engineer and only entered the coffee business after hostilities ended. During that time, blockades meant that some shipments of coffee beans purchased by the Germans had to be stockpiled in Japan until victory in the town of Maebashi. Presumably out of curiosity, he brewed a batch of those Sumatran beans that were now five years old and, to his surprise, discovered that the coffee was delicious, enhanced by the aging. A light bulb went off, and thereafter, Sekiguchi scoured the world looking for the finest coffee beans, aging them in dry, climate-controlled conditions. Apparently he had five tons maturing away, although I believe this has been reduced to one. I have heard that Sekiguchi occasionally comes to his beloved café to grind a batch of beans, whiling the day away in the cubicle at the front of the café. It reminds me of the late Charles Rousseau who used to occupy a small office at the entrance of his Domaine in Gevrey-Chambertin. I think Charles would have liked this place.
There is a typical Japanese fanatical attention to detail here. The beans are ground cup by cup in 30-gram lots by the baristas when you place you order, with the beans inspected to weed out any misshapen or imperfect ones so that the coffee retains freshness and complexity. Sekiguchi leaves most of the work to his small team these days: three young Japanese baristas behind the counter and a lady taking orders and serving. She is a little stern but speaks English well enough so that non-Japanese speakers should not fear entering, and in any case, the menu is printed in English. Just don’t expect your brew to appear in a hurry. Why should it when you can just while away the minutes soaking in the unique ambiance of the place? Oh, and don’t blaspheme and request milk and sugar, lest you want to be asked to leave (apparently).
I had been recommended the 1973 from Brazil, but it had just sold out. I scan the menu. Maybe a sun-dried Blue Nile from Ethiopia? A 2004 Black Label from Kenya? Santa Alina Old Trees Since 1903 from Brazil or a 2004 dark roast Maragogipe from Nicaragua? The lady asks what style of coffee I prefer and how bitter I like my brew, then recommended the 2002 from Mexico. Twenty pages of my book later, a small china cup arrives looking like something Mrs. Marple would sip from while solving a murder at the local vicarage.
How is the coffee?
I must admit harboring some skepticism with respect to the aging potential of coffee beans. But I cannot deny this brew is truly complex and triggers my senses: something earthy on the nose, almost peat-like, the palate again earthy, deliciously bitter, smoky and almost tobacco-like on the finish. It just seemed so “refined” and dare I say, “intellectual.” You do not just drink this coffee—you work it out. If this was London or New York, you can bet your bottom pound or dollar that it would be extortionately priced. At Café de l’Ambre this sets me back just 890 Yen, slightly more than Starbucks or Costa and almost half the price of the hotel I am staying in. (Even the premium coffees here are around 1,200 Yen.) Sekiguchi just wants his customers to enjoy their coffee. I would not proclaim it as the greatest coffee in the world; after all, I am no expert, and I have read the opinions of some dissenters who argue that the coffee beans are not kept in ideal conditions. Then again, if the coffee were substandard, then people would not travel hundreds of miles to visit, and the business would not have lasted 69 years (and counting). The proof was in the cup. What’s the phrase? In cafea veritas.
I read more of my book (Lie of the Land...it’s a cleverly written page-turner, and I must leave at least 100 pages for the flight home). I sip my 15-year-old Mexican coffee. I reflect upon the fact that Sekiguchi has been brewing since before my mother was born. I wonder how many people have sat here since 1948? I think how much this country has changed over the years, and I dwell upon time. Café de l’Ambre: a timeless establishment whose modus operandi stems from using time to mature its coffee beans. After half an hour, I notice the American has departed. My Korean neighbor is just about to light up another cigarette—my cue to either argue or leave. I choose the latter. Outside lies a vast city full of coffee chains serving up their frothy cafe lattes and cappuccinos; however, there is only one café that I will be returning to. I should give you the address, but no, it would deprive you the enjoyment of seeking it out. It’s easy enough. I pack my rucksack with iPad and book, exit into the outside world, look up at the two moons in the sky and head back to my hotel.