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TASTE OF TRAVEL

Finding Tokyo Coffee Is No Grind : Cafe de L'Ambre heads list of specialty shops that have made brewing a cup almost a ritual in Japan.

February 14, 1993|AMANDA MAYER STINCHECUM | Stinchecum is a New York-based freelance writer and textile historian who specializes in Asia.

TOKYO — In Japan, the preparation of tea has become a rite, a ceremony in which the ritual is more important than the tea. But visitors to Japan, given a cup of tea in every office and every home they visit, may notice that little attention is usually paid to the actual flavor. Even expensive tea is carelessly stored and brewed with foul-tasting tap water poured while nearly boiling over the delicate green leaves, ensuring a bitter cup.

Coffee in Japan is a different story. Like baseball, the coffee shop has become a completely Japanese institution since the first one opened in Tokyo in 1888. You can feel sure of finding a pretty good cup of coffee--freshly brewed, strong and fragrant--in almost any establishment big enough to have a single coffee shop. Self-styled "coffee specialty shops" ( kohii senmonten ) brew each cup to order and most sell beans as well.

Grinding the beans, choosing the brewing method, heating and cooling the water to just the right temperature, scalding the cup, brewing the coffee with the greatest of care and setting the steaming cup--handle to the left, the spoon placed just so to the right of the saucer--are all part of the ritual. Siphon, flannel bag or paper filter are probably the most popular brewing methods. Therefore, for me to say that one coffee shop makes the best coffee in Japan, or even in Tokyo, is saying a lot.

For the past 15 years, I have dedicated myself to searching for the best coffee in every town I've visited, from Naha in Okinawa to Sapporo in Hokkaido, and I have drunk many excellent cups of coffee. But it wasn't until my first visit to L'Ambre in 1991 that I found extraordinary coffee.

To get there, I had to pass under the overhead tracks of the Yamanote line at Shinbashi station, along one of the Ginza's narrow willow-lined streets, past Hakuhinkan (a large toy store) and around a corner behind tenkuni, a famous tempura restaurant. In a narrower, nondescript street of small businesses and stores, the shop's sign stood out in English; amber-orange, a bold claim to perfection:

L'AMBRE

PERFECT

OWN ROAST

HAND DRIP

Inside, L'Ambre's decor is undistinguished: dark wood-paneled walls, linoleum floors, a curved wooden counter with the varnish worn away in places, a few small tables with built-in ashtrays. Comfortable and dim.

At four in the afternoon, all the customers are men, most in gray suits and white shirts. "Well, what should we have today?" one asks another in Japanese, as if discussing the choice of a prize brandy. Red pots for boiling water and a large red coffee grinder are the only touches of color.

Behind the counter, an old ice box--here since L'Ambre's founding in 1948--holds a large block of ice (replaced every three days). The young man behind the counter, Fujihiko Hayashi, places a cocktail shaker filled with brewed coffee into a round groove worn into the ice, spins the shaker until the coffee is chilled, and deftly pours it out into a champagne glass. On top he floats a layer of evaporated milk. "We don't use heavy cream here," he explains, based upon his 13 years' experience at L'Ambre. "It overwhelms the flavor of the coffee." And of course, they don't stoop to the unpleasant-tasting, non-dairy creamer found in many coffee shops.

L'Ambre takes pride in serving nothing but coffee--no tomato juice or Lipton's tea here. Reading the coffee menu (in both Japanese and English) requires the dedication of a wine expert. The "creative coffees" include specialties to entice the dilettante, such as coffee with egg yolk, coffee liqueur sherbet, black iced coffee with Cointreau, coffee pudding and "iceless iced coffee," which turns out to be chilled coffee poured over ice cubes made of frozen coffee so that when they melt, the coffee is not diluted. But serious coffee drinkers will turn their attention to the other side of the menu, where the straight (unblended) coffees are grouped according to price. These can be ordered in cups of 50 cubic centimeters (1.69 ounces, about $6-$9) or 100 cubic centimeters (3.38 ounces, about $7.50-$11) of thin white porcelain.

An Air France captain who had come to the shop a few times commented, "You can't drink coffee like this in France now. It tastes like the coffee my grand mother made for me when I was a child."

What is the secret of L'Ambre's coffee?

The quality of the beans, for one thing. Poor quality beans will never become wonderful coffee. Of course, each cup is brewed to order at L'Ambre (the name comes from the deep amber color of coffee, rendered in French because the coffee is French style, brewed strong and of darker roast than would be commonly served in American restaurants).

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