4 Hours and 7 Cups of Coffee in Tokyo
A friend of my brother’s passed through Tokyo a couple of months ago, which gave me an excellent excuse to drink copious amounts of coffee in some of Tokyo’s most lauded locations. She’s setting up a coffee enterprise called Kalsada to promote Philippine artisanal coffee and was interested in experiencing a bit of Tokyo coffee culture. We had a very short amount of time to accomplish this, so we hit three spots: Cafe de l’Ambre, Omotesando Koffee, and Streamer Coffee Company.
First Stop: Café de L’ambre
We started our journey in Ginza. Our first stop was Cafe de L’ambre, a true Tokyo classic, a cafe that’s been open since 1948 and is still run by its founder. Tokyo Food Life has an excellent write-up about the history and personalities behind Cafe de L’ambre, but it struck me as a place for people who love coffee and want to try something off the beaten path. Inside, it feels more like an izakaya than a cafe–personal and surrounded by warm wooden panels. The staff was friendly, knowledgeable and not at all snobbish, neither in terms of coffee snobbery nor in terms of not wanting to deal with annoying foreigners. We were welcomed with open arms and an English menu.
Cafe L’Ambre’s motto is “Coffee Only.” They have a wide selection of coffees on offer, coffees which are meant to be drunk as they come, without milk or any additional embellishment. So, we went straight for the interesting side of the menu. We wanted to sample a variety, so we went for one green coffee, one “extra reserved” coffee, and the oldest coffee they had on hand (the 1974 Cuba).
It was a lot like being at a wine tasting. The coffee came in a tiny cup after being lovingly brewed in front of us by the (obviously very knowledgeable) person behind the bar. We took sips and marveled at the complexity of the taste–utterly unlike what you find in a “typical” cup of gourmet coffee. The green coffee was delightfully light with a sour, citrusy kind of overtone–really interesting, but quite different from what most of us think of as coffee. The extra reserved label brew that we had (the Guatemala, I think) was delicious. And the aged 39-year-old Cuban brew was amazing. Just like with a fine wine, the aging had imparted a wonderfully complex flavor that I had never experienced in a coffee before.
Each individual tiny cup of coffee was fairly expensive (ranging from 740 to 1040 yen), but it was truly an experience and a great way to start off our coffee tour!
Address: 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (Shimbashi Station)
Second Stop: Omotesando Koffee
Next, we traveled southwest, from the old-town upscale neighborhood of Ginza to the younger, hipper version in Omotesando. Our second stop was Omotesando Koffee, a really cute little coffee shop hidden in the residential streets behind the upscale flagship stores on the main streets. If not for an iPhone map and a few very satisfied-looking people milling about with coffee in hand, it would have been quite hard to find. We stepped through an archway into what looked to be the garden of a Japanese residence, but inside the building was a little pop-up coffee stand.
I have to say that Omotesando Koffee served up some of the tastiest coffee I’ve had in Tokyo. We tried their signature drinks–hot and iced cappuccinos. The ice cappuccino is probably their most popular drink and it was particularly amazing–espresso plus iced milk, the perfect cold coffee without any of that pesky ice. The top of the coffee bubbles up in quite a satisfying way as well, as you can see above.
Besides the yummy coffee, Omotesando Koffee serves up tasty custards baked into its signature cube shape. You can buy a set in a little rectangular gift box. They also have whole beans on sale. And all of your purchases are put into a little paper bag with a little black square that completes the aesthetic while also keeping your bag conveniently closed. The design aspect of this shop is pretty cool and makes you feel like you’re someplace special.
Unfortunately, there’s not really anywhere to sit and drink your coffee, with the exception of a few seats in the courtyard. But you can always take your coffee on a nice little stroll around Omotesando and Harajuku. Even with the lack of seating, Omotesando Koffee is now one of my favorite cafes in Tokyo.
Address: 4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (Omotesando Station)
Third Stop: Streamer Coffee Company
We were initially hoping to make it out west to Shimokitazawa to check out Bear Pond Espresso and maybe Coffea Exlibris, but due to lack of time (and increasing states of caffeination), we decided to just make a short jaunt over to Shibuya to visit Streamer Coffee Company, a Seattle-style cafe famous for its latte art. I’d been to Streamer before, so while my companion got the classic signature Streamer Latte, I decided to try their Military Latte, a fatigue-colored concoction of espresso, green tea, and white chocolate. It was pretty intense and fairly sweet–an interesting drink, but not one I’d probably get again. But then again, I’m not a tremendous green tea enthusiast, so it might be more appealing to those of you who are.
Overall though, I have to admit that I am no longer too fond of Streamer, partially due to this disappointing experience and partially due to a decrease in service and atmosphere over time. The barista was pretty unfriendly and also wouldn’t let us sit down unless we ordered two drinks–a reasonable request, but one that was delivered in a rather off-putting way. We also attempted to explain that we’d been drinking coffee all afternoon and really just wanted to taste the coffee and head out shortly thereafter but to no avail. Streamer’s lattes are pretty huge (see the first picture of me drinking above), so we just paid for our drinks, sipped for a few minutes and then left without attempting to finish them. In general, it seems like this cafe is becoming less and less welcoming over time. They initially offered free wifi but have since stopped, their food options seem to have decreased to some overpriced Clif Bars, and it seems like they are also cracking down on people using the outlets, although there are certainly many outlets available. I understand the constraints that cafes face in terms of seating, electricity, etc., but particularly when you are essentially the only people in the establishment (as me and my friend were on this particular day), it seems a little silly to be so pushy and unfriendly about things and risk ruining a customer’s experience.
Address: 1-20-28 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (Shibuya Station)
Afterward, we walked over to Yodareya, one of my favorite Shibuya izakayas, for some sake and grilled fish/veggies to help bring us down from our caffeine high. It was quite a fun way to spend a day exploring Tokyo. Since then, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to try more of Tokyo’s many cafes, so I’m hoping to post more of my experiences and favorites soon!
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