On the way to the station, curious passers-by slow down in front of the shop, intrigued by the smell of freshly roasted coffee wafting from the open window. As the Shimokitazawa district slowly wakes up, Narumi Sato is already on the bridge.
Sato is the CEO of the new Belleville Japan, overseeing just about every aspect of the project, including keeping a constant eye on the browning of the beans, in search of the perfect aroma that will make him stop the roaster. Roasting profiles, special blends, roasting techniques: she learned everything about Belleville Brûleriethe DNA of Paris. Now she’s brought it back to Paris, setting up the influential Parisian specialty coffee company’s first boutique outside France.
French details abound here at Belleville Japan: overdyed blue work jackets, typical bistro chairs and tables, wooden counters, copper-lined windows, gold-paint letters, vintage-style posters with their famous blends – with names like ” Château Belleville” and “Mistral”. – and even airy and bright meringues to accompany the coffee. Brûlerie Belleville is a resolutely French brand, but with an American co-founder, David Nigel Flynn, who saw Tokyo as the ideal place to open the first Belleville abroad.
“Paris and Tokyo are constantly looking for ideas, and they also have a mutual respect,” Flynn says, pointing to some similarities with French café culture in Tokyo. “There are a lot of coffee lovers and specialty coffee lovers, but it’s also a country that values craftsmanship, and where drinking coffee is really tied to certain places with a certain visual style. In Japan, coffee is considered an artisanal product, which is not necessarily the case in other countries.
Belleville’s Parisian aesthetic and flair is maintained here in Tokyo, but on the coffee side, there are a few nods to Tokyo’s rich coffee tradition. Narumi Sato oversees a new house blend, called “Tradition”, which she says is inspired by traditional kissatens. “Our ‘Tradition’ blend is nutty and balanced, it has flavors of dark chocolate, tobacco, sweet caramel and brown sugar,” she explains. It’s a way of saying it’s a darker, rounder coffee than what Belleville Brûlerie typically offers to its Parisian customers. “In Japan, we have this old-fashioned tradition of making coffee, and we wanted people to know more about us by bringing them coffee that tastes like the one they know,” Narumi Sato tells me. “It was a way of slowly becoming part of the Japanese coffee scene; but my goal is also to raise awareness about fruity coffee.
This approach – a cultural mix – can also be seen in the different styles of coffee making offered at Shimokitazawa Cafe. Espresso-based coffee drinks are served, of course, but here they’re named according to French conventions, with elongated drinks – a long black shot – making a rare appearance here in Japan. Elsewhere, Narumi Sato draws on her own expertise, particularly in siphon brewing (she was the Siphonist World Champion 2016after all). “Lattes are popular among our customers,” she tells me, “but this siphoning technique is popular here too, and it makes for a bold, juicy coffee.” She thus reflects on how coffee can reach both cultures, to express something appealingly French while being fundamentally Japanese: a Parisian brand in its own right in Tokyo. “The Japanese palate is subtle,” she continues, as the siphon withdraws. “The Japanese are very sensitive to variations in the taste of coffee, as they get used to recognizing different types of teas.”
The pandemic has made expanding Belleville halfway around the world surprisingly difficult, with problems shipping coffee and green coffee equipment, but now that the cafe is open, the project feels fresh. and energized. It turns out that Paris and Tokyo aren’t as far apart as it seems. “Some people have already come because they knew Belleville Brûlerie from their stay in Paris,” explains Narum Soto. They already have plans to work with restaurants and hotels, but for now, priority is given to the Shimokitazawa cafe. “We want to take our time introducing ourselves, making sure the coffee tastes good, and seeing how people react,” says Flynn, whose mother grew up in Japan. “On a personal level, I was so excited to start something new here; I’ve heard so many stories from my family, and it’s always been something on my mind. he says.
In the meantime, something special is developing between the two capitals, two cities appreciated by visitors from all corners of the globe for the beauty of their gastronomy, their culture, their art, their architecture, their music, their fashion and their thriving cafe scenes. Paris and Tokyo are ultimately not so different, and for Belleville, the loop is starting to come full circle. You can now drink the brand’s new “Tradition” blend created for its very first Tokyo café… all the way to Paris!
Aimie Eliot is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo. Read more Aimie Eliot on Sprudge.