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March 30, Shinjuku
March 29, Shimokitazawa
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Sengawa is a peculiar little town that feels like it gets on with life independently of the rest of Tokyo. Side streets lead away from the station, revealing tiny courtyards cluttered with coffee shop customers enjoying the shade of 1980s architecture. Aspirational boutiques and food wagons are dotted here and there, and only a nosy sushi seller disturbs the vaguely European illusion.
Wander a little beyond this otherworld and you'll find Kick Back Café, a busy spot that feels more like a high school cafeteria than an attempt to attract paying diners. Not that this is a bad thing; in fact, the relaxed nature is exactly what sets it apart. Everything about the place, from the organic, partially vegan menu to the chatty, unhurried waiting staff, nods towards a less frantic way of life, although a little research shows that the café was launched by a young man who specialises in pre-marriage counselling, but only when he's not running a church, performing music, writing books or giving seminars. We can't imagine there's much 'slow' going on in his life at all; he looks like he might be the busiest man in Tokyo.
Whatever the concept, the food is well worth the journey. We started with a 'jungle salad', which translates as a green leaf mix, deep and fresh, underpinned by sturdy chunks of Cajun chicken, sticky to the touch with a healthy smearing of spicy goodness piled up beneath the skin, paprika mottled across the surface. The dollops of homemade mayonnaise may have been calorific overkill, but we mopped it up all the same. In truth, the salad alone would have worked as a decent main course, but we had it on good authority that the café's real hit was to be found in the vegan section.
It seems odd to be recommending vegan ramen in the land of tonkotsu, but Kick Back Café's tounyu (soy milk) broth provides the pig with a real challenge. We're well aware that, written down, soy milk ramen might be enough to make our foreign readers gag – the idea certainly didn't appeal to us – but the potpourri of soy, sesame, delicately fried tofu and fresh onion worked a treat. Granted, it's perhaps not the perfect summer dish, being fairly heavy and steaming hot, but for colder weather it'd be ideal. Imagine a bowl of Christmas beverage only with noodles in it (if that doesn't sound too vile); thick and creamy, it left a commendable deposit on our moustaches once we were done. What more could you ask for from a winter soup?
The final course, also from the vegan menu, was less successful. While a vegan chocolate cake sundae might sound like a healthy take on an otherwise dangerous dessert, the fat content was sorely missed. The cake had a brittle texture to it that even the ice cream couldn't weaken, largely because the ice cream was more ice than cream and needed chipping at before any progress could be made. Next time we'll go for the pound cake and whipped cream.
With a large stage at one end of the room set up for bands and DJs, there's plenty of scope for an evening party to run into the small hours, but we recommend you take advice from the café's name itself. Pick a sunny Sunday, take the slow train to Sengawa and kick back for an afternoon of good food and lazy bonhomie. There might be something to this Slow Life malarky after all.
Bill (for one)
Jungle salad, ¥900
Tounyu ramen, ¥900
Vegan choco sundae, ¥450