My dining partners arriving later than expected due to heavy workloads – the more people that lose their jobs the more the remaining employees of Japanese companies have to work it seems – we finally emerged from the smoky warmth of Masako, our appointed meeting place, to find Shimo-Kitazawa particularly crowded, even for a Friday evening, with its bars, izakaya and streets heaving with newly employed salarymen and university freshman newly inducted into various groups and circles (April being the traditional season for hiring and school intake.) Despite the weather having changed for the worst, cold night air and the smell of rain, the throngs of excited youths and inebriated corporate warriors gave the main street from the station’s south exit an almost carnival atmosphere. Fun as it was we had little hope of finding room at any of the town’s inns.
Heading straight down the main thoroughfare past the busier chain-izakaya and the sickly stench of the donna-kebab shop (why the Japanese are allowing themselves to be beguiled by such “food” is beyond me) the crowds eventually thinned out leaving us to stroll at leisure and view various bars and izakaya bursting at the seams with happy, and enviably warm, customers. In the vicinity were a good handful of establishments I had not yet tried and one in particular, recognisable for its broad façade covered with hanging blue noren, seemed interesting enough for us to venture through the low door only to find the place full as it had been hired for a corporate party. Shame, as from the brief glimpse I had of the interior it looked wonderful. Cold and now feeling very hungry we opted for a brand new izakaya, Uokisuisan, neighbouring our first choice.
I had actually spotted this izakaya a few weeks ago when it was under construction, and then again when the street before it was adorned with a veritable forest of flower arrangements and bottles of sake given as gifts and tokens of good wishes to the new business. The shop front is rather modern looking and seemed to promise a contemporary dining experience. Stepping in we found a fairly small dining area with a beautifully lit open kitchen framed by a counter of pale wood along the right of the room. On the left were tables crowded with gas burners for nabe, hot pot, and piles of bowls and small dishes. Receiving a warm welcome from the master’s, Suga-san, young wife we were seated at the only available table. This, unfortunately, was directly in front of the door and as such was chilly and freezing whenever the door opened. In winter this is going to be a real problem, there being no genkan (hall) separating the main room from the door onto the street. In fairness we were offered blankets to cover our laps. Such attention to our comfort was a sign of the service to come.
Mrs. Suga supplied us with hot towels and menus before proceeding to explain that the first drinks of the evening were to be complimentary, and that we could select whatever we wished from the menu except champagne (a strange addition to the usual muster of izakaya beverages.) Having already spent the day guzzling beer elsewhere, I opted to begin dinner with a glass of Hakkaisan sake to accompany the otsumami (appetizer), of ebi-dango (shrimp dumpling) and spinach. The table was a little too crowded with all the various bowls, dishes, condiment pots and the gas burner, but as soon as the staff had been told that we would not be ordering nabe all the clutter was swiftly removed. The menu was interesting, several of the dishes prompting us to ask for an explanation, fish being the shop’s speciality. Having ordered we took in our surroundings.
As mentioned above, Uokisuisan is new having opened for business but two weeks ago. It shows in the interior decoration. Fairly minimal but with a contemporary kitchen complete with gleaming tiles and stainless steel and the stacks of tableware lined up above the kitchen under lit to produce a pleasing ambience. This atmosphere is let down, however, by the overly bright lighting above the dining area, and by the tables and chairs themselves that appear not to be new. The counter, too, is rather uninspired looking like a panel of Ikea bookshelf rather than the rough wood so often encountered (no pun intended) in izakaya. In general the décor is well considered although dimmer lighting so as to create a cosier atmosphere and accentuate the subtle lighting and design of the kitchen would most certainly enhance the feel of the place. Although I did not take a look, the second floor apparently has koshitsu (private rooms).
Such small gripes aside, the food itself was enjoyable. A fairly large kaisen (seafood) salad of chunky chopped tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, egg-roll, crab meat and roe started off the meal along with perfectly fresh isaki (grunt) sashimi. A similarly chunky (dainamikku = dynamic) plate of crunchy pickled cucumber and asazuke soon followed. The speckled grey goma-dōfu (sesame tofu) topped with spring onions, which arrived as a delightful half sphere, is highly recommended. Two good-sized grilled squid stuffed with squid guts followed. Although the squid itself was delicious (maybe a little too tough…) the taste of the raw innards was too strong for my taste. And then the service kicked in.
Having noticed my taste for sake, and ‘rare’ ability to eat raw fish, Suga-san, his wife and mother proceeded to join us in conversation and supply us with vast quantities of free drinks. Their talk was friendly and not at all reserved. Indeed Suga-san explained that they wished to create a relaxed family atmosphere for their customers in which formal modes of speech could be ignored and a fun time enjoyed by patrons and staff together. Being a sake lover himself, Suga-san proceeded to introduce us to some of his favourites. From Yamagata prefecture was the deliciously smooth, almost honey-like, taste of Dewazakura, and the strong tasting rougher feel of the Koshi no Kagetora from Niigata. As the alcohol began to make its effects felt we needed to eat a little more. Enquiring as to what rice-based dishes were available we were recommended to try the niyanko-meshi, a bowl of steaming rice into which we mixed a raw egg and oyster sauce before sprinkling freshly grate katsuo (bonito flakes) that Suga-san graciously allowed us to grate ourselves. The taste of the fresh katsuo was nothing short of divine when combined with the egg and rice. Perfect. A small helping of bitter tasting fuki mixed with miso paste was served along with yet more free sake such as the wonderful Isomatsu, a namazake (live sake) from Kagawa prefecture and the somewhat less refined Haneya from Toyama.
All had an enjoyable evening, due not only to the lavish attention and complimentary food and drink offered by Suga-san and his family but also thanks to the care and attention they are obviously putting into the food they serve and the atmosphere they are trying to create. Prices are very reasonable, the menu interesting and the dishes not only well presented but delicious too. The service was extremely friendly, though some may feel it is a little too familiar. Plainly all of this results from a family trying hard to make a success of a new business venture. If the Sugas can maintain their enthusiasm and hospitality they have every chance of creating a successful izakaya and many happy customers. I only hope they dim the lights a little so as to make the dining area a bit cosier.
No sooner had we stepped out into the rain, not a little drunk and with full bellies, than Suga-san’s mother sent a waitress scurrying across the road to purchase umbrellas for us. Excellent service.