いらっしゃい!
...an expat libertine with a penchant for sparkly dining partners, jazz bars and izakaya.
Opinions here expressed are not necessarily shared by any with whom I associate. Fault for errors and any offense caused is entirely my own.
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Entries in Inokashira Line (8)

Wednesday
Apr202011

Ko-panda, Kichijōji  コパンダ、吉祥寺

Kichijōji continues to boom, seemingly well on the way to becoming a small city in its own right – in the manner of Shinjuku or Shibuya – rather than just a well developed, over populated and highly sought after village – such as Shimo-Kitazawa or Jiyūgaoka. It’s yet to be ruined though. Still plenty to draw the casual diner, and enough “nostalgic” establishments remaining to bring a tear to the eye of seasoned Tokyoites.

An area (block?) brimming with such attractions is the old covered market/ traders ground across the road from the central exit of the station. What was once little more than a fetid warren of rundown alleys and stalls is now a frightfully hip dining and drinking spot clustered with “postmodern/ retro/ neo-Asian” bars and izakaya, many of which appear to be part of the increasingly sprawling empire established by the folks behind the Mishima Bar (opposite Iseya at the entrance to the park).

Ko-panda nestles amidst the lanterns, moldering electric meters and crumbling stalls of the alley known as noren komichi. Think black and white Kurosawa movies such as Stray Dog. At best you’d squeeze in 10-12, if slim. Little counter, little tables, little stools, little menu, little izakaya. A staff of one – the proprietor one would like to think – takes orders and pokes at the vat of tepid oden.

The most memorable thing about Ko-panda is the vaguely nightmarish paper-wrought little panda – think Silent Hill only with China’s favoured fluffy diplomatic pawn. The food is limited, not costly and intended to accompany your booze more than satisfy your appetite.

We did the oden, which to fair be was less hateful than it’s wont to be; some tasty yet overpriced cubes of cheese and some seasonal takenoko. The latter were enjoyable, but clearly at the lower end of the quality scale.

Great fun, but hardly worthy of a long stay. Visit before, in between or after dining spots. 

Wednesday
Nov242010

Chao Thai, Shibuya  チャオタイ、渋谷

I’m not on a quest for Thai food but, as mentioned before, at times spicier dishes are needed. As time goes by I’ve ended up associating other Asian cuisines with crisper, stronger tastes and a greater variety of vibrantly colourful vegetables than provided when dining at the majority of izakaya. No doubt that which is available is oozing with nasty additives, but the change is at times welcome.

Chao Thai, a small chain scattered across Shibuya (two restaurants, I’ve visited the Dogenzaka one), Ginza, Kawasaki and Yokohama, is worthy of recommendation. First off, it’s cheap and the food is plentiful. The menu is not only heaving but also supplied with an abundance of colourful “oishisou” dishes, described in Thai, Japanese and English.

Prices are exceptionally good, especially if you take in to account the quality of the food (fresh, tasty, reasonably well presented and a little fast-food-y without verging on family restaurant processing) and the quantities in which it is served.

The drinks menu isn’t going to excite a connoisseur, being filled with cheap and cheerful brands and a good selection of lethal tipples, such as the Vietnamese whisky.  The two nomihodai plans, one for ¥1,500 the other for ¥1,800 (offering an extended choice) provide two hours of swilling that when combined with the low cost of the food affords the opportunity to become suitably inebriated and stuffed for under ¥4-5,000. Not bad.

The place is always pretty much packed. Booking helps, or arriving early, say before 7pm. The interior is nothing special, but does the job; clean, tidy, with a sprinkling of Thai art and bamboo without trying to do the “ethnic” thing. Service, all provided by real life Thai people is also okay, fairly swift and for the most lacking in surliness. The staff do get a little too snowed-under at times, and you might find your drinks arriving less promptly than they ought, but a nod and a wink, followed by a pat on the bottom (never) helps speed things up a little. Alternatively, you can just ask nicely.

There was a nicely spicy orange-red soup, packed with vegetables and served in a sturdy earthenware pot, that managed to maintain its flavour rather than packing nothing more than a hot punch to the tongue such as did much of that I ate at Krung Siam. Warming, tasty and not too salty, although a little on the greasy side to my mind, this was particularly welcome now that winter is taking hold.

Roast pork with the usual spicy Thai dipping sauce and piled with lightly fried garlic was both succulent and surprisingly light. No horrid fatty, gristly bits and certainly not dry in that awful re-heated way that the wise come to dread.

The Pak Bung Frie Dang (stir-fried morning glory with chillies, red peppers and something else) provides a good start in terms of vegetation. Makes you feel good, a bit like eating spinach, although less soggy and a great deal more satisfying.

A noodle-y, vermicelli-type dish packed with vegetables and squid was interesting, although the various tastes seemed muddled. The Popia Tod (deep fried spring rolls) are certainly robust, if a little starchy, and provide ballast which is probably much needed if you take on the nomihodai menu with any serious intent.

Rice never hurts, and the fried variety is fun in that it reminds me of post-pub “flied-lice” takeaways when I was still in high school.  This one came topped with slices of omelette and tasteless cucumber.

Some delicious Gai Yang (barbequed chicken) strangely came once on the bone and at the second order as succulent slices. I hate eating with my hands, and love a bit of breast, so the inconsistency was no bad thing. As one of my dining partners has a fetish for tomatoes, we had some topped with onion and garlic in some rich, thick sauce. Not much to say about this but, as with everything else, plenty of it. 

Equally enjoyable was the Hoy Shell Pad Nor Mai Farang, a nice mix of soft, not too chewy, stir-fried scallops, something akin to asparagus, mushrooms and peppers in oyster sauce. The Pad Thai worked for me too, although it verged on fast foodiness.

So where does Chao Thai fit in the ranking of those Thai joints so far posted? In the middle I’d say. Krung Siam seemed more authentic, and certainly the ingredients were better, but the food there was too spicy at the expense of the flavour. Siam Talart was better presented, probably healthier, but lacked excitement. All out do Kaffir Lime, but that's got plenty going for it in a different, funkier way. Chao Thai on the other hand is cheap and cheerful, providing plenty of no-nonsense satisfying dishes, booze and a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere at very little cost. Due to the large portions, ample menu, and cheap prices I’d suggest that in order to sample enough of what’s on offer it’s best to visit with a crowd.

 

Tel: 03-3463-4000

Saturday
Aug142010

Frisco Charcoal Grill, Shimo-Kitazawa  下北沢

Frisco Charcoal Grill was a wonderful little hole in the wall burger joint in Shimo-Kitazawa. A friend introduced me to the Frisco Grill, enticing me with tales of freshly made, lovingly crafted burgers and an interesting chef. His description was spot on.

Almost impossible to locate unless you were in the know, the Frisco Grill was hidden away at the end of a narrow alley loomed over by dilapidated buildings, its entrance unassuming. The tiny interior too – white walls, black stools and a basic kitchen dominated by a large grill – was unassuming too. The only real decoration were a few framed photos of San Francisco scenes, and newspaper cuttings and reviews about the shop, such was its fame.

The story behind the place was simple yet charming, very much like the menu. The owner-chef, “Mike” had spent around 40 years in the U.S. working in sales. Finally, once his kids had been put through college, he decided to return to Japan and fulfil his dream – to open a burger bar serving good to honest “real” American burgers. I don’t know if they were exactly like “real” American burgers, but they were very good. Apparently, “Mike” scoured the land for a bakery that could make bread rolls (buns, baps, cobs, whatever you choose to call them…) to his liking, and had fresh Australian beef delivered from which he made the burgers. He made a set amount each day, and when all sold, he shut up shop.

The Frisco Grill was tiny; probably no more than seven or eight diners could be accommodated at any one time. The menu was very simple, a few options of toppings – lettuce, cheese, gherkins, tomato, onion, mustard etc, etc. – and stacks of pates, and some lunch sets providing variations on the basic burger together with crinkle cut fries and a soft drink. Draft beer was available too. Certainly the choice on offer was severely limited when compared to the plethora of exciting, even outlandish, variations on the burger between bread that places such as Giggle provide. But that was the point, or so I like to believe.

The bread tasted fresh and bready. Not dry, and robust enough so as not to become floppy once encasing a perfectly grilled, meaty burger. Neither too thin nor too thick the meat itself was free of gristle or otherwise unidentifiable chewy bits, and tasted like real food. Not processed, frozen or warmed up from the day before. The lettuce, tomato and cheese were standard, but again fresh. Nothing more or less than they should be. The fries, crisp, not oily and actually surprisingly potatoey were rather good too. I’ll say it again; really simple, really fresh, really well made and really, really tasty.

So it was that when I headed there for lunch today I was dismayed to find the Frisco Grill is no more. At first I though I’d got the wrong street, maybe the wrong alley. A walked around a little, checked, asked a gypsy woman. Eventually plucking up courage, I headed down the alley, and sure enough could see the shop sign peeping from behind the plywood nailed over the entrance. Just as friends, lovers, even spouses, come and go, so too do great eateries. The Frisco Charcoal Grill is no more. Just like dear Masako, another Shimo-Kita gem is lost.

A little glum, I had no choice but to lunch elsewhere and so ended up sucking cold noodles at Mitsuya-Douseimen, before returning home. Once safely plugged back into my Mac, the Google pixies provided me with news, from this gentleman here, that the Frisco Grill closed just last month, as the building in which it was concealed is to be demolished, but will (happily) arise phoenix like once again. Certainly hope so.

 

Tel: 03-3468-5744

Thursday
Jul292010

Hanbei, Shibuya  半兵ヱ、渋谷

Hanbei is Disneyland. Or at least, probably what Disneyland would do if they had a Showa-land “attraction,” only without the endless queues of people having “fun.”

My esteemed colleague, the very same who introduced me to the delights of Lad’s Dining, recommended Hanbei (funny, I assume it’s the close proximity of Lad’s Bunny Bar that led him to stumble upon Hanbei…) as it was cheap, fun and “old-style.” And so it is.

Situated behind and to the right of Mark City, not far from the Keio Inokashira line entrance and that famous yakitori place that always has smoke billowing from it, it’s fairly easy to find thanks to the old yellow backlit street sign at the top of the stairs leading down to this basement izakaya. Prices and food are basement too.

The interior is jam packed with old posters – film, TV, consumer products etc. – and nice old metal (tin?) advertising plates for soft drinks, medicines and stores. Showa era toys and robots adorn the place here and there while all the while once-famous songs (rather military sounding at times) fill the air. It’s colourful and actually rather entertaining.

Clientele-wise, there’s a good mix of young couples, students, giggly semi-legal girls and chain smoking salarymen. Thus, it’s also pretty lively most of the time, but in a fun, “don’t need to care about those around you” way. The service can be good if you get the floor staff, and a little slow and surly if you request anything from the kitchen staff populating the semi-open kitchen that dominates the room.

As I said, it’s cheap. Very cheap. Certainly not as expensive as this place. While this is great as far as beer, kaku-highball and Hoppi goes, it has a decidedly negative impact on the food.

Put simply, the “cuisine” on offer is miniscule, and of a lesser quality than that served up at holes such as Watami. The o-shinko moriawase usually provides a limp selection of cucumber, red cabbage, takuan and/or daikon, three pieces of each if you are a party of three, and four if you’re a party of… The octopus tempura wasn’t that bad, sure it’s oily and limp, but also strangely compelling after a dozen drinks or so. The chicken karaage come with a sparkler and tiny cocktail Hinomaru Japanese flag thrust in them. Need I say more?

The okonomiyaki, which cost around ¥300 is resoundingly poor. I regret to announce that this sorry affair turned out to be my esteemed colleague’s introduction to the dish. Same goes for the yakisoba too. Really, really bad. The kushi and yakitori are also very small, but then they cost no more than a ¥100 a stick. Probably the best I’ve had over several visits (I’m glutton for punishment, okay) were the onigiri. But then, how easy can it be to utterly ruin those?

Okay, the food is rough, and it’s Showa-land, but the drinks are cheap and on both visits I’ve laughed until I cried, thanks to my dining partners. For a cheap drink, with some gut-lining nibbles it’ll do. Just.

 

Tel: 03-3464-0775

Sunday
Aug232009

Tamoiyanse, Shinsen  たもいやんせ、神泉

Tucked away in hard to find corner of Shinsen, one stop from Shibuya on the Inokashira line, Tamoiyanse is a splendid little izakaya specializing in the cuisine and shōchū of southern Kyūshū some eight minutes map-assisted walk from the southern exit of the station. Actually, even a map was of little help, and only after two phone calls to the politely patient staff of the izakaya did we eventually find the place. Hot and hungry, we were amply compensated for our expedition once we finally arrived.

Outside the entrance, which itself is tucked away on a corner of the building in which Tamoiyanse occupies the ground floor, hanging from a solid wooden frame is an impressive navy blue noren (shop sign) bearing the name of the izakaya written in bold white hiragana. Once inside, we found a simple stone floored genkan (entrance hall) complete with small table and chairs. Walking along the short corridor, past a couple of small koshitsu (private rooms), we were greeted by a friendly bandana-wearing young man who upon congratulating us on finding the place led us to a seat at the large dog-leg counter which dominates the main room. Before the counter is a semi-open kitchen, and behind us the fairly spacious room consisted of polished wooden floors, low tables and floor level seating. One wall is covered in a handwritten shōchū menu, the name of each written in bold black kanji upon strips of white paper, another covered in bamboo-wicker matting is decorated with a lantern, Japanese mask and happii coat. Elsewhere, simple light coloured stucco walls are framed with dark wood. On the whole the décor is basic, unfussy and comfortable. More brightly lit than many izakaya are apt to be, the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Probably an excellent choice for a cold winter night. Despite being a Friday evening, at 7.45pm the place was not overly busy, although by 8.30pm it was packed. Customers were an interesting mix of salarymen, gaijin, students, and lots of women.

Hot towels, menus and an o-toshi of three tsubugai (whelk) were delivered, and our drink orders taken. I settled on beer while my dining partner chose a glass of rose that was quite reasonably priced. We then spent a long time marvelling at the menu. The recommendations of the day written in black characters on a white page with orange accents, a style seen all over Tokyo in recent years, offered a wide range of interesting dishes that seemed somewhat different from the usual izakaya fare. The rest of menu consisted of page upon page of dishes, and a listing of around eighty different shōchū, from Miyazaki and Kagoshima Prefectures, which when combined with those displayed on the wall totalled around one-hundred. Only one sake, Garaku, is available. Being neither well versed in the ways of shōchū or a big fan of the drink I nevertheless decided to sample some of them, rather than keeping to my usual beer and sake. Aside from the shōchū several wines, red and white, as well as plum wine are available by the glass or bottle.

Perhaps concerned that we were taking over long in ordering, a friendly, straight talking middle-aged woman, who seemed to be the head of the waiting staff, appeared at our side to explain the menu and offer her recommendations. Following her advice we chose the gyū no tataki, small thin slices of rare lightly marbled Miyazaki beef dipped in ponzu sauce and grated garlic before wrapping the beef around slices of raw onion. Thoroughly tender and delicious my only complaint is that the dish was a little on the small side. Keen to try some shōchū, I explained that I’m not particularly keen on very strong tasting varieties with overpowering fumes, and was advised to try the Obisugi from Miyazaki Prefecture. Served on the rocks, it turned out to be a very mild drink. Perhaps a little too mild. Highly drinkable all the same, I felt assured that I could enjoy several without passing out.

Caught up in the warm atmosphere and feeling thoroughly at home we did not at first realize how slow our food was in arriving. After sometime, however, it became a little annoying and yet from what we could see being served all around us the quality of the food seemed to justify the time taken in preparation and delivery. Another shōchū, this time the Hibari, from Miyazaki was excellent although right on the edge of my strength threshold. With each sip I could feel the alcohol working its magic. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I at least wanted to eat some more before falling off my chair.

Eventually the yasai sumi-yaki, charcoal-grilled vegetables, arrived. A wonderful assortment of chunky zukini (courgette), imo (sweet potato), kabocha (pumpkin), erengi mushrooms, baked onion and green peppers. All were simply gorgeous. Lightly cooked so as to retain their flavour and texture, each was dipped in salt. The baked onion, soft and fleshy, was the best I’ve had outside of Kyoto’s Negiya. As we finished off the last of the vegetables an oshinkō-moriawase (assorted pickles) arrived, over an hour after we had ordered it! It was however worth the wait. Fresh, crunchy pickled radish, carrot, burdock, rakkyō (pickled scallion), cucumber and leaf mustard. Overall it was a good-sized dish with a nice range of flavours.

Inspired by the choices of those around us we next had the momoyaki no ninniku, charcoal-grilled chicken cut off the bone in juicy morsels accompanied by garlic and long quarters of cucumber. To be honest, I found the charcoal taste to be a little overpowering, and the chicken itself a bit on the chewy side. My dining partner, on the other hand, enjoyed it immensely. Such concerns aside, it was certainly a huge portion and excellent value for money. I washed the chicken down with the Yakonoshimodai-Shizenrin, a shōchū from Satsuma, which in all honestly was too strong for my liking. In order to remain sober I then tucked into an enormous dish of chiken namban, four large succulent portions of chicken breast fried with the skin left on, covered in sickly tarutaru sauce and served with a pile of lettuce and chopped tomato. Although filling, and initially very tasty, I soon found this particular dish to be too oily. We finished of the meal with a large slice of chocolate cake, light and not too sweet but perhaps a bit dry.

In all Tamoiyanse is an excellent izakaya, providing relaxed, comfortable surroundings, an awesome range of shōchū, interesting food and great service. The delivery is slow, but I’d put this down to care being taken in the cooking of each dish and, perhaps, the menu offering too many different dishes. Nevertheless, we felt very much at home and spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening at this easily recommendable establishment. Prices are reasonable, although in the mid-range, with our meal coming to a little over ¥6,000 per person. I’ll certainly being going back for more.

 

Tel: 03-3461-4333

Web: http://tamoiyanse.com/top/index.htm

Friday
May152009

Totoshigure, Shimo-Kitazawa  ととしぐれ、下北沢

Part of the SubLime group of izakaya, Totoshigure is another fine addition to the Shimo-Kitazawa dining scene, some eight minutes stroll down the full length of the main shopping street out of the south exit of the station. Totoshigure is instantly recognizable for its long shop front covered in hanging blue noren, barrels displaying food and small bench like tables at which patrons may dine, more or less in the street. This izakaya had caught my attention several weeks ago due to the interesting façade.

The entrance, hidden behind the noren, is a low – one must practically crouch to pass through – sliding wooden door that leads into a narrow stone genkan (entrance hall) before a long raised floor of wood upon which low level tables are set. Dotted around this dining area are more open barrels displaying vegetables, creating an inviting wholesome look to the place. Lighting is low-key, with the main illumination centred upon the counter and open kitchen to the left of the room and a second, smaller, counter and bar to the right. The bar itself seems suited to a nightclub rather than an izakaya, but a little modernity never hurts I suppose. Pale plaster walls decorated with prints of fish, a decidedly “industrial” looking ceiling and the busy kitchen of stainless steel before which, above the counter, are arranged fish, vegetables and other food stuffs on ice, all add to the atmosphere. This atmosphere was somewhat let down, however, by the dance music playing in the background. Well staffed, there indeed seemed so many waiting staff that they at times seemed at a loss for something to do, the service if friendly and efficient. Indeed, at one point, I had barely picked up the sake menu before a girl was at my side trying to take my order. A little over eager, perhaps?

As usual, once initial beers and other drinks were served we began to order from the menu in earnest, there being a good selection of delicious sounding dishes on offer, with the focus being on fish and other seafood. Beginning with an appetizer of large, chunky slices of cucumber with a mayonnaise dip, we then enjoyed the maguro matsuri (tuna festival), a moriawase of different maguro sashimiōtoro, chūtoro, akami – pleasantly presented upon sliced daikon, carrot and fresh green shiso (perilla) leaves, with wasabi, salt and finely-chopped spring onion to the side. The slices of fish themselves were of a decent size and all were fresh, rather than having the slightly iced, “recently out of the freezer,” texture that is all too prevalent in many izakaya. This was swiftly followed by yet more tuna, the maguro tataki, raw, mashed and mixed with spring onion, carrot and wasabi. Simple. Delicious.

Moving on from tuna, the tempura of Yanaka shōga (ginger plant) was tasty, the tempura batter light, and the flavour of the ginger being nicely complimented by the dipping salt. On the whole though, the plant itself was rather stringy, resulting in those of us around the table spending much of the rest of the evening trying to discreetly pick it from our teeth. A delicious, moist, salad followed containing egg, fish, leaves and an assortment of vegetables, although I was by this time absorbed with the sake menu rather than remembering to take detailed notes on the constitution of said salad. The selection of sake is somewhat limited, there being eight on offer, although favourites such as Kubota, Hakkaisan and Masumi are all present and reasonably priced. Served in a phallic bamboo tube nestled in a bamboo ice bucket, the Yoshidakura proved to be a dry and thoroughly drinkable sake. So much so that another was duly requested.

Returning to the food menu, the hotate (scallopps) in oyster sauce, a steaming, Chinese tasting dish full of red and yellow peppers, mange tout and onions provided a richer taste. This was balanced with a simple nebā-nebā salad comprised of large pieces of tofu buried under assorted leaves, lettuce, tomato and white tororo (grated yam). Another bamboo phallus, this time brimming with Masumi, arrived and needing a rest from eating we took our time before ordering further, enjoying the company and atmosphere. Although, as mentioned above, the service was highly efficient and maybe over keen, not once did we feel pressured to hurry through our meals. The staff seemed happy to let us take our time and relax. As the evening wore on, the mood of the place became warmer, and a bit noisier. Although not packed, a fair number of seats were filled, the customers ranging from young couples, groups of students busy with drinking games and adolescent flirtations, to pairs of middle-aged ladies enjoying shōchū and conversation at the counter. On the night we visited, the majority of patrons seemed to be women.

Once again in need of food to combat the sake coursing through my veins I convinced my dining partners of the need to sample more of the menu. Slightly spicy satsuma-age with dipping sauce, tempura of seasonal vegetables and baby squid, and the wonderful anago to omame maze gohan, a bamboo basket filled with steaming rice mixed with eels and mange tout provided ballast. Out of sheer greed I then had deep fried camembert cheese... Needing something sweet, we rounded off the evening with a desert of ichigo chīzu dōfu (strawberry-cheese tofu) that, all agreed, was delicious.

Throughout the meal, each dish was fresh, tasty, and of a good size. All were well presented on a nice selection of “wabi-sabi modern” tableware. Prices were very reasonable, especially considering the excellent portions. Good service, pleasant surroundings and an interesting menu make Totoshigure well worth a visit. Keep in mind, however, that the specialty of the house is fish, and meat does not feature in the menu at all.

 

Tel: 03-3419-6125

Sunday
Apr262009

Uokisuisan, Shimo-Kitazawa  魚㐂水産、下北沢

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.

 

Tel: 03-5432-4488