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 Service (7)

Sunday
Jun072009

Hainan Chi-Fan, Shimbashi  海南鶏飯、新橋

Hainan Chi-Fan is a Singaporean restaurant in Shimbashi, housed within the Shiodome City Center complex. As my dining partner for the evening had booked the table, I was not aware of the restaurant’s location. If I had known, the alarm bells would have started ringing. Having a natural aversion to izakaya and restaurants inside train stations, shopping centres and corporate buildings I generally try to avoid them. They seem soulless somehow. Less “real.” Arriving at the restaurant on a Friday evening, outside the rain heavy, we found the place to be packed. A good sign I thought, relaxing a little. Happy diners, busy with drinks and conversation, seemed to indicate that this could actually be an enjoyable dining experience, as did the nice smell of the food.

A waiter led us to a small table in the centre of the restaurant. All around were larger tables, and along the walls more tables and faux-leather seating. Menus were provided, and we ordered beer. The atmosphere was certainly lively. Waiting staff bustled by every two seconds, their arms laden with trays of food. This was a problem. Our table not only felt like an island of narrow discomfort amidst a sea of gastronomic relaxation, but also was more or less in the way of the main thoroughfare from the kitchen. Not happy, we asked for a different table, two vacant ones being visible behind us along the wall. Looking put out, the waitress informed us that they were for people who had booked. Retorting with the fact that we too had booked, she said she’d ask the manager. He was of little help either, being busy showing people walking into the restaurant to the tables we coveted. Nothing for it. Downing our drinks almost in one we asked for the bill. No apologies, not even the insincere platitudes one might usually expect from Japanese restaurant staff in such circumstances.

Annoyed, we headed into the rain in search of an izakaya.

 

Tel: 03-5537-5799

Web: http://www.hainanchifan.com

 

Images courtesy of Gourmet Navigator

Friday
May222009

Kamakura, Shibuya  かまくら、渋谷

Located on the fourth floor of the same building as Genkaya and Kikka, a few minutes walk from the Parco department store in Shibuya, Kamakura is an izakaya most notable for it novel interior. As a regular at Genkaya I had many times noticed the advertisement for Kamakura with photos of the interior showing strange, almost Star Wars-esque white huts. Strange as it may sound, upon entering through a low oval, Hobbit hole-like door one enters into a nicely decorated genkan, the dark slate floor lined with white pebbles at its edge around the walls and the huts themselves, separated from the main dining area by solid wooden poles. Given a courteous welcome, my dining partner and I were ushered in and given the choice of one of the many koshitsu (private booths), of which the interior consists, either on the ground level or on the “1.5 Floor” above the ground level overlooking the dining area and white huts beneath. It was unfortunate that none of the huts were available, as they would certainly have provided an interesting

location for dinner, if not affording much of a view of the rest of the izakaya. The place already busy despite the early hour in the evening, we opted for one of the upper level rooms, accessed by small wooden stairs, containing a low table of black, polished wood surrounded by cushions that could have comfortably seated four.

Hot towels and menus were soon provided, with the waitress politely noting that this was our first visit. Indeed, throughout the meal the service was prompt, polite and friendly. Ordering beers, we spent some time peering down upon the lower level and the roofs of the huts and wondering what it must be like inside them, while nibbling at a fairly quotidian o-toshi of agedashi-dōfu topped with grated daikon and soy sauce with a decorative mizuna (potherb mustard) leaf beneath.

We kicked-off the meal with a large pile of gobō (burdock) karaage – tempura really – that was not quite crunchy enough and a little too oily, leading me to believe that it would have been better if fried less. This was a shame as, especially when dipped in the small bowl of salt provided, it was actually rather tasty all the same. A katsuo tataki salad followed, the katsuo (bonito) itself lightly seared and then sliced so that the flesh inside was still raw, and covered with a fair pile of lettuce, onions, and spring onions. Beneath the fish was a coating of tare sauce. Overall an enjoyable dish, although the katsuo was thinner than I would have hoped and the onions overpowering. The first of several large ichi-go glasses of Kamakura Jōsen, the recommended sake and produce of Akita prefecture, arrived and proved to be dry of taste and highly drinkable. As the drink took hold, my mood mellowed to suit the jazz playing in the background.

Next up was the Kamakura fū yokote no yakisoba, a famous dish also from Akita prefecture, consisting of egg noodles fried with onions, carrot and bacon in a sweet tasting sauce, upon which was placed a large poached egg. Not over-large, this particular dish was enjoyable. However, it really must be eaten soon after being served as when it begins to cool the sauce congeals to the point that it feels rather “kimochi-warui.” In need of pickles to accompany the sake, I almost went for the usual o-shinko moriawase, but instead the kyūri no goma-abura ai took my fancy. A delightful dish of crunchy, rough-hewn cucumber soaked in sesame oil and black pepper. Wonderful. The meal finished with abe-dori no yuzu-gosho yaki, pieces of Iwate chicken, not a spot of gristle found, cooked in a citrus sauce and topped with fried onion – yes, more onion – and leaves. Although we had eaten our fill,

the atmosphere was pleasingly relaxed, and as such we took our time enjoying the drink and secluded, elevated position at which we sat.

The food at Kamakura is reasonable. Nothing truly stands out, and the portions are at best average. In this Kamakura gives away its status as part of a small chain rather than an individual establishment. Not overly expensive, it’s not cheap either. Service is good, and the atmosphere pleasant enough. The interior is worth a look, and in general, thanks to all the tables being koshitsu, provides a good location for a small party or cozy meal for two. I would suggest that the most novel experience can be had seated within one of the small huts, and so it is probably best to try booking in advance. Certainly an option if you are in the vicinity or at times when Genkaya

or Kikka are full.

 

Tel: 03-5728-2977

Tuesday
May192009

Nozaki Saketen, Shinbashi  野崎酒店、新橋

Friday night in Shinbashi and the multitude of izakaya, sushi shops, tachinomi-ya and yakitori joints are heaving with salarymen and OLs (office ladies.) Walking up and down the streets off the main Shinbashi Nishiguchi Dōri we look into each establishment we pass, waiting for one to take our fancy. Many do, all are full. The izakaya that look good probably are. That being the case, those office workers that frequent the area are already packed into them, frothy beer and potent shōchū flowing freely. Hungry, thirsty, I begin to wonder if we’ll find a place able to accommodate us. Thankfully, as we pass Nozaki Saketen I notice that several customers in the doorway are in fact paying for their meals and about to leave. The place looks promising enough, narrow shop front of glass and a sign declaring the izakaya to be a “jizake senmon”, or “sake specialist”. More importantly there’s a table available.

The table we are led to, after being warmly greeted, is tiny, one of four or five along the right wall, with barely enough room to squeeze into my chair.  Once seated I feel something at my back, and looking over my shoulder see pipes – water I suppose – protruding from the wall, covered in white towels in order to pad them out and make them more comfortable. Running along the left side is a counter, the low “wall” separating it from the open kitchen, above which hang numerous handwritten menu

entries on strips of white paper, is plastered with sake labels. To the side of the kitchen a glowing cooler stands, bottles of nicely chilling sake lined up within. Nozaki Saketen is not large, being made up of a narrow ground floor and squarer basement level, and on this occasion very busy, very lively and very warm.

Thirsty, the first couple of beers are finished before we’ve even ordered our meal, and the o-toshi of kabu (turnip) with chicken mince untouched. When the waitress informs us that our visit is limited to a two-hour period, we hasten to choose. The service brisk, yet polite, our chosen dishes arrive in quick succession. So much so that we soon struggle to fit them on to the table. A large bowl of salad, immediately impressive by dint of its size and good looks, consisting of long, thin slices of daikon, cucumber and tomato upon which is heaped negi-toro (mashed raw tuna fish) and large dollop of mayonnaise. Over this interesting, delicious salad we poured a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi, complimenting the tuna perfectly, and adding something special to the flavour of the salad itself. Moist and crunchy, this unusual take on negi-toro don (bowl of rice with negi-toro on top) is easy to recommend. A selection of pickles – aubergine, cucumber and daikon – accompanies my first glass of Dewazakura, a light, drinkable sake of which many kinds and qualities are available. The soft, fluffy texture of the enormous dashi-maki tamago (egg roll) in fish stock with grated daikon and mayonnaise contrasts well with the crunchy salad and pickles.

Sipping on the pure-as-water Asamayama, a sake from Gunma prefecture, I take in the photos, hanging on the wall, of various stages in the sake making process. Several of the staff of the izakaya are themselves visible in said photos. A grilled fish head of tai (sea bream) soon arrives. Not spectacular, but tasty enough and certainly fresh, it has a distinctly home-cooked feel to it. Tender, only lightly seared, chicken sasami in a yuzu (citron) and green chili pepper sauce introduces a richer flavour to the meal, although the portion of this dish is considerably less generous than those that had come before. Two long skewers of chicken liver in tare sauce, kushiyaki rebā tare, arrive, as does a glass of excellent Masaku Junmai, and while the sake is quite gorgeous, the liver seems over cooked and thus too dry. The waitress hurries by with a fantastic looking bowl of soba (buckwheat noodles) and I notice a bottle of Masumi looking lonely in the cooler, but we are full, and I am tipsy…

 

Tel: 03-6430-3329 

Friday
May082009

Bettako, Jiyugaoka  べったこ、自由が丘

Roaming the streets of Jiyugaoka (it is now abundantly clear to me why it is the second favourite dwelling place of Tokyoites) several izakaya and other Asian restaurants grabbed my attention. None so much, however, as Bettako. Its stylish façade with rust-effect iron work lanterns and shop sign promised attention to detail and a fine dining experience. I was not disappointed. In fact, rather than reading this blog stop whatever you are doing (if you are at work, quit) and get thee hence! You’ll not regret the visit. Simply, Bettako is excellent.

Peering through the small window in the front door I glimpsed a dark interior oozing with atmosphere. Stepping in my dining partner and I were greeted in somewhat cold fashion by a waitress who promptly asked if we had reserved a table. Seeming somewhat perturbed when we replied in the negative, she gave me a look, as if to say

“you are not known here,” before glancing to the back of the dimly lit main area and the master busy with something in the open kitchen behind the counter. He silently nodded approval and we were then shown to a cosy semi-private room separated from the main room by poles of dark, polished bamboo and ancient looking sliding lattice panels of thin, pale wood and even thinner glass. The spacious table – four would have been accommodated comfortably – was illuminated from above by the dim glow of a warm orange light. To our right, at a similar table, two well-dressed elderly gentlemen were deep in conversation, a delicious looking meal spread before them. Menus were provided and drink orders taken, still in a rather cold fashion, and then while sipping on a too weak whiskey highball, ruined by the addition of a slice of lemon, we studied the menu, which immediately struck us interesting.

We had entered at 6.30pm, at which point the place was already fairly busy, the atmosphere one of quiet conversation occasionally coloured with laughter and the sounds of cooking from the kitchen. Ten minutes later and Bettako was decidedly busy, and by 7.30pm it was packed, so much so that customers were being turned away, there being not a seat left in the house. Clearly a popular izakaya, even on a weekday and despite it being Golden Week and Tokyo having emptied out somewhat. An o-toshi of tender chicken with broccoli, red and yellow peppers and sesame arrived, followed swiftly by another consisting of a bowl of raw cabbage and three dipping sauces – spicy miso, salt and a slightly spicy, sour tasting one reminiscent of Vietnamese cooking. Both were delicious, well presented and of a good size. Washing them down with a beer I took in my surroundings.

Bettako is larger than it at first seems. Several semi-private rooms lay off the main floor, which itself is dominated by a curious octagonal table of heavy wood in the centre of which are displayed bottles of sake. A good size counter runs before the open kitchen, and stairs lead to a second floor, gallery like, which looks down on to the first. The dark polished wood floors, rustic bare walls, bamboo and old-style lattices are complimented by the dark, mysterious nooks and crannies created by thick, rough hewn beams and passage ways. Classic izakaya design. Perfection.

Orders taken, we soon enjoyed an o-shinko moriawase (selection of pickles) made up of fresh, crisp cucumber, cabbage, daikon and kabu (turnip). Not large, but delicious all the same. As the master politely explained the origin, history, and finer points of a certain sake to the two gentleman seated besides us, at the same time providing them with tasters, compliments of the house, the waitress – now somewhat friendlier, brought an excellent plate of boiled octopus in a carpaccio dressing served upon a bed of ruccola (rocket) leaves, the presentation of which seemed more fitting to a Mediterranean restaurant than an izakaya. This fusion of East and West was a theme returned to later on in the course of the meal. Still marvelling at the octopus, skewers of chunky, glistening rich-brown chicken liver, cooked to tender perfection, and skewers of large, juicy erengi mushrooms wrapped in thin bacon, further impressed. The erengi and bacon was particularly good, the two flavours naturally complimenting each other.

In the mood for sake we called over the master to ask for his recommendations. A large, round, baby-faced fellow, we immediately took to him. Polite, softly spoken and attentive he carefully explained the selection of sakes, from which I chose the Ginrei-Tateyama, a clear, crisp tasting sake described by the master as “sappari” (plain / light / clean). The master himself plainly takes great pride and care in his work and establishment. Always attentive, he padded softly, in his traditional soft-soled setta sandals, around the izakaya making hardly a sound and all the while glancing to each table making sure that his customers were cared for and enjoying their meals. When his attention was given it was always courteous, even personally clearing and wiping down tables rather than delegating such tasks to a waitress. Everything the master of a quality izakaya should be. Bringing the bottle of Ginrei-Tateyama, he poured a generous amount into the glass allowing it to overflow so as to almost fill the glass masu in which the glass rested. As it turned out, the walls of the masu being considerably thinner than is the case with the usual wooden variety, the amount of sake held was indeed considerable, amounting to two and a half glasses in one serving. Excellent.

Next came the shiromizakana no shaki-shaki salad, another fusion of Japanese and Western styles, the taste of the fish, hirame (sole), set off beautifully by the mix of daikon, cress, carrot, red onion and ginger, with extra sparkle added by another Mediterranean style dressing. Although I do not know for sure, I would hazard a guess that the master has been trained in Western cooking and perhaps even worked abroad, the presentation and style of so many of the dishes being more what one would expect in a fashionable restaurant in Omotesando or Daikanyama. Although we did not try them, other customers ordered such dishes as pizza (lovely thin crust – Italian style) and garlic bread, all which looked fantastic. Enjoying myself utterly I ordered another Ginrei-Tateyama and some more yakitori, soft white sasami chicken topped with a rich, strong tasting plum sauce. The place now heaving, the sounds of conversation and laughter filling the air, a glass of Masumi, another excellent sake that is swiftly becoming a favourite of mine, and a final dish to finish the meal. This time a wonderfully presented, Western style offering of spicy lamb on the bone served upon a layer of erengi scattered with garlic, rosemary and sliced chilli pepper. Again, another faultless dish. Most amazing of all, considering the quality, was the price; only 735 yen, when it could have easily fetched 2,000 yen in an upmarket restaurant. In fact, Bettako is remarkable for the value it represents. All prices, drinks included, are reasonable and indeed seem lower than they ought to be.

Full, content, happy we simply could not bring ourselves to leave. A short rest, this time sipping on another favourite sake, Suigei, we could not help but be drawn back to the menu. My dining partner chose ice cream with banana dressed with chocolate sauce, while I, ever the traditionalist, opted for an onigiri (rice ball) wrapped in black-green nori and filled with strong tasting katsuo (bonito flakes) accompanied by two small slices of pickled daikon upon which, almost unnoticed, two little white grains of koji (malt), were placed. I would have overlooked them or mistaken them for stray grains of rice, had not the master, with pride, pointed out the subtle embellishment. Masterful. This was washed down with a steaming bowl of white miso soup.

I cannot sing praise for Bettako enough. Certainly the most enjoyable izakaya dining experience I have had in many years. The interior design, atmosphere, service (despite its rocky start), the food, the presentation and taste of which were exceptional, and the prices render this an establishment not to be missed. Even more surprising is that Bettako is actually part of a small chain of izakaya and yakiniku restaurants scattered throughout Tokyo and Yokohama, and yet retains the quality and originality usually reserved for lone establishments.

Please, stop reading and go there. Now.

 

Update 11/01/10: A recent visit proved to be just as enjoyable as the first. Excellent food, again interesting and nicely presented. The menu has changed, with some favourites missing and some wonderful new experiences in their place. This time, we dined on the 2nd floor in a large horigotasu koshitsu, managing to squeeze a group of eleven in comfortably. Service was first rate from the off-set this time, with the staff easily dealing with large orders from our party. 

 

Tel: 03-3724-4316

Thursday
Apr302009

Sanchaki, Sangen-jaya  三茶気、三軒茶屋

Conveniently hidden among the labyrinthine backstreets of Sangen-jaya, Sanchaki is immediately recognisable. An old, traditional style building of dark, almost black, stained wood that creates a dominating presence, with narrow windows and entrance. A small window beside the porch is filled with bottles of sake, while peeping through the doorway one sees a short hallway of worn polished wood and part of the counter in front of the kitchen.

Receiving a warm welcome – many an “irasshai!” from the all male staff – my dining partner and I were ushered along the hall, past to young girls busy with homework at the counter, and into a simple room of bare plaster walls and dark wood filled with equally simple tables and chairs that had the look of being in use for decades. From our table at the rear of the room could be seen a wide glass window looking onto a neighbouring room illuminated by the warm glow of orange lanterns. I wished we had been seated in there.

Menus and the recommendations of the day were swiftly proffered, and drink orders taken in a friendly manner, with explanations of some of the interesting, yet unrecognisable, dishes given. My first glance at the drink menu led me to believe, mistakenly, that only two sakes were available – Hakkaisan and another unnamed cheaper one served by the tokkuri. Had I taken the time to read the menu properly I would have known that others were available if one but asks. Ignorant of this fact I started with a cold beer thinking to save the Hakkaisan for later in the meal.

Having arrived at Sanchaki early in the evening, before it had opened in fact, it was not busy, although a trickle of diners did eventually arrive. One couple, an attractive woman in her late-thirties perhaps and an older walrus of a man, caught the attention of my dining partner, who swore that the woman was a famous TV celebrity. An o-tsumami of chicken tsumure in a chicken stock broth containing chives, diced dried chilli pepper and sesame seeds arrived, shortly followed by our drinks. While enjoying the summery strains of Okinanwan music piped into the room we studied the menu. The majority of dishes ranged from 480 to 680 yen and, as mentioned earlier, differed from the usual izakaya fare to the extent that we were forced to ask for descriptions of many before ordering.

The crunchy kyūri-karamiso – long chunky halves of cucumber dipped into a hot spicy miso paste – started off the meal, while my first Hakkaisan, glass overflowing so as to fill the lacquer masu to the brim, was accompanied by another spicy dish: gekikara moyashi “fire” – bean sprouts, sesame, nira (a kind of long onion) – served in a cradle of tinfoil. Tasty, fairly spicy (various heats can be requested) and not large, this dish set the tone for the rest of the evening with most of what followed containing nira and the portions been a little on the small side. The atmosphere not unpleasant and the service brisk and friendly we were encouraged to order further dishes such as the liver and nira – succulent pieces of liver and the same onion covered in some kind of teriyaki-like sauce – again served on tinfoil, and the buta to pon – basically bacon, nira and bean sprouts cooked in ponzu sauce containing kimuchi – which was far tastier than it at first appeared. Another glass of Hakkaisan, the waiter this time asking if I minded him filling the glass and masu to the brim – of course not! – some chicken nanban, large pieces of fried chicken, the skin crispy, served on a bed of shredded cabbage and topped with taru-taru sauce – a pink mayonnaise based affair also containing pickles and egg.

Having finally discovered that other sakes could be had I opted for Masumi, a rather rough tasting nihonshū from Nagano prefecture that smoothed out after the first few sips. The drink now taking its toll I decided to further line my stomach with abakādo batā shōyu – soft avocado and mushroom cooked in butter topped with dried seaweed and soy sauce, and a rather disappointing nagaimo – Chinese yam – kuroke covered in the same taru-taru sauce as the chicken.

I can’t make up my mind about Sanchaki. Most of the food was tasty, certainly interesting, and reasonably priced if a little on the small side. The service was good and the atmosphere enjoyable. I got the impression that the place really needs to full before it feels truly cozy. Every thing about this izakaya errs on the side of simplicity. Not a bad thing necessarily, but it results in some of the dishes, for example the chicken and kuroke, being rather pedestrian and the interior feeling spartan. Enjoyable enough I suppose, but perhaps best enjoyed with a crowd.

 

Tel: 03-5779-3338

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

Saturday
Mar142009

Robata no Ro, Kagurazaka  ろばたの炉、神楽坂

Three visits to Robata no Ro have, as of yet, failed to disappoint. Located a little short of midway up the slope of Kagurazaka Dori, but five minutes walk from Iidabashi Station, this izakaya is actually the second Ro to be established in the neighbourhood (I have yet to sample the first). According to an elderly gentlemen, a long time patron of the original Ro, I had the pleasure to meet during my first visit, although the first of the two izakaya had always provided an excellent dining experience, atmosphere and service, its location among the warren of backstreets off the main Kagurazaka Dori had placed it at a disadvantage and as such it remained relatively unknown. The proprietor, realizing this, opened this second izakaya in a readily accessible location and has since enjoyed a booming trade. Certainly each time I have dined there empty seats have been scarce.

Both shop front and interior are a well considered fusion of neo-traditional Japanese style and contemporary design. A long, gleaming counter of polished wood dominates the main dining area, alongside which runs an open kitchen from where chefs serve food, to those seated along the counter, upon long flat-bladed paddles. Low lighting provides that favourite izakaya ambience and cozy intimacy that is the mark of a truly enjoyable establishment. Ro’s master, a robust jovial fellow, plainly takes a great deal of pride in his work and offers a warm and courteous welcome to all who enter as well as attending to their needs and comfort throughout the evening.

Attention has been given to the little details, whether the scroll-like menu, charcoal chopstick rests or cascading flow of nihonshu poured into tiers of o-choko – sake cups – carefully arranged in a bed of ice. The menu itself offers a wide range of favourites and izakaya staples, some having Ro’s own unique take on them such as the mouth wateringly succulent buta-kakuni served on a skewer rather than the in the usual greasy stew. The sashimi moriawase is well sized and perfectly fresh, while the grilled renkon stuffed with minced meat provides a more savoury flavour.  Although I have yet to try it myself, variations on the much-loved British jacket potato also appear to be popular, as are the crisp salads. A good selection of sakes is offered, Dassai being a particular favourite of mine.

Although not cheap, Ro compares favourably in terms of price and quality with others of the vast array of quality izakaya in the vicinity. A good meal accompanied by several drinks comes in at around 6,000 – 7,000 yen per head. My one complaint in terms of pricing would be that the sake is perhaps more expensive than should be. Service is prompt, polite and well delivered. Another let-down to this wonderful izakaya is the koshitsu – private room (although it actually accommodates two sets of diners) – off to the left of the main dinning area, which lacking the same style and atmosphere as the rest of the izakaya appears more an after thought. Furthermore, another, and all too frequent with izakaya in Tokyo 

generally, gripe is that if one should pre-book a table of a weekend you will find a two-hour time limit imposed upon your visit. This, as I have often proclaimed, is not only shear folly, but also ruins an otherwise delightful izakaya. Otherwise, Ro is highly recommendable. Try it tonight!

 

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