Wandering through the narrow alleyways of Tsukiji’s outer market after dark is a fairly surreal experience. There is no trace of the drama and energy of the early morning operations, when the world’s largest fish market is a buzz with action: wholesalers and retailers noisily touting for trade, lorries whizzing perilously through the maze of streets, narrowly missing (or perhaps aiming for) the crowds of gaping, SLR totting tourists who descend on the area, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. After hours the place is eerily quiet. Shops are all shuttered. The sightseers are gone. The only sign of life comes from men in white sushi shop uniforms standing forlornly outside a brightly lit, and depressingly empty, 24-hour chain store.
But what lured me to the area was not the prospect of a cheap sushi dinner, rather a seat at one of Tokyo’s best kept secrets: Uogashi Tamatomi, a tiny 10 seat tapas bar which continues to do a bustling trade while the rest of the market sleeps.
Born and raised in Tsukiji, owner and chef Takamasa Mochizuki is a true Edo-ko. For four generations his family has made a humble living catering to the needs of the local workforce; former incarnations have been a condiments store, an o-bento shop, and more recently a tobacconist. So when Mochizuki-san inherited the space, relatives advised him to open a donburi or sushi shop – both sure-fire sources of revenue; advise that he promptly, and willfully, ignored. Travels had broadened his horizons and firmed his resolve. His dream was to open his own casual eatery where his friends could enjoy the best of Tsukiji’s produce with Mediterranean flavours, washed down with a chilled glass of his preferred tipple, Lambrusco.
The dimensions of the space are impossibly small. The whole counter has to reorganise themselves each time a new customer enters to take their seat. It’s so small in fact that there is no space for a bathroom. But somehow this just adds to Tamatomi’s charm. These little inconveniences are insignificant when compared to the excellent food that comes out of the miniscule kitchen each night.
Given its location, there is only one protein on offer: fish – and plenty of it. For a non-mammal eater, like myself, his weekly changing menu is a pescetarian’s delight. During the summer months, heat ravaged constitutions can be revived with a light and refreshing dishes like this new season sanma (Pacific saury) capaccio.
Or perhaps a shime-saba salad with a bright balsamic dressing.
This amadai (tilefish) dish was notable not only for being beautifully cooked, but because it served unscaled. Mochizuki-san had grilled it in such a way that the scales had become papery crisp; adding an interesting textural element to the dish.
But it’s in winter, when fish is most bountiful and delicious, that I return to Tamatomi with almost maniacal devotion. And I’m not alone – it’s the most difficult season to secure a booking.
Case in point: this crudo of kanburi – thickly marbled cubes of winter yellowfin which had been caught in the frigid coastal waters of Toyama. The beauty of this dish is the simplicity of its preparation: cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of lemon. The seasoning was perfectly balanced to enhance, rather than mask, the exquisite flavour of the fish.
The raw delights continued with a dish of tairagai (razor clam) capaccio, dressed in a piquant herbal marinade. I adore the texture and sweet succulence of this bi-valve, especially with sharp flavours to cut their richness.
The Mame Kinki (baby thornhead) fritto was light, crispy and delightfully fun to eat.
While wine is available by the bottle, there is a by-the-glass selection of a red, a white and, of course, a Lambrusco. All are pretty decent, and – at only ¥500 a pop – very good value for money.
Initially, I wasn’t quite sure of the logic of pairing Lambrusco with fish, but my God did it make sense once I had my first taste; light, refreshing and with a good amount of acidity to cut through the rich olive oils that Mochizuki-san uses so liberally.
Lambrusco is a much derided wine due, in part, to the glut of mass-produced, cloyingly sweet swill that saturated the North American market in the ’80s. In recent years, however, it has undergone something of a revival, with small producers cutting back yields, improving grape quality, and utilising traditional winemaking techniques. The result is a far cry from the cherry-cola like alco-pop of yore – this is now a wine to be taken seriously.
The ‘genuine’ Lambrusco of the Emilia-Romagna region is young, fresh, with the flavour of fresh berries anchored by a faint earthiness – and it’s almost never sweet. Its gentle frizzante sparkle, acidity and dry finish make it a perfect partner for rich, olive oil based dishes.
Tamatomi’s house Lambrusco, Cavicchioli Amiable, is a very reasonably priced entry point to this underrated style. It’s simple, light and zesty, thought not much in the way of tannins or body, but a charming and very drinkable wine, nonetheless.
Foremost amongst the superior producers is Manicardi, from the hilly Castelvetro region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s difficult to resist its lively violet foam, wild berry flavours and dry, savoury finish. This wine pairs beautifully with roasted fish.
And roasted fish doesn’t get much better than Oma maguro. Available for only a limited season (October to December), and caught using the labour intensive ippon zuri method – single-hook hand-line fishing – which is unique to the area that gives it its name, Oma is regarded as Japan’s highest quality, and therefore most expensive, bluefin tuna. While the up-market sushi shops of Ginza snap the prime belly meat, Mochizuki-san prefers to use the more humble, and less expensive, off-cuts such as this jawbone; oven roasted to golden perfection so that the meat literally fell off the bone. The gamey, rich flavour of the meat was enhanced by an infusion of fresh thyme – elevating this simple dish to something quite heavenly. Served with a side dish of rocket salad tossed through with a Reggio Emilia balsamico dressing, this was indeed a hallelujah moment.
Tamatomi was born out of Mochizuki-san’s refusal to confirm to conventional ideas of what a Tsukiji eatery ‘should be’, and in doing so he has created a unique dining experience where the strict rules that apply to fish & wine do not apply. He serves apologetically simple, well executed food and easy-drinking wine without superficiality or artifice. For me, that’s a recipe for success – and why converts like myself continue to make the pilgrimage his small but inviting door.
Closed on Sundays and all Tsukiji Market holidays. No English spoken. No English menu. If you don’t speak Japanese think twice, or take a friend who does. Reservations at least one week in advance.