Category Archives: Italian

Tapas dining in the heart of Tsukiji Fish Market: Uogashi Bar Tamatomi – 魚河岸バル 築地 TAMATOMI

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.

Tsukiji Tamatomi

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-valveespecially 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. 

Uogashi Tamatomi

Tokyo Food: Vinoteca, Midtown, Roppongi. ヴィノテカ、六本木

May 30th.
I have rotten luck. I never seem to win anything! The 2002 World Cup being case in point: I drew China and Saudi Arabia, in my company’s sweepstake; teams that placed 31st and 32nd, respectively. Groan! So, it was an enormous surprise to receive a small windfall in the form of a ¥5,000 dining coupon, courtesy of Tokyo Midtown, to be redeemed at Francis Ford Coppela’s Vinoteca restaurant. Brilliant! Okay, so it wasn’t the the free course meal for two at Ten-Estu that I had actually entered the draw for – given my track record, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The 360 degree wine cabinet, which doubles as the entranceway, set the scene; we were departing from the shopping mall and arriving in Californian wine country. – Though I must say it did feel slightly sacrilegious to trod over such precious vessels.

We were greeted by the gregarious maitre d’, Patrick. A man who is obviously so secure in himself that he sports a waxed moustache that would make Kaiser Wilhelm II blush. I was quite prepared to be fond of him until he indulged in a lengthy, and explicit, discourse on another diner’s genitalia – don’t ask! He shall be referred to from this point on as Mr Inappropriate-Trousers.
We were not seated at the elegant ‘river’ counter that winds serpentine like along the expansive windows, but rather at a linen dressed table in a quiet alcove off the main dining room. Mr Inappropriate-Trousers assured us that it was an upgrade, and given there were three in our party, I begrudgingly had to agree with him.

A selection of fresh bread was quickly served, with a ramekin of extra virgin olive oil, which gave us something to gnaw on as we perused the food and wine menus. Wine menu is a bit of a misnomer – it’s more like an almanac. The list is dominated by wines from the Napa Valley area and Coppela’ own winery – natch – as well as a comprehensive selection of Italian varieties which complement the Cali-Italian menu.
Given we had all chosen vegetable and fish dishes, we settled on an Italian Pinot Grigio – whose provenance I have completely forgotten – a crisp, light-bodied wine with the spritzy flavours that are characteristic of this variety.
I was a little miffed with the fact that MR I-T not only failed to present the bottle before pouring, but then went on to pour himself a generous quarter glass to taste from. It may have been over a decade since I worked as a sommelier, but surely dining etiquette hasn’t regressed back to the days when it was assumed that madam knew nothing about wine.
I bit my tongue and turned my attention to the amuse bouche of salmon mousse, which proved to be rich, creamy and utterly divine.

The bagna cauda was an elegantly presented homage to the seasons, with the gobo and black daikon adding interest to an otherwise cliched restaurant offering. The accompanying anchovy sauce, however, was more of a cream dressing, and lacked any discernible relation to the salty fish that gave it its name.

Thankfully, sardines came to the rescue in the form of the pesce marinato, which was simply dressed with citrus, oil, and a peppery rocket. Yum!

A double order of Scampi al forno, jeweled with tobiko, soon followed. The meat was so juicy and sweet, that I dispensed with cutlery all together and sucked the little crustaceans clean.

As Vinoteca prides itself on its handmade pasta and artisanal olive oil, we were expecting great things from the carbohydrate portion of the meal. The pasta was indeed cooked to perfection, but sadly the anchovies in the Spaghetti con acciughe e cavolo had gone awol, which left the dish bland and under seasoned.

Mr I-T returned to tempt us with the dessert menu, but we were not swayed. It had been a patchy meal with equally patchy service, and at ¥5,000 per head, after our our coupon had been deducted, it definitely didn’t win any points for cost performance.

Just my luck, eh?