Category Archives: seafood

Izakaya Dining Worthy of a Shiny Star: Sakanaya Ajisen 肴や味泉

The spirited sake of summer was followed by a double whammy of autumnal hiyaoroshi and fully matured sake releases – what a heady few months it’s been. All my diligent ‘research’ has come at the expense of creative output, so forgive me while I play catch up with some long overdue posts.

Given my particular fondness for shitamachi neighbourhoods, it’s a wonder I don’t venture out to Tsukishima more often. Having escaped damage in both the Great Kanto Earthquake and blanket bombing of the Great Tokyo Air Raids, the back streets still retain much of their yesteryear charm. These days, what draws people here is the abundance of monjayaki shops which line Nishinaka-dori – it is so popular there is even a Monjayaki Information Centre to help you navigate the 75 specialist restaurants in the area. But there would be none of that sloppy, teppan grilled pancake on the menu tonight. What brought me here was the promise of top-class food and sake at the counter of local institution Ajisen.

Ajisen

By the time we arrived for our 7pm booking the room was already packed with white-shirted salarymen, whose flushed cheeks and akimbo ties suggested their end of the week revelries had already begun in earnest. The aesthetic is quintessential izakaya: cluttered tables and slightly worn furnishings enclosed by walls liberally plastered with calligraphied squares of yellowing parchment promoting the day’s specials; the air hums with animated conversations and the frequent clanking of drinking vessels. But that’s where the similarity to a standard izakaya ends. What keeps the crowds coming is Ajisen’s reputation for excellent food – a rarity for izakayas, where food tends to play a secondary role to the liquid libations. In fact, it’s so renowned for the quality of its fare, that it forced the Michelin inspectors to put down their polished cutlery for an evening and deign the shop with a visit. The result was a bright shiny star – making it one of only three izakaya to be recognised by the red guide.

Ajisen otooshi

Otsukaresama deshita!” Warmly greeted by our hostess, and squashed into our seats at the counter, our night began with the usual suspects: a nama Yebisu beer and otooshi.

From our seats at the counter we could peer into the kitchen where chef and owner Shinichi Araki was busily expediting and preparing the food. As he worked for years in a fish market, and given the shops close proximity to Tsukiji, it’s no surprise that the seafood here is extraordinarily good. On any given day there are around a dozen different fish on offer; each available in a variety of preparations: sashimi, grilled, simmered. A handwritten menu lists their perennial offerings, but you would be best advised to look to the walls for the seasonal specials. In addition to seafood, there are also a variety of proteins and vegetable dishes; all listed with the area they were sourced from.

Ajisen sake

But what my eyes were immediately drawn to was the shelf of sake bottles above the counter, which was a veritable who’s who of well-regarded jizake labels. (They serve shochu too, if that’s what floats your boat.)

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If you see Juyondai on the menu, order it. And if you see it one the menu at Ajisen, order it immediately, as it’s no doubt a hard to find variety and it’s bound to sell out fast. The evening’s offering was the Juyondai “Ginsen” Ginjō Namazume (Banshu Yamada Nishiki 50%), Takagi Shuzō – Yamagata. 十四代 「吟撰」吟醸 生詰* (播州山田錦 50%), 高木酒造 – 山形県. Big, upfront ginka fragrance, complemented by the refined, sweet rice flavour and round texture that is so quintessentially Juyondai. All of the elements harmonised to create a perfectly balanced whole. Hashtag bliss.

*Sake that has been bottled as unpasteurized sake. It is pasteurised once for stability after being bottled. It’s similar to hiyaoroshi sake, which is pasteurised once after brewing, but foregoes a second pasteurisation after being bottled.

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Food takes a while here, so to tide us over we made do with a warm bowl of salty edamame…

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…and longing glances of our neighbour’s enormous iwagaki (wild rock oyster, from Ehime).

Friday night and a full-house, the kitchen was slammed. While Araki-san was battling his way through the fish orders, his assistant was diligently pumping out dishes from the fryer. So in spite of ordering in a logical sequence: sashimi, vegetables, grilled fish and fried food to finish, our meal was served in a slightly hackneyed order – a little frustrating when you’re attempting to order sake to match each course, but understandable given the pressure on the small kitchen.

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A substantially portion of handmade satsuma-age was first to arrive. Made with pounded whiting and studded with vegetables and pinenuts, this tasty fish cake was standard izakaya fare elevated to another level.

The delicate ginjō was a little overwhelmed by the savoury flavour of the satsuma-age, so I hurriedly ordered a tokkuri of Orouku’s Takemichi Junmaiginjō Muroka Nama Genshu (Organic Higashi Izumo-cho grown Yamada-Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 王禄 丈径 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

It’s dignified, muscular and tight bodied with an abstruse & complex flavour. Named after its toji, Ishihara Takemichi, this sake exemplifies his uncompromising brewing philosophy: he only brews junmai sake made from chemical free, locally grown rice, bottled from single tanks. None of Orouku’s sake is blended, filtered, diluted or pasteurised. The result is sake with plenty of personality and vivid impact – making it a favourite of the nation’s junmai fanatics.
(I forgot to document our bottle, so here is a shot of the back label I pulled from the net.)

On first sip, my companion bellowed, “Umai!” and went about silently devouring both it and the satsuma-age. Another convert to the joys of this stellar Shimane kura.

Ajisen croquette

Next, crispy golden orbs of potato croquette. Light and fluffy, they were the antithesis of the stodgy stomach liners that one usually encounters at izakaya.

Just as I was about to send out a search party, the sashimi arrived on a wave of apologies. Any grumbles about timing were forgotten as I took in the glorious selection before us. Clockwise from top left: Tairagai (Aichi), hon-maguro chūtoro (Sannicho-oki, Tottori), shime-saba (Tokyo), shimeaji (Tokyo), murasaki uni (Rebu Island, Hokkaido), magogarei, tai (both from Awaji Island, in the Seto Inland Sea), with suzuki (sea bass) front middle, and a pretty pink kinmedai (both from Choshi, Chiba) in the rear. All were of exceptional quality, but the curing of the shime-saba was particularly memorable, and the soft, creamy, richly flavoured murasaki uni was without a doubt the best I’ve had at an izakaya.

I headed south with my next sake: Azumaichi Junmai Ginjō (Yamada Nishiki 49%), Gochōda Shuzō – Saga. 東一 純米吟醸 (山田錦 49%), 五町田酒造 – 佐賀県.

Mild aromatics with a smooth, clean mouthfeel, and the sweet, rich flavour of Yamada Nishiki rice. Its light expression & balanced acidity made it a perfect pairing to the sashimi.

For my companion, I ordered another offering from Orouku: “Kei” Junmai Ginjō Namazume (Higashi-Izumo grown Yamada Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 渓 純米吟醸 生詰 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

Aptly named “Mountain Stream”, its soft flavour travels across the palate in a fresh, undulating wave. Light and clean with a subtle sweetness and gentle umami notes – it’s an elegant expression of Orouku’s distinctive style.

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An order of anago is de rigeur at Ajisen – it’s what they are most famous for. This nutritious freshwater eel is a summer staple in Japan. When eaten during the hottest days of summer, it’s believed to invigorate ones constitution and stave off natsubate – crippling summer fatigue. We opted for the shioyaki over the richer mushi-anago, to better enjoy the flavour of the wild Matsuyama caught eel that Araki-san uses – “It’s the best you can get”, he says.  Grilled to perfection, the texture of the meat was delicate and buttery. Eel of this quality requires very little embellishment – just a small dab of wasabi to offset its rich fatty flavour. The perfect stamina reviver for a hot Tokyo night.

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By now pressure on the kitchen had eased and I was able to strike up a conversation with the master as he worked away at this station.

Charming and easy to engage, he generously answered our questions about the menu. When he gleaned my interest in sake, his face creased into a warm grin and he disappeared to the “other” sake fridge to retrieve an offering he thought would suit me. And he was spot on:

Amanoto Junmaiginjō Natsuda Fuyuzou Akita Komachi Once Pasteurised (Akita Komachi 40%), Asamai Shuzō – Akita. 天の戸 純米大吟醸 夏田冬蔵 酒こまち 一回火入れ (秋田酒こまち40%), 浅舞酒造 – 秋田県

The softness and grace of this sake was just heavenly – perhaps unsurprising given it’s made by a kura called “Heaven’s Door”. Its refreshing and subtle fruity fragrance was followed through in the delicate sweet flavour. Light and sweet on first approach with a bright acidity and faint bitterness coming later. A sweet rice and umami swells across the palate before ends with a smooth, quiet finish. A most elegant and refined sake.

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While sakana (魚) means fish in Japanese, the “sakana” (肴) in the name actually means appetisers; the kind of flavour packed small plates that drive your thirst on a night out drinking. We went for an izakaya classic: morokyu – miso fermented barley served with chilled, decoratively cut cucumber & eschalot.

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My fondness for tofu misozuke is well documented on this blog. I don’t know what happens during the fermentation process, but the funky, cheese-like result is a beautiful thing. I adore it. Ajisen’s was deliciously creamy and packed with umami flavour.

Had we not been so heat zapped we would have finished with an onigiri, tsukemono and akamiso soup – the later I’ve heard is amazingly good. Oh well, next time.

Our sake glasses emptied, we sat back in the warm afterglow of a great meal. Ajisen’s reputation is well-earned. The quality of the food and sake are exemplary; the atmosphere convivial; and the service is warm & attentive… albeit at times a little slow. As we reluctantly bid our farewells, I found myself wondering for the second time that evening, “Why don’t I come here more often?”

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Tokyo Sushi: Under the Radar @ Sushi Zen

Sushi Zen is as delightful as it is enigmatic. But don’t go looking for it amongst the hallowed names on the Michelin Guide – it’s not there. A tabelog search will produce a bare bones listing proving its existence, but little else. Even a google search will only generate a couple of accurate hits – the rest bring red-herrings that will try to direct you to a sushi chain with the same name.

Why the mystery? Well, it would seem that Sushi Zen is not a place that one finds, it’s one that finds you.

It was a tip-off by a fellow Chowhound that first brought this sushiya to my attention. Their description of a sushi meal that focused less on nigiri, and more on an extended course of high-quality, skillfully prepared sashimi, paired with a superb array of premium sake, sounded… well, it sounded pretty much like my idea of gastronomical nirvana. I had to investigate.Sushi Zen

Owner and itaemae, Kenjiro Imaizumi, earned his stripes at Fuji, an introduction-only sushiya, in Akasaka, before going on to establish his own shop in 2009. While Sushi Zen is not as prohibitive to first-time diners as his former workplace, it does seen to operate under an informal referral system which ensures a discrete environment for his loyal customer base of media-types and well-known faces that work in the area. Keeping the shop under the radar seems to be an effective business strategy, as the counter was still full with diners when I arrived for my late seating on a Monday night.

The first thing you notice upon entering is how friendly and relaxed it is. Imaizumi-san’s face crinkled into a welcoming smile as he gestured me to my seat at his small L-shaped counter. The other patrons, obviously curious about the foreign female who had entered their midst, also acknowledged my arrival with a round of head-bobs before returning to their animated conversations. It was such a contrast to the stilted, formal air of most high-end sushiya, where customers sit in hushed, almost apologetic silence.

Once Ninisix had extracted herself from the impossible labyrinth of the new Shibuya Fukutoshin station, and taken her seat at my side, we asked Imaizumi-san to pick us out a sake to start on. And I must say, his first recommendation couldn’t have been more perfect.

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Isojiman Junmaiginjou Nama Genshu (Premium A-Grade Yamada Nishiki: Koji 50% – Kakemai 55%) – Isojiman Shuzo, Shizuoka.
磯自慢 純米吟醸 生酒原酒 (特A地区東条産 特上特米 山田錦100%: 麹 50% − 掛 55%) – 磯自慢酒造、静岡。

More than any other sake, Isojiman holds special significance for me. My first home in Japan was a tiny hamlet on Shizuoka’s Izu Peninsula, and it was there that I had an epiphany that would ignite my insatiable curiosity for nihonshu: a glass of Isojiman Junmaiginjou. What a revelation! Even now, after so many years of tasting, slurping and swilling, a glass of Isojiman transports me back to that first taste experience and fills me with both comfort and nostalgia.

This pristine and beautifully crafted jungin epitomises the seemly flawless brewing style that Isojiman is so renown for. It’s refreshing and fruity ginka, overflows with aromas of white stone fruit, rock melon and green pears. Delicately sweet, with clean acidity and well-balanced flavour, this elegant sake is not only wonderful as an aperitif, it also has enough oomph to stand up to a variety of foods.

Imaizumi-san

It’s worth noting that there is no written menu or drinks list. Instead, Imaizumi-san presents the seasonal seafood he has on offer, and after confirming your preferences (for us: hikarimono, red fish, shellfish, not so much white fish) and mood (nigiri for the hungry Ninisix, rice in liquid form for me), he goes about tailoring a food and drinks course to suit. I suppose you could call it okonimi-omakase style dining.

Be warned: no menu means no prices, so make sure you bring plenty of cash, especially if you’re drinking. Exclusivity doesn’t come cheap.

Torigai
Thwack! Our meal began with Imaizumi-san slamming a torigai (giant cockle) down onto the wooden cutting board, where it immediately began to curl and contort itself like some strange alien blossom. My knowledgeable companion, who was obviously quite accustomed to this spectacle, leaned over and calmly explained that the itaemae was releasing the muscle to improve the texture. Once the torigai had finished its macabre little dance, it was then chopped into two parts and placed delicately onto counter, where it was quickly dispatched into our awaiting mouths. Late spring/early summer is the best season to enjoy this fugly cockle, and ours, caught off the coast of Chiba, were prime specimens: beautiful glossy black with thick, succulent flesh and a delicately sweet flavour.
With the mercury in the low 30s, the accompanying palate cleanser of finely ribboned, pickled kyuuri was a refreshing alternative to gari.
Juyondai
Juyondai Kakushin Junmaiginjou Hon-Nama (Dewasansan 80%, Yamada Nishiki 20% – semaibuai: 50%) – Takagi Shuzo, Yamagata.
十四代 角新純米吟醸 本生 (麹米:兵庫県特A地区東条産山田錦20% – 掛米:太古活性農法米出羽燦々80% – 50%), 高木酒造 – 山形県。
Next up on the hit parade: Juyondai, a producer of artisan sakes which are as beautiful as they rare. Almost transparently clear with an upfront fragrance that brings to mind images of melon and ripe grapefruit. A beautifully composed sake that combines the fresh vibrancy of a shinshu with the distinct elegant fragrance and sweet rice flavour that is characteristic of Juyondai. Finely textured with a taste that lingers and reverberates in the palate – this is a sake to be savoured.
Tairagai
Two thick slices of tairagai (the abductor muscle of a pen shell) made an appearance – though not for long. The milky white meat was firm and crunchy, with a mild umami flavour. A dab of freshly grated Shizuoka wasabi further enhanced it’s delicate sweetness.
Kohada
For our edification, Imaizumi-san served a luminous duo of kohada (caught near Nanao, Ishikawa) which had undergone different lengths of curing: prepared on the day (left) vs. one cured three days earlier (right). The fresher kohada was noticeably plumper and soft, with only a slight tang in its flavour. In contrast, the three-day cured pieces, which had lost much of their oil content during marination, were denser in texture and had a deep, satisfying taste that elicited loud mmm’s of appreciation from Ninisix and myself.
Nabeshima
Nabeshima Aiyama Junmaiginjou (Aiyama 50%) – Fukuchiyo Shuzo, Saga.
鍋島 愛山 純米吟醸 (愛山 50%) – 富久千代酒造、佐賀県。

“Do you have any Nabe…?” Without missing a beat, Imaizumi-san dipped below the counter and reappeared cradling this purple labelled bottle, a knowing smile spread across his face. Limited in production and hard to obtain, this “Lovely Label” is a rare treat. Its luscious fruity scent gives an impression of ripe pineapple, which follows through in the mouth. On first sip, the sumptuous rice flavour and gentle sweetness spreads across the palate, then slowly fades out with clean finish. A refreshing, pure and thoughtfully brewed sake.

Kuruma-Ebi
Next, Imaizumi-san presented a pair of wild kuruma-ebi (Japanese tiger prawn), that had been caught off the coast of Oita, for our inspection. A few minutes later, they were elegantly draped across the counter before us, still steaming from their brief bath in boiling water. The meat was firm, sweet and… a tad overcooked. It was no match for the delectable juiciness of the kuruma-ebi I had experienced at Daisan Harumi, a few weeks prior.
Ebodai Shioyaki
We continued with a simple dish of ebodai (Japanese butterfish) shioyaki. The skin had been grilled to a thin, salty crust while the white flesh remained soft and buttery beneath. Just magic with a spritz of fresh sudachi lime.
Hiroki Jungin
Hiroki Tokubetsu Junmai Namzume (Yamada Nishiki 55%), Hiroki Shuzo Honten, Fukushima.
飛露喜 特別純米 生詰 (山田錦 55%) − 廣木酒造、福島県。
There is plenty of buzz surrounding this small Fukushima kura, and for good reason: Hiroki consistently produces outstanding sake. Unfortunately, its massive popularity combined with small production levels has resulted in scarce supply and elevated prices. No wonder it’s called “the second Juyondai”. But it’s not just hype; evidence of its greatness can be found in a glass of this beautifully composed junmai. It has a restrained fragrance and a light, sweet rice flavour that sweeps across your mouth in a soft wave, then recedes with a clean, dry finish. While is was delicious straight out of the refrigerator, the flavour become much more compelling as it warmed to room temperature.
Aji
This aji (Japanese jack mackerel), from Kagoshima was a knockout. Despite being the start of the aji season, the flesh was exquisitely rich and fatty with a soft, smooth texture. The garnish of fresh ginger and finely chopped asatsuki (Japanese chives) added a dash of colour and fragrance that further enhanced this flavourful fish.
Hon-maguro 2
Let’s just take a moment to contemplate the magnificence of this spectacle: a 1.5kg cut of line caught hon-maguro (bluefin tuna), caught off the coast of Sado Island, Niigata. As hon-maguro is caught in Japanese coast waters, it can be immediately sent to market without freezing, which accounts for why it is both highly prized and outrageously expensive.
Akami/Chutoro

This was my moment of sushi zen. Imaizumi-san cut the maguro in a long cross-section so that our slice of sashimi contained both lean akami meat (on the right) and fatty chutoro (on the left). By cutting it in this manner, Imaizumi-san was effectively reducing the number of portions he could yield from the fish by half – though, he more than makes up for it with a healthy price supplement.

The flavour was out if this world! So good in fact that we greedily ordered up another slice.

Hatsu-gatsuo

Hatsu-gatsuo (the first bonito) is a delicious harbinger of the summer season. The flesh of this north migrating katsuo is lean, rich and softly textured. The lack of fattiness means that one can really appreciate it’s minerally flavour. Served in thick slices with ponzu, grated ginger and a scattering of asatsuki, it was simply outstanding.

When we enquired about its provenance, Imaizumi-san whipped out a map and showed us the exact location it was caught from. He then proceeded to give us a masterclass on the migration patterns and routes of katsuo– a most entertaining education.
Suigei Jungin 2
Suigei Junmaiginjou Ginrei (Matsuyama Mitsui 50%) – Suigei Shuzo, Kochi.
酔鯨 純米吟醸 吟麗 (松山三井 50%) – 酔鯨酒造、高知県。

It had been a few years since I last tried the jungin of this popular Kochi kura, but it was just as approachable as I remembered it. It has a fairly restrained nose with hints of sweet fruit that continue through in the flavour. Its complexity, refreshing acidity and dry finish make this sake a good companion to a wide variety of food. It paired particularly well with the umami packed flavours of the katsuo tsumami.

Michizakari
Michisakari “Junmai” Daiginjou (Matsuyama Mitsui 45%) – Michisakari Shuzo, Gifu.
三千盛「純米」大吟醸 (松山三井 45%) – 三千盛酒造、岐阜県。
Michisakari, a historied and much celebrated shuzo, was championing a dry style of sake long before the big brewers in Niigata kicked off the karaguchi boom in the mid-seventies. Their junmai daiginjou firmly maintains the integrity of the kura‘s early vision by bucking the trend for a highly aromatic and fruity expression of junmai daiginjou and delivering a dry, sharp taste which cuts through your palate like a samurai sword. A perfect match for the sushi that was to follow. Served chilled the flavour was a little tight, but after it warmed in my hand more mellow rice and umami flavours came to the fore. I’m look forward to revisiting this as kanzake once the temperature starts to cool.
Hatsu-gatsuo nigiri
While I was distracted in a conversation with our amiable neighbours, Ninisix ordered a short course of nigiri of hatsu-gatsuo, kohada, shiro-ika (white squid) and akagai (ark shell clam). Her expression gave little away, but she admitted later that is was good, but not great. This reinforced our view that Sushi Zen is more of a destination for a sashimi degustation rather than a traditional nigiri course.
Nakaochi maki
I joined my companion in the final course of nakaochi maki. The fatty maguro filling is meat scraped with a spoon from between tough strips of suji (connective tissue). Sounds frightful, but tastes delicious. The maguro was wickedly rich, but its glorious flavour was let down by somewhat by underwhelming rice.
Tomizou Jungin
Hatsukame Junmaiginjou “Tomizou” Organic (Organic Yamada Nishiki 50%) – Shizuoka.
初亀 純米吟醸 「蔵」オーガニック (有機山田錦 50%) – 初亀酒造、静岡県。

There were 7 sake available on the night (the selection and quantity changes weekly), and I was determined to try them all. To my delight, our host served another sake from Shizuoka to finish on. Well played!

Named after the kura‘s founding father, Tomizou is a limited edition label (released just twice a year) from Shizuoka’s Hatsukame brewery. Their sake tends be sharp and dry, but this organic jungin indicates the kura is heading in a new direction. It is the pet project of the young toji who aims to invigorate the brand by marrying traditional brewing with new technology and high quality organic rice. It is crystal clear and perfumed with the aromas of honey and soft flowers. The light and elegant flavour spreads smoothly across the palate, revealing notes of sweet rice and crisp Meyer lemon. Yum!

By now our glasses were drained and our appetites replete, but yet we lingered on, reluctant to bring an end to what had been a most pleasurable evening.

Imaizumi was a consummate host, deftly predicting our every need and pacing the service of food so that one never felt rushed or left wanting. His affable character put everyone at ease and set the tone for the room: along the counter, strangers had become drinking companions and the room hummed with lively conversation.

The informal atmosphere, free from the stifling codes of behaviour that usually apply at exclusive sushiya, is really that makes Sushi Zen the kind of place you want to return to every night… and I’m told many of his customers do – lucky sods.

It’s food experiences like this that make me seriously consider giving myself over wholly to gluttony.

Sushi Zen
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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
03-6278-7765

Tokyo Izakaya: My Favourite Counter

Teiji Nakamura may not be a name many are familiar with, but you most certainly should be aware of the fine establishments of this renowned restaurateur. When an occasion calls for good food and sake with a touch of sophistication, his flagship izakaya, Namikibashi Namamura, and its equally impressive sister shop, KAN, have long been my destinations of choice. However, since the departure of KAN’s talented head chef, Sasaki-san, I have been looking for a new shop to call home. Thankfully, I didn’t have to search far as a prodigy of Nakamura, Kotaro Hayashi, had opened at shop which seamlessly filled the void.
Opening last year to much fanfare from the local foodie community and immediately drew praise from such luminaries as the izakaya guru Kazuhiko Ota, who is a regular. But, as with any place in Tokyo that has a buzz about it, getting a reservation was – and still is – frustratingly difficult. Despite my jouren-san (regular customer) status, I couldn’t get a reservation there until early this year, and even then I had to book three weeks in advance!
Located behind the Ceralean Tower Hotel, in the tangled backstreets of Sakuragaoka, Kotaro-san’s shop has the trademark Nakamura look: stylish, contemporary ambiance combined with a wabi-sabi aesthetic. The narrow shop is dominated by an elegant wooden counter that encloses the focal point of the space – an immaculate kitchen, with a few table seats at the rear for groups of four. Because of its small dimensions, it seats only 22 diners, the shop immediately feels cozy and intimate.

Before opening his own izakaya, Hayashi-san rose through the ranks of Nakamura’s establishments; beginning at Playground, in Shimokitazawa, before going on to head the kitchen at KAN for 10 years.

The influence is immediately noticeable on the menu, with many classic ‘Nakamura’ dishes making an appearance. What is also evident is that Hayashi-san pays close attention to seasonal ingredients, utilising produce from well-sourced regional purveyors and organic farmers. Along with its rustic washoku fare there are a variety of small plates of umami packed otsumami that pair nicely with sake.

On a late summer visit, a refreshing glass of French sauvignon blanc was the call of the day – I forget what it was, but it sure hit the spot. We settled into our seats and nimbled on a tasty otoshi of shintorisai and green soybean ohitashi, garnished with katsuobushi.
Sake lovers will take comfort in the staff’s thoughtful selection of jizake a rarity in Shibuya. They stock a variety of sake from 8 well-regarded kura: the first page of the menu lists lighter varieties; the second, more full-bodied sakes, with plenty of yamahai for those that like a more robust style.

 

I am always delighted to find offerings from Shizuoka on a sake list, and even more so when it’s Kikuyoi; a kura which consistently produces excellent sake. We started with an old favourite, the Kikuyoi Tokubetsu Junmai (喜久醉 特別純米 – Yamada Nishiki 60%). This slightly golden hued sake has a fruity, pineapple aroma and a mellow, ricey junmai flavour. Dry and finely textured, this sake makes you want to go back for more.

Watching Hayashi-san’s expert and rhymic knife skills was almost as enjoyable as eating the pretty sashimi moriawase he placed before us.

Not only is the sashimi of very good quality, it is also made with sustainable fish. From front left: shime-aji (white trevally), katsuo (skipjack tuna), shime-saba (cured makerel), sanma (Pacific saury) and shako. The soft purple-hued shako (Mantis shrimp) is a violent little crustacean which comes into season around summer. Its slightly grainy texture really sings with a spritz of fresh citrus.

A ‘Nakamura’ classic: Creamy, silken yakko (fresh tofu) dressed with a warm sesame soy sauce, topped with sauteed leeks, jako (fried baby sardines) and a chiffonade of katsuobushi. The soft, creamy tofu is perfectly complemented by the salty and crunchy topping. This is a dish which could certainly convert even the most ardent carnivore to the joys of the humble bean curd.
Another consistently good sake that works well with summer seafood is the Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funeshibori (石鎚純米吟醸緑ラベル槽搾り- Yamada Nishiki 50%), from Ehime. It’s lightly fragranced, with a faint sweetness that is balanced out with mineral notes and a pleasant acidity. Crisp and refreshing like pure spring water.
With the mercury still in the 30’s, I had a craving for a bright and clean salad to combat my summer lethargy. Hayashi-san was sympathetic to my plight and generously offered to make us something off menu, rustling up a vibrant salad of fresh, organic aubergine, new season tomato and Tokyo bekana (a  small Chinese cabbage) with a piquant shiso and sesame dressing. Delicious and revitalising – he read me perfectly.
Sanma is a peak this time of year, and is ubiquitous on menus. A relation of mackerel, this humble and inexpensive fish needs little embellishment; salted and charcoal grilled (shioyaki), and a simple garnish of grated daikon seasoned with soy sauce and a splash of fresh sudachi lime is the best way to enjoy its richly flavoured flesh.
Impressed by the summer menu, I immediately re-booked for autumn; a time when a cornucopia of harvest produce is available and fish, plumped up with fat after their long swim down from the cold waters of the far north, return to the Japanese archipelago in abundance. It’s my favourite season for food.
Anago (sea eel), duck,  kaki (oysters) and buri (yellowtail) feature heavily on the autumn menu, but what I was most excited about was the return of ankimo (monkfish liver). Anyone who knows me, will be well aware that the start of autumn heralds the beginning of my annual ankimo binge… and if Hayashi-san’s homemade ankimo ponzu was anything to go by, it was going to be a dangerously delicious season.
The clean and dry flavour of Taka’s Tokubetsu Junmai (貴 特別純米長州の純米酒 -Yamada Nishiki/Hattan Nishiki 60%), from Yamaguchi, works well with the richer flavours of autumn food. It has an appealing fruity fragrance, with mellow sweetness and gentle acidity – very quaffable.
Another ‘Nakamura’ classic: potato salad. A simple dish elevated to another level with the addition of a perfectly cooked smoked egg and goma dressing.
Shichihonyari is made by one of Japan’s oldest breweries, Tomita Shuzo. Founded in the 1540’s, near the shores of Lake Biwa, the history of this tiny kura is as compelling as the well-crafted sake they produce. 15th generation brewer, Yasunobu Tomita, may be young and worldly, but he also has the wisdom to continue to produce sake in accordance with the philosophy and traditional techniques of his forefathers. Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Namagenshu (七本槍 純米吟醸 垂れ口直汲み 生原酒 – Tamasakae 55%), made with Shiga’s native Tamasakae rice that is pressed using a traditional wooden fune, embodies the taste and artisan craftmenship of this grand old kura. It has an appley ginjo fragrance, with a mellow flavour that finishes crisply, leaving your palate refreshed for another sip. Divine!
The penultimate dish was a hearty buri, tofu agedashi and kinoko ankage, that Hayashi-san divided into individual portions for my companion and me. Ankage is a thick, clear sauce made with kuzu (arrowroot) flour, so it has the slightly neba-neba consistency that my Japanese friends adore…and I struggle with. The buri was buttery; the tofu soft and pillowy, and the mild dashi flavour of the sauce was nicely enlivened by the grated daikon and dusting of yuzu zest. I really wanted to enjoy it, but that gooey texture puts me off every time.
While my friend greedily finished off my bowl, I sort sustenance in a tokkuri of Souken Tokubetsu Junmai (宗玄 特別純米 純粋無垢 – Yamada Nishiki 55%), from Ishikawa. Elegantly fragranced and a clean mouthfeel, with plenty of flavour and excellent balance.
Make sure to leave room for the bukakke udon which Hayashi-san makes by hand each day. It’s a little nod to his Kagawa roots.

Repeat visits over the past 12 months have left me in no doubt that the team here are on top of their game. Their passion and knowledge of seasonal produce is evident in the consistently good food and sake they showcase each month. But what I enjoy most about Hayashi-san’s shop is that it hits just the right balance between casual and sophisticated dining. It’s a place conducive to conversation over plates of satisfying food, and the clinking of ochoko with good friends.

[A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy restaurant. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend, or booking at the more English friendly Nakamura]

 

Tokyo Food: Potsura-Potsura, Shibuya – ぽつらぽつら、渋谷

Tucked away on a dark backstreet of Shinsen, the warm glow of light that emanates from this little restaurant has recently been attracting foodies like moths to a flame. This is due in no small part to the enviable coverage it has received in various food magazines, including a glossy four-page spread in the latest edition of Tokyo Calender’s Top 100 Restaurants.

Potsura-Potsura

Local produce-driven izakaya in Shibuya

 Any concerns that I had about this popularity resulting in arrogance or aloofness from the staff were quickly diminished the moment I cracked open the door and was met with an enthusiastic cry of “いらしゃいませ!” A warm welcome indeed.

 

As our party was a group of four we were seated at a table in a discreet alcove near the rear of the shop. However, I recommend securing one of the coveted counter seats from where you can to enjoy watching head chef, Yoneyama-san, a jovial figure dressed in full chef’s whites, and his talented brigade wield their knife skills in the open plan kitchen. Their collective backgrounds in French, Italian and washoku cuisine is reflected in a menu which melds European techniques and flavour profiles with exclusively domestic produce. Yoneyama’s food philosophy is all about celebrating the best of Japanese produce from the ocean, mountains and fields, and he is not just paying lip service to this popular trend; everyday he sources his vegetables from the farm behind his house in Azamino, Kanagawa. Buying directly from the farmer enables him to not only keep abreast with what is in season, but also ensures that he is able to bring produce of extraordinary freshness back to his kitchen each day.

This enthusiasm for domestic produce is not limited to the kitchen. Since the shop opened two years ago, the in-house sommelier, Fujimori-san, has taken it upon himself to become educated about Japan’s growing wine industry. He has travelled the country extensively to talk with winemakers, and after tasting hundreds of wine has amassed a comprehensive cellar selection. His regularly updated wine list is made up of around 60 labels with prices ranging from ¥3,000 to ¥12,000 per bottle, though most sit around the ¥4,000 mark. On his recommendation we began with the zesty Yoshi Sparkling Chardonnay from Takahata winery, in Yamagata.

An elegantly plated duo of ootoshi quickly appeared following our first toast. On the left is a smoked salmon filled choux pastry – a lovely one bite amuse, on the right, a kinoko mushroom and lotus root ‘pate’ dressed with a cheese sauce. A pleasant start to the proceedings.

As I only get to eat ankimo (monkfish liver) in the winter months, I order it at every opportunity – in case you hadn’t already noticed. Fortunately, my dining companions share my predilection for fish offal, so after inhaling this lot ankimo ponzu, we immediately treated ourselves to another round. 

Winter is a great – if not the best – time for fish in Japan, and there is no better way to enjoy the seasonal bounty from the sea than as a moriawase platter. As it was Sunday, the kitchen was carrying a limited quantity of sashimi, so we had to make do with a plate for two between the four of us. What it lacked it volume was made up for by the high quality of the fish: kanburi (winter yellowtail), chu-toro tuna, akami tuna, kinmedai (yellow-eye snapper), houbou (red gurnard), squid, shime-saba (cured mackeral), magokarei (marbled flounder), and ainame (rock trout). They were all very good, particularly the fatty shime-saba and meltingly soft chutoro which were the outstanding. 

The vibrant colours of the seasonal vegetables paid testament to their freshness, and their inherent sweetness meant that there was no need for embellishment. Simply grilled and seasoned with a smattering of salt flakes – delicious. 

                                               

A mille-feuille of yuba sashimi with brown uni (sea urchin) proved to be a hit. The subtle flavour of the yuba was a nice counterbalance to the rich intensity of the uni.

                                       

Next up, a gratin of shirako (yes, that’s cod sperm sacks folks). Creamy decadence.

                                       

As it was a girls night, it seemed only fitting that we ordered a wine produced by one of Japan’s only female winemakers. Ayana Misawa is the fourth generation of Grace, a family run winery in Yamanashi, which produces half the total volume of Japanese wine. The Grace Koshu 2009 is their benchmark wine – perfumed and light in both fragrance and palate, yet with good structure which retains its…well, gracefulness throughout. The fruit is fresh with a hint of citrus and crisp green apple, without being too sweet. Overall this wine is dry and well-balanced, and pairs nicely with the subtle flavours of Japanese cuisine. 

                                             

What do you get when you cross a Japanese chef with a pizza? A mochi flatbread topped with shirasu, ooba (a kind of perilla), and provolone cheese. Strangely good.

                                      

As well as his duties as sommelier, Fujimori-san tends to the front of house, and I must say that tthroughout the evening the service was exemplary. He was warm, attentive, and patiently answered our many questions about the menu. He was also mindful of staggering our order so that dishes were served in a timely manner, and ensured that throughout the evening our glasses were never allowed to empty. A good example of Potsura-Potsura’s customer orientated service was when our buri kama teriyaki arrived in duplicate. At first I thought I was seeing in double, but as it transpired the extra portion was simply sent out gratis from the kitchen so that it was easier for us to share.
The teriyaki glaze was savoury yet deliciously sticky, perfectly complimenting the sweet oily meat. Within minutes we had picked it down to the jawbone. 

Keen to move onto something a little more substantial, we asked Fujimoto-san for something red with a lot of character. Without missing a beat he produced the amusingly named がんこおやじ手造りのわいん (Wine Handmade By A Grumpy Old Man), a 100% organic cabernet/koshu blend from Nakamura Winery, in Osaka. Like a cantankerous Osakan oyaji, this wine had ‘character’ in spades; a herbaceous nose, with a slight hint of black sesame, and a full-bodied palate of spicy berry which receded into a dry finish. The wine would definitely benefit from some time to mellow out so that the tannins are less astringent and overwhelming for the fruit. That said, I would be interested to approach this wine again once it has a few more years under its belt.

Well into our third bottle of wine, we were in need of food with a higher level of absorbency. Thankfully, we had prepared for this eventuality by pre-ordering two claypots of rice, which take 40 minutes to bake. The ikura yakigomi gohan arrived first, and was quickly demolished – definitely the star of the night.

A second pot, this time of octopus and dried tomato, arrived in quick succession and elicited moans of approval from all assembled. 

Well sated we decided against the dessert menu, opting instead to have our sweets in liquid form, which in my case was a refreshing yuzu liquor made by sake brewer Hououbiden, in Ibaraki. It is worth noting that the drinks menu also offers a good selection of sake and shochu – something I will be keen to investigate on a return visit. 

Its quirky onomatopoeic name, Potsura-Potsura, is meant to convey the feeling of an environment where you can relax and linger… and dilly-dally we did. As there was no pressure from the staff to settle up and move on, we sat back with full tummies and rosy cheeks to enjoy our lively conversation which, despite the late hour, showed no signs abating.

Potsura-Potsura
03-5456-4512

Tokyo Food: Uoshin, Shibuya – 魚真、渋谷

The words ‘chain izakaya’ conjure up images of Watami, Wara-Wara, Gonpachi and the other ubiquitous brands which have glutted the market with their riffs on lowest common denominator washoku fare, using pre-prepared ingredients, assembled and served by indifferent staff, at a customer friendly price point. While the price may be right, these are not the kind of establishments one finds quality produce nor creativity – unless of course you consider those abstract squiggles of mayonnaise that smother the dishes as some attempt at culinary flair.

However, it would be foolish to tar all chain stores with the same brush. Uoshin, for example, is a small chain (9 stores in the Tokyo area) of seafood izakayas which offer consistently good food in a friendly and unpretentious setting. Owned by a major seafood wholesaler that does business out of Tsukiji market, the selection and quality of the fish on offer never disappoints. Reliability, reasonable prices coupled with a pretty decent sake list mean that Uoshin has gotten plenty of repeat custom out of me.

In a basement floor, tucked away from the hurly-burly streets of the Dogenzaka, lies the source of fish: Uoshin Shibuya Honten. The aesthetic can best be described as functional, and the service is friendly but direct – make no mistake about it, the focus here is being fed.
No picture menu here. A densely packed handwritten menu lists the specials of the day, a half page of which is devoted solely to the sashimi and grilled fish options. Don’t bother trying to translate it all – just go for the varieties highlighted with a red circle, which signify the market specials.
Naturally, sashimi is the starting point, but if the choosing from the myriad of varieties is too overwhelming then the sashimi moriawase is the best default. The standard omakase plate of 6 varieties starts from ¥1,500 (for 2), but I recommend ponying up the extra ¥900 for the iitoko plate of 7, which uses better cuts of fish.
There is plenty on offer with which to wet one’s whistle. Along with the izakaya standards of draft beer, shochu and sours, Uoshin keeps a dozen or so well regarded brands of sake on hand. As the menu is exclusively seafood, I tend to stick to a light, fragrant style of sake so as to not overpower the flavour of the fish. Favourites include: Isojiman honjozo (磯自慢 本醸造), from Shizuoka (left); Dassai 50 jumnai ginjou (獺祭 純米吟醸50), from Yamaguchi (middle); the robust Denshu special brew junmai (田酒特別純米), from Awamori, was the managers recommendation for the male of the group… meh! 

The menu even includes a helpful beginners guide to sake grades to aid the selection process, bless. 

It’s worth taking a surreptitious trip to the bathroom in order to check out the sake fridge on route. In past clandestine missions I have spied unlisted bottles of Juyondai and various junmai daiginjou’s which I then promptly ordered – much to the bemusement of the manager.

Juyondai’s popularity makes it is nye on impossible to buy retail. Its stellar reputation coupled with limited distribution means that what is available goes to directly to izakaya and restaurants. Even then, when you do come across it on a menu, its either ‘temporarily’ sold out or the basic Honmaru honjozo label. So colour me lucky when I spotted an unopened bottle of the special brewed Yuyondai Honmaru  (十四代「特別本醸造」本丸生詰). It had a light vanilla aroma and soft balanced flavour, without the usual brashness that one expects of a honjozo. Yum.

The perfect drink needs a perfect match, and in my book you can’t get much better than ankimo (monkfish liver); that fatty and fishy fois gras of the sea. Granted, Uoshin’s is of the processed variety, but as expensive attempts to make it at home have failed dismally, I’m not one to complain. 
If ankimo is not available, mirokyu (cucumber with barley miso) and a bowl of tsukemono are good drinking standbys.
                            
Tofu salad with fried jakko and an onsen tamago (the latter of which was omitted due to my gaijin queasiness of barely cooked egg) is a pleasant way to get your 5+ a day.

Or perhaps grilled ika (squid) with marinated vegetables is more to your liking. It certainly was for us.

Fried octopus with daikon momiji (grated daikon mixed with a mild chili pepper), was one of the daily specials, and paired perfectly with the above mentioned Isojiman.

Uoshin is one of the few places I order agemono (deep-fried food), as there is no risk of the oil being contaminated with the taste of chicken – so often the case in other izakaya. The name of this little creamy shimp and mentaiko nugget of yumminess escapes me, but I do remember someone saying it hailed from Ehime.

Handline caught Kinmedai nitsuke (gold-eye snapper braised in sweet soy sauce), is my idea of comfort food. Perfectly cooked so that the flesh easily feel away from the bone, this dish exemplifies what Uoshin is all about: good, seasonal food, done well. 
Just remember to book.
A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy izakaya. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend.

Uoshin Shibuya Honten
03-3464-3000

Tokyo Izakaya: (Kaette Kita) Tobusakana, Shimokitazawa – 帰って来た とぶさかな、下北沢

September 26th, 2010

As the late September typhoon rain descended, the traffic along Kannana Dori slowly ground to a halt. It was going to be long, slow, crawl home.
The words, “Shall we stop off in Shimo for something to eat?” were barely out of T’s mouth, before I had wiped out my iPhone, fired up the tabelog app and put a call through to the best izakaya option in the area, Tobusakana. One step ahead of you, kiddo.

Unbeknownst to me, Tobusakana has two stores directly opposite each other on a small side street a few minutes from the south exit of Shimokitazawa station. The original store (where I thought we had a reservation) is a tiny space made up of a counter and a squishy table at the door; the place has the well loved (read: tatty and worn) look of a shop that has enjoyed many years of regular patronage. The new annex store (where we actually had a reservation), stands in stark contrast; bright & breezy, designed to resemble a hybrid of an American diner and, err… my uncle’s corrugated iron boat shed.

The place has got a fish market feel, with the day’s catch displayed in ice packed styrofoam boxes at the door (today’s specials were kinmedai and Hokkaido crab), and a counter topped with glass cabinets brimming with fishy delights. In keeping with the ichiba feel, the service is boisterous and to the point. “Weclome in!…Now, what do you want?” Sometimes, that’s all you need.

What do we want? Well, it took us a good 20 minutes to come up with an answer, as the menu was a metre long scroll of stylized kanji. While it made for amusing reading, it inexplicably came with two volumes of supplementary food & drink menus – Yikes! Fish, meat, poulty, vegetables, noodles, rice, fried dishes, grilled dishes, & probably even flambeed dishes are available on any given night. Now I was worried; a restaurant that tries to be all things to all people generally only produces a few things well and the rest mediocrely. Then there is the issue of keeping such a diverse range of ingredients in stock; cost/time saving measures such as buying in pre-made, or frozen food to be reheated to order are usually employed so an over extended kitchen can cope. I think a big edit is needed here for the sake of the customer and the kitchen. We gave up halfway through reading the regular menu, and decided to stick with the specials of the day.

First up, our otooshi of nemitsuba, enoki ohitashi and a small bowl of oden, which arrived with our drinks order.

As T has got a little ‘t’ on the way, it was up to me alone to explore the list of 20 odd sake varieties. And a fairly good list it was, too. Again, there was something on it to please everyone’s taste: a few honjozo’s from the well known big brands; some junmais & ginjous of varying styles & providences, along with a couple of less well known brands for enthusiasts. I went with the Jikon (而今) junmai ginjou, from Mie, which I had previously enjoyed at Kudan. It was full and fruity, though as it was the end of the bottle it tasted a tad oxidized.

The MろQ gave us something to nibble on as we waited for the rest or our order to arrive. A standard izakaya dish, it’s basically just cucumber served with a chunky miso made with fermented barley called moromi miso (もろみ味噌). Together the dish is called moromi miso kyuuri – or morokyu/MろQ for short.
A little salty, a little sweet, a little nutty… a great little drinking snack. 

Shitake on a stick! Nicely grilled and still retaining some moisture, though the stacks should have probably stayed on the cutting board.
I’ve seen a lot of these little fellas this month, and I’ve eaten quite a fair few of them, too. The sanma shioyaki was grilled to crispy perfection on the outside and fatty & delicious underneath. It lacked the pleasing smokiness that one gets from the charcoal grilled variety, but it was greedily scoffed up none the less.
Fresh fish is what Tobusakana does best and the main attraction of the night was definitely the moriawase. Nice, generous chunks of katsuo, kampachi (amberjack), mizu tako (fresh octopus), kinmedai (yellow-eye snapper), hotate (scallop) and ika (squid), made up the selection tonight. 
Disclaimer: this wasn’t actually our sashimi moriawase, but rather that of the friendly chaps at the next table, as someone demolished half their plate before realizing it hadn’t been documented for posterity. Thanks fellas! 
If you find yourself in the backstreets of Shimo in need of some place to eat, then you would be hard pressed to find anything better than Tobusakana in terms of good fish, friendly service & cost performance. Thanks to the rain, we were easily able to snag a prime seat at the window, but in more clement weather the place is usually packed all night, so be sure to book ahead. 
While it wasn’t the greatest meal, it was a good one and, just like it’s name – 帰って来た とぶさかな – I will return to the flying fish… but, maybe to the original shop next time.
03-3419-8969

03-3414-6611