Category Archives: Shibuya

Posts about izakaya, restaurants and bars in Shibuya, written by Rebekah Wilson-Lye for Ichi for the Michi.

Tokyo Food & Natural Wine: Ahiru Store, Yoyogi-Koen – アヒルストア、代々木公園


Although it opened in 2008, I only came across Ahiru Store last year, when I made note of its strong ranking on tabelog during one of my regular late night trolls for inspiration. A few days later, it was splashed all over the pages of Brutus magazine’s wine bar edition and,  needless to say, as soon as Ahiru Store was given that local style barometer’s seal of approval, seats (and even standing room) at the tiny bistro were immediately among the most coveted in town.

One year on and the buzz shows no sign of abating. From the moment it opens at 5pm till the last orders are called there is a constant line of customers patiently queued outside Ahiru’s door. 


Standing in line on a small backstreet in Yoyogi-Koen, your appetite is teased by the heavenly aromas of roasting meats & herbs that emanate from the small kitchen and a tempting window display of freshly baked breads – it can be a torturous wait. But persevere and the pay off is some seriously good eats.


If you are lucky you can snag a stool at the counter, otherwise you will have to make do with space around one of the wine barrels that double as tables for standing patrons. 

 
Owner and sommelier, Teruhiko Saito, is a busy man. He spends the entire evening in a state of constant motion: turning over tables, taking orders and preparing appetisers. He also runs a tight ship, so be prepared to order your drinks straight away. You can choose from the selection of bottles (mostly French) displayed on the wall, or from the daily selection of four red and white options by the glass (¥800). Although he is a harried man, Saito-san is generous in giving descriptions and helping customers make selections from his vast selection of shizenha (natural) wines; a genre is he obviously passionate about.
 

‘Natural’ has usurped organic and biodynamic to become the latest buzzword in wine.  But what does it actually mean?
 
Well, there is no official definition of natural wine, but essentially its organic or biodynamic wine made with minimal intervention: no additives or tricks of technology. In other words, natural wine eschews commercial yeasts, preservatives and (in France) sugar – yes, it’s considered a chemical in the natural viticulture world. The result is a naturally fermented ‘naked’ wine, low in sulphur, and, as it is made in small quantities from single vineyards, it is said to better capture the characteristics of the terroir and grape.

 
Hipsters, who love to fetishise the authentic, have been quick to champion the natural wine movement for its old school techniques and anti-establishment ethos. In fact, they will probably delight in telling you that they were drinking it ‘before it was cool’…groan! But its popularity can’t just be attributed to Williamsburg residents and the wearers of ironic spectacles alone; for equally ‘on trend’ individuals and restaurants that adhere to a foraging, slow food philosophy, natural wine has been fervently received as the logical accompaniment to farm-to-table cuisine. 
 
 
Japan has become one of the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines (some French makers saying that it accounts for more than 50% of their exports), which is hardly surprising given the public’s concern about the origin and purity of food in the wake of last year’s Tohoku disasters. Another practical reason for its popularity here is that the Japanese have a hard time metabolising alcohol, so the low sulphur levels in make it an ideal choice for their constitution. A cynic like me would also add that it could also due to Japanese consumers susceptibility to aggressive marketing (the annual Beaujolais Nouveau mania being case in point) and a cultural tendency to equate purity with quality.

Natural wine has been heralded by some as the future of viticulture, and dismissed by others as ‘faddish, fault-indulgent hippie juice’, with Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker going one step further by declaring it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers”. It’s hard to disagree with the philosophy and ethics behind the genre, so why does this wine have aficionados so staunchly divided, and more importantly, how does it taste? Well, that’s exactly what I came to Ahiru Store to find out.
 


Intrigued by his description of apples and calvados, I ordered La Treille Muscate’s Vendange Tardive 2008, from the Haute Corbieres area of Languedoc-Roussillion – a blend of macabeu & pinot gris. The wine had a peachy hue, with the taste of over-ripe apples and honeycomb, marred by musty sherry notes and a staleness that I would describe as oxidised. It would seem that Saito-san’s description of calvados was a literal one, as it definitely tasted like a fortified wine – albeit one that had been filtered through an old Gallic sock. Why this was being recommended at the onset of a meal was beyond me. Not a great start to the evening.

On a brighter note the food here is excellent. Saito-san’s sister, Wakako, is at the helm in the kitchen, preparing rustic, home-style French fare with aplomb. 

We started with a basket of their in-house baked breads: potato & rosemary focaccia and a moreish wedge of the onion pain de campagne. Both were outstanding. I should mention that you don’t have to dine-in to sample their selection – it can be bought from the door as take-out.

 

The bread was also put to good use mopping up this simple preparation of haricot beans cooked in olive oil with sage, and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.

A salad of avocado and octopus with a wasabi infused olive oil and garlic dressing. Generously portioned and delicious. 

I still have cravings for the parmesan and sesame studded grissini, which come tied with ribbons of prosciutto ham. Devilishly addictive. 

After requesting something a little dryer, I was served a glass of Cheverny “Les Perrieres” 2011, by Christian Venier. As soon as I put the glass to my nose, I was hit by the pungent smell of wet stone and tarragon vinegar. My first sip only served to confirm my initial suspicion – the wine was spoiled, acetic and all together unpleasant. I didn’t know whether to send it back or toss it over my salad. Of course, I couldn’t send it back as this is how it was suppose to taste; its fermented in a tank with a loose seal to encourage oxidation which, when properly managed, creates umami characteristics – or vinegar, when it’s not.

Down but not out, I ordered a glass of the Cheverny La Pierre aux Chiens, again by Christian Venier (pictured above, next to the La Treille Muscate). It is worth noting that all of the wines at Ahiru Store are served chilled – even the reds – due to their unstable nature and propensity to spoil. It was a smart, light-weight pinot with the flavour of cherry, cranberry and a touch of earthiness. While quite drinkable, it was a little too light in my opinion – more like a grape juice than pinot noir. By this stage I felt like asking, “Can I please have a wine that tastes like wine?

 
I sort solace in a delicious plate of sanma confit. Its slow cooking in oil had rendered the meat meltingly soft, and I greedily devoured it, head, bones, tail and all. 
 

Everything at Ahiru Store is produced in-house, from the pickles to the tasty selection of sausages which Saito-san grinds and stuffs himself. As I don’t eat meat, it was up to my companion to ‘take one for the team’ with a hearty plate of pork and shallot sausage with potato salad. They then proceeded to ignore me as they were transported to piggy heaven. I was informed that it was as substantial in taste as it was proportion.


A subsequent visit resulted in much better luck with the wine. This 2010 Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, from Tracy-sur-Loire, had pleasant ripe grape and pear aromas, with a fuller body than one would expect from a sauvignon blanc. It was refreshing with a nice balance of acidity – very drinkable.  

 

There was an audible ‘pop’ on opening of the Vin d’Alsace Laurent Bannwarth Riesling 2010 (second from the left), which indicated this wine was very much ‘alive’. It had a herbaceous nose which opened up to reveal some flinty notes and a touch of calpis (???). The taste was of bright fruit, with a lively yoghurty tang. An unusual expression of riesling, but an interesting one none the less. 

This La Lunotte Haut Plessis, made with a rare Loire grape called Menu Pineau, was a bottle of liquid sunshine. Slighty cloudy in appearance, with aromas of citrus and, err.. sauerkraut. It was light and dry with vibrant acidity that made me wake up and take notice. Something worth revisiting in the hot summer months.

It was the night before a public holiday and, as last orders were called, Saito-san dimmed the lights, turned up the Kraftwerk and popped some bubbles – he clearly had recreation on his mind. Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot’s 100% chardonnay sparkling Cremant du Jura was fresh and crisp with a complex texture, cut through with a slight acidity and layers of mineral notes. A little more savoury than I like my bubbles, but quite enjoyable.

I applaud the ‘less-is-more’ debate that the natural movement has instigated in the greater wine industry, and believe that a shift backwards, to less chemical intervention and more conscious production, will ultimately be a step forward. Over the past few months, I’ve had some ‘ahh’ moments: well crafted, vibrant wines, such as the Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, have definitely opened my eyes to the enormous potential of the natural genre. However, what is stopping me from jumping on the natural wine bandwagon is that when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are atrocious! A disproportionate number of the wines I’ve tasted were funky (in a bad way), overly acidic and unpleasantly weird. Rather than being pure expression of the terroir, these wines would best be described as micro-bacterial disasters – a result of natural wine makers focusing too dogmatically on the process, and not enough on the quality of the end result, perhaps? So for now, I remain firmly on the vineyard fence.
 
What I am sure of, however, is that Ahiru Store deserves all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. It’s a lovely neigbourhood bistro, serving well prepared, produce-driven food at reasonable prices. I love the buzz the informality here. 
 
So regardless of where you stand on the ‘natural vs. conventional’ spectrum, if you approach the wine with an open mind, you will walk away from an evening at Ahiru Store delighted.  
 
NB: Reservations can be made for no later than 6:30pm. 
 
03-5454-2146
 
 

Tokyo Standing Bar: Fujiya Honten Wine Bar, Shibuya – 富士屋本店ワインバー, 渋谷

Kicking around the south side of Shibuya Station after Funkommunity’s epic first gig in Tokyo, we were feeling peckish, but indecisive. Not wanting to commit to a sit down meal, we headed to Fujiya Wine Bar, an offshoot of the infamous tachinomiya, Fujiya Honten. The original is a bit of an institution and the preferred watering hole for local oyaji who like to drink cheap and eat even cheaper – nothing is over ¥500. But that grimy dive bar is a far cry from its sparkling new standing bar, which is designed to target the youngermore urban demographic that frequent the area.


No oyagi here, it’s mostly dating couples and young professionals, but the basic ethos is still the same: a huge selection of bargain basement priced wines and inexpensive small plates of pan-European fare served without any airs or graces. 
    


The wine list is a thick wad of laminated cards of that profile a vast selection of inexpensive new and old world wines. Prices range from ¥1,600 – ¥4,500, but most hover around the ¥2,500 mark. There are also about 20 red and white wines available by the glass for ¥500. Go for a bottle, because what you can’t drink, you can take home. And given that the prices are just a few hundred yen higher than retail, that’s a pretty good deal!

I was tempted by the Hugel Riesling, but as the music had shifted our thoughts to The Land of the Long White Cloud, we opted for a bottle of Old Coach Road Chardonnay, the economy label of Siegfried Estate; a winery renown for making of some consistently good New Zealand whites.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, tachinimoya are a great option for those in need of something ultra casual; you can drink order a drink and a plate then move on, or (as in our case) order cheap booze and food for as long as you can bear to stand. Generally, food is snacky and fairly underwhelming – drinking being the main focus. So it was pleasant surprise to discover that the dishes being pumped out of Fujiya’s small kitchen were both generously proportioned and tasty. 


Table menus and blackboards list a variety of tapas and izakaya style dishes priced between ¥500-¥800. Apparently an English menu is available, but, as is so often the case, it only has their standard items – you will need to as for the daily specials.   

I handed over ordering duties to The Stylist, as I did the obligatory Instagram photo documentation, and it seems that he was hungry, because we soon ran out of table space to accommodate it all.

A mixture of olives and pickles. Sure, they were straight out of the bottle, but at least they weren’t stingy with the portions.

Tai capaccio. Not so keen on the cherry tomato garnish, but the marinade was tasty and the fish nice & tender.

The Poor Man’s Caviar, or caviar d’aubergine, was nicely seasoned but lacked the smokiness of charcoal grilled eggplant that is the hallmark of the dish.

The elaborate saucing of the dishes made me wonder if there was a frustrated artist in the kitchen. Our caprice salad may have been made with hot house tomatoes and commercial mozzarella cheese, but the post-impressionist flourishes of basil dressing enlivened it nicely.

Kani-miso a la Jackson Pollock? A playful interpretation of an izakaya standard: crab meat deep fried in a thread-like patter with tobiko and a creamy kani-miso (crab entrail) sauce.

Kaki (oyster) and spinach gratin with a crunchy parmesan topping. Piping hot, creamy and packed with flavour.

Did they know we were coming? An order of lamb chops and sweet potato (or kumara, as we call it back home) was an obvious choice for a group of displaced Kiwis. The meat could have done with a little more resting, but judging from the oohs and aah’s from around the table, it was a hit.

The boys give their seal of approval. Last orders were called at 10:30, and by that they meant, “Drink up! We’re closing at 11pm.” Sure enough, at 11:01 – on the dot – we found ourselves on the pavement looking for a venue for our nijikai.

While the send-off may have been a little perfunctory, Fujiya Honten Wine Bar had served its purpose: we had full tummies and a cheap wine buzz. Its combination of good food and wine, low prices and convivial atmosphere make this standing bar a great option if ever you find yourself at a loose end on the south-side of Hachiko.

Fujiya Honten Wine Bar 
03-3461-2128

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 Food: Oden Kappo Hide – おでん割烹 ひで、渋谷

October 20th, 2010
Oden, such a humble dish, yet it seems to have a polarizing effect; you either love it or hate it. I am firmly in the pro-oden camp. I love the heady aroma of dashi with base-notes of cabbage, which emanate from percolating oden pots chock full of daikon, egg, tofu and sundry fish by-products. Mmm…
I was first initiated into the joys of oden while living in South Korea, where odeng (오댕) is street food eaten cheek by jowl with strangers from little carts, or out the back of a battered Hyundai ute. In the brutal -25C winters, a hot snack of skewered fish cake dipped (and invariably double-dipped) into the communal bowl of chili spiked soy sauce, along with a paper cup filled chaser of murky dashi broth, was literally bliss on a stick. Given this humble introduction to the dish, it is of little surprise that I am no snob when it come to oden; a styrofoam cup of insipid 7-Eleven oden is a-okay with me – a sentiment that makes most foodies recoil in horror. 
Aware that a re-education was needed, I took it upon myself to investigate the finer oden fare available throughout the country, along with the differences in regional preparations. With this mission in mind, I chose Oden Kappo Hide, which specialises in Kansai-style oden, as my starting point. Located amongst the garish love hotels of Maruyama, Shibuya, Hide is a throw back to the Showa-era, before neon and instant sexual gratification took over the area. The shop was originally a teahouse where customers were entertained by geisha trained in the art of dance and witty conversation. Post-war, with clientele declining, the shop had to diversify to survive; the front parlour was turned into a small kitchen enclosed by a tiny 8 seat counter, with the tatami rooms, at the rear, providing seating for larger groups.
Stepping over the threshold, we were warmly welcomed by our kimono-clad hostess and, amongst a flurry of apologies for the cramped space, squeezed into our perches at the counter. 
The focal point of the kitchen is the master’s pot, which bubbled away enticingly before us. Hide’s chef is obviously very house proud, as his stainless steel pot was immaculately clean with each ingredient neatly ordered into compartments. Throughout the evening I marvelled at his ability to multi-task; preparing the various fresh, grilled and fried dishes with the efficiency that comes with years of practice, all the while keeping a keen eye on his oden pot, which he tended to with utter devotion. 
However, there were some appetizers to get through before we could hit the main attraction. We began our meal with an otooshi of goma-tofu, which is always something of a textual delight, washed down with a bottle of Asahi. 

There is no menu as such, rather, wooden plagues with the names of food and drinks are hung on the wall behind the chef. Big West immediately spied ‘shirako’ listed amongst them and, to my chagrin, ordered up a plate for us. While he had been successful in converting me to the joys of ankimo, I was less enamoured with the prospect of boiled sacks of fish semen. However, in the name of research, I tried a bit, and concurred that it was, err… creamy. 
Relief came in the form of freshly boiled asparagus, which I chomped on merrily as Big West dispensed with the fishy love bags. 

Things got back on track with the arrival of the pretty sashimi-moriawase of katsuo, hotate (scallop) and shako (mantis shrimp). It was my first encounter with shako, a purple-backed crustacean, and I must say that I was underwhelmed; the flavour was unremarkable and I found the texture oddly chalky. 

Hide has a limited range of drinks on offer: beer, shochu, umeshu and a couple of 500ml bottles of honjozo. The reason for this, the hostess explained, is because they have such a small turnover of of seats that they can’t afford to keep stock of the larger bottles of sake that I they are required to order from suppliers. Fair enough. We made do with a bottle of Urakasumi (浦霞) honjozo… in hindsight, we should have just stuck to beer. 
To go with the sake, I ordered these little guys: hatahata (sandfish) from Akita. Dried overnight, then grilled, the flesh was firm and chewy – in a good way – and the meat was packed with salty, umami flavour. A great little drinking snack. 

Now for the main event. We gave up on referring to the wooden plaques for the names of oden offerings, and instead went with the master’s (non-meat) recommendations: (Clockwise from left) Tofu with a dollop of chunky miso, Tokyo age (‘Tokyo’ fried tofu), daikon (underneath the age) and an egg. All were delicious and cooked to perfection. I was interested to note that it was served without the smear of karashi (hot mustard) that usually accompanies oden. Upon tasting the rich flavour that the dashi had imparted on the ingredients, it was obvious why – it was completely unnecessary. The standout of our selection was the Tokyo age, which had been marinated overnight in dark Kanto soy sauce before being fried and then simmered in the pot. Yum!

Plates cleaned, it was time to dip back into the pot for more. “Tsumire, please!” “Would you like it from the pot or freshly made?” came the master’s reply. Despite the 15 minute wait for it to be prepared, we opted for the later, and our patience paid dividends; the minced sardine meat was studded with yuzu peel, which gave a wonderful citrus flavour to the tsumire and its accompanying broth. Stunning!
It was an enjoyable evening, facilitated by the charming service our hostess, who utilized her geisha training to keep everyone engaged and amused. By the look of the steady stream of couples that replenished the seats at the counter, the food and service have certainly made Hide a popular place for a certain demographic: Middle-aged salarymen and the women who may, or may not, be their wives. 
It is worth noting that the prime counter seats can’t be reserved, and I am told that they are usually full from 5pm until closing, so it pays to call ahead to be assured a place. That said, from the peals of laughter that could be heard emanating from the rear rooms, all clients seem to be well catered to. 
With our tummies filled (bloated) with the warmth of good food, and our desire for better drinks urging us onwards, we settled up and headed into the cacophony of Shibuya. As we headed down the street, congratulating ourselves on stumbling upon such a hidden gem, I turned and saw that our hostess was still in a deep bow, warmly farewelling us and inviting us to come again. It really was one of those, “Only in Japan” moments. 
03-3461-1701

Tokyo Izakaya: Nakamura, Shibuya – 並木橋 なかむら、渋谷

Sunday, August 1st.
Summer sees the arrival of a plethora of antipodean visitors to these shores, desperate to escape the worst of the southern hemisphere’s bleak winter. So while most folks headed to Yokohama to watch the hanabi display, I guided two Kiwi’s through the madding crowds of Shibuya to a quiet side street in Namikibashi, and our destination, Nakamura.
Housed on the 2nd floor of a nondescript office building, Nakamura’s restrained, minimalist interior and subdued lighting give it an air of casual elegance. The room is dominated by a wide U-shaped wooden counter, which encloses the kitchen, upon which large platters of the day’s vegetables and fish are temptingly displayed for your consideration. Discrete private dining areas are also available for larger, more boisterous groups. 
Nakamura specialises in obanzai fare; something which has become a bit of a trend among eateries these days – what’s old is new, it would seem. The menu focuses on homestyle food made with seasonal ingredients. This evening’s specials included a variety of organic vegetables, which could be ordered individually or as part of an obanzai tasting platter. 

We opted for nasu (eggplant), tomato and courgette, which were served on ice with umeboshi, miso and Okinawan salt. Although flavourful and cooling, let’s be honest it’s just a pricey plate of cut up vegetables. The sadachi sours we ordered helped everything go down nicely – including my indignation.


The waiter who attended us grew impatient with my endless questions and requests for kanji readings – fair enough, it was peak dining time and the place was filling up fast. So after a few minutes fretfully deciphering the cursive script, I placed our order and hoped for the best.

Our sashimi moriawase was an elegant array of suzuki (sea bass), iwashi (sardine), katsuo tataki (seared bonito), nama tako (fresh octopus) and tashiuo (great sword fish). The only let down of the evening was that the special of oma maguro (line caught adolescent tuna from the Tsugaru Channel) was not included in the dish.
We were advised to eat the white fish with a squeeze of sadachi and Okinawan salt in order to best enjoy the flavour, and we obediently did just that. All were of good quality, and they did not skim on the portions – as is so often the case with posher places.

Nakamura’s sake list has around a dozen well regarded brands on offer and a sake sommolier is on hand to guide you through the selection process. Prices range from ¥1,000 to over ¥1,400, for a daiginjou, per tokkuri; a little expensive, but one can can’t really quibble when the sake comes served in an elegant urushi bowl such as this.

First up, the sommelier’s recommendation of Ishizuchi junmaiginjou (石鎚酒純米吟醸) from Ehime, which had the soft fragrance of rice and a nice clear finish in the mouth. The bottle was not presented to the table (me being a mere female and all), so click here for a visual.

The agejakko (fried whitebait), okahijiki (land seaweed) and silken tofu salad is one of Nakamura’s most popular dishes for good reason; it’s delicious. Even the Kiwi’s, who prefer their protein to come with a wooly coat, scraped their plates clean.

There was no nitsuke this evening – the bane of dining out on a Sunday – but I was delighted to learn that they had ‘early’ sanma shioyaki on offer; a fish one usually associates with autumn. According to the news, fishermen are predicting the worst sanma season on record due to a severly reduced fish stocks off the coast of Hokkaido. Apparently, ‘global warming’ is to blame – or that just the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestries and Fishing’s code word for ‘overfishing’?
The sanma was indeed early, as it arrived before the sashimi. When I questioned the waiter about timing, he immediately apologised for the oversight (sashimi is usually served at the start of the meal, and I had ordered it as such), and the the offending dish was immediately removed. When it, or rather one of its freshly charcoal grilled brethren,  reappeared later in the meal, it was indeed a happy reunion. The flesh was moist and unctuous with a wonderful smokey flavour. Delectable.


Reminiscing about misspent youths is thirst inducing, so a round of Gorin daiginjou (五凛大吟醸), from Ishikawa, was ordered. It had a fresh, slightly fruity fragrance and a full body, which gave way to a lovely clean finish. Mmmm. By now, the sommelier had realised that one member of our group was a sake otaku (my stack of sake guidebooks must have been the giveaway), and began offering the bottle to the table. Please note; they don’t take too kindly to flashes accidentally being fired – I was soundly admonished by our curmudgeonly waiter for this oversight.

The kiwi’s were well pleased with the golden orbs of minchi katsu which arrived next. The crispy panko coating gave way to juicy, just pink meat inside – or so I am told. The waiter decided that I shouldn’t miss out on action, and presented me with a plate of my own, “Service desu!”. It was a nice, though wasted, gesture and was quickly re-gifted to the Kiwi’s, who thought all of their Christmases had come at once.


Plans were being hatched for a nijikai in Ebisu, so umeboshi ongiri were ordered along with a round of Senkin junmaigingou (仙禽純米吟醸), from Tochigi. The Senkin was refined and elegant with a gorgeous aroma, kind of like cassis… or at least that’s what I managed to glean from my increasingly illegible notes. I have no memory of the onigiri.

Nakamura is definitely a shop to keep in mind when an occasion calls for food and surroundings that are a little more refined that your usual izakaya joint. Overall, the food was fantastic and the service, while at times brisk, was professional and attentive. Sadly, my ordering did not do the thoughtful and comprehensive menu justice, so a return visit is most certainly on the cards.

Nakamura 
03-6427-9580

Tokyo Izakaya: ChaCha Konoka, Shibuya – 茶茶このか、渋谷

April 25th.

Pity the person who is foolhardy enough to ask a Tokyo foodie, “Where would you go to eat in Shibuya?, as the retort will undoubtably be, “Get out of there!” While there is no denying that Shibuya is home to ubiquitous chain izakayas and one coin bars, it is possible to find a few diamonds among the rough.
It was Boo-Boo’s first night in Tokyo, so the occasion called for Japanese food with a dining environment that would make a good first impression. ChaCha Konoka fit the bill perfectly.


Housed on the 6th floor of a high-rise building off Centre-gai (above the Franc Franc store), Konoka is one of the newest ventures by the phenomenally successful Jellyfish group. The company philosophy is design-art-food-sound-style, and as we were lead to our seats, a quick appraisal of the striking interior (Kyoto’s uber-hip fashion brand Sou-Sou has designed the upholstery) and the equality aesthetically pleasing clientele, confirmed that they care a lot about appearances. Thankfully, they appear to to know how to cook, too.

The Cha-Cha group of restaurants specialise in Kyoto obanzai ryori: home-style comfort food that your gran would make, if you were Japanese that is. Obanzai dishes are made with seasonal Kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables), tofu, nama-fu (wheat-gluten), fish and other staples of local cuisine, and are usually served with rice and miso soup. While obanzai dishes may look plain (they certainly lack the fussy presentation of kaiseki, for example), they are healthy and hearty. With everyone jumping on the “eco” bandwagon, obanzai seems to have become the ‘It’ food of the ‘Me’ generation.


The drinks list is comprehensive and includes a selection of a good half dozen or so well known brands. We opted for the Dassai junmaiginjou – a light and clean style, with plenty of fruits on the palate without coming off too sweet. I am often left perplexed by sake brewers choice of epithets. I mean, if Otter Festival won out in the naming selection, what on earth were the runners-up? Raccoon Jamboree?
The otoshi arrived at this stage, each of us receiving a different offering from the kitchen: nama-fu which had been simmered in a dashi broth and a shijiki salad. We followed this up with a trio of obanzai starters – which I subsequently forgot to document , thought I am sure they were good.


As it was late and Boo-boo was drooping after a long flight from Yosemite, we passed on the course menus (¥3,675-6,300) in favour of ordering lighter fare a la carte.
The sashimi moriawase, served on elegant wabi-sabi yakimono, included chu-toro, buri, toro-salmon, madai (red snapper) and, as it is spring, hotaru-ika (firefly squid). While it was all of high quality, they got points off for their stingy portions. For a sashimi glutton like me, one piece per person is downright cruel.


The ‘handmade’ salad with our choice of dressing (kinoko – wild mushroom) was refreshing; the fried jakko adding a pleasing crunch.


Sadly, the kinki nitsuke and shimesaba konbu maki had already sold out, so we made do with the miso cured saba (mackerel) saikyo yaki – which delivered on taste and texture. Thankfully, it was not the dry and overly salty version that one so often encounters.

If you print out the coupon on gurumenabi it entitles you to a complementary bowl of matcha and an okashi (on this occasion, sakura-mochi wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf), and if you are really organised you will remember to bring it. Thankfully, our lovely waitress took pity on me and served it to us anyway. Now that’s how to make a good impression.

ChaCha Konka
03-5728-6444