“You need to eat more,” admonished my adoptive Japanese mama. I knew where this was comment was heading, so instead of getting defensive I sucked in my cheeks for effect.
“Let’s have dinner.”
Dinner with mama meant one thing: Sushi Shin.
Situated on a sleepy residential street in Hirama, 10 minutes drive from both Musashi-kosugi and Kawasaki stations – ‘location, location, location’, this is not. Sushi Shin is so well and truly off the gourmet map that tabelog fails to even register its existence. Not that the owners care. Why would you when your 10 counter seats and upstairs tatami rooms are packed with regulars, friends and family 364 days a year? Their success doesn’t come down to a slick business plan, aggressive marketing, or even the food – which I hasten to add is pretty good, but rather to the enduring relationships they have within this tight-knit community. Here, everyone knows everyone else’s business, they gossip, laugh and celebrate life’s milestones, as well as mourn its sorrows. Sure, its suspicious of newcomers in a “this is a local pub for local people” kinda way, but once you have earned their respect (usually by getting in amongst it and sharing a drink with your neighbours), you are rewarded with warmth and generous service that can rarely be found in the slick sushi-ya of Ginza.
Cheers, Mama! The interior could be described as homely, that is if your home has a wall mounted TV and fluroscent lighting.
One of the few interior embelleshments is this sumo calendar; a gift from patrons, Kitanoumi, former yokozune (ranked third best until he was usurped by Asashoryu) and Sumo Association Chairman (until he was demoted after his Russian wrestlers were caught with funny-shaped ‘cigarettes’), and his lovely wife, Tomoki. It’s definitely advisable to brush up on the sumo bansuke rankings before attempting to engage anyone on the subject.
The shop is run by a comic duo; the owner, Sato-san, who plays Hardy to his sous-chef’s Laurel. A gregarious pair who prepare dishes and humor guests with warmth and slap-stick humour. They do, however, take their sushi very seriously, as it is the backbone of the business. Throughout the night trays of sushi were dispatched to the course menu dinners upstairs (set price ¥5000), and huge platters were prepared in laquerware containers and delivered, by the owner on his ramshackle motorbike, to takeout customers. That said, regulars seem to stick to the standard washoku fare available a la carte. A quick peek at the specials menu reveals the kind of oyaji-friendly items on offer: Shirako (cod sperm sacks), dried and grilled shishamo (saltwater smelt) andくじらベコン (I won’t translate that in case it causes offense). Mama tells me they also do a good イルカ stew (I definitely won’t be translating that one, either). Hmm, maybe not the best dining option for paid-up Sea Shepard members then.
Our saisho biru came with the standard ootoshi of nira and clams in a sweet white miso sauce. By the time I had captured this little vignette on film mama had already gulped back her beer and called out for her shochu bottle, which is kept stored behind the counter. “You need to drink more!” she barked – a pattern that would continue through out the course of the evening.
A varitable bouquet of sashimi moriawase came presented on a wooden sushi board. From left: kanburi (winter amberjack), ika (squid), Hokkaido winter crab, a fatty and well cured shime saba (mackeral), chu-toro, kamaboko (herring eggs with kombu), tako (octopus) – in front, awabi (abalone) – behind. All of very good quality and extremely generous portions – this was a serving for two people, after all.
Mama left me to finish off the lion’s share of the moriawase, and instead focused her attention on a hearty slice of slow roasted pork belly, which even this devout pescatarian had to admit looked and smelled delicious.
Thanks to Mama’s concerns about her cholesterol intake, I got to greedily enjoy this gargantuan serving of ankimo ponzu all by myself. Bearing no relation to the processed ‘mystery meat’ ankimo sausage that it so often dished up at izakaya, this homemade variety fell apart into little nuggets of liver, which were smooth, fatty and delicious – I scoffed the lot. Yum!
While Mama and Papa (who had just joined us having returned from overseeing his pachinko shop interests in Fukushima) stuck to their bottle of mugi shochu, I made head way through the limited selection of sake. There are always 6 standard honjozo on offer: Hakkaisan, Kubota, Kudokijouzu and the other usual suspect brands, but a quiet enquiry to the owner will often result in something a little more interesting making its way across the counter. Tonight, Sato-san ‘found’ a 300ml bottle of Suijin super dry junmai (水神純米大辛口) from Iwate. Fragrant with a robust rice flavour and, as the name suggests, very dry.
I didn’t photograph the くじらベコン and natto handrolls that Papa ordered up from the kitchen; the former was a matter of principle, and the latter was because they were scoffed down too quickly by my surrogate parents. I did get a shot of one of the day’s specials; the curiously named ebi-imo, a taro variety that neither looked nor tasted like a shrimp – just starchy and sticky like all of the other imo I have had the misfortune to encounter.
Mama said the raw young spring onion with miso dripping sauce tasted spicy, and ordered another round. I said it tasted like raw onion with miso, and moved seats.
I had more success with the baby bamboo which had been liberally coated with homemade mayonnaise before grilling. Finger-licking good.
By now the shop was buzzing with activity and lively banter. The counter was filled with locals who regularly changed seats to chat with friends and ply each other with drinks. But be warned, an evening of such merriment at Sushi Shin has only one possible conclusion: Karaoke. Before I could voice a protest, phone calls were made and within minutes a slick haired, white polyester suit dressed man appeared in the doorway: The enka pro. Holy-moly, these old folks mean business!
After an hour of sing-a-longs, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be allowed to depart without performing a song for the crowd. Dutifully, I massacred my go-to enka standard, appropriately named “Izakaya”, and was then allowed to escape into the night.
So, should you go? Well, I can hardly say that Sushi Shin is a shop you would cross town for, and, as I have never seen nor paid a bill, I can’t comment on it’s relative cost-performance. But, if you ever find yourself on the sleepy backstreets of Kawasaki I would suggest you pop in, as you’d be hard pressed to find such generous food and service anywhere east of the Tama river.
My quest for food and nihon-shu in the Tokyo metropolis means that I have clocked up many hours, if not days and weeks, scouring the pages of tabelog.com for inspiration. Love it or hate it, it is a useful search tool, and while I have become wary of the arbitrary nature of the ranking system, I’ve had plenty of successful dining experiences through it, too. So, with my list of ‘go to izakayas’ spawning lists of their own, I (foolishly) decided to devote the 10 days of my summer holiday to knocking some of the buggers off. The first day of my holidays coincided with The Surfer’s birthday, so a booking was made at Nakamenoteppen; an izakaya which had piqued my interest after being named one of tabelog’s top restaurants for 2009 – what the criteria was is anyone’s guess. Nakamenoteppan is conveniently housed on the first floor of an apartment building on a street parallel to the station. Gaining entrance, however, proved to be something of a skill test – of which we failed miserably. The liliputian door, barely one metre in height, had no handle or ‘bing-bong’ and was resistant to force. “How the hell do we get in?” – well, those seemed to be the magic words, as suddenly the door slid open and we were warmly greeted by a spritely waitress.
Entering the shop, there was no reprieve from the sweltering summer conditions outside; we were hit with a wall of heat, which was emanating, along with uncious smells, from the large robata grill that dominated the room.
Seated at the low wooden counter that surrounded the grill, we were afforded a pleasing view of the day’s organic vegetable fare and in-house cured himono, which were assembled on the counter top. Each offering had a hand written plague giving its name and provenance.
Although it was still early, the shop was humming and, by the look of the group of salarymen that occupied the large communal table at the far end of the room, festivities were already well underway. The source of their levity was obviously from the bar, which was stocked with an impressive array of shochu in all of its glorious forms – the house speciality. A quick look at the drinks list reveled, however, they that also had 8 sake of ginjou (or higher) grand on offer – phew!
Given the heat, lemon sours and nama beer kicked us off, along with an otooshi of Kyo-yasai tsukemono; all of which were disappeared fairly quickly. The menu focuses on robata grilled food – natch; lots of veges, dried fish, along with grilled meat and a few Okinawan dishes for the pork lovers. Once our order was placed, the chef, who was boisterously manning the grill, dispatched it with such lightening speed that within minutes all of our dishes arrived and we were forced to colonise the our neighbours counter space. First up, the sashimi moriawase, which arrived on a plate so long that it required two photos: tai, kinmedai, chu-toro, nama tako and shime-saba. All of good grade and cut in generous proportions. Note the personalised reservation and welcoming message in the background – I must be easily impressed because it scored points with me.
Next was the saba heshiko, which packed a salty, umami punch – not an unpleasant thing in my books. This was, however, our one mis-step of the evening – definitely a dish that should be enjoyed at the end of the meal, as the residual salt lingered on our palate for the rest of the evening.
The tsubodai himono had to wait in the wings for a while, but once we had made our way through the first few dishes, we discovered that it was the star of the show. It was deliciously caramalised on the outside and moist within; its time on the robata grill imparting a wonderful smokiness to the flesh. Divine.
By the time our grilled asparagus arrived our dishes were starting to pile up in the most cumbersome fashion. Surely the kitchen could pace the service better than this? In hindsight, we had made a rookie’s mistake; order as you go – the grill waits for no man.
Of course plenty of sake was needed to wash down all of this good, and highly seasoned, food. The Surfer choose the Dassai junmai daiginjou (獺祭純米大吟醸) – always good, followed by a tokkuri of Soukou jumaishu (蒼空純米酒) from Kyoto, which was a revelation.
As it was the Surfer’s special day, we decided to throw caution to the wind and work our way through the rest of the sake list. I had recently enjoyed the Taka (畳) junmaiginjou at Kudan, so was interested to try it in its ginjou form, however, we deemed it too heavy for our palates and the fish-centric dishes we were eating. The Kudoki Jouzu Bakuren ginjou dry(くどき上手ばくれん吟醸辛口) proved to be a winner: crisp, dry and dangerously drinkable – the ‘pick-up artist’ is a perfect epithet for this charming little tipple. As the night progressed, more and more punters managed to work out how to get through the door, and before long the shop was filled to capacity. The grill chef was now working like a man possessed and with each successive order the smoke and heat were ratcheted up a notch, which made for thirsty, and consequently, increasingly intoxicated customers – Hic! One last round: Hayaseura junmaishu (早瀬浦純米酒) from Fukui; Okinawan mamodake and lashings of iced water. The makomodake, a type of young bamboo, was succulent and delicious with a delicate flavour not dissimilar to young corn. It paired nicely with the sake, which according to my notes, was dry and refreshing with a nice level of acidity. I, too, am slightly astounded at my articulatenessgiven the amount of nihonshu that had been put away throughout the evening. Double hic!
Nakamenoteppan certainly delivers good food and atmosphere, and if shochu is your poison, you will be well catered for here. As we staggered to the station, I couldn’t help thinking that if I was fortunate enough to live in a desirable neighbourhood such as Naka-Meguro, this would definitely be my local. So, when the occasion calls for something cheap and cheerful, I will be making a bee-line to Nakamenoteppan, but – mental note to self – I will dress lightly, order slowly and return in more clement weather.