Monday, August 30th
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 (
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.