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]

 

2 thoughts on “Tokyo Izakaya: My Favourite Counter

  1. Martineau Robert-Gilles

    Kikuyoi!
    I met Takashi Aoshima a few weeks ago! He is really busy expanding his kura!
    Superb sake!
    Have you ever tasted Yamashita Mai Kikuyoi made with organic Yamada Nishiki grown in Fujieda City by Mr. Yamashita?
    A must!
    Best regards,
    Robert-Gilles

    Reply
    1. admin

      Kikuyoi is my favourite of all Shizuoka sake. Luckily the owner of one if my favourite sake shops, Suzuki Mikawaya, is also a fan, so I’m able to buy the full range here in Tokyo.
      http://www.mikawa-ya.co.jp
      I haven’t tried any Yamashita Mai Kikuyoi yet, but I’m planning to visit Aoshima Shuzō over the winter break, so I look forward to trying it then.

      Reply

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