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Thursday, July 8, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

'Wabi-sabi' with a modern edge


Wasabiya epitomizes the very 1990s genre that has come to be known in Japanese as "dining bars." That means you can treat it as a restaurant, as an izakaya or even as a kind of designer drinking hold; it just depends on how hungry or thirsty you are.

The architecture subscribes to the aesthetic best described as contemporary wabi-sabi. The steep stairs of gray concrete down which you descend from street level are illuminated by washi-look lamps. A miniature garden -- just a couple of lanterns and a slender young maple growing from a wooden tub -- is evinced in a space barely the size of a tatami. A couple of green leaves float in the square, stone water basin that stands by the plate-glass front door.

Inside, the starkness of the walls and ceiling is offset by subtle lighting and the simplest of organic accents: hanging screens, flooring tiles of split bamboo and a few rustic implements. Jazz music plays, but only slightly above the volume of murmured conversation. Wasabiya is quiet and relaxed, chic but understated, and every bit as serious about its food as its mood. Welcome to the world of modern washoku.

There are seats for 10 along the counter, from where you can watch and chat with the kitchen staff as they work, or meditate on the ingredients in the slowly simmering pot of oden (one of the house specialties). Alternatively, you may be directed toward one of the low wooden tables in the main dining area, where you sit on hard, round cushions of woven rush (there is one table for six that has room to stretch your feet down, but you will need to reserve it well in advance).

Surprisingly for an establishment of this style, the menu has been rendered into very intelligible English -- although you will have to ask about the day's specials, which are written out only in Japanese. To make things even simpler, there are also set-course meals, at 4,000 yen or 5,000 yen (the latter featuring king crab); however, these have to be ordered at least a day in advance.

The cuisine covers much of the territory you would expect at a superior izakaya, plus several more unusual and creative items. Portion sizes are modest, being primarily directed for couples to share. But the ingredients are all of good quality. And to their great credit, they use no artificial seasonings: MSG is shunned, except on the shio-yaki (salt-grilled) foods.

As its name suggests, they pride themselves on the quality of the wasabi that accompanies many (but far from all) of their dishes. Head chef Ito-san -- he's the tall guy with the ponytail -- is a native of Shizuoka, where some of the best roots are grown, and he has it shipped direct from his friend's wasabi fields (well, they're actually river beds) on the Izu Peninsula.

The main emphasis is on seafood -- much of it also hailing from Suruga Bay, in Shizuoka. The selection ranges from simple nibbles (sun-dried fish grilled over charcoal; sashimi of whatever is in season) to the "Fisherman's Cuisine" section of the menu, which includes baked hamaguri clams; grilled anago eel; and freshly made hanpen (a firm pate of white fish-paste) dressed with creamy sea urchin and wasabi. Best of the lot is the shiromi-zakana no okaki-age to abokado no tempura (if it's on the list of daily specials): Morsels of deep-fried white-meat fish served with succulent chunks of battered, deep-fried avocado.

There are also sections on the menu devoted to tofu (made with organic beans and natural nigari from Oshima Island); shamo (free range gamecock) grilled on charcoal with a choice of seasonings -- although ours was rather too dry in texture; and salads (all served with shoyu- accented wafu dressing, of course).

The section titled Edo Hyakuchin -- literally "one hundred rare items" -- is also well worth investigating. It features such dishes as grilled jonenbo (meaty, chewy white mushrooms fresh from Nagano); horse meat sashimi, Satsuma style; raw Matsuzaka beef; and that old Edo favorite, gyutan negi-shio-yaki (grilled beef tongue and leek).

To wash all this down, there is beer, of course. For slaves to fashion they have wine, though the selection is limited to Chablis, Chianti Classico or Chilean Cabernet. They also keep a good range of quality shochu in stock -- you can base your choice on main fermentation material (potato, rice or cane sugar) or prefecture of origin.

But really this kind of food cries out for nihonshu. Wasabiya maintains a score of quality jizake brands on its regular menu, culled from many of the larger regional kura -- of which Denshu, Hakkaisan and Kubota are just the best known. They also have a few specials (recently Kubota, Jokigen and Dewazakura), with most priced from 800-900 yen and nothing over 1,000 yen.

Traditionalists can finish their meal with the grilled onigiri rice balls and pickles. If you are more adventurous you should sample their special wasabi-flavored ice cream. We cannot speak for this, since it had sold out on our recent visit, but if it's up to the prevailing standard of the house it should be worth the gamble.

Wasabiya is neither unique nor the ultimate exemplar of this stylish "modern Japanese" genre. But it's one of those comfortable, welcoming places that nourish the spirit as much as the flesh -- and is just perfect for reminding oneself (or demonstrating to skeptical visitors) exactly why one should choose to live in Tokyo at the cusp of the millennium.



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