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Thursday, Sept. 23, 1999


A sanctuary of simple elegance

Kinoji lies well off the beaten track, on an unremarkable stretch of a nondescript avenue. But that only makes it easier to spot the bold, contemporary lines of the five-story architects' building, in which Kinoji occupies the basement level.

The only indication of its existence is a rust-brown bast fiber noren, illuminated from above by spotlights and inscribed in the cursive style with the kanji of its name. Brushing through this and making your way down stairs of immaculate battleship gray, you step into a space of textbook Tokyo minimalism.

Most operations that seat only 20 or so people feel intimate to the point of being cramped. Kinoji, however, is as spacious and cool as a postmodern chapel. The only natural woodwork in evidence is the raised dais with its two low tables, and the chopsticks that adorn each lacquered place setting. Every other surface is matte black, smoothly dressed concrete, sleek steel or opaque glass panels.

Lights flicker off two narrow channels of water lined with pale, gleaming abalone shells. There is no background music, just the trickle of water. A large circular window is cut into the back wall (looking out onto a curtain of green ivy), adding to the impression that you are dining 20,000 leagues under the ocean -- a sensation heightened by the very slight whiff of seaside ozone that permeates the well-chilled air.

All this could easily feel far too sterile, were it not for the unpretentious manner of the people who run Kinoji. It is basically a two-man operation: Suzuki-san is the master of the house, overseeing the kitchen space behind the long, black counter, aided by his ever-cheerful henchman Ishii-san (who prefers to respond to the name Gon). Since neither appear to leave their station for the duration of the evening, all other duties are taken care of by the attentive young waitress (Andoh-san by name), whose friendly ministrations and straightforward personality put everyone at ease.

In terms of genre, Kinoji occupies that uniquely Japanese culinary territory that hovers somewhere between izakaya and ryoriya. If you want to take it slowly, you can drop in for a quiet evening sipping sake, beer or stronger spirits, while exploring the a la carte offerings. Alternatively, order up one of the o-makase courses (6,000 yen, 8,000 yen or 10,000 yen), sit back and make a full meal of it.

As you'd expect, Suzuki-san specializes in seafood. On any given day, there are likely to be 60-odd items on the menu (it changes daily according to seasonal availability and Suzuki-san's whims), and more than half will be of maritime provenance. Needless to say, quality, preparation and presentation are first rate.

On our most recent visit, the 6,000 yen course began with three kobachi, tidbits such as rich ankimo (liver of angler fish), octopus in a creamy dressing of kinzanji miso and small balls of fragrant pink cod's roe. This was followed in order by grilled hamaguri clam, chopped and served in the half shell with a superb, rich white-miso sauce; sashimi, a few morsels of utterly fresh seafood served on grated ice; a mushimono (steamed dish) of white meat fish (ishidai bream) wrapped around a central core of yurine (lily bulbs) and crab meat.

Next came deep-fried crab wrapped in yuba (soy-milk skin) with a trace of cheese; then anago shirayaki (plain, unadorned grilled sea eel) with half a sliced tomato that had been peeled and pickled in rice bran (a wonderful touch this). And, finally, the shokuji -- in our case katsuo kamayaki mazegohan (rice mixed with the meat taken from the "neck" of bonito) -- with akadashi soup and pickles.

The 8,000 yen course includes all the above, with a more generous serving of sashimi, plus two extra deluxe dishes: slices of Matsuzaka wagyu beef, which you grill yourself over charcoal in a miniature tabletop grill; and a further seafood course, which in our case was succulent iwagaki (rock oysters) shelled and presented on ice in a massive shell the size of a small coconut.

The sake is served chilled in hand-blown glass decanters. They currently offer six excellent varieties, all junmaishu, including Ginsuika (Yamagata) and Ginban (Toyama). All the dishes are brought to your table in prompt succession -- which is fine if you're not drinking, but rather too rapidly if you're in the mood for more leisurely nibbling as you chat.

Three further points in Kinoji's favor. First, when you receive your bill, there are no hidden charges or other nasty surprises added. Second, surprisingly, for an operation of this nature, they also serve simple lunches on weekdays -- a 1,050 yen set-meal o-bento -- for the local office workers. Lastly, the kanji character referred to in the name means "enjoy" or "rejoicing" -- which, of course, is totally apt, since discovering little places of this quality is certainly cause for celebration.

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