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Thursday, Nov. 11, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

No smoke gets in your eyes here


It is not so much ironic as inevitable that the shichirin -- the basic, mass-produced, charcoal-fired clay stove so widely used in Japan in the austere postwar reconstruction days -- has now been reinvented as the favorite cooking accessory for recession- chic dining out.

The appeal is obvious: They're simple, convivial and give off a wonderful warming glow when temperatures drop. You cook your food yourself, as if at an inside barbecue, with all the attendant aromas and imperfections. And, as with nabe and okonomiyaki, the grill acts as a focus (or even substitute) for conversation.

Most shichirin restaurants are low-budget operations, content to dole up spicy Korean barbecues or miscellaneous horumon offal. Not so at Shichirinya. With its wood-clad facade, its comfortable, smoke-free interior and insistence on quality ingredients, it single-handedly redefines the entire genre.

The decor is in simple, understated style: one room with dark-wood tables which fit two comfortably or up to four with intimacy; another at the back in traditional zashiki style; and a small counter for those who prefer izakaya format, in full view of the open kitchen.

The tables have square wells in the center, so that the grill surface is virtually at table-top level. The wooden slats across the ceiling are not just for decoration. They also conceal industrial-strength air vents which suck up all excess smoke so effectively you hardly raise a sweat.

The young waiting staff are friendly, attentive and keen to make sure you understand the recommended cooking procedure for each dish. They also tend your shichirin, checking the charcoal (it's premium Bincho from Wakayama) and changing the grill surface after virtually every course, to prevent cross flavors and the inevitable build-up of black, soot-producing accretions.

The menu is confusing initially, and requires cross-referencing from one section to another. The basic categories include seafood, ranging from superb (if pricey) sashimi-grade o-toro tuna to ichiya-boshi, sun-dried small fish which are a house specialty; beef, mostly wagyu; chicken -- a choice of either Edo-style shamo (gamecock), Nagoya cochin and the gamey-flavored black fowl favored in Chinese cuisine; and mushrooms (meaty jinenbo, hon-shimeji and shiitake), bamboo shoots and other vegetables.

There is also a yakuzen "herbal cooking" category, featuring grilled ginseng, yurine lily and other roots deemed medicinal in the Oriental tradition, along with goya champuru, and garlic bulbs deep-fried in oil until they are sweet, tender and aromatic. There are "Edo style" street-stall ingredients, notably a tasty organic tofu. And there's a catch-all section titled hyakuchin ("curiosities"), which includes sashimi of horse, deer and whale, as well as shirako, namako, an-kimo and other dubious delicacies of the deep.

In short, there's something for everyone -- and nothing we tried was less than excellent. To make it easy, there are also set courses from 3,000 yen up.

Every aspect of Shichirinya has obviously been thought out exhaustively. It hits all the right notes with its combination of casual style and attention to quality. Needless to say it is hugely popular with the Ginza crowd, both for after-work drinking and, because it stays open so commendably late, for after-drink snacking.

In response to such demand, they now have two other branches -- one in the next-door basement (check out the vertical rock garden on the wall overhead as you go downstairs); the other a block away, closer to Shinbashi.

Shichirinya may have repackaged the unpretentious pleasures of yakiniku, but at Birdland they have elevated the grilling of chicken to even more rarefied spheres of refinement.

This is gourmet yakitori (and that's no longer a contradiction in terms) for the Dancyu generation -- well-heeled men, predominantly, with educated taste buds, who are no longer content to squeeze into raucous, smoke-filled plebeian nomiya or squat under the arches at Yurakucho quaffing rot-gut one-cup Gekkeikan. What they get at Birdland is a yakitoriya as spotless as an upmarket sushi shop, and virtually as odor-free.

Quality is everything here, all the way from the farm to the table. The birds in question are shamo raised in free-range bliss in Ibaraki. Their meat is first rate: tender, fragrant and quite fresh enough to eat just as it is. And this is how many people choose to open their meals -- with shamo sashimi, a rare delicacy perfectly matched by a traditional wasabi-joyu dip. Or you can break bread in more Occidental style, with a chicken liver pa^te that holds its own against any in Tokyo.

There are drinks to support either choice: a select list of junmaishu sake; several quality beers (including the Hokkaido-brewed Sapporo Classic, Guinness stout and Belgian Cassis lambic); and a dozen well-priced wines running the gamut from premium champagne to reliable, if unexciting, Chilean cabernets.

Do not be slow in getting in your yakitori order: Such care is lavished on the grilling process (over Bincho charcoal, needless to say), orders take a considerable time to materialize. For this reason there is a lot to be said for not ordering a stick at a time, but going for the set kushiyaki course. It will consist of roughly the following:

Wasabi-yaki -- deliciously rare morsels of breast meat, topped with a dab of green horseradish; liver -- pungent, red and searching; kawa -- the neck folds of the bird, sprinkled lightly with sun-dried sea salt; negimaki -- a classic version of the favorite leek and breast-meat combination; grilled gingko nuts; shiitake with sudachi citrus juice; and tsukune -- three generous-size balls of minced meat, browned crisp on the exterior but still soft, rare and juicy inside.

This is all five-star fare, but top of the bill has to be the a la carte-only shamo no sansai-yaki (grilled breast of bantam with mountain herbs): A whole breast fillet, the skin scorched to the point of blackness, the interior perfectly pink and moist, basted delicately with peppery sansho before being sliced and arranged on a square, hand-thrown platter.

When Birdland opened, this level of sophistication seemed radical. Four years later, the food remains just as noteworthy but, sadly, the pretension levels have crept upward, along with its soaring popularity. Worse still, demand is so great that at peak hours they impose a strict two-hour time limit, which they will enforce mercilessly if there are people waiting outside to get in -- whether or not you are ready to leave. The bottom line: Go late or be prepared to be hustled.



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