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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2000
TORIJAYA'S COMFORT KAISEKI
Come in from out of the cold
Finally we can put behind us the Christmas leftovers and the Hogmanay hangovers (not to mention the Y2chaos that never was) and assume some semblance of normality. Don't get the wrong idea -- we certainly put away our fair share of mince pies and Gaultier-clad millennial champagne over the holidays. But that just makes it even more of a relief to return to the simpler pleasures of the Japanese winter. What's called for now is hearty, warming fare: stick-to-your-ribs udon and bubbling nabe hot pots -- preferably both at the same time.
There are plenty of basic noodle joints to choose from around town. But if you're looking for somewhere rather more special, you can't do better than a visit to Torijaya.
With its traditional wood-clad facade and impeccable adherence to protocol, you would think this place harks back to the bygone days when Kagurazaka was one of Tokyo's premier entertainment districts. However, unlike the venerable and entirely wonderful Iseto just along the alley, Torijaya is a relative newcomer -- and (because it follows the delicate gastronomic creed of Kyoto and the Kansai region) still very much an outsider.
Although it bills itself as an "udon kaiseki" restaurant, do not be overly concerned. Torijaya occupies a comfortable middle ground which is neither stultifyingly formal nor run-of-the-mill casual.
This is also reflected in both its affordable price structure and the relative informality of the seating arrangements. Besides the usual tatami rooms, there is also a counter that seats nine, plus intimate tables for four or six set in their own private niches. The walls and ceilings are covered in wood, and the floors are paved with dark stone. Shoji screens and washi paper lamps diffuse a warm, relaxed light throughout. While much of the clientele is likely to be mid-level salarymen, mostly in parties but sometimes dining solo, there will also be a fair sprinkling of women and younger people. As the evening progresses, neckties are loosened and the sounds of jollification may emanate from the larger rooms. The primary reason why things are always so relaxed is that, no matter the surroundings, sitting around a nabe is always a convivial affair. And the centerpiece of any meal at Torijaya -- not just its raison d'e^tre but the reason why you are there -- is the excellent udon-suki.
The ingredients in your bulging casserole will include juicy chunks of chicken meat (free-range Nasu jidori from Ibaraki), hamaguri clams and several plump shrimp, a variety of vegetable matter and a selection of special tidbits -- quails' eggs, kamaboko (fish paste), rolls of yuba (soy-milk skin), slices of nama-fu (gluten flavored with yomogi mugwort) -- plus, of course, a generous serving of surprisingly chunky white udon noodles.
The broth is a clear dashi stock, flavored only with bonito, kombu and shiitake. In true Kansai style, there is no dipping sauce: You just spoon the ingredients into your bowl and season with one of the two condiment mixes -- either Kyo-shichimi (Kyoto seven spice, containing a high proportion of sansho pepper); or Yagen-shichimi, the more familiar Tokyo variation, based around red chili pepper).
It is entirely permissible to order everything a la carte, although you will need to specify this when you call ahead to reserve (a necessity at any time of year). There is a good selection of daily specials -- such as ankimo (the creamy liver of anglerfish), buta no kakuni (simmered cubes of pork in Kagoshima style), or age-nasu (deep-fried eggplant).
However, the most practical approach is to order one of the set multicourse meals. These range in price from a perfectly adequate 5,500 yen to elaborate and extensive banquets for 10,000 yen or more (and from 2,500 yen at lunch). While the exact composition will vary according to season, a typical meal will include several exquisite offerings arrayed in beautiful vessels of ceramic, lacquer or wood.
First a few delicate zensai starters. Next some sashimi of, say, chu-toro (medium-fat tuna), hamachi (yellowtail) and tai (red snapper). Then a piece of grilled white-meat fish, followed by some nimono (a simmered tofu or vegetable dish). The agemono (deep-fried dish) might very well be a skewer with small balls of squid and salmon meat with a small round taro yam, forming a "Dango San Kyodai" motif. Next up, the udon-suki will be served. If you have any room left after demolishing that, they will bring you a couple of pieces of mochi to be cooked in the last of your broth until it is soft and chewy. Never again will you be able to say that Japanese meals aren't filling. And to close the proceedings, you will be given some dessert (probably a slice of musk melon) and a cup of steaming hojicha. Everything is exactly as it should be, from the precise arrangement of each plate to the expert ministrations of the matronly, kimonoed waitresses. You might call this a weak point: There are no great flights of creativity, and sometimes things do seem to operate on automatic pilot. But this constancy is also a source of great comfort and satisfaction -- exactly the kind of enjoyment you derive from a meal at Torijaya. * * * Although this column is by name and nature Tokyo-centric, we would also like to give some space to notable restaurants in other parts of the country. So, from time to time we will introduce (in Zagat style) places nominated by our readers.
From Hiroshima Prefecture, we are urged to visit a "simple, unpretentious and pleasing" French restaurant named Chagall with a "delightful location" overlooking the Inland Sea. Owner-chef Katada-san offers two fixed-price menus, both of which "are excellent" (though the seafood course is recommended over the beef).
"Every meal was made with perfectly fresh ingredients, with just the right sauces and presented beautifully." The only drawback, we are told, is the limited wine list. It is also "a little pricey" for such an out-of-the-way place. Dinner for two, including a glass of sherry and a bottle of Penedes red wine, will come to about 10,000 yen.
"To find such a place in Tokyo or Osaka is routine," our correspondent says, "but this place is a wonder!"
Chagall (1751-4 Suwa-cho, Mihara-shi, Hiroshima-ken; tel:  67-0082) was recommended by reader Gauri Deshpande. If you have a favorite restaurant (outside Tokyo) that you would like other readers to know about, please tell us the name, address and phone number, along with a couple of paragraphs about what makes it special, either by letter or fax c/o the Japan Times, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org