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Thursday, March 9, 2000

JAP CHO OK

No stereotypes in 'the House of Weeds'


So you think Korean food is all smoky yakiniku, meat-laden stews and fiery, spicy kimchi? That's a bit like saying Chinese people eat nothing but ramen and gyoza; or that Thai cuisine begins and ends with tom yam kung. Or that there's nothing to eat in Japan except sushi, tempura and sukiyaki.

Cultural stereotypes notwithstanding, the Land of the Morning Calm has a whole lot more to offer. Head down to Jap Cho Ok and allow yourself to be disillusioned in a most stylish and agreeable fashion.

A heavy wooden farmhouse door covered with fittings of dark metal and faded gold kanji greets you (slide it to gain ingress). The interior is a striking contrast of black ceiling and screens of creamy white, illuminated by softly glowing floor-level lamps with shades of handmade paper. Ethereal flute music wafts around the upper atmosphere.

Walls and massive round columns glint an earthy orangish red. A curtain of medicinal plants hangs along one wall, above a long counter on which are arrayed glass jars holding dried herbs and decoctions of dark liquor. In design terms, it is equal parts Buddhist temple refectory and stylish Oriental apothecary.

There are three distinct dining areas. The main floor of the restaurant has long, dark-wood tables with simple stools. Here you rub shoulders with a fashionable young crowd which gathers to eat, drink and chat quietly as if this were an upmarket izakaya in one of Seoul's trendier neighborhoods.

Stone steps lead up to a raised area which has a hard floor covered in waxed paper, much like an ondol (though sadly there is no heating underneath). The low tables are adorned with place mats of colorful Korean silk and candles inscribed with sutras in classical Chinese.

Five cozy rooms are set along the back of the restaurant, each separated by coarse paper screens. The tables here are equipped with comfortable leg wells, in horigotatsu style. There is also a private dining room (with proper tables and chairs) hidden away by the entrance. Throughout, the restful lighting and simple decor invoke the spare aesthetic of a mountain monastery.

This zen image is carried over onto the menu. Jap Cho Ok (it means "House of Weeds") is certainly the first place in Tokyo to offer a full range of the vegetarian foods found in the Korean temple tradition (which, of course, has a considerably longer history than Japan's shojin ryori).

The optimal approach for exploring the full gamut of Buddhist specialties is to order the 5,300 yen special menu (for a minimum of two people). This starts with a small snifter of herbal "wine" as an aperitif, followed by a succession of 15 small dishes, including cold kimchi soup; namul "salad;" homemade tofu; a selection of mountain vegetables grilled at your table; hot simmered dumplings; and piping hot bebimpap (stone pot vegetable rice) with a spicy miso soup. The meal closes with a cup of medicinal tea and a sweetened rice cake.

Inveterate carnivores need not despair. Jap Cho Ok (which in fact is owned by a major yakinikuya) offers a parallel and entirely separate selection of beef (and some pork), served as sashimi, prepared in the kitchen as side dishes, or cooked at the table either grilled or in the casserole.

There is also a special set meal which follows a similar progression to the vegetarian course but based almost entirely around meat. For 6,800 yen you can indulge in steamed pork shanks; beef stomach in vinegar soy sauce; terrine of "tete de fromage" [sic]; assorted meat sashimi; calves brain tempura and plenty more.

But most people are likely to find the best balance is achieved by ordering off the a la carte menu, which commendably comes in a well-written English version (apart from the seasonal specials). Our favorite dishes were also among the simplest.

As a starter, we can recommend the Garlic in Three Styles (steeped in shoyu; pickled in miso; and a whole bulb deep-fried so the individual cloves are sweet, pungent and mouth-meltingly soft). The Wrapped Vegetable Salad turned out to be thin slices of daikon, wrapped around finely shredded egg and vegetables (cucumber, carrot and shiitake), and topped with caviarlike tonburi seeds.

The tofu and green vegetable dumplings (called suigyoza in Japanese but closer in nature to ravioli) were served with a chili-based dip that was redolent with aromatic sesame. Far less successful, however, were the oyster chijimi pancakes, which were stodgy and not well cooked.

As the center of our meal we chose the seasonal seafood myontan hot pot (in Japanese kankoku gyokai nabe). This featured a generous pile of oysters, hamaguri clams, cod, tiger prawns, crab legs, tofu, negi leeks, shungiku greens and enoki, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, all simmered in front of our eyes in a powerful red, chili-driven miso sauce. After everything was devoured, the last of this rich, spicy bisque was used to cook up udon-style noodles (rice is also available to prepare ojiya porridge).

This we washed down with liberal drafts of thick, white makkoli rice wine, which here is blended with ginseng liquor to produce a smoother (and more invigorating) flavor. This is served in a large, tear-shaped bowl, along with half a gourd as a scoop for dispensing it into the drinking bowls.

This is what Jap Cho Ok is all about. It's simultaneously chic and folksy, with comestibles that have been designer-tweaked to make the whole experience more accessible to Japanese sensibilities. And it achieves this most successfully. Most evenings it is running to full capacity, so be sure to reserve in advance.

It's too cold here to ever get into real carnival spirit, but over the past few weeks we were looking around for a suitable venue in which to celebrate Fat Tuesday in true New Orleans style -- with plenty of food and drink, at least, even if without the jazz and the Mardi Gras Indians.

So we headed down to Bourbon Street, the cozy little basement diner in Roppongi which has become (by default) Tokyo's mecca for Cajun/Creole cooking. It's a small 20-seater place with an aptly large owner, where the wafting smell of gumbo mixes with strains of boogie-woogie music and the tables are so close together that everyone's dinner table conversation becomes part of the collective conscious.

Do not come here expecting to find the kind of creative, new-wave dishes that have put this great cuisine on the culinary map. However, serving sizes are generous and the food comes as close to the original spirit of things as you could hope from a kitchen crew who were born in Japan, not Louisiana. The Mardi Gras shellfish passes muster, as does the blackened fish and the jambalaya. And if the wine list is overpriced, that doesn't seem to faze the predominantly well-heeled ex-pat clientele too badly.

Bourbon Street is still in the early stages of finding its culinary place on the block. And because it already has as many customers as it can handle, the Food File has been asked not to mention the precise address and location. We will divulge, however, that it is not a million miles from Tatou Tokyo and you can find out more by phoning (03) 3478-8473 when they come back from their vacation in (you guessed it) New Orleans.

If you have comments and recommendations, send them in by e-mail to (foodfile@yahoo.com).


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