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Thursday, April 27, 2000

TOKYO FOOD FILE

OHMATSUYA

Down on the farm, just off the Ginza


You could call Ohmatsuya rustic -- but only in the most Ginza sense of the word. It sits just one floor above the brand-name bustle of the street, inside a modern multistory building little different from any others occupying that premium patch of real estate. Step inside, however, and you could have arrived in some venerable hostelry hidden deep in the mountains on the nether side of Tohoku.

A rough-hewn beam runs above your head. The hard amalgam floor has small dark pebbles set into it. A profusion of wild flowers spill from a ceramic ewer beside an antique lattice of finely split bamboo. A sugidama hangs from the low ceiling, its brown cedar needles protected by a miniature wooden roof. These visual clues tell you all you need to know: Ohmatsuya may purvey the homespun rural look, but they do it with impeccable, up-town style.

The waitresses who greet you with precisely calibrated politeness wear silk kimono, but tucked into indigo work pants in no-nonsense country mode. They lead you into a cozy dining room with walls of pounded mud. The doors and ceilings are all dark wood and illuminated by the dim glow of washi-clad lamps. There are half a dozen chunky wooden tables with low stools. Each table has its own irori grill, which is fed with glowing charcoals carried from the kitchen.

In addition there are two zashiki spaces set off from the main area, in which you sit on zabuton cushions. Pasted along the base of the walls are pages taken from ancient washi books. Little alcoves display the kind of farmhouse accouterments you used to be able to pick up for a song at flea markets but which now you have to track down in exclusive antique emporiums. A small window looks out onto a miniature garden, complete with lantern, moss and seasonal plants.

A beautifully burnished pot hook hangs above the irori, which is set flush on the same level as the tatami. The "table" is the well-worn wooden surround of the grill, just a couple of inches above floor level. Your chopstick rest is a sprig of freshly plucked camellia leaves. The sake is decanted out of pots cut from the fat middle sections of green giant bamboo (as are the choko cups).

Ohmatsuya serves the cuisine (and sake) of far-off Yamagata Prefecture -- but this is kyodo ryori refracted through a prism of urbane sophistication. It is quite feasible to order in ippin (a la carte) mode. But the English-language menu (quite understandably) steers those unfamiliar with the genre toward the set courses. There are three levels: the "Snow" course (7,000 yen); "Moon" (8,000 yen); and "Flower" (9,500 yen). The difference is not so much the number or volume of dishes, but the quality of the ingredients.

As soon as you order, you will be brought a small appetizer, perhaps a taster of savory yuzumiso, broiled on a wooden spatula over a flame until it is slightly crisp. It is the perfect accompaniment for your first drink. Yamagata produces some seriously delicious ginjo brews, and here it is worth investing in one of Ohmatsuya's better bottles, say the Hitori Yogari Tezukuri Ginjo (although they also have Juyondai and Dewazakura by the ichi-go serving).

Next a plate of beautifully arranged zensai: In our case these included a tidbit of karasumi (salted mullet roe) in a "twig" of daikon; a small square of komochi konbu (crunchy roe attached to thin kelp); a dango ball of tarako (cod's roe); a dab of fermented shiokara extracted from a marine invertebrate known as hoya; and a tiny cube of kanimiso (crab innards) and butter balanced on a slice of yuzu citron.

When you have finished your sashimi course, they crank up the irori with premium narazumi charcoal from Iwate (which is rated even more highly than Wakayama Binchotan). The selection of fish, vegetables and meats will vary according to which course you have ordered.

As part of the "Moon" course we were brought in quick succession small sun-dried hata-hata fish, which you crunch head and all; next baby taro yams and green shishito capsicums, eaten with lemon and salt; and then patties of tender minced jidori chicken meat; and then a couple of slices of succulent Yonezawa wagyu beef, served with a choice of dips -- one a traditional ponzu sauce and the other an intriguing blend of shoyu and wine, to which we added mustard, grated daikon, wasabi and lemon.

This was not all. Next onto the grill was more kanimiso, blended with a rich dashi stock and served inside the entire carapace of a Japan Sea zuwaigani. This has to be spooned up, like a smooth, hot, savory custard of the most luxurious kind.

The last main dish on the grill was aigamo hoba-yaki. Morsels of duck meat are mixed with chopped mushrooms (shiitake, maitake and enokidake) and scallions, and mixed into a dark brown paste of Hatcho miso blended with mirin. Slowly grilled on a large, flat hoba leaf, the result is soft, sweet-savory, slightly caramelized and totally delicious.

The rest of the meal is composed of various vegetable dishes, soup, pickles and a platter of hearty, dark inaka soba noodles, presented with a whole small wasabi root which you grate to taste into your dipping sauce. Dessert (a fragrant coconut tapioca that whispered of Southeast Asia rather than the Japanese backwoods) follows, along with hojicha tea. You will be satisfied.

Ohmatsuya has to be the most upmarket robata-yaki in the city. It's the sort of place where upper-level businessmen come to loosen their neckties, to entertain their mistresses, or to give visiting foreign businessmen an exotic (and expensive) taste of traditional Japan. The farmhouse look may be an illusion, but it is a wonderful contrivance, one that you may find yourself returning to again and again, to sate your taste buds on such remarkable fare.

The chances are you have not been racking your brain about where to get hold of Ishikari ramen, horse fat (bayu), or Sweet Nude fruit wine. But Hokkaido also produces plenty of other good food and drink -- and an impressive range of it is on sale at the new shop set up by the prefecture in Yurakucho.

The Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, 2-10-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; tel. (03) 5224-3800, stocks the usual tourist products -- butter cookies, pumpkin flakes, dried salmon jerky and 25 kinds of konbu. But it also has good frozen seafood at competitive rates, and good sake. Even if you don't need the groceries, it also has a counter that dispenses snacks, plus Hokkaido-brewed Sapporo beer.

You'll find it right opposite the east side of JR Yurakucho Station, on the first floor of the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Building. It's open 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. every day of the year (except the New Year holidays).



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