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Sunday, May 6, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

It might as well be spring


Issei's exterior is almost too picture perfect. The entrance is overhung with thatched eaves. A large white lantern dangles above a complex flower arrangement, and an indigo noren stretches across the rustic sliding wooden door.

Issei attracts a well-clad and well-heeled clientele to its pristine premises.

It's a facade, of course. Issei is built into the ground floor of a commercial building erected little more than a decade ago in a quiet neighborhood well off the trendy drag in Ebisu. But it puts you into exactly the right frame of heightened receptivity for appreciating the excellent ryori served here.

Intense, flavorful cooking is to be had at Issei.

A dozen chairs are set out along an L-shaped wooden counter so well scrubbed it's almost bleached. At the rear is a small square table for latecomers, big enough to accommodate eight at a pinch, though only if everyone is friends. The patina is accruing nicely on the paneling of the walls. The diminutive kitchen area is spotless.

Issei attracts a well-clad and well-heeled clientele. Account executives and their lady friends rub shoulders with trendy media types, career women and upper-echelon businessmen dining a deux. Despite their close proximity, you will barely be aware of your neighbors. The atmosphere is one of tranquil refinement. The only distraction from your meal and the company of your dining partner will be the occasional ministrations of the young waitress as she tends to your drinks.

You are also likely to find your eyes drawn to the deft movements of the ryori-cho, Etsuro Masumitsu. His cooking is intense and flavorful, solidly rooted in tradition but with a strong sense of the contemporary. Naturally, it reflects whatever is in season, with special emphasis at this time of year on fresh new vegetables.

He still has sansai (wild herbs) such as yama udo, yama kikurage, maybe even some late fuki buds. And, of course, there's plenty of takenoko right now -- crisp in texture, subtle in flavor and so freshly dug, transported and cooked that it has none of the insistent, brackish aku taste that diminishes the enjoyment of bamboo shoots more than a day old.

As is usual at establishments of this kind, the a la carte menu -- composed and penned daily by Masumitsu-san -- gives no prices. That is why many people are happy to leave the selection up to him, ordering the 7,000 yen omakase ("leave it up to the chef") course.

Including drinks -- besides Yebisu beer there is shochu, a white Burgundy and four jizake -- you should count on a final bill of around 10,000 yen per head.

Our first offering was a small su-no-mono of slithery mozuku seaweed with small morsels of aji (horse mackerel), delicate shrimp and paper-fine slivers of cucumber in a mild rice-vinegar dressing. This was followed by a plate of appetizers: uni (urchin) and okra encased in small slices of nikogori jelly; a miniature hotaru-ika squid, just a few centimeters long; sansai; and a scoop of piquant hana-wasabi greens.

Our tsukuri (sashimi) was composed of a single small prawn, sweet and succulent, plus a few slices of mako-garei flatfish. And then the owan -- a lacquer bowl of fragrant dashi (broth), containing slices of takenoko cooked under the grill until crunchily tender.

Next came the standout dish: ankimo, a slice of steamed angler fish liver, heavenly rich and smooth, plus a wedge cut from a moist, new-season kabu turnip. This inevitably overshadowed the agemono that followed, crisp patties of deep-fried sakura-ebi shrimp and aromatic mitsuba leaf.

Bamboo shoots also formed the basis of the yakimono grilled dish, this time basted with a sweet shoyu and served with peppery sansho leaf. Alongside this was a small fillet of ultra-tender madai (snapper) seasoned with a yellow sanshomiso. A small cube of anago (eel) oshizushi and a halved fruit tomato served as edible garnishes.

Our last main dish was remarkable in its simplicity and beauty. Large pods of broad beans were slowly grilled until black, velvety blisters appeared on the bright green skin, leaving the beans inside perfectly al-dente tender, their inherent bitter flavor just turning to sweetness.

We closed with rice cooked with jade-green garden peas, akadashi miso soup, some of the best pickles we have eaten in a long time, and finally dessert -- meltingly soft warabi mochi drenched in black sugar syrup.

This is the taste of spring rising in Japan.

Issei Yamanashi Bldg. 1F, 2-29-6 Higashi, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3406-1716
Open: 6-11 p.m.
Closed:Sunday and Holidays
Nearest station: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)
How to get there:Take JR Ebisu Station's North Exit (by the koban) and cross Komazawa-dori. Walk under the railway bridge down to the first light, then turn left parallel with the tracks. Turn right at the second light, and Issei will be on the left almost immediately (before the river).
What works: Fine contemporary ryori perfectly attuned to the surroundings
What doesn't:There could be a better selection of sake.
Number of seats:20
Price per head: 7,500 yen (without drinks)
Credit cards:Amex, DC, JCB, Visa
BGM: None
Language:Japanese menu; no English spoken

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