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Sunday, June 10, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

A buzz that can't be resisted


Call it what you like -- drawing power, charisma, sex appeal or the Koizumi quality -- new restaurants need that extra something to succeed, no less than populist politicians with big, Beethoven-look hair. Zetton, the hot new place just up from Shibuya-bashi in Ebisu, has just the right sort of buzz. In fact, so strongly does it emanate out onto the street that few people find it possible to walk past without pausing to peer inside, look at the menu, pick up a card and make a mental note to come back and check it out soon.

What catches your eye first is the plant-laden wooden deck right by the sidewalk. This is just for show so far, not for mellow outdoor summer dining (though we're hoping this may change later in the season). However, it is the layout of the interior that grabs the imagination.

Cleverly broken up into different levels to disguise what is essentially a plain concrete box, Zetton feels bigger than its actual floor area. There are two recessed areas by the door. Further inside are more tables and a short counter along the well-stocked bar. A cozy, darkened room with leatherette banquettes provides privacy for small groups at the back, and an elevated tatami space set close to the ceiling like a loft is big enough to hold eight people in cross-legged comfort.

The look is modern and stylish but not in self-conscious designer mode. It is bright without being brash and as friendly and informal as the youthful demographic it caters to so well. The prices are good, and there's no sense of pressure to eat and drink more or faster. In short, this is a new-wave izakaya -- and one of the best examples to date of the genre.

The first foray in Tokyo of a Nagoya-based food company, Zetton announces itself as a "Japanese-style dining bar." This may elicit some puzzlement when you see that almost half of the menu consists of foods better associated with the Korean peninsula, Vietnam or Italy. But kimchi, spring rolls and spaghetti are now part of the normal daily intake for the well-traveled, under-30 generation, especially when the recipes incorporate eclectic new arrangements and are produced as effectively (and at such reasonable prices) as they are here.

We began with a plate of nama harumaki, thin spring rolls stuffed with a delicious combination of simmered beef and fine strips of beni shoga, the red, ume-flavored ginger usually served with curry rice or gyudon beef bowl. Despite their inexpert appearance, knobbly and unevenly rolled, they made an excellent snack with our first drinks.

Another good appetizer was the grilled cashews with a light coating of Masuzaka miso (a dark, soybean paste similar to hatcho miso but hailing from Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture). Fresh blueberries are mixed in among the nuts -- a clever combination of fruity and savory, crunchy and juicy.

Intrigued by the idea of a sashimi that was not raw, we ordered the sashimi of cooked tsubugai shellfish. Simmered down in nitsuke style, the flesh of the whelks was sliced into bite-size chunks and served chilled on a bed of fresh wakame seaweed. The light seasoning of dashi and soy sauce brought out the inherent flavor of the shellfish, softening them but still leaving plenty of satisfying chewy texture.

We followed this with tofu chige, a Korean-style stew that arrived in a bubbling-hot ceramic bowl. Besides the cubes of soft, white tofu, the spicy, red, meat-based broth contained asari clams, slices of pork and sliced green negi onions.

Our grilled jidori chicken was, sadly, not of the Nagoya Cochin variety (one of the finest breeds of Japanese fowl), and the flabby texture and taste suggested it had not been raised on the freest of ranges. But it was well-cooked, with good, crisp skin well-sprinkled with black pepper and served with a piquant sauce that looked just like ketchup but turned out to be a spicy sweet miso.

All these dishes are plenty adequate in their own right, but essentially they are sophisticated bar foods. That is why the menu devotes just as much space to the drinks. Zetton's original cocktails are popular, as are the frozen margaritas. There is a selection of sake, shochu and wine. But, since the menu straddles the Japan Sea, perhaps the logical choice of libation should be from halfway across: Okinawan awamori can be pretty rough, but we found the Ryukyu kusu (aged, mellower brews) went down a treat.

Zetton offers plenty of rice dishes (white or genmai) to round things off, plus noodles from various traditions. Next time, we may try the Genovese-style udon with basilico sauce, or the kinpira spaghetti. For now, though, we can assure you that the crackling-hot bibimbap stone pot with morsels of grilled unagi eel rounded off the evening very well, along with a cup of good old Japanese hojicha.

Zetton SPC Japan Bldg. 1F, 1-1-33 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; Tel: (03) 5774-1917
Open: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch); 2:30-5:30 p.m. (tea time); 5:30 p.m.-3 a.m. (dinner)
Nearest station: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)
How to get there: From Ebisu Station, walk down to the Shibuya-bashi crossing. Take the pedestrian bridge across Meiji-dori and continue up the right side of Komazawa-dori. Zetton is on the right after about 20 meters.
What works: It's cool, friendly, eclectic and young at heart.
What doesn't: The pompous architecture on top of the building
Number of seats: 60
BGM: Blues, ambient, whatever CD the staff feels like playing
Price per head: 3,000 yen (without drinks)
Drinks: Beer from 550 yen; cocktails from 700 yen; sake from 800 yen; wine from 450 yen; shochu from 550 yen
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: Japanese/English menu; some English spoken



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