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Sunday, July 1, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

SIMPLY GOOD

In praise of traditional values


Rustic, welcoming, friendly, relaxed -- these are not the adjectives you associate most readily with Daikanyama these days. Long since gutted as a neighborhood, there's precious little sense of community left among all the brand-name boutiques and slick, designer restaurants that have taken over the area.

Obviously nobody told the people down at Karakoma. From the folksy decor and laid-back atmosphere to the cheerful greeting as you arrive, this is a place that celebrates the traditional values. They even have a giant tanuki (raccoon dog) figurine, for heaven's sake, peeking out from among the foliage by the wood-clad front door.

Karakoma has only been going a couple of years, but it forsakes any attempt at coolness in favor of a refined simplicity. It has well-patinated columns and beams, bamboo screens and antique wooden panels along one wall. A shelf of shochu bottles decorates the counter by the kitchen. There are a few delicate flower arrangements, a couple of gourd-shaped, washi-covered lamps and, hanging from the ceiling, real gourds into which small speakers have been cunningly fitted.

The young waitresses wear no-nonsense kimono and bustle about taking orders and dispensing drinks. The main menu is pasted on fabric-covered scrolls, and the list of daily specials is penned by hand (legibly but all in kanji) onto those long, paper-fine strips of wood shavings that old-style greengrocers used to wrap their pickles in.

Everything feels as comfortable and relaxed as a local izakaya -- and that's the way most people treat it. But the refinement of the cooking is as good as you'd find at any full-fledged ryori-ya in the city.

Your otoshi (the small plate of obligatory starters) will feature morsels such as hamo nanbanzuke (slices of pike conger, batter-fried then dressed with a spicy rice-vinegar marinade); a slice of green, young uri melon; and a small wedge of delicious minced chicken that in a Western context you would call a terrine.

As a snack to go with our first beer, we ordered first-flush eda-mame and a serving of hone senbei -- the deep-fried spines of anago eels, a crunchy calcium-rich snack that you sprinkle with salted matcha tea, powdered red shiso leaf or sansho pepper.

They pride themselves on their seafood -- all caught from the wild -- and the sashimi is first-rate. On any given day you will have a choice of more than half a dozen different fish or mixed plates -- three for 3,800 yen or five for 5,800 yen. Our selection included some beautiful chu-toro tuna caught from the seas off Japan; fine-cut shreds of ao-ika, one of the tastiest species of squid; good firm snapper; hirame flounder interspersed with cuts of tender konbu seaweed; and a couple of bites of delicate hamo with a sharp bainiku dressing.

Who says Japanese food isn't sensuous? Karakoma's exquisite combination of creamy yuba, ocean-fresh uni and silky goma-dofu sets that notion straight. The interplay of soy, seafood and nutty sesame flavors are perfectly harmonized, and the texture is as smooth and rich as a Latin sugar daddy.

The mark of a good chef is to be able to execute the basic techniques flawlessly. This was certainly the case with our tatsuta-age -- nuggets of herring and fugu blowfish deep-fried with an outer coating imbued with a deep, savory under-taste. The chefs here are inventive, too. The aegamo duck was admirably produced, grilled first to seal in the juices, then steamed until perfectly tender and served in slices on a bed of finely shredded salad vegetables.

This is food that demands fine sake (though plenty of people opt for shochu or even wine). There is a good selection of regional jizake, all of which are available either as regular 180 ml servings or in smaller shots. This is an admirable idea, since it encourages experimentation and allows you to see which brew goes best with any given dish.

We closed with chazuke and a revivifying bowl of inaniwa udon in a piping-hot broth, the delicate noodles covered with layer of minced chicken and fine-chopped leeks.

Perhaps the simplest way to sample the best and freshest items on the menu is to order in advance one of the set meals (5,000 yen; 8,000 yen; or 12,000 yen). This is the strategy adopted by the groups of young people who often take over the zashiki room at the back of the restaurant.

It's never a rowdy place, by any means, but over the course of the evening conversation levels do tend to rise to enthusiastic levels. Such voluble appreciation would be out of place in most other parts of Daikanyama, but at Karakoma it seems entirely natural.

At lunchtime, Karakoma serves simple, wholesome teishoku set menus from 850 yen -- most of them built around that excellent seafood.

Karakoma 2-7 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel. (03) 3463-2787
Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-11:30 p.m. (last order 10:45 p.m.)
Closed: Sunday and holidays
Nearest stations: Daikanyama (Tokyu Toyoko Line)
How to get there:Walk down Hachiman-dori from the Daikanyama Address complex (toward the Namikibashi crossing). At the lights, just before the bridge over the Yamanote Line, turn left down a narrow side street. Karakoma is on the right, just round the corner from Down to Earth.
What works: Friendly setting, comfortable chairs, inventive cooking
What doesn't:They close too early
Number of seats:34
BGM: Up-tempo soul, jazz and R&B
Price per head: 4,000 yen (not including drinks); dinner courses from 5,000 yen; lunch from 850 yen
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen; sake from 450 yen/shot, 800 yen/180 ml; wine 600 yen/glass, 3,000 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most
Language:Japanese menu; little English spoken

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