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Sunday, July 22, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
A many-splendored world of tofu
Tofu is cooling, tofu is healthy and, best of all, tofu is cheap. And suddenly this sultry summer season, tofu is also totally trendy. Just like Shigezo Syoutou, in fact. Such is its popularity, it took us three attempts to snare a reservation at this laid-back basement dining-bar, despite the location way out past the bright lights of Shibuya.
In design terms, Shigezo Syoutou is a cross between a designer izakaya and a Balinese beach hut. Indonesian fabrics, wood carvings and exotic knickknacks are set among lush tropical indoor plants. An ambient take on gamelan music plays softly but insistently in the background. The waiters wear batik-print scarves on their heads.
The dining area is cleverly broken up into five distinct areas, each with its own motif. The counter, with its palm-frond roof and rattan-backed chairs, evokes a Kuta beachfront cocktail bar. Further back the theme is Oriental hardwood furniture and Southeast Asian textiles. A small room at the back has been given the Okinawan look -- low tables and zabuton cushions set on square traditional Ryukyu tatami.
Up a short flight of stairs is a mezzanine level, where you balance yourself on plush rococo reproduction-antique seating. And there is also a small walled-in outdoor patio with hothouse greenery giving a very pleasant approximation of the tropical experience.
A complimentary cocktail (perhaps well-iced "champagne" and ginger ale) is followed by the obligatory otoshi appetizer. This is where you start to appreciate that Shigezo Syoutou is more than just a pretty space. You will be brought a chunky, square platter holding several slices of an intriguing, cream-colored pancake that manages to combine the smoothness of tofu with the distinctive flavor of yuba (soymilk skin). They make it by pouring a thick, semicoagulated soymilk into flat pans and leaving it to cook until it has set firm, not unlike a thin Japanese omelette. Sliced, folded and arranged with fine-sliced okra, cherry tomatoes, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and a light dashi dressing, this original idea reassures you that, here at least, soy foods are not just worthy, they can also be light, inventive and tasty.
Tofu, yuba or okara (the lees from the pressed tofu beans) feature throughout the menu. The chilled zaru-dofu is simple but satisfying: small scoops of firm tofu flecked with black sesame, served on a bamboo tray with a basic shoyu dip. The yose-dofu, a thick, comforting custard of piping hot savory tofu, is steamed like chawan-mushi in a mushroom-shaped pot with a lid, the beany aroma well tempered by the concentrated savory flavor of fine-slivered konbu tsukudani.
More sophisticated were the kara-age of yuba and ama-ebi, and the nama-age tataki. The former featured plump little deep-fried orange ama-ebi shrimps scattered with shards of yellow yuba. In the latter, slices of atsu-age tofu, daikon and cucumber were covered with a spicy Korean kimchi sauce, chopped scallions and a dark confetti of kizami nori seaweed.
But it's not all vegetarian fare. We had juicy kara-age chicken, deep-fried a beautiful golden color. Our tongues and our interest were piqued by the tangy mix of chopped sashimi scallops and piquant minced wasabi greens. And we closed with ja-ja inaniwa udon, the soft wheat noodles smothered in a sauce of spicy, kimchi-flavored minced meat.
We ate well, over the course of a leisurely evening, slaking our thirst with beer, fine chilled jizake and some unusual aged shochu -- but forgoing the final temptation of soymilk tiramisu or other similar desserts. For this our final bill came to little more than 12,000 yen for two.
No wonder this place is so popular, especially with dating couples and gaggles of young ladies. The waiters spend the entire evening turning away people who have been foolish enough to arrive without reservations. Obviously Shigezo Syoutou is onto a winning formula. They have recently opened a second branch near Todaimae (1-16-7 Komaba, Meguro-ku; tel: 03-5790-5058), more spacious and (judging from photos) with an interior that is even more fanciful.
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