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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Sushi that fits the bill in attitude and price


Shinbotchi's take on the ancient art of sushi is much the same approach that the rag trade of back-street Harajuku adopts toward the world of fashion.

Neither haute cuisine nor haute couture figure in the equation in this part of town. The kids don't hold much with tradition. They want the look, but they certainly don't want to stand (or even slouch) on anything resembling ceremony.

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Shibotchi caters to the Harajuku set.

Shinbotchi fits that bill just right. It has a veneer that is suitably chic and contemporary -- the basement of a small, modern, concrete mini-mall, housing boutiques, hair salons and designers' offices. Step inside, however, and you find it's as friendly and easygoing as your local izakaya.

There is none of the antiseptic brightness (often to the point of intimidation) that you expect at a traditional sushiya. In fact, for a place that has only been in existence for a few weeks, the decor already looks pretty frayed around the edges. That's because Shinbotchi is just a makeover: They changed the name and the menu, but kept the atmosphere intact. From an izakaya specializing in fish, it just morphed into a sushi shop with izakaya attitude.

It's laid out like one, too. There's a counter for nine in front of the glass-fronted fish cabinet, where you sit on comfortable chairs with well-padded backs. If these are taken, then you will be assigned either to the zasshiki area, where there is horikotatsu-style sitting for another 10, or to a seat round the large table by the window which is spacious enough not to feel too cramped. There are also a couple of outside tables that were still in demand last week.

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The sound system plays soul and hip-hop of a laidback Japanese variety. The staff wears black T-shirts and aprons and is as young as the clientele. The sushi chef looks like he has a day job modeling men's hair products. Service is sometimes slow and haphazard.

But the food is absolutely fine. Our mixed plate of sashimi was fresh and of good quality. Good tennen buri (yellowtail from the open sea, not fish-farmed), not just the usual cuts but also from the rich, fatty underbelly; a couple of servings of bright-red hon-maguro (bluefin); fine-sliced Hokkaido scallops; some madai (snapper); and fresh, young sardine, distinctive but not too oily.

Before embarking on the sushi itself, we sampled some of the otsumami side dishes. Hone-senbei, the crunchy, deep-fried bones of small white-meat fish; ebi-shinjo, soft dumplings of shrimp meat wrapped in yuba (soy-milk skin) and covered with a clear ankake sauce; and maguro no kama yaki, the "neck" of the bluefin (taken from behind the gills), slowly cooked under the grill until crisp on the outside, from which there was plenty of satisfying dark meat to be excavated.

Then on to the sushi. There are no gimmicks here, no giant servings or all-you-can-eat promotions. Nor should you expect any new-wave, inside-out, crosscultural fusions. Nobu this is not -- but then again, nor is your expenditure. As Shinbotchi's publicity blurb (roughly translated) puts it: "Regular sushi, regular servings, regular prices."

What you do get is a good range of nigiri, maki and chirashi-zushi. All prices are listed on the extensive menu, and very reasonable they are, too. The range is from as little as 70 yen (albeit for squid tentacles) up to just 400 yen for abalone or fresh sea urchin. Even more amazingly, there is an English version of this same menu that has fewer elementary spelling mistakes than at restaurants 10 times as expensive.

This is sushi that is definitely customer-friendly. Everything can be ordered in single portions. And if you can't make up your mind, there are mixed plates (with 10 portions) from 980 yen up to 2,800 yen, depending on composition.

The most interesting part of the menu is the tabe-kurabe (taste and compare) sushi. The idea is to allow you to try two similar but contrasting kinds of fish, such as real bluefin and a lesser kind of tuna; anago eel that is simmered and the same thing grilled in shirayaki-style; or even wild snapper vs. the farmed version. You get one portion of each, conveniently sliced in half so you can share with your dining companion.

You don't get that kind of flair at a kaitenzushi shop. Nor would you expect to find jizake of the kind we drank at Shinbotchi -- simple, uncomplicated junmai brews such as Azuma-ichi, Isojiman and Uragasumi, each for around 500 yen per flagon.

We ate and drank our fill, kicking back and lingering for a couple of hours or more, and the total damage for two came to around 10,000 yen. Shinbotchi isn't special, it isn't exotic, it isn't a gourmet experience. But given these prices, we left feeling well-pleased.

Shinbotchi
Farm Bldg. B2F, 4-26-35 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3402-5949
Open:11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m.; 5-10 p.m. daily
Nearest stations:Harajuku (JR Yamanote Line), Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line)
How to get there:Leave Harajuku Station by the Takeshita-dori Exit, cross the street and make your way down Takeshita-dori. Go straight across Meiji-dori and continue for two short blocks. You will see signs for Shinbotchi outside the Farm Building, a concrete mini-mall on the right (opposite the Bokuseki Kissaten tea shop).
What works:Casual surroundings, low-outlay sushi
What doesn't:They have a heavy hand with the MSG.
Number of seats:32 (plus 20 outside)
BGM:Hip-hop at an unobtrusive volume
Price per head:3,000 yen (not including drinks); lunch from 800 yen
Drinks:Beer 500 yen; sake from 500 yen; shochu from 500 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 2,500 yen/bottle
Credit cards:Not accepted (cash only)
Language:English menu, but no English spoken
Reservations:Advisable for later in the evening

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