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Sunday, Jan. 20, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

The nostlagic taste of the great north


To duck under the rope noren at Aramasa and slide back its sturdy front door is to take a step into the past. Not a giant, disorienting leap all the way back to feudal Edo or the gilded age of Taisho, but an unthreatening half-pace back to the postwar days of Showa, when salarymen ruled the roost and it took the local train the best part of a day to reach even the more accessible parts of Tohoku.

Aramasa has been in business for over half a century now, and though the present building is just a decade old, the interior has been lovingly reconstructed using many of the original fittings, along with bits and pieces salvaged from earlier buildings now demolished. The effect is simple, cheerful and timeless.

Beams, pillars and wooden panels have a cared-for sheen. An old clock of the kind found at a prewar railway stations keeps guard over the stairs. Rustic artifacts abound: kokeshi dolls, straw snow gear, a handsome tansu chest, a large kite in cheerful folksy colors pinned up by the door.

The small, square room at the back -- with its walls of wattle and daub, polished woodwork and battered lanterns -- could have been teleported intact from some remote farmhouse. A small sheaf of rice and a large barrel of sake are set on top of the well-scrubbed counter. The paper menu slips tacked to the wall are starting to curl and turn brown.

But Aramasa is more than just a pretty place. What puts it in a class of its own is the old-school ambience and the people who run it. Owner Yuzo Suzuki may be well into his 70s, but he is friendly, energetic and remarkably spry. Dapper in his indigo happi coat, he (or his equally venerable sidekicks) will greet you, describe the specials of the day as written on the little blackboard, take your order and serve you with considerable charm and deference.

When Suzuki first opened Aramasa, the idea of providing Tokyoites with the local food and drink of furthest Akita was almost as exotic as it would be now, say, to serve Ethiopian cuisine (though, of course, he had the advantage of constant support from homesick people from the prefecture, far from home in the big city). These days, northerly Akita is considered the source of prime ingredients, from the mountains and pastures no less than the fertile Japan Sea. But do not expect refinement or innovation: Aramasa proudly serves the robust izakaya fare of yesteryear.

Our mixed plate of sashimi was adequate, though some of the cuts appeared tired and not as sparkling fresh as we have come to expect. The tempura was also fine in a stolid, unadventurous way, though its batter wrapping was perhaps over-generous. We ordered the ebi shinjo -- which are usually delicate balls of deep-fried fish meat -- and found them to be as massive as croquettes, with a similar thick breaded coating. Filling yes, but delicate they were not.

Illustrations of these and several other of Aramasa's signature dishes, hand-drawn and crayon-colored as if by a child, are taped in place above the kitchen counter. We we were underwhelmed by the cubes of deep-fried tofu topped with blobs of tonburi, a vegetable seed that is sometimes called (though only in jest, surely) the "caviar of the land." It was not memorable.

But their homemade oboro-dofu was first rate. This style of tofu is not pressed into firm blocks, so the creamy curds retain the full flavor of the beans. At Aramasa they prepare this tofu with a special kind of soybeans, giving it a light-green tinge reminiscent of eda-mame and a delicate sweetness.

We also enjoyed our o-hitashi- style tazeri greens. Usually it is the cultivated version of this delicate herb that is served in Tokyo, but here they use the wild variety, picked from the rice paddies and shipped down specially. It is more fibrous, but the taste is far more pronounced.

Up in the snow country, sturdy nabe hot pots are one of the most pleasurable ways of fortifying yourself against the deep cold. Aramasa offers two varieties that are unique to Akita. Shottsuru-nabe is made with a broth seasoned with fish sauce, an indigenous form of nam plaa. The main ingredient in this is hatahata (an unattractive, bony fish that is a favorite up north but which leaves many folk from outside the region scratching their heads).

We chose instead that other Akita standby, kiri-tanpo nabe. At Aramasa it is made (as it should be) with the flavorful meat of free-range Hina-dori chickens. Our bubbling casserole featured not only breast meat but also pieces of liver and gizzard, together with tofu and plenty of vegetables and those firm tubular cakes of cooked rice known as kiritanpo. This is soul food, Tohoku style, simple yet satisfying, warming and nourishing.

Suzuki adopted Aramasa as the name of his establishment from one of the best-known sake kura in his home prefecture. Although there is no formal connection, this is the brand he features most strongly. The barrel on the counter holds a junmai taru-zake which, spigoted into large tokkuri (decanters of 380 ml) and heated to a warm (nurukan) temperature, emanates the insistent fragrance of the cedar wood it has been stored in. Another brew worth trying is the shiboritate 2002 shinnen ginjo, a brisk new-season brew recently released to mark the New Year (think a nihonshu version of Beaujolais Nouveau) with a lively undercurrent of koji yeastiness.

Many of the regulars here are stalwarts of a certain age, denizens of the surrounding neighborhood drawn back here by nostalgia no less than by their "bottle-keep" of Jinro or Nikka whiskey waiting on the shelves behind the counter. But Aramasa also attracts a younger clientele for whom the Showa Era is surely as remote as the days of samurai.

They are impressed not so much by the surroundings as the Showa values they embody -- no-nonsense, traditional food; prices that are the right side of reasonable; and the kind of warmth and integrity that is becoming harder to find these days, even in shitamachi.

For the rest of us, Aramasa may not be not worth a special visit across town. But if you are looking for a light dinner after a hard day of sightseeing, there are few places in the area that are more appropriate -- or more satisfying to the soul.

Aramasa
2-12-8 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku; tel: (03) 3844-4008
Open:11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Sunday and holidays: 4:30-11:30 p.m. (last order)
Nearest station:Tawaramachi (Ginza Line)
How to get there:From Tawaramachi Station, walk up Kokusai-dori for five short blocks. Turn left at Mos Burger (with the ROX thater diagonally across on the right), and you will see Aramasa's large lantern on the left almost immediately.
What works:Unpretentions far, friendly welcome, good prices
What doesn't:The tatami floor is hard at the back, so ask for a seat at the counter
Number of seats:90
BGM:faint strains of local minyo croonings
Price per head:about 3,000 (not including drink).
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; sake from 1,000 yen; shochu from 600 yen; whiskey from 800 yen
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese menu only; English not spoken
Reservations:Advisable, especially in the early evening



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