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Sunday, March 17, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Dining in the presence of greatness


When the man behind a major new restaurant is a kabuki actor, it's inevitable that there's going to be strong public interest. When that actor happens to be Ichikawa Ennosuke -- the flamboyant superstar of his self-styled "super kabuki" -- you can expect the buzz to be massive.

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In Umaya, Ennosuke's presence is everywhere.

And so it has proved. Since its opening last month (on the numerologically significant date of 2/2/02), Umaya has been drawing as many full houses as Ennosuke's celebrated stage appearances. Part of the attraction for some people is no doubt that heady, second-hand whiff of celebrity. But for the Food File there are far more compelling reasons for checking it out: good, straightforward food at accessible prices -- and all in a very attractive setting.

It has a great location, up above the busy fray of the main Akasaka grid. You make your way down a quiet, pedestrian-only street, through a simple wooden gateway and into a narrow garden. The building is large and new, but given a stylish modern wabi-sabi design treatment, both inside and out.

You enter a small reception antechamber, then duck through a low wooden door to reach the three main dining rooms, or remove your shoes to go upstairs to one of the small, private tatami rooms on the second floor. The decor throughout is rich with wood and bamboo, with washi-clad lamps and shoji screens. The effect is funky farmhouse meets elegant Kyoto machiya, but all with understated contemporary elan.

Ennosuke's presence is everywhere, from the posters by the entrance to the large full-color portraits that adorn the walls. Even the place mats feature a color sketch of a kabuki set ("Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura," appropriate for the time of year). Unlike his own hybrid, hyped-up approach to performing, though, Umaya espouses a far more understated style.

It may look exclusive but it's not. Nor is it particularly expensive. At heart, Umaya is a jazzed-up izakaya for businessmen of the bucho rank, bureaucrats from nearby Kasumigaseki and the kind of well-heeled people who no longer feel comfortable slumming it. You will feel immediately at ease when you see the prices in the menu, a thick tome resembling an ancient accounts book (though most of the pages turn out to be blank).

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The food is simple fare, but is well prepared and reasonably priced.

The food is based around simple, traditional fare -- yakitori; beef tongue grilled over shichirin burners; pork shabu-shabu; simple nabe hotpots; plenty of vegetable dishes -- but all produced using ingredients of unimpeachable quality from rural Kyushu.

We started with an order of zaru-dofu. This is one of the house specials, and it is excellent. Shipped in from the well-known Kawashima tofu shop in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, it is served in small round baskets of woven bamboo. The staff at Umaya are so confident in its flavor that they recommend you take your first couple of spoonfuls without any seasoning at all, so you can fully appreciate the sweetness and smooth creaminess.

The homemade tofu, prepared in front of your eyes, is just as good. A miniature casserole of soymilk is placed on top of a small charcoal burner, which you leave to simmer away for 20 minutes. The result is a warm curd the texture and color of a custard pudding, but imbued with the unmistakable fragrance of "hatake no niku" (the "meat of the field").

We enjoyed the chijimi (Korean-style okonomi-yaki is the menu description), which was served with a very mild dip, and also the "salad" of bifun noodles cooked with lightly stir-fried vegetables. There is a good selection of other salads, with seasonings that no doubt taste as appetizing as they sound -- kari-kari chirimen (crunchy-fried little fish) on seaweed; shaku-shaku (crisp) yam and daikon salad.

The heart of the restaurant is its charcoal grill -- the 10 seats at the small counter by the open kitchen are the most sought-after in the house -- and the core of Umaya's menu is their chicken. They use entirely free-range, naturally reared fowl from the village of Mitsuse (also in Saga). This is served either as sashimi (rare breast meat or gizzard); deep-fried in the kara-age style; or as yakitori, flavored by the charcoal over which it is grilled. The meat is tender and juicy, and judiciously seasoned with just the right amount of salt.

Other options from the grill include beef tongue and Kagoshima kuro-buta pork (despite recent scandals, you can believe this is the real thing), and seafood cooked at the table on shichirin burners. The drinks list revolves around beer, sake and a good selection of Kyushu shochu.

A meal at Umaya is best closed with one of the rice dishes -- the stone-pot bibimbap is justifiably popular -- which are all served with a fragrant chicken soup. And, for desert, if you like the flavor of bitter almonds, do not miss the delicate, mousse-like annin-dofu, which is superior to any we have ever tasted.

At midday, Umaya serves satisfying teishoku set meals based around the same grilled chicken. Service is slow, but that is a good thing, in that it signifies they do not treat it just as a production line. They provide the lines outside with tea, and each table setting has a complementary small bottle of Evian to sip on as you wait for your meal.

Umaya is a large, efficient operation that has obviously been thought out to the last detail -- much like the Daidaiya chain, but without all the flash decor and fusion menu. The staff are all relaxed but well trained. There is a small patio which will be soon opened up for a few al fresco tables. Even though Umaya does not break any radically new ground, it has what it takes to remain as popular as Ennosuke himself.

Umaya
4-2-32 Akasaka, Minato-ku; (03) 6229-1661
Open:Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (Monday-Friday); dinner: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. (Friday and Saturday till 5 a.m.)
Closed:Sunday and holidays (except for parties of 15 or more)
Nearest station:Akasaka-Mitsuke (Ginza and Marunouchi lines); Akasaka (Chiyoda Line)
How to get there:Leave Akasaka Mitsuke Station by the rear exit (by Belle Vie) and turn left. At the first crossing turn right, walk up to the end, then turn right again onto Hitotsugi-dori. Almost immediately, you will see a red torii shrine gate on the left. Go under the torii, then take the small path leading off to the left. Umaya is at the end. From Akasaka Station, follow Hitotsugi-dori in the direction of Aoyama-dori
What works:Quality izakaya fare in a stylish, new-trad setting.
What doesn't:With any operation this size, the service starts to feel impersonal.
Number of seats:150
BGM:Unobtrusive bossa/jazz vocals
Price per head:Courses from 3,500 yen (also a la carte); 10 percent service charge
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; sake from 500 yen; shochu from 500 yen/glass, 1,450 yen/500-ml bottle; wine from 600 yen/glass, 2,500 yen/bottle; whiskey from 500 yen; cocktails from 600 yen.
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; limited English spoken



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