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Sunday, May 5, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Straight from Tsukiji to Harajuku


What's the difference between an izakaya and a restaurant? Often very little, if the izakaya in question serves good food and comports itself with a degree of sophistication. Perhaps the best yardstick is the noise level. The louder the conversation and more voluble the pleasure, the less likely a place is to style itself as a full-fledged restaurant.

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Judged by those criteria, Higashi no Junana clearly belongs in the izakaya category. But assessed solely on the quality of its cooking -- especially its seafood -- the matter is far less cut and dried. Not that such matters mean much to the folks of northern Harajuku, who congregate here because it embodies all the virtues of the contemporary neighborhood diner.

You can tell from the facade that it is a place worth investigating. The only window is a long horizontal slit at head-height. The entrance is marked by an illuminated wooden signboard inscribed with the kanji of the name. A heavy wooden door slides back to reveal a glowing lamp of bamboo, a large woven basket serving as an umbrella stand and a substantial flower arrangement.

But Higashi no Junana affects none of the icey, self-consciousness that prevails in ritzier parts of town. Venture inside and you find it is friendly, accessible and invariably full to capacity with a casual crowd who have no compunction about raising their voices in good cheer, though never to the point of boisterousness.

About that name: It means "East 17," which is the number of the parking slot they have been allotted at Tsukiji Market. They pride themselves on their fish, not just the freshness but the quality. Order the mixed sashimi (they call it sashimori), and you will tend to agree.

The actual selection will, of course, change with the season. When we dropped in last week, our platter featured a few choice cuts each of hirame (flounder); glistening red toro tuna; isaki (grunt, or groundeur); delicate whole hotaru ika (small enop squid the size of your thumb); a couple of ama-ebi shrimp, as pink and sweet as their name; hokkigai (surf clams) of remarkable tenderness; and aji (jack mackerel) carved and rearranged as a centerpiece for the dish.

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The wooden signboard of Higashi no Junana helps draw you in, but it's relaxed atmosphere and fresh seafood inside that will have you coming back.
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At 1,000 yen per person (minimum two portions), this is the priciest item they offer. But it was outstanding and was matched with the excellent choice of sake -- they stock a dozen less well-known brands, including Harushika from Nara, a particular favorite of ours.

They serve much more besides fish, all detailed on a substantial handwritten menu, which is revised on a daily basis. They provide a translation of all the main offerings (though not of the drinks list), which, surprisingly, is in very good, mistake-free English.

There is plenty to browse through. We started with crunchy, calcium-rich hone senbei (deep-fried fish spines) and gobo chips (long strips of crispy burdock root), perfect as snacks with that first beer. We followed up with ankimo -- the creamy-white liver of monkfish, steamed then chilled in a subtle ponzu sauce -- and tasty ebi-shinjo, balls of pounded fish and shrimp meat wrapped in pouches of yuba and also deep-fried until golden and crisp.

From the array of steamed, grilled and simmered things, we chose a kinki (thornyhead), salted and broiled. Underneath that bright-red skin, the soft, white flesh was cooked absolutely right, moist and tender.

They do interesting things with meat and jidori chicken, as well as rather more unusual ingredients -- like avocado seafood tartar, soft-shell crab in season, even Western desserts. But much more unexpectedly, they also make a variety of sushi, which can be ordered individually or as mini-sets of six or eight pieces. Such a wide variety is hardly the hallmark of a simple neighborhood restaurant, let alone an izakaya.

These days it is not hard to find sophisticated little places of this ilk around Tokyo, but few seem to combine all the right elements as well as Higashi no Junana. And here is one more good reason why it's worth tracking it down: their open-terrace courtyard at the back, perfect on warm summer evenings, despite the lack of a view. Even when the weather is inclement, this area stays open year-round, thanks to plastic roofing and space heaters.

Higashi no Junana
2-19-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3401-3917
Open:5:30-11:30 p.m. (Saturday and holidays 5:30-11 p.m.)
Nearest stations: Harajuku (JR) and Meiji-Jingumae (Chiyoda Line)
How to get there:From Meiji-Jingumae Station (La Foret Crossing), walk down the right side of Meiji-dori to the second set of lights. Turn right past the Diesel store, then straight away turn left at the lights. After three to four minutes, you will see the entrance of Higashi no Junana (a large wooden door) on your right.
What works: Excellent quality/price/enjoyment ratio
What doesn't:The "terrace" needs a bit of smartening up.
Number of seats: 55
BGM: Urban R&B -- but at an unobtrusive level
Price per head:Around 3,500 yen (not including drinks)
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen; sake from 1,000 yen; wine from 600 yen/glass, 1,980/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Advisable



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