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Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Old school from the New World


Shinsekai Saikan (or Xinshijie Caiguan, to give it the proper Pinyin reading) has plied its trade at the Jinbocho Crossing since 1946 -- so long, indeed, that it's become one of the neighborhood landmarks. The name may be "New World Restaurant," but this is definitely an establishment of the old school.

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Whether it's for the noodles or the Shanghai crab, Shinsekai Saikan can be relied on for sturdy, old-school Chinese fare.

However, aside from a few retro flourishes -- the window display, with its faded silicon food models; the black bow ties of the waiters -- Shinsekai really doesn't look its age. Thanks to a face-lift in the not too distant past, it boasts the kind of smart, generic-Chinese decor of the kind favored by mid- to upper-level eateries for the past 50 years. No new-wave fusion here, and not a hint of any designer furnishings either. It's all as polished as you'd find in the dining room of a venerable hotel on the mainland.

The service is straightforward and unpretentious, and so is the cooking. Shinsekai is of the Shanghainese persuasion, which means the sweet, oil-laden dishes of the China's eastern provinces predominate. But there is also a strong infusion of Sichuan influences to enliven the palate with plenty of chili and huajiao (prickly ash pepper). The trilingual menu has all the usual categories and is easy enough to navigate.

The cooking is of a good standard, although -- as our waiter (a native of Shanghai, himself) pointed out to us -- this style of food is by no means unusual in Tokyo. Shinsekai is in a different league from the average neighborhood Chinese food joint, but it never rises to any gourmet peaks. What draws the die-hard repeat customers back here, however, is the noodles.

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A Jinbocho landmark

Throughout the summer, they serve a number of chilled dishes that are as good as you will ever need to find. In fact, you will struggle to track down a better example of the genre anywhere in the city than their classic gomoku (five-color) hiyashi-men.

A wide plate arrives, piled with a generous amount of noodles -- 50 percent more than a standard ramen serving, they say. Heaped up on top is an attractive selection of flavorings: Slivers of grilled pork; steamed chicken; pink shrimp; red beni-shoga ginger pickles; fine slivers of cucumber; thin filaments of white kanten (agar); and, topping everything, a mound of bright yellow shreds of egg, as if from a sweetened omelet but made with only the yolks.

The noodles are thin and slithery, and the dressing has an excellent balance of sour (Chinese black malt vinegar), savory (soy sauce) and sweet (sugar). Mix in all those toppings and slurp: You will understand why there are many people who make special trips across town to Jinbocho during the hot season.

We have heard (though such things are hard to substantiate) that Shinsekai was the first shop in Tokyo to come up with this particular mixture of ingredients -- or at least in this configuration, which is said to be a representation of Mount Fuji. You do not need to know this to appreciate its colorful appearance and combination of flavors. It is worth every yen of its 1,200 yen price.

Two further variations on this theme are the Sichuan-style tantan-men (covered with a heaping dollop of spicy minced pork and plenty of cucumber); and the herb salad hiyashi-men (both also 1,200 yen). This latter demonstrates that Shinsekai is still able to experiment creatively. The noodles are piled up on a bed of fresh organic salad greens (rocket, mustard greens, coriander and other herbs, organically grown where possible) and topped with chicken, shrimp, cucumber, tomato and more of that shredded egg.

Unfortunately, we will only be able to enjoy these chilled dishes until the end of next September. Thereafter, we must make do with their hot noodles, which though equally satisfying are perhaps less distinctive. What we like to do is to make a full meal of it, starting off with some side dishes -- such as the mixed zensai starters. These comprise slices of pitan (preserved duck egg); shreds of crunchy yellow kurage (prepared jellyfish); and more of that delectable steamed chicken, its soft, white meat just faintly tinged with pink where it has been taken off the bone.

As autumn starts to turn to winter, however, the specialty of the house at Shinsekai turns from noodles to crab. The small, gray-green, freshwater Shanghai crabs are raised in the lakes and rivers inland from the metropolis. The season is now just starting and they are already advertising crustaceans on the menu.

Shanghai crab can be an expensive delicacy -- the largest specimens will add an extra 5,000 yen or even 10,000 yen to your bill -- usually steamed and served hot, although a popular alternative is to steep them in Shaoxing rice wine and serve them as is (they call it "drunk crab").

When aged for 10 years or more, this same Shaoxing wine (shokoshu in Japanese) makes an excellent accompaniment to all Shanghai food. It has a dark brown color quite unlike Japanese sake and a rounded depth of flavor with slightly sharp, bitter undercurrents that are very reminiscent of oloroso sherry. Shinsekai has a small selection of aged Shaoxing that which you can sample in the form of a "tasting set" -- three glasses, each with a different vintage (2,500 yen). There cannot be a more enjoyable way of acquiring a taste for this fine brew.

Shinsekai Saikan
2-2 Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, (03) 3261-4957
Open:11 a.m. - 11 p.m. (last order 10p.m.); Sunday 11a.m. - 9 p.m. (last order 8 p.m.)
Nearest stations: Jinbocho (Hanzomon, Mita and Shinjuku lines)
How to get there:Leave Jinbocho Station by Exit A3 and turn right as you come out on the street (on Yasukuni-dori, opposite Iwanami Hall). Shinseki Saikan is on your right after about 20 minutes.
What works: Excellent noodles, both hot and cold
What doesn't:The groups of chain-smoking salarymen of a certain age occupying the other tables.
Number of seats: 80 on first and basement floors; private rooms on second and third floors
BGM: Classical music, very faintly
Price per head:Shanghai Crab from 2,500 yen; lunch course at 1,200, 2,000 and 3,000 yen; dinner courses at 3,000-12,000 yen (not including drinks); also a la carte
Drinks: Beer 550 yen; sake from 400 yen; shokoshu from 700 yen per glass; wine from 500 yen per glass
Credit Cards: Most accepted
Language: Chinese/Japanese/English menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Advisable at peak hours



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