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Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002


Nibblin', sippin' and slurpin'

Shi-an occupies that comfortable middle-ground between the two extremes of kaiseki formal and izakaya casual. It's not unique and the food is not particularly unusual, but its virtues -- quality seasonal ingredients; a deft touch in the kitchen; competent service; and an unobtrusive, stylish setting -- exemplify the best of popular contemporary washoku.

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Simple delicacies such as handmade soba noodles and charcoal-grilled seafood and chicken are specialities at Shi-an in Minami-Aoyama.

In appearance, too, this new arrival on Kotto-dori (just opened last month) looks entirely modern Japanese. It occupies basement space below the Ohara tea ceremony school, but no attempt has been made to create some spurious "wabi-sabi" atmosphere. Nor does it espouse the cutting-edge, minimalist aesthetic that too often in this city -- even in this part of town -- is employed to disguise the absence of culinary credentials.

Instead, Shi-an hits a stylish but unpretentious happy medium. The bright vermilion noren draped across the wooden door is a bold statement, but step into the small, tatami-floor dining room and you find the contoured walls are almost Mediterranean in their whitewashed simplicity. You sit on zabuton cushions of coarse ramie hemp, but all the tables are equipped with leg wells in horikotatsu style.

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The food is as straightforward and effective as the decor. You won't find new-age sushi rolls here, nor fusion flavors of pasta. The twin specialties are charcoal-grilled seafood and chicken, and soba noodles. Shi-an proves that when the ingredients and the preparation are good, simple, hearty foods like these belong equally well in a big-city context as in a countryside setting.

Especially when they are produced with top-quality ingredients, as they are here. The soba is te-uchi (hand-rolled and hand-cut), made with buckwheat grown here in Japan. Because the grain is newly harvested and freshly milled, the dark-brown noodles have that distinctive nutty aroma that you never find in the dried, packaged form.

They do not impose a table charge, so there's nothing to stop you from dropping in for a quick 700 yen seiro (cold soba with a dip) or 760 yen kake (in a piping hot soup), as if at any regular noodle shop. Indeed, at lunchtime, that is Shi-an's primary function. But in the evening you will find plenty more on the menu to tempt you to linger.

Your eyes will be drawn to the barbecue grill that stands in the middle of the dining room, encased in white stone and surmounted by a hefty metal chimney. It is surrounded on three sides by a polished wooden counter, where you can sit and watch your food being prepared. Unfortunately, when we visited, there was no charcoal lit (not enough customers on a Saturday night, we were told), and so all the cooking took place out back in the kitchen.

Everything tasted just fine anyway. The hitoya-boshi ("dried overnight") squid was notable. Slowly grilled to bring out the handsome, reddish-brown color of the skin, it had a texture that was firm but not in any way elastic or chewy. The light sprinkling of sea salt with which it was cooked was all the savor that was needed.

This was also the case with the grilled chicken. You will be asked if you want tsukune (balls of minced meat); mune (breast meat); or momo (thigh), of which we chose the latter. It took time to arrive, but it was grilled perfectly. The skin was crisp and gently browned. The meat was moist, juicy and flavorful. It is served with small containers of condiments -- a soy-based sauce; spicy green yuzu kosho paste; and grated daikon -- but these are unnecessary. Why override and drown out something that tastes just right already?

Interestingly, this chicken is listed on the menu merely as jidori, an imprecise term, used generally to connote country-reared birds of a certain pedigree, reared in more spacious conditions than regular broilers. On asking further, however, we were told that in fact it comes from France, not Japan.

The menu does list the provenance of all the seafood, though -- an indication of how confident they are of the quality. The mixed sashimi plate is pricey (2,000 yen for a rather small, two-person serving), but there's no doubting the freshness of the fish, especially the kan-buri (winter yellowtail) from the Japan Sea, which is at the peak of its season right now.

The menu is spread out over three different sheets of paper (all in Japanese), which makes it hard to keep track of all the options. But among the side dishes, check out the fukiyose-age. Finely shaved strips of burdock root are deep fried along with wedges of fresh chestnut and gleaming green ginkgo nuts. This makes a great opening snack with a drink chosen from their good selection of shochu and jizake.

We can also recommend the shiro-bijin salad, featuring marinated chunks of delicate white negi leek, the vegetable to which the dish's poetic name refers. The special autumn tempura includes shrimp, sanma (saury), anago eel, lotus root, long green peppers and shiitake and maitake mushrooms. And, just in time for the cold weather, they also have a number of nabe (hotpots).

Shi-an is the sort of place where you order your victuals a few dishes at a time, rather than mapping out your meal from start to finish. And when you are through with nibbling and sipping on sake, you can bring your meal to conclusion with some of those satisfying soba noodles.

Aoyama Ohara Bldg, 5-7-17 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; (03) 5464-2228
Open:11:30-3 p.m. (last order 2:30 p.m.); 5:30-11 p.m. (last order 10 p.m.)
Closed:Sunday and holidays
Nearest stations: Omotesando (Ginza, Chiyoda and Hanzomon lines)
How to get there:From Omotesando Station, follow Aoyama-dori in the direction of Shibuya, and turn left down Koto-dori (opposite Kinokuniya). The Ohara Kaikan is on the left, just before the second stoplight.
What works: Tasty modern washoku at reasonable prices
What doesn't:Confusing menu; the restrooms are very basic.
Number of seats: 44
BGM: Unobtrusive jazz
Price per head:Lunch: soba from 700 yen; dinner: figure around 3,500 yen (not including drinks). Service charge: 10 percent.
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen; sake from 850 yen, 3,800 yen/bottle; shochu from 590 yen; wine from 700 yen/glass, 3,800 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Advisable

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