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Friday, Dec. 6, 2002


New washoku comes of age

Trends are only ever truly visible in retrospect, but all the indications are that 2002 will be viewed as the year in which washoku -- Japan's native, homegrown food -- finally made its big comeback.

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Kitchen Shunju provides everything you've come to expect from a Shunju restaurant: cutting-edge design and Japanese cuisine taken to another level.

This assessment is not based on the amount of column inches and glossy photographs devoted to Japanese ryori by the local press -- after all, the media here feed and massage new trends the way Kobe cattle farmers tend their prime wagyu steers. What is undeniable, though, is that most of the hot restaurant openings in recent months have not been French, Italian, ethnic or Pacific fusion, but ultra-chic ventures in the vernacular mode. Welcome to the era of the new Japanese cuisine.

But this is no overnight revolution. Rather, it has been a gradual process, gathering steam slowly until it has finally reached critical mass. Anyone fortunate enough to have visited one of the wonderful Shunju group of restaurants-cum-bars around Tokyo will already be quite familiar with this concept.

The first Shunju -- the name means, simply, "Spring, Autumn" -- opened in 1986 in the trendy but well-off-the-mainstream Mishuku district. Its synthesis of cutting-edge looks (the creation of interior designer Takashi Sugimoto), its sophisticated but casual Japanese food and its stylish, late-night bar hit just the right note for the times. It has proved so popular and enduring that it has spawned five larger, more central sister operations and helped spark a movement that has spread through the city.

Now the Shunju aesthetic is set to go global, thanks to the recently published "Shunju: New Japanese Cuisine" (Periplus, 271 pp., 5,514 yen). It's a substanial tome, with 250 pages of photos and recipes to feast your eyes on and, if you are adventurous, to try out for yourself.

Like the restaurants themselves, this book is a work of gorgeous design. Not only does it introduce hundreds of the recipes developed by co-author Marcia Iwatate and the chefs at Shunju, it is a beautiful document of the variety and depth of Japanese cuisine updated for the new millennium.

As Iwatate explains in her foreword, the principles of this modern washoku are no different from those of the old -- the bounty of the mountains, oceans and rice paddies of this country, harvested in season and served as close as possible to their natural state. That means lightly cooked, indeed often raw, and, above all, presented with the artful simplicity that lies at the heart of Japanese culture.

What propels the modern ryori, as espoused by Shunju, into the present tense, distinguishing it from anything that has come before, is the willingness to incorporate foodstuffs and cooking styles from other parts of the globe into traditional Japanese recipes. Lemongrass, avocado, cream cheese, herbes de Provence and spicy Korean kochujang chili paste: These are just a few of the many non-native ingredients embraced by Shunju and the new generation of Japanese chefs.

Likewise the setting. There is no rigid insistence on tatami and shoji, just that a certain sense of harmony is maintained. Balinese fabrics, rustic armchairs from Spain or India, and antique Chinese wooden serving vessels all find their place in the contemporary aesthetic. Sugimoto has even incorporated reclaimed sidewalk gratings from the London subway system into the interior of the Toriizaka (Roppongi) branch.

The biggest change, though, is one of attitude. No longer does sophistication require formality or a rigid adherence to the long-established progression of dishes and cooking styles. It is here that the soul of modern washoku lies -- at the interface of izakaya informality and kaiseki complexity.

The recipes in "Shunju" assume a familiarity with the fundamentals of Japanese cooking, and many are likely to prove too complex and time-consuming for all but the most adventurous and committed cooks. They also include ingredients that, even for readers in Japan, will be hard to come by, and suggestions for alternatives would have been appreciated.

But the other reason why it is more likely to remain on the coffee table than in the kitchen is because it's just too beautiful to sully. "Shunju" is without doubt the most sumptuous book on Japanese food produced this year, and it arrives at just the right time for the Christmas gift-giving season.

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If you would rather eat than read, then there are six branches of Shunju to choose from. The latest of them, Kitchen Shunju, opened just last month in the newly refurbished My City building, just outside Shinjuku Station.

As always, the design elements are just right: a blend of old and funky with the cutting-edge chic. Sugimoto modulates the clear, white-wood, modern look with homely touches (comfy Indian armchairs; an antique recycled door as a table). Although the counter seating only accommodates four, the long, open kitchen is visible from almost all corners of the premises.

The menu is classic Shunju, but also introduces several new ideas for the first time. The starters are exquisite, inventive and tasty, with a more noticeable Vietnamese accent than before. The nama-harumaki spring rolls are filled with crab meat, cucumber, yama-imo yam, lettuce and slivers of apple (and no harusame vermicelli filler), and are served with a dip prepared from kani-miso (the innards of the crab shell) and nuoc mam fish sauce.

Or try the banh xeo, crisp, golden pancakes filled with green mung bean sprouts, morsels of pork and tiny sakura ebi shrimp. You eat them with a lettuce leaf and spicy miso.

Like many modern izakaya, Shunju makes delicious homemade tofu. Their on-dofu (hot tofu) is perfect for the winter season. It is prepared from scratch, using fresh soymilk heated up in small, individual do-nabe casseroles with a nigari coagulant. The taste is warm and savory, like a beany custard with the consistency of blancmange.

They offer an excellent selection of charcoal-grilled foods, including king crab; various kinds of fish; tasty, juicy jidori chicken; and excellent vegetables -- especially the shimanita negi, a type of leek.

But the main addition to the Shunju repertoire is their selection of Dutch-oven dishes. These heavy, cast-iron casseroles are perfect for slow cooking, sealing in the steam so the food cooks in its own juices. They have eight varieties, ranging from simple oysters steamed in ginjo sake to a delectable mixture of snapper and root vegetables cooked with thyme and other herbs in almost pot au feu style.

Where Kitchen Shunju differs most radically from other branches is the fact that it is open not just for dinner, but from lunchtime and right through the afternoon. This means that for the first time, we can drop in and sample tidbits from the menu, washing them down with a glass or two of their excellent own-brand sake, at any time of day. Now if only they could supply us with an English menu, like they do at the other branches.

Kitchen Shunju
My City 8F, 3-38-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 5369-0377
Open:Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Nearest stations: Shinjuku (JR, Keio, Odakyu, Marunouchi, Shinjuku and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Studio Alta, cross Shinjuku-dori and walk down the left side of the JR Shinjuku Station building. My City is on the right, at the far end of the rotary.
What works: The usual Shunju quality, in an even more accessible format
What doesn't:An English menu would be a great help.
Number of seats: 60
BGM: Very quiet jazzy stuff
Price per head:Figure around 3,000 yen a head (without drinks). Note: There is a 700 yen otoshi, plus 10 percent service charge.
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen; cocktails from 900 yen; wine 800 yen/glass, 3,500 yen/bottle; whiskey from 1,000 yen; shochu from 500 yen; sake from 300 yen/shot, from 600 yen/180ml tokkuri, 3,200 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese menu; a little English spoken
Reservations: Recommended at peak times (lunch and dinner)

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