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Friday, March 21, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Elevated dining at this three-in-one


Nobody would claim that Shibuya is among the most attractive neighborhoods of this metropolis. And yet, as with so many other less than salubrious districts, when viewed at night from a suitable distance -- say 14 stories above the ground -- it does take on an undeniable glow that could almost be called romantic.

News photo
News photo
News photo
Sushi, soba and kushiyaki are all on the menu at Gonpachi. JT: YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOTS

Spending the evening in some high-rise restaurant is perhaps the ultimate escape from reality, not only from the hustle and sleaze of street life but also from global events that are becoming increasingly gloomy. And that is as good a reason as any for checking out the newest branch of Gonpachi, which along with its sister restaurant Legato occupies the upper floors of the new E. Space Tower, high above the upper reaches of Dogenzaka, known to most of us as Love Hotel Hill.

But there are plenty of other good reasons, too -- starting with the dramatic, glass-enclosed elevator ride up the outside of this gleaming edifice. The building itself is so new it still looks half-empty. But step through the sturdy wooden gateway that is the entrance to Gonpachi and you find yourself in a micro-environment of comforting noise, warmth and bustle.

This is the third branch of Gonpachi to be opened by the ever-expanding Global Dining group, and in our estimation it's the best of the bunch. We found the original restaurant, in Odaiba, dark and claustrophobic. The second incarnation, the massive "castle" in Nishi-Azabu, is certainly impressive but so impersonal and theatrical it feels like a theme park. Here in Shibuya they've got the scale just about right.

It is essentially three restaurants in one. Straight ahead, up the white stone steps and through the sliding wooden door, is the sushi bar. Belly up to the counter in traditional style to watch the itamae chefs at work; or reserve one of the Western-style tables from where you can take best advantage of the cityscape through the huge picture windows.

The main dining room, next door, is in a completely different vein. Here, the main focus of the room is the long kushiyaki grill. The decor is simple but stylish, with Art Nouveau-look lamps illuminating the long wooden counter and intimate spot-lighting over each of the tables. One corner is occupied by a booth where noodles (both udon and dark, substantial inaka soba) are rolled and chopped by hand.

These are the main specialties of the house. But also on offer are a good range of other ippin dishes -- fish, vegetables and meat -- so you can construct a full meal in izakaya mode, washing it down with beer, sake (12 kinds of junmai or ginjo, including several of our favorites, such as Isojiman from Shizuoka) or a range of chuhai sours.

The third alternative is to book yourself into one of the small private chambers, order one of the set meals (4,500 yen or 6,000 yen), then sit back and enjoy the company of your dining partners -- and the view. You have a choice between rooms with tables and chairs or those with zabuton cushions on the floor, the former enhanced by a small illuminted strip of garden, the latter looking straight down over the sea of suburbia.

Choosing the lesser of the two courses, we started with a serving of freshly made zaru-dofu, served with a dab of wasabi. You are encouraged to season it with salt, rather than soy sauce, the better to appreciate the delicate sweetness of the curds. This was followed by a small salad garnished with morsels of chicken meat, mizuna herb and slivers of nori seaweed. A tasty dressing well flavored with sesame elevated this above the commonplace.

The next bowl was another izakaya standard, but again rendered with a delicate touch. At the most basic, ebi-shinjo are just balls of pounded shrimp and fish meat, breaded and deep-fried. Gonpachi gives the dish greater refinement by applying a coating of broken somen noodles, creating an exterior of crisp, golden spikes. Instead of the standard tsuyu sauce, it was enlivened with a Thai-style sugar-and-chili dipping sauce.

The main course offers a choice between yakitori or fish -- in this case fillets of miso-glazed black cod (gindara no saikyo-miso yaki). The soft-textured fish was cooked to perfection, crumbling into moist white flakes made even more delectable by being lightly basted with sweet miso paste.

Gonpachi also produces first-rate kushiyaki, thanks to its use of flavorful jidori chickens and premium Bincho charcoal. The tebasaki chicken wings were nicely crisp on the outside, lightly salted to balance the oiliness, and with plenty of meat to gnaw off the bone. The negima (chicken meat interspersed with chunks of negi leek) was also excellent. It, too, arrives lightly salted, and the only further flavoring it needs is a small squeeze from a wedge of lemon.

The long patties of tsukune (minced meat) were equally good. These are lightly doused with a tare sauce and served with a poached egg (not raw, as is more standard). You will not want this to go to waste, so when you've finished the chicken, order a separate bowl of hot rice, season the remaining egg with a little shoyu and pour it over the top.

The next course was the sushi, which like the other courses, was served individually, rather than from a central platter in the middle of the table. We were given slender morsels of one-bite nigiri-zushi draped with chu-toro (fatty tuna); maguro (tuna); hirame (yellowtail); seki-aji (a kind of scad); and hotate (scallops). There was also a selection of sushi rolls -- including California and dragon rolls -- which demonstrate that the sushi chefs are equally fluent in both traditional and contemporary idioms.

After the shokuji course (rice, miso soup and pickles), we closed with a dessert of yaki-purin (baked pudding, much like a cre^me brulee but without the crisp topping of hard caramelized sugar).

This is entry-level Japanese dining at its most casual and accessible. Don't expect any heights of refinement or creativity, nor to hear deferential keigo from the helpful young waiting staff. What you can expect is good food that is satisfying, affordable and not too exotic -- plus that brilliant view.

If you are thinking this is just the kind of thing for out-of-town visitors with unsophisticated taste buds, then you won't be alone. When U.S. President George W. Bush visited Japan a couple of years back, Prime Minister Koizumi took him not to some exclusive ryokan, but to the Nishi-Azabu branch of Gonpachi.

Gonpachi
E.Space Tower 14F, 3-6 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5784-2011
Open:11.30 a.m.-5 a.m. (last order for food: 4.15 a.m.); Sushi bar: 5 p.m.-2 a.m (last order for sushi: 1 a.m.)
Nearest stations:Shibuya (JR, Toyoko, Inokashira, Ginza, Hanzomon and Denentoshi lines)
How to get there:From Shibuya Station (Hachiko Exit), walk away from the tracks and up Dogenzaka (take the left fork at the 109 Building). You will see the E.Space Tower on the right just after the third set of traffic lights.
What works:Reliable, accessible and reasonable. Japanese dining made easy.
What doesn't:Those garishly lit trees on that strip of garden outside the window.
Number of seats:220
BGM:Samurai drama soundtrack set to contemporary beats.
Price per head: Lunch: noodles from 550 yen; donburi from 750 yen. Dinner: set courses at 4,500 yen and 6,000 yen, also a la carte.
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen; sake from 750 yen; shochu highballs from 600 yen; wine 850 yen/glass, from 3,900 yen/bottle.
Credit cards:Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; English spoken
Reservations:Advisable

The Global Dining Web site is at www.global-dining.com/global/index.html


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