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Friday, Sept. 12, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

'R' you ready to crack open oyster season?


Rules are made to be broken. Change is the only constant. Culture is porous and tradition must be fluid. These are the guiding principles for all life. How can they not apply to what and how we eat?

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Tokyo is developing a taste for oysters on the half shell, and one of the best places to find them is the Water Grill Oyster Bar, with branches in Nishi-Azabu (above) and Akasaka.
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Yes, but. . . . Like so many others, we are creatures of habit. At Christmas we demand the full trimmings (chestnut stuffing, bread sauce and much more) with our turkey -- or better still, roast goose. We despise the notion of eating strawberries in winter. Fish and chips without malt vinegar is unthinkable. At even the funkiest izakaya, we only order our rice when we're through with quaffing sake. And, despite advances in refrigeration technology, we still shy away from raw shellfish during the summer months.

Now that September is here, though, what's to stop us? Oysters "R" in again, as the old adage has it, and not a moment too soon. When the weather is still too warm to contemplate full-scale dining, nothing could be easier on the appetite than a few succulent mollusks on the half shell. All you have to do is slurp them down -- you don't even have to expend energy on chewing.

The concept of the oyster bar has taken a long time to catch on in Tokyo, probably because raw shellfish has been the province of sushi chefs and there are so many other delectable species of smaller bivalves that fit more easily on a bitesize wedge of vinegared rice.

Fortunately, though, the idea has finally taken root here, with a rash of new places opening over the last couple of years. Water Grill was one of the first, and it is still a favorite of ours -- for its menu, at any rate. Its main drawback has always been that, despite the playful retro chic of the all-white decor (check out the 1960s- look molded plastic chairs and those giant lampshades in the shape of light bulbs), its original premises, hidden away below the Tokyu Hotel in Akasaka, are cramped and crowded.

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No such problem at its newer branch, which occupies a spacious basement close by the Nishi-Azabu crossing. The feel is more contemporary, as is the music on the sound system, and it caters to a younger, hipper, late-night crowd. With its low tables, discrete lighting and plush, white leather bar chairs drawn up at the long, wide, jet-black counter, the ambience is that of a designer drinking hole rather than a formal dining spot. But the menu at the two branches is virtually identical.

Pride of place is given to the oysters arrayed in the glass-fronted tray of ice running the length of the open kitchen. There are usually four or five varieties to choose from, some local -- including the fabulous rock oysters from Niigata -- others imported from Tasmania or the Pacific Northwest. Order a brace (or 10) on the half shell. Beautifully presented on simple, plain white platters, they are so fresh and flavorful, nothing more is needed than a dribble of lemon juice or perhaps a dab of soy sauce (actually garlic flavored niniku-joyu). But for extra zest, other condiments are provided, including fine-chopped zasai (Chinese pickles) and a mildly spicy cocktail sauce.

Needless to say, Water Grill also serves these same mollusks in other preparations, ranging from the tried and true -- oysters Rockefeller or Casino -- to the unorthodox, such as oysters Fujiyama, a house original in which the shellfish is lightly grilled and paired with tofu, miso and negi leeks (not a recipe that is destined to become a classic, this one).

But there is plenty more on the menu besides oysters. They also have a substantial list of starters, almost all based around fish and seafood. We ordered the crab cake and found it was not some kind of croquette, as we had expected, but a mound of fresh, creamy crab meat served with salad greens, a poached egg and crisp slices of bagel -- an inventive combination that really works well.

For more substantial fare, there is sauteed seafood, and as soon as cooler weather arrives, their thick, warming clam chowder will come into its own. But the heartiest way to round off an evening at Water Grill at any time of year is with a plate of their trademark seafood gumbo.

Featuring crab leg, whole prawns and plenty of other good seafood, it is cooked up in a rich base of tomato sauce inside intriguing spherical steam-heated kettles. Although the recipe has little in common with Cajun-style cooking, it does contain enough okra to justify its claim to be called a gumbo. It would also be more authentic if it were made ahead of time in large batches, instead of being whisked up to order. Even so, once we had spiced it up with a good dollop of green jalapeno sauce, we found it made a satisfying end to the meal.

Water Grill Oyster Bar
Unimat Mistral Point, B1F, 2-25-15 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; (03) 5766-3700
Open:6 p.m.-4 a.m., Monday-Saturday; 6 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday
Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines) and Hiroo (Hibiya Line)
How to get there: From the Nishi-Azabu Crossing, walk along Roppongi-dori in the direction of Shibuya for about 100 meters. The Unimat Building is on the right, just after the second crossing. Water Grill is underneath Fish Bank, but its entrance is on the main drag.
What works: Stylish, spacious setting for slurping bivalves
What doesn't:The wine selection is very limited
Number of seats: 15 at the counter, plus tables for a score or more.
BGM: Jazzy ambient beats
Price per head:Oysters from around 400 yen each; a la carte menu includes appetizers from around 1,000 yen, and gumbo for 2,800 yen (half portion 1,400 yen)
Drinks: Aperitifs from 700 yen; beer 700 yen; wine 800 yen/glass, from 4,500 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; some English spoken
Reservations: Usually not essential

The original branch is still in operation beneath the Tokyu Hotel in Akasaka: Water Grill Oyster Bar, Akasaka Tokyu Plaza, 2F, 2-14-3 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: (03) 3539-1700. Open: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 6 p.m.-11 p.m., Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturday and holidays; closed Sunday.


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