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Friday, Aug. 6, 2004
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Summertime, and the grazing is easy
Tongues lolling, throats parched, energy levels flagging, taste buds shriveled . . . When the summer heat sets in, nobody feels like hefty meals. It's the time of year when you have to coax your appetite into action. This is the season for grazing.
Fortunately, Tokyo is well endowed with places expressly designed to do this -- places where you can chill out in style, cradling a glass and nibbling on choice tidbits. One of our current favorites is Galali.
In terms of genre, it neatly straddles the divide between the traditional izakaya and its modern, Westernized equivalent, the dining bar (or, as it's too often misnomered, "dinning bar"). The look at Galali is chic and understated; the customers are young professionals drawn from the Aoyama/Harajuku areas; and it stays open till the wee hours. But the architecture and menu are unmistakably Japanese.
It's a freestanding two-story house embellished with vertical wooden slats down the outside in retro-modern machiya style. Stylish conical lanterns cast a soft light over the narrow alley to the front door. Inside, timber predominates, from the bar counter and large table downstairs to the open-plan stairs and furniture in the second floor dining room where you sit beneath exposed roof beams. A row of sake magnums adorns a backlit alcove along a plain white wall. From the narrow counter at the back you glimpse the lights of the city. This is a space that is quintessential modern Tokyo.
The drinks list holds few surprises (save perhaps the absence of cocktails). A dozen types of sake are offered, sourced from around the country, including the excellent Kokuryu Daiginjo. Galali also boasts more than a score of different shochu, ranging from the smooth, easy-sipping Tominohozen to more powerful brews with distinctive (some might say strident, or even coarse) under-flavors of fermentation.
Far more unusually, one page of Galali's menu is devoted to salt -- 12 different kinds, including sun-dried sea salt from the Ogasawara islands; shrimp-pink ume-jifrom Wakayama, made from the tart red juice derived from pickling umeboshi; rock salt mined high in the Andes of Peru; and the coarse, gray, mineral-rich Guerande salt from Brittany's Atlantic coast.
This is no mere gimmick. There is a long tradition here of taking a small lick of salt together with each sip of sake (much as is done with tequila). It's a recipe for hours of fun, exploring the different flavors of each salt and discovering which goes best with your favorite sake (or vice versa). It goes without saying that you can also use them as a condiment with the food.
The food menu follows the traditional izakaya route, and, remarkably, it makes very few concessions to fusion or Western flavors. The sashimi is fresh (ask for the mori awase selection). The house salad, which changes with the season, is always good value (right now it features crab meat, scallops and shredded daikon). And there are a number of interesting appetizers such as the shio-dofu, a savory custard of creamy soymilk that definitely requires no more salt as seasoning.
At the heart of the menu is the selection of aburiyaki (charcoal grilled) seafood and vegetables. The chunks of chicken were also juicy and flavorful, complemented by lengths of negi leek and a small mound of dark red moromi miso as a condiment. The surume-ika (squid) was less interesting but, served with a mayonnaise dip, proved substantial and filling.
Another specialty of the house that we enjoyed was the Galali tsukune. Normally you would expect this to comprise small, bite-size balls of minced chicken, but here the mince is chopped with green shiso leaf and formed into a single large rectangular patty that is very lightly grilled so it remains moist inside. Beware of the innocuous-looking green condiment that accompanies it. This is yuzu-kosho, a fiery paste of chili pepper mixed with tangy citrus -- it's a great combination, but it packs a searing punch.
Slowly working your way through a succession of delicate dishes, helped with a little sake and plenty of good conversation, you may be surprised to find you require even more sustenance to round off the evening. Should this be the case, you can assuage your stomach with a couple of tasty omusubi rice balls (which you can season to taste with your salt of choice) or a bowl of delicate inaniwa udon noodles.
And here it is, the secret to sustaining yourself through the summer. You need time and patience (and probably a jar or two of sake) to awaken those taste buds and generate an appetite. Good company always helps, as does air conditioning -- plus the kind of stylish, relaxed surroundings offered by places like Galali.
In May, Galali opened a new offshoot branch in Sendagaya, halfway between Meiji-dori and the tunnel. The style is similar -- a small, freestanding building, the same retro-traditional look, plenty of wood -- although inevitably it does not have the same patina. The menu, though, is intriguingly different.
The emphasis here is less on sake than on kokuto (raw sugar) shochu, mostly from Kagoshima. And instead of salt, the pots along the first-floor counter contain miso -- a dozen varieties, each a different color, flavor or texture. Served in the form of name-miso, blended with other ingredients and smeared over a wooden spatula, this makes an excellent savory counterpoint to the hooch.
This branch also serves a good washoku lunch, featuring a choice of five set meals (950 yen including rice and miso soup). On weekdays, there are invariably lines outside.
Galali, 2-6-4 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5786-1820. Open 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m. and 5 p.m-midnight.