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Friday, Jan. 21, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Performance art of the robatayaki


As you slide open the door and enter, a chorus of yells assails your ears, echoing around the room. Before you are even seated, there will be more shouts and responses unleashed by the same bevy of full-throated floor staff. And then again when you order that first drink. And so on all evening. Welcome to Inakaya -- if you're hoping for a quiet night out, you'd better leave now.

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The grillmeisters take center stage at Inakaya in Roppongi, where presentation and performance play a major part in the meal.

Everything feels larger than life here. The waiters dress in dark indigo yukata, their sleeves tied back with bright red cords and hachimaki bands tightly wound around their brows. The handwritten menu posted across the back wall looks like a calligraphy display. And so much of the floor space is taken up by the massive counter, with its groaning cornucopia of food, that you almost have to edge sideways around the periphery of the room to reach your seat.

Inakaya calls itself a robatayaki, a country-style grill, but it's not so much a restaurant as an interactive theater where you get to participate in the show by eating and drinking. The lead roles in this drama are the two yakikata ("grill-persons" is the literal translation), whose names are identified on wooden plaques somewhat in the manner of sumo wrestlers. Kneeling on their haunches in the center of the room, they cook your order, arrange it on plates and then thrust it across that wide counter to where you are sitting, using sturdy wooden paddles a couple of meters long.

There is nothing half-hearted about this drama, even though it has been running for over 10 years now, acted out in two separate venues in Roppongi. Nor is there anything second-rate about the wonderful profusion of produce laid out in front of you on bamboo trays and handsome wooden tubs.

There are a dozen kinds of vegetables, mushrooms and nuts. There are skewers of chicken and beef; clams and mollusks; dried fish in various forms; atsu-age (deep-fried tofu) and Satsuma-age (deep-fried fishcakes); and, as an eye-catching centerpiece, an array of gleaming fresh seafood -- scarlet kinki ("thornyhead"), small flatfish, a large gill of tuna, and handsome, iridescent kuruma-ebi (tiger prawns).

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They can offer lots of other dishes, too -- sashimi, salads, noodles and the kinds of traditional sakana snacks that go so well with sake and beer -- all of which are rustled up from a separate kitchen out back. There is no menu to peruse, just those handwritten signs on the wall, and (more pertinently) no prices are listed anywhere.

Be warned, this is expense account territory, somewhere for entertaining or, better still, being entertained. We ate and drank modestly -- each of us taking a couple of starters from the kitchen: a saucer of grilled ginkgo nuts; two sticks of yakitori; and an order of their wonderful wagyu, succulent cubes of marbled Omi beef from Shiga, skewered, grilled and served with a dip of shoyu, garlic and fresh-grated wasabi root. Including a couple of beers, the bill was close to 10,000 yen per head. With a healthy appetite, and liberal quaffing of their good jizake, it would not be hard to rack up a considerably larger tab.

But Inakaya is not supposed to be a place for a slap-up dinner. You settle in slowly and sip your drinks, chat a lot, nibble on choice tidbits and steal sideways glances at your fellow diners, and imbibe the atmosphere. Then you head out to soak up Roppongi.

But if you time things right, you will stay until the moment when a fresh pair of grillmeisters take over on the dais, usually around 10 in the evening. This changing of the guard is accompanied by rounds of clapping, yet more shouts, and cheers from your fellow diners. Inakaya is corny, yes, and it's pricy, but this is still one of the best shows in town.

Of the two branches, we prefer Inakaya East; but if that is full, then try your luck at their other restaurant on the north side of Roppongi-dori: Inakaya West, 4-10-11 Roppongi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3405-1872; open: daily 5-11 p.m.

Inakaya East
1st Floor, Reine Building, 5-3-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3408-5040
Open: Daily 5 p.m.-5 a.m.
Nearest stations: Roppongi
How to get there: From the Roppongi Crossing, head toward Tokyo Tower for one block, turn right, following the street as it curves to the right. At Charleston & Son, turn left. Inakaya is right next door.
What works: The brilliant theatrical atmosphere
What doesn't: Even for petite Japanese derrieres, those tiny, low stools are small and uncomfortable.
Number of seats: 18
BGM: None
Price per head: No prices shown -- be prepared for no less than 10,000 yen per person (including drinks).
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: some English spoken
Reservations: Recommended

Musashi is a robatayaki of a very different stripe. You can tell that by the large red lantern by the entrance, the raucous hubbub and the cigarette smoke that pours out into the street as you push past the simple noren. It sits among the winking lights and girlie parlors on the gritty, down-at-heel southern edge of Shinbashi. Compared with Inakaya, this is Nikka Red to premium single-malt Islay.

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Robata (above) and Musashi keep Shinbashi's worker bees happy with light-on-the-wallet prices and reliable robatayaki fare.
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Though the basic format is similar, the lights are harsh and the waiters, wearing the kind of yukata you see around provincial onsen towns, look tired and disinterested. The grillmaster presides over an electric grill encrusted with the black detritus of the years. The food he displays is all basic supermarket grade, much of it in its original packaging, laid out on trays of gaudy green plastic.

The squat plastic-covered stools drawn up to the edge of the battered counter are occupied not by well-dressed executives or visiting celebrities but low-ranking salarymen unwinding at the end of the day. Groups of office workers huddle around a score of tables at the back of the room.

But the biggest difference lies in the pricing. Every item that is grilled is a standard 290 yen per serving. So is the atsukan sake, the mizu-wari whiskey and the yu-wari shochu. The sashimi is plebeian -- sardine, horse mackerel or whale -- but fresh. The grilled food is good if hardly memorable. But once we found they stock small bottles of Yebisu Black beer, we had no complaints.

Musashi (Karasumori branch), 3-19-7 Shinbashi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3431-3285; open 4-10:40 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday and holidays; average bill 3,500 yen per person (including drinks). Cash only.

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There are several other izakaya in this same part of Shinbashi that call themselves robatayaki. But the granddaddy of them all, the one that started the whole trend, is the place that simply calls itself Robata. Located just around the corner from Musashi, it stands out from the pack thanks to its rustic frontage complete with ancient wooden water-wheel, and its equally patinated timber-clad interior. It's a family-run operation, with a homely, welcoming feel. The matronly waitresses wear kimono, and the young waiter in happi coat and straw sandals speaks fluent English, and is keen to explain the intricacies of the menu. Each place at the counter is set with a raised lacquer tray. This is the classic robatayaki in every way but one -- there is no actual grill, just bare tatami. For the past 30 years, all the cooking has been done out of sight in the kitchen. But it's of a surprisingly good standard. They specialize in the hearty country fare of Hokkaido, such as ishikari nabe, a warming hotpot of salmon, and lesser-known seafood like grilled komai (saffron cod), a sardine-size white-meat fish. Better still, they have embraced a natural foods ethic -- sea salt, naturally brewed low-salt shoyu, no chemical additives -- to go with the Yebisu beer and fragrant Hokkaido sake. For this neighborhood, the atmosphere at Robata is surprisingly quiet. But twice a week it comes alive with a different kind of floor show. Most Tuesdays and Saturdays they bring in rakugo artists to perform comic manzai programs.

Robata, 4-15-1 Shinbashi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3433-7655; open 5-11 p.m.; closed Sunday and holidays; average bill per person 4,000 yen (including drinks). Cash only.


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