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Friday, Sept. 16, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Peace of mind can be yours, even in Shibuya
Looking for a peaceful, adult place to eat in central Shibuya is about as easy as finding a street without a karaoke box. So when you come across the understated, almost quaintly retro entrance to Negiya Heikichi, in a back street close to Tokyu Hands, it seems too good to be true.
A bamboo hedge flanks the path on your left; on the right, oil lamps flicker in alcoves in the wall. At the far end, you can just make out the kanji of the name crudely ink-brushed on the paper covering the sliding wooden door. The large character chalked on the wall is so faint it could have been here since the Showa Era. And don't jam your umbrella into that squat ceramic urn by the lintel -- it's home to two turtles.
On closer inspection, it becomes clear this antique look is only skin-deep. The building is barely a year old and that scuffed patina is mere facade. But that doesn't matter, because the illusion is just as good inside. Wooden beams and farmhouse furniture set the scene. A small irori hearth nestles beneath the stairs.
Casual but tranquil, designed but not designer, this is certainly not the only izakaya in Tokyo to pack its shelves with shochu bottles, dim the lights and affect a faux-rustic look. So, like many another establishment, it depends on a distinguishing feature to set it apart from the pack. At Heikichi, the theme becomes obvious as soon as you start flicking through the thick, washi-bound menu (currently only available in Japanese in hard-to-decipher cursive script, although they say an English version is in the works) -- that is, as long as you are familiar with the character for negi (leek).
Do not denigrate this humble vegetable -- or its more refined Japanese counterpart, with its long, white, smooth lower stem, rising into delicate, crunchy, light-green upper leaves. Nor should you underestimate the numerous spring onions, scallions and related varieties grown in this country. An entire section of the menu here is devoted to dishes featuring negi in all its many shapes and forms, prepared in virtually every way known to Japanese cuisine. Most are included on the Heikichi set menu (4,000 yen per head), but be warned: Unless you are a true negi aficionado, you are likely to find this close to (or way past) overkill.
After your otoshi appetizer, the meal starts with a small plate of sashimi. But it is from the next course that things start to get interesting. A couple of long white negi have been slowly grilled over charcoal, carefully being turned until their outside skin has charred and turned ebony black. Sliced into lengths a couple of inches long, they are served with a savory dip of lightly sweetened miso.
Known as negi no kuroyaki, this is Heikichi's classic preparation, its calling card, the dish that launched the concept, the one that everybody orders. And it's excellent. Discarding the outer layer, you squeeze out the inner parts, which are still tender and green, lightly crunchy but sufficiently cooked to bring out the inherent sweetness of the vegetable. As so often in Japanese cuisine, simplicity is the mother of satisfaction.
The succeeding courses, good as they were for the most part, were something of an anticlimax after that. The gyu-kushi -- charcoal-grilled cubes of beef served kebab style -- were very tasty, but they would have been improved by not being served with exactly the same miso dip as we had with the negi.
The omelet-like preparation known as yanagawa can be an acquired taste. Here, the hot, runny egg concealed chunks of unagi eel and was cooked with lots of finely sliced burdock root and green negi. Although we would have liked some rice with it, we enjoyed it -- unlike the dish that followed. Greens of kujo-negi, a specialty of the Tamba area, near Kyoto, were lightly steamed in o-hitashi style. This would have been fine had it been for a garnish of finely minced white of negi and ginger, dressed with oil that was clearly too old.
But there was plenty yet to come. Next up was mixed tempura, featuring not only negi (no surprise there) but also a small fish (haze) and imo-imo dango, balls of deep-fried sweet potato each containing a cube of crunchy tororo yam. And the final main course was buta shabu, a heaping pile of chopped negi, blanched but still crunchy, topped with a few slivers of lightly cooked pork.
With udon noodles and finally a small scoop of chestnut ice cream to round off the meal, we found it filling, tasty (with that single exception) and good value. Including a couple of beers and a few drafts of sake -- they stock a score of jizake, plus plenty of shochu -- we still found our bill came to just over 11,000 yen for two.
Most people treat Heikichi as an izakaya -- ordering a couple of dishes at a time to go with whatever they are drinking. But whether you are settling in for the evening or just dropping in to snack and chat, a place of such restful ambience is worth knowing in this part of town.
* * *
If it's authentic Showa Era patina you want with your sake, then you are probably ready for an evening at Unosato, a gem of an izakaya that is one of the last surviving holdouts from the time when this neck of the Shibuya woods was die-hard salaryman R&R territory. It occupies a well-worn single-story house tucked away so perfectly down a little-traversed alley that few people even know it's there. But the full-length hempen noren hanging in front of the door and the gently glowing andon lamps whisper a welcome far removed from the razzle and hustle of Center-gai, literally just steps away.
Back in the early 1980s, Unosato was one of the first places in this area to embrace the jizake boom, and it still stocks a dozen or more brews from such notable kura as Kokuryu, Juyondai and a most lively nigori-zake from Shinkame. These days, inevitably, the drinks list also boasts plenty of shochu.
As a rule of thumb, places that serve good sake tend to produce tasty sakana, the traditional side dishes that go so well with nihonshu. Unosato does not disappoint, with its well-tailored menu of fresh fish and vegetable dishes, virtually none of which are over 1,000 yen. We especially like the modori-gatsuo, the autumn bonito served in classic tataki style; the kani-shinjo no satsuma-age (deep-fried patties of crab meat); and the salad of scallops and daikon radish.
The main dining room boasts tables and counter seats, but it is the tatami area at the rear that evokes the true flashback experience. Looking out on the most minuscule of gardens, with some prime sake in your glass, it is easy to forget not only where you are but indeed what decade.
Unosato; 36-11 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3496-2087; www.unosato.com/ Open 5.30-11.30 p.m. (Saturday 5-11:30 p.m.); closed Sunday and holidays. Courses from 3,500 yen; beer from 580 yen; sake from 500 yen; shochu from 500 yen.