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Friday, Nov. 4, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Perfection in the mix
No restaurants in Tokyo have done more to shape the aesthetic of contemporary Japanese dining than the Shunju group. Over the past 20 years, their trademark synthesis of cutting-edge design -- the work of Shunju's founder and creative genius, Takashi Sugimoto -- with a cosmopolitan take on traditional cooking techniques has become the default standard for modern washoku.
From the very first branch in 1986, a chic but modestly sized restaurant-bar in Mishuku (Setagaya-ku), the Shunju look has grown and evolved slowly, organically. Each new operation has been different, with its own defining character and decor, reflecting the location and clientele. Each bears the unmistakable imprint of Sugimoto's flair.
As longtime fans, both of the look and the food, we were intrigued to hear that the latest Shunju had opened at the beginning of September in Hibiya. We were curious to see how Sugimoto's designs would fit this setting, right across from the venerable Imperial Hotel and next door to the Takarazuka Theater.
Called Shunju Tsugihagi, it is not just the biggest branch to date, it's also the most visually imposing. Sugimoto has outdone himself, producing perhaps the most remarkable, eye-popping restaurant interior in the city, eclipsing even the kitschy eye-candy of the Ginza Daidaiya.
Despite the scale of the place -- it is big enough to seat 275 -- there is no sense of this being some cavernous gastrodome. Sugimoto has broken the massive basement space up into a warren of individual dining areas: some intimate alcoves just right for couples, others large enough to host substantial parties. And, instead of a uniform design throughout, he has opted for a mix-and-match aesthetic. "Patched and darned" is how our dictionary translates tsugihagi. The name is ironic but appropriate.
Classic Japanese tatami washitsu rooms abut lounges with chill-out sofas and low coffee tables. Antique European dining tables are enclosed by glass and steel wine racks. Glinting dark-metal grilles reveal cozy nooks with horigotatsu footwells. Clean-cut Scandinavian furniture sits next to ancient carved panels scavenged from an Indonesian longhouse.
The walls are a textural tour de force: Back-lit pastel-colored glass jars; matte-black logs of charcoal; book spines packed and laminated; compressed layers of fabrics, reminiscent of sakiori work clothes; gray ceramic roof tiles; thick, coarse washi paper dyed in psychedelic light show blobs.
And the further you explore, the stranger it gets. One room is entirely covered with designer clothing; another is furnished with toys and otaku paraphernalia, less a dining room than an art installation. It comes as considerable relief to settle in at the unadorned sushi counter that forms the still center of all this mind-whirling eclecticism.
Thankfully, too, the food is quite good enough to live up to this setting. As always with Shunju, the quality is superb: premium ingredients, their provenance listed, and selected to reflect the season, cooked perfectly with no artificial seasonings and arranged beautifully on fine vessels of ceramic, glass and lacquer. Here at Tsugihagi, though, there is greater emphasis on the fundamentals of Japanese ryori, with fewer cross-cultural accents than at other branches.
For our opening dish, we were asked to choose from a short list of appetizers. We started with miso-cured duck, sliced to reveal its pink-rare interior, served with crisp, tea-flavored crackers (a Kyoto specialty known as yatsuhashi); and a small taster of an-kimo, tender, creamy monkfish liver. Both were exquisite.
The mixed tofu platter featured a selection of different styles of bean curd: morsels of firm tofu, lightly grilled and dabbed with dengaku miso; deep-fried chunks of chewy age-dofu; a small bowl of fresh, semi-liquid yuba (the "cream" of the soymilk); and small cubes of kurumi-dofu and soba-dofu (not in fact a soy food, but soft mousses of kuzu starch flavored with walnuts and buckwheat flour respectively.
They do brilliant things with fish, as you would expect. We sampled a wonderful fillet of delicately steamed tara (cod), presented on a strip of the konbu seaweed it had been cooked with, served in a wide, coarse ceramic bowl with a few lightly cooked oysters, seasoned with a hint of yuzu. This was outstanding.
On a far more visceral, finger-licking level, we jettisoned our chopsticks to gnaw on fist-size servings of chicken (Date-jidori, a very flavorful fowl), crisply deep-fried in kara-age style -- oshibori towels were provided. By contrast, the avocado "crockets" (sic) were one-bite nuggets of crisp, golden brown, encasing smooth melting mash of vivid green avocado, pepped up by a dip of salt mixed with sansho (prickly ash pepper).
But the centerpieces of the kitchen are the charcoal grill and the sushi bar. From the former, we chose more chicken -- this time free-range gamecock (Kohei-jidori), which was even more delectable than the kara-age. And from the latter, a selection of gourmet sushi, one of which was topped with a sliced matsutake mushroom, torched lightly brown to bring out its ineffable aroma. It was a wonderful way to complete our evening.
Tsugihagi offers a number of deluxe set meals, starting at 6,800, yen which are clearly the best way to sample the range of what the kitchen can prepare. But the Shunju modus operandi is, at heart, that of the izakaya or dining bar. The quality of the food is undeniable, but in surroundings like this it is best to nibble as your appetite takes you.
There is plenty of good sake to choose from, ranging from simple, crisp junmaishu, such as the house brand, Shunju, to some premium tipples -- the complex Hiyase-ura from Fukui was a great discovery for us. There is also plenty of shochu, and a substantial list of vintage wines that no doubt appeal to the expense-account businessmen who form an important part of the demographic in the area.
Before leaving, be sure to have a look around the premises -- the waiters will be happy to escort you if the rooms are not too busy. In one of the inner dining rooms, you will find the original paintings that were used for the bold, colorful illustrations in the Japanese food menu (the English menu is on plain washi paper). Just another facet of this remarkable dining experience.