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Friday, April 7, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Izakaya mood swings
We were in the mood for eating Japanese -- nothing too fancy, but somewhere modern, with a sense of style, to match the elevated state engendered by strolling under the Meguro-gawa blossoms. We couldn't get into our favorite watering holes alongside the river. So we decided to try our luck at Daikonya, just a short taxi ride away in Sangenjaya.
When it opened, a dozen years ago, Daikonya's mix of contemporary architecture with traditional decor was considered cutting edge. These days it feels far less self-consciously hip, but it still looks good and draws a mature clientele, thanks to its quiet ambience and eclectic, new-wave izakaya cooking.
The ground floor is basically an oden bar. A dozen seats are arranged along a counter looking in at the slowly simmering pans of broth -- interestingly, they make both Kansai and the darker, richer Kanto styles. The downstairs dining room offers a more comfortable setting for longer sojourns.
The lighting is kept low, as is the jazz in the background; the walls have a faux-mud look; the tables are set with young daikon radishes as chopstick rests. There is no imperative to order oden -- nor to have a whole meal, although there are set courses if you don't want the hassle of thumbing through the Japanese-only menu in the very dim light. Most people just take a dish or two at a time, by far the best approach when there are so many good things to sample from their list of seasonal dishes.
* Aburi sora-mame: New season broad beans, slowly grilled inside their gleaming green pods and served just with a small saucer of crystal sea salt. It's one of the classic tastes of spring, bitter but honest and only at its peak in this narrow window of early spring.
* Nama-yuba sashimi: This Kyoto specialty is by no means a standard izakaya dish, least of all served with such panache. The thick, creamy layers of soymilk skin were folded on a fresh leaf of sasa bamboo set atop a length of green bamboo cut lengthways and filled with ice. Just as unusual was the dip, shiro shoyu (clear soy sauce) blended with soymilk.
* Sashimi mori-awase (mixed sashimi plate): The fish is commendably fresh and, as with the yuba, beautifully arranged on ice in a big, chunky, square, hand-thrown serving dish. Better still, there's a good range of chilled jizake (local sake) to go with it.
* Asa-dori sansai tempura: The sharply bitter flavor of freshly harvested wild mountain "vegetables" may not be to everyone's taste. But for us udo, both leaf and stem, fuki and tara no me are an essential and delectable accompaniment to spring, especially as tempura.
* From the starters through to the soymilk creme bru^lee, non-Japanese influences abound. The yuki sarada (organic salad) featured shreds of daikon mixed with a "tartar" sauce made with cream cheese, scattered with bacon bits, and topped with slices of deep-fried lotus root, burdock and sweet potato. Again, it looked fabulous.
Throughout, this was izakaya fare of unusual delicacy and reasonably priced, too. For all the above (shared between two), plus drinks, we still we got plenty of change from a 10,000 yen note.
* * *
Sometimes, though, we don't want refined. We want bustle, noise and laughter filling the air, and honest no-frills provender. Whenever that feeling hits, then we know it's time for another pilgrimage to Kaikaya.
For hardcore fans -- and they are legion -- this is the ultimate izakaya. They love the scruffy, unkempt look, the laid-back vibes, the cheerful welcome. You sit on low stools at basic wooden tables. The walls are plastered with two decades of Polaroids of carousing customers, along with pin-ups of fish and assorted marine life.
A surfboard hangs under the ceiling. It belongs to the master of the house, owner-chef Teruyuki Tange, who's been out riding waves since the 1970s. He opened this unique izakaya back in 1988, as a way to dovetail his twin passions, cooking and the ocean. "Kaikaya by the Sea" he calls it: If you can't make it down to the coast, then he brings the coast -- together with its laid-back lifestyle -- in to the city.
You'll find Tange at the counter most evenings, if he's not busy with his commitments as a food consultant. But the man in charge on a day-to-day basis, the heart and soul of the whole operation, is Ippei Takei. He is the big man with the ponytail who greets you with a smile, and later sees you off at the door. It is he who also makes sure things never get out of hand, no matter how boisterous the behavior of the happy punters who fill the place each night.
But there's plenty more to Kaikaya's popularity than just the warm welcome and party vibes. It's based on the basic virtues of good, hearty food -- including plenty of excellent seafood, shipped direct from the fishing ports of Nishi-Izu -- plus a fine selection of sake and shochu. The fully bilingual menu is a major plus for the foreign community, and everyone loves the very reasonable prices.
Start off with a platter of sashimi and an order of grilled fish, the precise varieties of which will naturally depend on availability and the season. Tange's "cuisine Japonaise" wanders a long way from the Japanese standards, though. You can have your raw fish as carpaccio, or even in Vietnamese style, dressed with lemongrass, green chili and nuoc mam fish sauce.
The grilled fish is bolstered by plenty of olive oil, garlic, Italian parsley and lemon. The other day we feasted on itoyori (goldenthread) cooked this way and it was delectable. But with such fresh fish, how can you go wrong?
There are always good seasonal dishes. We loved the tender takenoko (bamboo shoot), simmered with aburage tofu pouches and fresh wakame seaweed, seasoned in the classic way with katsuobushi flakes. And we were equally impressed by the nanohana greens and crisp, juicy chunks of naga-imo yam rolled up in prosciutto.
It gets even more interesting: gyoza pot-stickers filled with pork meat and shrimp; the house special kamayaki (here called tuna "spare ribs"); shimofuji nigiri, sushi topped with prime marbled Kobe beef; and don't pass up one of Tange's patent desserts -- perhaps the plum sherbet with umeshu jelly.
Such eclecticism; such fun. That's why we always make a point of bringing visitors from abroad to Kaikaya. Our only grumble is a selfish one. It's become so popular that you can never expect to get in without a reservation -- a situation made worse by the fact they no longer stay open till the wee hours.