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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006



After dark in the alleys of Kagurazaka

The old pleasure quarter of Kagurazaka has always been one of Tokyo's most congenial areas. There's not a great deal to do or see, but you can while away a quiet afternoon exploring the network of scenic alleyways that line both sides of the hill from which the area takes its poetic name ("the slope of the gods' music").

News photo
Sakura Sakura specializes in obanzai cuisine, including premium wagyu beef sushi and yuba-udon noodles. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
News photo
News photo

It is at dusk that Kagurazaka really comes alive. Every corner of this neighborhood seems to be occupied by bars, izakaya and restaurants of varying hues. As a rule of thumb, the deeper you penetrate the back streets, the more exclusive and expensive the establishment you will find. But Sakura Sakura breaks the mold in many different ways.

You will find it -- not so easily, though -- at the far end of the narrowest of alleys, set back from busy Okubo-dori. It opened in February this year and occupies a 60-year-old timber-framed house that has been carefully refurbished in a way that marries tradition (as the name might suggest) with a certain whimsy.

Slide open the door and you see cuboid stools of pillar-box red pulled up to the counter of the open kitchen that occupies the entire ground floor. Climb the steep wooden stairs and you find the dining room has vermilion walls, dark timbers, exposed beams and a ceiling of matte black. In place of washi paper, yuzen kimono fabric is stretched across the wooden frame of the window. An obi decorates the almost vertical steps to an attic space with low ceilings and tables. The lights are kept low, as is the smooth vocal jazz from the speakers. It's close to kitsch, yes, but with an underlying sense of fun and style.

Sakura Sakura (like its sibling restaurant in Shirokanedai) serves the type of Kyoto cuisine known as obanzai, in which tofu and yuba (soymilk skin) play a prominent role. Most of the ingredients come from Kyoto, especially the vegetables and pickles, and so does the chef.

The highlight of the multicourse kaiseki meals is the zensai starter, 12 separate morsels arranged exquisitely on special partitioned trays. In winter there is also a sukiyaki hot pot, with slices of premium pork to be dipped into a soymilk-based broth. These set meals are served in the evening only, and have to be ordered at least a day in advance.

Alternatively, you can nibble in more casual style from the a la carte menu. Standouts here include the mixed salad, blending fresh greens with crunchy deep-fried vegetables; excellent tempura -- the composition of which changes with the season, but currently includes maitake mushrooms and small ishikawa-imo (think refined taro yams) served with uni-joyu, a savory, sea urchin-based sauce; and wagyu nigiri-zushi, patties of lightly vinegared sushi rice topped with slices of premium beef that have been lightly seared, rare not raw.

The other specialty of the house is their excellent yuba-udon. These noodles, available both at lunch and dinner, are made with soymilk and yuba in place of water to bind the basic wheat dough together, giving the noodles a richer flavor and smoother texture. Served in a fragrant Kansai-style hot broth (ask for kyo-dashijiru udon), they are simple and wholesome.

Even more satisfying is the kuro-goma udon, an original and highly delectable variant in a rich broth fortified with pitch-black sesame. This -- like the remarkable premises that houses Sakura Sakura -- is something not to be missed.

Sakura Sakura

Location: 5-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
tel: (03) 6666-5788

Open: 11:30 a.m.- 2.30 p.m. (last order); 5:30-10 p.m. (last order).

Closed: Monday.

Nearest stations: Ushigome-Kagurazaka (Oedo line); Kagurazaka (Tozai Line) and Iidabashi (JR Yurakucho, Nanboku and Tozai lines)

How to get there: From Ushigome-Kagurazaka Station (Exit A3), turn left and walk down Okubo-dori. Before you reach the Kagurazaka intersection, turn right down a narrow alley (by a yakiniku restaurant). Sakura Sakura is at the end of an even narrower alley to the left.

What works: A remarkable setting for Kyoto cuisine.

What doesn't: The counter seats don't have backs.

Number of seats: 25 (including 5 at the counter of the first-floor kitchen)

No-smoking areas: None designated.

BGM: Vocal jazz and opera arias.

Price per head: Lunch -- noodles from 840 yen. Dinner -- set kaiseki meals at 5,520 yen and 7,350 yen; also a la carte

Drinks: Cocktails 650 yen; beer 650 yen; shochu from 500 yen; sake 750 yen; wine 600 yen/glass, 5,000 yen/bottle.

Credit cards Most accepted.

Language: Japanese menu; little English spoken.

Reservations: Recommended. The kaiseki meals must be ordered at least one day ahead.

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