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Friday, Feb. 2, 2007
TOKYO FOOD FILE
No need to shell out for these oysters
No prizes for guessing what's on the menu at Tokyo Oyster Bar. The name is succinct, businesslike, almost generic. You would imagine it to be sleek, perhaps a bit impersonal, and definitely a bit pricey -- after all, that's the image most other oyster bars in the city aspire to. You'd be wrong.
Quite the opposite of cool and corpor- ate, Tokyo Oyster Bar (TOB) has the easygoing charm of a neighborhood bistro. It sits on the edge of the seamy pink-light backstreets of Higashi- Gotanda, looking out on the relentless traffic of Sakurada-dori, much like a waterfront diner watching the constant ebb and flow of the tides.
The maritime image is apt. The outside is adorned with the sort of clutter and jetsam you'd find on a beach after a storm: cartons, kegs and empty wine bottles, with strings of oyster shells dangling from the eaves and entwined around a sign that proclaims "Welcome to Oyster Party." The twinkling blue LED lights add to the sense of whimsy.
The building is anything but new, though it's been spruced up with a smart blue color scheme enlivened by an eclectic accretion of posters and nautical artifacts. It looks tiny -- just a small counter and a couple of tables with tops of gleaming stainless steel -- but the winding staircase at the back leads up to similarly cozy dining rooms upstairs. Other places shout money and glamour; TOB murmurs "settle in and make yourself comfortable."
Eccentric and homespun it may appear, but they certainly know their mollusks. One glance at the array of oysters in the glass display case running along the counter will reassure you on that count. Some 50 varieties, both from local waters and imported (predominantly from Australia, New Zealand and the United States), are listed on the menu, of which at least half a dozen are available at any one time.
This is just the right number if you want to try the whole range, so most people order up a mixed platter, freshly shucked on the half shell. Currently, this includes the excellent Matoya variety from Mie Prefecture (these have a clean, salty tang, delicate texture and slip down a treat); Kujukujima from Miyazaki Prefecture (less complex in flavor and with a firmer holdfast); Cat's Eye from Tasmania (smooth and silky, with a more pronounced "oyster" palate); and Milky Way from New Zealand (small shells but big in taste).
All are absolutely fresh enough to need no seasoning other than a sprinkle of lemon juice or the red wine vinegar dip they are served with. What they do demand is a good, crisp white wine. For such a modest place, TOB's selection is admirable, both well chosen and well priced, with most bottles under 5,000 yen.
The kitchen produces excellent cooked dishes too. We enjoyed the simple wafu-yaki (grilled on the half shell with a fish sauce dressing). And we loved their delectable version of that timeless Japanese favorite, kaki-furai -- jumbo oysters breaded and deep-fried crisp and golden, with an oozing, moist interior.
Other influences span the globe -- not just Europe (grilled with a Genovese basilico sauce) or North America (chowder) but also China (pan-fried gyoza dumplings), Mexico (tacos) and even Peru (ceviche). The two standouts are the Russian-style guribe, a cream-rich stew of oysters with mushrooms and vegetables, cooked in a pot topped with a flaky pie-crust crou^te, and served bubbling-hot from the oven; and the superb, round-shelled Belon oysters from Brittany (dubbed the "king of oysters" and priced accordingly) cooked with a creamy Rockefeller sauce.
If, having lingered all evening, you're still hungry, the kitchen can provide a most commendable risotto (we certainly endorse it), chahan (fried rice) or chilled reimen noodles. They can also offer a selection of sorbets for dessert -- virtually the only dish they have that does not involve any kind of shellfish.
TOB's unpretentious setting, good food and honest prices are an obvious recipe for success and full tables. Instead of just turning people away, they have opened an annex a minute's walk away just around the corner.
Called Links Oyster Bar, it's more spacious and conventional in layout. But the decor is every bit as eclectic (check out the miniature dinghy attached to the ceiling) and the feel is just as laid-back.
Less a place to take a date to or dine solo, LOB fills up with groups of salarymen and women, who treat it like an exotic izakaya. On a recent visit (in mid-January), even the outside table was occupied, with blankets provided to keep the chill at bay.
The menu covers almost identical territory to TOB. One good addition is the warm "salad" (on-yasai), a selection of lightly cooked vegetables with a simple dressing. The produce used for this is sourced from the market garden- ers of Kamakura. Could it be its provenance by the ocean that makes it such a good counterpoint to all the seafood?
Links Oyster Bar, 1-12-5 Higashi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku; tel: (03) 3280-3320; www.oysterbar.jp. Nearest station Gotanda (JR and Asakusa lines); Open: 5-11 p.m (last order); closed Monday; most cards accepted.