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Friday, Feb. 16, 2007


Fired up for a Chinese celebration

The bunting and decorations are in place. The fatted calf has been slaughtered, the fatted lamb, piglet, chicken and duckling, too. The Chinese New Year is upon us, and close to a third of the world's population is ready to party.

News photo
News photo At Chion Shokudo in the back streets of Ikebukuro the specialty of the house is spicy huoguo hotpot. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

It's arguably the biggest celebration on the planet, one we're always loath to miss out on. So, without further ado we made a quick trip to China. Not to the Mainland exactly, but the nearest equivalent that Tokyo has to offer -- the backstreets of Ikebukuro. Our destination: Zhiyin Shitang, better known here by its Japanese name, Chion Shokudo.

You can ignore the young woman soliciting for Falun Gong and the spivs shouting down their cellphones in Shanghai dialect. Just turn right at the store selling dumplings and shao-xingjiu rice wine. Push through the doorway under the red gables and LED fairy lights, and head downstairs. Before you reach the basement you have been transported, as if via a wrinkle in space and time, to a dining room in backstreet Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province).

At Chion Shokudo, the lingua franca is Mandarin, not just for the chefs and waiters, but the majority of customers too. Ditto with the flat-screen TVs affixed to every wall, all tuned to a satellite channel beamed from Beijing. Japanese is understood, of course, and the menu is bilingual (each dish helpfully assigned a number and small photo). But the language of the cuisine is 100 percent Sichuan.

In terms of flavors, nothing gets lost in translation here. Just about everything on the menu crackles with the pungent, searching flavors of garlic and ginger, chili and huajiao pepper. If you only know mabo-dofu (minced meat with tofu) and tantan-men (wheat noodles in spicy red soup) in the dumbed-down guises served at standard chuka restaurants, prepare to be awed at Chion Shokudo.

Your neighbors are likely to be tucking into platters covered with whole red chilies, literally obscuring from view the meat or fish underneath. Or dipping into stainless steel bowls filled to the brim with oily-red broth. Or chewing on piles of chicken feet -- only the Japanese customers attempt to use chopsticks; those in the know just pick them up and gnaw.

You get the idea: there is nothing refined about Chion Shokudo. One of the house specialties is pork spines (ask for No. 220, buta no sebone shoyu-ni), which are simmered in a soy-flavored broth and doled up in 3-kg portions -- though half-size servings are available for those with lesser appetites. There are more bones piled up on the tables here than you'll see in the dinosaur section of the National Science Museum.

So where to start? There are plenty of appetizers, dishes such as banbanji (No. 4), cold cuts of cleavered chicken meat -- unusually this is not on the bone and comes slathered with a thick sauce of considerable piquancy; chilled tofu served with pitan preserved egg; or simply stir-fried spinach (No. 107). All the farmhouse staples are here too. Spicy deep-fried tofu braised with vegetables and mushroom (jiachang-dofu, No. 111); stir-fried chicken with fried peanuts (gongbao jiding, No. 224); even that truck-stop standard, stir-fried tomato with scrambled egg (No. 108). Two or three of these plus soup and a heaping bowl of rice would constitute a square meal anywhere in the Middle Kingdom.

But at this time of year, there is no better way to raise the spirits and get into celebratory mode than Sichuan hotpot (ask for huoguo), and Chion Shokudo offers so many combinations of broth, ingredients and dipping sauces that it devotes a full page of its menu to the subject.

Our favorite option is always the two-color soup, served in a yin-yang shaped casserole, one side filled with white broth (a pork bone stock) seasoned with various medicinal herbs, the other a livid red soup packing heat aplenty. In Chinese, this broth is called mala (literally "numb and spicy"), since it is liberally spiked with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and palate-searing chilies.

After picking a dip -- we like the thick, viscous sesame sauce (ma jiang) -- you then select the ingredients to go into the pot. This being the Year of the Pig, the obvious choice is surely pork. But nothing works better in this kind of hotpot than mutton, here served in fine slices straight from the freezer, making it crisp and easy to pick up with your chopsticks, and then retrieve from the bubbling broth

Besides the various cuts of meat, including organ meats, there is also a large selection of seafood (also frozen), tofu and vegetables. Since portion sizes are substantial and the basic broth costs up to 1,500 yen, before you start ordering the meat and other ingredients, huo-guo hotpots are most economical when shared among groups of three or four, rather than couples.

But nothing is pricey here (by Tokyo standards, at any rate). As the mala broth takes its toll, generating sweat and palpitations and cauterizing the inner membranes of your digestive tract, you can happily slake your thirst on imported Tsingtao or Yinchang Beer for a remarkable 280 yen per bottle -- cheaper than you'd pay in most liquor stores. Likewise with shochu highballs and the shaoxingjiu rice wine: you are unlikely to find better prices anywhere in the city.

Once you have finished eating, though, you are not expected to linger. You close your meal with tea, but there is no dessert to go with it. That's because there are never enough tables at Chion Shokudo for those wanting to eat there. With food this intense, and at prices like these, you can understand why.

There's no ducking good value here

It is quite possible to find authentic street-level Chinese cuisine without venturing so far off the map. You need look no further than Chinese Cafe Eight, which now boasts three branches.

The original restaurant, on TV Asahi-dori, was a smash hit from the day it opened a few years back. It played to full houses every night thanks to its pared-to-the-bone prices, especially for the Peking Duck, and its round-the-clock hours, perfect for hungry clubbers.

However, we were less keen on the stuffy, claustrophobic premises and harried, cheerless staff. So when an offshoot opened in Ebisu, we quickly transferred our affections. The ceilings are higher, the air and the view are better, and the floor staff appear more relaxed.

It offers the same selection of dim sum, including a range of suigyoza ("water Chinese meat dumplings" is their translation) for a remarkable 105 yen per three pieces. And the Peking Duck is still an amazing bargain at 3,680 yen for the whole bird, including dipping sauces and thin pancakes, a plate of stir-fried duck meat, and a light soup.

A couple of weeks back a third branch opened in a rather airless Akasaka-Mitsuka basement. But who's complaining with duck that tastes this good?

Chinese Cafe Eight: Court Annex Roppongi 2F, 3-2-13 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5414-5708; www.cceight.com; ABC Mamies Bldg. 3F, 1-16-12 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3713-2858; www.8-duck.jp; Akasaka Floral Plaza Bldg. B1F, 3-8-8 Akasaka, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 6234-9788; www.akasaka8.jp/

Chion Shokudo

Location: Miyakawa Bldg. B1F, 1-24-1 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
tel: (03) 5951-8288 http://www.zhiyinjp.com/web/zy_shitang.asp

Open: 11 a.m. - 3 a.m. (Monday and Tuesday 1 p.m. - 3 a.m.)

Nearest station: Ikebukuro (JR, Seibu, Tobu, Marunouchi, Yurakucho lines)

How to get there: Leave the underground concourse of Ikebukuro Station by the North Exit. Turn left and walk away from the JR tracks for about 70 meters. Turn right at Yoshinoya and you will see the entrance to Chion Shokudo on the left after about 10 meters.

What works: Sichuan home-cooking as hearty, fiery, filling and cheap as it gets.

What doesn't: The stools at the tables in the center of the room are too uncomfortable for a whole evening.

Number of seats: 50

BGM: Chinese TV.

Smoking: No restrictions

Price per head: Around 2,500 yen apiece for dinner (not including drinks).

Drinks: Beer from 280 yen; sours/chuhai from 380 yen; Chinese spirits from 650 yen; shaoxingjiu from 900 yen/bottle; wine from 1,000 yen/bottle.

Credit cards: Cash only

Language: Chinese/Japanese menu. Japanese spoken.

Reservations: Recommended

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