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Friday, April 6, 2007
TOKYO FOOD FILE
In any season, a park-side classic
We had it all planned. We'd spend the afternoon in Kichijoji's Inokashira Park, strolling and sitting under the cherry trees, with maybe a dram or two of sake to inspire lofty thoughts, before adjourning for dinner nearby. But we hadn't counted on the weathermen getting their predictions so wrong.
We were a week too early; the trees were all bud and no blossom. But that didn't matter in the slightest. After all, a gentle promenade around the pond is always pleasant -- and anyway, we had our reservations for Kin-no-saru, right next to the park.
There are plenty of modern Japanese restaurants in central Tokyo with tasteful decor and creative cuisine. What makes Kin-no-saru ("The Golden Monkey") special -- and worth the 20-minute journey out along the Chuo Line -- is the incomparable setting. From the picture windows that run the entire length of the dining room, all you see is the bamboo in the garden and the thick foliage of the parkland beyond. It is a rare oasis of tranquillity.
There is a good range of seating choices: tables by the window; a tatami area with low tables (some with leg wells); a counter along the open kitchen; and even a tranquil side room set apart the main dining room.
But everybody's favorite place to sit is on the open terrace -- and not just in summer; even in winter there are plenty of takers for its heated kotatsu tables.
The feel is stylish but relaxed, somewhere between serious dining bar and informal izakaya, and the menu -- written only in Japanese (but with helpful furigana in places) -- covers a similar middle ground.
Our otoshi starter plate featured an attractive seasonal arrangement of shrimp and shellfish, vegetables and specialties such as hime-take (bamboo shoots) and Kyoto-style sakura-fu (soft-wheat gluten in cherry-pink).
Chef Yoshiaki Yamaoka's cuisine is far from traditional though. You can choose between sashimi and carpaccio -- we were given delicately sliced tai (bream) served with baby leaves and dill, marinated in olive oil. Dengaku broiling may be an old Kyoto specialty, but it's unusual to find a large American eggplant cooked that way. Sliced in half, its soft green flesh was slathered with a thin coating of sweet, black miso and scattered with poppy seeds. We loved it.
Even less mainstream was the abokado ran-o shoyu-zuke. The depression in a halved avocado was filled with the yolk of an egg that had been "pickled" in soy sauce, giving it a savory, slightly salty tang and a texture that was intriguing but didn't quite match the creamy nama-yuba (fresh soymilk skin) that was served on the side -- though the dab of fiery, citrus-fragrant yuzu-kosho condiment was anything but bashful.
We had two excellent chicken dishes. The first was Satsuma jidori no tataki -- slices of chicken breast lightly seared but still almost raw, served with a zesty ponzu sauce featuring plenty of grated red togarashi chili. The second was even better: kara-age (deep-fried chicken chunks) served on a bed of mizuna greens with a thick, black sesame sauce.
Despite the European inflections in the cooking, all the food here goes brilliantly with sake. They have a fine selection of at least 30 varieties, assembled from around the country -- some affordable, others pricier. You would need to be a considerable connoisseur to appreciate the premium Kokuryu (from Fukui Prefecture) at 3,000 yen for a small 100-ml glass. We were more than happy with our Oku-Haruma junmai-ginjo (Hyogo Prefecture) for 1,200 yen per 180-ml. Other reliable brews include Denshu (Aomori Prefecture), Dewazakura and Juyondai (from Yamagata Prefecture).
Kin-no-saru looks and feels well above the average, but it's actually quite affordable. It's also very approachable, thanks to the crew of young waiters, who are friendly and well informed about the menu. For that reason it seems to attract a varied demographic, not just young folks on dates and gaggles of young women but also family groups and mature couples.
Not surprisingly, Kin-no-saru is so popular that you cannot expect to walk in off the street without booking a table, least of all at weekends. Dining early on particularly busy days, you may also find they impose a two-hour time limit on your meal so they can accommodate a second sitting.
And later in the evening, with a full house and the kitchen overextended, you may also find the gap between ordering and receiving your dishes gets noticeably longer. But that's really not a problem when you have such a fine view to enjoy -- with or without the blossoms.
Modern, ancient and mellow
So, what to do if you can't get into Kin-no-saru? Well, there's always Toriyoshi, right underneath. Chicken is the name of the game here -- nabe hotpots in winter; tebasaki kara-age (deep-fried chicken wings) all year round -- although there are also plenty of other things on the menu, from sashimi and tofu to various meat dishes. If you're not sure where to start, sit back and order one of the set menus, which start from 3,150 yen.
The look is a pleasing modern take on the traditional, though nothing is handcrafted. The same could be said about the food: it's part of a chain, so that's why it feels a bit busy and impersonal. But the service is efficient and the food reliable. And in the warmer weather, the terrace seats looking out into the garden are very pleasant.
Toriyoshi, Inokashira Parkside Bldg. B1F, 1-21-1 Minami-cho, Kichijoji, Musashino-shi; tel: (0422) 48-4600; www.samukawa.co.jp; open 5 p.m.-midnight (last order 11 p.m.) Saturday, Sunday & holidays noon-midnight.
Right across the alley from Kin-no-saru and Toriyoshi is a bird of a very different feather. Iseya Sohonten is a funky yakitori joint of the old school -- with the stress very definitely on "old."
Billowing acrid smoke onto the street from its blackened grills, this good-time roadhouse tavern sprawls over two scruffy floors filled with impecunious students and loud, cheerful, after-work salarymen. It's almost as if the Showa Era never ended.
The ramshackle retro look does have its charm, but the main attraction at Iseya is the prices. Beer (draft or Sapporo White Label) goes for 480 yen; rotgut sake is 300 yen per 180-ml bottle; and rocket-fuel shochu just 220 yen. Yakitori (mostly organ meats) goes for 80 yen per stick; yaki-buta (grilled pork) is 400 yen per plate; and the surprisingly tasty homemade gyoza is good value at 480 yen. They just don't build places like this any more.
Iseya Sohonten, 1-15-8 Minami-cho, Kichijoji, Musashino-shi; tel: (0422) 43-2806; open noon-10 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.); closed Monday (except national holidays).
But undoubtedly the mellowest place in the whole area is Pepacafe Forest. Sitting on the far side of the park, surrounded by the trees and overlooking the pond, this low-slung, cafe-style building serves a simple, Thai-inflected pan-Asian menu -- much like that at its sister restaurant, Peppermint Cafe, just a block up the street from Iseya.
It's not so much the food but the tranquil, sylvan setting that is so memorable here. There's room for 40 on the open terrace (they also have an air-conditioned room at the back), and dogs are welcome, too.
On balmy, early-summer evenings -- until the mosquitoes start to rev up, at any rate -- this is just the place to spend a leisurely evening.
Pepacafe Forest, 4-1-5 Inokashira, Mitaka-shi; tel: (0422) 48-4600; www.peppermintcafe.com; open daily noon-10 p.m. (last order 9 p.m.). Peppermint Cafe, 1-15-14 Minami-cho, Kichijoji, Musashino-shi; tel: (0422) 79-3930; open daily 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. (last order midnight).