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Friday, Nov. 21, 2008


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Back to the present: A decaying 1970s apartment block in Ebisu has been turned into a lively food alley known as Ebisu Yokocho. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

Bright lights, retro style

Times are tough, money's too tight to mention, the recession is biting and credit is crunching. Red ink is the new black. Doom-and-gloom mongering is back in vogue.

But just because we're reining in the spending and hauling in our belts a few notches doesn't mean we can't do it with fun and a dash of style. Austerity chic is back, and the place to embrace it is the gaggle of lively food counters known collectively as Ebisu Yokocho.

When this new "food alley" — it's actually a small arcade running right through the ground floor of a building — opened six months ago, the economy was in fine fettle and, for most people, the word subprime (if they thought about it at all) probably signified a lesser grade of beef. Now, this mini-block of retro charm is the hit destination of the moment.

The timing was perfect, and so was the aim: to breathe new life into a decaying 1970s apartment block on the drab side of the Ebisu JR tracks. Out went the desultory row of haberdashers and kelp sellers; in their place came a retro- themed collection of micro-restaurants, each hardly bigger than a yatai food stall and with prices in the same affordable league.

Unlike the less salubrious drinking alleys around the city that go by the "yokocho" epithet (Shonben Yokocho on the north side of Shinjuku Station immediately springs to mind), this one is entirely respectable. From the tall white lantern that marks the entrance and the colorful lights overhead to the lively decorations inside, it is bright, clean, accessible and welcoming to one and all.

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The selection of choices at the micro-restaurants range from Kyoto-style oden at Denraku (above) to yakitori and okonomiyaki pancakes.

What makes it work so well is the range of foods. You find a yakitori shop next to an oden hotpot counter; kushikatsu (deep-fried kebabs) across from okonomiyaki pancakes; and gyutan (beef tongue) cheek by jowl with a yakiniku barbecue joint. Better still, there is no grand "theme."

The baker's dozen of enterprises that comprise Ebisu Yokocho have each been laid out and designed by their respective owners. A couple aim for sophistication, others are proudly functional. The variety is one reason why we've gone back several times to explore further.

The first place you see as you come in off the street is Kappa-chan . With its row of little red lanterns and low-slung tables and stools, it would be the archetypal under-the-tracks yakitori joint if it had a few more decades of patina and grime. There's plenty of shochu to wash down your gizzards and other chicken skewers. The main disadvantage at this time of year is the chill breeze gusting in from the street. Verdict: not for cautious first-timers or those with cold dispositions.

In contrast with this downmarket, masculine image, Denraku next door has a spare look that is almost refined. The ocher walls, wooden beams and timber counter are all in keeping with the house specialty, Kyoto-style oden.

Here you find the usual chunks of vegetable, tofu and fish paste, but they are simmered in a soup that is light and clear (unlike Tokyo-style oden with its rich, dark, soy-based broth). This is dispensed by charming young women dressed in simple traditional costume. Another plus: They also serve three different grades of Kaiun, the best sake produced in Shizuoka Prefecture.

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Fisherman's friend: The cheerful izakaya Uomaru serves up seafood in the heart of Ebisu Yokocho.

One of the first places in Ebisu Yokocho to fill up each evening is Uomaru , in the heart of the mall. This seafood-specialist izakaya is bright and cheerful, decorated with a bold fisherman's banner decorating the back wall and the individual menu items inscribed (Japanese only) on wands of paper affixed to the wall.

Besides the wooden counter around the tiny serving area, there is a small table out front almost in the center of the alley. That makes just enough room for a dozen hungry punters to hunker down with flagons of Yebisu Beer, watching their shellfish cooking over electric grills.

If you can't get in there, a good alternative is Uezuya, right next door. During the summer months the focus here was the distinctive food and awamori liquor of Okinawa. These are still evident on the menu, notably the excellent curry-flavored rafute pork. But now that winter is approaching, Uezuya has changed its menu to concentrate on single-serving nabe hot pots cooked over miniature gas burners.

For a basic ¥300 charge, you select the flavor of soup from six options, of which we enjoyed the savory miso and the spicy Korean-style chige, and then order the individual portions of meat, fish, vegetables or mushrooms (¥200 each). Portions are small, so the final cost is likely to be not much less than at a full- scale nabe restaurant. But it's the intimate scale and informality that makes Uezuya — and Ebisu Yokocho in general — such a fun night out.

A touch of class in Ebisu's food alley

Among the good-time down-home vibes in Ebisu Yokocho, one place stands out from the crowd. Called simply Takahashi-san — and yes, that is the owner's name as well — this hole in the wall exudes a sophistication quite unlike any of its neighbors.

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Ten green bottles: At the wine bar Takahashi-san, inside Ebisu Yokocho, the only food served by owner Takahashi is vegetables.

First, it's the smallest place, a counter for six at a push, plus an extra table where three can perch. Second, it's a wine bar, as is clear from the dozen or so bottles lined up. Third, the only food Takahashi serves is vegetables.

Like the wine, his produce is of a high standard. Some he serves raw. Others he cooks up in small bamboo steamers and serves with a bubbling bagna cauda dip rich in anchovy paste. And yet others — including delectable manganji-togarashi, a long green pepper from Kyoto — he will carefully grill until they are lightly seared.

Everything is done slowly but so well it's hard not to linger. With a few glasses of wine and a selection of veggies, the outlay can easily climb to ¥4,000 a head or more, making it one of the pricier destinations in the alley.

You are also likely to leave the table hungry. Fortunately close at hand in Ebisu there is no shortage of ramen joints — including Afuri, a longtime standby of the Food File. Conveniently located right outside the back entrance of the yokocho, it's a suitably stylish but low-budget way to round off an evening.

Ebisu Yokocho

Location: 1-7-2 Ebisu, Shibuya Ward

Open: Some stalls from 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; others 5 p.m.-late

Closed: Varies from stall to stall

Nearest station: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)

How to get there: From Ebisu JR Station (West Exit), walk to Komazawa-dori and then head toward Meiji-dori. At the first lights, turn right. You will see the lanterns at the entrance to Ebisu Yokocho on the left after about 15 meters.

What works: Recession-proof retro fun and a great range of cuisines . . .

What doesn't: . . . as long as you're not looking for fine dining.

Number of seats: 13 stalls, each with 10-15 seats

Smoking: No restrictions

Price per head: Figure around ¥2,000 plus drinks

Credit cards: Cards not accepted (cash only).

Language: Japanese menus throughout; little English spoken

Reservations: It's first come first seated.

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