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Friday, April 3, 2009
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Fleeting beauty, timeless dining
Impatient to see the first sakura of the season, we followed the crowds into Ueno Park. It's been a good while since we last joined in the revelry at Tokyo's largest, most boisterous cherry blossom-viewing party — and never before have we done it in such gourmet style.
Nothing wrong whatsoever with huddling with the happy masses, quaffing barely cold beer and washing down soggy kara-age deep-fried chicken with cheap shochu while warbling into a portable karaoke mic. Been there, done that — and had the hangover. This year, however, we swapped the pleasures of the blue tarp for the rather more genteel setting of Innsyoutei.
With its rustic wooden facade and faded red parasol out front, this venerable teahouse is one of the park's landmarks. The original building dates back to 1875, and it has long been a favorite spot for people out strolling or resting their legs after a visit to one of the nearby museums. Most would drop in for light refreshments, perhaps some mitsu-mame (sweetened azuki beans) with a bowl of matcha tea. Few ever seemed to bother with the upstairs rooms, where bento (boxed lunches) were served.
That all changed six years ago when the rambling, ramshackle premises were given a long-overdue renovation. More than just a face-lift, it was a resurrection. The original layout was retained, but the building itself was largely replaced. The new structure incorporated timbers and other materials from old buildings in Kyoto and Shiga prefectures.
There are now many private rooms for groups of various sizes. But one of the outstanding features is the shared dining area with its single, long counter table and wide picture window. At night especially, with the trees outside illuminated, the view is magical.
Innsyoutei (pronounced "Inshotei," which means "Rhyme of the Pine Cottage") has to be one of the most picturesque dining spots in Tokyo in any season. When the trees are covered with clouds of blossom, it is outstanding. And so are the lines by the front door. If you haven't booked your table (only possible for groups of four or more), then be prepared for a very long wait.
Rolling up at around 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday, we were not optimistic. But remarkably, two seats freed up as we arrived — not upstairs but in the ground- floor teahouse. This, along with the main entrance, is one of the areas that was relatively untouched in the recent renovations.
The beams are weathered and the walls of packed mud are scuffed with the abrasions of the years. You sit on thin zabuton (floor cushions) at low tables on a raised timber floor, or perch on stools around a large farmhouse-style table. The view is not as spectacular as from upstairs, but it certainly feels traditional.
The food is worthy of the setting. Innsyoutei serves kaiseki cuisine — not the formal banquets of the tea ceremony but a more casual, accessible version of the classic Kyoto style of cooking. If you have never experienced a full-on, multicourse kaiseki meal, then there can be few better places in Tokyo to try one.
At dinner, a menu based around chicken sukiyaki is also available (from ¥5,300). In the daytime, the most popular option is the delicate Hana-kago-zen (literally, "Flower-basket meal"), a set lunch in which a selection of dishes are brought to the table inside a basket of woven bamboo (¥1,890 or ¥2,690).
However, right now and for the duration of the blossom season (through April 10 this year), they cater to the massive demand by offering a more limited seasonal menu, with dinner from ¥7,500. At lunchtime there are just two options (¥3,500 or ¥5,000). Both of these are served bento style, in boxlike trays of matte black lacquerware.
The basic ¥3,500 lunch comprised a three-tier box, along with separate bowls of rice, dark, rich miso soup and chawan-mushi (steamed savory egg custard). These are the only elements of the meal that are served hot.
The bottom layer of our bento box held sashimi — cuts of tuna and yellowtail — along with a small saucer of nama-yuba, layers of freshly made soy-milk skin. This is one of the highlights of any meal of Kyoto cuisine. Smooth, light and creamy, it was a delectable couple of mouthfuls.
The middle tier was a brilliant, multicolored array of seafood and vegetables. A single shrimp, a morsel of miso-grilled mackerel; slices of kamaboko fish paste; a single baby eggplant; an equally diminutive sato-imo yam; a chunk of pumpkin and a slice of crunchy, freshly-dug bamboo shoot; and plenty more . . . Besides being beautifully laid out, everything was prepared perfectly.
Too often Kyoto cuisine can be cloyingly sweet, especially when catering to the tourist trade: Innsyoutei keeps the sugar content well under wraps. And while this is far from vegetarian food, nonmeat-eaters will delight in the strong emphasis on tofu, yuba and nama-fu (wheat gluten).
This was in evidence in the top-most tray of our meal. Small petal-shaped bowls held servings of spring greens with a tofu-based shira-ae dressing; a couple of slices of sashimi konnyaku, enlivened by a piquant karashi-miso sauce; and rikkyu fu, a rich, savory preparation of wheat gluten that is a staple of the Buddhist temple cuisine known as shojin ryori.
The centerpiece was a tiny pot fashioned from a length of green bamboo, holding a scoop of tofu adorned with a single pickled cherry blossom. So simple, so appropriate.
I f the lines are too long at Innsyoutei, there's a great alternative, just 200 meters along the way. Umegawatei is a branch of Izuei, the renowned unagi (broiled eel) restaurant that overlooks the southern end of nearby Shinobazu Pond.
It's an attractive modern building, decorated inside in a contemporary Japanese style. What it lacks in history and atmosphere, it makes up for in location, close to the entrance of Toshogu Shrine, at the top of a slope overlooking the water.
Besides the general dining area downstairs, there are private rooms upstairs of varying sizes, where full- course meals are served. But if you are going along as a group, the best strategy is to reserve the special glass- enclosed rooftop room. Here you dine at low tables under an arched ceiling, with nothing to see but trees, blossom and foliage. There really is nowhere like it in Tokyo.
Izuei Umegawatei. 4-34 Ueno-koen, Taito-ku; (03) 5685-2011; r.gnavi.co.jp/fl/en/g063801/index.htm Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; eel dishes from ¥1,785; major cards accepted; English menu on the Web site.