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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

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Local hero: Makio Akemine, owner-chef of Norabo in Nishi-Ogikubo, bases his menu around fresh seasonal produce grown in nearby Mitaka. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS


Perfectly simple seasonal cuisine

Returning from any trip out of the country, it's always Japanese food that we crave. No need for anything fancy: hand-chopped soba at the neighborhood noodle shop will do us fine, or perhaps a few charcoal-grilled skewers of chicken at our local yakitori counter. This time, though, having been away for a few weeks, we decided on a quiet evening at Norabo.

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Norabo's tofu salad: a colorful array of seasonal ingredients.

This welcoming little restaurant in the residential back streets of Nishi-Ogikubo is just the place to relax and reacquaint the taste buds with the simple, subtle pleasures of Japanese cooking. It may be far from the bright lights of central Tokyo, but Norabo is drawing customers from well beyond the immediate catchment area. Like us, they converge to enjoy the mellow atmosphere and the distinctive cooking of owner-chef Makio Akemine.

These days vegetables are fashionable and so are the hip restaurants showcasing them. But when he opened Norabo back in 2002, Akemine had no eye on that burgeoning new trend. His only concern was — and still remains — to cook with the freshest ingredients possible.

His parents were farmers in Ibaraki Prefecture and, even after moving into Tokyo, they continued growing vegetables for their own use. Having never eaten supermarket produce while he was growing up, Akemine wasn't about to change after setting up his own restaurant.

The Musashino Plain, the flatlands stretching west from Shinjuku to the hills of Takao, used to be fertile agricultural land until Tokyo's suburban sprawl encroached. There are still working farms and smallholdings out in nearby Mitaka, and this is where Akemine goes every morning to pick up the produce that forms the centerpiece of his menu.

There's no rigid adherence to organic or vegetarian ideology at work here. Seafood is mostly sourced from the port of Odawara, on Sagami Bay southwest of Tokyo. As for chicken and meat, it plays such a subsidiary role in the cooking that Akemine is happy to use whatever tastes best — such as the free-range jidori chicken from Tokushima Prefecture that he incorporates into a number of dishes.

Regulars at Norabo tend to pick and choose from the a la carte menu. We're happy just to sit back and order the basic set-course meal (at ¥3,675 for seven dishes, it's great value). The exact composition will vary according to what the farmers have harvested that day. But until autumn segues into the chill of winter, it is likely to be very similar to the excellent meal we enjoyed last week.

We opened with an otoshi appetizer of hayatouri (chayote melons). The small spherical green gourds, native to Central America and still unusual here, were sliced, blanched lightly and marinated in a seasoned dashi stock.

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Hidden gem: Norabo may be tucked away in the back streets of Nishi-Ogikubo, an area far from the mainstream of Tokyo dining, but it's well worth searching out.

This was followed by a small dish of seasonal fruits — morsels of fleshy red fig, orange persimmon and crisp nashi pear — covered in a thick, creamy-white shira-ae dressing of tofu and sesame.

Chunks of juicy togan (wax gourd) were served in a thick, clear ankake sauce with soboro chicken, the finely ground meat offsetting the cool, neutral flavor of the vegetable with slices of niga-uri (bitter melon) and a dab of grated ginger to add extra pep.

Next up was a deep-fried dish: small cubes of soft-cooked potato were cooked in kaki-age style, with dark-green wakame seaweed added to impart a gentle maritime saltiness.

One of the highlights of the meal was the dashimaki tamago, thick slices of light, fluffy Japanese omelet. The golden yellow of the egg (from local Mitaka chickens) was flecked with tomato and green shiso herb and only very lightly sweetened. Akemine and his young crew have a light hand with the seasonings.

Up to this point, the meal was a succession of small dishes, each little more than a couple of mouthfuls. But the salad platter that followed had the look and feel of a main course. In the center was a mound of soft, freshly made tofu, surrounded by a vivid array of colorful autumn fruit and vegetables: salad greens and fat fingers of okra; sticks of eggplant, red pepper and carrot; persimmon and nashi, cherry tomatoes and even grapes.

There were also shreds of chicken-breast meat and chips of kabocha pumpkin. Underpinned with a rich goma-dare sesame dressing, it was garnished with crisp slices of deep-fried sweet potato.

The final course, as usual in Japan, was rice. Instead of the standard bowl of gleaming white grains, it is cooked in a spherical donabe claypot, along with a choice of toppings: eggplant and chicken; bacon and avocado; or (our choice) generous cuts of fresh-season sanma (saury pike) from Hokkaido. After the long, slow cooking process, the rich oils from the fish were melded in with the rice to form a delectable savory mix.

We supplemented this with a separate order of pickles and miso soup (not included in the set meal). And then we closed the evening with dessert (also well worth the small extra outlay), small patties of sweet potato and more morsels of fruit.

'My cooking isn't special," says Akemine. "It's everyday food. I just try to make it taste as good as possible — not flashy, just honest and wholesome." He is too modest. Prepared and presented with considerable care, this is food that satisfies on all levels.

To eat local produce gives a tangible sense of connection — with the area, the farmers and the local economy. Better still, having flown halfway around the world, what better way of offsetting the carbon footprint than by cutting down on the food mileage of what we eat? An evening at Norabo is a recipe for feeling good about yourself.


Location: 4-3-5 Nishiogi-Kita, Suginami-ku
(03) 3395-7251

Open: 5 p.m.-midnight (last order 11 p.m.) Closed Mon.

Nearest station: Nishi-Ogikubo (JR Chuo Line)

How to get there: Leave Nishi-Ogikubo Station by the North Exit, and turn left. Continue down this street for about 5 minutes until you reach a 7-11 convenience store on your left. Take the next small side street on the right (by a flower shop) and you will see Norabo on the right after about 15 meters.

What works: Wholesome cuisine with a wonderful lightness of touch

What doesn't: It's not that easy to track down

Number of seats: 22 (plus an outside table for 3)

BGM: Jazzy instrumentals

Smoking: Not permitted

Price per head: Courses at ¥3,675 and ¥5,250; also a la carte

Drinks: Beer from ¥420; sake from ¥450; shochu ¥450/shot; sours from ¥788; wine from ¥945/glass, from ¥3,675/bottle

Credit cards: Not accepted (cash only)

Language: Japanese menu; English not spoken

Reservations: Highly recommended

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