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Friday, Sept. 3, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
A secret garden of enchantment
Even among the architectural mishmash of Tokyo's jumbled backstreets, Bissori stands out. The two-story facade is sheer, rough-plastered, almost windowless. Creepers and bamboo obscure the few small square portholes. It's intriguing, enigmatic. Inside, though, is even more remarkable.
Entering the narrow arched postern, you pass through a small half-timbered antechamber to find yourself once again in the open air. Almost all of the original structure — walls, ceiling and roof — has been removed. What's left is an open patio, subtly illuminated, fringed with shrubs and, spanning the sky overhead, a handsome full-grown cherry tree. This is the main dining room at Bissori and it's magical.
What lends it extra charm is that this secret garden is not manicured and tidy. There's a comfortable roughness, a sense of nature on the verge of running wild. It's not Angkor Thom overgrown by any means; the aesthetic is more European romantic than Japanese wabi-sabi.
Such a tranquil, atmospheric setting calls for food and drink to match. Bissori doesn't disappoint. It serves Korean cuisine — not brash barbecues of yakiniku or dainty up-market dishes but straightforward home cooking with a light, healthy focus.
At dinner, there are three set courses (¥4,000, ¥4,700 and ¥5,400). These are by far the easiest option, even if you are familiar with the terminology of Korean cuisine and/or read Japanese, since it's nigh on impossible to make out the menu by the feeble light of the candle on your table.
We, though, arrived early on a midsummer evening, when it was still light enough to make our choices from the a la carte offerings. We started with the namul mori-awase, a selection of lightly dressed cooked vegetables — carrot and pea greens, bean sprouts, enoki mushrooms and green beans scattered with pine nuts — beautifully presented on a jade-green ceramic platter.
We followed this with a mixed plate of jeon. Sometimes referred to as "Korean tempura," this comprised a couple of king prawns, shiitake, eringi mushrooms, green asparagus, pumpkin, green Korean squash (flavorful like plump zucchini), and slices of crunchy naga-imo yam. Lightly coated in batter, they were all delectable.
Confusingly (at least for those unversed in the Korean language), the word "jeon" is also used for the pancakes that are referred to on this side of the East Sea as chijimi. The young kitchen crew at Bissori can rustle up some excellent takes on these too.
The kaisen-negi (seafood-scallion) jeon we were served last month had more in common with an Italian frittata or a Japanese okonomiyaki than the skinny pancakes we are used to. Stuffed with generous amounts of juicy squid and shellfish along with plenty of scallion greens, it was moist, tender and highly satisfying.
Although we had started off slaking our thirst with lager (Suntory Malts on draft; Heartland in bottles), by this time we had moved on to harder stuff: makkoli, the cloudy unfiltered sake of Korea that tastes as rough and ready as Japanese doburoku (home-brew sake). Bissori's standard makkoli is thick, milky and unpasteurized, but less raunchy than most. You can also order a more refined version actually made in Japan (this is only available by the bottle). There is also a version made with black beans, which has a sweetness better savored as a dessert wine.
As our main dish, we gave a major thumbs-up to the bossam. The juicy chunks of soft-simmered pork were served with fresh green vegetables for wrapping around the meat — lettuce, egoma (perilla) and Korean sanche leaf. Eating with fingers, anointing each bite with a dab of the fiery condiments, this was more than fine — it was fun.
As our rice course, we ordered bibimbap, cooked rice mixed with egg and namul vegetables. Instead of plain white rice, though, Bissori prepares a blend of cereals and seeds, which it calls "50 grain" rice. The mix includes black rice, giving it an attractive purple hue to match its wholesome flavor and texture.
To close the meal, we had a delicious yuzu sorbet only lightly sweetened and with a gentle citrus tang. There is also a choice of ice creams and even hot fondant chocolate cake for those craving a more Western dessert.
At lunchtime, the feel of the place is quite different. It's light, with the sky visible through the canopy of leaves above, but shady and cool. The set meals currently include a bibimbap and samgyetang, a revivifying soup made from chicken and ginseng.
Although the main attraction of a meal at Bissori is eating al fresco, that is not limited to the warm seasons. In colder weather, space heaters are fired up; when it rains, they roll out a temporary cover of clear plastic. But if you'd rather have proper walls around you as you eat, there are also tables in the front chamber as well as a private room on the second floor, which doubles as a massage studio in the afternoon.
In Korean, "bissori" means the pitter-patter of rain. For a restaurant whose main dining room is a garden exposed to the elements, this might seem a bit like tempting the weather gods. But the word is also used to describe the bubbling sound made when jeon are deep-fried in oil. In that sense, the name seems absolutely apposite.