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Friday, Nov. 19, 2010

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Local flavor: Kankyo Shuten in Jinbocho focuses on the cuisine of Ningbo, near Shanghai. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS


Crab with wine in Ningbo style

This is the golden season, the time for feasting and thanksgiving. Here in Japan, we celebrate the rice harvest, persimmons and pumpkins, mikan mandarins and matsutake mushrooms. Over in Shanghai, though, the autumn delicacy par excellence is freshwater crab.

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One of the specialties is kayu rice porridge (above), served throughout the day.
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Those gray-green little monsters — their English name, mitten crabs, makes them sound far too cute — are not hard to find at specialist restaurants on this side of the East China Sea. One venue that's become a particular favorite of ours is Kankyo Shuten in Kanda-Jinbocho.

It's a branch of Shinsekai Saikan, one of Tokyo's most venerable Shanghainese restaurants, and stands just a short block away. But in both its style and the focus of its food, the offspring (it opened nine years ago) is significantly different from the parent operation.

Instead of generic Shanghai cuisine — actually a relatively recent construct — Kankyo Shuten specializes in the culinary traditions of Ningbo, a much older port city to the south of the modern metropolis. The basic flavors are not so different, but Ningbo cooking tends to be lighter and simpler, with strong emphasis on seasonal seafood.

At this time of year, it's the crabs plucked from the waterways crisscrossing the region that take center stage. The classic recipe for serving them is cooked whole, with their legs and pincers bound tightly with twine, and steamed till their carapaces turn a bright orange. The shell will then be cracked open at your table, and the legs removed so you can extract as much as possible of the pale, almost translucent flesh.

Because female crabs are rich in their reddish-orange roe in autumn, they are always more in demand (and pricier) than the males. At Kankyo Shuten, even small males will cost ¥2,500 apiece. Larger specimens, especially females, can cost significantly more than that.

Kankyo Shuten also incorporates the meat and dark, umami-rich paste from the crabs into a range of dishes. It gives an extra depth of flavor to thick, hot soups that are poured over okoge (crispy rice), or to the black-bean sauce served with cooked greens.

The season for Shanghai crab runs until January. We were told that shipments arrive twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, meaning that on those days they are freshest and you get the best selection. However, by mid-November, females are far less plentiful and mostly it is male crabs that are on offer.

One way you can be sure you get some of that crab roe is to order the "drunken crab" (kani no laoshu-zuke). These have been placed — live and uncooked — in a liquor made from shaoxingjiu rice "wine." The distinctive flavor that results is neither raw nor cooked but somewhere on the spectrum in between. It makes an intriguing appetizer, a side dish best nibbled on with a beer or, better yet, a glass or two of that same potent liquor in which the crabs have been pickled.

Shaoxingjiu ("shokoshu " in Japanese) is another of the regional specialties served here. We are big fans of this amber-colored brew, which can develop a complex depth of flavor reminiscent of the best oloroso sherry. It is produced, using techniques that are centuries old, in the area around the city of Shaoxing, inland from Ningbo. Indeed, Kankyo Shuten actually takes its name from a historic tavern in Shaoxing that was a gathering place for artists and literati.

Kankyo Shuten stocks half a dozen varieties, including vintages from as far back as 1985. There are also 10-year brews made by the three most illustrious producers in the region that are dispensed directly from traditional ceramic vats (kame-dashi in Japanese). Each subtly different from the others, they can be sampled side by side as a tasting set (¥2,500 for a carafe of each).

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Sozzled: During the Shanghai crab season, a popular appetizer is "drunken crab."

There's plenty more on the menu than just crab, of course. The standout dish for us on our last visit was a plate of deep-fried rolls of soy-milk skin (yuba) filled with white-meat fish and served on a bed of crisp seaweed. We also enjoyed the succulent Hiroshima oyster fritters, which came in a batter flecked with ao-nori seaweed.

And we gave a special thumbs-up to the pot of simmered seasonal vegetables with chicken, which features plenty of fresh chestnuts and shiitake mushrooms. This is good, wholesome food; not elaborate, but prepared expertly by chefs who hail from Ningbo.

To close the meal, there is a substantial separate menu of noodle dishes and smooth, comforting kayu porridge ("gruel rice" is the translation on the handy English menu). This latter is another of the house specialties, and is available throughout the day.

These also form the core of the lunchtime menu (served till 4 p.m.). And if you can't choose between porridge and noodles, that's no problem: You can just order the "half and half" tray (great value at ¥1,050), which includes scaled-down servings of both, along with a couple of side dishes and a saucer of dessert.

One final reason why we rate Kankyo Shuten: Instead of hiding behind a bland, anonymous facade (as Shinsekai does), it occupies a purpose-built two-story building decorated, inside and out, in distinctive Chinese modern-retro style.

You can't miss it. There's a moon window at street level and a massive, heavy-framed signboard dominating the gray-brick wall. And right by the door stands a handsome, sturdy, full-grown willow tree. Intended to evoke the traditional architecture of the Ningbo area, it certainly looks the part.

An old favorite offers Hong Kong-style to go

Back in 2006, when we first discovered Lohotoi, we knew at once this super little Hong Kong-style restaurant close to the Ebisu 3-chome crossing would become a long-time favorite. Our only complaint was that its excellent dim sum and other dishes were not available for takeout — unless you got them to doggy-bag any leftovers.

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Chinese takeout: Lohotoi Baiten sells a fine range of prepared foods and bento boxes.

Problem solved in the form of Lohotoi Baiten. It opened last November, taking over a vacant storefront just a few meters away on the same funky, down-home shopping street. And it's almost everything we'd been hoping for.

Who cares if the look and service are resolutely low-key? It's all about the food. It doesn't look that fancy but it all tastes exactly as it should. Carrot, potato and nira scallions sauteed with oyster sauce; deep-fried tofu, nira and togan squash fried with egg white; sweet potato and piman peppers sauteed with black-bean sauce; packs of zha cai pickles; and lots of other tasty side dishes.

And it's all great value. Few of the above are priced over ¥200 for a single-portion plastic carton. A large pack of six assorted dishes is ¥600. Bento lunch boxes go for as little as ¥500. The target clientele is not the affluent folk who dine at the restaurant but the residents of this modest neighborhood.

There are a few standout dishes that cost slightly more but are always worth picking up. Kurozu no subuta — chunks of pork enrobed in a thick, dark, gooey, sweet-sour sauce made from Chinese black vinegar; toriniku no tochi-itami — chicken sauteed with douchi black-bean sauce; and ebi-chiri — the old favorite, shrimp in spicy red sauce, but here cooked the proper Hong Kong way, not the bland Japanified version.

So what's missing? Lohotoi Baiten doesn't seem to sell any dim sum. Too bad, but that just means we will be looking forward even more to our next meal at the restaurant.

Lohotoi Baiten, 5-14-8 Shirokane, Minato-ku; (03) 5420-3288. Nearest stations: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines), Hiroo (Hibiya Line). Open: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (or whenever the food sells out); closed Wed.

Kankyo Shuten

Location: 2-2 Kanda-Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
(03) 3288-0333

Open: Daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (Sun. and holidays till 10 p.m.)

Nearest stations: Jinbocho (Hanzomon and Mita lines).

How to get there: From Jinbocho Station (Exit A3), walk west along Yasukuni-dori in the direction of Kudanshita. Kankyo Shuten is on the corner of the first side street to the right. Look for the willow tree outside.

What works: Good regional cooking and shaoxingjiu rice "wine."

What doesn't: Premium Tsingtao beer is a contradiction in terms.

Number of seats: 20 on first floor; 30 upstairs.

Smoking: Partly no-smoking at lunchtime.

BGM: Sub-Kenny-G jazzy elevator music.

Price per head: Dinner menu from ¥3,500; also a la carte: starters from ¥500; crab dishes from ¥1,600; noodles from ¥850. Set lunch from ¥1,050.

Drinks: Beer from ¥500; sake from ¥900; shochu from ¥500/glass; shaoxingjiu rice "wine" from ¥800/glass, ¥2,600/decanter, ¥2,800 bottle; wine from ¥500/glass.

Credit cards: Major cards accepted.

Language: English menu available; little English spoken.

Reservations: Best to call ahead.

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