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Friday, Feb. 18, 2011
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Good Japanese dining that's accessible to all
Ambiance, food, value for money: These are universal factors when deciding where to eat. But when it comes to Japanese cuisine here in Japan, there's another criterion: Accessibility. How well do you fare if you don't speak or read Japanese?
Shokkan ticks the boxes on just about all counts. It's got the look; the food is put together well; and there's no sudden shock at the end your meal. Best of all, it's a place you can take out-of-town guests — or even send them on their own — in full confidence they will feel they've discovered somewhere rather special.
The entrance is suitably inscrutable: A flight of wood-clad stairs leading down to an unmarked door in the basement of an unremarkable building on the side of a busy highway on the outskirts of Shibuya. But there should be no cause for doubt. Alongside the two kanji characters on the illuminated sign, the name Shokkan is also spelled out clearly in letters of the Roman alphabet.
A vestibule of polished wood gives onto a spacious dining room so simple and spare in design it feels almost unfinished. In the center is the long open kitchen, flanked on three sides by a wide, chunky wooden counter giving a ringside view of all the cooking action. At the back there are a few tables, and hidden behind sliding shoji screens lies a small private chamber.
Arrive early and you may find yourself seated front and center, able to observe the itamae (head chef) at work. What's impressive — whether or not you live here — is not just the deft knife work, slicing the sashimi and slivering vegetables, but the way he directs the entire kitchen crew during the course of the evening.
He is also the person who takes your order, starting from your first drink after you have sat down. We were not tempted by the cocktails, nor by the brief but impressive list of Champagnes and wines, though many of our fellow diners were. For us, a setting like this inevitably calls for beer to slake the thirst, followed by sake to match the subtlety of the courses we were anticipating.
Sake from a dozen small regional breweries is stocked, including old favorites such as Denshu, Tengumai and Uragasumi, and others less common in Tokyo, such as Oroku (from Shimane Prefecture) and Kamoshibito-kuheiji (Aichi). We plumped for Kokuryu (Fukui), which never fails to hit the spot for us.
As for the eats, the easiest course of action is to order the set meal, sit back and enjoy the element of surprise as each course arrives. For ¥5,000 you get six small dishes; for ¥7,000 you get the same, plus a rice dish at the end (this is recommended). Or pick and choose a few items at a time from the a la carte menu. If there are two of you, each dish will be divvied up before it's served.
Make no mistake: This is not kaiseki cuisine. In fact, it's closer in feel to an upmarket izakaya tavern than anything at the formal end of the spectrum. If you want to give it a name, call it contemporary kappo: Reliable, entry-level Japanese cuisine presented with a handsome drizzle of style.
Whichever you choose, the first thing you will be brought will be a plate of crudites — a colorful selection of sliced vegetables — together with an attractive red dip made by blending tomato with miso. It's a surprising combination, savory with a hint of sweetness, but one that works well. Indeed, this has become one of Shokkan's signature dishes, and you can buy pots of this tomato miso to take home with you.
The selection of vegetables was as intriguing as it was colorful: A wedge of pink aka-kabu turnip; baby cucumber; slivers of yellow bell pepper and Chinese cabbage; what looked like celery but turned out to be from the stem of an ebi-imo (taro); and, most unusually, a slice of raw zasai, a vegetable that is usually served as a pickle in Chinese cuisine, which we were told was grown locally, on the Miura Peninsula (Kanagawa Prefecture).
Our sashimi platter was as good as we'd anticipated when we'd ordered our sake. We were kept happy and intrigued in equal parts by two dishes that followed: kinkan shira-ae, sliced kumquat oranges in a creamy tofu dressing; and smoked scallops, which arrived at the table along with appetizing smokehouse aromas and a dip of chopped-onion "mayo."
We were less impressed with the "grilled" negi leeks. They were in fact plunged into the deep-frying wok first before being seared, leaving them far too oily to enjoy with their mushroom-flavored miso dip. Next time, we will instead order the bamboo shoots deep-fried a delicious golden-brown, which we saw going out to those who'd ordered the full course.
We could not leave without trying the other house special. Listed under the "Clay Pot Dishes" section of the menu, it is called Paella — though few in Spain would recognize it as such. Nonetheless, the combination of rice cooked with tiny dried sakura-ebi shrimp and topped with plenty of seafood — asari clams, small mussels and generous amounts of ikura salmon roe — was a winner.
This is the rice dish that is served as part of the full menu, and it is definitely worth the extra charge and a fine way to round off the meal. Without it we would have left less than satisfied.
As it was, we made our way back to Shibuya Station pleased to have found a place we can recommend to those new to the intricacies of Japanese cuisine. In any other city of the world, a place like Shokkan would be massively popular. Even here in Tokyo, it's definitely worth knowing.