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Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

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The first bite is with the eye: Suzunari owner-chef Akihiko Murata (above) carefully prepares such kaiseki delicacies as mackerel sushi wrapped in pickled turnip and served with grilled ginkgo nuts (below); and grilled kamasu (barracuda) with simmered gyu-suji (beef tendon). ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Who says kaiseki dining has to be stuffy?


Kaiseki ryōri, Japan's traditional multicourse "haute cuisine," is known for its rarefied elegance, its depth and subtlety of flavor, an exquisite focus on the seasons and, too often, for being as much fun as a funeral. But there is also another kind of kaiseki, one that's simpler, less formalized and far more approachable and affordable. That's the style you get at Suzunari.

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Half the pleasure is just being there. You are in the heart of Arakicho, one of Tokyo's old-school entertainment areas, a little pocket of pleasure houses just west of Yotsuya that has managed — so far, fingers crossed — to avoid major redevelopment and retain its distinctive atmosphere.

A generation ago, this low-rise warren of alleys lined with eateries, bars and taverns was a much more tightly closed world. To penetrate beyond the noren curtains hiding those inscrutable doorways, you needed introductions or, at the very least, prior reservations. These days most places are a lot more welcoming and, it's safe to say, Arakicho is firmly on the map.

Even so, before you reach Suzunari's stylish modern entrance you will still need to have booked your table well ahead of time. This is because so many elements of your meal have to be prepared in advance. Plus it's so cozy and small — just three tables, with another seven seats at the little counter overlooking the kitchen — that it's invariably full anyway.

This popularity is a testimony to the quality of the cooking. Owner-chef Akihiko Murata is still closer to the start of his career than the end, but he is fully trained and immersed in the kaiseki tradition and has paid all necessary dues. He sources quality seasonal ingredients and he prepares them with care, skill and a loving attention to detail.

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Grand entrance: Suzunari's classy exterior belies a laid-back atmosphere inside.

Suzunari may look sharp and modern, with its Japan-meets-Scandinavia decor, but there's no sense of formality. You can relax and settle in for the evening. This personal touch is very much due to the careful ministrations of Murata's wife, Yuko. Since you will have already chosen which of the three set meals (¥4,500, ¥6,000 or ¥10,000) you want when you called to reserve, there is nothing to do except order your drinks and wait for the dishes to arrive.

If you're there just to chat and chill out, the basic dinner makes a good introduction. But to fully appreciate Murata's cuisine, go for one of his more elaborate menus. The ¥6,000 meal starts with a couple of appetizers — a simple ohitashi (lightly cooked greens) and perhaps a couple of seafood fritters — to limber up your appetite in readiness for the first main course, the hassun. The kaiseki equivalent to a mixed hors d'oeuvres platter, this is a tour de force in miniature.

It comprises half a dozen intricate preparations, just enough to pique the palate and to reflect the time of year. Right now these may include salted gingko nuts, grilled and gleaming jade green on their skewer; morsels of persimmon and nashi pear in a smooth walnut kurumi-ae dressing; tiny delicate shirasu whitebait in a light dashi stock; and dainty white shrimp paired with tai shiokara, the salty, tangy, lightly fermented innards of sea bream.

There may also be a two-bite piece of mackerel sushi wrapped in fine slices of Kyoto-style pickled turnip. And, in the center, a small glass filled with rich, creamy toro-yuba (soft curds of soymilk skin) mixed with avocado and topped with crabmeat and uni urchin, anointed with a thick savory dressing (shōyu ankake) and crowned with a dab of fresh-grated wasabi root.

After this array of delicacies, the dish that follows seems simple and plain, but it's one of Murata's signature pieces. Tamoji-mushi is a steamed egg custard (much like a standard chawan-mushi) immersed under a thick, smooth uchiko sauce boldly flavored and tinted with generous amounts of uni. This is one of the few dishes he serves year-round. Once you've tasted it you'll understand why.

The succession of dishes continues: not one but two separate sashimi courses; a small cut of grilled fish paired perhaps with the down-home taste of gyū-suji, beef tendon soft-simmered with maitake mushrooms; and then a deep-fried dish, which, if you're lucky, may be Murata's outstanding foie gras ikomi.

The meat is first stuffed with a puree of sato-imo yam, then cooked golden brown. Ladled over the top is an ankake clear sauce flecked with red and yellow chrysanthemum petals and flecks of green shungiku (edible chrysanthemum). Superb.

The rice, cooked in a clay pot for extra flavor, is served with a classic dark, savory akadashi miso soup. Dessert will be two small items — a bowl of almond-flavored annin-dōfu curds, perhaps followed by wine-simmered apple slices with ice cream.

Clearly, this isn't entry-level kaiseki. It's as good as you'll find in far more sober uptown settings but for half the price and with twice the enjoyment. Not to mention the extra helping of pleasure you feel at emerging at the end of your meal into the atmospheric, lantern-lit backstreets of Arakicho.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.


Suzunari
www10.ocn.ne.jp/y-hiko/suzunari

MAP
Location: Seiwa House 1F, Araki-cho 7, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
(03) 3350-1178

Open: 6 p.m.-midnight; closed Sun. and holidays.

Nearest station: Yotsuya-Sanchome (Marunouchi Line).

How to get there: From Yotsuya-Sanchome Station (Exit 4), walk down the left side of Shinjuku-dori (toward Yotsuya), then turn left down the second side street. After about 50 meters, turn right (opposite a Korean restaurant), then left again onto a long, straight alley. Suzunari is on the right after 70 meters.

What works: Kaiseki has never been as friendly, accessible and affordable.

What doesn't The counter seats are squeezed in rather close together.

Number of seats: 19 (including 7 at the counter).

Smoking: Permitted.

BGM: Quietly jazzy.

Price per head: Set menus at ¥4,500, ¥6,000 and ¥10,000.

Drinks: Beer ¥650; shōchū from ¥750/glass, ¥3,400/bottle; sake from ¥600/glass, ¥3,400/bottle; wine from ¥800/glass, ¥3,200/bottle.

Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard accepted.

Language: Japanese menu; no English spoken.

Reservations: Essential.



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