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Friday, March 16, 2012

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Tastes like a bargain: Though an evening at exclusive Moto-Akasaka restaurant Yoshihashi will likely set you back ¥20,000 a head, its lunch menu offers sukiyaki and all the trimmings at just ¥2,100. ROBBIE SWINNERTON


Top-class sukiyaki at a fraction of the price

Elegance, refinement, exclusivity: These are qualities only to be expected at any high-end Japanese restaurant. Affordability? Think again. Or, rather, think different. That's the way to approach Yoshihashi.

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One of Tokyo's most elegant and traditional sukiyaki houses, Yoshihashi is also one of its least publicized. Tucked away down a cul-de-sac off a nondescript side street in Moto-Akasaka — itself a quarter that flies under most people's radar — it's a place that likes to keep its name out of the limelight.

There's a good reason for this. Yoshihashi is a favorite among Japan's captains of industry, as well as ranking bureaucrats and occasional political bigwigs from nearby Nagatacho. They gather here in the evening because they know they are guaranteed privacy and discretion along with their multicourse meals of premium beef.

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You don't necessarily need an introduction, but you'll certainly be fussed over more if you have connections. You need to dress the part, too, for dinner at least: For men, business suits are de rigueur; women, though they are well in the minority, tend to the conservative end of the fashion spectrum. And, more than anything, you need to feel comfortable in this milieu of money, privilege and old-school decorum.

Premium wagyū beef in all its marbled beauty never comes cheap. And so it proves at Yoshihashi. Including drinks and incidentals, dinner will run to over ¥20,000 per head, even more if you stop to investigate the whiskey menu at the end of the proceedings. In short, this is expense-account territory.

Lunchtime, though, is quite a different matter. Almost all restaurants in Tokyo offer simpler, pared down, introductory versions of their staple menus at midday, but Yoshihashi's is a veritable bargain: just ¥2,100 (or ¥3,150 for a larger serving size). There is, however, a catch: These meals are only served at the small counter close to the kitchen, and those 12 seats can't be reserved ahead of time. You just have to turn up and try your luck.

As you approach Yoshihashi's impressive entrance — a low-rise traditional building extensively refurbished five or so years ago — and slide open the door, you are likely to have your fingers firmly crossed. Once you've established there is room, you will be asked to slip off your shoes and the kimono-clad receptionist will show you inside.

Yoshihashi famously makes no concessions to those who cannot speak Japanese (and refuses reservations in English). But there's no need to hire an interpreter, nor worry about the other options on the menu. Unless you prefer your beef as shabu-shabu (lightly blanched in boiling dashi stock) or grilled (ask for ami-yaki), look no further than the house specialty sukiyaki teishoku (set meal).

Unlike the full-course evening menus, the cooking is done out of sight in the kitchen, rather than on a burner in front of you, and it can take about 10 minutes for the meal to arrive. It's worth the wait.

Served in the same gleaming copper pan it's been cooked in, this is classic sukiyaki. Following the time-tested recipe, the thin strips of beef have been simmered along with cubes of grilled tofu, chunks of onions and negi leeks, shimeji and shiitake mushrooms, shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) greens and transparent, chewy shirataki noodles. It has all been seasoned with Yoshihashi's house-blend warishita, a lightly sweetened soy sauce that imparts an extra level of umami richness.

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Not for everyone: A favorite among bureaucrats and politicians, Yoshihashi may alienate the common customer.

The final piece in the taste puzzle is the raw egg. Whisk it up gently with your chopsticks, then dip each morsel of the sukiyaki in it en route to your mouth. The balance is exactly right: juicy, flavorful, moist and lightly savory, and complemented perfectly by the side servings of hot rice (refills available free of charge), miso soup, pickles and as much green tea as you can drink.

Besides the considerable price gap, there are several other key differences between the lunch and dinner versions of sukiyaki at Yoshihashi, starting with the quality of beef. In the high-end dinner menus, premium grade-A wagyū is used, heavily marbled with fat. At lunch, a leaner cut is used. It's Japanese beef but not from any "name brand" breed of cattle.

The level of service will also vary. At lunch, once you've been served, you are left to your own devices. At dinner, because the sukiyaki is cooked at the dinner table in your own private room, you will pampered.

Individual courses are brought in separately. Appetizers and preliminary side dishes will be followed by a sashimi platter (but only if you order the top courses), before the gas ring is fired up for the sukiyaki.

As part of the entertainment, you are also likely to be shown a remarkable trick with the raw eggs served as the sukiyaki dip. Cracked into a bowl, they will be deftly beaten using chopsticks until the white is stiff but with the yolks left unbroken.

And then, after the dessert fruit plates have been cleared, you can adjourn to the Oasis Bar, on the other side of the premises, for shots of Hibiki, Old Parr or rare single malts. Whether you think this kind of detail is worth the considerable price premium — well, that's your call.

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


Location: 1-5-25 Moto-Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
(03) 3401-3129

Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order) and 5:30-9 p.m. (last order); closed Sun. and holidays.

Nearest stations: Akasaka-Mitsuke (Ginza and Marunouchi lines), Nagatacho (Hanzomon Line).

How to get there: From Akasaka-Mitsuke Station (Exit B), walk along the right side of Aoyama-dori. Take the first side street to the right, then the second street to the left (by a Honda workshop). After about 100 meters, turn left into a cul-de-sac. Yoshihashi's entrance is at the end on the right.

What works: Top-quality beef; superior service; great value lunch.

What doesn't: Reservations not taken for counter seats at lunchtime.

Number of seats: Counter for 12, plus several private rooms for 2-20.

Smoking: All ground floor is no-smoking at lunch; counter seats also no-smoking at dinner.

BGM: None.

Price per head: Lunch from ¥2,100; dinner menu from ¥13,000; also a la carte.

Drinks: Beer ¥800; cocktails from ¥1,000; sake from ¥1,000; shōchū from ¥600; wine from ¥1,200/glass; whiskey from ¥1,000.

Credit cards: Major cards accepted.

Language: Japanese menu; English not spoken.

Reservations: Advisable at dinner (Japanese only); not taken for lunch menu.

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