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Friday, Sep. 21, 2012
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Michelin-starred food tastes better by the bottle
The entrance to Yorozuya Okagesan is, to put it mildly, discreet. The modest sign is set back so far from the sidewalk you'd never spot the steps unless you knew to look. And you'd never go down them anyway unless you had a reservation since, politely but inevitably, you would be turned away.
Don't get the wrong idea. Okagesan is not some uber-exclusive, introductions-only club. Far from it. This friendly, bustling izakaya just happens to be so popular — and booked out almost every day of the year — it has no need to attract casual walk-in customers.
At first glance, it's hard to understand why. Peer through the doorway into Okagesan's compact basement premises and it seems little different from hundreds of other old-school taverns that dot the city's numerous nightlife neighborhoods. But once you have spent an evening there, you start to appreciate what makes it special.
The simple wooden furnishings bear the patina of age. Sake labels and paraphernalia plaster the walls and ceilings. A row of low tables with leg wells stretches along one side of the room; on the other, a short counter overlooks the kitchen activity and curves toward the door. In one corner stands a large fridge packed with an impressive array of isshōbin sake magnums.
The term "izakaya," loosely translated, means "a place where you can settle in with sake." But that glosses over the two other essential attributes: the food; and the atmosphere, the buzz, what the Irish might call the craic. Okagesan boasts all three — sake, food and an ambiance that is warm but never boisterous — in spades.
Especially the food. The master of the house, Yasutoshi Kanzaki, presides over a tiny open kitchen, which he shares with two assistants. But every day he serves up an extensive range of prime seafood and seasonal produce — plus occasional dishes of meat or fowl — that goes well beyond the parameters of standard izakaya fare.
He does not sport the grizzled demeanor and buzz-cut hair favored by so many traditional itamae chefs. Instead he wears his hair tied back in a ponytail, a reminder of the days when he was a rock musician. Not that you'd guess from his intense focus: Kanzaki's food has both vigor and delicacy.
The menu and sake list run to several hardbound pages, but few people bother to consult them. When it comes to the sake, Kanzaki knows better than anyone what he has in his cellar and which of the more than 50 kinds in stock will go best with his food. He is always ready with suggestions whenever your flask runs dry.
So too with the food. Most people prefer to order his omakase ("leave it up to the chef to rock your socks") set meal, which spotlights all that he does best. As at any superior Japanese restaurant, the specifics will vary according to what is available and in season, and whatever he feels like putting together on any given day. But come what may, the highlight of any meal at Okagesan will be the mixed sashimi platter, featuring four or five different kinds of seafood.
The star item on that plate is the katsuo tataki (skipjack). Kanzaki sears the filets himself in the traditional fishermen's style over an open fire of straw, which he ignites a couple of times each night illuminating his kitchen and drawing appreciative gasps from all who witness it. It's an impressive display, but it's not merely for show. The fire seals in the oiliness, imbuing the outer layer of the fish with a distinctive subtle smoky flavor.
Before the sashimi, though, you will get a selection of seasonal appetizers and sakana, traditional umami-rich tidbits of seafood or tofu — all intended to accompany and accentuate the sake. In early spring, there will be fresh green vegetables, wild herbs and bamboo shoots; in summer, dadacha-mame, a rare and particularly tasty type of edamame beans.
Among the other year-round specialties, expect to be served a plate of Kanzaki's fluffy, flavorful homemade satsuma-age. He adjusts his recipe for these deep-fried balls of pounded white-meat fish, adding ingredients to reflect the time of year. Right now, he is incorporating sweet corn, giving the mix an extra dimension of sweetness and texture.
No matter what the season, the meal will also include a small saucer of oden hot-pot — onion, cuts of daikon, konbu seaweed, whole eggs and more — straight from the vat where they have been simmering. Kanzaki cooks them in fragrant, lightly salted dashi stock that is more akin to a premium pot-au-feu than the standard Japanese style. This is his own patent recipe and it's so good it has won over even the most avowed oden-sceptics.
Already the first sanma (saury) are being landed in Hokkaido, signaling the start of the autumn season. Kanzaki is currently serving these as a supplementary off-menu dish (¥900 apiece). He merely dusts their skin with salt and gently grills them until their soft, white flesh is moist and tender. As always, the simplest preparation is the finest.
The meal closes with another house specialty, a serving of omusubi rice balls, deftly formed into shape with a light seasoning of salt. This is yet another example of the personal touch that Kanzaki brings to his cuisine.
Good food, good sake, good fun: Okagesan embodies the satisfying, hands-on style that typifies the best izakaya. No wonder it has earned a Michelin star.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.