When Kuniatsu Kondo decided to open his own restaurant, he spent months looking for the perfect name. But he had it, he discovered, in his own hands. “The moment you pick up your owan – that’s the sense I wanted to replicate,” he explains, gently handling, as if to guess its weight, a lacquered wood bowl of the sort most commonly used for miso soup. “Because I want a meal here to be the most comforting part of the day.” Serving eclectic Japanese tapas-style food, Owan is most accurately classed as an izakaya – although most restaurants in the category lack its finesse. “The food is designed to showcase the nihonshu,” explains Kondo, referring to the alcohol better known outside Japan as sake. “Fresh-flavoured unpasteurised namazake to go with simple vegetables in the warmer months, and deeper, richer types when it gets colder to pair with dishes like hotpot.” Kondo has worked in restaurants ever since he moved to Tokyo as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. He opened the first Owan in Ikejiri, a youthful suburb west of Shibuya a decade later. A second, near Yoyogi Park, came a decade after that. “Ten-year cycles seem to be my rhythm,” he says. From the chopsticks held by his patrons to the uniforms worn by the staff, good design is integral to Kondo’s vision. Customers sit along a clean wooden counter surrounding an open kitchen. It’s all simple, elegant and functional. The menus, hand-written each month by a renowned calligrapher, are artworks in themselves – customers occasionally ask to keep them as souvenirs, and Kondo is happy to oblige when he can. “I think the writing even looks delicious,” he says. “It makes you feel hungry and it deserves to be appreciated.” Heading the kitchen in Ikejiri, Kondo has given his most trusted apprentice free reign in Yoyogi, allowing their two menus to diverge within the same plain. The former location is known for sashimi that includes basashi (horsemeat), while the latter specialises in small home-style dishes known as obanzai. At both the meal will begin with a little bowl of homemade tofu and end with green tea and a bite-sized dessert – chocolate, perhaps – served with the compliments of the chef. “Chocolate isn’t a Japanese thing, so I taught myself how to make it,” says Kondo. A self-confessed perfectionist, he also studied flower arranging to make sure the restaurant’s ikebana were up to scratch. “I was always redoing the florist’s work, so I figured I should just do it myself.” Kondo enjoys experimenting. His menu often includes non-traditional dishes such as Chinese dumplings or even cheese fondue with dipping vegetables. His staples, however, are local and simple: grilled ayu river fish, onigiri rice balls flecked with seaweed and sesame seeds, and quail eggs smoked in wood from a cherry blossom tree. There is also a monthly broth-based dish – a crescendo of taste and fragrance as the meal draws towards a close – served in the eponymous owan. Cradling the bowl with … Read More
“Eating anago makes you smarter,” says chef Yuji Sato, tapping his temple with one finger. “It’s also chock-full of vitamins and minerals. And it even improves your eyesight.” Sato’s admiration for anago – or conger eel – makes sense considering that his restaurant Tamai is, he says, the only remaining specialist in it in Tokyo. The saltwater creatures once thrived in the waters of Tokyo Bay, making them commonly found in the capital’s cuisine, and Sato still sources his eels locally during the summer. By wintertime, however, the water is too cold and they come from southern Japan. “We only use wild eels – never farmed,” says Sato, a frank-talking golf fanatic who spends most weekends playing rounds with his customers. “Supply is our number one concern.” The filleting process for anago is similar to that for the freshwater eel unagi, beginning with a nail through the eel’s head to keep it still. After that, however, anago is simpler to cook, thanks to its thinner skin and leaner flesh. By far the most commonly ordered dish is the hako meshi – a lacquer box filled with a bed of rice that nestles two slithers of anago, one grilled and one boiled, along with a selection of condiments. But Sato encourages adventurous patrons to try other items from the menu too, because in his words: “the sea eel has many different faces.” In winter he recommends tempura, which highlights its sweet, light flesh. August to October, when local anago are in season, is the time for pure, simple sashimi. Sato, who trained as a sushi chef, was born to the east of the city. After taking over Tamai, he fell in love with his new neighbourhood in the heart of old Tokyo. Despite its location behind the famous Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi, Tamai feels it has managed to slither free of the tightening grip of modernisation. Most other old buildings in this historic quarter have long since been squeezed out by giant steel and concrete offices. But Tamai’s shop – a former liquor store – is all charm, and in a comforting display of neighbourly values, still shares its kitchen with a sake bar around the corner. “Technically this is a business district, but it’s a place without hierarchy,” says Sato. “People still help each other out and ask how you are or where you’ve been.” In a nod to the provenance of the building, the perfect way to end a meal at Tamai is with a cup of warm anagozake, alcohol that (of course) contains a salted, dried and roasted surprise. It pairs perfectly with hone-sembei, the bones of the eel extracted during filleting and then deep fried to make a crunchy calcium-rich snack. “And there you have it,” says Sato, “anago is even good for your body – it strengthens your bones.”
Oyakodon, Japan’s favourite comfort dish, may also be its most appropriately named. ‘Mother and child rice bowl’, as the name literally translates, combines bite-sized chunks of chicken, with eggs cooked lightly in sweet soy sauce until they just begin to set. This is served over a generous bowl of steaming white rice. Tamahide is the storied home of oyakodon. But Kounosuke Yamada, its bespectacled eighth-generation chef, says his family’s restaurant is about more than just one dish. Tamahide is the only restaurant in Tokyo – and one of only a handful in the country – to specialise in Japanese chicken cuisine. The most important ingredient is Shamo, a dark-feathered breed of bird praised for its lean, gamey meat. According to Yamada, Shamo ranks alongside the best breeds of chicken in the world, on a par with French Poulet de Bresse. The restaurant began trading in 1760, processing chicken for noble families in the city then known as Edo. A dish called Shamo nabe (hotpot) was its original specialty: a version of stew-like sukiyaki made with chicken instead of beef, along with noodles, leeks and tofu, all seasoned with soy sauce and honmirin, a syrup made from sweet rice rich with umami. Oyakodon got its start by happenstance during Tamahide’s fifth generation. A thrifty customer was reluctant to waste some leftover chicken. The quick-thinking wife of the chef suggested he throw it into the seasoned sukiyaki pot with a couple of raw eggs. The result was an instant hit. At the time, Japan’s rice-eating culture deemed it unseemly to soil rice by covering it with other food; only the lower classes would do that. For its first 90 years, the dish as we know it today was served only for delivery to merchants in the local Ningyocho area, never on the premises – Tamahide had an image to maintain after all. Over time, however, donburi dishes (bowls of rice with toppings) became popular among other classes, and Tamahide could sell its oyako donburi with pride. Tamahide has already been in business for more than 250 years. Now the ninth-generation chef, Kunio, is preparing to take over from his father in serving the poultry pilgrims who travel here from all over Japan. People eating alone have no choice but to line up and wait for the donburi. But Chef Yamada suggests parties of two or more try the set menu, for which reservations are accepted. This starts with Shamo chicken prepared in two different ways, and ends with the signature oyakodon, presented in a golden lacquered bowl. Eating oyakodon from a bowl resembling a golden egg seems appropriate at Tamahide. And not only because of the restaurant’s shining success. The bowl is also symbolic of the precious bonds this accidental dish has helped to nurture. Parent to child, from generation to generation.
It takes Yoshiaki Takazawa 10 hours to make his signature ratatouille, which he asks his diners to consume in a single bite. “Ratatouille is something usually made by throwing everything together into a pot,” the chef says. “But in my version, each of the 15 ingredients is prepared separately, and then assembled at the end.” The dish, a multi-coloured checkerboard terrine balanced on the end of a platinum spoon that’s twisted like a serpent, is the only one the chef guarantees will be served each evening. It has been a constant on his menu since he and his wife Akiko opened their restaurant, then known as Aronia de Takazawa, in 2005. “The aronia is a small berry that is not well known but is really powerful, with stronger antioxidant properties than blueberries,” Takazawa explains. “That’s how I thought of myself when I was getting started: a hidden power with a connection to nature.” Takazawa’s style of cooking blends intense seasonality – the bedrock of all Japanese cuisine – with imaginative presentations more familiar to European molecular gastronomy. Some have called it Japanese-French cuisine, but the chef begs to differ. “There were French and Spanish influences at first,” he says. “But what I really want to do is express Japanese culture. That’s why I use Japanese ingredients and pair dishes with Japanese wines. But having said that, this isn’t strictly Japanese cuisine. It’s just mine.” Despite years of training at a famous Tokyo hotel, the chef has never courted publicity, choosing a discreet backstreet location in Akasaka for his business. An obscure door opens on to a narrow staircase that leads up to the intimate dining room. There is space for just three tables and 10 chairs, which take just one sitting per evening. No patron is ever more than a few metres from the chef as he works behind his smooth metal show counter, and none is denied the delightful Akiko’s attentive service. Takazawa says he designed the experience to be like the Japanese tea ceremony because “it’s my way of presenting our hospitality.” More than that though, Takazawa is a showcase for Japanese culture – its farmers and artisans, its seasons and sensibilities. But it also highlights the chef’s particular sense of humour, through dishes such as Sweet & Sour Prawn, a riff on ebi chilli (spicy stir-fry shrimp) that’s a staple of cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants in Japan. In Takazawa’s version, an elegant kuruma prawn coated in delicate tomato jus comes surrounded by the deconstructed flavours of ebi chilli, all for patrons to assemble in their mouths. And his Dinosaur’s Egg from Miyazaki on the south eastern coast of Kyushu, is in fact a dessert: the shell made using white chocolate, turmeric and chilli; the egg using meringue and mango from Miyazaki; and the footprints formed of wasabi, giving Takazawa’s Japanese accent to a flavour combination that was inspired by a trip to Mexico. Indeed, the chef travels constantly to food events and private functions around the globe. When … Read More
The line outside Taimeiken forms early on weekends – dozens of patrons waiting patiently for an hour, perhaps two. Ask any one of them what they’re waiting for and their reply will be the same: omuraisu. To the uninitiated, this does not sound like a dish worth waiting for: an omelette (omuretsu) filled with rice (raisu) that’s been fried or seasoned with wine and ketchup, and served with a demi-glace sauce. But slice into it, and a history rich in the idiosyncrasies of modern Japan spills out. Taimeiken specialises in yoshoku, a curious cousin to Japan’s admittedly varied stable of fare. Literally translated, yoshoku means ‘Western food’ – although few Westerners would recognise its dishes as their own. Its lexicon includes kareraisu, or curry rice, which uses a natively-produced curry that Indians and Brits find extremely mild; hambaagu, akin to a hamburger without the bun; and Napolitan – spaghetti cooked with vegetables and dollops of ketchup. The restaurant was founded in 1931 by the late Shingo Modegi, a lover of food and kites (his museum of Japanese kites is on the fifth floor of the same building). Today his grandson Hiroshi is in charge of the family business. Hiroshi’s hobbies – surfing and tanning – reflect a different era. But his commitment to the family business is clear. “When I was a young boy,” he recalls, “I found a letter from my grandfather addressed to ‘The Third Generation of Taimeiken’. I was the eldest son, I knew right then that it was my honour and responsibility to take over the family business.” The restaurant feels intentionally nostalgic, a throwback to a tumultuous era. In the late 1800s, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan reluctantly opened up to the world. The arrival of the American ‘Black Ships’ had demonstrated the military and economic superiority of the West. Japan’s leaders felt small, both figuratively and – as the Americans towered above them – physically. They were desperate to catch up. Members of the elite were dispatched to Europe and North America. They returned with lessons to bolster Japan’s military and economy – and it’s cuisine. They believed that if they ate Western food they would quite literally grow bigger. The dishes they brought home were localised, becoming collectively known as yoshoku. They are eaten not with chopsticks, but with knives, forks and spoons, and served in dining rooms by waiters and waitresses wearing quaint uniforms long since discarded by most Western restaurants. Taimeiken’s menu is a comprehensive collection of yoshoku dishes, including everything from macaroni gratin to beef stew. But its most famous product is its omuraisu, which was featured in the classic Eighties film Tampopo. Other varieties of the dish commonly have the rice contained inside the omelette, but Taimeiken’s ‘Tampopo Omuraisu’ places the egg on top. Eating it involves its own ritual: it is sliced lengthways down the middle of the fat, yellow mound to expose the runny insides, before the demi-glace sauce is poured into its core. “Our sauce … Read More
The highest quality fillets of wagyu beef that arrive at Shima come with a certificate of authenticity. The document details the ancestry of the slaughtered cow, with a family tree going back three generations and most importantly, the name of the prized bull that fathered it. Finally, it’s stamped with an inky impression of the animal’s nose – the bovine equivalent of a fingerprint. The particular fillet Manabu Oshima is preparing for tonight’s customers comes from a cow called Hiromi, daughter of Doi. She was raised, like the chef, near Kyoto. Oshima works with an agent who scours the country seeking calves with good lineage and potential for rearing. Invariably, the animals are from the prized Tajima breed, which originated in the area around Kobe, but is now raised all over Japan and overseas. The beef served at Shima comes mostly from Kyoto, Miyazaki, or Iwate prefectures. “Kobe beef is famous overseas, but it’s just one type of wagyu,” explains the chef. “Only beef that comes from specific slaughterhouses around Kobe has the right to use that name.” Oshima slices to release long strings of tendon, peels them off the three-foot-long fillet, and then trims away the fat. When he’s done, about a third of the volume has gone. The tapered end, the filet mignon, will be used to make steak sandwiches for patrons to take home. The majority is tenderloin, enough for about eight 150g cuts sold for ¥13,000 each. The thick end is the more affordable rump steak, served at lunchtime. Handling meat every day for almost 40 years, Oshima has learned to judge through his fingers. “I can feel if the beef is going to be good or not without tasting it. I can feel if the farmer has raised the animal thoughtfully. Japanese farmers raise cows with the same care as they do their children. You can sense that humanity in the product.” Wearing a crisp white uniform and classic tall chef’s hat, Oshima operates behind the counter in the open kitchen alongside his son, while his friendly wife takes charge front of house. The old, hand-written menu reflects the chef’s early career working in Great Britain, France and Germany, with traditional favourites such as steamed asparagus, foie gras, and onion gratin soup. But the menu isn’t the best guide. “It’s a bit meaningless, to be honest,” Oshima says, laughing. “Just ask me and I’ll tell you what’s good. For example, tonight we have this,” he says, reaching behind him to bring out a boiled cow’s tongue. “And we also have oxtail soup.” He makes the oxtail soup especially for one of his customers, a 94-year-old regular from Hong Kong. Alongside the occasional sumo wrestler, patrons from overseas make up a sizeable chunk of the clientele at Shima. Many of them come to see Oshima – and to eat his steak – every time they come to Tokyo. The chef appears humbled by his patrons’ strong loyalty to his restaurant. Especially given that, typically, they’re self-confident … Read More