Tokyo Dining: Called to the bar

Mar 09, 2011


Like the traditional bar-food cuisines of Spain and the Mediterranean, izakaya cooking is fun, casual, small-plate fare – inexpensive, simple dishes that you order over the course of an evening with friends. Sashimi is naturally a mainstay, but so are such comfort foods as deep-fried kara-age chicken, salads and salt-grilled fish. Beer, sake, distilled vodka-like shochu and iced tea make up the drinks menu, although extensive wine cellars are increasingly common.

The izakaya’s focus is twofold: fresh ingredients and drink. The food is often local and seasonal with dishes changing daily. The drink helps the conversation flow. With a haphazard ordering system that encourages diners to call out whatever menu item takes their fancy, the izakaya is alive with shouts and overlapping conversations. It’s hardly surprising that the atmosphere heats up as the evening chugs along.

The essence of the izakaya is that it gives the quaffing of alcoholic beverages almost equal importance to food, and in this sense the most common English translation of the word – “pub” – is apt, as the izakaya is traditionally a neighbourhood place with regulars drawn from the local community.

No-one knows exactly when or where the first izakaya began trading. The word combines three pictograms: “to stay”, “alcohol” and “shop” – a liquor store where you linger. Before the spread of commercial bottling that came with the 1868 dawn of the Meiji period, it was customary for ordinary citizens to fill a jug or container with rice brew at the local liquor merchant. Over time, the shopkeepers responded to those who wanted to socialise on the premises by offering snacks, often dishes such as stews that could be kept simmering for long periods, or such thirst-inducing delicacies as salted squid guts or noodles. Then the menus began expanding as the izakaya took on more of the comforts of a restaurant.

Today it’s not unusual for an izakaya to have a menu of more than 100 items. What is remarkable is the typical size of the kitchens that produce them; often not much bigger than a walk-in wardrobe, they are testimony to Japanese ingenuity with space. The izakaya’s simplicity demonstrates how much the image of Japanese food has been distorted in the West. Here is a complete dining experience that gives lie to the stereotype that Japanese dining is finicky and steeped in unwritten rules about what should be eaten, with what and when. The stereotype also goes that Japanese food must be exorbitantly priced. However, the bill at most izakaya will rarely approach that for an equivalent experience in the West.

Some izakaya in Tokyo are easier to get to know than others, but don’t be put off. Indeed, many Japanese feel daunted when pushing through the hanging noren doorway curtain of an izakaya for the first time. Despite the welcoming red paper lantern that often hangs outside, some establishments give the impression they’re “for locals only”. But the explosion in popularity of chain izakaya, together with intense competition, has seen a new trend toward highly customer-friendly establishments.

While it certainly helps to be in the company of Japanese-speaking friends, you can get by with very little language – with an inquisitive gesture at what’s being prepared behind the counter or pointing to what other patrons are enjoying. Show some genuine curiosity and you’ll be rewarded with hospitality and a great evening. Offer to buy the master a beer if you’ve had an especially good time, but tipping is definitely not a Japanese custom.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the izakaya has as much to do with atmosphere and the raising of glasses as it does with the gourmet experience. Many people – men in particular – visit izakaya to unwind with a drink, and the food may be accordingly basic. Like many restaurants in Japan, not all izakaya take credit cards and, unless otherwise stated, menus are in Japanese and no English is spoken.

1-14-6 Morishita, Koto-ku.
+81 3 5625 6685.
In the heart of working-class Morishita, not far from the sumo wrestler stables, people queue for Yamariki’s famous nikomi, or beef guts stew, which has been a favourite for about 40 years and can be ordered with garlic bread and a boiled egg on the side...

1-7-12 Ebisu Nishi, Shibuya-ku.
+81 3 3461 3367.
Places like this are sadly disappearing from Tokyo. Saiki is an old two-storey house/restaurant that was a gathering point for many of Japan’s literati in the postwar era. Like most izakaya, it provides an appetiser on your arrival, for which there is a small charge...

11F Shibuya Toei Plaza, 1-24-12 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku.
+81 3 5468 6196.
This excellent izakaya is part of a small chain (there’s also a branch in New York). While it may have some of the formulaic aspects of a franchise, first-timers will be hard-pressed to find a better introduction to the cuisine...

2-15-2 Kanda Tsukasa-cho, Chiyoda-ku.
+81 3 3294 5433.
Mimasuya claims to be Tokyo’s oldest continuously running (it opened in 1905) izakaya. It offers beer-battered fugu (poisonous blowfish, which for obvious reasons can only legally be prepared by specially licensed chefs), sakura-nabe (horsemeat hotpots)...

Aoyama KT Building B1F, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku.
+81 3 6418 5572.
Some say Maru is too elegant to be an izakaya, but owner/chef Keiji Mori reckons it is. Maru offers extraordinary subtle dishes inspired by the kaiseki multi-course haute cuisine of Kyoto, but in small-dish servings to share...

Sakagura Chichibu-nishiki
2-13-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku.
+81 3 3541 4777.
There aren’t many traditional izakaya near the heart of Ginza but this one, in an ancient wooden building, is a welcome find. There’s a large bar counter and simple standards such as sweet miso vegetable nuta, asparagus in butter and, of course, fresh sashimi.

3-23-4 Uehara, Shibuya-ku.
+81 3 3485 3234.
Japanese restaurants tend to specialise – if you want the best tempura or sushi, you go to a place that serves essentially only that dish...

3-31-5 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku.
+81 3 3832 0469.
The quintessential “upmarket working-class” izakaya, Shinsuke attracts an older, more monied patron. Prices are similar to Maru...

1-5-8 Ebisu-nishi, Shibuya-ku.
+81 3 3770 8381.
A spacious modern izakaya close to Saiki, with a big window at the front and menu items written on strips of paper on the walls. There’s an open kitchen from which the staff acknowledge orders with a shout; table and counter seating...

9-6-32 Akasaka, Minato-ku.
+81 3 3405 0411.
Run by a fish wholesaler Uoshin is crowded, efficient and extremely good value. The display of fish on ice as you enter the main dining area is an indication of freshness and will make your mouth water...

*The name izakaya is a compound word consisting of i (to sit) and sakaya (sake shop). Izakaya evolved from sake shops that allowed customers to stay at the premises to drink. Sometimes called akachochin because of the red paper lanterns traditionally hung outside.

Source Qantas The Australian Way April 2011
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