Trapped in the furnace of a Tokyo summer, even the most ardent foodies turn to zombies. We skulk inside, out of sight of the sun, emerging only after dark has fallen to roam in search of sustenance.
Instead of elaborate full-course meals, we seek out casual places close to home. Anywhere will do as long as we can nibble and graze, ordering a dish or two at a time, and interspersing food with drink and conversation till late into the night.
Thankfully Tokyo has more and more restaurants expressly intended for that purpose. Here are four new favorites that have arrived over the past half year or so.
Kitchen Nakamura is one of those hip, quietly stylish places so tucked away from sight you’d never find it unaided. Mere minutes from Omotesando subway station, in the basement of the swish La Porte Aoyama building, this unobtrusive basement oasis of late-night dining is still much of an insiders’ secret.
Not that it will stay that way long. As the newest offshoot — it opened late May — of Namikibashi Nakamura, the classy-casual Japanese dining restaurant on the Ebisu end of Shibuya, word is spreading fast.
Like its parent operation, Kitchen Nakamura revolves around a large open kitchen and focuses on ingredients sourced almost entirely within Japan. Where it differs is that it serves no sake and little shochu. The food here is crossover Western and wine is the libation of choice.
Standout starters range from the kabocha squash croquettes and lightly salted mizu-nasu eggplant to the excellent stem ginger wrapped in pork. The pasta dishes are good, and the homemade sausages great. But at the heart of the (Japanese-only) menu is the charcoal grill there are kushiyaki skewers of Yambaru pork, jidori chicken, Edomae anago conger eel and more.
Gar Eden is another new place with a strong presence and a hybrid sensibility. Housed in a compact, free-standing two-story house that was custom-built earlier this year (it also opened in May), it has a simple, uncluttered feel that puts you immediately at ease.
The inspiration for the kitchen here is Italian. The antipasti list is brief, but there’s a good range of pasta with several made fresh in-house each day. But these are mere preliminaries for the main event: pork (spare ribs or shoulder butt), chicken or beef, scampi or tuna, even spit-roasted lamb, all served straight from the charcoal grill.
It’s the kind of food that demands good beer more than wine. Gar Eden obliges with 10 varieties on tap, ranging from what it calls “standard” (Asahi SuperDry) to “new standards”, which is its terminology for craft ales. The joker in the pack here is the Italian beer. not the usual Moretti or Peroni but one of the new generation of microbrews (currently Birra del Borgo) that are now booming off there.
Manager Kenzo Kobayashi used to be in charge at Craft Beer Market in Jimbocho, so he not only knows his ales and IPAs, he understands the right price point. At ¥580 a glass or ¥880 per pint, he gets it spot on.
Thick rashers of smoky bacon, soft-stewed tripe, juicy homemade sausages and sizzling steaks, all served up from the busy, smoky open kitchen that occupies the heart of this buzzy new (February) restaurant close by Kanda JR station.
Butcher Brothers is as cheap as it is cheerful, with generous steaks from as little as Y840 for the beef rump or ¥1,250 for rib. As for the wine, it’s ¥450 by the glass, and just about no bottles over ¥3,500.
For the longest time, this part of Kanda has been down-at the heel, with no shortage of sleazy salaryman dives and sake bars. Butcher Brothers is tangible evidence that there is new blood coursing through this old-school neighborhood.
World Breakfast All Day also has a name that says it all. This brilliant, whimsical little café/diner has not only come up with an idea that is totally original, it is doing it in a way that feels more Brooklyn or Camden Town than anything you’d expect to find on Gaien-Nishi-dori in Gaienmae.
Every two months, the menu changes to focus on the cuisine — specifically the breakfast — of a single country. Currently it’s Mexico. That means you get a generous plate of chilaguilles, fried egg with fresh tortilla, avocado, cream cheese and cilantro salad. There’s coffee, lightly sweetened horchata or Tecate lager to go with that, depending on your whim and the time of day.
Alternatively, there is a simpler muesli bowl. Or you can go for the full English brekkers with egg and sausage, fried bread, baked beans, mushrooms and more. Then in the evening (from 5 p.m.), a rather more substantial dinner menu of Mexican specials comes into play.
The narrow dining room has only very basic décor, and everyone (maximum 14 people) sits at one long communal table. The walls are decorated with folksy Mexican artifacts and the menu has cute explanations (in Japanese) about the culture. But what makes this place so special is that at the end of the month everything will be overhauled and the featured cuisine will be Vietnamese.
Kitchen Nakamura: ameblo.jp/kitchennakamura/
Gar Eden: www.facebook.com/gareden.kv
Butcher Brothers: https://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1310/A131002/13152432/
World Breakfast All Day: world-breakfast-allday.com
This is the unredacted version of my column in the Japan Times this week. More details (address, opening times, etc.) are at the bottom of the column