Misogura Tamayura, as introduced in my Japan Times column on Friday, is a sturdy old timber-frame tradesman's shop that has been carefully converted into an atmospheric izakaya — one of the best in the neighbourhood.
It stands in the grid of streets just south of Ueno's Shinobazu Pond, a holdover from the times when builders were artisans and all the fixtures — door frames, windows, ceilings and stairs — were crafted by hand from wood.
Even in daylight the sight of this lovingly preserved little store is likely to bring your feet to a halt. But after evening falls and with the old-fashioned lamps illuminating the interior, you may find it hard to resist sliding back the glass doors and venturing inside for a closer look.
Unlike its neighbors, many of which offer boisterous carousing and entertainments of a rather more dubious nature — the area around Ueno-Hirokoji station is an old red-light district — Tamayura is quiet, wholesome and entirely welcoming.
Notwithstanding the array of sake bottles that greet you, Tamayura has a much stronger emphasis on the food it serves. You can tell that from the amount of space devoted to the open kitchen, filling so much of the ground floor that there is only room for a narrow counter of hard black amalgam running along two sides.
If you enjoy watching your food being prepared, this is the place to sit. Your focus will be the hearth, where cuts of meat and chicken are slowly grilled over the glowing charcoals. You can also inspect the wide obanzai-style platters of fish and vegetables, or view your sashimi being deftly sliced to order.
What to order first? The best suggestion comes from the first half of Tamayura's full name. Miso is the seasoning of choice here, and it features in most of the dishes. They're very serious about their miso here: they display diagrams about how miso is made; and they source their miso from all over the country. Here (for those who read Japanese) is the miso menu…
So… Start with an order of organic vegetables, served raw with a selection of miso dips. At this time of year the choice is likely to be from cucumber, white kabu turnips, purple-tinged daikon, kabocha pumpkin and the like. The dips are not simply miso straight out of the vat. Instead they are blended in-house, flavored with walnut, yuzu, umeboshi or garlic. This makes a good nibble to go with your first drink and while waiting for more substantial dishes to arrive.
Other good tidbits include yaki-miso: a thick paste of sweetened miso mixed with ground chicken meat applied to a bamboo shamoji (serving spatula) and grilled until the surface is almost caramelized.
Or try the misozuke starters: slivers of cod, slices of fish roe in their sac, and even cubes of cream cheese — all have been placed in a vat of miso and left to "pickle" for a week or so, until they have absorbed a light saltiness and gentle umami savour from the fermentation.
The sashimi is more than worthy…
But as an intriguing alternative, the kitchen will rustle up a serving of namero. The flesh of the fish — usually aji (horse mackerel) — is chopped up coarsely, then blended with miso and fine-sliced negi scallions. No further dip required.
What else is good? Well, at this time of year there are small, one- or two-person nabe claypots with a choice of ingredients: ours was kamo-nanban (duck and negi scallion) and it hit just the right spot.
However, when temperatures drop, it's the charcoal grill that's likely to demand the most attention. Start perhaps with satsuma-age, a patty of pounded fish meat broiled to a delectable golden-brown.
Or opt for the fish served in saikyo-yaki style — grilled with a coating of sweet white miso; or the excellent sumibi-yaki jidori (charcoal grilled chicken breast).
All these take time to prepare, so get your order in early — and most especially for the meat cuts. The menu this winter has included a selection of waterfowl and wild game, such as aegamo duck, ezojika venison and inoshishi boar. This will not be the finest gibier (wild meats) around — the slow grilling process tends to dry the meat too much — but they certainly go well with sake.
And that, of course, is the other reason for being at Tamayura. There are 30 or more varieties of sake on the menu, many of them premium brands, as well as several special bottles that are unlisted. About a dozen of them can be ordered warm — just ask for "okan" — and you can pick out your choice from the magnums lined up along the counter. Pick from the menu — or just point at the bottle of your choice.
For those who read Japanese, these were the two sake menus last month. Left: the selection of reishu (chilled sake), with red dots indicating those also suggested as good to drink warmed. Right: the list of bottles — most of those arrayed along the counter — intended as okan.
There is much more to Tamayura than the dozen or so counter seats that initially meet the eye. Slip off your shoes and step up into the main part of the house; at the top of a steep flight of wooden stairs is the main dining area.
Most of the tables here are on tatami mats.
But a section of the floor has been removed so you can look right down onto the kitchen, while the warmth and aromas from the grill waft up to the rafters above.
There is also a private chamber at the back — called the "hanare", it is actually separate from the main store — that would make a great party space (albeit you'd have to sit on the tatami, with no leg wells under your tables)…
Whether it's the food, the sake or the heat rising from the charcoal grill, you are likely to leave Tamayura well warmed. Enhanced by the pleasure of having spent an hour or two in such a simple classic setting, with such excellent period details...
To round things off, some more menu details: for those who enjoy sake and good food (and can read the kanji) this is music to the eyes…
Currently (Jan.4), the Japan Times online version is lacking the full address/phone/data. Until that gets sorted out, here are the vital details:
Tamayura, 2-4-4 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo; 050-5796-3001; r.gnavi.co.jp/a827304/
• Open 5-11 p.m.; closed Sunday & holidays
• Nearest subway stations: Yushima (Chiyoda Line); Ueno-Hirokoji (Ginza Line)
• What works: Classic architecture; cheerful ambiance.
• What doesn't: Apart from the counter, all seats are on tatami.
• Smoking permitted.
• Cost per person: figure around ¥3,000 (plus drinks).
• Japanese menu; a little English spoken.
NB: Tamayura will reopen after the New Year holiday from Jan. 7.
Tamayura is run by the Yumemania company, which operates a growing stable of restaurants and bars, almost all of them in old wooden buildings that have been restored, converted and brought back to life. This is a great project, made even more worthwhile by the level of enthusiasm — invariably the staff are excellent, cheerful and skilled — and an appreciation for real food offered at highly affordable prices. A round of applause!
A few years ago, I wrote a New Year column focusing on miso, and the best place in Tokyo to buy it — Sano Miso, out in Kameido on the eastern fringes of the city.
You know you're in the right place when you see the Thai flag — and the line outside (yes indeed, Montee is invariably full)…
…and the giant inflatable Singha bottle…
And you can be confident the food is going to be good when the menu on the wall is written entirely in Thai*. It is.
Here are a few of the things we have tried and enjoyed at Montee… Starting with the attractive "mandala" of kung chae nam pla…
the yam talay...
and the tod man pla — which are standard issue, except for the extra chopped garlic and chili in the dip (most Thai places in Tokyo just serve the sriracha neat, straight out of the bottle).
So far so good, but there's plenty on the menu that's a whole lot more interesting. Such as the sai krok Isan.
These sausages are an Isan specialty, made from pork and steamed glutinous rice and left to ferment until they have a very distinctive sour flavour. Sai krok are not common in Tokyo. The chefs at Montee make theirs in-house.
They're pan-fried and served hot with slivers of ginger and raw cabbage on the side.
Excellent with some of the sticky rice on the side. And yes go ahead, use your fingers to fashion that rice into little balls — but be warned, it comes straight out of the steamer and it's HOT). They do also serve Jasmine rice.
What else is good? Well, as mentioned, the "Thai-style okonomiyaki" (banh xeo) hits the spot nicely. It looks quite simple, with only a few morsels of seafood to be seen, but underneath the thin pancake you find a nice mound of wok-fried bean sprouts.
And then there are the clay pots: we haven't tried the tom yam kung yet, but the kaeng som has a lovely rich sweet-sour tamarind broth with plenty of vegetables — six kinds, they say, though we didn't stop to count them — to go with the shrimp.
It's actually cooked in the kitchen — you wouldn't want that small dining room to get hotter — then brought to the table in the clay pot, which sits over a candle to keep it warm.
But the best thing about Montee — besides the sense of being wafted over to Thailand — is the fact that it is really a family-run operation. Takahashi-san (on the left) owns the restaurant; his wife handles the front-of-house business, taking orders and serving; and that's her parents out back in the kitchen. Talk about home cooking!
So is this the most authentic Thai food in Tokyo? That, of course, depends on what you mean by "authentic". Yes, this is about as close as you will ever get to eating great Thai home cooking. But no, in as much as no one involved actually comes from Isan.
Father, mother and daughter are actually from Sukhothai. But the previous chef at Montee was from Isan, so they just carried on serving pretty much the same menu. If I hadn't asked, though, I'd never have known the difference.
* The actual menu is in Japanese as well
This is where the Takazawa experience starts: a nondescript side street in Akasaka; a glowing white illuminated doorway framing a sleek glass door (up until May it used to be plain metal, which added even more to the mystique of not knowing what lay inside); a flight of stairs, the handrail also illuminated, a glowing poem leading you upward…
...into the small square dining room, so precisely illuminated you could be in a high-end art gallery. The official photo (below) is misleading as it suggests there are four tables. In fact Takazawa only serves three parties per evening, with a maximum of ten people.
Three walls are lined with wood paneling; the fourth holds an imposing counter of polished steel. This is Takazawa’s front kitchen. Part laboratory, part stage, he performs his alchemy here each evening, putting the final touches to the elaborate succession of courses that make up his extended banquets...
Besides the new name on the front panel (before it said Aronia de...), Takazawa has made some additions to his workspace. He now has a charcoal grill on top, in front of the teppan — adding another, more traditional facet to the test-tubes, liquid nitrogen and blow torches that have long been his contemporary stock in trade.
That, then, is the setting. From here on, it's all about the food. Starting with the menu. This is customized for each party, meaning we did not have exactly the same as what the other table got. Only a couple of the courses (out of 11) I'd been served before — Takazawa keeps a record of what he's served each customer on past visits — and most of the dishes were new, introduced this year.
Before we even embarked on the first course, we were served a series of amuse-bouches. Starting with a mouthful of warm soup — cream of cauliflower to be precise — served in spherified form, topped with slices of white truffle. Tip it all into your mouth in one go, we were told. A very nice combination of smooth and crunchy, stimulating the taste buds and gastric juices...
…followed by a crisp umami-rich roll of konbu seaweed coated with dried seafood: tiny shrimp, chirimen jako (tiny whole anchovies) etc. This senbei-like snack called for a beer or, even better, sake. But it also went just fine with our aperitif bubbly.
And as a third starter, a miniature plant pot in which delicate young herbs were planted in edible "earth," a miso-sesame mayonnaise topped with crispy savoury bread crumbs. The herbs were chervil and mizuna, both in flower (quite unusual both of them) and with them there was a sliver of kabu turnip little larger than a matchstick. Cute, yes, but also appetising, just as they were supposed to be. Like many of the vegetables Takazawa serves, these herbs came from the market farmers of Kamakura.
The meal proper started with Takazawa's signature Ratatouille — which is actually a terrine of vegetables in a multicolored mosaic. Each of the vegetables is prepared in different styles: steamed, simmered, sauteed, raw, pressed. The outside wrapping is red cabbage, blanched and lightly vinegared to hold the color. As seasoning, it's served with a single salted black bean (Chinese-style doubanjiang) and a small crystal of salt. Again this is intended as a "one-mounthful" experience — though it's quite a large portion for those with small mouths...
Before the next course arrived: home-made bread, baked with matcha tea and whole kuromame (Japanese black beans), warm from the charcoal grill and served with a small pot of smooth pork rillettes.
Course 2 was the Vegetable Parfait, as featured in my post the other day. The base was a gazpacho of fruit tomato; the next layer was a parmesan cream with swirls of basil oil; and on top there were minute whole tomatoes, baby leaves, colourful petals and a scoop of caviar. The "wafer" was crisp black cabbage, slightly salty and oiled (in the way that sheets of Korean nori are). A shame to stir it all up, really, but so good you want to suck up the very last drops — straws are provided.
Here's that overhead shot again (in all its grainy glory)...
Course 3: Sea.
We were each served a rock-pool selection of percebes barnacles (from northern Kyoto); a tiny pink crab, crunchy but easily eaten whole; tender sashimi cuts of hon-mirugai clam; a single shiro-hamaguri clam cooked in an ayu-based fish sauce (from Oita); a few shirauo whitebait; and strands of crunchy Okinawan umi-budō seaweed, on a light scattering of "sand" made from powdered sakura-ebi shrimp.
But that wasn't all. A long platter was placed in the center of the table, holding even more seafood — firm but tender abalone flesh, and also its liver, dark and intense; scoops of orange uni urchin; mounds of soft white crab meat; small sazae turban shells; green and red seaweed — all set into an ocean of clear jellied dashi stock and accented with lemon foam.
Now it really was time for some sake: Yuki-no-bijin, a crisp tasty junmai ginjo from Akita.
Course 4: In my personal mental shorthand, I've given this dish a subtitle: Taste of White. On the actual menu, though, the name is prosaic, albeit descriptive: Powdery Dressing. A variety of white vegetables — lotus root; udo stem; cauliflower; daikon; burdock; white asparagus; slivers of blanched ginger; plus guinea fowl breast and also white liver. Even the sweet corn was whiter than it looks in the photo...
The dressing scattered over the top was also white, but in nitro-chilled powder form. It melted to dress the dish with sunflower oil and vinegar. Ultimately, though, this was the weakest of the courses, the least memorable despite the impressive fuming of the dressing as it deliquesced.
Course 5: Next was a "special energy" soup, aka Takazawa Gold. The creamy soup combined the beneficial extracts of asparagus and suppon turtle — reputed to give great vigour in all departments, especially from the debilitation of the summer heat.
Along with the soup, we were also presented with a deepfried croquette of suppon meat and a single green asparagus deep-fried in a crispy crust of black crouton crumbs.
We were shown samples (uncooked) of the purple asparagus used in the soup recipe. Impressive. Unfortunately, in the cooking process all the purple hue is lost and the finished soup comes out green. Like the deep-fried green asparagus (above) and the white ones in the previous dish, these are all grown in Hokkaido.
Next up (lost count of the courses for now), Salt. It's not about the fish or the broad beans or the end of season sansai (fuki-no-to and yama-udo leaves), it's the colourful microdots of seasoned salt that define this dish. From left to right: plain; sakura; matcha; turmeric.
Nonetheless, the whole young ayu sweetfish was outstanding. And the tempura batter even lighter than in previous incarnations. Another of the highlights.
Course 7: Carbonara. Not that there was any pasta involved. No mirrors, but a nice touch with the smoke inside those globes!
Strands of wild green asparagus (French); a beautiful poached egg with firm soft white and rich golden yolk – from hens farmed free-range in the highlands of Yatsugatake (Nagano). Topped with slivers of crunchy summer truffle (again) and a sprinkle of grated parmesan for extra umami goodness, this had a great balance of flavours and textures.
Course 8: The Feast from Hokkaido — aka the seafood course.
Amadai, pan-fried in the classic Japanese style, the soft white flesh contrasting with the scales all crisped up. A whole botan-ebi prawn. A slice of green asparagus (yes, again) and fine-slivered fuki stem. As the name suggests, all the ingredients are sourced from Hokkaido. Excellent.
Course 9: Arabesque, the meat course. This looked great, that vibrant green against that handsome matte ceramic platter. And in terms of flavour, it was great. Three large juicy cubes of wagyu (from Saga), nicely rare and topped with kinome sprigs and capers, on a swoosh of green sauce (peppery kinome leaves blended into white miso). More curlicues were provided by the slivers of green asparagus (yes, once again) and mangetout peas. That beef was outstanding!
Course 10: Mimosa. And then it was time for the first desert. This was a light "cocktail" of citrus topped with champagne bubbles. Nice. Refreshing on the palate.
Course 11: Stone Pavement, a beautifully composed dessert that was really excellent. The image is of a narrow backstreet in Kyoto, its paving stones represented by crunchy morsels of almond. There are "wells" (or are they ponds?) of kuromitsu syrup, and a sprinkling of matcha green tea to evoke moss. A scoop of ice cream. And a wedge of cheesecake infused with lime, reinvigorating the taste buds.
Definitely worthy of a close-up...
To round off a remarkable four hours at the table, we were given a tray of small post-dessert goodies to go with our tea (there's also a selection of herbal infusions): a pig-shaped cookie cutely inscribed with the word "buta" (Japanese for "pig"); a miniature block of intense dark chocolate; a honeycomb-like wedge of candy; and a small square of nougat lightly flecked with red umeboshi, hinting of tartness (and aiding our digestion).
So we ended, as we began, on a more Western note. It was a considerable banquet, full of surprises, creative highs, and occasional dips in intensity but always stimulating. The choreography of the cuisine; the cocoon-like quiet and isolation of the dining room; and the very personal level of attention from Chef Takazawa's wife, Akiko, both before and during the meal: there is nowhere else in Tokyo quite like it.
A few practical matters:
Takazawa offers three menus: ¥20,000 (9 courses); ¥24,000 (11 courses; the meal described above); or ¥30,000 (also 11 courses, but with more expensive ingredients). However, the exact composition/number of dishes is not written in stone, and can be discussed and adjusted (for example, you might want fewer courses or a particular dish).
Note that service charge and tax are not included in those prices, which bumps up the bill further.
Reservations can be made by email — in English — up to three months ahead to <email@example.com>
There's never any excuse to go hungry in Tokyo, least of all if you're underground in Shibuya, beneath one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the city. Food Show, the excellent basement food floor of the Tokyu Toyoko department store, lies right below the milling hordes in the Hachiko Square, and it can often feel just as crowded. But there's always good food to be had.
Besides the standard stalls selling vegetables, fish, groceries, obento and sozai (cooked dishes to take home for dinner), there are also a couple of good places serving light meals. And then there's the Test Kitchen, a small section with a counter seating six at a time, which is taken over by a succession of restaurants for one-week sessions — kind of like an organized pop-up. Right now it's an outfit from Hakodate called Higuruma, serving Hokkaido seafood bento take-outs...
...while the kitchen is serving up ramen under the name Zundou (from the Japanese term for the tall cylindrical metal cooking pots used in ramen shops for preparing the soup).
There's only one choice — a straightforward shio ramen, made with a chicken/ seafood stock — but it's good. The toppings include chashu, memma, half a shoyu-preserved egg (a bit rubbery on the outside), wakame, fu, and shavings of crunchy fried onion.
But what gave it a special lift was the optional extra side dish, a snack-sized donburi bowl topped with super-fresh ikura, uni or a combination of the two...
A great little afternoon snack.
The illustrated menu spells out the various options. And there's more on the Zundou web site here...
Although the main branch is in Hakodate, there's also a branch in Shinagawa. It doesn't score very highly on Ramen Database (the essential resource if you read Japanese), so it's probably not worth a detour.
Food writer and restaurant reviewer for the Japan Times contact: foodfile (at) me (dot) com