Archive for the ‘bars’ Category

Nihon Saisei Sakuba: offal, offal, lovely offal

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Nihon Saisei Sakuba is Tokyo at its low-down liveliest. This standing-room-only tachinomiya eatery, in the center of one of Shinjuku’s busiest entertainment districts, sells the highest quality pork motsu offal, carefully grilled on bamboo skewers over binchotan charcoals.

The extensive menu, pasted onto two thick pieces of cardboard, lists delicacies such as larynx, spleen, birth canal, tongue, choice uterus, brain, rectum, diaphragm, and cartilage—all at rock bottom prices.

The restaurant is supplied with the best quality offal from its parent butcher shop in Chofu, a nearby suburb. Don’t let any preconceptions deter you. These grilled innards are surprisingly delicious. Try the mixed plate of five sticks with a dab of fiery mustard.

Grilled vegetables such as shiitake, long onions, and shishito-togarashi sweet green peppers, are excellent too. And don’t miss the grilled “bread rolls” made with rice flour.

College students stand next to middle-aged salarymen, who stand elbow to elbow with laborers, as they quaff down mugs of draft beer or tumblers of shochu. The name saisei sakuba means re-energize yourself. And that’s exactly what this place does for you.

The joint fills up quickly, but that makes it even more fun.

3-7-3 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3354-4829. Open daily from 3pm to midnight. Nearest subway station: Shinjuku san-chome, Exit C3. Marunouchi Line.

Omoide Yokocho: Memory Alley in Shinjuku

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Entering Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, just a short stagger from Shinjuku Station, can deliver the same surprise and shock that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and Dorothy experienced in the  “Wizard of Oz” when Toto pulled back the curtain on the great and powerful Oz to reveal, behind the flashing lights, gimmickry and glitz, a simple old man imbued with kindness and generousity.

This ramshackle collection of 44 tiny eateries jammed together elbow to elbow is Tokyo behind the curtain.

A city with dirt under its nails.

A neighborhood that thinks that the limit of progress and change is replacing a burnt out lightbulb.

Every night souls by the hundreds fill this enclave for yakitori, nikomi (simmered tripe), nikujyaga, beer, shochu, and the companionship of fellow drinkers.

Food is cheap here. Alcohol too. But the yakitori are carefully attended to. Beer, sake, and shochu are fairly poured.

Some joints serve up rather delicious eats.

Others offer only basic sustenance.

Wander in. Look for an empty seat or two at a crowded counter. Everyone is welcome.

In the film, the great and powerful Oz exhorts, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But you ought to take a closer look at Omoide Yokocho. Click your heels together three times, and you might find yourself home.

Takahashi-san: Wine and vegetables at a yatai

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Takahashi-san, a hip winebar yatai a few minutes from Ebisu station, serves only vegetables—exquisitely fresh, pristine vegetables prepared with only a gentle steaming, or perhaps grilled for an interval over embers of charcoal.

Season by season, the vegetables will change. Spring brings fava beans or asparagus: white, green, purple. Summer means sweet corn—long slender cobs of baby corn which Takahashi-san  steams so expertly that you can eat the long twist of corn silk still attached. Summer also means lily flower bulbs or bamboo shoots. The tender bamboo shoots, which Takahashi grills in their sheaths until they are charred black, are gathered by yamabushi monks from the hills surrounding Kyoto. He’ll also have eggplant so fruity you eat it raw as dessert.

Pairing vegetables with wine is decadently healthy. Descriptions and prices of ten to fifteen different seasonal vegetables are tacked up on the wall behind the counter. No fat or oils are used, except for the olive-oil based bagna cauda which you can order if you like.

As you make your choices, Takahashi-san will suggest a wine pairing for you. All the wines—Old World and New—are available by the glass. He keeps an impressive collection of bottles chilled behind his counter.

Some of my favorite are the steamed kabu, turnips; luscious potatoes, kabocha pumpkin, grilled brussel sprouts, green pepper with freshly shaved katsuo flakes, and the garlic gloves which turn a soft golden brown after thirty minutes in the steamer. Most of the items cost from ¥300-500.

Not to be missed is one of Takahashi-san’s specialities: the steamed shiitake mushroom caps filled with a spoonful of freshly squeezed sudachi juice. He says you’ve got to take the whole thing in one mouthful for the best effect. Delicious.

Takahashi-san’s winebar counter is among a dozen yatai in an enclosed mura. So if you absolutely need some meat, gyoza, or grilled fish to go with your wine, stroll over a neighboring yatai, order some up, and bring it back to Takahashi’s counter. It’s one big party.

Some evenings a nagashi, a wandering guitar-strumming minstrel, makes his rounds yatai to yatai. For ¥500 you can choose a song or two. You can sing, or just let him entertain you with his original songs.

Takahashi-san stays open until the wee hours.

Wine & Vegetable Takahashi-san: 1-7-10 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 080.5527.1117. Reservations recommended.

Bar Radio: Tokyo’s Best Gimlet

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Radio Bar Gimlet

Bartender Koji Ozaki is an artist though he would politely disagree. For over forty years he has been pursuing beauty and perfection as poured from a cocktail shaker. Order a gimlet at his Bar Radio and you run the risk of not being able to drink one anywhere else. At least that’s what happened to Ryu Murakami, the famed novelist and Bar Radio regular, who recounts this delicious dilemma in an essay dedicated to the gimlet in Ozaki’s sumptuous Bar Radio Cocktail Book.

Ozaki, 65, is dapper and trim, perfectly at ease in his summer uniform of stiff-collared white shirt, white bow tie and white vest. His movements behind the long walnut bar are graceful and precise. Though he has a reputation for reticence, when he talks about his craft smiles come easily.

“The gimlet is a simple drink but difficult to make well,” explains Ozaki. “You’ve got to put aijo, love, into it,” he adds flashing a smile. ”Making a delicious cocktail,” he says, “is exactly like preparing a delicious bowl of green tea.”Bar Radio flowers 2

Since he was 17, Ozaki has studied tea ceremony and Japanese flower arrangement. He is a licensed teacher of both. Everything at Bar Radio—the service, the drinks, the decor and accoutrements—are informed by biishiki, an aesthetic consciousness, and by the desire for utsukushii ugoki, beautiful movement with no wasted motion. Both types of awareness, says Ozaki, are essential to bartending.

Every detail of Bar Radio has been thoughtfully designed by Ozaki. On an antique cupboard stands a large, dramatically lighted flower arrangement. Smaller arrangements too are spaced along the bar. Art Nouveau lamps with thick glass shades drop soft pools of light on the walnut counter and gently illuminate the hundreds of bottles that line the long shelves. Several vintage radios sit silently among the collection of gleaming antique cocktail shakers. Jazz drifts unobtrusively from hidden speakers.

Ozaki hails from Tokushima Prefecture. He started his working career as a salary man, but quickly tired of it. He fled to Tokyo at 24 and found employment in a coffee shop that also served drinks in the evening. He taught himself the rudiments of bartending from an old copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book. Eventually he got a job as a bartender in the Ginza where he worked for six months. In 1972, he opened his first bar, Bar Radio, in Jingumae. His next bar, 2nd Radio, in Gaienmae followed in 1986 and 3rd Radio, in Minami Aoyama, opened in 1998. The first two establishments have since closed, and 3rd Radio, after an extensive remodeling, is now simply called again, Bar Radio.

Radio Bar Exterior“The gimlet should contain only fresh lime juice and dry gin,” Ozaki explains as he twists a lime wedge inside a small square of white cotton cloth—a traditional Japanese method of extracting juice. All fruit-based cocktails at his bars are prepared in this manner.

The tea ceremony has clearly influenced his cocktail shaker technique—no brusque movements that might disturb a guest. Ozaki holds the shaker in his fingertips. The elbows are kept close to the body and the shaking is performed only with the wrists. “It must be done elegantly, like a lovely dance,” he says.

He pours the gimlet into a delicately etched cone-shaped, 100-year-old glass from England. The lime juice and gin have married to form a pale jade opalescence rimmed with foam as fine as diamond dust. He sets the glass on a coaster then pushes it five centimeters forward until it rests, like a fashion model, under a spotlight.Bar Radio gimlet 2

When designing cocktails, Ozaki believes the glass is the most important factor. “If you think of fashion,” he says, “the glass is like a dress, the clothes on a model.”

The shelves behind the bar sparkle with glassware from the finest crystal makers of Europe and Japan: Baccarat, Saint Louis, Lalique, Hoya, and others. Many are antiques or “one of a kind” pieces. Glasses for champagne cocktails, highballs, and water were designed by Ozaki himself. But he won’t take all the credit. Many of his customers are artists and designers, he explains. “They are very good teachers.”

Bar Radio glassware 2Creating a new cocktail is not difficult, he says. Every night he invents many, then forgets them the next day. Eventually the popular ones become standards. “The most difficult thing about making a new drink is naming it,” he confides. Cocktails usually get their names from flowers, fruits, or places, but such labels are dull. Ozaki came up with naming his original cocktails after Hollywood movie stars, such as the Marilyn Monroe, the Greta Garbo, the Marlene Dietrich, the Humphrey Bogart, or after jazz composers and compositions like the Duke Ellington, the Satin Doll, the Mood Indigo, and the Prelude to a Kiss. Ozaki says the spirit used in the drink outlines the star’s character—the other ingredients and the glass provide the story and drama.

He has experimented with cocktails flavored with chocolate from the boutiques of Jean-Paul Hevin or Pierre Marcolini. They have proven to be quite popular—as are his “healthy cocktails.” Made with fresh fruit like mango or Kyoho grapes, these drinks have a low alcohol content. “They don’t cause hangovers,” explains Ozaki. “And are good for a woman’s skin.”

Radio Bar coasterOzaki says Tokyo bars are the best in the world for their vast selection of spirits and high level of bartending. He stocks over 250 brands of Scotch single malt whiskey, thirty some brands of bourbon and rum, plus a dozen varieties each of brandy, marc, cognac, calvados, grappa, gin, vodka, tequila, and, of course, many liqueurs. He doesn’t, however, use Japanese alcohols. They don’t suit cocktails, he says. “Sake and shochu are most delicious just as they are.”

Every week Ozaki gives lessons in tea ceremony and flower arrangement to all his bartenders. Once a year he conducts a seminar in which he lectures to some 150 bartenders, mostly from the Ginza area, on the fine points of drinks like the Martini or the Sidecar. Ozaki estimates there are about 20 bars around the city run by his “graduates,” bartenders who have worked and studied with him. “If a person is unusually sensitive, and pays attention to details, he can learn to be a good bartender in three years,” he explains. “The average person needs ten years.”

Ozaki’s passion for beauty and design is exemplified in the Bar Radio Cocktail Book displayed on the bar. The book is lush with color photos of cocktails in exquisite glasses and settings, essays by famous customers, and hundreds of bilingual recipes.

His passion for design also extends to the type of customer he prefers. “The drinking should be done without any commotion,“ he says. “Sometimes I have to ask a person to leave.” Groups of two or maybe three are best—with four people, voices get too loud. “The most important thing,” he stresses, “is that customers should enjoy the atmosphere here.”Radio Bar water glass

His table charge is one of the highest in the city—2,000 yen per person, and a drink, on average, costs about 1,500 yen. The plate of otsumami, however, the tidbits that traditionally come with a first drink in Japan, are of extraordinary quality: slices of plum marinated in white wine with vanilla, Parma ham with fresh figs, cream cheese with walnuts and raisins, fresh kiwi fruit with mint cream, and tiny scallops marinated with olive oil and parsley. These savories are served on Italian porcelain with a fork and knife procured in a Paris antique market—sterling silver with turned wooden handles.

Ozaki’s art is fleeting. It lasts an hour or an evening. Yet it leaves a lasting impression—a stunning drink, an alluring encounter you can have nowhere else. Calling oneself an artist, he says, would be awkward. He prefers the term artisan. “But I would be honored to be considered an artist,” he adds with a quick smile. “A good artisan can someday become an artist.”

Bar Radio 3-10-34 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3402-2668. Open Monday to Saturday 6pm to 1am. Closed Sundays and Holidays.