Sanpi Ryoron: worth the wait for a seat at the counter

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Chef Masahiro Kasahara thinks everyone should be able to afford quality washoku, “Japanese cuisine.” That’s why his extraordinary dinner course used to be a mere 5000 yen. But the costs of his raw materials—pristine vegetables, fish, and meat—have risen, so he recently had to raise the set menu price to 6000 yen.

When you figure, though, that this menu unfolds a progression of  ten superb courses, including a dessert selection of six different items—all of which you can have—then this price is a bargain.

The interior is a low-key stylish mix of dark wood panels, unfinished concrete walls, a long 12-seat counter, and mingei (folk craft) dishes. While behind the counter, Kasahara and his crew of two work with smooth precision to prepare a dinner that will knock your socks off.

Kasahara and Sanpi Ryoron have been featured on television several times, and on a recent visit the customers filling every seat were women, one of whom confided that she had come for the food, but also to see the kakko ii (handsome) chef work.

Kasahara takes Japanese food in completely new directions, such as slices of roast duck accented with salmon roe and ricotta cheese, or slow-cooked eggplant and mushrooms blessed with creamy sea urchin.

In season now is buri (yellowtail) so Kasahara created a dish of the tender sashimi marinated with ground black sesame and topped with a pesto of emerald green shugiku (edible chrysanthemum leaves), and a wedge of red daikon.

Another noteworthy dish was the silky smooth chawan mushi with a crunchy waxy yurine (lily bulb), luscious shirako (soft roe), and a tender yellow-green ginnan ( gingko nut).

One item that doesn’t change with the seasons is the hashi yasumi dish—the “chopstick pause” dish—a few slices of iburigakko (smoked takuan pickle) from Akita prefecture paired with a dab of marscapone cheese. Delicious.

Dessert included custard creme caramel, shiso leaf sorbet, kinako ice cream, monaka (sweet red bean cookie), and grapefruit segments with hibiscus geleé.

The Kurikomayama saké, from Miyagi prefecture, was as refreshing as a sip from a cold mountain stream.

Most guests, when they leave, stop outside the front entrance and speak with the young receptionist who has followed them out the front door.

She’ll pencil in their next dinner in the reservation book—usually a date six weeks to eight weeks later.

Sanpi Ryoron

2-14-4 Ebisu. Tel: 03-3440-5572. 6pm to 1am. Closed Sundays. Nearest JR station: Ebisu, East Exit.

Sakura sakura — sakura saké

Friday, March 27th, 2009


“To see the cherry hung with snow…”

Tokyo’s cherry blossom time is starting this weekend. Junior-most office workers are being sent off to Shinjuku Gyoenmae Park, to Ueno Park, to Chidorigafuchi moat near the Imperial Palace, to Aoyama Cemetery or to a bank of the Sumida River near Asakusa (to name a few popular venues) to tape off and reserve prime viewing spots for drinking parties under the prettiest boughs.mizu-no-eau-sakura-sky

The weather has turned a little cold again. The forecast, though, is for sunny but chilly weather, so for about ten days the cherry trees will canopy singing, romance, cavorting, dancing, and red-faced pull-out-the-stops drinking parties. Mark Twain once said the first of April is the day when we remember what we are like the other 364 days of the year. As for drinking, singing, and having a merry time in Tokyo, he was right.

Tokyoites so love their bloom along the bough that no matter what the weather, they’ll be out by the hundreds of thousands celebrating the loveliest of trees, the cherry now. Under the blossom-heavy boughs, they will sit on blue plastic tarps, on sheets of cardboard, on blankets or on handkerchiefs. School worries, old lovers, past arguments, office stress, and lost youth will be forgotten. Another winter has been survived. Some will compose haiku, others will look forward to the freedom of university life starting in April, while others — four years senior — will contemplate the first day at their new company.

Sake will be poured; onigiri rice balls, bento boxes and yaki tori will be unpacked. Grandfathers will play with grandchildren. Couples will sit on benches holding hands, their heads tilted each to each. Small boys will cavort and catch a falling petal mid-air, then stretch it carefully between thumbs and forefingers and blow — achieving, if they are careful, a thin reedy whistle and a smile.

mizu-no-eau-label-2You ought to stake out a spot too. Try to find a bottle of the Mizu no eau Sakura, a delicious daiginjo saké flavored with essense of sakura. The brew is a lovely shade of pink with a luscious soft cherry finish. I found it at Kinokuniya Supermarket in Aoyama, but was told it’s available in selected saké shops across the city. It’s about 1500 yen. Look for the distinctive sakura-pink cylindrical box.

After these ten days have passed, the air of Tokyo will fill again with snow—the pink snow of falling petals swirling in the breeze. And legions of street cleaners with their gasoline-powered air blowers will emerge to tidy up, blowing with their noisy engines the fallen petals into gutters.

Under the tracks at Daimatsu

Friday, February 6th, 2009


Over the last 15 years, Tokyo has been giving herself a makeover with showpiece projects like Ebisu Garden Place, Roppongi Hills, Shiodome, Midtown, and the facelifts in Ginza, Marunouchi, Shinagawa, and southern Shinjuku. Glossy designer boutiques have muscled out coffee shops, bookstores, bento shops, and mahjong parlors, and entire neighborhoods have been swept clean of untidy city life.

 The area around Kanda station, however, is Tokyo with dirt under her nails, unabashed and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks. The elevated tracks rest on a series of red-brick arches as solid as bridge abutments. Since space in Tokyo is a commodity not to be wasted, the district swarms with enterprise—newsstands, yatai food carts, peddlers, pachinko parlors, bars and even a broom-closet-sized quick print shop run by an elderly typesetter who operates an ancient printing press. Livelihoods are jimmied out of the most unlikely locations.

 nitta-sanA three-minute walk from the west exit of the station is Imagawa koji, an arch passageway too unimportant, it seems, for map-makers to include in their street plans. This permanently shadowed lane is home to a lonely cluster of drinking shops. Once a flourishing village of some 20 tiny nomiya, now just ten shops remain. The proprietors lived upstairs with the constant noise of trains rumbling overhead. Now, after almost forty years, Teruko Nitta is the last remaining resident and the boss of Imagawa koji.

 Every working day at 5:30 pm, Nitta unlocks the wooden sliding door of her nomiya and hangs out the indigo-colored noren declaring Daimatsu open for another evening of drinking. On warm days she leaves the door open and slides a small corrugated piece of fiberglass sheeting across the gap to keep the cats out.

  “The joren will be coming soon“ she says wiping down the pale wooden counter. She sets out a wicker basket of hard-boiled eggs, shells crusted with salt. Customers from other nomiya will drift in around 8 pm. Some of the joren, regular customers, have been coming here for 30 years.

 Nine can sit elbow to elbow on the stools at the Daimatsu counter. Three more can squeeze in around the toy-like table in the wee alcove behind the counter.daimatsu-noren1

 “When I was young, I came to Tokyo and helped my aunt, a geisha in Akihabara. I was around 16,” Nitta pauses and smiles. “If I tell you more, you could guess my age!”

 Asaoka Ruriko, the Nikkatsu film star, first owned Daimatsu. “She ran a mahjong parlor up there,” says Nitta pointing upstairs. “The place was very popular.“

 Nitta, still quite fetching with her bright eyes and quick smile, ministers like a favorite aunt to her customers. Everyone is made welcome.

 “We‘re like a big family,” she says. “My words are rough and I’ve got a bad mouth. But it’s okay” she laughs, “my customers are all nice and they don’t mind at all.”

 “Which dish should I put out first,” she muses. Nitta prepares kisetsu no mono, seasonal foods, and a decent meal can be had in the simple daily dishes she prepares: Tohoku-style green beans with miso and sesame, burdock with carrot and chili pepper, tofu lees with shredded carrot and burdock, shredded chicken with wild chervil and wasabi, sliced beef with boiled potatoes, carrots, and onions—foods Japanese mothers make, foods one never tires of.

 “I learned from my customers how to cook well,” she says setting a few dishes on the counter. “Years ago they used to come into the kitchen and cook with me, telling me how they liked it.”

 She gets her vegetables and other foodstuffs from katsugiya, peddler women, from Chiba. “The katsugiya are disappearing,“ explains Nitta. “But a few still come to Kanda. I wake up at 7 am, and get my potatoes or bamboo shoots or eggs from them. By 10 am they‘ve sold out of everything.”

 Goto-san, a manager at a nearby trading company, slides open the door and takes a seat at the counter. He has been coming here for over 25 years. Lately he stops by twice a week. “My father introduced me to this place,” he says. “And a couple of years ago I introduced my daughter too.”

 Tonight Goto has brought along two friends—newcomers. Several other customers amble in. The counter is full. Collar buttons are unfastened. Neckties are taken off, folded, and tucked neatly into shirt pockets.

 Nitta chats and jokes with everyone as she pours sake, beer, or sudachi shu, the citrus-flavored tipple of choice, into large clear glasses.

 imgawakoji-signDaimatsu and the thousands of drinking shops like it across Tokyo are essential to city life—utterly unpretentious joints with no atmosphere except the sublimity of the everyday—where high and low meet at counter level.

 But the future of Daimatsu is uncertain.

 Nitta has been given an eviction notice by the railroad company. Several years ago a small fire broke out in the shop next door. The company is worried that a larger fire might interrupt train service. Only because Daimatsu is also Nitta’s residence, is it difficult for them to execute the order.

 “Besides,” says Nitta.”I offered to become the manager of Imagawa koji, so now the railroad company comes to talk with me about any problem around here.”

 “Still, I don’t know what will happen,” she says with a shrug.

 Daimatsu is the kind of place we all eventually return to. A coin purse hangs from string tied to a sprinkler pipe above the counter. “I put that up seven years ago,” explains Nitta. “I looked inside once. There’s 2000 yen in small change. Maybe the person will come back someday to claim it.”

1-1-10 Kaji-cho, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3252.6061. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

Dominique Bouchet and saké at Isetan

Sunday, January 18th, 2009


Chef Dominique Bouchet knows saké.  He knows how to cook with it, how to pair it with food, and how to serve it. He also knows that saké is misunderstood. The French don’t like it much because they think it’s distilled and as strong as Chinese baijiu. And the Japanese are surprised by how well their ancient beverage complements foie gras, salmon, scallops, beef, cheese, or anything else you’d like to pair it with. 

Bouchet is internationally renowned as the chef of Le Jamin, Hotel de Crillon, La Tour d’Argent, and Moulin de Marcouze. But he has left that star-encrusted cuisine behind (though his Paris restaurant is still graced with one Michelin star) to focus on simplicity and elegance. 

He has a decades-long association with Japan and Japanese cuisine and it has affected him deeply. Two years ago he opened the Wa-Bi Salon in Paris as a showcase  for the beauty and passion of French and Japanese products and cooking.

Bouchet believes that saké should be accorded more respect. Last year he collaborated with the venerable saké maker Fukumitsuya to market three sakés especially suited to French cuisine. These “vin de riz” have been packaged in smart Riesling-like bottles and should only be served in stemmed wine glasses.

Through January 20th, you can sample all three “wines” paired with an amuse bouche specially prepared by Bouchet. The light, fruity “Sachi” is paired with salmon, goat cheese, and chives (¥1470). The smooth, crisp, well-balanced “Yuri,” my favorite, is paired with a small selection of cheeses—Crottin de chevre, Cantal doux, Roquefort, and Morbier—and a luscious pear cumin jam (¥1890). The full, rich “Fuku” is wonderfully matched with foie gras de canard and a balsamic gelee (¥1680).

These tastings, in the saké corner of Isetan’s basement food court, run from 2pm to 8pm. Last order is 7pm. Bouchet will be on hand to answer any questions.