Sunday, December 8, 2013

My "Kinder Surprise" Meal - Yuzen at Arakicho

I didn't make any advance dinner plan for one evening while in Tokyo and decided to "wing it" - essentially trying out a random place that I happened to come across. I remembered last time I was planning to head to the neighborhood of Arakicho (荒木町) near Yotsuya for some unagi dishes (at a restaurant called Masami) but that didn't quite fit into our schedule at the end. I didn't believe Masami would have seats available at last minute, but I figured... let's head over there this time and see what did they have.

You probably won't see Arakicho being featured in most guide books these days but it's a neat neighborhood lined with narrow alleys and small restaurants, bars and izakayas along the dimly-lit streets - a stark contrast to the neon signs and vibrant crowd in Shinjuku not far away from here, or the glamorous Ginza side streets with hostess clubs and high-end sushi-ya on the other side of town. I got off at Yotsuya Sanchome metro station and from there it's a comfortable 15 minute walk. I looked around, and saw this small izakaya called Yuzen, read the menu outside, glanced at the crowd inside, and then decided to check it out.

Actually what drew me in in the first place was not its food menu, but its sake selections - there must be at least over 20 available by glass from all over Japan, with some varieties came directly from the brewery and not available for sale outside. I wanted to sample some that were hard to find back at home so I had a couple Juyondai from Takagi brewery in Yamagata, and followed by the Isojiman Naka-dori junmai-ginjo. I started with the more delicate Juyondai Bunsyu Yamatanishiki Junmai Daiginjo (十四代播州山田錦純米大吟釀), then going back to the entry-level Honmaru Honjozo (十四代本丸秘伝玉返し), both from the legendary Takagi Brewery. Not sure if they justified the cult-like status they have enjoyed in Japan and around the world, but I do love Juyondai for its almost sweet, fruity flavor with good complexity. Among the two I tasted and with the food I had that evening I actually liked the Honmaru more. They poured so generously that I was quite tipsy by the time I finished my third glass - only wished it's on a weekend so I could drink more.

Most people came to izakaya for a good drink and the sole purpose of food is to fill one's stomach in between glasses, but I must say their food was quite pleasant. I started off with some freshly shucked Sanriku oyster from the Northeast coast of Japan, which has good umami and mineral flavor, which rivaled some of the best from France at this time of year I reckon.

I then ordered some shirako tempura - cod sperm milt deep-fried in light batter. It was creamy and crispy all within one bite with good, intense taste. Eels seem to be a specialty at this place with them sourcing freshly caught ones daily from the market, so I ordered a skewer of kimoyaki (grilled eel liver), and then the shiroyaki unagi served with a stalk of young ginger and yuzu kosho on the side. The eel was a little thin but perfectly prepared - just lightly-grilled to retain its creaminess and a hint of salt seasoning to retain its original, delicate flavor. This is the typical edomae style of cooking.

Gingko was at its prime at this time of year so I ordered some to go with my drinks. I was served a good dish-ful of those that were baked with the shells on and a gently sprinkle of sea salt. It's amazingly good with the right balance of bitterness and sweetness. I kept munching on those with a light dip of salt served on the side.

Yakitori is a common sight for most izakaya, and here they featured Daisendori chicken (大山雞) from the Tottori (鳥取縣) prefecture in the southwest part of Honshu. Both the tebasaki (chicken wings), and the tsukune (minced chicken meat ball) served with egg yolks were cooked well, with the wings with good crispness of the charred skin, and the tsukune with the right combination of tender meat and soft cartilage giving it good texture.

I was about to call it a night but really wanted to try the grilled cured squid. Sashimi-grade squid was cured overnight (一夜干) and grilled over charcoal fire. It's soft and tender yet with a good chewy bite and smokey flavor. The menu said it's perfect to go with sake and I agreed totally.

Dessert is a small dish of homemade Annin Tofu (Almond Pudding) It's soft and creamy and not strong in those artificial almond extract flavor, as the store-bought ones tend to show.

There were a lot more on the menu that I wished I had rooms for. Some at the next table were having nabe (casserole) and I am sure it would be great for cold winter over a carafe of warm sake. Maybe next time I will find my way back here.

Was looking for something simple and random yet had a great time with good food and drinks, and come to know a new neighborhood. That's what I called a "Kinder Surprise" meal - something out of the blue that left you satisfied and with a smile.

Where? Yuzen, Araki-cho 16, Shinjuku, Tokyo
悠然 東京都新宿区荒木町16 ベルウッドビル1F
Menu highlights? Shiroyaki Unagi 江戸前穴子の白焼き
Juyondai Bunsyu Yamatanishiki Junmai Daiginjo 十四代 播州山田錦純米大吟釀 - 山形縣 高木酒造
Juyondai Honmaru Honjozo 十四代 本丸秘伝玉返し - 山形縣 高木酒造
Isojiman Naka-dori junmai-ginjo 磯自慢 中取り純米吟醸 - 静岡県 磯自慢酒造

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