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Kemuri: Smoking up in Kanda-Sudacho

by Robbie Swinnerton

There are half a dozen compelling reasons for heading to Kanda-Sudacho. The small pocket of back streets that survived the firebombs of World War II and — so far — the ravages of high-rise development is home to some of the city’s most venerable restaurants.

There is Isegen, which has served anko nabe (monkfish hot pot) for 150 years; Botan, a chicken sukiyaki restaurant unchanged for nigh on a century; Takemura, purveyor of traditional Japanese sweets and tea; and the twin temples to soba noodles, Kanda Yabu and Matsuya. All are housed in beautifully preserved premises of weathered timber. All of them are classics.

Now add one more to that list: Kemuri. It may not have a patrician pedigree or an ornate facade to rival those of its near neighbors, but this charming bar- restaurant, which opened four years ago, fits in perfectly in the historic neighborhood.

Kemuri occupies a squat, three-story store that was built in the prewar years but left to molder in recent decades; now it’s been given a new lease of life. The exterior of the upper floors still has the original drab plasterwork, complete with cracks and blemishes. Inside, though, the original timbers have been lovingly, though not too extensively, restored and enhanced with simple wooden furnishings

There’s a bar area on the ground floor, with an open kitchen and a couple of counters where you stand or perch on rudimentary stools. The dining room upstairs is divided into semiprivate areas. And tucked away on the top floor is a small attic with a single low table big enough for six sitting on the floor on thin rush cushions. It’s all quite simple but, with the lights down in the glow of the evening, very atmospheric.

The same goes for the food. Kemuri is a place for casual nibbling, eating and whiling away the evening, rather than for formal, full-scale dining. As the name indicates — kemuri is Japanese for smoke — the menu revolves around an extensive selection of smoked delicacies, all of them prepared in-house.

Besides the standard items — bacon, salmon, cheese and chicken — there are plenty of less usual offerings. Oysters, scallops and octopus; takuan (crunchy pickles of daikon radish); slabs of mochi (pounded sticky rice); even the mixed nuts to go with your first beer have been given the smokehouse treatment.

Our favorite is the sliced duck. Prepared from the breast meat of wild duck from the Landes district of France, it is sliced and gently cooked before it’s served. The flavor of the smoke is understated, a subtle undercurrent on the palate never overriding the rich taste of the bird itself.

The best way to sample these is to order a mixed platter (five items for ¥1,000). A mixed seafood plate (smoked salmon and four other items, ¥900) is also available on weekdays. Be sure to also check the menu of the day (in Japanese only). This will list up carpaccio, a variety of soups and perhaps some beef tongue or seared ezo-jika venison — all smoked, naturally.

When we dropped in recently, one standout was pan-fried chicken, which we enjoyed with a serving of delectable vegetables and homemade pickles.

Don’t bother to ask for sake: Kemuri only stocks one kind in generic single-serving bottles. Instead, wine and shochu are the drinks of choice, with a good selection of each. The Rioja Crianza goes well with grilled meats, but overall shochu seems best for this cuisine. Maybe it’s the scorpion label design, but a favorite of ours is Sasori, a sweet-potato-based hooch from Kagoshima (¥550 per glass) that’s perfect for drinking on the rocks.

In true Japanese style, only once you have finished with drinking is it time for your actual “meal” — as the English menu terms it — of pasta or rice. For us there’s just one choice, the “Only at Kemuri” bacon-and-egg rice bowl. In a large donburi bowl, a serving of rice is topped with two lightly fried eggs and generous slices of smoked bacon. Drizzled with a thick, sweet-savory, soy-based sauce, this was indeed a meal in a bowl.