Some people celebrate the cherry-blossom season in doggedly internationalist mode: Aoyama cemetery or the Tamagawa embankment; a few bottles of bubbly with cheese and crackers; maybe even some beluga roe if they’re feeling flush. Others prefer to stagger down the well-worn path of traditionalism: Ueno Park; seething masses of humanity; isshobin magnums of coarse nihonshu; cold yakitori and ebi-sen crackers; karaoke and oblivion.
As for us, we seek out more modest hanami celebrations that are in tune with the way Tokyo operates on the cusp of the millennium. That is why you are most likely to find us down by the cherry tree-lined banks of the Meguro-gawa — the gentrified stretch between Ikejiri Ohashi and Komazawa-dori. The proceedings here have nothing to do with compulsory mass revelry (there are no swathes of park on which to set out mats and karaoke machines), just enjoyment of the season on a far more human, local scale.
You quietly stroll, pausing perhaps to open a bottle or two, and admire the long tunnel of blooms. And then, when fully satiated on the heady admixture of blossoms and aperitifs, you can retire to one of the eateries that abut the river. Surely at this time, above all others, what is called for is food and drink that elevates rather than dulls the senses.
There are several good establishments to choose from in this neighborhood, but at this time of year there’s only one choice. Kan embodies everything that the Ueno Park crowds are not. It is stylish, refined, quiet and restrained. It also knows exactly what the season is, and makes sure its food is in perfect alignment.
The frontage is all glass, so at night it appears to be an extension of the outer environment. The interior is of spare concrete and dark tiles. A long counter of dressed cedar runs the entire length of the premises, seating a maximum of 14. There is also a separate horseshoe-shaped counter for a further 10, set around the bar. The round-backed, low-slung chairs were built for human comfort rather than as design exercises.
There is little in the way of decorative elements. At the main counter you have just the long, open kitchen to gaze at. The adjoining area has a glass-fronted alcove in which a simple (but undoubtedly valuable) ceramic vase is spot-lit against a backdrop of rough timbers. It is this subtle lighting that brings out the warmth in what would otherwise be a minimalist space.
The three chefs are young, attentive and totally professional. Only the one responsible for grilling and deep-frying adopts the classic itamae look. The cook who handles the boiling and simmering sports a quiff that would not look out of place in a Jim Jarmusch movie. And the man behind the sashimi knife, the guy with the kinpatsu hair, mustache and mellow smile, that’s manager Satoshi Kudo. Be assured, he’s absolutely in charge, and brings both creativity and a lightness of touch to everything they produce.
Your fellow diners are equally relaxed about their appearance, being mainly drawn from the media offices and recording studios that are moving into this neighborhood. The look is affluent, not ostentatious. They come in couples, or maybe in small groups. No one talks loudly; there is no uproariousness; even the bucho types get up and go outside to use their keitai phones.
A pony-tailed waiter hands you a drink list, with the specials written in silver ink on purple paper. There are a dozen styles of nihonshu, all of them ginjo, all of them worth exploring. We recently found the wonderful Tsuki-no-wa usu-nigori, from Iwate, whose light cloudiness contained a rich depth of flavor, with none of the usual fermented overtones you expect from an unpressed sake.
They also have several good bottles of prime shochu, as well as aged awamori from Okinawa, which is served straight from the ceramic kame (urn). Some people even drink wine although, even in these surroundings, it does not mesh entirely comfortably with the kind of dishes served by Kudo-san and his henchmen.
The food menu arrives in the form of a long scroll of washi, inscribed, reasonably legibly, in cursive script. Most people seem to order a few dishes at a time, treating Kan as if it were their local izakaya — which in a way it probably is. There is no proper way to go about things here. Everything is as good as it sounds from the menu. When you see it on the plate, it’s even better.
To make things simple, they offer a set course for 4,000 yen composed of nine separate dishes, some more elaborate, some very simple. You should know that shokuji (rice course) is not included, so if you have a large appetite or want a full dinner, you will probably want to order some extra dishes.
The entire menu at Kan is changed every 15 days, to best reflect the seasonal bounty. But to give you an idea of what they are able to do, this is what the fixed course consisted of on our most recent visit.
First, a warming soup of young cabbage, bamboo shoots and new potatoes, followed by a small white cube described to us as “Camembert tofu” set on a shiso leaf and daubed with a miso dressing. The idea of putting cheese inside soy milk and coagulating it may sound disturbing, but the reality was intriguing and, mysteriously, worked just fine.
Next came a plain bowl of freshly cooked broad (fava) beans, warm from the pan, full of austere flavor; and a serving of “pickles” (myoga buds and baby cornichons) prepared in the house in vinegar sharpened with black peppercorns.
The sashimi featured the softest madako octopus imaginable; tai (snapper) cut with just a tad of its grilled skin, a preparation known as yaki-shimo-zukuri; a few slices each of shime-saba and chu-toro, garnished with slivers of grated yama-imo yam, a small mound of freshly gathered ao-nori seaweed and freshly grated root wasabi.
Our “main” dishes were slices of kurobuta pork, grilled and rolled around finely sliced cucumber and yam, served on the leaves of Brussels sprouts; and sansai tempura, bitter fresh mountain greens such as taranome and fukinoto (coltsfoot buds).
If we had been ordering a la carte, we would have done as everyone else did and ordered either the shirayaki anago (grilled conger, seasoned just with a sprinkling of salt and a dab of wasabi); or the sirloin steak, finely sliced and served on a bed of pickles, both of which are grilled over charcoal.
Our final savory dish was a rich ichiban dashi stock, containing crunchy dango of fresh shrimp and lotus root, simmered and served with more lotus and rape greens. At this point, we ordered extra servings of rice — onigiri rice balls with tiny dried jako fish wrapped in crisp nori — and miso soup.
Dessert is included, and it was our good fortune to be served a bittersweet chocolate mousse pudding, drenched in a butterscotch sauce. Rich, intense, light on the stomach but lingering on the palate, this is the kind of unanticipated yet totally appropriate pleasure you derive from an evening at Kan.