If MSG is the Viagra for flaccid taste buds, then katsuo dashi is the complex natural chemistry of full-force pheromones at the raging height of the rutting season. It awakens, stimulates and arouses those parts of your palate that the other flavors just don’t reach.
At Rokkon, the heady aroma of premium dashi wafts through the entire basement premises, promising gustatory stimulation and delivering fulfillment of the most delectable kind. Its presence punctuates every dish, from your first otoshi through to the final chazuke with which you close your meal.
This, of course, is just as it should be at any top-quality Japanese restaurant. What makes Rokkon so remarkable is that this attention is lavished on such a basic, blue-collar preparation as oden.
Banish from your mind all thoughts of seedy late-night yatai stalls or the dubious, foul-smelling matter perpetrated by convenience stores through the winter months. In just the same way that Jinroku repositioned okonomiyaki and Birdland elevated yakitori, Rokkon has redefined the entire genre of oden.
The menu boasts some 50 different varieties, ranging from tried-and-true favorites — ganmo doki tofu, satsuma age, squid tentacles and the like — to rather more sophisticated and inventive offerings. No regular oden joint prepares buta no kakuni (Kagoshima-style pork), Hokkaido watarigani crab or Scotch eggs, hard-boiled with a tasty casing of firm minced meat and served with a thick carpet of fine-chopped scallions.
Probably the single most popular item is the daikon — a thick slice, cooked down slowly until it is soft but not limp, full of flavorful juice, covered with a thin layer of melted green tororo konbu seaweed and topped with a generous handful of bonito flakes which wave and writhe like beige-colored flames in the heat from the fragrant, piping hot soup stock.
This is designer oden for the well-heeled Nishi-Azabu crowd — and it has the setting to match. The entrance, at the bottom of a sweep of modernist concrete stairs, is marked by a stand of bamboo, a chochin lantern and a hempen noren. Inside, you emerge onto a walkway set high above the open kitchen, its counter and a few small tables.
The main dining area is a spacious zashiki room with a polished wooden floor, bamboo screens and massive round pillars decorated in gold, pink and black. Light filters softly out of lamps covered in washi and wood; cool jazz emanates discreetly above the buzz of contented conversation.
It’s a stunning effect, apparently intended to evoke an Edo Period pleasure house in Kyoto’s red light district — though the delights of this floating world are strictly limited to the culinary arts.
Rokkon has its regulars who treat it like their local izakaya, dropping in for a snack and some late-night lubrication. The drinks list is extensive, featuring jizake from all round the country. The house sake (from Kyoto) is served in lengths of freshly cut green bamboo. Chilled until it is almost viscous, this full-bodied takezake goes perfectly with the oden.
But many other people prefer to spend a leisurely evening here, constructing a full meal from the a la carte menu. The cooking is creative, attractive and delicate in the Kyoto style, but robust and warming enough for even the rainiest of seasons.
The sashimi is top quality and they have a sure hand with vegetable dishes. The ohitashi of quick-blanched kyona greens is sprinkled with tiny jako fish, deep-fried to a crunchy “paripari” consistency. We can also recommend the homemade take-dofu — a squat stump of thick green bamboo in which soymilk is set into a creamy curd, nicely matched with a ginger-accented soy-based topping.
There are several other dishes of more substantial volume. We had a wonderful kamayaki of tuna — the satisfying dark meat from the “neck” (the sickle-shaped bone behind the gills of the fish) — and a hearty nabe hot pot of aegamo duck followed by long, white inaniwa udon. Most people close their meals with the oden chazuke, a bowl of rice immersed not in tea but savory dashi.
Down in this beguiling parallel universe, it is easy to let the evening slip away, slowly nibbling, supping and getting high on that rich wafting smell. Be warned though: On Friday evenings they impose a maximum time limit of two hours. That’s a measure of how popular Rokkon is.