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Hantei: Kushi-age on a higher plane

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There are still people who believe the idea of a classy kushi-age is a downright contradiction in terms. After all, they reason, it’s a cross between two basic, blue-collar staples: yakitori and tonkatsu. How could such a mongrel hybrid, better suited to greasy neighborhood nomiya, ever be worthy of genteel consideration?

Obviously they’ve never been to Hantei. For two decades now this shitamachi institution has done more than anywhere else to redefine and elevate the humble kushi-age to the status of a ryori in its own right, a cuisine on a par with some of the best tempura.

Much of Hantei’s claim to fame rests on the wonderful old building in which it is housed. Quite simply, it’s a classic — an immaculately preserved three-storied, turn-of-the-last-century town house, all jutting wooden beams and balconies. Its proud frontage is remarkable, even for the back streets of Nezu, where the echoes of prewar shitamachi still resonate as in few other areas of the metropolis.

Hantei underwent a refit last year, expanding its premises all the way to the main street. Apart from moving its microscopic tearoom and opening up a large second-floor tatami room, little else has changed. The interior is as simple and attractive as ever. Its core is a converted kura storeroom, complete with packed-mud walls and original heavy doors, around which this magnificent house was constructed. The whole place is spacious and light.

They do have a menu, but it’s not a necessity. There’s only one kind of food, and it comes as a set course. Your only choice is what to drink, and even that is hardly a taxing problem since kushi-age is complemented equally well by beer (Sapporo Lager) or the very drinkable house sake (from Hiroshima Prefecture).

The basic 2,700 yen course, which is served to everyone who steps through the door, consists of six assorted morsels of golden-crisp kushi-age, plus a couple of side plates, which provide a counterpoint for both the eyes and the palate. Do not be put off by the alarming new-age flavors these latter have been given (whose bright idea was purple sweet potato gnocchi stuffed with cream cheese? Or sawara sashimi with strawberry sauce?). Everything else they do is (thankfully) just as good as it ever was.

Things will vary with the season, but your initial six-item selection may include some or all of the following: a plump shrimp wrapped in a leaf of aromatic green shiso; bite-size portions of French bean stuffed with minced chicken; a couple of whole oysters; a juicy stem of Yanaka ginger, its sharp piquancy filling your mouth as you bite into it; small patties formed from the flesh of kibinago, a small, sardine-like fish found mostly in Kyushu, seasoned with a dressing of sour-sweet ume plum; and a crunchy rectangle cut from a large lotus rhizome.

Each of these items is skewered on fine bamboo needles, breaded, then deep-fried in oil (rather than animal fat). Served on small trays in batches of three, they are rushed by the waiters from kitchen to table, so they reach your plate as piping hot as they left the wok.

Lest all this fried food seem too rich for the stomach, every table is equipped with a selection of condiments: brown sauce and a dab of yellow mustard; salt; and Hantei’s patent savory dark miso dip. This latter also makes the perfect partner for the sticks of raw vegetables — carrot, daikon, cabbage, cucumber and scallions — that are placed on the table to perk up your palate and help settle the digestion.

As soon as your first round of six kushi-age tidbits have vanished — and this happens rapidly, no matter how leisurely you take it, balancing each bite with sips of sake and conversation — you will be asked if you want more kushi-age. Few people have the willpower to resist a further round or two.

Pork interspersed with apricots; shiitake stuffed with minced chicken; a large, succulent scallop; isobe-style mochi, wrapped in nori seaweed; kisu (sweetfish) wrapped around a sprig of mitsuba herb; chicken and celery; ginkgo nuts; clams and leeks; or perhaps a brace of tiny, crunchy river crabs: Hantei has a deep and constantly evolving repertoire.

When you have reached your limit, you signal for the shokuji (the rice course) — either ochazuke or a simple tray of boiled rice, akadashi miso soup and pickles. For dessert, they offer ice cream (sesame or cappuccino) or sherbet (mandarin orange).

Hantei is deservedly popular. But since it only takes reservations for groups occupying the central kura or the upstairs rooms, you must get there early or be prepared to wait your turn. If they are unable to seat you straight away, you may be directed to the kissaten, where you can sup on green tea until your name is called.

Hantei also has a sister restaurant in Kanda. In architectural terms it is the diametrical opposite, all modern steel and glass, but the food is said to be of equal quality. Proof, if any is still needed, that kushi-age of this caliber can work in any setting.