Just like stepping back in time. The soul of traditional Tokyo. Ancient Edo preserved in amber.
Such are the received-wisdom stereotypes about the Yanasen triangle — the shitamachi districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. The tourist-office cliches would have you believe this area is stuck in a prewar (or even pre-Meiji) time warp. That’s wishful, lazy, patronizing thinking. It’s also patently untrue.
Certainly, enough old architecture has survived intact among the narrow back alleys and temple graveyards to give Yanasen a distinct atmosphere all its own. This is no theme park, though. What makes it so interesting is the way people here reconcile the old with the modern-day — the way chef Etsuko Yamada does at Nezu Club.
For almost 25 years, Yamada has been teaching the principles and techniques of Japanese cuisine to a younger generation for whom the traditional way of eating is becoming increasingly alien. But when she was looking for a suitable location to showcase her skills, instead of some venerable timber building, she took over a 30-year-old electrical workshop that would have looked nondescript even in a suburban industrial park. Ten years ago this kind of conversion was no doubt radical; these days, Nezu Club seems more like a blueprint for the entire neighborhood.
The andon lamp that points out the turning down a dimly lit alley is as contemporary as the coarse hempen noren that hangs across the modest doorway. There’s no genkan lobby, just a narrow walkway of polished timber leading you between panels of industrial metal. In the dining room, girders frame concrete walls the color of rustic plaster. The window in one corner looks out onto a stylized garden the size of an obi. This is postindustrial wabi-sabi at its sparest.
The overall effect is relaxed and casual, thanks to the cheerful lighting, the gleam of the antique wooden furniture — tables and chairs, not tatami and zabuton — and the personal attention bestowed by Yamada and her three young waitresses. You feel not so much a customer as a guest, a sensation reinforced by the fact that she has already decided exactly what you will be eating.
The details of your meal are brushed in cursive script on washi paper. Whether or not you can read this menu doesn’t matter — it’s just there for reference. The only decision you will need to make is what to drink: The beer is Yebisu; the sake is Kaiun, a junmai-ginjo from Shizuoka, or Hokosugi, a sterling honjozo brewed at small rural kura in Mie. There are also a couple of very basic wines, though they would probably not enhance Yamada’s delectable food.
She cooks classic nihon ryori — not as elaborate as kaiseki but with far more sophistication than even the best home cooking. She’s not a fundamentalist, though: Your meal is likely to be embellished with touches of originality from way beyond the traditional bounds of Japanese cuisine. The exact composition changes twice a month, to reflect the changing seasons and the availability of fish and produce. However, the five courses (plus rice and dessert) are likely to proceed approximately as follows.
First, a sakizuke tray of tidbits to awaken the palate. In our case these comprised a bowl of goma-dofu, a small block of creamy-smooth sesame served in a rich, appetizing dashi stock with a hint of grated wasabi; a taster of enoki mushrooms mixed with yellow and mauve chrysanthemum petals; and, positioned on a freshly picked chestnut leaf, a morsel of saba mackerel that had been simmered with sansho pepper and soy for so long that even the bones melted in our mouths, leaving behind only a a lingering piquant tingling on the tongue.
Next up, o-tsukuri — cuts of meji (young tuna) both from the fatty belly and also from the darker meat of the upper body; and a few delicate slices of soft, fresh shiro-ika (sword-tip squid). Exquisitely tender, this sashimi is certainly fine enough to be matched with a tokkuri of fragrant chilled Kaiun. Even the garnish of radish, daikon and green shiso leaf is fresh and gleaming, demanding to be eaten not left to wilt on the plate.
The agemono (deep-fried dish) was outstanding. Morsels of tempura — hirame (flounder); sliced eringi mushroom; burdock, green beans, kyo-ninjin (the dark red carrots of Kansai) and kabocha pumpkin — were arranged in miniature baskets of the kind still toted by farming folk in the mountains of Kyoto. The merest sprinkle of salt was all the seasoning necessary.
Order up some of the Hokosugi sake in time for the nimono course. It goes perfectly with the more robust flavors of the simmered vegetables — sato-imo taro, autumn mushrooms and shungiku (chrysanthemum leaf) — served in a lip-smacking dashi soup with slices of perfectly tender duck-breast meat. Simple but profound, this is the true signature of an accomplished cook.
It’s also a hard dish to follow. So don’t be surprised if Yamada mixes things up by next offering you a gratin of Sanriku oysters and gray maitake mushrooms, set in a thick, cream-enhanced bechamel sauce that has been lightly browned on top. This is far from traditional, of course, but totally apt for this hybrid setting. It also makes a strong counterpoint before you receive your rice, miso shiru and pickles to round out your meal. To conclude, you will be given hot tea and a light dessert.
Nezu Club is the best possible endorsement of how accessible yet satisfying (to the palate, if perhaps not to the most ravenous of appetites) Japanese cooking can be. In order to disseminate her gospel of good food, Yamada closes the restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays, so she can hold cooking classes.
Within easy striking distance of Nezu Station, there are plenty of other interesting eating options, especially for those exploring the neighborhood during the day.
You may find better kushi-age in Tokyo, but never in such an outstanding setting. Hantei is so popular they don’t take reservations for groups of less than four. But it’s always worth the wait, if only to see the interior of this magnificent Meiji Era wooden townhouse.
2-12-15 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel. (03) 3828-1440/3823-7661. Open 12-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. (holidays 4-9:30 p.m.); closed Mondays.
If only other parts of town had neighborhood bistros this good. The cooking is honest, the service unpretentious and they even bake their own bread. At prices like this (lunch for 1,500 yen; a four-course dinner for 3,800 yen), Mannebiches is worth crossing town for.
1-16-8 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel. (03) 3824-0484. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order) and 6-9 p.m. (last order); closed Tuesdays.
Make your way down to the back of this funky, friendly natural-foods store and you find a wholesome little diner where they serve up righteous set lunches (1,100 yen); lentil and vegetable curry (also with brown rice; 900 yen); various herbal beverages; and Chimay beer from Belgium. It’s all strictly vegan, of course.
1-1-14 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel. (03) 3823-0030. Open 11:30 a.m.-2.30 p.m. (last order); closed Sundays and holidays. Store open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sunday 5-9 p.m.).
Hako Soba Mitou
Every self-respecting neighborhood needs a decent soba shop, and this recent arrival is better than most. The noodles are handmade. The service is efficient but friendly.
2-37-8 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel. (03) 5814-2551. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
Nezu no Jinpachi
This classic izakaya is little more than a modest single-floor wooden shack, but it’s a local institution. Despite the camouflage of dense foliage out front, it’s surprisingly welcoming. If there’s no room at the small counter, you will ushered into the tatami room behind. There are plenty of bar snacks to go with the special mugi-jochu they decant from ceramic vats shipped up from Miyazaki. Amazingly, they even have an English menu.
2-26-4 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel. (03) 5685-1387. Open 5-11 p.m., closed Sundays.
Kekkojin Milk Hall
The rules at this idiosyncratic, old-style coffee shop are laudable: no smoking; no mobile phones. Browsing of their library of manga and old books is encouraged. The coffee here is produced with excruciating care, as is the homemade cheesecake, for which the owner grades himself on a scale of one to 10.
2-48-16 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku. No phone. kekkojin.heya.jp/ Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Wednesdays (Thursdays if the previous day is a national holiday).