Until recently, the distinctive style of cooking mutton known as jingisukan — the Japanese transliteration of the name of a well known Mongolian butcher — was thought far too uncouth to be considered seriously. So how did this coarse, blue-collar dish, so long a staple of smoky grills in the godless wilds of Hokkaido, become a boom in trendy Tokyo enclaves?
It has nothing to do with the rise of Asashoryu and his sumo-wrestling compatriots; more to BSE-induced fears about beef; and lots to lamb being touted as the “healthy” meat. But the main reason is that a generation of young Japanese realized just how fun and funky — and, better still, cheap — this food could be. All it needed was the right look and some savvy marketing. Enter Kuro-hitsuji.
The formula was simple: Take an old, two-floor workshop in the back streets of Naka-Meguro; strip it down to reveal the wooden beams and roof, and fit picture windows across the front; equip with simple furnishings with a no-frills, modern look; then invest in a job lot of retro shichirin charcoal burners and cast-iron jingisukan grills. No cooks are needed, since the customers do the grilling at their tables, just a crew of young waiters to ferry the raw meat to the table and keep the drinks flowing.
It’s a great concept, executed with style and a friendly, youthful enthusiasm. The menu is almost too succinct. You order one serving of the meat and vegetables per person; perhaps a side order of kimchi or the sliced raw tomato, anemic but chilled; and your choice of beverage.
The shichirin is brought to the table, stoked with glowing charcoal briquettes and topped with the distinctive dome-shaped grill. In case it’s not clear what to do, the back of the menu tells you in humorous faux-hipster English: “Toss veggies to the edge of the grill . . . Spread the meat to the grill with fizzle to the sizzle. Wait till heat get smokin’ flava with da juice drippin’ to the charcoal. Then eat up with dippin’ to da bangin’ soy sauce.” ‘Nuff said.
And it’s fizzlin’ good. Kuro-hitsuji proudly boasts that it uses New Zealand mutton, which, compared to lamb, is more flavorful and loaded with protein. That first order will disappear fast, and the average hungry adult will certainly want to order second helpings of meat and vegetables, lubricated with refills of beer. To round off the meal, you can order rice and then soft cream in cones. Meal over.
This is casual dining at its best. You get to play barbecue for an hour or so, fill your stomach at your own pace, then move on. That is why it works so well, especially with the families, dating couples and young post-student types who fill the place nightly. And if the bill comes to over 4,000 yen per head, then you have seriously stuffed yourself.
Be prepared, though. The grill generates plenty of smoke along with the sizzle, so avoid wearing your best clothes. Try to reserve one of the smaller tables, rather than a place on the long, 10-person refectory-style trestles. And don’t expect to roll up at meal times and get a seat without a prior reservation.
Kuro-hitsuji is so popular it’s spawned larger branches in Shimo-Kitazawa and Roppongi — details on their Web site.
Having mastered the basics, you don’t have far to go if you want to take your education in jingisukan to the next level. Naka-Meguro has several places that specialize in the subject. Top of most people’s lists is Tetsugen ( www.incas.co.jp/franchise/tetsugen.html ), a cozy, wood-lined izakaya-style diner tucked under the train tracks. But we have a special place in our hearts for Maedaya.
First of all, we love that it lies well away from the canal-side boutiques, in a nondescript residential area on the far side of Komazawa-dori. Better still is the antifashionista look. Slide open the battered 1960s-vintage aluminum-and-glass door: Maedaya’s dining room is small, pristine clean, uncluttered — perfect in its retro simplicity.
The walls are white, bare except for the white maneki-neko pottery cats that perch next to a transistor radio. The scuffed floor has just enough space for three small metal-framed tables and a narrow counter for six more seats that clings to the edge of a tiny open kitchen. Owner Yukari Maeda has been serving jingisukan here for seven years now, since well before the current boom.
Almost as soon as you sit down, a handsome pink shichirin is placed in front of you. Most people like to whet their appetites with a little yakiniku — delicate slivers of lamb topped with a delectable paste of minced garlic and negi leek; or thicker cuts of rosu (long loin) on the bone, seasoned merely with salt and pepper — which you grill lightly over a coarse mesh.
Next the jingisukan grill is lowered into place, its cast-iron dome carefully greased with fat (this is placed in the indentation at the apex, to keep the surface lubricated and smoke to a minimum). Bean sprouts, raw onion slices and lengths of negi leek are piled around the edge where they cook slowly in the juices from the meat.
The lamb — prime Australian — is delectable. Maeda-san carefully removes most of the fat, and it’s so tender it cooks in a flash. When you order second helpings, ask for some sliced kabocha pumpkin and green bell pepper to go with it, to add further color and variety to your meal.
To balance all the meat, there is a short but tasty list of side dishes. Marinated eggplant, topped with shredded negi; Chinese-style chilled tofu, topped with chopped pitan (preserved duck egg) and a sauce redolent of roasted sesame oil; sliced celery and cucumber with a pungent garlic dressing. We like all of these, but especially the salad of shungiku (leaf chrysanthemum) with slivers of smoked lamb, pine nuts and dried apricot.
If you still have stomach space, order up a bowl of her keema curry: spicy minced lamb on a bed of rice topped with a boiled egg sliced in half. And even if you can’t manage that, the homemade strawberry ice cream will still slip down a treat.
Such depth of flavor and subtlety of touch make you want to linger around the glowing coals of your grill. Too bad. Demand for Maeda-san’s jingisukan is so great, you will be limited to as little as two hours before being asked to vacate your seat. Cast out into the cold night, you will gaze back and again wonder that such sophistication — and good eating — lies behind that self-effacing facade.