The three sturdy wooden doors that form the frontage of Kinsai open out onto busy Yamate-dori, a 10-minute walk from Naka-Meguro Station. It’s an unromantic location, but that doesn’t deter the well-clad clientele who have been filling the place every night since it opened at the beginning of this month.
There’s a definite buzz going on here — and with very good reason. Kinsai is the latest addition to the stable of estimable eateries created by the people behind To-Vi, the company that more than any in Tokyo has made it hip to eat — and eat well — on your feet.
First with Buri in Ebisu (and its more orthodox spinoff in Akasaka), and then at Buchi and Bongout Noh on opposite sides of Shibuya, they have shown that style doesn’t have to be flashy, informal isn’t the same as casual, and Tokyo gourmets are just as happy to squeeze into convivial tachi-nomi “stand-bar” spaces as they are to sit down, provided the kitchen and cellar are of a good enough standard.
Kinsai represents a clear evolution, not least because only a fraction of its space — enough for a dozen people squeezed just inside those outer doors — is allocated for standing. Inside the restaurant proper, there is counter seating along the open kitchen on the ground floor; the upstairs room has simple tables and chairs; and there’s also an attic-style zashiki space tucked in under the ceiling, just big enough for four people to fit around a low table.
There is continuity at Kinsai, too. It has the same clean, modern decor as its predecessors and a similar feel of casual sophistication. We were happy to see familiar faces we know from Buchi, most notably Hisae Iwakura, the ever- enthusiastic executive manager, and also head chef Shinya Makita. Some of the other chefs previously worked at Buri (which is no longer part of the same group). We were confident we would eat well.
And so it proved. As at all the best Japanese restaurants, provenance and quality are just as important as preparation. The seafood is shipped direct from ports along the Inland Sea; the vegetables come from the market gardens of Tamba, outside Kyoto; and the wonderful Senba tofu that is served as an otoshi appetizer is sourced from a notable shop in Kawagoe, north of Tokyo.
Modestly, Kinsai styles itself as a nitakiya — a “kitchen” — rather than a full-fledged ryoriya, the term used for more formal restaurants. That’s because of its informal izakaya style in which you order a dish or two at a time — it is certainly not any reflection on the food quality. Just about everything we tasted was excellent, especially those dishes cooked on the charcoal grill that forms the main visual feature of the open kitchen.
We started off with soramame broad beans, slowly grilled in their pods, and early season takenoko, cut into wedges, and gently browned. These are flavors that define early spring, just as much as the hatsu-gatsuo, the first bonito of the season served in our diminutive but beautifully arranged sashimi selection.
The menu — hand-written in Japanese only — is particularly strong on seafood, detailing a score of different fish served in many different styles. Rather than working our way through, we selected a few dishes at random. Another approach would be to give Iwakura a figure (say, 5,000 yen for two) and utter the magic word omakase — roughly “I leave the selection in the capable hands of Chef Makita.”
One dish that should not be missed is his naga-imo mottchiri-age, sticks of yam deep-fried and lightly sprinkled with soy sauce — think French fries given a subtle Japanese makeover. Like most of his offerings, this goes every bit as well with wine as with sake.
As a trained sommelier in both, Iwakura’s selections in each category are always reliable. Of the wine served by the glass, we found the Pinot Noir (Wither Hill from New Zealand, 800 yen) to be substantially better than the house plonk, Green Point Cabernet Sauvignon (700 yen).
It’s the little things that make the difference in quality at all Japanese restaurants. The ohitashi plate — nanohana rape greens, along with slivers of negi leek and crunchy, piquant young ginger root, all cooked and seasoned with a commendable lightness of hand — were garnished with a generous mound of bonito flakes, not out of a packet but freshly shaved off a whole katsuo-bushi fillet. To taste the difference in flavor is a revelation.
Besides the vinegared dishes, they also offer Western-style salads on the menu. We particularly enjoyed one featuring sunagimo (chicken gizzards) and pancetta, anointed with an olive oil dressing.
We returned to the charcoal grill for our two standout dishes. Slices of French Barbary duck, still red but not rare, were served with a choice of condiments: salt, spicy yuzu-kosho paste and fiery tokara-miso (a coarse, unpureed miso paste mixed with chili peppers). And anago no shira-yaki, perfectly crisped fillets of conger eel garnished with a long hone-senbei, the spine of the eel fried crisp and crunchy. Both were outstanding.
One of the few dishes we tried that didn’t work for us was the Japanese beef in small slices, topped with grated raw yam and dabs of uni (sea urchin). We found the textures did not harmonize, nor indeed the flavors, even with a shoyu dip. But, after two visits now, that has been the sole blip in the menu that we have discovered.
Portions are not large, but prices are modest, with few dishes costing more than 1,000 yen. This is food intended for slow nibbling on rather than filling your stomach. For that, you can close your meal with noodles — hot tama-toro bukkake udon topped with a raw egg yolk — or grilled onigiri rice balls. For those who so crave, there is even dessert, an unremarkable ga^teau chocolat.
The word is already out on Kinsai. Thanks to the considerable reputation and star power of Buchi and Iwakura respectively, it is drawing customers from well beyond the immediate catchment area. Unless you get there early, reservations are a must.
Nor will it be much easier to find a place at the stand-bar area. The Nakame crowd have already discovered and embraced it. It’s still very early days, but despite the location Kinsai looks set to become a local institution.