The sleet was lashing down, the wind whipping off Tokyo Bay as we trudged the streets of Ningyocho, eastern Nihonbashi, in search of dinner. Appalling conditions, certainly, but worth braving for the down-home charms of an evening at Yoshiume.
Just arriving there was enough to lift the spirits. Turning off the busy main drag, you find yourself in a tranquil, traffic-free alley lined on either side by low wooden buildings lit by the welcoming glow of traditional lanterns. You could almost be in the old back streets of Kyoto or Kanazawa.
This is the historic heart of a neighborhood that is arguably Tokyo’s most atmospheric and most deeply imbued with the ethos of old-time shitamachi, the working-class heart of the lower city.
Founded in 1928, Yoshiume occupies a former geisha house. The entrance is set back from the alley, down a narrow flagstone passage. Step inside the well-worn sliding door and it’s as if the last half-century never happened.
That is not only due to the look — the low ceilings and rambling corridors, the wooden beams and fixtures — or the unhurried grace of the kimono-clad waitresses. Here you eat simple, straightforward food that is essentially unchanged from the way people ate in prewar times.
Yoshiume specializes in nabe hot pots, which are cooked at the table over individual gas burners. These are served a la carte or as part of full-course meals (at ¥7,000, ¥8,000 and ¥10,000), which follow the sequence of traditional Japanese cuisine but with without the elaborate presentation and overly sweet flavors associated with Kyoto kaiseki meals.
Larger groups will be ensconced in one of the many private rooms with tatami mats (most of which have horikotatsu leg-wells). But if there are just two or three of you, it is likely that you’ll be seated at the counter in front of the open kitchen or at one of the two small tables.
Our ¥8,000 set meal opened with a couple of appetizers, some savory soybeans and a small dab of tuna meat seasoned with miso and sansho pepper. The first course proper (called hassun in the kaiseki terminology) was a small tray holding a miniature pot of green fuki (butterbur plant) stems, and a few tiny squid cooked whole in their own juices.
If these cried out for a beer accompaniment, the sashimi that followed demanded sake. For aficionados of premium nihonshu, Rihaku or Tedorigawa (from Shimane and Ishikawa prefectures respectively) are available chilled in 720 ml bottles (¥6,500). But rough and ready is fine with cooking of this ilk, so we were happy to settle in with flasks of the house sake (bog-standard Sawanotsuru from Hyogo, ¥600), which is best taken hot (ask for atsukan).
Next came the tempura course, featuring a couple of wakasagi, freshwater smelt cooked whole, which you munch in their entirety — heads, fins, tails and all. Unlike the previous courses, which had been prepared earlier, this was cooked to order and delivered piping-hot from the deep-frying wok to our plates. Robust rather than refined, it’s just the kind of hearty fare that defines Yoshiume.
Preliminaries out of the way, it was time to stoke up the chunky ceramic casserole sitting on the gas ring in front of us. There are three varieties to choose from: kamo-nabe, featuring sliced breast of duck; yose-nabe, a mix of seafood and vegetables; and the house specialty, the one we came to sample, negima-nabe. As the name implies, the key ingredients are negi leeks and maguro tuna, a superb combination that’s been a shitamachi favorite since Edo times, here supplemented with green vegetables, enoki mushrooms and tofu.
As it heats up, the clear broth gives off the rich aroma of katsuobushi (bonito fish). First the vegetables are allowed to cook slowly until they are soft. Then the slices of maguro are dipped into the soup for a few seconds, one at a time, until the beautiful light-pink color turns cloudy. This is not perhaps the very finest chu-toro, as served in the best sushi shops, but it is still very good — and considerably better quality than the sashimi we had earlier.
The cooking was demonstrated and then performed for us by the kindly waitresses who drifted around the premises. And when all was eaten, a bowl of rice was tipped into the remaining soup, along with a beaten egg, and this was briefly cooked to form rich ojiya porridge.
This, with a few pickles on the side, formed the finale of the meal (dessert, a little fruit, is only included in the most expensive course). We left with bellies full and hearts warmed, barely feeling the chill as we retraced our way to the station.
Yoshiume has two other branches, both of which serve similar nabe meals and kaiseki cuisine, and have the same opening times and days.
At the other end of the same alley as the main restaurant is Yoshichotei. Housed in an equally historic timber building, it serves set meals only, but with rather greater refinement to match the setting.
Yoshichotei, 1-5-2 Nihonbashi-Ningyocho, Chuo-ku; (03) 5623-4422; www.yoshiume.jp
The third branch is a short stroll away in Hamacho, close by the Meijiza theater. The menu is identical to that of the main branch, and the setting traditional, albeit in a more recent building. Here the staff are better equipped to handle non-Japanese speakers, and the branch even has its own English-language Web site.
Yoshiume Hamacho, 2-34-3 Nihonbashi-Hamacho, Chuo-ku; (03) 5623-4422; r.gnavi.co.jp/fl/en/a599701/
An abundance of broth in the capital’s east
Just around a couple of corners from Yoshiume lies Ningyocho’s most renowned restaurant, Tamahide. Considerably older (it was founded in 1760), the plain white façade barely hints at the patina of the years that has accrued inside. Tamahide’s specialty is shamo-nabe, made of flavorful gamecock reared on free-range farms in the countryside of northern Kanto. But its main claim to fame derives from its lunch course oyakodon — a donburi rice bowl topped with chunks of the aforesaid chicken in a delectable, semi-runny sweet-savory scrambled egg. Such is the popularity of this dish that lines form outside from early morning and the wait is likely to be twice the time it takes to actually eat the dish.
Tamahide, 1-17-10 Nihonbashi-Ningyocho, Chuo-ku; (03) 3668-7651; www.tamahide.co.jp. Nearest station: Ningyocho (Hibiya and Asakusa lines). Open: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. (Saturdays 4-9 p.m.); closed Sundays and holidays; most credit cards accepted.
Ryogoku is ground zero in Japan both for sumo and for chanko-nabe, the humongous hot pots that help to pad the wrestlers with heft. There are scores of locations to sample this, but none can match Yoshiba when it comes to atmospherics. Here you sit at low wooden tables inside a former sumo training stable, right next to the hard-packed mud ring where wrestlers used to practice.
Yoshiba, 2-14-5 Yokoami, Sumida-ku; (03) 3623-4480. Nearest station: Ryogoku (Oedo and JR Sobu lines); Open Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; also open for dinner on Sundays during sumo tournaments. Cash only.
Isegen is the city’s most famous purveyor of anko-nabe, powerful, warming casseroles made from monkfish (both its soft white flesh and chewy internal organs). What makes it special is the beautiful old wooden restaurant building, rebuilt after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923.
The anko season (from September to April) is the best time of year for warming hot pots. In other months, Isegen serves a range of freshwater fish dishes, especially featuring ayu (sweetfish). Reservations are only taken for groups of six or over; for everyone else, it’s first come first served. Be warned: It can be a long, cold wait.
Isegen, 1-11-1 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3251-1229; www.isegen.com. Nearest stations: Ogawamachi (Shinjuku Line), Awajicho (Marunouchi Line) or Kanda (JR Yamanote Line). Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-10 p.m.; closed Saturday and Sunday. Cash only.