It’s been a very long time since we got excited about curry rice. In fact, this is certainly the first time that we’ve gone on record extolling the virtues of Japan’s blanded-down version of the spicy stew that is British India’s lasting contribution to the world of gastronomy.
No disrespect intended: Over the years, we have eaten our fair share of the dish that education ministry surveys pronounce as Japanese school kids’ favorite. It’s just that it all tends to taste pretty much the same. But not the way they make it at Yasaiya Mei.
What’s different? First, instead of ordinary white rice, you get a slightly nutty-tasting mix of semipolished rice with 11 other grains that you can really chew on. This is topped with a colorful array of lightly cooked vegetables: zucchini, red pepper, goya (bitter melon), crisp deep-fried lotus root “wheels,” baby corn, a couple of leaves of bok choi, you get the idea.
The curry itself, served separately (as it should be) in a gravy jug, is a gently aromatic light-brown roux containing what appears at first glance to be slivers of chicken but which turn out to be small squares of soft-cooked abura-age (deep fried tofu pouches). Mixed together with the freshly prepared vegetables and rice with real taste, it’s a revelation.
This is no ordinary curry rice — and Yasaiya Mei is certainly not your common-or-garden curry rice joint. It is suave and stylish, a destination restaurant, and one of Tokyo’s leading lights in the genre known as “vegetable cuisine,” which gives prominence to the produce of its kitchen gardens in much the same way that other eateries might spotlight their Kobe beef or premium chu-toro tuna.
Although we’ve covered this phenomenon in previous columns, we had until recently steered well clear of Yasaiya Mei. In part, this was due to wariness — the pretension factor can often reach ridiculous levels (how anyone can style themselves a “vegetable sommelier” without cringing is hard to fathom). But mostly we were put off by the location, inside the sleek, high-end designer mall that is Omotesando Hills.
That was our mistake. Yasaiya Mei may rub shoulders with brand-name luxury boutiques, but it’s certainly not snooty. The big windows boast a great view onto the fresh zelkova foliage lining the boulevard outside. The room is certainly stylish enough for a date, especially in the evening with the lights dimmed; but prices are eminently affordable. The waiters are as friendly as they are efficient. And, most important of all, the food is top quality.
The vegetables, prominently arrayed by the entrance, come from contract farmers or its own market garden (there’s a link on its Web site) and for the most part are organically grown. Each month Yasaiya Mei has a special feature: Right now it is tomatoes — half a dozen varieties, which crop up throughout the menu.
It’s an intriguing mix of Western and homegrown sensibilities. The otoshi starters (you pick from a choice of three brought to your table on a tray) may feature such exotic ingredients as soft-cooked shark cartilage; junsai (a crunchy, slimy fresh-water vegetable); or creamy, oozing yama-imo yam. The open kitchen serves a good range of kushi-yaki chicken, vegetable tempura and other more familiar Japanese staples.
But there are also European dishes such as bagna cauda one of the house specials. The cuts of raw vegetable were displayed on ice as beautifully as an ikebana arrangement; the warm dip was delectable, with a nice balance of cream and anchovy. We followed this with a plate of carpaccio — suzuki (sea bass) — attractively topped with sliced cherry tomatoes and garnished with a sprinkling of karasumi (bottarga, cured mullet roe).
Much of the bilingual menu is devoted to the kind of Japanese “soul foods” you might expect to find at an izakaya tavern — albeit cooked with finesse and presented with great attention to detail. We ordered the korokke (breaded, deep-fried croquettes) and found that under their crisp brown exterior they were made of bright purple beni-imo yam and tasted just as brilliant as they looked.
Vegetables may be front and center here, but there are plenty of other options (and committed vegetarians may need to tread carefully). Probably the best thing we ate all evening was Awa-odori chicken, a free-range jidori fowl from Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku, wrapped around strips of burdock and grilled with sansho (prickly ash pepper). This came to the table garnished with crisp shreds of deep-fried burdock and balanced on a piping-hot stone.
Niku-jaga is another classic of Japanese home cooking. Usually it is rough and ready, but here it features fine slivers of beef and flavorful new potatoes and carrots delicately simmered with shirataki noodles in a rich broth that is just the right side of sweet. As with the curry rice with which we closed our meal, Yasaiya Mei shows how, with a little imagination and care, these bog-standard staples can be elevated to dishes that more than hold their own in the refined setting of Omotesando Hills.
Yasaiya Mei opens in Roppongi Hills, Gotanda
The formula for Yasaiya Mei has proved so popular that it has already sprouted a couple of spinoffs. One, in Roppongi Hills, replicates the feel of the original. But the new branch in Gotanda has a more earthy atmosphere. Located on the top floor of the Remy Gotanda mall, close to JR Gotanda Station, it has the casual charm of a neighborhood izakaya (pub) — albeit one with the healthiest menu around.
Yasaiya Mei, Mori Tower West Walk 5F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; (03) 5775-2960; www.eat-walk.com/roppongi/index.php; Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (Friday, Saturday and before national holidays till 2 a.m.)
Yasaiya Mei, Remy Gotanda, 8F, 2-1-2 Higashi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku; (03) 5789-3650; www.eat-walk.com/gotanda/ index.php; Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.