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Simple seafood and a fish shack

by Robbie Swinnerton

“Meet you at the fish shack in Meguro!” It was a suggestion, a rendezvous, an invitation to check out a new restaurant. But more than anything, in these days of straitened economics, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

Opened late last year, the fish shack — actual name Marutomi Suisan — is a recent arrival, but the concept certainly isn’t. Take an old wood-frame building that’s seen many a better day, strip out the inner walls and half the upper floor, plumb in a rudimentary kitchen, hang up some colorful fishermen’s banners, and presto: a funky, friendly, budget-level seafood izakaya (Japanese pub).

The idea of the scruffy, retro diner is big right now, with perhaps the primeexample of the genre being the converted gas station that houses the Nogizaka branch of Uoshin. But it’s the location, tucked away down a cul-de-sac just off genteel Meguro-dori and barely spitting distance from hoity-toity Shirokanedai that has made Marutomi Suisan such an instant hit.

Everything is pared back to the basics, from the rough-and-ready boards, hand-daubed with maritime motifs, that serve as walls, to the naked light bulbs dangling from exposed rafters and the hard wooden stools on which you squat at the low trestle tables. Part of the second-floor area has even been opened up, so you can peer down through the beams to the dining room below.

As you may have guessed from the name — the suffix suisan is commonly used by seafood wholesalers, although Marutomi isn’t actually a dealer — eating at the restaurant revolves almost entirely around seafood. Mostly it’s served in the simplest way possible, either as sashimi or ready to be cooked on squat gas burners that fill up most of the table space in front of you.

We started with a couple of fresh Miyagi oysters along with a plate of mixed sashimi, which, though hardly stellar (we’ll admit it — we’re spoiled for quality in Tokyo when it comes to fish), was certainly up to izakaya standards. Then our waiter fired up the grill and we cooked up scallops (whole, complete with frills) in their shells, and a dried hokke (Atka mackerel), which crisped up nicely, its firm flesh proving highly substantial.

One way prices are kept down is by giving the kitchen staff as little to do as possible. There is a selection of izakaya staples, ranging from deep-fried nuggets of tuna (ask for the tatsuta-age) or simmered tuna tail (shippo-ni) to Hokkaido-style potato croquettes (korokke). As a talking point, we can certainly recommend the whole-cooked “butter” spuds, which are served with a topping of salty, tangy shiokara (fermented squid innards). Depending on your point of view, this might either be a new culinary classic or a step too far into the twilight zone.

None of these dishes makes much of a dent in a ¥1,000 note, and drinks are equally affordable. A flagon of draft beer costs ¥450; sake — the same generic brew whether you want it warmed, chilled or at room temperature — sets you back ¥420 served straight out of the magnum; wine (don’t ask the provenance) is ¥380 for a glass; and uronhai (oolong tea highballs) a mere ¥350.

Marutomi Suisan is anything but a classic. It’s bright and noisy, especially up on the second floor; it’s cramped and none too comfortable either. For flavor and quality, it only scores a “so-so” mark. But it definitely feels like fun. And that’s why it’s invariably full to bursting each evening, often with a line outside.

2-14-11 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa-ku; Meguro Station (JR, Namboku, Mita and Meguro lines); open 5-11 p.m. (last order 10:30 p.m.); around ¥2,500 per head (plus drinks; credit cards not accepted); Japanese menu (little English spoken). For more information, call (03) 5795-2660 or visit marutomi.foodex.ne.jp

Uosan Sakaba, on the other hand, is a bona fide classic, albeit in a rough-hewn, down-to-earth vein. It stands right on the main drag of Monzen-Nakacho, one of the old-time shitamachi neighborhoods that huddle to the east of Tokyo’s Sumida River.

The postwar architecture displays little in the way of history. But as a watering hole for the local populace, Uosan is heir to a tradition dating back centuries. Peer in from the street, past the indigo noren curtain, and you will see people wedged in shoulder to shoulder, sitting on low stools at two narrow U-shaped counters just wide enough to allow the waiting staff to dispense a constant flow of food and drink. This is how the eating and drinking was done when the city was still known as Edo.

As soon as the doors open each day, Uosan fills up as if by osmosis. The customers are overwhelmingly men, mostly locals stopping by for a jar or two on their way home from work. Others come for leisurely sessions with friends. But dallying is discouraged: once you’ve had your fill you will be encouraged politely to vacate your stool for others waiting their turn.

The crowd is a mixed bunch and invariably friendly. The other day we dropped in intending to have a quick libation and ended up talking about the science of shark’s teeth with one fellow customer and the timidity of Japan’s vernacular media with another. Just as you do at all the best izakaya.

But the bottom-line reason why Uosan is so popular is because it’s very cheap. A full-to-overflowing glass of generic atsukan sake, dispensed by the ever-cheerful mama-san from huge ceramic flagons, costs a mere ¥150, with small bottles of the house-brand chilled nama reishu (it’s actually from Hakushika, one of the major sake breweries) twice that much.

However, Uosan is much more than just a boozer. Its metier (as readers ofJapanese will realize immediately) is fish. Scan the menu — that’s those wands of paper covering all available wall space over the entrance to the kitchen — and you’ll find very few that don’t involve seafood. Raw or cooked, whole or filleted, salt water or fresh, deep-fried, broiled or simmered: If it lives in water and it’s in season at the nearby Tsukiji market, then it will show up at some time and in some form.

The sashimi is precut, brought to you straight from the fridge, and ditto many of the prepared dishes. If you do want something that requires cooking — grilled fish, perhaps, or the anago (conger) tempura — then stay on the alert as the waiters will call out the name of your dish when it’s done. Raise your hand promptly, or it may be taken back to the kitchen unclaimed.

This is proletarian food, simple and straightforward, with virtually nothing over ¥500. The priciest item we spotted was fresh uni (sea urchin): Served on its small wooden tray, just the way it was packed in Hokkaido, it was outstandingly fresh and a brilliant value for ¥680.

Uosan is much larger than it looks initially. There are three more floors above, some laid out in the same way, others with tatami rooms to cater to larger groups. But we prefer to wait our turn until a seat on the ground floor frees up. Despite (or perhaps because of) the traffic noise, distractions and breeze wafting through the open doors, it is here that you feel the convivial, old-style ambience of Uosan Sakaba at its best.

1-5-4 Tomioka, Koto-ku; Monzen-Nakacho Station (Tozai Line); open 4-10 p.m. (closed Sun. and holidays); around ¥2,000 per head (plus drinks; credit cards not accepted); Japanese menu (English not spoken). For more information, call (03) 3641-8071