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Coolie’s Creek: Up in the Paradise down by the creek

by Robbie Swinnerton

Coolie’s Creek: What a great name for a Chinese restaurant. OK, it may not be the most politically correct moniker, but when you get there you know it feels absolutely right.

There really is a creek. The Furukawa River is little more than a concrete-lined storm drain perpetually overshadowed by a looming expressway overpass, but it’s there none-the-less. Welcome to scenic Shirokane.

You’re just minutes away from the affluent bustle of Hiroo, Takanawa and Azabu-Juban, but it feels like a totally different century. Largely overlooked by the developers, this low-key, low-rise neighborhood is now starting to get a new lease of life as galleries, craft workshops and eateries move in and do up some of the dingy, light-industrial buildings.

Coolie’s Creek is the newest and best example to date of this wholesome trend. Housed in an old three-story warehouse, it’s been lovingly converted into an open, airy space that’s spare but the opposite of minimalist. From the turquoise shutters and warm, welcoming glow of the red neon sign outside to the ceiling fan high up above, the feel is hip but casual.

It also has a definite buzz. No surprise there, since it’s the latest venture from restaurateur and music business veteran Issaku Kawauchi and his longtime henchman, Ken Miyagawa. As at their other operations — Adan in nearby Mita, Tahiti in Aoyama and Adan Ohana in nether-Shibuya — they have created a space that marries retro and contemporary, substance and style.

Good food has always been a key part of their equation, too. At Coolie’s Creek, the focus of the kitchen is on Cantonese cuisine with a number of Sichuan dishes thrown into the mix to spice it up. There are no major surprises on the menu, but everything is light, attractive, appetizing — the style of Chinese cooking that Japan does so well.

Open the meal with a mixed platter of cold starters (ask for the zensai mori-awase), which includes slices of pork and chicken, strips of crunchy jellyfish and slivers of excellent, savory anago eel. Other good opening nibbles include banbanji (sliced chicken breast), which comes with a piquant dressing; and the Taiwan pitan (preserved duck eggs), a milder, more refined version than we have ever found on the mainland.

We enjoyed the succulent kakuni (belly pork) served in slices so soft we could carve it with our chopsticks; the light, crisp, deep-fried spring rolls (harumaki); and the “salad” of katsuo (bonito) sashimi, in which the cuts of fish were well matched with fine slivers of blanched onion.

Good as these were, they are all standard-issue items that can be found at numerous other restaurants around town. Of far more originality and interest was one the house specialties, a chicken preparation known as yurintondi.

A whole bird (they use free-range jidori fowl throughout) is baked in an oven then deep-fried to crisp up its outer skin. After being cleaved into smaller portions — a typical serving is a quarter of the bird — it is smothered with a sweet-sour rice-vinegar sauce with plenty of finely minced scallions, garlic and chili. It tasted as excellent as it sounds, a great mix of flavors and textures, and was worth the considerable wait for it to arrive from the kitchen. If you’re particularly hungry or impatient, though, order it straight away upon arrival.

But Coolie’s Creek is a place to tarry, not to hurry. You’re not just there to eat, you’re there to chat and drink — be it beer, tropical cocktails or a bottle from the substantial wine list.

Our favorite tipple with this kind of food is Shaoxing wine, China’s answer to amontillado sherry. There are two varieties to choose from, one aged 12 years, the other 15. Try the ¥900 tasting set and check out the difference. Both are decanted straight from the ceramic pots in which they’re aged, and both are yellow-brown in color and slightly yeasty-musty in flavor, but the older of the two is noticeably smoother.

We rounded off our meal with a bowl of noodles — Vietnamese-style pho — served in a light, flavorful chicken broth. But we were still not in the mood to leave this relaxed space, so we we made our way upstairs to have a drink or two at the bar on the third floor.

Run by Kawauchi himself, it is called Haraiso — “Paradise” — because it’s closest to heaven. It has the feel of a loft space, thanks to its rough walls, bare beams and exposed rafters, and serves double-duty as a gallery. That’s yet another reason why we will be making our way back here to Coolie’s Creek at regular intervals during the long hot evenings of summer.