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Kamikozawa-tei: Shabu-shabu in modernist mode

by Robbie Swinnerton

There’s no finer way to eat on a chilly winter evening than sitting around a bubbling nabe hot pot. No matter what the ingredients — meat, fish, tofu or vegetables — just cooking and eating from the same communal casserole is nourishment for both body and soul.

It’s even better if you’re sharing that hot-pot with a select group of close friends, and especially so if the setting is more than a little bit special. That was certainly the case the other night when we dined at Kamikozawa-tei.

You don’t have to be an architect to appreciate that this low-slung freestanding single-story house in the residential heart of Shirokanedai in Shinagawa Ward is a classic of its kind. With its clean, spare lines, monochrome facade of glass and unclad concrete and uncluttered compound, it is a modest masterpiece of Japanese modernist understatement.

Commissioned and built in the early 1960s by a university professor, a German specialist, it remained his private home for half a century. Recently, he became unable to maintain it, so his relatives decided the best way to preserve this architectural gem was to convert it into an exclusive boutique restaurant. Named simply after the family name, Kamikozawa, and managed by the owner’s nephew, it opened discreetly late last year to minimal fanfare.

The menu is as simple and uncluttered as the building itself. The specialty of the house is shabu-shabu, prepared with beef from premium Omi wagyu cattle. This serves as the focal point of dinner at Kamikozawa-tei. As we soon found out, though, the same beef features prominently throughout the meal, no matter which of the set-course dinners (¥6,090, ¥8,000 or ¥10,000; by advance reservation only) you have.

In such a minimalist setting — walls of unclad concrete with little or no decoration (sadly the original period fixtures and fittings have been stored away) — we felt no need for an elaborate banquet. The simplest of the three menus, comprising five courses, proved to be more than adequate.

As appetizers, we were served steak tartare, smoothly ground and arranged on delicate slices of baguette. With these came a small bowl of sashimi-style liver, the cubes of raw meat lightly dressed with sesame, giving the dish a Korean accent.

The mixed salad that followed provided a welcome vegetable counterpoint. It didn’t matter that the greens were too generously slathered with dressing: This merely reinforced the sense that we were more private guests in the Kamikozawa home than customers in a sleek, professional operation.

The third course was one of the highlights of our dinner: a platter of tataki-style beef slices. The meat, a choice cut of rump, was outstanding. Lightly seared on the outside, deep- red-rare in the center, it had a wonderful texture with such a deep, lingering flavor it barely needed the roasted sesame dip that accompanied it.

With a serving staff of just two, the pace of the meal was by necessity unhurried. The leisurely intervals between courses afforded us plenty of time for conversation over our wine (be warned, it’s the briefest of wine lists: Champagne; a sparkling wine; two whites; and a single red, the more than adequate Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon) as our shabu-shabu nabe was readied.

A portable butane burner was placed in the middle of the table, and on it was a shiny steel casserole dish filled with an oxtail broth so rich in gelatin it was set solid. As soon as this jelly had melted, in went the vegetables: Chinese cabbage, negi leeks, mizuna greens and slices of plump eringi mushrooms. Once they had cooked, it was time to set to work on the finely sliced meat.

There were two contrasting cuts of beef piled up on the tray. One was rich and fatty rosu; the other leaner, prime rump known in Japanese as ichibo. Neither was the kind of luxuriously marbled, buttery shimofuri meat that is the stock in trade at the city’s high-end shabu-shabu restaurants. Did we care? We were enjoying ourselves far too much to even notice.

Once the vegetables and meat are finished, it’s usual to cook up udon noodles in the same savory nabe broth. Kamikozawa-tei makes a brilliant departure from standard practice by providing fettuccine, with colorful condiments of tomato, green basil pesto sauce and parmesan cheese.

Dessert was equally distinctive. A small scoop of “milk ice’ — lighter and less cloying than full-fat ice cream — was served in small ceramic bowls, together with cruets of jade-green matcha tea, nutty kinako (powdered toasted soybean) and dark, bitter-sweet kuromitsu treacle. Refined and elegant, it was the perfect way to round off a fine meal in a remarkable, one-of-a-kind setting.

A few caveats are in order before you book your table at Kamikozawa-tei. First, it’s hard to find, buried in a maze of residential back streets far from the nearest station. Second, it’s not a sexy, see-and-be-seen venue; the decor is plain, the rooms are small and discrete, and for much of the evening we were the only people there. Third, set aside the whole evening; even the simplest of the meals will take a leisurely two or three hours.