The holidays are behind us now, but it’s still the season for celebrating the New Year. From mochi rice dumplings to mikan mandarins, there are so many festive foods in Japan. Few are more auspicious, or supremely delicious, than madai, known in English variously as sea bream or red snapper.
More often simply called tai, this is the fish you see depicted under the arm of the deity Ebisu (most visibly on the labels of Yebisu beer). It’s an essential course at wedding banquets and other felicitous occasions. Partly this is due to its hue, red being the color of good fortune; partly because the word “tai” is thought of as a contraction of medetai (“celebratory”).
Not that any wordplay is needed with a fish of such fine flavor. That is why, now that the dust has settled and supplies of fresh seafood have resumed, I will soon be making my way to Uchiyama, an excellent little restaurant on the outer edge of Ginza, where madai forms the centerpiece of the menu.
Although chef Hideto Uchiyama first set out his shingle here almost a decade ago, I only discovered it a couple of years back. Like so many of Tokyo’s top chefs, he does little to advertise his presence. There is nothing to catch your eye on that narrow back street save for a small illuminated sign at ankle height, a nameplate hidden inside the threshold and two small cones of salt on either side of the entrance — the traditional symbol that all inside is pure.
Nor would you look twice at the nondescript stairway descending from street level. Unless you are with a group and have booked one of the two private tatami rooms, you will be seated at the counter overlooking the narrow prep area (the main kitchen is out of sight). This massive block of cedar wood is long enough to hold 11 people without making you feel cramped.
With its low ceiling and intimate interior, Uchiyama feels more comfortable and accessible than most high-end kaiseki ryōri restaurants. The burnished lacquered panels in the kitchen (the work of craftsmen in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture) and the rustic walls of packed earth by the entrance evoke the ambiance of a tea-ceremony chamber. But dining here does not set you back an arm and a leg. In fact, at lunchtime, you can drop in (though you should call ahead first) and spend as little as ¥1,500 a head.
That is the cost of Uchiyama’s signature dish, tai chazuke. It is one of those preparations — and there are so many in Japanese cuisine — that seem simple to put together but require great proficiency (plus ingredients of the highest quality) to really excel.
The madai served at Uchiyama are from the Naruto Strait, which separates eastern Shikoku from Awaji Island (part of Hyogo Prefecture). These waters, where the Pacific meets the Inland Sea are turbulent, with violent eddies and whirlpools. The fish caught there are considered the best in Japan.
Fillets of the fresh madai are sliced to order, and served not on their own as sashimi but in a shallow bowl filled with goma-dare, a thick sauce of creamed sesame richly seasoned with dashi fish stock and soy sauce. Alongside this you get a bowl full of white rice and a side saucer of pickles.
Less is definitely more here. First try the raw fish on its own, with a dab of freshly grated wasabi root. The texture is full and firm. The taste is mild, not at all oily and with a light, underlying sweetness. Next try it dipped fully in that dark-brown sesame sauce. On its own it seems too rich; but eaten with the rice it is perfect.
There’s one final step: You place the remaining cuts of fish on top of the rice and drench it all with piping-hot green tea. Blanched this way, the fish turns soft and white, crumbling into the now-soupy rice. Half eating, half slurping, you find it goes down easily, delectably.
Tasty as it is, though, chazuke on its own does not quite make a full meal. If you have the luxury of being able to settle in at leisure, the multi-course set menus (from ¥5,000 at lunchtime; from ¥10,500 at dinner) showcase an exquisite selection of seasonal ingredients, often including madai in various preparations.
When time is limited, though, the lunchtime bentō (¥2,500 or ¥3,500) is ideal. Think of them as a chef’s tasting menu in an elegant lacquerware box. It will also include a few starters — including yaki-gomadōfu, an exceptional grilled version of the sesame-tofu that is fundamental to tea-ceremony cuisine — as well as a suimono (clear soup) and a light dessert to round off the meal.
Accessible and affordable, Uchiyama has become a popular port of call among the ladies who lunch, many of whom drop in here after a morning at the Ginza fashion houses, or before heading to the theater (though the nearby Kabuki-za is currently being rebuilt). At dinner, the demographic is mostly male and clad in business suits.
These days you may not find chef Uchiyama himself behind the counter. Last August he opened an offshoot, just a short block away, called Kaku-Uchiyama. The menu is much the same (though I haven’t eaten there yet). But it’s likely to take some time before it accrues the same mix of simplicity and sophisticated refinement as the original restaurant.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.