On one side of the battered shōji screen with its panels of flimsy washi paper, the sleet and biting wind. On the other, a small old-fashioned hibachi brazier, its coals glowing softly. There’s no contest: At Botan, the charcoal wins every time.
But that flickering fire does not keep the cold at bay alone. There is a cast-iron nabe casserole bubbling away on top of it. For centuries, one-pot cooking has been Japan’s default winter comfort food, heating the body both inside and out. Nowhere in Tokyo does that tradition live on more vividly than at Botan.
Not so much a restaurant as a Tokyo institution, it was founded in the waning years of the 19th century. Rebuilt following the devastation of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, its proud, two-story timber premises have stood at the same location in the quiet backwater of Kanda-Sudacho ever since.
Like a skilled artisan trained in a single specialized discipline that’s been honed to perfection, Botan has only ever focused on one dish: chicken sukiyaki. The recipe never changes and nor does the way it’s cooked, over that small charcoal brazier sitting right at your table. More significantly, though, neither does the way that customers are greeted and served.
Just inside the entrance, a doorman will take your shoes and confirm that you understand what you are in for. No one seems to speak English, but a laminated translation will be waved under your eyes to make sure you are clear that you will be served the full ¥6,700 course.
A kimono-clad matron will lead you along a smoothly polished wooden corridor to your table. At lunchtime, only the ground floor is used, but at dinner you may be shown to the more capacious rooms on the upper floor. Given Botan’s enduring popularity, you are unlikely to be alone. In fact, at peak times, tables are packed in so tightly there can be little space to stretch your legs.
It’s like a time warp back to a kinder, gentler time when physiques were smaller and more flexible. The tables are tiny and low, the floors are covered with hard bamboo matting and you sit on zabuton cushions that are far from plush. The idea of horigotatsu leg-wells was obviously invented long after this building went up.
As soon as you have settled in, an aged retainer appears carrying your firebox of glowing charcoal. Placed on the floor right next to your table, this immediately raises the temperature of your vicinity by a good 5 degrees.
This is also the signal that your sukiyaki meal will soon start. Rather than being rushed, maybe you prefer to wait a little, to let your appetite catch up with you while snacking on some a la carte appetizers and taking in the surroundings. Now is the time to make this known.
There is yakitori, the meat well slathered with rich tare sauce and complemented well with a dusting of shichimi seven-spice; or tatsuta-age, crispy deep-fried Edo-style chicken nuggets; or tamago-yaki omelet. You get the idea: If it’s not chicken (or egg), they don’t serve it. The closest you can get to a salad is the mitsuba-ae, a mix of fragrant mitsuba herb that needless to say comes mixed with morsels of the same fowl.
Once you are done with your nibbling and sipping — it’s the usual basic selection: beer, sake (hot or cold) or shōchū (but only by the bottle) — the meal proper will get under way. Platters arrive arrayed with cuts of chicken, cubes of tofu, slices of negi leek and jellylike shirataki noodles. The squat, square, black nabe pot is placed over the coals. It’s sukiyaki time.
Your waitress will run you through the procedure, deftly taking care of the cooking process. She arranges the ingredients in the pan, pouring in just the right amount of the savory warishita cooking sauce, a proprietary blend of soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking liquor), sake and dashi stock. Now all you do is wait for it to cook.
There is one final essential ingredient: a raw egg, lightly beaten. This is your dip, the final seasoning for the savory slices of meat and other goodies. If raw seems a step too far, as it does in many other countries, then just leave it to one side (you won’t be the first). But it does lend an extra layer of delectable moist richness to the flavor of the hot chicken.
Botan’s sukiyaki feast is a three-part affair. The meat on the first platter includes various cuts, both breast and organ meats (heart and gizzard). The second plate is just minced chicken, which your waitress binds with egg yolk and forms into dango, small balls much like the tsukune you get at yakitori shops, except that here they are ground smooth and do not contain bits of crunchy cartilage or other fowl miscellany.
The third features tasty one-bite morsels of thigh meat (plus more of the tofu and negi), and is served along with rice, a generous saucer of pickled vegetables, and a pot of fresh green tea. Dessert is a small serving of fruit, at this time of year a mikan mandarin.
Even without any starters, a meal at Botan will take well over an hour, lunch or dinner. You stagger to your feet not just well replete but with your inner embers glowing. Just as people in Tokyo have done here for over a century.
Tradition rules at Botan. And from the start, the principle has always been first come, first served. Unless you are with a group of four or more, you can’t make a reservation, but must simply get in line and wait your turn. The best strategy, especially on a Saturday, is to arrive in the mid to late afternoon. The menu is exactly the same all day; and best of all, you get to have this remarkable old building virtually to yourself.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.