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New Fish House claims east Ebisu as its oyster

by Robbie Swinnerton

First the sad news: One of Ebisu’s finest, friendliest little French restaurants has upped and moved to the far side of town. Now the silver lining: Those selfsame pint-sized premises have reincarnated as a branch of Ebisu’s finest, friendliest oyster emporium. Just six weeks since saying au revoir to the diminutive A Ta Gueule at the end of December, it’s time to break out the bubbly to welcome its replacement, Fish House Oyster Bar East.

It was only three years ago that chef Toshihiro Matsushita set up his original Fish House, after parting company with Gotanda’s pioneering Tokyo Oyster Bar. From the start he’s had a formula that works wonderfully: premium oysters, both local and imported; an excellent range of other seafood dishes; plenty of affordable wine; and no airs or pretension at all.

That first branch has a great location: a bright, spacious curving mezzanine room with a huge picture window looking out over the five-street Ebisu-Nishi crossing just a few minutes north of the JR station. If there’s a downside to the original location, it’s that it feels just a tad too big and bright. That’s where the new Fish House East, on the other side of the station (it’s a few minutes’ walk past Zest Cantina) scores.

The intimate, bistrolike ambiance feels exactly right for long, dark late-winter evenings. There are just four tables, shoehorned in beside a smart, jade-green banquette running along one wall. And on the other, a small counter fits four simple chairs in elbow-rubbing proximity, where you can sit and inspect the bivalves or peer into the bonsai-sized kitchen.

The scale and decor may be different, but Matsushita knows better than to mess with his menu, least of all when it comes to the oysters. As at the main Fish House, he stocks nine or 10 kinds, a couple of them imported but most from around Japan. The specific varieties change with seasonal availability. Sadly, though understandably, none are currently from the Tohoku region, where the oyster industry was wiped out last year.

On the half-shell, you can order by the piece, the half-dozen or, probably the best strategy, the six-piece tasting platter (¥2,400; there is also a four-piece plate at ¥1,550). You get six different kinds, arranged in an appetizing spiral on the ice. Start with the smallest — right now these are delicate Caviar oysters from Coffin Bay, Australia — and work your way around the plate to the largest — at present the giant, fleshy Senpoushi from Hokkaido.

The pick of the lot has to be the wonderful Shigoku. Despite the Japanese name (which means “extreme” or “ultimate”), these are actually from Washington State. Produced and shipped only in limited quantities, they are small but outstandingly flavorful, worthy of their hyperbolic moniker. But all the oysters Matsushita serves are so fresh, so full of vitality, they barely need any seasoning, at most just a few drops squeezed from a wedge of juicy lemon (from Ehime in Shikoku).

If you’ve surfeited on raw oysters recently — it has, after all, been the lovers’ season — Matsushita has plenty of other ways of preparing them. Smoked and served on the half-shell with a dab of sour cream and a good sprinkle of coarsely ground black pepper, simple but classic. Or as Ajillo, cooked Spanish-style in spitting-hot garlic oil, with a slice of foccacia on the side to mop up all that flavor.

He does a great version of oyster Rockefeller, topped with garlic-infused spinach puree. More satisfying yet is his Raclette-baked oyster, the lightly piquant cheese melted like gratin. But the ultimate has to be the uni-kurimu yaki, oven-baked on the half-shell with a crisp layer of rich, buttery sea urchin covering the cooked oyster. Decadent indeed.

Matsushita obviously loves his seafood. Apart from his pork-and-chicken-liver pate de campagne and the appetizers of prosciutto and Iberico pork sausage, everything on the menu from starters to carpaccio to pasta and risotto features fish or shellfish. But he’s equally keen on vegetables. Every couple of days, he heads down to the farmers’ market in Kamakura, arriving in the early morning so he can get his pick of the produce grown in that fertile coastal microclimate.

Even in midwinter, he finds kabu turnips with gorgeous pink centers; broccoli and cauliflower; golden carrots; deep purple sweet potato; green beans; and daikon the colors of the Italian tricolor, with pink skins, white flesh and green hearts. Served with a bubbling bagna cauda sauce that goes easy on the anchovy, this is far more than a token side dish: It’s a beautiful counterbalance to all the seafood.

One final recommendation: Matsushita’s creamy clam chowder is outstanding. Made with asari clams and hearty chunks of potato and onion, and scattered with black pepper, it makes a perfect warming antidote to the lingering nighttime cold.

It’s still early days at the new Fish House East, but so far the only variation from the menu at the main restaurant appears to be that bottled Vedette white beer is offered instead of the refreshing, locally brewed Snow Blanche (from Roppongi microbrewery August Beer Club) on tap.

The other major difference, of course, is that Matsushita himself is not actually there much, remaining at the helm at the original Fish House. Instead, the cooking is delegated to his young sous-chef, Mitsunari Kumabe, who works solo in that tiny kitchen — although manager Taiu Hayashi pitches in to help with the oyster shucking. Don’t arrive expecting rapid-fire service. Just settle in and make yourself at home with a drink or two. It’s that sort of place.

Although A Ta Gueule closed its doors in Ebisu at the end of December, its move across town marks the start of a remarkable new project. Chef George Somura today reopens his restaurant inside an old railroad car that used to be part of the Eastern & Oriental Express, the classic deluxe train that ran up and down the Malay Peninsula between Singapore and Bangkok. Parked at its own little platform, in a small lot just a short stroll from the Museum of Modern Art, it promises to be a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

A Ta Gueule Orient-Express, 3-19-8 Kiba, Koto-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5809-9799; www.atagueule.com. Open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (last order) and 5:30-9:30 p.m.; closed Tues. Nearest station: Kiba (Tozai Line). Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.