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Wana: Pay like a pauper, eat like a lord

by Robbie Swinnerton

“It’s still gibier season,” proclaims the sign on the street corner outside Wana. And who could argue with that? There’s no reason why game meats and wildfowl should only be eaten in winter. If they’re readily available, why shouldn’t we enjoy them all year round?

Venison, wild boar and pheasant are the main meats at Wana. Despite using the French word — “gibier” has now passed into common gourmet parlance here — all three animals are sourced from within the country, direct from the Japanese hinterland, where they have long formed part of the diet of local hunters.

What makes this bright, cheerful little restaurant in Uchi-Kanda unusual is not that it specializes in traditional Japanese game — indeed, that is just about all it offers — nor that such meat is on the menu year-round. The main reason Wana is worth knowing is that it’s the opposite of most gibier-specialist restaurants in Tokyo.

It isn’t plush and pricey, it doesn’t serve fine French cuisine and it can’t boast a cellar of premium Burgundies. Instead, its walls are basic whitewashed breeze-blocks; you perch on simple barstools; you guzzle vin very ordinaire. And you eat your gibier in the form of yakiniku, grilled over old-fashioned shichirin burners. Wana is not just affordable: It’s convivial and lots of fun.

The basic menu is daubed in white on the glass windows that cover the entire front of the premises, as well as in a simple plastic ring binder that is brought to your table. But to check exactly what is available, consult the blackboard on the wall underneath the trophy stag’s head. It will list the provenance and cuts of all the meat on any given evening.

As of last week, the Ezo-jika venison was from Shiranuka, Hokkaido; the inoshishi boar from the mountains of Kumamoto Prefecture; and the inabuta, a flavorful crossbreed of boar and pig, raised on Awaji Island, Hyogo Prefecture.

Strictly speaking, the kiji pheasant isn’t wild: As Japan’s national bird, it is a protected species, so hunting is banned. Wana gets the next best thing, ranch-reared in Miyazaki Prefecture. But the meat tastes so good, who’s quibbling? Start with one of the prime cuts, mune (breast) or momo (leg), and don’t overdo it with the heat.

For shichirin neophytes, Wana has printed up some simple illustrated instructions: Never eat wild meat raw; each cut should be given at least 30 seconds over the charcoal, till the juices start to run; and once it’s grilled, season it with salt or spicy miso from the cruets in front of you, or grate up some mildly piquant Ezo-wasabi horseradish.

As with any barbecue, pheasant is best prepared low and slow. You’ll likely need little extra pep, as the cuts are liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper before they’re served. With a bit of care, it tastes superb: the food of lords, for only slightly more than a pauper’s price.

Next, the venison. The lean, dark-red meat cooks up firm and textured but with a deep, delectable flavor. Be ready for the smoke emitted as the juices hit the glowing coals. Most of the fumes are drawn up the extendable chimney over your burner, but even so you’d better not wear your best suit.

Now it’s time for wild boar. The family resemblance to pork is clear, but the flavor is a lot richer and, as Wana’s handout reassures, it’s much healthier for you, with more protein and less fat. Even so, the flames will flare up, and you’ll need to master the art of dousing them using ice cubes.

Once you have the taste for these introductory cuts (each is around ¥1,200 for a two-person portion), there are various internal organs to try. If that’s a step too far, you’ll also find domestic wagyū beef and Aussie lamb on the blackboard. And for a change of pace, grill up some early-season sora-mame broad beans in their pods, or jumbo shiitake mushrooms seasoned with soy sauce and butter.

This is izakaya tavern food, intended to be well lubricated with booze. Besides the usual beer, sake and shōchū, the house specialty at Wana is Japanese wine. White or red, it comes in isshōbin magnums that are decanted at the table, and none of it is better than basic plonk. Over the course of an evening the easier-drinking imported Douro and Valpolicella (at ¥3,500, the “top” bottle) are recommended.

Wana is still very new (it opened in early February) but already seems to be finding its groove and its clientele. Clean, casual and accessible, it sits comfortably halfway between the edge of sleek, modern Otemachi and the grubby low-rise backstreets around Kanda JR Station.

When the warm weather arrives for real, the spillover space outside the front door is going to be very popular with the standing-drinking crowd. There’s also a chance the menu is going to get even more interesting. For a sneak preview of what Wana is planning next, just pay a visit to the restroom — and mind your head on the taxidermy.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.

Wana eat even more gibier?

Wana didn’t spring fully formed out of nowhere. For the past year a smaller prototype has been operating out of a hard-to-find back-alley location in Hatchobori, east of Nihonbashi, offering the same yakiniku gibier at the same reasonable prices. Wana Hatchobori: (03) 5542-2229; r.gnavi.co.jp/gcfb700.