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Katsuzen: Ginza offers tonkatsu that’s a cutlet above

by Robbie Swinnerton

Tonkatsu is comfort food, gourmand grub — not a gourmet delicacy. So what are those hearty, unpretentious deep-fried breaded pork cutlets doing in an elegant little bar-style restaurant above one of Ginza’s temples to high-end consumption?

Katsuzen has come a long way from its humble origins. Until 2005, it called Ikebukuro home; now it sits above Barneys New York, rubbing shoulders with steak and teppanyaki counters. But ignore the swish setting and the haute-coutured clientele: Katsuzen may serve some of the finest, most delicate tonkatsu in the city, but it still has a friendly, welcoming, personal touch.

That’s because it’s a family operation. Owner Etsuo Nagai has been a tonkatsu chef for almost 50 years now, working together with his wife, Kayoko. But these days they have their children alongside them. Son Daisuke shares kitchen duties, introducing many of the creative, artistic touches; while daughter Tomomi handles front-of-house duties. Between them, they’ve developed a niche for Katsuzen that is absolutely unique.

What other tonkatsu restaurant serves vibrant mixed salads of organically grown seasonal vegetables? Or uses sashimi-fresh kuruma-ebi (king prawns) for its ebi-fry. Or makes freshly squeezed honey-lemon soda?

But it all starts with the tonkatsu, and Nagai makes it look easy. Over the years, he has done more than just perfect his technique: He’s refined every step of the process, from the quality of the ingredients to the cooking and the garnishes.

The meat comes from black Berkshire kurobuta pigs, which Nagai sources from a free-range, low-stress farm on the slopes of Mount Kirishima in Kyushu. The fatty rōsu (loin) is rich but never blubbery, while the lean hire (tenderloin) cuts are firm and moist.

He does also offer a slightly more affordable pork raised on Mount Unzen on the other side of Kyushu. And there will be some premium varieties on his menu too, from Okinawan Agu or Iberico hogs, although you sense this is more because customers in Ginza expect it, rather than from his own enthusiasm.

He gives equal attention to the rest of the recipe. Rather than using ready-made panko bread crumbs, which he says absorb too much oil, he makes his own from scratch. It may be laborious, but it produces a crisp, fine, golden coating that combines beautifully with the meat inside.

So too with the all-important cabbage on the side. It’s grated finer than usual, and as often as not it will be organically grown. On top there will be a thin layer of grated red cabbage and carrot, just to give an extra dash of color.

Then there’s the sauce. You have two to choose from: a Worcestershire-style blend, made in-house of course; and also a nifty miso-garlic version that is so rich and pungent you want to add it by the ladleful, even though the meat is so tasty it needs little extra flavor.

This is slow-food tonkatsu. Everything is cooked to order: 15 minutes for the fatty loin; 20 minutes at slightly lower heat for the lean meat. But even on the set lunch menu (from ¥3,800) you get a few small but sophisticated appetizers to nibble on as you wait, maybe morsels of rare sasami chicken with avocado, or spinach with a goma-ae sesame dressing. The standard extras of rice, miso soup and pickles are also included.

In the evening, it is quite OK to drop in just for a plate of tonkatsu, rather than get the full-course meals (from ¥7,500). But you’ll see plenty on the a la carte menu to encourage you to linger. The jumbo harumaki spring rolls stuffed with zuwaigani crab meat are outstanding. And so are those deep-fried kuruma-ebi, served with green asparagus wrapped in ham. Michelin-quality ebi-fry? You better believe it.

There will always be a choice of vegetable (though hardly vegetarian) dishes. In autumn, expect to find mountain mushrooms. In winter there will be hearty root vegetables, while spring brings bamboo shoots. Right now, the menu features several different preparations of eggplant.

Already the younger Nagai is putting together some refreshing summer salads. Look for his excellent fruit tomato, which comes diced and then reassembled on a bed of cucumber, garnished with kuzu-kiri cellophane noodles and an appetizing rice-vinegar dressing.

Because Katsuzen is so intimate — just a short, eight-seat counter plus an elegant little private side room — it’s not a hard place to settle into, especially if you start exploring the sake or shōchū menus.

But be warned: An evening at Katsuzen will cost a whole lot more than a basic tonkatsu meal elsewhere — probably by a factor of 10, especially if you arrive hungry. This is not just because you are in Ginza, but because you are eating remarkably well.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.