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Eatrip: A healthy diet of peace and quiet

by Robbie Swinnerton

Food, flowers and tranquility: Eatrip is not just a restaurant, it’s an unlikely oasis in the busy shopping district of Harajuku. Call it a Garden of Eating.

Turning off a side street, up a short flight of steps and through a narrow gap between two nondescript houses, you find a mossy, stone-paved path leading through lush shrubbery to a low-slung, free-standing house. Open the door on the weathered wooden porch and you have arrived. It’s not a long journey but it certainly is a trip.

The interior is comfortably homespun, with simple, rustic accents, exposed ceiling timbers and an assortment of secondhand tables and chairs. There’s a short counter on one side looking into the small open kitchen. The dining room itself is split into two, with a dozen seats in the main section and half as many further back.

The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. With the lights kept low and the sound system softly dispensing a mellow mix of folksy rock interspersed with indie anthems, it all feels as laid-back and personal as a dinner party in someone’s home.

Though owner Yuri Nomura doesn’t live there, this is unmistakably her space. It is the perfect expression of who she is: one of the leading lights in the growing network that is promoting organic, rootsy living — and most especially cooking and eating — and making it relevant to modern urban lifestyles.

Besides her work as a chef, Nomura’s background is in design and media. She networks with farmers, bakers, food producers and winemakers, showcasing them at the restaurant or in outside events. She also links up with like-minded people abroad, such as the organizers of Open Restaurant, a group founded by alumni of Chez Panisse, the renowned restaurant in Berkeley, California.

That association is very apt. Her approach echoes that of Chez Panisse’s founder, Alice Waters. Nomura emphasizes farm-fresh organic produce generally served in a light Mediterranean mode, based around locally sourced, predominantly Japanese ingredients and home-made seasonings.

While the overall concept and planning at Eatrip is Nomura’s, the day-to-day cooking is done by chef Takayuki Shiraishi. Formerly in charge of the kitchen at  Iri in Yoyogi-Uehara, he does a great job working pretty much solo in that cramped open kitchen.

He prepares one set omakase menu (¥5,000 per head) each day, which he serves up on large plates intended to be shared among how many of you there are at the table. Manager Taro Tsuji will be happy to give English translations of everything.

Last week, that set meal opened with small appetizers of soft-boiled eggs topped with home-cured anchovy, a sprinkle of salad greens and lightly blanched red onion, and a dusting of paprika. Perfect as a light early-summer starter, it went just as well with beer (Yebisu on draft) as it did with a crisp white Californian Chardonnay (from Scribe; like most wines at Eatrip, it’s from a small winery that grows and produces sustainably).

Then came an appetizing selection of a dozen colorful vegetables arrayed on a chunky wooden platter. Sourced direct from market gardeners in Kamakura, in adjoining Kanagawa Prefecture, they come with a delectable dipping sauce of ground pistachio. Together with this you get generous scoops of chicken-liver pate and creamy-smooth brandade of cod, with rusk-crisp slices of sourdough bread. It’s a great combination, and justifiably one of Nomura’s signature dishes.

The ceviche of tender mo-ebi shrimp mixed with fruit tomatoes almost buried under a heaping salad of mint, chervil and dill was excellent. And so was the course that followed: homemade orecchiette pasta with cubes of isaki (grunt) and semi-dried tomato, topped with slices of smoked marlin.

The main course featured Kyushu saddleback pork pan-fried with red and green bell peppers. While the portions are on the small side, there was no faulting the quality and flavor of the meat, nor the nutty cream sauce it was served with.

More than the food itself, though, at Eatrip it is the total package that satisfies. It may feel easygoing, but Nomura and her crew make sure everyone is well taken care of. This spirit of “hospitality” (omotenashi in Japanese) is something that has been taken to heart by other chefs. Shin Harakawa of Beard has worked closely with Nomura, and her example inspired him to launch his bistro last year.

He sums it up like this: “It’s a complete atmosphere: good vibes, happy food, music, flowers, the staff, everything. Eatrip convinces me that a restaurant is not just what is on the plate: It is a space to share the moment together.”

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.