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Light bites of every flavor in Tokyo

by Robbie Swinnerton

Tokyo has seen more and more restaurants recently open with the express purpose of offering casual, light bites, rather than elaborate full-course meals. Close to home is fine, as long as we can nibble and graze, ordering a dish or two at a time, and interspersing food with drink and conversation till late into the night.

And in the furnace of a Tokyo summer, who wants to travel somewhere fancy for a heavy meal anyway?

Kitchen Nakamura is one of those hip, quietly stylish places so tucked away from sight you’d never find it unaided. Mere minutes from Omotesando subway station, in the basement of the swish La Porte Aoyama building, this unobtrusive oasis of late-night dining is still much of an insiders’ secret.

Not that it will stay that way long, as it is the newest offshoot — it opened late May — of Namikibashi Nakamura, a classy-casual Japanese dining restaurant at the Ebisu end of Shibuya.

Like its parent operation, Kitchen Nakamura revolves around a large open cooking area and focuses on ingredients sourced almost entirely within Japan. Where it differs is that it serves no sake and little shōchū. The food here is crossover Western and wine is the libation of choice.

Standout starters range from kabocha squash croquettes and lightly salted mizu-nasu eggplant to the excellent stem ginger wrapped in pork. The pasta dishes are good, and the homemade sausages great. But at the heart of the (Japanese-only) menu is the charcoal grill, with kushiyaki skewers of Yanbaru pork, jidori (free-range chicken), Edomae anago (conger eel) and more.

Gar Eden is another new place with a strong presence and a hybrid sensibility. Housed in a compact, free-standing two-story house in Jingumae that was custom-built earlier this year (it also opened in May), it has a simple, uncluttered feel that puts you immediately at ease.

The inspiration for the kitchen here is Italian. The antipasti list is brief, but there’s a good range of pasta with several made fresh in-house each day. But these are mere preliminaries for the main event: pork (spare ribs or shoulder butt), chicken or beef, scampi or tuna, even spit-roasted lamb, all served straight from the charcoal grill.

It’s the kind of food that demands good beer more than wine. Gar Eden obliges with 10 varieties on tap, ranging from what it calls “standard” (Asahi Super Dry) to “new standards,” its terminology for craft ales. The joker in the pack here is the Italian beer: not the usual Moretti or Peroni but one of the new generation of microbrews (currently Birra del Borgo) that are now booming.

Manager Kenzo Kobayashi used to be in charge at Craft Beer Market in Jimbocho, so he not only knows his ales and IPAs, he understands the right price point. At ¥580 a glass or ¥880 per pint he gets it exactly right.

You’ll never guess what’s on the menu at Butcher Brothers. Or, rather, you will. But you won’t believe how good it is — or how affordable.

Thick rashers of smoky bacon, soft-stewed tripe, juicy homemade sausages and sizzling steaks, all served up from the busy, smoky open kitchen that occupies the heart of this buzzy new (February) restaurant close by Kanda Station.

Butcher Brothers is as cheap as it is cheerful, with generous steaks from as little as ¥840 for the beef rump or ¥1,250 for rib. As for the wine, it’s ¥450 by the glass, and few of the bottles are over ¥3,500.

For the longest time, this part of Kanda has been down at heel, with no shortage of sleazy salaryman dives and sake bars. Butcher Brothers is tangible evidence that there is new blood coursing through this old-school neighborhood.

World Breakfast All Day also has a name that says it all. This brilliant, whimsical little cafe/diner has not only come up with an idea that is totally original, it is doing it in a way that feels more Brooklyn or Camden Town than anything you’d expect to find on Gaien-Nishi-dori in Gaienmae.

Every two months, the menu changes to focus on the cuisine — specifically the breakfast — of a single country. Currently it’s Mexico. That means you get a generous plate of chilaquiles (fried egg with fresh tortilla, avocado, cream cheese and cilantro salad). There’s coffee, lightly sweetened horchata (an aromatic creamed-rice drink) or Tecate lager to go with that, depending on your whim and the time of day.

Alternatively, there is a simpler muesli bowl. Or you can go for the full English brekkers with egg and sausage, fried bread, baked beans, mushrooms and more. Then in the evening (from 5 p.m.), a rather more substantial dinner menu of Mexican specials comes into play.

The narrow dining room has only very basic decor, and everyone (maximum 14 people) sits at one long communal table. The walls are decorated with folksy Mexican artifacts and the menu has cute explanations (in Japanese) about the culture. But what makes this place so special is that at the end of each two-month period, everything will be overhauled — the next featured cuisine will be Vietnamese.

Kitchen Nakamura: La Porte Aoyama B1F, 5-51-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6450-5339. Nearest station: Omotesando (Ginza, Hanzomon and Chiyoda lines). ameblo.jp/kitchennakamura Gar Eden: 3-6-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6721-1444. Nearest station: Gaienmae (Ginza Line). www.facebook.com/gareden.kv Butcher Brothers: 4-5-10 Nihonbashi-Hongokucho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6225-2936. Nearest station: Kanda (Chuo, Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines). World Breakfast All Day: 3-1-23 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3401-0815. Nearest station: Gaienmae (Ginza Line). world-breakfast-allday.com Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.