Timing is everything at Tokyo Skytree. In daylight the urban sprawl below just looks banal; at night, the city lights gleam with romance, but you can’t see to the far horizons. Get there for sunset, though, and if conditions are right, the view can be little short of magical.
The same applies when you pick a place to eat at the city’s most popular tourist attraction. At peak meal times there are waits of up to an hour. But arrive early or as the crowds are thinning, and there’s every chance you will waltz straight in.
That’s definitely the way to do it at Shokkan Solamachi-ten. Dinner service opens from 5 p.m., which at this time of year is right around sunset. While most other visitors are taking in the view as the city lights up for the evening, you can claim pole position right outside the restaurant’s front entrance.
Almost invariably there will be a few places unreserved, if not at the most coveted tables right by the floor-to-ceiling picture windows, then at the counter, where you sit right in front of the busy open kitchen watching your meal being prepared. If, like me, you enjoy the theater of a Japanese kitchen, those are the best seats in the house.
As at the original branch in Shibuya (jtim.es/pOZ6G), Shokkan serves Japanese cuisine with a casual, contemporary inflection. Stylish, relaxed and affordable, it offers enough creativity in the kitchen to draw in a youngish crowd but without alienating those with more dyed-in-the-wool tastes.
The menu may be nigh-on identical, but the demographic is anything but. Skytree is a magnet for visitors of every age, and Shokkan, which is located on the 30th floor of a building adjacent to the tower, serves them all: dating couples, groups of old codgers, parents with adult children, and extended families with kids of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers. It also has a comprehensive, well translated English menu to ensure everyone’s taken care of.
And for that reason, there are different strategies for approaching the menu. Those with children in tow mostly pick out a couple of dishes to share, followed by a more filling rice or noodle dish, and close with a dessert. Then there are omakase (chef’s choice) set meals (¥5,000 or ¥7,000) for those who want a little taste of all the trademark Shokkan dishes.
But there is also a third approach, and this can be the most rewarding. You can treat Shokkan as an izakaya (tavern), ordering a couple of dishes at a time in tapas style, to go with your sake or shōchū (or beer or wine).
Where to start? Well, just about everyone goes for the house-specialty appetizer, slices of raw vegetables served with a dip of tomato-miso. The thick paste of vivid red is one of the original ideas that helped put owner-chef Kan Sato on the map, and its intriguing savory-sweet flavor is a surprising hit.
Alternatively, try the rolls of crab and wakame (seaweed) wrapped in yuba (soy-milk skin) and topped with a tart, refreshing gelee of ponzu (rice vinegar mixed with soy sauce and dashi stock). Other options as nibbles include deep-fried ginkgo nuts or slices of lightly smoked duck breast.
There is also a list of seasonal specials (in Japanese only). Current offerings range from plump oysters on the half shell, freshly flown down from Hokkaido, to lightly seared anago (conger eel), in bite-sized morsels served with small dabs of aromatic sanshō pepper paste.
These are all ideally suited to the extensive sake selection. Some 17 regional brews are kept in the refrigerated cabinet by the entrance — recommendations here would include Kikuyoi, Tengummai Gorin and Kokuryu — which are available in either one- or two-person servings.
At this point, food with a bit more heft is called for. The “Grilled” section of the menu obliges with miso-marinated chicken, Platinum pork (it’s a breed from northern Japan) and steaks of tender, well-marbled premium Kuroge wagyū beef. A small steak is included in the more substantial ¥7,000 course, though if you don’t like yours rare, you will need to specify otherwise.
The other signature dish comes toward the end of the meal: kamameshi rice, prepared in small individual pots together with seafood or vegetables. Salmon and ikura (salted salmon roe) is a great combination, and so is zuwai crab cooked with mushrooms and butter.
The top-of-the-line item is Shokkan’s self-described “famous seafood paella.” This is cooked in a wide earthenware donabe casserole, and comes laden with generous amounts of salmon and its roe, clams, mussels and small, pink sakura-ebi shrimps. Just as you’d get in Spain, the rice is cooked with a nice crisp brown crust at the bottom.
By this time, night will have fallen, and the glitter of the low-lying city below will be matched by the lights reflected in window glass from the open kitchen. With the effects of the sake kicking in, everything takes on a cheerful glow.
The wait staff make up for their hesitations with a genuine desire to please. The food is not premium high-end fare — in fact, at times it seems a bit soulless — but it’s perfectly suited to the easygoing atmosphere.
Best of all, though, Shokkan is child-friendly, no-smoking, wheelchair-accessible and open year-round without any holidays (not even New Year’s Day). There are few restaurants in the city that can match that.