Hidden away on a narrow backstreet in Ogawamachi, one of Tokyo’s old-school carousing districts, Misotetsu Kagiroi is far from your typical izakaya tavern. Unlike most of its neighbors, it does not sport a large red lantern outside to grab your attention. Nor are you greeted by raucous revelry as you push through the doorway.
With its traditional timber architecture and old-fashioned front door, Kagiroi seems quiet and genteel. But there’s nothing overly refined about the teppan griddle that occupies center stage of the small ground-floor open kitchen. Meat or mushrooms, vegetables or chicken, everything hits the gleaming slab of steel with a slosh of oil, a succulent sizzle and a waft of savory aromas.
What’s on the menu? And, more to the point, what’s good? Just about everything that is given the teppan treatment. One of the highlights is the juicy miso-marinated imo-buta, a breed of pig fed primarily on sweet potatoes.
Quickly seared, then cooked more slowly under a dome to seal in the steam and the flavor, the thick-cut strips of pork are lightly browned, juicy, full of meaty savor. And yes, the rich fat does have a faint sweetness, which could well be attributed to the porkers’ feed.
Then there’s the Ezo-jika Hamburg. The thick patty of ground venison, from the meat of Hokkaido sika deer, is cooked over the griddle till just faintly pink inside. This is hamburger masquerading as steak: Instead of arriving sandwiched between buns, it is still on the foil it was cooked in. Hardly a gourmet presentation, but it tastes so good it’s become one of Kagiroi’s signature dishes.
There’s more than just meat. Autumn is kinoko (fungi) season, so it makes sense to go for the tasty mixed-grill fry-up of eringi, enoki, shimeji and other mushrooms. This comes with a lively miso-vinegar ponzu sauce.
Even better is the nasu dengaku. Half a jumbo eggplant, as thick as a steak and as long as your hand, is slow-cooked until its flesh is so melting-soft you can almost pour it out from its skin. Given a generous scoop of lightly sweetened sakura miso, a dark miso from Kyoto, it is then sprinkled with crunchy poppy seeds to give it an extra edge of texture.
Miso is an important component at Kagiroi, as you’d guess from the first half of its full name, Misotetsu (the tetsu [steel] part signifies the teppan). Throughout the menu the savory soy seasoning crops up repeatedly, starting with the organic vegetable sticks served with a choice of miso dips — the yuzu citron and garlic dips are my favorites — which make a great nibble at the outset of any meal.
Order the butter-grilled potatoes and you get them on foil again, with a generous, umami-rich scoop of miso mixed with kasu (sake lees). You’ll find hishio, a traditional soy product halfway between miso and soy sauce, with your grilled squid. And you can even have miso-chocolate sauce poured over your vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Kagiroi has one more string to its bow: its small charcoal pit. You can’t go wrong with saikyo-yaki grilled fish, slathered with white Kyoto miso. And most people close their meals with grilled rice balls that are daubed with reddish Sendai miso for extra oomph.
Miso is more than just savory umami, of course. It’s salty stuff that primes your thirst. Although wine and whiskey have their takers, the libations of choice here are draft beer, shōchū and a good selection of jizake (sake from smaller regional producers).
There are still likely to be a few bottles of hiyaoroshi, the seasonal sake that is released after being cellared through the summer. From the regular sake menu, Hiroki in Aizu, Fukushima Prefecture, is a worthy brewery to support, as the region rebuilds following the 2011 quake. Also look out for Meikyoshisui, a junmai daiginjō of some refinement from Nagano Prefecture.
While it’s always fun to watch the chefs in action, there are times when the extractor fan struggles to keep up with the billowing smoke from the skewers over the charcoal. The counter seats are not the place to be if you’re in your best clothes or in the mood for quiet conversation.
So slip off your shoes and make your way up those polished wooden stairs to the atmospheric second-floor dining room. Here you dine at low tables set on tatami mats, folding your feet underneath you on thin zabuton cushions.
With its polished beams, shōji screens and period fixtures and fittings, Kagiroi is just the place to while away chilly winter evenings in conversation, with better than average food and drink and little strain on your pocketbook.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.