Even a lingering winter has its upsides. The longer and harsher the conditions, the more appealing it is to sit down to a bubbling, warming nabe hot-pot — especially if it comes with a dash of contemporary style, as it does at Bettei.
This easy-going diner in the backstreets of Ebisu is by no means a dedicated nabe restaurant. In fact, given its counter seating, eclectic food menu and range of wine (all “bio”), prime shōchū and premium junmai and ginjō sake, it’s a perfect example of a modern washoku dining bar, or an izakaya reinvented for the present decade.
It’s not the genre that matters, it’s the food. The specialties at Bettei are Gin-no-kamo, a variety of Barbary duck raised in Aomori Prefecture; and fresh vegetables grown in the market gardens of Kamakura on the Shonan (Kanagawa) coast just south of Tokyo. Put the two together and you’re all primed for one of the tastiest types of nabe: kamo-shabu.
The ingredients are laid out on a wooden tray: slices of duck breast, the creamy-white fat in beautiful, auspicious contrast to the dark red flesh; a generous mound of greens and sliced negi leeks; crisp Shonai fu, rusk-like strips of dried wheat gluten from Yamagata Prefecture; and a couple of plump shiitake mushrooms.
Once the rich broth has come to a boil in the nabe on the tabletop burner, pile in the vegetables and swish the duck meat until it just starts to change color. Wagyū beef may be the rich man’s choice for shabu-shabu, but there is something deeply satisfying about duck, especially of this quality.
This same excellent Gin-no-kamo duck is offered in other ways, too. Grilled over charcoal or braised, it is good, but the standout is the minchi-katsu, patties of minced duck meat that are breaded and deep-fried à la tonkatsu.
There’s a small but well prepared selection of sashimi to go with your sake. And the Kamakura vegetables make excellent fresh salads, whether mixed with carpaccio, with raw shirasu (those tiny transparent fish with beady black eyes), or just served with a rich bagna càuda dip.
The other signature dish at Bettei is what it calls its Wa-tapas Premium Plate. It’s a selection of nine or so appetizers arrayed with some finesse on a chunky square platter. Colorful and creative, these will include seasonal seafood and a couple of slices of that grilled duck, plus some Western influences, such as kabocha pumpkin mousse or potato salad formed into a miniature Mount Fuji and draped with slivers of prosciutto.
If you just want to sit back and nibble while you drink, you can order any of these a dish at time. But if you’re there for dinner and are keen to sample everything, the ideal strategy is to order the all-in Bettei Course set menu (¥4,000/head), sit back and warm up in comfort.
Bettei is just 3 minutes’ walk from Ebisu Station, up the hill from the West Exit rotary, but well away from the bustle. It’s at the top of a steep flight of stairs, so best to phone ahead.
3F La Rennes Ebisu, 1-14-15 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6412-7639; www.bettei.biz; 6 p.m.-1 a.m. (hols 5:30- 11 p.m.); closed Sun.; nearest station Ebisu; no smoking inside; ¥4,000 per head (plus drinks); major cards OK; Japanese menu; some English spoken.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.