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Ata: A Tokyo seafood bistro that does so much more than seafood

by Robbie Swinnerton

Bouillabaisse, fish and chips, beef Parmentier, foie gras dengaku. For a self-proclaimed seafood bistro, Ata certainly covers a lot of territory — much like its dynamic owner-chef has done in his short career.

Satoshi Kakegawa started out at Auberge au Mirador, the pioneering gourmet getaway in Hakone, spent three years at the vaunted two-Michelin-star Les Creations de Narisawa in Aoyama, parleyed that into becoming opening chef at Daylesford Organic near Omotesando and finally opened his own place at the end of 2012.

Ata — it’s Swedish for “eat” — is a warm, welcoming place. Idiosyncratic too: Few restaurants offer a choice of two parallel staircases to climb (it’s one floor up from the street) but no elevator. And few have comfy, low-slung armchairs (eight of them) the length of the open kitchen. The only part that looks a bit like a bistro is the room at the back, where you sit at simple plain-wood tables with candles.

The prime seats, though, are at that long counter. Here you can ease back, watch Kakegawa cooking his crustaceans and work your way through the offerings chalked on three blackboards on the wall above. The place to start is the left panel of that triptych.

Kick off with the aioli plate. Kakegawa has a great recipe for the garlic-infused Provencal mayonnaise that comes with a selection of raw vegetables, plus with your choice of grilled seafood — squid, mussels or shrimp (or all three). Or go with the bouillabaisse, which comes with plenty of fish, shrimp and mussels submerged in the rich, flavorful bisque.

Both are year-round signature dishes. So are the “pate-can” (his abbreviation for pate de campagne), the tasty cooked ham (made in-house) and the F&C (fish and chips). You find those inscribed on the middle blackboard along with more seasonal starters.

Now the warm weather is upon us, gazpacho is back on the menu. The thick, smooth, chilled soup is served with chunks of creamy avocado and, across the top, a whole sardine confit, adding crunch and salty savor.

The mains (the right board) cover the gamut from Dover sole to spare ribs, steak and chips or rack of lamb. The biggest draw of all is the homard. The lobsters — either from Canada or Brittany — are sliced lengthways and roasted over Kakegawa’s plancha grill, then served with a light gratin. Order quickly on arrival (or phone ahead), as he only keeps limited numbers.

The ultimate decadence, though, is the dish he jokingly dubs as “dengaku” — because it features eggplant, as does the Japanese dish. But instead of being daubed with miso, his version comes laden with morsels of anago (conger eel) and slices of pan-fried foie gras.

Quality ingredients, prepared with skill and served without fuss or pretension: Ata ticks all those boxes and then a few. No wonder it has been booked solid since it opened — despite the 10-minute walk from Shibuya, Ebisu or Daikanyama. Reservations are essential.

2-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6809-0955; www.ata1789.com; 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.; closed Sun.; nearest stations Shibuya, Daikanyama; no smoking; around ¥4,500 per head (plus drinks); major cards OK; English menu; little English spoken.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.