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Masa’s Kitchen 47 defies stereotypes with bold take on Chinese cuisine

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Gleaming white tableware, understated decor and not a single dragon or red lantern in sight: Masa’s Kitchen 47 boldly defies the stereotype for Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. Which is just as it should be. So does the food.

Owner-chef Masahito Namazue doesn’t turn out the tired old-school recipes that have been adapted — dumbed down, you might say — and popularized throughout Japan. Nor does he strive for some ideal of authenticity, be it Cantonese, Mandarin or any other style of Chinese cooking.

Instead, he has developed his own interpretation of the cuisine. Just like the interior of his restaurant, the results are attractive, boldly contemporary but never flashy. More to the point, his food tastes fantastic.

Look no further than his take on the classic Sichuan tantanmen (dandanmien in Chinese) noodles. Namazue prepares them in two different ways. One is close to the standard style, with plenty of minced pork and bathed in a powerful, red-hot soup. But he’s also created a “dry” version.

The noodles arrive in a small bowl, much like the tsukemen served at many ramen restaurants (though without the separate dip). You see the ground meat on top, garnished with generous amounts of sesame, pine nuts, chopped negi scallions and coriander leaf. Then you mix it all up and find there’s a super-concentrated sauce underneath, packing a hefty ma-la (chili plus Sichuan pepper) punch that leaves your lips and tongue tingling.

There are regulars who come just for the noodles. Served with a couple of small appetizers, they make a light, relatively speedy lunch (from ¥1,500). But the tantanmen is also a fixture in the multi-course set meals that show off Namazue’s cooking to the full.

The best introduction — and the best value — is the ¥3,600 lunch menu. This opens with a tray of four cold appetizers that are as striking visually as they are on the palate. It may include steamed eggplant in a fragrant consomme (prepared with Chinese ham), Sichuan-style drunken chicken in a gorgeous red chili oil, or perhaps pidan (preserved egg) in some form.

If you are sitting at the counter that overlooks the cramped, bustling open kitchen, you will notice that the xiaolongbao (steamed soup dumplings) are all made fresh to order. So are the long, cigar-like spring rolls, which are stuffed with shrimp, scallop and squid, and deep-fried a crisp golden-brown just minutes before they are served.

Namazue himself keeps an eye on proceedings from his wok at the back of the kitchen. He turns out a stream of delectable dishes, from blanched lettuce, which he drizzles with rich oyster sauce, to main dishes such as his outstanding subuta pork covered in rich, viscous, sweet-sour, black-vinegar sauce.

Even the annin-dofu (almond jelly) that closes the meal is made from scratch from whole apricot kernels. It’s an indication of the attention to detail, concern for ingredients and hands-on laborious work that underpins the excellent cooking at Masa’s Kitchen 47.

All around Japan, Chinese communities are gearing up for Lunar New Year celebrations tomorrow (Feb. 19). Don’t expect Namazue to put up special decorations or make festive recipes. That’s not his style. But if you are marking the day, there is nowhere better in the neighborhood to do so.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.