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Matsushima: Riffing on the theme of Chinese cuisine

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Matsushima is not the easiest restaurant to find. It lies on a quiet pedestrian alley with its name displayed so discreetly that you barely notice the stairs leading down to its unobtrusive door. And yet, over the 10 months since it opened, a growing number of people have been searching it out.

They are arriving not just from the immediate vicinity, the residential area around Yoyogi Uehara Station, but increasingly from across the city. Behind that inscrutable entrance, chef Yutaka Matsushima is serving up some great Chinese food, and word is starting to spread.

It’s a tiny place, with just room for a couple of tables, plus a counter seating four in elbow-to-elbow intimacy. That is where to sit if you want to peer into the kitchen and watch Matsushima at work. He does it all solo, with his wife taking care of the service. The results are impressive and distinctively his own.

If you only know the four main schools of Chinese cuisine — Cantonese/Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sichuan and Beijing — prepare to be intrigued: Matsushima finds his inspiration elsewhere. He likes Southwest China, Yunnan and most especially Guangxi, and has visited the region searching out the food and flavors of the ethnic minorities who live there.

Get him talking at the end of his shift and he may bring out some of the delicacies of that region. One curiosity is a jar of fermented beans that look, smell and taste like a country cousin to the pungent, sticky nattō of Japan. He has even constructed a special menu (¥6,500) around such unusual ingredients.

But for a first-time visit, the place to start is the seven-course omakase tasting menu (¥5,000), which opens with a plate of mixed appetizers, such as cured ducks’ tongues — dainty, chewy morsels that go nicely with your first beer — or shirako (cod milt) with napa cabbage, a Matsushima original rarely if ever found in China. From the outset, it is clear that you are in good hands, and that the meal is likely to be a voyage of discovery.

But Matsushima’s cooking is all about flavor, not novelty value. His chicken is rich with star anise and other aromatics and he gives the lamb spare ribs a powerful cumin-driven herbal coating. His Hong Kong-style “crepe gyōza” (his description) blends minced pork and vegetables inside a soft, rice flour wrap, which he chops up in front of you on a sizzling-hot pan. This alone is likely to spark thoughts of a return visit.

There are other highlights: tofu with Shanghai crab tomalley and enoki mushrooms; hefty cuts of pork smothered in a gleaming sauce of tart black vinegar; and, as the crescendo of the meal, a fiery Sichuan-style oyster hot pot that is wonderfully warming.

Matsushima does not offer dessert. But if you’re craving some sweetness, he has a great selection of shaoxingjiu and other sticky-rice “wines,” some of which work perfectly as a leisurely digestif. There is much to explore here, so be ready to take your time.

Closed Wed.; Tasting menus from ¥5,000; also a la carte; Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.