Urban dining myth number one: The closer you eat to Tsukiji, the better quality the fish must be.
Well, yes and no. The crucial thing is not location (chefs drive down there in the morning from all over town) but experience. For any restaurateur, having the right contacts in the market helps, as does knowing what’s absolutely freshest. What’s essential, though, is being able to prepare it.
Myths number two and three: There’s no middle ground when eating out round Tsukiji — you either have to pay through the nose for upmarket ryotei fare or huddle with the market workers in cheerful, no-frills proletarian eateries which tend to close shortly after midday. Plus it’s shitamachi, where Edomae traditions die hard and the locals are arch-conservatives who like things the way they’ve been done for generations.
An evening at Yamadaya will rapidly disembarrass you of those last two ideas. This splendid little place, not much bigger than an izakaya, serves a modern ryori, confident, contemporary and not afraid of experimentation. In doing so, it manages to achieve the elusive golden mean of first-rate food that’s inventive, served in a simple, modern setting as welcoming and accessible as the prices it charges.
Owner-chef Yoshinobu Yamada hails from a family of Tsukiji fish merchants. After years learning his metier and polishing the full gamut of culinary skills at such varied operations as Kihachi, Azabu Changjiang and the late (and bemourned by many) Rellenos, he has returned to his childhood stomping ground, his neighborhood values and his washoku roots.
That eclectic apprenticeship has left its mark: Yamada-san brings a wonderful creative touch to the traditional techniques of the Japanese kitchen. Just try his trademark Yamadaikon sarada. A heaping yama (mound) of crisp white daikon shards (freshly shredded by knife), dressed with the refreshingly tart tang of ume, fine-chopped shiso leaf and white sesame seeds and then smothered in shavings of katsuo-bushi waving like pink-brown confetti on the plate. The flavors are age-old; the concept and vertical presentation (and punning menu name) are fusion-inspired.
Thus also his carpaccio of hatsu-gatsuo. Fine slices of spring bonito, dark and fleshy-red, are given a dressing of nutty sesame oil blended with a hint of shoyu and yuzu juice. The result is so luxuriously soft and sensuous it risks being impounded by the vice squad as hazardous to the morals of the city’s youth.
Shiro-ebi no paripari age: It sounds basic, but turns out to be sophisticated patties of small transparent shrimp mixed with sliced onion, negi scallions and mitsuba, then deep-fried kaki-age style. Light, crunchy and tender, these are served with a lemon wedge and sprinkled with turmeric, paprika and a dash of cayenne. Simple yet outstanding, this is izakaya food to die for.
The staple dishes are all taken care of with equal subtlety. Our sashimi of ocean-caught hiramasu was firm of texture, delicate of flavor but with an edge of gamy wildness, and absolutely fresh (myth No. 1 still lives). You are offered a choice of soy sauces to dip your fish in — regular, or special Kyushu shoyu with a sweet back flavor that flies in the face of all Edo taste traditions. The Kawashima tofu — scoops of smooth, handmade oboro-dofu from the noted shop of that name — is served in bamboo zaru baskets and eaten with just a pinch of sea salt to draw out its sweet, beany flavor.
One of Yamada’s specialties is his charcoal-grilled seafood, cooked over small ceramic shichirin grills brought to your table. We ordered the Chiba hamaguri, their rich juices bubbling over into the glowing coals; and Aomori uni, sliced open to reveal the wickedly creamy orange innards, black spines waving an alien dance of death. Both were outstanding.
A final recommendation: Anago (conger eel), deep-fried in fillets kara-age style, slightly crisped on the outside, with a succulently tender interior, presented with a bowl of savory oroshi-jiru (a katsuo-based dashi broth thick with grated daikon), which you spoon over the fish. This is superb. Entire cookbooks have been written about lesser preparations.
Although wine is on offer, this is food that demands nihonshu. Besides the half-dozen listed, there are a few specials at the back of the fridge (we were happy to find an old favorite, Tedorigawa’s daiginjo Yoshidakura). As with the food — little of which is priced over 1,000 yen per item — Yamada-san has achieved the remarkable feat of serving prime quality stuff and keeping it all affordable.
He is able to do this by concentrating on what is truly important and keeping his costs low. The decor is simple; the crockery stacked along the counter is tasteful but low-budget. He has just one sidekick in the kitchen, while Mrs. Yamada cheerfully attends to everything on the floor. Although no English is spoken, you can’t go wrong if you go for one of the courses (3,000 yen, 4,000 yen or 5,000 yen), which are built around sashimi, charcoal-grilled seafood, and one or more of his daily special side dishes.
The best thing about Yamadaya is that it’s still a neighborhood restaurant. Most of his customers are nearby shitamachi residents. Couples bring their children; refined older women in conservative designer dresses rub shoulders with young shokunin in work pants with towels around their heads. It’s popular in every sense of the word, so reservations are advisable.
Walk, don’t bother to run, to the latest addition to the admirable Shunju chain. Not that there’s anything wrong with the spectacular location (way up in the new Sanno Park Tower), the interior design (strikingly sleek and contemporary) or the menu (the kind of modern washoku-plus we know and love).
The main drawback is that they have become too busy too fast. This means the huge, gleaming open kitchen is currently stretched beyond its abilities. And the waiting staff are as green as new season edamame. These are teething difficulties which will no doubt be resolved.
The main problem, however, is one of scale. The dining room is more expansive and less intimate in feel than we have come to expect from other Shunju branches. The furnishings are mass-produced and have nothing in the way of character. They have an attached wine bar that looks great but is woefully limited in the bottles they stock.
In short, they’ve gone corporate — and that’s too bad. Set against any other standards but their own, there would be no grounds for complaint. It’s still a great space, serving good food in style. It just doesn’t feel like a Shunju.