The highs and lows of izakaya dining


The ethereal, powder-blue fiber-optic lights that illuminate the entrance to Yui-an give a remarkable sense of stepping into another dimension — a sensation heightened by the high-speed elevator ride to the top of the Sumitomo Building. With your brain suitably befuddled before you even get through the door, the effect of looking down on the night city from 52 floors up is nothing short of spectacular.

The place to sit (if you are lucky enough to snare a reservation) is at one of the four window-side tables where the picture windows come right down to floor level. There with a flagon of beer, a glass of wine or one of Yui-an’s patent cocktails in hand, you gaze out unobstructed at the lights winking on and off in a syncopation worthy of a Terry Riley tape-loop composition. It is a heady experience, one which gives the gritty streets of the metropolis the glow of romance.

Although it’s a very large place, seating close to 200 people, Yui-an can be a hard place to book a table at. It is now one of the spots most in demand by dating couples and parties of young people out to enjoy themselves.

There are other factors, though, that make securing an advance reservation less than straightforward. When you phone, they encourage you to book one of their set dinners (for 3,000 yen, 5,000 yen or 6,000 yen). However, they may arbitrarily call back and notify you that you will be given a different meal from the one you ordered.

If you can arrive before 6:30 p.m., you are not restricted in this way. However, for this privilege they impose a strict two-hour time limit, after which they ask you to vacate your seat. There is also a good chance you may find yourself installed with your back to the view at one of the two counters, or at one of the larger tables at the back of the room, which feel little different from any large, modern izakaya.

Arrive after 9:30 or so, and you may be able to walk straight in with little waiting time, making it a fine place for a late evening, post-prandial snifter, without worrying unduly about eating. This is the best approach, since the food is at best only adequate.

The menu is the now-standard modern take on traditional Japanese home cooking, but presented tastefully on country-look ceramics. The 3,000 yen course entails a platter of zensai appetizers; a plate of carpaccio-style sashimi (in our case of kanpachi yellowtail); a tasty nimono of kakuni pork and taro yams in a rich tamari gravy; followed by a sliver of grilled fish (perhaps kawahagi and some deep-fried sardine satsuma-age cakes, very heavy on the stomach); a rice dish (with chestnuts at this time of year); and a light dessert.

This is undeniably good value for such a location, and more than adequate if you are there primarily for the view. But it is essentially cooking by numbers, probably prepared well ahead of time, and put together without any sense of flair. Nor will you fare much better ordering a la carte from the menu, which is all in Japanese apart from some highly dubious English section titles such as “Your heart palpitation appetizers;” “Deep emotional menu” (which include Kyoto pickles, or salad vegetables with miso dip); “Coloring special green’s;” or “A fascination dessert.”

Quite apart from the food, though, what is irritating is the production-line way in which they treat their customers, down to the precise time that each dish will be served to each table. Remarkably, few people seem to notice or care. They’re only there for the view.

For our money, we prefer a different perspective of Tokyo, one closer to its streets, its history and what remains of its traditions. Forget the high-rise mediocracy of Shinjuku. We’d rather spend an evening at Quienquiera, down a quiet shopping street at the very nether end of Ebisu.

It is a beautiful old wooden building, originally built as a neighborhood hardware store back in the seventh year of Taisho (1918). At first glance, the exterior looks virtually untouched, but closer inspection reveals just how effectively it has been not only refurbished but tastefully added to, in a way that enhances the original features while also incorporating well-judged contemporary touches.

On the ground floor is a bar with counter seats, plus a few tables built alongside the mud and timber of the wall. Out back you step across paving stones through a miniature garden to reach a rest room that equally combines the best of traditional craftsmanship and modern technology.

A steep wooden staircase (which requires more care on the way back down) leads to an even more impressive upstairs space. There are comfortable chairs of rattan or leather. There’s a small room at the back, plus a balcony (enclosed) which is big enough for two couples to gaze down onto the shopping street below. There’s even a tiny third-floor attic space holding just one low table, built high up under the eaves.

Quienquiera is an evening space, for quiet communion over a drink or three. Rather than a place for dining out, it is more a modern incarnation of the kind of izakaya where you snack as you imbibe, and where conversation is the main lubricant. The drinks list is extensive, spanning beer (Yebisu), whiskey and other spirits, cocktails, sake (Yusui from Saga) and wine (a reasonable Mondavi).

The kitchen does prepare a most adept line of side dishes, however, whichever direction your choice of drinks takes you. You could back up a bottle of wine with some of their excellent jidori chicken-liver pate, Camembert grilled with herbs or a shrimp cocktail. Or chase down your sake with maguro no yama-kake (tuna sashimi with grated yam); flavorful jikasei satsuma-age fish cakes; and some sake (salmon) chazuke.

The atmosphere is refined. You are served with grace and attention. The view is homely, not spectacular, but also in its way hinting of past romances. Places like this (and they are all too rare) inspire and remind us that Tokyo is not just a hard-edged, sprawling metropolis best seen from a distance, but still a real community with a taste and history that can only be appreciated from close up.