Before intrepidly setting out to eat our way through this brave new century, let us pause briefly to consider the state of contemporary Japanese dining. Needless to say, the situation is very different from 100 years ago, when most people were fed by itinerant hawkers, yatai stalls or simple food outlets set into houses at street level, and when Yokohama gyu-nabe, omu-raisu and other yoshoku exotica were considered the height of sophisticated dining out.
The cutting-edge Japanese restaurant in Tokyo, anno Domino 2001, is invariably housed in custom-designed architecture, usually of postindustrial concrete softened by subtle furnishings and insufficient lighting. It will be casual in mood, the service informal but never unprofessional or overfamiliar. Much like a superior izakaya, it offers a wide selection of dishes and cooking styles, not only to reflect the seasons but also to accommodate the complex whims of its predominantly young and well-traveled clientele’s palates.
There are no taboos against serving foods (or drink) from outside the Japanese tradition. Yet the basic tenets of the cuisine remain sacrosanct: fresh ingredients; simplicity of preparation; and an understanding of the complex virtues of indigenous seasonings, not least the transcendental qualities of good dashi cooking stock.
Few places exemplify this new “designer” washoku better than Sono-Ichi, which occupies a striking building down on Nishi-Azabu’s “restaurant row” to the southwest of the crossing. The fortress exterior of impersonal concrete and rust-red metal looks forbidding, but the welcome inside is always friendly and considerate. Push on through the noren in the front wall and make your way across a walkway high above the basement level, and you will find yourself in an entrance corridor lined with shichirin burners, their warm charcoal glow illuminating the polished pebbles on either side of the flagstones.
The first-floor dining room has a soaring high ceiling, with massive glass frontage looking out onto a small garden, with water trickling down a smooth, vertical wall as black as granite. Off to one side there is a long table, big enough for ten, with stylish, upholstered white chairs. Concrete stairs lit by washi paper lamps lead up to a mezzanine floor housing party rooms in tatami or horigotatsu style. Throughout, the lighting is kept to a faint glow, barely boosted by the small candles set on each of the tables.
The waiters wear chic black shirts, pants and aprons, as if at a hip California bistro. Out back in the gleaming open kitchen, the young cooking staff sport indigo kerchiefs, either as bandannas or as head-scarves. But they are serious cooks, well grounded both in the fundamentals and the aesthetics of their metier. Their ingredients are free-range, organically grown or caught from the wild wherever possible, and all artificial seasonings are shunned. This too is an essential factor in the new ryori (cuisine).
The Japanese menu, printed in cursive style on thick washi, is hard to work your way round initially, its fine print virtually illegible in the half light. The English equivalent provides rudimentary help but is sorely lacking in detail. Your best bet is, as always, to find out what is freshest that day and leave much of the decision-making to the kitchen. Nothing we have eaten at Sono-Ichi has disappointed us; much of it is first class. If anything, the food is better now than when it first opened.
The modern dining style requires that you be given the opportunity to dine in quasi-Western-style. Thus you could start with a carpaccio and appetizers of cheese and/or sausage, continue with a green salad and one of the meat dishes, and slosh it all down with one of the 30 or so wines, selected primarily from France, Italy and the U.S. West Coast.
But you would be foolish to pass up the seafood here — especially in winter, when they are likely to have hon-maguro bluefin, ten-nen buri (deep-sea yellowtail, not the flabby, cultivated alternative), and wild tora-fugu puffer fish, flown up direct from Shimonoseki. And there is plenty of good sake to back up that decision, including a dozen premium ginjo jizake, a couple more available as atsukan, and three different varieties served as chilled take-zake, in hollow lengths of green bamboo.
If you can’t decide what kind of sashimi to start with, order the mori-awase mixed plate. On our most recent visit, we were given a few cuts each of hon-maguro (both o-toro and chu-toro); succulent belly meat of ten-nen buri, just as rich and fatty as the o-toro tuna; morsels of ma-dai (snapper); delectable, fine-sliced akagai shellfish, its texture neither rubbery or hard, straight from the shell and still perfumed with the sea water it was plucked from; plus some of the tastiest hotate (scallops) we have eaten this season — not just the thick, succulent kaibashira holdfasts, but also the surrounding frills that are usually discarded if not absolutely fresh.
Our warm mentaiko salad, also served on a wide, white platter, was composed of mizuna and mibuna (greens not so dissimilar to rocket) plus a mound of other vegetables such as grilled eggplant and leek, slices of okra and radish and grated daikon. The light pink roe, which had been freshly grilled, was carefully mashed, mixed and drizzled with fragrant, nutty sesame oil by our waitress.
Their tempura is good, but so too are the kani kuriimu korokke — not usually considered gourmet fare, but here close to defining the genre. The plump, juicy crab pincers are encased in creamy potato, then breaded and deep-fried until crisp but still oozing soft inside. We were equally pleased with the aegamo duck, tender breast meat that is grilled, then sliced and sandwiched between similar-sized blanched daikon and annointed with a sweet teriyaki-style sauce.
Winter is nabemono time, and Sono-Ichi indulges this pleasure with a range of hot pots, cooked on gas burners at your table, from hearty kimchi-flavored chanko nabe of fish, meat and vegetables to a rich miso-flavored casserole with chicken dango, and a classically simple yu-dofu — vegetarian apart from the katsuo dashi cooking broth.
More unusual than those — and a true luxury — is the shabu-shabu of yellowtail. Two bamboo trays are brought, one holding the nabe materials — cubes of tofu; Chinese cabbage; shimonita negi (leek); fresh shiitake and enoki mushrooms — the other covered in fine slivers of prime ten-nen buri, redder and more substantial than the sashimi cuts, laid out on fragrant green sasa leaves.
As the vegetables and tofu cook, you swish the tender slices of yellowtail in the broth: Just a couple of times if you want it still a bit raw; perhaps five times to ensure it’s cooked all the way through. It’s not just a question of preference; it’s a matter of pure enjoyment and gratification. And when all the solid matter is eaten, they will take away the remaining broth and cook it up with rice and egg to make a dynamite zosui.
During the mellow weather of May and early October, they throw open the glass frontage and you can eat outside, though in the height of summer they keep the air-conditioning in. But there is another reason why winter is the best time to visit Sono- Ichi. When you have finished eating, you can repair to the very pleasant basement bar — Sono-Ni by name — which is heated (and perfumed) with an open wood-burning stove. There you can sip coffee or expensive liquors, puff a Havana or just make intimate conversation.
Such shameless self-indulgence is not typically part of the traditional Japanese restaurant experience. But, like we said, this is the washoku of the 21st century.