Autumn is here, the season of antipasti misti and fruitful mellowness. It’s also the time of year, of course, for bountiful supplies of mushrooms and other miscellaneous fungi known collectively as kinoko — like the excellent assortment we enjoyed the other day at Aburiya, an atmospheric dining bar just off Aoyama-dori.
The bamboo basket we were served held five different species, none of them the anemic cultivated specimens you find on supermarket shelves. There were jonenjo, their long, thick, white, meaty trunks split into quarters lengthwise; a couple of awabitake, a soft, light brown bracket mushroom not so different in shape to the abalone after which they are named; delicate brown-capped shimeji; bright-orange nameko — not the gelatinous little blobs you find in noodle shops, but a specially large variant; and two kinds of maitake, one the more common variety with feathery gills of a whitish gray, the other with an attractive pink tinge to them.
When they’re fresh and in season like this, there’s only one thing better than having kinoko that have been cooked over charcoal — and that is grilling them yourself. Fresh from the grill to your plate, with a squirt of sudachi juice, then into your mouth. That was the reason why we made our way to Aburiya.
It’s a lovely little place, set off from the street by a bamboo fence. Slide back the gate and you find yourself in a lantern-lit bamboo glade. To one side, charcoal blazes heat from a large stone brazier. There is one table out on this patio, ideal for the last warm evenings of the season. Inside, the decor evokes a chic, contemporary wabi-sabi aesthetic, with shiny lacquer-look tables, walls the texture of washi, and subtle lighting issuing from recesses in the walls and floor.
As the name implies (aburu means “to grill”), the specialty of the house is the shichirin. As soon as you sit down, one of these miniature braziers will be set in front of you. And apart from the initial appetizers — cabbage leaves which you dip in a light oil infused with herbs and salt — and your final shokuji (rice or noodles), just about everything on the menu is prepared in such a way that you can grill it yourself.
We started with a mixed plate of their kunsei (smoked foods), which featured slices of duck, a couple of scallops, strips of squid and chunks of octopus, all lightly infused with the aromatic flavor of the smokehouse. These we held briefly over our glowing coals (briquettes of charcoal powder, which burn more evenly, we were told), then dipped in salt or powdered sansho pepper. Firm but not chewy, these made an excellent chinmi snack with our first beer.
Next we investigated the seasonal vegetables. The selection here included slices of zucchini, eggplant, red bell peppers, sweet potato, kabocha squash, ginkgo nuts and beni-imo, a pink-colored yam that hails from the Ryukyu islands. Homemade miso, sea salt and a pat of butter were the seasonings provided.
The menu (Japanese only) is complex and takes a while to figure out in the half light. It is arranged according to the category of food, some of which sound very exotic. Hitobanboshi (lightly dried fish); sashimi cuts of meat; free-range chicken (gamecock from Kagoshima; Nagoya cochin; or hinaidori from Akita); a selection of fresh seafood; yacho (wild fowl — including pheasant, quail, guinea fowl and duck); foie gras; and Korean-style kalbi beef.
From the section devoted to “mammal meats” we ignored the horse, the minke whale and even the spice-marinated lamb, and chose instead the venison. This was the highlight of our meal: tender and full of rich flavor, with a dab of grated ginger or garlic to offset the gaminess. Like all the other dishes we tried, it was of a very high quality and beautifully presented — and just a bit too skimpy in volume to do much more than titillate the taste buds.
But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Essentially, Aburiya is an izakaya for adults. You snack and you chat, and a good time is ensured by the extensive drinks list. Besides the beer (Super Dry or a flavorful brown, also from Asahi), there is a great selection of sake, shochu and wine (more than 20 kinds of each listed).
Aburiya extends over three floors. Ground level is the most intimate, with just a few seats at the counter and one small table. The second-floor tatami room is more boisterous, and the third floor has table seating for small groups and a stylish vermilion counter that is popular with couples on dates.
This place now has two offshoots with similar menus and ambience — Aburiya Cucina, off Spain-zaka in Shibuya; and Abiuriya Cuisine in Naka-Meguro (just off Yamate-dori). In much the same vein, the establishment in Aoyama is known as Chez Aburiya. But don’t let this faint whiff of pretentiousness put you off — they are all worth exploring.
For those unwilling to tackle the Japanese-only menu (or unable to make a choice), there is also a 4,000 yen fixed course, which provides a highly adequate overview of their offerings, including the kinoko but not the more exotic ingredients. Out of mad cow concerns, they have dropped wagyu beef from this course and instead substitute black pork.