Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Go with the grain at Kokoromai

by Robbie Swinnerton

Shinmai-nyuka — the new rice is in stock. Far more than just a statement of fact, it’s a cry of exultation that has echoed down the centuries. Last autumn’s rice is old and tired; this year’s newly harvested grain is fresh and full of flavor. Is that not cause for celebration?

In cultures where rice is considered little more than bland, carbohydrate filler, such sentiments may seem strange. In Japan, the staple grain has always occupied a central place on dinner tables around the country, especially in farmhouses and rural communities, but also here in the heart of the city — as brilliantly demonstrated at Kokoromai.

This simple yet chic little restaurant (in Japanese it would be termed a koryoriya) features rice the way other places specialize in, say, chicken, eel or beef tongue. Instead of relegating it to a bit part, an afterthought to round off the meal, Kokoromai elevates it to the starring role.

Rice, of course, is not a singular noun in Japan. Dozens of different strains exist, with climate and geography determining the flavor and character just as terroir does for grapes and their resulting wine. Kokoromai serves eight varieties of plain white rice, each identified by the prefecture of its origin and even the name of the farmer who grew it. In addition, they also prepare genmai (very lightly polished brown rice) and zakkoku, mixed with grains such as millet and barley.

All this is laid out in detail on the special rice menu, which you receive, along with the general food menu, as soon as you have settled in and chosen what you’re drinking. The reason why you need to consider at the start of the meal the course that usually concludes it is that each serving of rice is individually cooked to order. It is prepared in the traditional way, simmered slowly in ceramic do-nabe, spherical cooking pots the size of small melons, with a dark brown glaze and heavy, snug-fitting lids to match. The results are delicious, but it’s a process that can take half an hour or more, hence the need to plan ahead.

Rice may hold center stage at Kokoromai, but custom still dictates that you only eat it at the end of your meal. However, there is plenty to occupy your palate and attention before it does make its appearance. We found that they have a considerable menu of seafood and other side dishes, plus a good selection of drinks to go with them — as evidenced by the magnums of shochu arrayed on the counter by the open kitchen and the bottles of fine jizake kept chilling in the fridge.

To go with our first beer of the evening (they have Yebisu regular or black, in small bottles; Premium Malts on tap), we nibbled on shrimp (ko-ebi kara-age) deep-fried whole in their shells; and skewers of ginnan, small, soft emerald-green ginkgo nuts also deep-fried and salted — a taste of autumn that is far superior to any beer nuts.

The seafood is mostly caught from the fertile waters of the Naruto Straits off Shikoku, sourced directly from the ports and, on the evidence of our mixed plate of sashimi, superbly fresh. It was served with freshly grated wasabi root (always an indicator that a restaurant places a premium on quality) and served on a handsome, rough-textured square platter, which (like all the ceramics) have a rustic, hand-thrown look.

One of the specialties at Kokoromai is their kuromai tsukune dango. Minced chicken (from jidori fowl) is rolled into thin cylinders, then covered with soft-cooked black rice. Gently seasoned and grilled just until the exterior is lightly crisp, it is sliced and garnished with scallions and peppery sansho leaf.

There were many other dishes we would have liked to sample — various salads; lots of different charcoal-grilled fish; and their kushi-yaki Golden Pork. But we chose instead hamo eel wrapped around maitake mushrooms, cooked in a crisp tempura batter. The delicate white meat of the fish and the faint autumnal hint of woodsy fungi made a fine combination. No dipping sauce was needed, just a pinch of sea salt as the lightest of seasonings.

And then our rice arrived. It was recommended that we leave the do-nabe pot undisturbed for several minutes more, to allow the cooked rice to settle. When we lifted the lid — still piping hot from the stove, so a special cotton-print napkin is provided — the steam that rose to greet our nostrils was a subtle waft of perfume.

Each variety of rice has its own characteristics, some chewier, others fluffier. We found the shichiya koshihikari from Saga (No. 4 on the list) to be light and fragrant, whereas the koshihikari from Ishikawa (No. 7) cooks firmer, sweeter, with more substantial body and mouth feel. In both, the grains around the bottom of the pot had formed a slight crust of golden brown.

Each was delicious, certainly good enough to eat on its own. But the standard procedure is to order some condiments, perhaps some spicy mentaiko roe or the set of four gohan no tomo — tiny jako fish; pickled vegetables; sweet-salty nori tsukudani (seaweed preserve); and a small umeboshi plum. To help it all down, there are two kinds of miso soup to choose from, each made with different dashi stock and miso. And if, like us, you are unable to finish all the rice in your pots, they will make it up into small onigiri rice balls for you to take home.

Traditional as this way of eating may sound, Kokoromai is a very contemporary place. It occupies the second floor of a modern building at the bottom of Gaien-Nishi-dori in Shirokane. You reach the entrance by a metal spiral staircase. The interior is modern wafu, with light wood furnishings and bamboo blinds to screen out the cityscape.

Besides the 10 counter seats, where you can peer in on the chefs in the open kitchen, there are two tables (each for four) separated by a framework of wooden slats to give the impression of privacy. The lights are kept dim, but a pretty glow emanates from lamps set at floor level.

You might even adopt a more Western-style approach to eating at Kokoromai, to take advantage of the wine (a compact list, mostly imports but also featuring a white from Tochigi’s Coco Farm). You could start with the rice potage, then follow up with a mixed salad and one of the pork dishes. And then, instead of white rice, order the special takikomi-gohan (savory rice), almost like risotto. And then close with the delectable rice blancmange with black sugar caramel sauce.

Right now they are serving a very special (and concomitantly expensive) version of this, featuring fragrant slices of matsutake. Unfortunately, they only prepare a limited quantity each evening, and we did not get to taste it. We will have to go back to Kokoromai soon. We are already looking forward to it.