Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Araiya: Celebrating beef by the Yokohama bayside

by Robbie Swinnerton

Down in Yokohama they’re partying like it’s 1859. It’s been exactly 150 years since Japan’s largest port — indeed the country itself — was fully opened to foreign trade. Earlier this month we went down to the old Red Brick Warehouses to marvel at massive mechanical spiders, France’s contributions to the celebration, and to enjoy the breeze off the bay. Needless to say, we lingered to eat.

Until recently, there was little dining of note along that stretch of waterfront save for soulless tourist outlets and fast-food franchises. But things have improved massively since the 2004 opening of the underground Minato-Mirai Line, especially around Bashamichi Station.

A great find is the excellent new Araiya, an offshoot of one of Yokohama’s most venerable establishments. Since 1895, Araiya’s main restaurant in Akebonocho has served one of the specialties of the city: beef. These days sukiyaki, shabu shabu (“swished” meat) and even steak are its most popular offerings, but the dish that put Araiya on the culinary map — and Yokohama too — was gyu-nabe, the original beef hot pot.

It’s hard to imagine just how radically the Japanese diet has been transformed over the past century and a half, and the biggest change has been eating meat. For around 1,200 years, it was taboo to kill or consume four-legged animals. Only when the Meiji Emperor went on record in 1872 as saying the aversion to meat- eating was “an unreasonable tradition” was the practice embraced with any enthusiasm.

The pronouncement was politically expedient. Japan had made the big decision to open up and had adopted the slogan of “progress and civilization.” Meat-eating was not merely a personal dietary preference: It was a public vote of support for the great experiment of industrialization and modernizing.

Beef, Westerners’ meat of choice, was especially favored. But instead of copying the foreign recipes, chefs in the treaty port incorporated it into existing and well-loved styles of cooking. The one that caught on was gyu-nabe, cutting the beef into fine slices and simmering it in cast-iron pans with a savory seasoning of miso. The dish had Meiji Era Japan salivating. Even after it evolved into the more refined sukiyaki, it has never been off the menu at Araiya.

The traditional wooden interior and prim formality at Araiya’s main restaurant is rather too old-school for our taste, but we love the look of the new Bankokubashi branch near the waterfront. The main facade is composed of plain wooden planks, the entrance marked by a blue noren half-curtain and a plaque simply inscribed with the characters for gyu-nabe.

Entering, you make your way up a gently-sloping ramp lined on either side by narrow wooden struts: On the left they are perpendicular, but to your right they undulate in a gentle, irregular wave form, making it feel as if you were strolling through a bamboo glade swaying in the breeze.

The entranceway is contemporary Japanese design at its best, and the theme continues inside. Apart from a small area where you sit on zabuton cushions on a hard wooden floor, the rest of the seating is tables and chairs, even in the main dining room with its tatami mats, fusuma sliding screens and tokonoma alcoves with hanging scrolls. All is simple, clean and modern, with no attempt at faux-retro furnishings.

But Araiya has not tampered with its century-old, tried-and-true menu. Choices range from simple donburi rice-bowl lunches to multicourse sukiyaki or shabu shabu dinners. For the duration of the celebrations, though, the new branch has introduced a special set-menu lunch that it calls Kaika Gyu-nabe (Civilization Beef Hot Pot), presenting the classic recipe in a way that works for those on 21st-century schedules.

Instead of a single large casserole large enough to feed all at the table, the commemorative meal (¥2,500, available through Sept. 30) comes in individual servings. In the center of your tray is the nabe, a small, square cast-iron pan. The beef is the most prominent ingredient, but in addition there are negi (leeks), shiitake mushrooms, shungiku (chrysanthemum leaf) and shirataki (fine noodles of konnyaku jelly).

Once the burner underneath is lit, the ingredients cook in a sweet-savory sauce at the bottom of the pan. The quality of the sauce, known as warishita, distinguishes one restaurant from another. Araiya’s proprietary blend is rich and not too sweet, an exemplary balance that is in large part the reason why the restaurant has enjoyed such longevity.

When the meat is cooked — slightly browned is just right — dip it in the raw egg on the tray. Just as with sukiyaki, it is this combination of flavors and textures that makes the dish so successful. You may not be eating grade-A marbled beef from the finest wagyu steer, but who cares? Cooked like this, you will not taste the difference.

The meal also includes side dishes (though not dessert). One was a seasonal preparation with shrimp, slivers of bamboo shoot and sansai (wild mountain herbs). There was also a saucer of gyu-tsukudai, finely shredded beef cooked down in a sweet soy-based stock. It’s a tasty condiment with your rice, but it’s even better with a glass of premium Dewazakura junmai-ginjo sake.

Araiya hits exactly the right level — not too pricey, not too formal, but with a degree of sophistication that you won’t find anywhere along the Minato Mirai waterfront. For us, this really is the taste of Yokohama.