There’s no mystery as to what’s on the menu at Kamo-shabu Chikutei. Even if you didn’t know that “kamo” means “duck,” the lamps at the entrance with their stylized image of a mallard in flight give the game away.
More of an eye-opener, though, is just what a dominating role duck plays at this refined basement restaurant. It’s not just the main ingredient in the star dish — it’s in just about everything.
Chikutei is unusual in other ways, too. Having made your way down the narrow stairs and through an unprepossessing hallway, it comes as a pleasant surprise to find yourself in a bright, spacious, contemporary setting, rather than ensconced in traditional decor.
No washi paper and shoji screens here. Instead, backlit glass alcoves are set into the walls, their glow amplified by similar lighting under the glass counter that runs the length of the room. Couples and those dining solo will be seated here; larger groups are directed to one of the tables at the back.
Restaurants in Akasaka can tend toward the snooty side — this is, after all, the carousing district of choice for politicians and bigwigs in black limousines. Not so at Chikutei. Although most of the clientele seem to dress for business success, the atmosphere is refreshingly easygoing.
In large part, this reflects the outgoing character of owner Tokuzou Niimi. With his gleaming bonce and the powerful demeanor of a warrior monk, this native of Handa, Aichi Prefecture, cuts an imposing figure, whether overseeing operations in person or via the large photo of him in formal kimono that hangs by the entrance. Recently, his daughter Yuki has been in charge, while Niimi takes care of business at his new restaurant in Nagoya.
It was Niimi’s inspiration to produce a shabu-shabu hot pot based around thinly sliced duck meat, rather than the standard slivers of beef or pork. So unusual was this back in 1981 that he obtained a patent for it — and then another for his idea of duck ramen.
But those are the pieces de resistance at Chikutei, best left for the finale of your meal. There are plenty of other smaller dishes on the menu to whet your appetite first.
A good place to start is the sasami, tender slices of duck breast that have been lightly blanched on the outside but otherwise are still rare. Served with a wasabi dressing, this is a perfect sashimi-style dish for anyone who does not eat seafood.
We followed this with toban-yaki, a warming, substantial mix of duck and vegetables — negi leeks, nira (Chinese chives) and beansprouts — cooked at the table in a shallow ceramic platter set over a handsome burner.
Another Niimi original well worth trying is his kamo-sansho-ni: morsels of duck meat simmered slowly in a rich, dark, soy sauce along with whole sansho peppercorns. Taking good care to pick out most of the tongue-numbing sansho (it’s the same as the fagara pepper used in Sichuan cuisine), we found this made the ideal accompaniment to some good sake.
In this part of town, dallying with a date or chatting after work with colleagues is just as important as eating, and this is reflected in Chikutei’s extensive drinks list. Besides cocktails, wine and shochu, there is a small range of nihonshu by the glass. For us, a small bottle of Handago, a junmai-ginjo sourced from Niimi’s hometown in Aichi, was just right.
We nibbled on a couple more side dishes: morokyu (sliced cucumber with dips of chunky, savory moromi miso), and a salad of lettuce enlivened with slices of smoked duck gizzard (surprisingly tasty). Then it was time for the main event: kamo-shabu.
Unless you are ravenous and on an expense account, a single serving (ichinin-mae) at ¥6,300 will be quite enough to share between two. This brings you a platter of sliced duck breast to swish in the broth — a light, fragrant bouillon cooked down from duck bones — plus a healthy amount of vegetables.
Niimi has added two extra elements that elevate his shabu-shabu to the next level of refinement. The first is the delectable dipping sauce, prepared from creamed walnut, giving a richer, nuttier flavor than the more customary sesame paste. The second is the noodles, which are cooked up in the last of the duck broth. Instead of ordinary udon noodles, you are brought delicate wheat noodles that have been custom-made, incorporating a small percentage of chlorella algae.
These are the same noodles served in Niimi’s patent duck ramen. And yes, to some extent they are a “healthy” gimmick. But they are also another example of the care that he has taken to ensure Kamo-shabu Chikutei stands out from the crowd.