Is it too soon — postquake, post-tsunami and still mid-nuclear crisis — to eat, drink and be merry? It’s certainly a valid question. The answer, for us at any rate, is no, especially if we know that by doing so we can provide a small measure of support for the devastated areas. And most especially if the location happens to be the excellent Namikibashi Nakamura.
This classy Japanese tavern (it feels way too sophisticated to be termed an izakaya, even though the underlying ethos is really not so different) is not a place for carousing, drowning your sorrows or forgetting the woes of the world. Rather, it’s one of those tasteful, understated places where good food, drink and atmosphere combine in a seamless, satisfying whole.
For many a year now, Nakamura and its equally fine sister operations have been among our default go-to places when we crave quality Japanese cuisine in refined but casual mode. We love sitting at the long counter, watching the chefs at work while we nibble, sip, chat and relax. We enjoy the atmosphere, the quiet, steady buzz of appreciation that fills the dining room. And most of all, we like to congratulate ourselves for having managed to find it in the first place.
As the name indicates, Namikibashi Nakamura lies near the Namikibashi Crossing, almost equidistant between Ebisu and Shibuya. But even if you walk along this dreary stretch of Meiji-dori, you will never know it is close at hand. You must first head up a side street, then climb a flight of steps to a dark, heavy door set into the rear of an anonymous office building. The only reassurance that you are heading in the right direction is the hiragana characters inscribed on a simple andon lamp (and even that is currently turned off as a token of respect and solidarity for the devastated northeast).
If Nakamura does not advertise its presence, that’s because it doesn’t need to: It is invariably booked up well in advance. Many of the customers have been regulars since owner Teiji Nakamura opened his first self-named restaurant in Shimokitazawa more than 15 years ago. Others came on board via Kan (reviewed in this column back in 2000), his peerless ryori-ya on the Meguro-gawa riverside, close to Ikejiri Ohashi.
As such, they know exactly what to expect from the kitchen: No flamboyance or pyrotechnics, no attempts at fusion or anything overelaborate, just prime ingredients prepared in the Japanese way, with care and expertise. Regulars also know that while the menu changes monthly, the top page is the one to scrutinize first, as it will often feature unusual daily specials from far-flung farms and ports around Japan.
There are always a couple of platters of obanzai (prepared foods) laid out on the counter, which make good starters with that first thirst-slaking beer. Regular favorites these past few months have been thick-sliced daikon slow-simmered in a soy sauce broth (daikon nitsuke); steamed chicken and young cabbage with a spicy miso sauce; and a creamy potato salad studded with small cubes of cooked skipjack (katsuo).
A couple of these will give you something to peck on while waiting for your sashimi to be cut. There will be five or six kinds of seafood to choose from. Like most people, we usually order a mixed platter (mori-awase) of three or five kinds, depending on how hungry and/or flush we are feeling (figure around 1,800 and 2,600 respectively).
This is such a good time of year for Japanese cuisine. There is great seafood — notably hatsu-gatsuo (spring skipjack) — plus the new-season vegetables are starting to come in. So too is takenoko (bamboo shoots), while there are still plenty of sansai (wild mountain herbs and shoots) to add their potent bitter flavors to the meal.
From the charcoal grill, is it going to be bamboo shoots or juicy white asparagus? It’s a tough call, one we usually resolve by ordering both. But there’s also the anago sea eel coated with a paste of sansho pepper leaf. And what about the grilled Yamato-dori chicken, cooked in saikyo-yaki style with a basting of savory white miso?
A couple of other items we have tried and enjoyed from this month’s menu: tempura of fukinoto (sharply aromatic butterbur buds) wrapped in thinly-sliced pork; and tamago-yaki omelet made with tiny, crunchy, cherry-pink sakura-ebi shrimps. And two hardy perennials that feature year-round are minchi-katsu, a breaded cutlet of minced pork; and korokke, much the same but mixed with some potato and prepared in a smaller croquette form.
Decisions, decisions. One way to make it easy on yourself — especially if deciphering menus in cursive Japanese script in dim lighting conditions is not your forte — is to order one of the set meals (5,000, 6,500 or 8,500; two or more people, must be booked in advance). These are primarily intended for the groups who book into the private rooms, but they are equally available if you are sitting at the counter.
The only choice you need to make will be what to drink. One of the specialties of the house at Nakamura is shochu that is warmed and served in squat black vessels known as joka. Because the shochu is not neat — it’s mixed with water and left to stand overnight — it is mellow enough to be sipped throughout the evening.
But at this time, you may be steered more toward the sake list, to two fine brands in particular: Hiroki and Kotobuki, both from Fukushima, the home prefecture of owner Teiji Nakamura. Both breweries lost their entire stocks and Kotobuki also has the misfortune of lying within the exclusion zone around the crippled nuclear reactors.
There is poignancy in knowing that you are sipping on the last stocks of sake to emerge from those breweries for a long time. But by ordering them, you are also making a small contribution to their revival. You will see a couple of magnums on a temporary display at Nakamura’s entrance — not just in memoriam, but also in appreciation and in eager anticipation of their recovery and return.