If you’re after sushi, tempura or yakitori, you head for a specialist restaurant. The same goes for eel, tonkatsu pork or wagyū beef. But what if you’d rather mix it up at dinnertime with a more eclectic selection of foods? No problem. Just head to a good izakaya.
Even a nondescript local tavern is likely to offer a fair range of dishes. But find one that prides itself on its kitchen and you will eat both well and widely. Nor does it need to be pricey: Nakamura Shokudo is testament to that.
Not that it looks much like an izakaya. Hidden away in a dead-end alley on the outer edge of Akasaka (almost as close to Nogizaka Station), it has no red lantern hanging by the door and no wafting smoke or raucous sounds of inebriation inside. Instead it is simple, modern, spacious, well lit, welcoming and eminently affordable.
It also has an excellent and eclectic menu — just as you’d expect from any spinoff of the wonderful (and rather more sophisticated) Namikibashi Nakamura in Shibuya. Naturally there’s a strong emphasis on good regional sake and shōchū, plus great seasonal seafood.
Right now the autumn fish are at their peak, such as buri (yellowtail) and sanma (saury), both of which feature in the mixed sashimi selection, and saba (mackerel), prepared as nanban-zuke, deep-fried and marinated with rice vinegar, like a Japanese take on escabeche.
The sanma are the top pick for grilling. Cleaned and dusted with salt, they are placed whole under the grill just long enough to brown the skin an appetizing shade and lift the rich but delicate flesh off the bones. The perfect plebeian pleasure.
There are always meat dishes too, such as grilled Iberico pork, lamb (as chops or jingisukan grill) or beef tongue, which features in the oden hot pots that have reappeared on the menu with the advent of the chilly evenings.
Look out for some of the more creative dishes, too. A former standard was aburage (deep-fried tofu pouches) topped with a gratin of aromatic, gooey natto: think beans on toast from another dimension. Right now, don’t miss the spam cutlets, deep-fried with crispy bread crumbs around the outside and then sliced open to reveal a core of soft, comforting mashed potato. With old-school Bull-Dog sauce to slather on top, this is the very definition of izakaya B-grade gastronomy.
So why is it called a shokudō (“canteen”)? Partly just to establish its down-home credentials. But also because the dining room does feel a bit institutional. It is housed in a former teaching kitchen, as you can tell from the angled ceiling mirror over the cooking area and the monitors showing close-ups of the food as it’s prepared.
Nakamura Shokudo is unusual in other ways, too. It is open on Sundays and holidays, entirely no-smoking and also child-friendly (with a great macaroni gratin to keep the little ones happy). Advance reservations are well advised.
6-15-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5575-0026; ameblo.jp/fg-bunten; open daily 5:30-10:30 p.m. (L.O.); nearest stations Akasaka, Nogizaka; no smoking; around ¥3,500 per head (plus drinks); major cards accepted; no English menu; a little English spoken.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.