What better way to start the New Year than by looking back? After all, how can we move ahead if we don’t know the past? Here are five classic Tokyo ryoriya (restaurants) where tradition rules and the roots of today’s food culture live on.
These are not high-end ryoriya serving the refined kaiseki cuisine of the old capital, Kyoto. They are rough-hewn, cheerful places where the values of shitamachi (the “low city” of the ordinary people) rule. As such, they represent a tangible link back to the time (up to 1868) when the city was ruled by shoguns and still known as Edo.
When winter winds whip down from the north, the best strategy for keeping out the cold is to stoke up a nabe hotpot — exactly the way people have been doing for the past 185 years at Isegen (1-11-1 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-3251-1229; www.isegen.com).
At this time of year, the seasonal specialty is anko (monkfish) cooked at the table in front of you in large bubbling casseroles. Virtually every part of these ugly fish gets used, both the tender white flesh and the blubbery fat. The prized liver, though, is prepared separately. Steamed and served with a vinegar-based ponzu dipping sauce, this delicacy known as ankimo is so delectably smooth and rich it has come to be known as the foie gras of the sea. Not to be missed, here or anywhere in the city.
Tucked away in Kanda-Sudacho, a low-rise neighborhood just spitting distance from the electric frazzle of Akihabara, Isegen looks every bit the part. The current premises, all wood and polish, date back to 1930. And you are likely to be greeted at the door by the 11th-generation owner.
There may be older and fancier tempura houses in Tokyo, but they can’t boast the classic architecture, no-frills atmosphere and hearty fare at Dote-no-Iseya (1-9-2 Nihonzutsumi, Taito, Tokyo; 03-3872-4886; www.doteno-iseya.com). Founded in 1889, it lies well off the tourist trail but has long been a landmark in the less than picturesque streets far to the north of Asakusa.
Forget the ineffably light, delicate morsels served at the sophisticated, uptown restaurants. At Iseya the tempura is served rich and dark, with a thick layer of batter and in portions that are highly substantial by Japanese standards.
Another difference: There is no counter and you don’t see your chef at work. Instead, you can focus all your attention on working your way through the trencherman set meals of tendon (rice bowl) or mixed tempura platters with rice and soup on the side.
No food is quite so evocative of winter in Japan as oden. And nowhere serves it with quite the same vintage style as Otafuku (1-6-2 Senzoku, Taito-ku; tel. 03-3871-2521; www.otafuku.ne.jp). Although the owners originated in Kansai, after exactly 100 years and four generations, this wonderful little place has become a Tokyo institution.
The place to sit is at the long counter, overlooking the pans crammed with gently simmering morsels of seafood, vegetable, eggs and meat. Order a glass of the resinous sake from the wooden barrel (ask for taruzake) and settle in for the duration.
When it comes to unagi (freshwater eel), few places in the city hold a candle to Obana (5-33-1 Minami-Senju, Arakawa-ku, Tokyo; 03-3801-4670; www.unagidaisuki.com/obana.html) in terms of popularity. In summer, the line outside snakes down the street, with waits often over an hour.
Even when you’re inside, seated at low tables on tatami mats in the large communal dining room, more patience is needed. That’s because the eels are all kept live and are only cooked — dispatched, filleted, steamed and charcoal-grilled — once you have placed your order. It’s worth the wait though. Not just for the superlative flavor of the eel but the sense that you have stepped back in time.
No one knows exactly when Obana was founded, though it’s said to date back two centuries, to the time when Senju was one of the shoguns’ main execution grounds. Which was why, rumor has it, the eels in the local canals used to grow so fat.
The new-year lines may be easing, but it’s almost always busy at Kanda Matsuya (1-13 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-3251-1556; www.kanda-matsuya.jp/p01.htm), Tokyo’s most illustrious purveyor of teuchi-soba. The buckwheat noodles are still cut by hand, as they have for the past 130 years. You are still served by kimono-clad matrons who bustle across the room with a no-nonsense air. And you still huddle on squat stools, elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors, just as generations have before.
It is this sense of connection with the past that continues to underscore Tokyo’s vibrant restaurant culture. Forgetting the past, as the epithet goes, may mean being condemned to repeat it. But at Matsuya — or any of these restaurants — that would be no hardship at all.