Is there any food more comforting and satisfying than a nabe? Sitting around a bubbling casserole watching your dinner cook satisfies all the senses, nourishing the soul as you fill and heat your body. So why aren’t there more places like Nabeya?
As you can guess from the name, here is a restaurant devoted solely to the pleasures of traditional one-pot cooking. What you can’t know, until you find it tucked away in the backstreets of Otsuka, is that Nabeya is a one-off, and so is its veteran owner-chef, Hiroshi Fukuda.
It’s not just that he’s an authority on what people cooked and ate back in the day, when the city was still called Edo, and applies that knowledge in his cooking. More than anything, Nabeya embodies a discreet, slow-paced style of dining that is fast disappearing, especially in the brighter, buzzier parts of town.
Fukuda’s wife will greet you at the old-fashioned entrance, bowing as you remove your shoes, and then show you to your private dining room. There are just four chambers, all traditional in style with tatami mats. The one to ask for is the smallest, which is equipped with proper table and chairs.
A waitress, also kimono-clad, will bring in a selection of simple appetizers. Seasonal sashimi; an aemono (dressed salad) of vegetables or sansai (wild herbs); some tamagoyaki omelet; and a couple of dried sardines that are lightly salty, nicely chewy and perfect with a dram or two of sake, hot or cold.
While you are nibbling, your nabe is being readied. You will already have specified which kind you want when you called to reserve (walk-in customers are turned away). Fukuda makes a fine fugu-chili, using prized tora-fugu puffer fish from Shimonoseki. But the house special is a seafood hot pot that other places would just call yose (mixed). Here it has a more poetic name: Horai-nabe, after a mountain of Buddhist legend.
A wide platter arrives, stacked with salmon, cod, hamaguri clams, a good variety of vegetables, chicken, tofu, soft-boiled quail’s eggs, noodles and mushrooms — along with a couple of kuruma-ebi king prawns so fresh they are still quivering.
All that’s left to do is to start putting everything into the donabe casserole pot steaming away in the center of your table.
Not that you need to do the actual cooking. This is handled by your waitress. She places the ingredients expertly into the bubbling broth and then, with equal deftness, ladles them onto your plate when they are cooked.
The dashi broth is clear and light — in the old Edo style, Fukuda uses only katsuobushi (bonito flakes), but not kombu seaweed — drawing out and enhancing the flavors of each food, and with it your appetite. Even so, the volume will be enough to floor all but he most ravenous trenchermen — especially after a final batch of noodles is cooked in the last of the broth. A light dessert and tea bring the meal to a close.
Robust and satisfying, not fine dining but with classic refinement and charm: Nabeya is the last of a dying breed, a holdover from decades past. Fukuda is 79 years old now, and won’t be in business too much longer. Let’s celebrate that tradition while we still can.
1-51-14 Otsuka, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-3941-2868; http://www.gourmet.ne.jp/nabeya/index_en.html;open 5-9 p.m. (last order at 7 p.m.), closed Sun. & holidays; nearest station Otsuka; dinner ¥15,000 per head; no credit cards; no menu; some English spoken.