Is there anywhere in the world that consumes as much fish as Japan? And is there a city with as many specialist seafood restaurants as Tokyo? In such a crowded field, how can one small eatery hope to make its mark? In the case of Ubuka, by keeping things simple, flying under the radar — and serving some of the best seafood in town.
Chef Kunihiro Kato opened his modest 14-seater restaurant in 2012 with minimal fanfare. He chose a quiet location on a narrow side street in Arakicho, an old-school low-rise nightlife district close to Yotsuya, far from the bling and bright lights of Ginza, Shibuya or other bustling parts of town.
But word spread fast and Ubuka soon became a favorite of chefs and others in the know. They appreciate the unpretentious setting and Kato’s unaffected style. They like that he stays open a bit later than most other restaurants. And — most of all — they love that he offers sophisticated meals made with premium ingredients at prices that rival anywhere else in the city.
Kato’s career has taken him from Sendai, his hometown in Miyagi Prefecture, to Kyoto, where he undertook a tough apprenticeship in kyō-ryōri, the traditional cuisine of the ancient capital. He then went to New Zealand where he worked several years at a Japanese restaurant, but it was his next stop, manning the woks at the tiny but highly regarded Chinese Tapas Renge at its old Shinjuku location (now moved to Ginza), which first brought him to the attention of Tokyo gourmets.
All these experiences are reflected in the 38-year-old chef’s cooking. But at Ubuku, he shows the influence of his very first job at the Sendai branch of the national crab restaurant chain Kani Doraku.
Although Kato serves a wide range of seafood at his current restaurant, his main love is crustaceans: prawns, shrimps, lobsters and the multitude of different crabs hauled from the waters around Japan.
The exact composition of his elegant eight-course omakase tasting menus changes monthly. In autumn, he likes to feature freshwater Shanghai crab, as well as many kinds of mushroom. Winter brings snow crab, while spring means sansai (wild mountain plants) along with delicate shima-ebi shrimp. And in summer, he offers prime uni (sea urchin) from Hokkaido, as well as ayu (sweetfish) and hamo (pike conger eel).
One dish Kato serves year-round is his take on ebi-furai, a single large kuruma-ebi (king prawn) that is breaded and deep-fried. Though it sounds simple and plebeian, the taste is anything but. Your first bite will release a piping-hot gush of sauce, richly flavored with the prawn’s own head juices. The second mouthful is a perfect balance of sweet white meat and crisp golden coating, which pairs well with his homemade tartar sauce, rich with spicy sansho (prickly ash) pepper.
As always in Japanese multicourse meals, the final savory course is rice.
Kato always cooks his in a donabe (heavy ceramic pot) until it is fluffy and sweet. When it’s almost ready, he adds vegetables and crabmeat and allows them to cook lightly on the top surface of the glistening grains.
While the variety and provenance of the crab will change with the seasons, what does not change is the generous quantities and superb quality.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.