Heading to Kanda Koju for the first time, it is not hard to walk right past the door without realizing. The unprepossessing facade gives little away to the casual passerby. You’d never guess you’re outside one of the best and buzziest izakaya (taverns) in Kanda, an area not short of after-hours drinking holes.
The clue that you’re in the right place is the sugidama, the large globe of neatly trimmed cedar needles hanging by the entrance. Since times long past, these have been associated with sake — displayed outside the warehouses where it’s brewed, the liquor stores where it’s sold, and the restaurants and bars that take pride in serving the best varieties.
So, before you’ve even crossed the threshold at Koju, you know you’re going to drink plenty of good sake. You also have an inkling that the food will be of similar quality — as a rule of thumb, the two go together. But it is only once you are inside that you get to see that the words “classy,” “upmarket” and “discreet” are far from incompatible with the izakaya approach to informal, relaxed dining.
The demographic on weekdays is overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and dressed in well-tailored business suits, mostly in groups and all producing a volume of revelry that is loud but never riotous. Corporate Tokyo knows how to let its hair down several notches without ever going too far.
As at any izakaya, the first food you are served will be the otoshi, a starter that acts as both appetizer and obligatory table charge. Too often these are mere tidbits for a few hundred yen that you nibble and promptly forget. At Koju, though, your otoshi turns out to be more like a full course, comprising as many as 10 different dishes (for ¥1,280), some seasonal but others served year-round.
Currently the specialties include: bite-sized hotaru-ika (firefly squid), takenoko (bamboo shoot) with freshly harvested wakame seaweed, spring burdock root with a tender pork spare rib, succulent deep-fried eggplant, and a bowl of smooth, rich homemade tofu. This is far from complex cooking — in fact it’s much closer to the idea of the antipasti misti served at Italian trattorias — but it still expresses the same sense of seasonal bounty as you find in a high-end kaiseki (multicourse) meal.
To match the selection of premium and limited-edition sake — look out for names such as Zaku (the house special), Mori-no-Kaze and Juyondai — the kitchen puts together an excellent sashimi platter. It also prides itself on its tempura, featuring less usual ingredients like young white onions or aromatic ao-nori seaweed. There will often be duck or other meat on the menu, and perhaps even foie gras.
Much of this will not be obvious if you don’t read and speak Japanese. So the easiest approach is to order a set meal (from around ¥5,000) when you phone to book yourself in. And that in itself is essential, usually up to a month in advance such is Koju’s popularity.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.