Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Kotaro: A modern 'izakaya' in the backstreets of Shibuya

by Robbie Swinnerton

All anniversaries should be celebrated, and hitting the five-year mark holds a special importance. But for Kotaro Hayashi, reaching that milestone a few months back carried even more significance. That’s because he opened his diminutive restaurant a scant few weeks after the massive 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. At the time of the disaster — with Tokyo badly shaken, its streets in darkness and a populace that had lost its appetite in the face of the devastation in northeast Japan — it did not seem auspicious or appropriate to embark on a business devoted to eating and drinking.

Thankfully he pressed on, with only minimal delay, and Kotaro soon became a favorite for those wanting an afterwork stopover in Shibuya.

They continue to come for Hayashi’s excellent cooking and his fridge of premium sake, which he selects with impeccable taste from his favorite kura (breweries) around the country. But, more than that, the regulars return for the pleasure of sitting at the splendid timber counter that runs the length of his compact open kitchen.

Essentially, Kotaro is an izakaya, a tavern where sake and food share equal billing, and both are there to accompany conversation and relaxation at the end of the day. But don’t arrive expecting boisterous revelry and red-faced salarymen drinking cheap highballs. Here the atmosphere is always relaxed but restrained, with no hint of rambunctiousness.

Along with your choice of libation, you order two or three items at a time, sharing each with your dining partner(s) and repeating as required — until you reach satiation or have to run for the last train home. Easier still, just ask for Hayashi’s omakase (leave it up to the chef) dinner. While the details will depend on whatever is in season — he sources his vegetables and his seafood direct from farmers and fishermen he knows personally — he has several signature creations that appear year-round.

Hayashi’s potato salad (“potesara” in Japanese) is a classic. He blends two types of potato, coarsely mashed with cucumber to give greater depth and texture. On top of this he positions half a soft-boiled egg that has been lightly smoked over cherry-wood chips. Then he spoons a tangy mustard vinaigrette on top. Another standard is his trademark menchi-katsu cutlets, patties of ground pork that he deep-fries until the breaded coating is crisp and golden.

In winter he offers excellent, nourishing nabe hotpots. In summer you will find hiyayakko (chilled tofu). And whatever the season, you can expect to round off your meal with udon noodles. He kneads and cuts them himself each day, in the style of his hometown in Kagawa Prefecture. Served chilled with simple garnishes they make the perfect way to end the evening.

A few caveats: Kotaro is hard to find, hidden in a pedestrian alley behind the Cerulean Tower. It’s also very popular, so do not expect to walk straight in. It’s essential to make a reservation at least a week in advance. And do not expect to converse much with Hayashi and his team, as they are always intent on their work.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.

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