Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Ningyocho Imahan: An old take on an old favorite — sukiyaki

by Robbie Swinnerton

Special To The Japan Times

As the city crow flies, it’s just a short hop from the bustle and bright lights of Ginza to the laid-back, low-rise backstreets of Ningyocho. But once you’re there, it can feel half a world away — especially when you arrive at Imahan.

With its rust-red plasterwork, tiles and sliding wooden doors, the squat, two-story building stands proud as an emissary from another era. Beyond its white half-length noren curtain, you taste a tradition that dates back well over a century.

One of Tokyo’s oldest and best loved purveyors of beef cuisine, Imahan originally specialized in gyu-nabe, the beef casserole that was the forerunner of sukiyaki. As well as shabu-shabu, it now also offers teppanyaki and steak. All are great, but nothing beats sukiyaki prepared and served in the old-school style.

Unless you find sitting on tatami mats excruciating, book yourself into one of the upstairs rooms for a long, leisurely multicourse meal. Ensconced in your private chamber, you just sit back and wait for the meal to unfold.

The kimono-clad waitstaff drift in and out quietly, bearing drinks and trays of beautifully arranged tidbits. You may be there for the beef, but the preliminary courses are worthy of any high-end traditional kaiseki restaurant.

In late summer, the zensai appetizers are light and refreshing. Come autumn, they will include fungi — including matsutake pine mushrooms in the pricier set meals — and other seasonal delicacies.

A clear soup is followed by a small selection of sashimi, just enough to provoke the appetite. But soon enough it is time for the main event. Platters of premium wagyu beef are brought in for your inspection, thin slices revealing their intricate marbling of fat. There are various grades to choose from, each cut with its own provenance and price tag. Order two or three if you want to compare the differences in hue, flavor and mouthfeel.

Then your attendant moves into action, placing the first slices of beef into the low-slung cast-iron casserole that sits on a burner at the end of your table. Deftly she turns the meat in the bubbling warishita sauce (a mix of soy sauce, sake and mirin) before lifting it into the dip of lightly beaten raw egg.

This is the classic combination and it’s superb. The rich fattiness of the meat, coated and complemented by the creamy egg and the sweet-savory warishita, leaves you craving more. Your attendant obliges with more rounds of beef, plus vegetables, mushrooms and light shirataki noodles.

Finally she cooks up egg into a loose scramble, together with the last of the warishita, scooping it over hot rice, with soup and pickles on the side. Closing with ice cream and tea, you are satiated.

The tempo of the meal, the tranquility of the setting, the efficient but unobtrusive service and then the gracious farewell: This is the way it has been done for generations. Imahan dials it back to a time when Tokyo operated at a different pace.

Lunch from ¥4,950; dinner from ¥8,100; Japanese/English menu; a little English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.

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