Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

The Blind Donkey: Serving up nature in the inner city

by Robbie Swinnerton

Among the brash drinking holes and boisterous old-school izakaya taverns clustered in the narrow alleys that surround Kanda Station, The Blind Donkey is an unexpected, understated anomaly.

It has no flashing lights announcing its presence, or any other identifying signs, for that matter. The clear glass frontage, discreetly set back from the street, reveals a simple, tranquil interior of wood and earth tones. In sophisticated Aoyama or Hiroo, this would blend in seamlessly. But here, in gritty salaryman land, it feels as unlikely as an ikebana flower arrangement in a pachinko parlor.

Incongruous as the setting may be, it showcases the underlying back-to-the-roots ethos of co-owners Jerome Waag and Shinichiro Harakawa. The two chefs spent over a year working on this project, traveling around Japan to meet with farmers, producers and like-minded souls, before finally opening The Blind Donkey in December.

Respect for the environment, for the seasons and the ingredients: these are the cardinal rules here, exactly as you’d expect given their respective careers to date. For 25 years, Waag worked with Californian chef/food activist Alice Waters at her groundbreaking restaurant Chez Panisse, the last four years of that as head chef.

Harakawa has also been deeply inspired by Waters and her approach to food and cooking, as anyone who ate at his previous operation, the mellow little super-bistro Beard, will know. Together, Waag and Harakawa aim to bring a similar flash of inspiration to Tokyo’s inner city.

Waag’s cooking is light, colorful and uncomplicated, relying not on the artifice of tweezers or an arsenal of fermented taste enhancers, but the quality of the ingredients. The produce is sourced from organic farmers and the seafood is sustainable. The beef (from Shiga) and pork (Kagoshima) are produced with care and both have outstanding flavor. Over the course of the winter he has served up superbly rich, full-flavored ragouts of wild venison, too.

These dishes form the basis for the five-course tasting menus that Waag prepares in his open kitchen at the back of the compact, uncluttered premises. Meanwhile, Harakawa has been mostly attending to tables, proffering bottles from his cellar of predominantly natural wines, although he intends to do more cooking now the restaurant is up and running.

Dinner at The Blind Donkey — the name is drawn from the writings of the 15th-century Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu — is a leisurely, affair. Those with less time or appetite can drop in for a drink or two while propping up the counter. There are enough nibbles, both cold and cooked, on the brief bar menu that it’s worth arriving early to commandeer the two tables at the very front of the room.

The idea, says Harakawa, is not just to preach to the converted or rely on customers booking ahead for the full dinner. He wants them to be open to as many people as possible. There’s a deeper aim too, says Waag. “We want to remind people in the middle of the city how connected to nature they are — through food.”

Tasting menu ¥8,000 also a la carte bar menu; English menu; English spoken