La Maison du Isshovin is unlike any other restaurant in the Asakusa area. It’s not just the name, improbable as it sounds. Nor is it the eclectic — some might say eccentric — menu, or even the contemporary architecture that can’t help but catch the eye in this old-school part of town.
What really makes this new arrival stand out is that it brings a brisk, bright enthusiasm to a district that remains hidebound by tradition and tourism. And that reflects the energetic personality of restaurant producer Hisae Iwakura, who not only realized the idea, but is also there in person, taking care of the day-to-day business.
Over the past couple of decades, Iwakura has been the driving force behind some of the most dynamic eating and drinking places in the city. Kinsai, Kitchen Cero and Cafe Bleu are still going strong. And longtime Tokyo residents still remember with affection the now-closed Bongout Noh and, before that, Buchi, the stylish bar in nether-Shibuya that made it cool to stand as you eat and drink.
Now she’s back with another winner. Isshovin is basically a smart new take on a well-established concept. It’s a modern izakaya tavern, a place where you come to drink, chat and relax as much as for the food. But, as always with Iwakura’s projects, what makes it special is the way she has woven together strands that are altogether familiar to create something that feels new.
The core of the operation is the narrow open kitchen on the ground floor, which has just enough room for a teppan grill and a diminutive deep-fryer that produces a stream of kushiage (breaded skewers). This is complemented by another kitchen in the upstairs dining area.
All the kushiage sticks are good, whether meat, mushroom or vegetable. But do not miss the kunsei-tamago, a smoked egg that still has a gooey, runny yolk under its crisp, breaded exterior. Even more out there are the deep-fried croquettes of “potato salad” made from a blend of meat, miso and fukinoto (butterbur buds).
Meanwhile, the fare from the teppan grill is equally eclectic. One house special is the “pizza” made from thin, flat sheets of abura-age tofu. Even more remarkable is the hot Caesar salad. The lettuce is briefly browned as the bacon crisps up, and then is dusted with grated parmesan and black pepper.
As a trained sommelier and kikizake-shi (sake specialist), Iwakura has put together a substantial list of sake and shōchū. But her main emphasis at Isshovin is wine. And this is the basis of its unusual name: it’s a pun on the Japanese term for the 1.8-liter bottles (issho-bin) that have long been used by sake companies and now by a few Japanese wineries.
It’s worth exploring Iwakura’s selection, even the basic house wines served from those magnum bottles. As with the food, they can be a bit hit-or-miss, but this is an approach that dovetails perfectly with Isshovin’s uniquely down-home style. There really is nowhere else quite like it.
Dinner a la carte (around ¥3,500/head plus drinks); English menu; a little English spoken