It is not hard to track down the very best of Tokyo’s high-end Japanese restaurants. After all, there are plenty of guides and websites to point you on your way. At street level, too, it’s easy to locate good noodle joints, yakitori counters or mom and pop diners. Navigating the middle ground, though, is far less straightforward.
So there’s an extra level of pleasure when you find yourself at a restaurant of the caliber of Yuu, in Yoyogi-Uehara. It’s a small neighborhood place, well away from the busy, bustling heart of the city, and far from a household name even in its immediate area. And yet here you dine so well on light, creative Japanese cuisine that you’d go right across town for it in most other countries.
Inside and out, Yuu has a modest, modern look. In classic kappō style, you sit at a counter looking in at the kitchen where owner-chef Yusuke Imoto presides. He dresses in black, rather than the usual white uniforms preferred by most Japanese chefs. It’s his way of hinting from the start that his cooking is a little bit different.
Imoto started out in Italian cuisine, and only later changed to washoku (Japanese food). Although he uses only Japanese seasonings, he does still draw inspiration from his earlier experience. Whether you order a la carte or choose one of his set menus (¥5,500 or ¥6,500 plus supplements on several dishes), the first thing Imoto serves you is a thick potage to welcome you and warm up your appetite.
He follows this with a tray of four small appetizers that could easily serve as antipasti were it not for the total absence of tomato, garlic or olive oil. Throughout, he keeps his flavors restrained, with very few dishes that rely on miso or soy sauce.
This is food that pairs as well with wine as it does with sake. Imoto’s cellar, devoted entirely to Japanese producers, is surprisingly extensive. By contrast, he only offers sake from a single brewery — Ouroku, in Shimane Prefecture — but still stocks a score of different styles and vintages.
Some of the highlights of his current autumn menu include a large deep-fried dango (sphere) of grated lotus root and taro yam served in a delicate soup of thickened chicken broth; chawanmushi (steamed custard) of pureed burdock topped with a thick, comforting sauce made from negi (Welsh onion) greens; and morsels of succulent grilled wagyu beef accompanied, like all the dishes, with a selection of seasonal vegetables.
To round off your dinner, Imoto prepares excellent clay pot rice combined with your choice of ingredients, such as crab, salmon roe or beef. This, though, is optional (and adds a further ¥1,000 to ¥2,500 to your bill), allowing you to skip directly to dessert and coffee.
This level of flexibility is unusual in Japanese cuisine, and so too is Imoto’s easygoing demeanor. He can even prepare vegetarian or vegan meals, if given sufficient notice. It is this relaxed approach, along with Imoto’s excellent cooking, that makes Yuu well worth knowing, especially for those lucky enough to live in the vicinity.
Set menu from ¥5,500, also a la carte; Japanese menu; some English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5