Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Hiyori: Oden crosses over to wine country

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

What a difference a few hundred meters makes. One minute you’re milling through the manic frazzle of central Shibuya; a short stroll later you find yourself in tranquil, low-rise, neon-free Shinsen, where life is slower and the restaurants cozy and intimate.

Few capture that neighborhood feel better than Hiyori. Looking in from street level, you can tell that it’s easygoing and convivial, the sort of place where you drop in for a quick drink, strike up conversation with your neighbors and end up staying the rest of the evening.

Like so many similar spots around Tokyo, the layout is simple and compact, just a few small tables at the back plus a small counter overlooking a tiny open kitchen that is the ultimate definition of cramped. That’s where you’ll find chef Kiyoto Mochizuki at work.

Cooking was not his first career path. In fact, he was a white-collar salaryman until his mid-30s, before packing it in and immersing himself in traditional Japanese cuisine. And when it came to setting up on his own, his aim was to be as independent as possible. So instead of a full-fledged restaurant, he decided to specialize in oden hot pot.

You’ll see the small pan by the door as you come in, with its contents of kamaboko (fish cakes), root vegetables, tofu and more, all simmering in a fragrant dashi broth that wafts its savory perfume through the dining room. This is Mochizuki’s calling card, no matter what the season. In winter the hot broth warms the soul; in the heat of midsummer, he likes to say, it helps to combat lethargy and stimulate the appetite.

Following the Kansai style, the broth is beautifully clear and light. The same sense of refinement permeates the rest of the menu, which is impressively large for the diminutive size of his kitchen. Start with some sashimi. Follow up with a few light vegetable dishes such as nanohana (field mustard greens) with a yellow mustard aemono dressing; or Kyoto-style mizunasu (eggplant that can be eaten raw) served with katsuobushi (cured skipjack) flakes.

The menu changes both with the season and at his whim. In early spring, he was serving sansai (edible wild mountain plants), including delicate tempura of fukinoto (butterbur buds). Now he should have takenoko (bamboo shoots), likely served with jade-green fresh wakame seaweed.

Alongside his nihonshu (sake) selection, Mochizuki offers a good choice of wines too, many of them Italian and most of the natural persuasion. He is the first to admit that this pairing is unusual — and that he’s still learning about wine. But it turns out he has strong reasons for this.

Hiyori is the sister operation to Aurelio, a popular trattoria that lies just around the corner. It was set up last summer as a joint venture with Aurelio’s energetic young owner, Yosuke Omoto, a wine sommelier who spent years in Italy.

This kind of cross-fertilization between genres and between chefs of different age groups would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago. These days just about anything goes, especially in a laid back neighborhood like Shinsen.

A la carte menu, oden from ¥300/piece, ¥1,200/serving; Japanese menu; some English spoken