Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Wagyu and seafood: At Imari Roaji, Saga sends its finest to Ginza

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

The further you travel in Japan, the more you discover that each corner of the country has its own character and food traditions. Every region produces its own distinctive strains of rice, seafood products, miso, pickles and sake. And those differences are important: They’re expressions of history, culture and local identity.

The easiest way to sample this diversity, if you’re stuck in Tokyo, is to find your nearest antenna shop. From Hokkaido down to Okinawa, just about every prefecture has one to showcase local specialty foods while acting as de facto tourist information hubs.

Several of them also operate uncomplicated, affordable restaurants, mostly offering set meals of down-home regional signature dishes, with plenty of good sake and/or shōchū — exactly the kind of fare you expect to find at tourist sites or rural roadside rest stops.

Imari Roaji is a very different proposition. Located on the seventh floor of a swish, modern building looking out over the Ginza rooftops, it is the big-city branch of an equally sleek, contemporary restaurant based in Imari, Saga Prefecture, in the far west of Japan. Its aim is not simply to offer local charm, but to leave a more lasting impression about the quality of the cooking and ingredients.

The ceramics from Imari require little introduction. And now, Imari wagyu beef is also starting to make a name for itself to rival the better-known Kobe or Yonezawa brands. This, along with the seafood from the waters off Kyushu, forms the heart of the menu at Roaji.

The multicourse dinners range in complexity and price from ¥8,000 up to ¥25,000, while the Imari beef is also available a la carte as teppan (griddle-cooked) steaks or shabushabu hot pot. But, as always in this upmarket part of the city, the best value is at midday.

Even the simplest Mikakuzen set lunch (¥2,500) comprises as many as nine separate small dishes, including sashimi, grilled and deep-fried seafood, all served on raised wooden trays together with rice — a Saga varietal, of course — miso soup, made with Kyushu country-style barley miso, pickles and a light dessert.

For an extra ¥2,000, the Shikisai (“Four Seasons”) menu adds an additional dish of rich, juicy teppan-grilled Imari steak. Or you can go all-out for one of the steak lunches (from ¥5,000 to ¥8,000). With the light pouring in through the picture windows and some excellent Saga sake in your glass, it makes for exceptionally pleasant dining, whichever level you choose.

The entire building was originally envisaged as a showcase for Kyushu cuisine. Although that plan was eventually modified, Roaji’s neighbor on the floor below, Sagaya, also specializes in beef from the prefecture. It also boasts a special dining room with lighting provided by the prolific teamLab (advance booking required).

Next spring, Saga will be the venue for the 2020 edition of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony. With high-flying gourmets jetting in from around the continent, Roaji offers an impressive taste of the high-end cuisine that will be awaiting them.

Set lunch menus from ¥2,500; dinner from ¥8,000 (also a la carte); separate smoking area; partial English menu; some English spoken