The first meal of the year is always important. When it’s the first of the decade, though, it surely takes on even weightier significance. So what’s it to be? Fine dining or casual? Traditional or contemporary? Homegrown Japanese, something from overseas or perhaps some nifty fusion? Wait, don’t overthink it. Just get yourself over to Taishu Sakaba Raincolor (TSR).
Why? For one thing, it entails heading out to Gakugei-daigaku, which is always a good idea. Far enough from the city center to deter casual visitors, it still has a neighborhood feel and a demographic that supports small, independent shops, bars and restaurants. For another, after all the lights, tinsel and budgetary outlays of the holiday period, now is the time for simpler, low-rise, down-home enjoyments.
You’d hardly expect anything else at a self-styled taishū sakaba (“public tavern”). The term is a throwback to earlier times before the word izakaya gained widespread currency, and evokes images of earthy, belly-up-to-the-bar hostelries where the sake is rough and the food cheap. TSR takes this no-frills, old-school ethos and brings it bang up to date.
It’s only four months old, so the woodwork is clean and fresh, both inside and out, and the noren curtain that runs the length of the outside is still a pristine white. And, although the food and drink seem almost charitably priced, the (Japanese only) menu is inventive and absolutely in tune with the demands of a Reiwa Era clientele that expects to be served natural wine, quality sake from small-scale regional brewers and fresh fruit in their lemon sours.
Alongside the standard izakaya appetizers — blanched onion slices; smoky iburigakko pickles with cream cheese; creamy potato salad topped with a slice of cured mackerel — there are other items that reveal sophistication at work. Gorgonzola and honey mousse; dashimaki tamago omelette based on a consomme of porcini and French chestnuts; even a caprese salad made with La France pears and Shine Muscat grapes.
And then there are the wild game meats. TSR’s signature dish is a hearty Hamburg steak the size of a tennis ball, prepared from ground Hokkaido venison and served on a bed of mashed potato with a rich jus. You’ll find boar and bear dishes on the menu too, at least in winter — and, some reports bray, even donkey on occasion.
What else is worth trying? Basically anything that you think will go well with what you’re drinking. Sashimi; namero (fish tartare, usually of horse mackerel); tempura — don’t miss the fugu (blowfish) with karasumi (bottarga) if it’s on the menu; even the roast beef.
Almost everyone orders the hot-selling nenshō ni-oku-en garlic toast, though mainly on the strength of its unusual name (“garlic toast with annual sales of ¥200 million”). It’s just a length of baguette that’s been hollowed out, mixed with oil and the pungent allium, stuffed back inside and served hot. It’s gimmicky, it’s garlicky and it’s also pretty good.
The kitchen occupies the center of the dining area, with narrow counters running along three sides — one of them standing-only — and a row of small tables at the back for those settling in for extended stays. With the constant movement of the kitchen crew, the shouts of the floor staff and the happy buzz of conversation from the contented clientele, this configuration gives TSR a beguiling, theatrical feel.
Another reason why it’s slotted into the neighborhood so seamlessly is that owner Yoshitomo Teshima already had a following in the area, thanks to his mellow wine bar, Raincolor, on the other side of the Tokyu Toyoko Line train tracks. TSR is a lot brighter and brasher, but has already become an essential part of the local community.
A couple of caveats before you set off. Smoking is permitted, although the extractor fans are effective and the smoke doesn’t build up too densely. Also, come prepared: memorize a few menu items ahead of time, as the staff don’t have time to explain things. And don’t arrive expecting to walk straight in without a reservation, even to the standing area, least of all at weekends. TSR is that popular.
Takaban 3-7-13, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 152-0004; 050-5456-0629; bit.ly/sakabarain; open 7 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Wed. (plus two other days each month); appetizers from ¥390; venison Hamburg steak ¥790; drinks from ¥390; nearest station Gakugei-daigaku; smoking permitted; cash only; Japanese menu; English not spoken