It’s an excellent sign when the first sight that greets you at a restaurant is a gleaming refrigerator filled with some of the best sake in Japan. When the next thing you see is a room set aside for rolling out and cutting soba noodles, it’s even better. To find both of these as you enter LDH Kitchen Izakaya Aobadai is particularly reassuring.
Soba and sake have been classic components of Tokyo dining culture since the old days. Those who appreciate their subtle depths of flavor are considered connoisseurs, or tsū. What comes as a surprise at Izakaya Aobadai is that the tsū responsible sports blue hair and is a member of one of Japan’s best-known boy bands, Exile.
Kenchi Tachibana had his sake epiphany some three and a half years ago. He says he’d never thought that it could be paired with food — he just drank it with friends. But since that day in 2016, his perception of Japanese food and sake has undergone a major shift. He felt compelled to find out more, visiting kura (sake breweries), meeting farmers and fishermen, and discovering the depth of Japanese food culture.
The result is Izakaya Aobadai, which opened last year in the heart of Naka-meguro. Produced by Kenchi (as he’s known to his fans) and underwritten by the band’s company, LDH (it’s short for “Love + Dream + Happiness”), it’s an impressive project.
The concept is to take the traditional kaku-uchi drinking culture of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and reformat it in contemporary guise. Basically that means giving classic izakaya tavern dishes a few modern tweaks and pairing them with the best new-wave sake that Kenchi could find — from kura such as Sawaya Matsumoto (in Kyoto), Kidoizumi (Chiba Prefecture)and Masumi (Nagano Prefecture) — in a stylish but casual format.
Starters include self-styled “addictive” deep-fried soba noodles, gyōza dumplings in buckwheat dough wraps and chicken tempura with crunchy nibs of buckwheat grain in the batter. Other classic sake snacks include oden (long-simmered fish cakes and vegetables), tsukune (chicken meatballs), grilled tofu pouches and a lovely, light, fluffy dashimaki tamago omelette.
But the core of the menu is the soba, which is prepared fresh each morning. It comes in two basic styles. One is a hybrid mazesoba (mixed noodles), served in a bowl with a dipping sauce. The deluxe version of this comes topped with slivers of pork meat and vegetable, and a spicy mārā dipping sauce on the side.
The other is warigo soba, a version especially popular in Shimane Prefecture. Small bowls are stacked up in sets of two or more, each containing just a couple of mouthfuls of the fine noodles. The signature dish is warigo soba with seared duck meat, which is heated at the table over a small cast-iron plate.
The traditional influences extend to the seating, half of which is given over to zashiki, a raised area where you sit on tatami mats at low tables. For those making only a brief stop — or who arrive too late — there are also 10 tachinomi (standing) tables just about big enough to balance two plates on, along with a couple of glasses of sake.
The most highly coveted seats are the seven chairs along the counter by the window, which give a prime view onto the cherry trees lining the Meguro River. During the winter months, the branches have been bare, but in the next few weeks they will come into full blossom. And by the time summer arrives, they will have formed a cooling curtain of green foliage.
Although the Meguro Ward authorities have canceled all official celebrations of the blossom this spring, due to concern about crowds and coronavirus contagion, that will do nothing to hold back the billowing blossoms — or the masses that are likely to converge notwithstanding.
For the duration of the blossom, probably the last two weeks of March, Izakaya Aobadai will be serving a special set menu in place of its a la carte offerings — with full details of how to reserve posted on its website and social media. Expect fierce competition for places.
Granbell Aobadai 2F, Aobadai 1-23-4, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0042; 03-6452-4725; ldhkitchenizakaya-aobadai.jp; open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight (Sat. from 3 p.m.; Sun. till 11:30 p.m.); closed Mon.; soba from ¥750; appetizers and oden from ¥250; sake from ¥750; nearest station Nakameguro; nonsmoking; English menu; some English spoken; major cards accepted