It’s been a rollercoaster year for Tokyo’s chefs. They welcomed 2020 on a high, many of them booked solid for months ahead and expecting even more international custom in this much-anticipated Olympic year. Now all they’re seeing at their doors is tumbleweed.
Spare a thought especially for Yusuke Namai. Since opening his restaurant, Ode, in September 2017, his stylish, innovative — but always accessible — French cuisine has won him accolades and a legion of admirers, both in Japan and, increasingly, abroad.
In March, Ode was named No. 35 on the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But the awards ceremony was canceled, and Namai’s delight was tempered by hearing the announcement from a prerecorded video livestreamed to a half-empty Tokyo hotel room.
One day before the state of emergency was declared on April 7, Namai closed his doors, and started focusing his energy on developing a takeout menu. But rather than attempting to sell packaged versions of his regular menu, or simply turning out basic lunch boxes and comfort foods, he decided to have some fun.
He knew he could draw on his repertoire of orthodox French dishes, the kind he used to cook before opening Ode. But how about some of his favorite sandwiches, too? And some really good patisserie?
That was when Namai really got creative. To avoid diluting Ode’s core identity, he decided to make up three separate fictitious brands. The first, called Chotto Peut-etre, is a play on the name of his previous restaurant, Chic Peut-etre. This is his vehicle for selling pate, charcuterie and other classic bistro dishes such as joue de boeuf (slow-cooked beef cheek).
The second line is an imaginary food truck he’s called 567 — in Japanese this can be read as “ko-ro-na” — that specializes in sandwiches. Top of the bill is a deluxe Cubano, filled with roast pork, ham, bacon and cheddar cheese, plus pickles and plenty of grain mustard, then pressed and grilled to a gorgeous golden-brown. It’s taken a long time, but finally Tokyo has a great Cuban sandwich.
Other options include the Veg Out pita sandwich stuffed with falafel, tahini dressing and an appetizing mix of salad vegetables, and the Jurassic 5, a tandoori chicken wrap with creamy honey mustard sauce, chili beans, and hints of cumin and dark sesame oil.
And then there’s the Snoop Dogg, a hot dog made with a long, black, gleaming boudin noir blood sausage, plus spicy chili beans, chopped onion, marinated cabbage and hot sauce. Is it tasty? For sure. In good taste? Maybe not quite …
But the best thing on the 567 menu by far is Namai’s new seafood gumbo. Featuring firefly squid, shrimp and scallop — along with okra and the Cajun holy trinity of onion, celery and bell pepper — in a fish soup as rich as bouillabaisse, it comes with a superb serving of ginger butter rice. Crank up the zydeco music and party!
If you’re hungry or in a hurry, there’s a large table outside Ode’s 2nd-floor landing where you can sit and eat your sandwiches on the spot. And while you’re there, pick up a tin of fresh-baked financiers. Available in either plain or salted caramel flavors, these are the third of Namai’s fictitious brands: Butterfield. You don’t need to be an aficionado of 1960s blues bands to appreciate that they’re wickedly good.