There were cheers and fears in equal measure this spring when Nobuhiro Kakinoki announced he would soon be leaving Kotaro, the brilliant super-izakaya in Shibuya, after nine years as chef Kotaro Hayashi’s right-hand man. Pleasure, because it was high time for him to strike out on his own. Concern, because it seemed to be the very worst time to do so.
No need to have worried: Kakinoki — known to all simply as Nobu-san — has done more than survive. Shoto Lamp, the excellent one-counter tavern he’s set up on the far side of Shibuya, has thrived since its opening in June. And that’s really no surprise: all the essential elements are in his favor.
First, he’s moved into auspicious premises, the erstwhile site of Bacar, the insanely hard-to-book bistro helmed by Shunsuke Ishii (now chef at his own Sincere). Second, he’s teamed up with another fine chef, Takayuki Shiraishi, formerly of Eatrip in Harajuku. With the two of them sharing kitchen duties, the food at Lamp is first-rate, as is the excellent sake that Nobu-san has always served.
Most importantly, Nobu-san has paid his dues. He was with Hayashi from the very start — Kotaro opened in the equally troubled spring of 2011, just a few days after the Tohoku mega-quake and tsunami — and built up an enviable support base among Hayashi’s regular customers.
Above all, like Hayashi before him, Nobu-san is part of the lineage of restaurateur Teiji Nakamura. It’s a remarkable family tree that extends from Nakamura’s own group of restaurants — including Kan, Namikibashi Nakamura, and Nakamura Shokudo — through the many proteges who have worked with him and absorbed his rigorous approach to quality and service.
Besides Kotaro, other Nakamura alumni include Sakai Shokai and the just-opened Sowado. Nobu-san himself once worked at Nakamura’s sobaya-meets-designer-izakaya, Yamato, in Yoyogi Uehara, which was how he first came to meet his co-chef Shiraishi. In a city the size of Tokyo, a support network like this is crucial.
Unsurprisingly, there are many points of overlap between Lamp and Kotaro, both in layout — the small open kitchen with counter seating, plus a table at the far end — and provender. Nobu-san’s fridge holds similar premium sake from small-batch brewers, although none are the same as served by Hayashi at Kotaro.
Ditto with the food. You may recognize dishes with a clear family resemblance, from the niku-dango — a breaded, deep-fried meatball wrapped around a molten egg yolk — to the potato salad. But Shiraishi’s touch and finesse takes the meal in some beautiful new directions, as evidenced by his superb terrine of horse mackerel wrapped in shiso (perilla) leaf and cucumber, and served on a creamy cauliflower puree.
There is no written menu as yet. You just give them the go-ahead and they will place a succession of dishes in front of you until you’re ready to wrap up your meal. But don’t leave without a bowl of the Vindaloo-style curry or the delicate chicken ramen — two parting shots that will likely draw you back to the warmth of Lamp’s welcome.
Shoto 2-14-5, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0046; 03-5738-7019; bit.ly/shotolamp; open 5-11 p.m. (Sat & Sun 2-10 p.m.); closed Mon.; omakase menu (around ¥5,000/head, plus drinks); takeout not available; nearest station Shinsen; nonsmoking; cash only; no menu; English not spoken
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