Friday, November 27, 2009

Experiencing authentic robata-yaki in Tokyo

Shinjuku is a metropolis inside a metropolis. One of the liveliest neighborhoods in Tokyo, Shinjuku grows out of the Shinjuku station - the world’s busiest railway and metro hub. In a neighborhood that pulsates energy 24x7 like no other on earth, Hiro - a friend of a friend, led us to a quiet oasis of a restaurant – Ushi-no Yotare - a traditional robata grill, translated as “around the fireplace”. Hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the street, located in a cozy little space on a third floor of what appeared to be a hole-in-wall entrance, he took us back to an ancient time when a family sat around a sand pit or an irori – a charcoal-fired hearth, glowing coals in the center, grilling humble but sublimely satisfying foods. Historically inexpensive fare of the commoner, in Today’s Tokyo, a meal like this will run you about $80/person to start with, and can easily go up from there. The main ingredient of each dish is harpooned onto a wooden stick with one end tipped toward the hot coals and the other conveniently plunged into the sand. The ingredients are simply finished by the sizzling heat, and then served with umami-rich sauces that accentuate their natural flavors in a ceremony that is best enjoyed in pictures rather than words!

We thought an unfiltered sake - nigori - was appropriate for the meal. To my surprise (and eventual delight) the milky drink that appeared before us was much thicker and stronger than what I'd tried in the States. The inspection of the bottle confirmed 20% alcohol, about 5% higher than a typical sake I am used to. I learned that 20% is actually the norm, while the common 15% sake is actually diluted with water before bottling. Slowly sipping on this potent drink, thick of mushy rice pulp, quite sweet, with strong aroma of fermented rice, we eyed the artful cooking show developing before our eyes.

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