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It's finally here, the world's first acid-jazz sake bar, playing an invigorating soundtrack of early-nineties acid jazz and triphop while pouring an impressive mix of rare-groove premium sake. The fifty or sixty bottles in the fridge include many seasonal brews and small batches from artisanal producers around the country, with some bottles that you probably won't find anywhere else in Tokyo.
There's no menu though - this is the kind of place where the proprietor learns your taste in sake (in Japanese) and makes recommendations. The small but well-constructed food menu is designed to go with sake, with umami-rich dishes like the excellent fugu-roe pasta, roast pork in shio-koji, and potato salad. Since this is a one-man operation, you may have to wait a bit for your food when it's crowded.
There are just six seats at the counter and three small tables, with a big window looking out onto the alleyway in front. The proprietor here, Taro Ishida, is a veteran of a similarly well-stocked sake bar around the corner called All That Jazz. (Talkin' Loud is named after the legendary London-based acid-jazz record label, started in 1990 by Gilles Peterson.) Most sake are priced at Y500-700 per serving, while food is around Y600-800 per dish.
The cooking at Old Thailand is a few levels up from your typical Tokyo Thai joint, and everything smells really good, even in the elevator on the way up from the street. In addition to the festively decorated dining room, there's a nice wrap-around outdoor terrace looking out over busy Ichigaya from the third floor. The soundtrack is a lively mix of upbeat Thai pop and mellow ballads.
The kitchen here isn't shy about robust flavors - our stir-fried water spinach was very, very garlicky, as were the plump prawns. Spicy papaya salad was very spicy, and sour soup was properly sour. Spring rolls were fresh-tasting, and our green curry was full of rich, ripe avocado balancing the tasty shrimp.
At lunchtime the menu offers around eight main dishes; these are accompanied by spring rolls and soup for a good balance of flavors. Drinks include fruity cocktails, fruit juices and exotic teas as well as the usual beer and wine. Budget around Y4000 for dinner with drinks, or Y1000-1200 at lunchtime.
King George's sturdily constructed sandwiches include appetizing concoctions like the Meathead, made with turkey, turkey pastrami and jalapenos (Y1600), and the HLT with honey-glazed ham and white cheddar (Y1500). They even do a tuna melt, made with provolone. And they get the details right - the cheeses are pleasantly sharp, the avocados are ripe, the mayonnaise is Hellman's, and most important, the sandwiches are well-stuffed.
Drinks include juices, smoothies, gourmet coffee and tea, house wines, and Hitachino Nest beers by the bottle. The rustic dining room has four small tables and four stools at the bar, and there's some outdoor seating upstairs on the roof. Of course take-out is available.
Good grilled chicken and a decent sake list to go with it have made this casual yakitoriya a neighborhood favorite. The wings are nicely charred and crisp, while skewers of lamb are full-flavored without being gamey.
The grilled fish and vegetables are also worth exploring, and the assorted pickles are just about perfect. Budget around Y2500-3000 for ample food and drink.
Zokkon is a tastefully decorated, upscale izakaya with good food and an impressive sake selection. The sake list emphasizes daiginjo and other higher grades of sake, with three-part tasting flights available.
The food menu tends toward subtly flavored delicacies chosen to enhance your sake-drinking experience. Some highlights are the seared, miso-marinated mentaiko (spicy fish roe) and the tender seared chicken breast (sasami aburiyaki), both of them more delicate and refined than your typical izakaya fare.
Service can be hit or miss, but the staff are generally friendly and knowledgeable about sake. Budget around Y4500 for dinner with drinks. Open from 2pm weekends.
This is one of the more accessible places in town to try gourmet oden - they're open all day rather than just evenings, and the spacious counter and train-station location make it a comfortable spot for solo diners. Lunch (served until 2pm) is an especially good deal - for Y1200 you can get an oden-centered meal featuring six pieces of oden in broth plus sashimi, a magnificent stewed tomato, wakame soup, pickles and rice. The oden, simmered in a mild dashi broth, is fairly typical, although the spicy fish ball was a pleasant surprise.
The oden selection expands after 4:30pm, as the subtle dashi-type oden is joined by hearty miso-stewed items like roast duck and pork tongue. Assorted platters of five oden pieces are priced at Y1600 for miso and Y1500 for dashi. If you want to make a night of it, there's a full menu of izakaya small dishes - sashimi, grilled fish, fried foods - along with sake and shochu. The intensely flavored, miso-based beef-tendon stew (gyusuji-nikomi) is especially recommended, and it's also available as a lunchtime set for Y1000.
Seating is at the twelve-person counter or a big common table, both with sunken floor seating. Take your shoes off at the entrance to the restaurant.
Tantanmen is a direct descendant of Chinese dandanmein. This dish of Sichuan origin is spicy, and a traditional bowl will have plenty of chili oil, Sichuan peppercorn, and minced pork. You can find tantanmen at many Chinese restaurants in Japan, but for the best bowls, you have to go to shops that specialize in the dish.
Lashohan is one of those shops. They serve nothing but tantanmen, though they have a few varieties. The Masamune Tantanmen (Y850) is a classic soupless style, but for fans of the bitter-hot Sichuan peppercorn, go for the Premium Masamune Tantanmen (Y1000). It is full of spice, peppers, and flavored oils, though a bit of an overload for the uninitiated.
If you want tantanmen with soup, they offer a few varieties. The menu is easy to understand, with plenty of photos of the bowls.
Fans of gyumotsu nikomi can choose three different varieties of stew at this popular specialty izakaya. The soy sauce-based version probably best shows off the individual flavors of the various organ meats, while the miso and extra-spicy miso versions will satisfy those who like a richer, deeper sauce.
The very tender braised beef tongue is also highly recommended, and it's definitely worthwhile to explore the selection of charcoal-grilled beef, beef parts and vegetables. There are two or three premium sake that nicely complement the rich nikomi and charcoaly flavors. Budget around Y2500 for dinner with drinks.
This after-work standing bar serves up excellent charcoal-grilled skewers of pork and chicken plus cheap drinks in an extremely casual setting. The ceiling is festooned with paper lanterns advertising beer and liquor brands.
Patrons - mostly Shimbashi office workers stopping in for a drink on the way home - can stand at upturned barrels, communal tables or a long counter in front of the grill. There's also some outdoor standing room, which may be somewhat less smoky depending on your luck.
As the shop name indicates, the main specialty here is yakiton - grilled pork on skewers, some fourteen varieties in all starting at around Y100. The Japanese menu has a neatly illustrated chart explaining where the various cuts of meat come from. Some favorites were the charcoal-infused tontoro (neck and shoulder meat) and harami (tender diaphram meat), plus very nice tebasaki (chicken wings) from the smaller yakitori side of the menu.
For starters, big crisp chunks of cucumber in salt will fill your vegetable quota for the day. The smooth and rich pork organ-meat stew (motsu-nikomi) has a miso base, but a subtle one - the overall flavor is more porky than miso-heavy. There are six different sake - three cold and three served at room temperature, although only the cold ones are listed on the English menu.
Budget around Y1200-2500 for food and drink, depending on how long you stay. There are several other branches scattered throughout Tokyo, but this main branch seems to have the best reputation for food.
Shibuya's Niku Yokocho (Meat Alley) is a collection of more than twenty tiny drinking spots, all of them featuring meat-centered cuisine, cheap alcohol, minimal decor and a very casual atmosphere. This is one of liveliest places in Tokyo for a carnivorous adventure, but perhaps the best starting point here is at the relatively placid Niku Ten no Kuni, which offers meat-based sushi and other creative dishes.
The first thing that attracted our attention was a dish called "uniku." It's a sushi-sized mound of rice wrapped in grilled beef and topped with fresh sea urchin, an odd mix of assertive flavors that work well together. The menu also offers assorted sushi platters featuring various meaty morsels served nigiri-zushi style. Sushi highlights include tender sasami chicken breast seasoned with a smoky plum sauce and excellent grilled pork belly (tontoro) with chives.
Tempura-fried meats are another specialty of the house, and our favorite of these was a Korean-style pork served with lettuce and a spicy dipping sauce. There's also a good assortment of drink-friendly small dishes such as ume-avocado, an appealing combination of ripe avocado with sour plum paste and toasted nori strips.
Libations include budget shochu-based cocktails, one or two good sake, and the usual draft beer. Budget around Y2500-3500 for ample food and drink.
There is a ramen shop in Japan called Jiro (not to be confused with the famous sushi shop of a similar name). Jiro features thick, wheaty noodles in a mega-porky soup. Add to that copious amounts of garlic, top with a mountain of bean sprouts, drizzle the whole thing with pork back fat, and you have the base of a bowl of Jiro ramen. There are other factors, but essentially this is a bowl that is tough to finish, and you'll smell like it for the next twelve hours.
Jiro has spawned many Jiro-style shops. One of the best is Senrigan. The soup is intense, but drinkable. The chashu is thick-cut, but tender. The toppings are plentiful, with raw garlic, back fat, spicy crisped rice, and the standard bean sprout pile all coming into play. Don't go for anything more than the normal ramen (Y730) here. Larger sizes of noodles or bowls with more pork are on the menu, but should only be attempted by a seasoned Jiro fan.
It should be noted that at any Jiro-style shop, you will be asked "Ninniku hairimasu ka?" Basically, "You want garlic in that?" This is code for you to tell them how much of each topping you want. Many shops will get upset if you don't have an answer, so just remember to say "futsu." This will get you regular amounts of all the toppings, the best choice for a first timer.
This popular take-out shop is run by Imahan, the century-old sukiyaki and shabu-shabu restaurant, and is located across the alleyway from their flagship restaurant. While a sukiyaki dinner at the restaurant might run you Y5000, here you can grab some take-out sukiyaki-filled croquettes for just Y173, and sukiyaki nikuman (Chinese pork buns) for Y626.
There's a whole range of deep-fried fare for your dining pleasure - chicken karaage, corn-cream croquettes, lotus root stuffed with ground pork, and deep-fried oysters, prawns, squid and mackerel. They also sell premium-brand roast pork and a variety of salad-type dishes. Party-ready hors d'oeuvre platters are Y3240 for a 3-4 person party.
Super-fresh seafood from the Noto Peninsula, north of Kanazawa, is the specialty at Notomi. To go with the seafood, there's a decent selection of a dozen or so well-known sake from around the country, plus three or four special labels from Ishikawa Prefecture. Everything from the down-home decor to the no-frills menu has the feel of a seaside izakaya that's been transported to the big city.
The focus of the kitchen is on the quality and freshness of the fish rather than fancy cooking techniques or creative recipes. Sashimi platters of three, five or seven types of seafood are a reliable starter, and tempura-fried oysters are worth a try when in season. Many individual fish and shellfish items are ready to grill on a gas burner at your table.
There are also plenty of nabe stews, braised nikomi items, fried dishes and even sushi, with lots of daily specials. Budget around Y4000-5000 for food and drink.
Singapore-style laksa spicy noodle soup starts at Y500 at this fast-food shop, with your choice of short or long noodles and four levels of hotness. The flavor is rich, shrimpy and quite spicy, even at the regular hotness setting.
Extra toppings, priced at Y100 each, include cheese, tomato and hard-boiled eggs, and there's also a set meal option which includes chicken with rice and a soft drink to go with your noodles. The setting is quite informal, with just four seats in the main part of the shop and a few benches in the semi-enclosed front section, which is furnished with space heaters and blankets.
Located just a minute or two from Ikebukuro station, this bustling izakaya is an easy stop for a quick bite and a drink on the way home, and the crowded ground-floor counter is full of solo diners as well as groups. Unlike most yakiton shops, they also have a take-out window in front where you can pick up skewers of grilled pork to go.
You'll be asked for your drink order as soon as you sit down; ask for oolong tea ('uroncha') if you don't feel like having a beer or a shochu cocktail. The grill menu (Japanese only) lists some eleven cuts of pork, five cuts of chicken, and four grilled vegetables, as well as plenty of side dishes. There's a chalkboard (also in Japanese only) with daily specials, including some fish and seafood.
The excellent pork karubi (short ribs) and kashira (pork cheeks) are both quite meaty, with subtle charcoal flavoring, while the liver is tender. The motsu nikomi here has a mild, almost creamy broth, allowing the individual organ-meat flavors to stand out. Note that there's a minimum order of two skewers for any particular grilled item.
Seating at the counter can be tight during busy times, but customers tend to come and go quickly. Budget around Y2000-3000 for ample food and drink. This is the first Tokyo branch of a small Saitama-based izakaya chain.
You'll find spicy ramen on many shop's menus. This usually means they take their normal bowl, throw in some chili peppers, and call it a day. Many of these bowls are just hot, with very little in terms of complexity. Only a few shops really focus on balancing spice with other flavors to create an amazing bowl of ramen. Kikanbo goes beyond the call of duty with their spicy miso ramen.
The bowl of karashibi ramen (Y800) comes with a choice: how much hot spice, and how much numbing spice. The shop's hot spice should be approached with caution. Made with a blend of spices from around the world, the regular level is probably the best to start with. Higher levels should only be attempted by true spice fans. Kikanbo is heavy on the sansho, Chinese numbing peppercorn. This second spice blend is bitter and numbing. For first timers, when asked about the spice intensity they prefer, a simple futsu futsu - regular for both - is a good idea.
All that spice sits atop a miso soup, blended with house-made sansho oil and a heavy soup. Fans of stewed pork might consider getting the extra pork topping (Y200) for a large slab of stewed pork belly that melts into the bowl.
There's an impressive selection of craft sake to try out at this stylish izakaya, and you can put together your own tasting flights quite easily and economically, as small 60ml glasses are priced at just Y380. Grilled meats and other sake-friendly fare are skillfully prepared; we enjoyed some excellent thick-cut bacon and good grilled asparagus and mushrooms during a recent visit. Budget around Y3000-4000 per person for ample food and drink, including the Y400 table charge.
The cuisine of Yamagata Prefecture is the specialty at this stylish upscale izakaya, along with a nice selection of local craft sake. A dozen or so special sakes of the day are featured on the blackboard, or you can ask the staff for suggestions.
The food menu features creative and original dishes that use local Yamagata ingredients, such as the excellent roast tandoori chicken marinated in sake lees (Y1050) and the konyaku sashimi with gorgonzola and walnuts. A laver and tomato salad with vinegared miso and mustard dressing is a good starter and goes well with sake.
Local Yonezawa beef is served in several variations, including A5-grade steaks with mashed potatoes (Y2700). In addition to sake, drinks include a selection of fruit liqueurs and non-alcoholic fruit juices. Budget around Y3000 at dinnertime.
This charming neighborhood shop serves takoyaki, akashiyaki, octopus okonomiyaki pancakes, and kakigori shaved-ice desserts. The takoyaki iss a fairly orthodox version, studded with big, tasty chunks of octopus in a gooey filling. It's served on its own or in a snack called takosen, which is two takoyaki balls in a crunchy shrimp-cracker sandwich.
The egg-based akashiyaki dumplings come plain or in a version that incorporates fresh-tasting leek alongside the octopus. During the day, the plump kakigori shaved-ice balls seem to be the biggest draw. These come in interesting variations like avocado-milk and strawberry-pistachio, with an ever-changing roster of flavors.
Tokushima, a major city on Japan's smallest major island of Shikoku, is home to one of the most famous local styles of ramen. The signature points are a heavy, porky soup flavored with soy sauce and topped with a sliced pork stir fry and a raw egg. A few shops have made the 600km journey from Tokushima to Tokyo, and JAC is one of them.
JAC is actually more of a Tokushima-inspired bowl. Sure, the fried pork and raw egg are there, but the soup is a little more refined, blending chicken and pork to give a more mellow taste. Their deluxe bowl (JAC Soba Y900) is worth it; a bit more fried pork and an extra half-cooked egg make for a satisfying slurp.
A branch of the huge Kimijimaya liquor shop in Yokohama, this Ginza outpost offers a good selection of sake and runs an informal standing bar corner as well. Fourteen types of sake range from Y300-900 for a small tasting-size glass, or you can try your luck with the pre-selected three-part tasting flight.
If you're not in a sake mood, there are shochu, wine and beer options, and several tiny snacks like smoked duck (Y600) and takoyaki (Y500). This is one of several standing sake bars in the immediate neighborhood, and just a minute from the Kochi antenna shop's basement sake-tasting counter.
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