Sunday, January 18, 2009

Onodera, Kagurazaka (おの寺)

Welcome back to another exhaustive installment of Eating Out In Tokyo. My camera was on fine form last night, so you can get a good idea of the food at the second highly-recommended washoku place I visited this weekend.

Onodera is hidden in plain sight, on the fourth floor of a small building in the middle of Kagurazaka's main street. When I reserved, Onodera san asked if I knew where it was. I said I had the address and map, so it was probably alright, and he said ' if you can't find it.' It wasn't any trouble to find, but I see his point. The building is small and thin, and from street level evinces an undeniable lack of class. Anyway, what's better than finding a cool little place tucked unexpectedly between dross?

By my count, there are 14 seats - 10 at the counter, plus a lovely private room (which isn't that private since it's just at the end of the main room an the screens aren't kept closed - think about the seating area at the end of a normal ryokan room). We sat at the counter, and Onodera san did a lot of entertaining throughout the evening - making jokes, talking to everyone, and generally creating a really nice atmosphere. [1/25/09: Digression: I just learned that the distinguished-looking guy in kimono at the far end of the counter who seemed to be amused to hear me talking about the food was in fact a yokozuna, 北の富士, who is now an announcer for the sumo on NHK. うれしい!]

His sake selection is very nice. - at some point, I decided I preferred junmai ginjo, and so when there's no menu I tell people that's what I like. Much of the time, they look at me like a nut. Onodera has 4 varieties to choose from just in junmai ginjo, and each time you order sake it comes in a different pitcher with a tray of glasses to choose from.

Yes, Virgina, there was food here, and I'm getting to it now. Kazunoko with nanohana - getting into the spirit of 'it's almost spring'. Kazunoko was very light and clear-tasting, not at all the kind of kazunoko that I usually dislike. Nanohana was lightly boiled and then left alone.

Sashimi of squid 'three ways', plus flounder. Cut from two places on the squid (thin and thick), plus a leg that had been wrapped and cured in seaweed, this was of the more mealy variety that I don't like so much, but was fresh enough to eat. The flounder, which I think had also been kobu-jime'd, was extraordinary. Flounder can be tough, but even in thick slices this was appealingly tender 'n' toothsome, with tons of fish and seaweed flavor.

Special order oyster. There's only one course, which changes every day, and last night there were only two special-order items - homemade karasumi (dried, spiced fish egg sacs, often described as 'Japanese cheese', and looking a lot like mimolette) and these King Kong oysters that took 4 bites to get through. I have to admit that the flavor was lacking here, but the size, texture and freshness were spot-on. You can't win 'em all, and you don't know until you bite it.

An amusing course: ozouni, but not for the new year. Excellent chicken broth with sliced vegetables, bits of roast chicken skin, and a piece of mochi (oddly, not grilled first).

Croquette of shrimp potato (so-called because the potato has light and dark bands like a shrimp tail), fantastic oily broth, and I always forget the name of the crunchy bits that you also get with Ochazuke.

Sawara. I have a feeling some people would say this was overdone, but the fish is so darn fatty for winter that it remained juicy regardless. Crisp skin, tasty flesh, all-around great. A texture sort of like I remember swordfish steaks when I used to eat them in America (or the Cajun swordfish sandwich that I had at Roti about two years ago). The pickle-looking thing is nagaimo pickled in soy sauce. I don't like nagaimo, but I liked him. I want to make this at home since nagaimo is so healthy. I want to buy the soy sauce that Onodera san uses.

Tempura of taranome, bamboo shoot, eringi mushroom. I told you he was going for that Spring-In-January theme. Taranome and Erinigi were very good, takenoko was extraordinary (there was some special kanji for this pre-season bamboo shoot, but the chef admitted that he also didn't know how to pronounce it!). The breading seemed like it had corn or semolina in it, reminiscent of the fried eringi at Quintessence...but better.

Chawan mushi with cheese and fresh seaweed. This goes in the category of things-that-are-more-impressive-to-Japanese-people-because-they-violate-the-standard-conventions. It tasted pretty good and was certainly an interesting flavor idea, but the cheese wasn't mixed into the custard - still concentrated in bite-size pieces.

Piece de resistance, the aji-gohan. One of these earthen pots per couple, steaming away on the stove for 40 minutes to prepare your rice course. He puts fish on top of the rice to make it...fishy tasting.

Again, I think this is a little more impressive to Japanese people, but it was very good. And adding the pickles at left for the second bowl worked a treat.

Miso soup was extraordinary - very little miso and a lot of clams, but the best dashi I've had in ages. Quite smoky flavor. I had to order a second bowl!

In thinking back, it's hard to point to a course that really stood out. But the whole time I was there, I felt relaxed and happy, and I remember everything as delicious - is this a balanced meal? A smooth progression of courses? I highly recommend this place. The food is great, the atmosphere is wonderfully warm and welcoming (did I mention that it's a shoes-off-slippers-at-the-table restaurant?) and the overall experience will make you feel like you've wandered into the home of someone who just happens to be a really, really good cook. Three and a half hours went by at a pleasant clip, not at all too long, and we left full and happy.

Are we on a roll with the Washoku this weekend or what?

Geez, when will I manage to get to a place that Seat hasn't been already?

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