Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ogawa, Monzennakacho (緒川)

The trouble with restaurants, my friends, is that I like them too much. Even after a pleasant and satisfying Italian lunch at Chailly, there was no lack of desire to eat out for fact it's usually a struggle to get past all the wonderful options of Monzen Nakacho and into the grocery store. Fortunately I had walked to work, as well as to a faraway land for lunch, and felt justified in a light dinner out.

Last night produced a good excuse in the form of a VIB (Very Important Bucho) who happened to be riding the train next to me, and got off at my stop. Striking up a conversation, I learned that he doesn't live in the town, but visits the local temple every night to pray for the good fortune of our company. And presumably to frequent a few choice establishments afterward...

Being the local, I immediately came in for the somewhat fraught task of choosing an appropriate establishment - critical to make it friendly, cheap, tasty... The close option, Terada, was reputed to be full despite the gaping holes at the counter, so we pressed on. In passing, we agreed that the nameless little izakaya around the corner from there must surely be one of Japan's worst! And after we crossed Eitai Dori and turned into the 'bright' area of Monnaka, we were fortunate to find Ogawa san entertaining only a few customers.

We ordered up a selection from the 8-10 fish and shells on the hand-written menu. (Incidentally, I recommend ordering separately rather than the 'service' plate, on which you can still choose but you get smaller portions for lower prices. I've never had a fish at Ogawa that didn't leave me wanting more.) Pickled mackerel (〆さば; I don't know what's up with my recent trend to use weird English for everything), young tuna (めじ鮪) and seaweed-cured golden-eye (金目鯛の昆布じめ) were all pretty extraordinary - still winter-fatty despite the impending sakura onslaught.

At this point the VIB received a call from someone even more VI and went outside. Ogawa san and I took the opportunity to get reacquainted after a long absence, and had a long and hearty laugh over the extraordinary embarrassment he accidentally visited on me last time I went. No hard feelings.

He calls the place 旬菜料理, something like 'seasonal vegetable cooking', which has a misleading vegetarian sound in English. There's plenty of fish, obviously, and plenty of meat. Actually I've not always been excited by the meat; things like boiled pork salad are a bit uninspired, although I remember to this day the luxury ham cutlet that I ate there one time. Hamkatsu is very low-end food, sort of like a thickly-breaded, deep-fried slice of lunch meat in most instances. Ogawa san pepped it up with a really thick slice of good ham and his exemplary frying work. In general though, I think the standard izakaya items on his menu tend to be less good.

The other things he's good at is odd (to me) southern cooking - he says that's what he likes even though he's not from the South. There are always interesting-looking things sitting on the counter to entice you, and I always get enticed. Last night was mugwort rice cakes (just trying to be silly now; よもぎもち, more or less like 草もち) filled with sliced bamboo shoots, which he crisped under the broiler and then covered with a dark, thick sauce. I don't know if this is southern, but it's certainly different from what one usually gets, and it's more than welcome. Tempura of taranome or other spring / mountain vegetables are reliably great (if you like that sort of bitter thing), and I fully intend to go back next week to eat the fried cherry blossom shrimp cake that I've been unable to forget since I ate it around this time 2 years ago (かきあげよ).

Drinks list is small but carefully chosen. There are only 8-10 types of shochu, and 15-20 types of sake. The sake is mainly junmai, and mainly from famous locations in the mountains. And every name is unreadable, even if you're a VIB.

Ogawa is recommended for two types of event - visiting visitors who want to experience some real, authentic Japanese culture (who may not be afraid of good food, or who you don't mind spending a bit more on just so you won't be bored going to Watami again) or VIEs (Very Intelligent Eaters) who can appreciate excellent food served up in a cramped, not-that-clean, fully enjoyable environment. 幸せ.

Order deep, wide and carefully - consider avoiding the standards.

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