Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kyusuke, Ningyocho (久助)

We interrupt this interminable series of posts on eel in Kanda to bring you something that is fundamentally different (at least until lunch!) - oden in Nigyocho.

Yesterday feature a few trying times at the office, and I felt a deep need to eat out rather than salad (the verb) at home. Since I was riding my bike, plenty of destinations were open. I took the long way home and wandered through the back streets of Ningyocho. At the south end of the station there seems to be a good concentration of back streets with dining options, centered around 'Sweet Sake Lane' (or something; it really IS called 甘酒横丁). On a still summer night I love the feeling of cruising slowly through places like that on a momma-style bike.

After passing a number of attractive places, I saw on an even smaller street a little tiny-looking place. Sometimes those places are scary, but they had a cloth-wrapped bench outside for sittin', and they had a bright bare light bulb by the door, and I took those for signs that they were friendly. It looked like a converted house.

Thing is, it IS a converted house. And it might be more appropriate just say it's a HOUSE, because they did blissfully little conversion when they opened it 5 years ago. Got visitors and you want to show them what a traditional Japanese city house is like? Or have no idea yourself? This is it. Inside is a regular entryway and hall, with a tatami room on the left (come to think of it, there are only tatami rooms here) and the office / kitchen farther back. Everything is light wood that's been aged to a rich sheen by, well, age, and is lit in a bare-bulb way that makes it look somehow mellow and even older. I took off my shoes and headed upstairs.

The second floor is the main dining area, which is to say there are 4 tables there. Each of these is a big slab of rough-edged wood, and they (thankfully) supply zaisu, the 'legless chairs' that make floor seating almost tolerable (once you manage to somehow fold and squeeze your legs under the table). The room is completely authentic - a worn Chinese chest sits in the corner, the doors between the two halves of the room have been removed but the traditional carved transoms remain, the tokonoma is still there and decorated, and even the spot where one would normally expect to see the Buddhist altar remains - now occupied by the waitress's shamisen collection. Knowing what I know about shamisen, I'm surprised that she's leaving those sitting around the restaurant for patrons to stumble into, but it sure is nice. To complete the atmosphere, they play light jazz on the overhead speakers, mainly a extremely extended version of Round Midnight.

The food is, in theory, oden-based, although they'll run down the street to the main shop (not a lot bigger, but a bit more modern) for yakitori as well. And they have a quirky izakaya menu - quirky because it includes normal things like soy beans and stewed pork but also fried spring rolls and a whole section of Chinese food.

As it's summer, I can't get that excited about oden. They're simmered all day in soup, and are supposed to be hearty and warming for when it's cold outside. I just had a couple things to constitute a dinner - two of the spring rolls, which were filled with an ecclectic mix of bamboo shoots, pork and vegetables and were extraordinarily fresh and light in their frying, a tuna-avocado-mizuna salad in which the avocado was excellent and easily eclipsed the fish, and some chicken meatball oden. To round out the weirdness of the old house, quirky food and smooth jazz, they tasted exactly like gefilte fish.

Murata san the waitress (and probably owner too, if she's leaving thousands of dollars of instruments sitting around the dining room) will take care you. She says they get the odd foreigner in, mostly people from the nearby Royal Park Hotel, or else IBM.

I went home happy, and you would too.

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