Thursday, November 19, 2009

Umi, Kayabacho (海)

Three things right off:
1. The delights of Kayabacho seem dubious and limited, but I keep finding places that I think are quite good.
2. This is one of them.
3. Kayabacho is under-served by Tabelog; even the good places have relatively few respondents, and the scores are unnaturally low. Ignore them.

Right, so after visiting Denshou to relax after work on Wednesday (still a recommended izakaya - chicken + interesting other bits), I received a surprise call from a grievously unemployed friend who has come into employment. In theory he wanted a neutral evaluation of the offer, but in practice he wanted to drink a lot of beer and shout "Woo hoo, I got a job!" I sympathize, though of course I can't empathize. And so it was that I found myself in Kayabacho for a second night.

Fortunately, on Wednesday night I saw several places that seemed worth visiting. I'm a big fan of the 'spot a tiny sign down an alley' approach to restaurant searching, and it paid off at Umi, which has a sign not more than 18 inches across simply advertising "海" - to me that said "We've got a lot of fish," and I was enticed. Even better, Umi is bucking the shochu trend of the past couple years by making their drink of choice sake, with a healthy 30 selections.

Inside is small, a little dark, and modern, with walls made of grass screens (like the kind you might use as curtains). As I got used to it, I found it a little bare and cold, but this is a very minor quibble. I'll get it out of the way - the only other quibble I had is that the server seemed to think we were idiots. This was mainly because the menu is handwritten and was, for me, completely unreadable. But whatever he thought, it didn't get in the way of his service, which was unfailingly polite and helpful. With he and the chef both being 30-ish, stylish guys, I get the feeling that they may own the place. These are my only quibbles.

What I liked was the food and drinks! The daily menu (it really is daily - handwritten and dated at the top, and different from the one I saw the previous night) features 15 or more types of sashimi, listed according to origin (e.g., Mie Buri), and healthy selections for grilled, fried, boiled, and snacks. All this is very much in line with any good izakaya. The sake menu is a single page listing what's in the fridge - 30 types, mainly Y600 for a smallish glass, but higher-quality sakes from unusual places. For example, you'd expect to see a lot of Niigata on an extensive sake list, right? Here the most common origin was Hiroshima, then some Osaka and Kyoto. Add in Yamaguchi and Fukui, and I strongly suspect that someone was born in Kansai...

We certainly ate well - as my dining companion said "I couldn't stop eating!" To help indecisive people, they have mixed sashimi plates with 5 or 8 types (5 types, two slices each, Y1800). While you couldn't pick the 5 types, you shouldn't complain when the kitchen gives you sea urchin, exotic shellfish and two excellent types of mackerel, and even the cheap variety (octopus) is full fresh and delicious. Not without a hint of chewiness, however... The other fish item we ordered was grilled tuna - one bite of this was enough to make both of us stop talking and look amazed. I'm actually unsure what bit of the fish it was - I think it was half of the hindquarters of a small bluefin, not the jaw of a big fish as you usually see.

In other news, the okara (a tofu byproduct) was extraordinary - some combination of the high concentration of vegetables and the excellent stock they had used to make it. A salad of lightly pickled cabbage was similarly delicious despite the fact that it sounds boring. We got a few of their oden - daikon, which was a single cylinder for each of us, in its own bowl, and also a boiled egg, again in its own bowl with some wakame and a tobiko topping (the little orange eggs that go on California rolls). These were actually uninspiring, but when we finished with a slab of grilled chicken, all was forgiven.

This, then, is not the hidden, old-fashioned izakaya of your dreams. But it sure is a small place with fresh fish and great food, and in my personal rating system, flavor trumps ambience any day.

Not the size of the wave - the mocean of the ocean.

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