Saturday, March 27, 2010

Okonn, Yoyogi Uehara (おこん)

DAMN, I know how to pick restaurants. This one is a little hard to describe, but let me rattle off some ideas that describe it: secluded, stylish, simple cooking but great ingredients, and a lot of care and concern.

First, the location - it's 7 minutes walk from Yoyogi Uehara, which sounds close but feels like nothing of the kind. It's actually almost due north, midway up to Hatagaya, and if you're walking that way you'll feel like you've left populated areas behind after about 60 seconds. The web site is exemplary in making the journey simple - a very detailed custom map with photographs illustrating each stretch of road and turning (e.g., just when I thought I was going too far down the wrong road, I saw 'the red brick mansion' that I remembered from the picture). As far as care and concern, how about a restaurant that pays your taxi fare from the station if it's raining?

The style is definitely 'Japanese Modern', in that it's a small room with a lot of dark brown and bare stone. There's a small water feature along one wall that's drained and has a coat rack installed at the moment - "It's winter, so everyone's wearing coats, and anyway water makes you feel colder." The counter area is actually in the back and, in an unusual twist, isn't really recommended since the kitchen work isn't done there - "the frying and grilling is too smelly, so we keep it in the back". Actually, that sounds a little precious now that I write it, but I don't mean it that way. The master does all the serving (I think it's his mom helping with the cooking), so he's out front all the time to chat, eliminating the point of the counter for me.

The food is a really odd mix, but I enjoyed it more and more as it went - it's a rare meal that reaches its peak with the rice. You'll have to order a course, starting at Y5000, which is really not troublesome for food like this. First bites are served as you sit down; a multi-celled plate of very normal okazu. I was worried when I saw these on the web site because they look so normal; they were nice, and very normal.

Not taking pictures taxes my memory these days. I'd like to say that the first real course was the chicken meatball in soup. Again, pleasant, homey, nothing more. The tempura course (which could change - just says 'seasonal stuff' online) improved things substantially. Fukinoto, taranome, something cylindrical that I think was udo, and a weird red lotus root. All in a fry of surpassing lightness. Definitely better. The sashimi course (I'm pretty sure it really did come in this order, in case you feel discombobulated) was a silvery bowl whose bottom was lined with dashi jelly, and on top were a just-grilled snapper slice, a scallop slice, some firefly squid, and one other thing that I've forgotten - but anyway, good ingredients in a creative and modern presentation. The grilled fish course was a normal-looking slice of salmon cut from a very large fish and pickled a bit in a soy sauce before grilling; I can only imagine that it was wild fish or something, because it was excellent, and the skin was crisped up well also.

The final course, and the one that put me over the top into loving this place, was the rice (if you get the next-level course, it's the same as this one plus a meat dish, which I think would be too much food). You have a choice of various types of clay-pot rice, and on the day it was either baby fish (like shirasu, but some other name that no one else in the restaurant understood either, so I felt better) or baby shrimp. Baby cherry blossom shrimp. Oooooh, how we love our sakura ebi, during the short Spring season when they're available fresh. The white flowers are far less interesting. This was rice of wonderful texture and sweetness. I think it was from Akita; we overheard the explanation once and forgot it, asked and received it again, and forgot it, and now can't tell you. But it was great; the master offered the opinion that "People say Niigata rice is great, but it really isn't that good. We use various types of rice depending on the day." It was cooked in a clay pot ("You really need to make a reservation to come here, because then we can start soaking the rice in cold water an hour before you arrive."), so it had a bit of burn on the bottom, and was thoroughly mixed with the tiny shrimp and a few sprigs of nanohana. While eating it, I had the oddest feeling that there was a light touch of butter, and in fact the master confirmed after that there was a bit of Calpis butter added at the end for fragrance. He described this as a 'luxury butter' or words to that effect; I don't know how I feel about a luxury butter from a company whose products also include 'ameal peptide' and 'Calsporin, a feed additive', but I guess it's good butter! I hope that if the quality of my writing hasn't convinced you about the quality of the rice, at least the quantity has. And speaking of quantity, they make you 2 go of rice, so I've got a solid leftover dinner waiting for me tonight.

Drinks are a tiny bit limited - based on the menu, I would say their preferred mode is for you to buy a 720ml bottle of sake. If you want single-serve size, they have 4 or 5 brands in little bottles (including Denshu and Kokuryu, so they're not shameful, but they are lower-level sakes). Personally, I'd love to go in there with a bottle of blanc de noirs champagne and have at it. The master was skeptical about this idea, but I know where I'm comin' from.

The master is quite young (37 days younger than me), and really enthusiastic, in a retiring sort of way. If you ask a question, you'll get a long answer, as you can see from the above. Why are they located in such an out-of-the-way place? "Well, we don't really want people coming in here as a second restaurant, or after getting drunk on the way home from work. We just want people who really want to eat our food."

That kinda says it all for me.

1 comment:

  1. Never thought of adding some butter to donabe style rice. Good idea and want to try this. Thanks for writing on this place.