Sunday, March 1, 2015

Ame Ni Mo Makezu, Ikebukuro (割烹 雨ニモマケズ)

Oh for goodness’ sake, will the stream of amazing restaurants never end? Just when I was getting a bit sick of myself for ordering the same nuta and bitter vegetables and raw fish and finishing with fried food and hot sake, along comes a place with creative food, killer atmosphere, good saki, and great prices, and once again I want to miss the last train and sleep on the floor of the station.

The really weird thing about being here at 4:30 on a Sunday is that the atmosphere and food and service make it feel like a fancy Saturday night out. You would never be embarrassed to take a date here, or at least if you did it would be a good barometer as to whether she was worthwhile and had any taste at all. (For the record, there’s no question that someone would love this place.) This couple at the end of the counter were the first to follow me. After that was the very stylish mid-50’s woman getting elegantly wasted by herself, then the two women to my immediate right on a girls’ night, then the young girl and blind woman who talked about classical music nonstop in abrasive voices. Everyone admired the large tansu-style chests built into the wall and holding the serveware, as well as the sanded wood counter. The guy from the original couple asked if it was a converted sushi restaurant, because he could still smell the vinegar rice in the counter, and the chef laughed and said he was right.

In fairness to myself, I started here at 4:15 on a Sunday, so if I didn’t miss the last train, you’re going to have to forgive me. I wandered by while they were still prepping, and after ducking under the noren that I forgot to take a picture of for you, I was really surprised how nice it looked inside. It's really in a pedestrian-only alley, and the narrow storefront and unassuming noren with no other signage give you no hint that it's going to be nice. It looks like it should be a 50-year old local sushi place, but this is what you find inside. In fact as soon as I looked in I figured that they were going to be full on reservations, and hesitated to bug them. When I did, the chef was kind pissed that I had interrupted his fish-slicing reverie, and called someone else to confirm that it was cool for me to have a seat after I finished walking around. A good job of it too, because the other seats at the counter, and some of the ones in the back, were indeed full on reservations. People take their Sunday-afternoon drinking seriously in Tokyo, in case you hadn't noticed.

Much to my surprise, the drink menu turns out to be dominated by nihonshu. Really, I was stunned. This is mostly stuff I haven’t heard of, barring the Sharaku I drank on…ooh, was that Friday night?! and the Koigawa. From what I had, I would say the menu leans toward the heavier end of things, and possibly a more old-fashioned palate than I might describe myself as having. Although I do remember other people describing what I like most as "popular with young people and ladies", or alternately "not real sake".
The serving style was fun. Seems like only Tuesday afternoon that I was walking around Roppongi Hillz looking at expensive glassware, saying how much I liked that ultra-thin, crack-it-if-you-breathe-wrong stuff, and here I was on Sunday drinking out of it.
But let’s have some food. Right off, the staff said “We have a seasonal thing, some boiled vegetables and octopus. Would you like some?” They say that to all the girls (and guys), but I wasn't averse, just a little surprised to start with something warm. This was outstanding, and immediately convinced me that the grumpy guy doing the fish prep was a-ok. I figured he was the owner, which was only sort of wrong.
Scanning the menu, I had to get this right away. I didn’t even realize it was crab-centered, which was a bonus since I thought I was just getting terrific sea urchin eggs and extremely smokey charred-and-peeled-and-cold eggplant.
The chef asked me then if I wanted sashimi. Normally I get bugged when places ask you if you want things – everything in its place, and I’ll let you know when I want it – but in this case, the place where I wanted sashimi was right in front of me at that precise moment. He opined that the Y1.8k mixed sashi set was kinda big, and he could make me a half-portion. If this half-portion was Y900, I’d have to say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, WE CAN ALL LEAVE IRAQ NOW. What was interesting about this from my perspective? A few nice things: not a scallop, it’s pen shell. The thing that looks like mackerel on the left wasn’t and it came with plum paste. He introduced the buri and hamachi separately like they’re different fish, I dunno. Red shrimp, I didn’t ask if it was from Niigata where the famous ones are fished, but IMHO, OMG.

This guy was working pretty hard, and talking about things in a way that sounded like he too owned the place. It turned out they’re partners.
PARTNERS IN CRIME, because grating a bunch of bottarga all over soba sounds so good it should be illegal. This was probably the third time this week that I’ve seen ‘fish egg pasta’ on a menu without ordering it, and I regret it every day-after. Especially this one.
In this case I wasn’t stunned by the tataki, although serving it with radishes and dashi vinegar jelly is certainly a cool idea. Just not beefy enough.
The chef isn’t that beefy anyway. But he does offer up a bunch of wacky things – lantern fish, blowfish, and turtle courses, by reservation only, and only Y6k or less per person. This is a dramatically low price if the quality of those courses is even close to the quality of everything I ate.
While looking at this plate of wacky lantern fish bits ready to go in the soup, I learned the truth about their low, low prices. THIS PLACE IS A CHAIN RESTAURANT. I mean, probably not in the same sense as Watami. But the fact remains that it’s part of a group of six restaurants. The original one is a grilled-pork specialist, and there’s also an Italian branch, and I wish I spoke enough Japanese to figure out what was going on here. Maybe the first one was successful and has let the owner bankroll aspiring chefs? As always, I have mixed feelings, but my dominant feeling was THIS PLACE IS SO AWESOME.
I had to go to the bathroom to ponder the awesomeness. The bathroom is in an enclosed alley shared with several other restaurants. This does not at all diminish the awesomeness of this place.

More food. Have you have ever had tempura of firefly squid with raw negi sauce? Me either, except now I have and you haven’t and it was delicious.

What about ‘meringue fry’? I don’t know what they did to make it as light and airy as this, probably mix a bunch of mayonnaise in with the crab and vegetables, but I would order it again and again.
You needed to see what’s inside here. Just a little. How do they do this?
Jeez, I had a bunch of other pictures I took and wanted to show you, like a steaming earthen pot making someone’s turtle soup, and the serving bowls and utensils for the same, but I’m plum tuckered out just thinking about all this. They serve you a nice cup of tea and a walabi mochi and some mandarin at the end to let you decompress and think about stuff.

And I’m not even going to say how simple and humble that is.

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