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Tokyo, Eat Cheap, This Article Says Yes


17 Jan 2004
eat cheaply in Tokyo
(what about quality !)

what do people say ?

In Tokyo, Lots to Eat for Very Little

IN Tokyo, one of the most expensive cities in the world, where a cantaloupe is $17 and a glass of French white wine is $25, it is possible to eat an entire meal, excluding liquor, for $25 a person.

The secret? Follow the Japanese middle class, the "office girls" and "salary men" to their favorite restaurants, like a sushi place on the edge of the Tsukiji fish market or restaurants specializing in tonkatsu, a cutlet of the most tender pork, wrapped in a flaky, golden panko crust and nestled in a three-inch-high Mount Fuji of freshly grated crunchy cabbage.

A $25 meal in Tokyo doesn't leave you stuffed or bloated. But it can buy you happiness. Be warned, though, prices often double in the evening and a $15 lunch may be a $30 dinner at the same restaurant.

It helps to start early. Each year when Toshiko Mori, chairwoman of the architecture department at the Harvard Design School, visits her mother in Tokyo, she wakes up at 6 on her first morning there. Then she and her mother make a pilgrimage to Tsukiji, the famous Tokyo fish market. As hunks of tuna are auctioned off and salmon caviar is laid out on ice like lustrous necklaces of coral beads, chefs at several small nearby restaurants are already serving startlingly fresh sushi.

Sushi Sen, a plain, blond-wood restaurant four blocks from the edge of Tsukiji, is a favorite of another Tokyo native, Yoshi Shiraishi, whose design firm, Yoshi Design, created Kai, a restaurant in Manhattan.

One early morning, Mr. Shiraishi ordered pieces of toro, the fatty tuna. Two raw, two lightly grilled, two moderately fatty, he told the chef, Masamitsu Amezawa, 53. "Please stop," Mr. Amezawa called back. "I have to focus." Two pieces at a time, he said, not six.

To grill the toro, the chef put it on a brazier and ran a tiny torch over it, so it was silvery on top, pink below, and warm throughout. It is addictive, and costs $4.50 a piece.

As the day moves on and hunger rises, bento boxes present endless possibilities. At lunch, Hiroo-no-Sora, which is in the Azabu neighborhood, where many embassies are located, has redefined the bento box. Yoshiaki Yuki, an owner and an artist, presents tiers of three one-of-a-kind dishes set down on lacquered tables. (He has opened Gallery Gen in TriBeCa, to sell Japanese art and ceramics.) One dish held sparkling sashimi, two slices of yellowtail, two slices of bream. Another had greaseless tempura — a shrimp, a slice of sweet potato, a string bean. A third had pickled vegetables. The chef, Masahiko Saito, presents fish cake, potato and tamago, or omelet, in yet another variation of the bento box. Rice and miso soup were served on the side. The lunchboxes are $11 to $14.

At Ohitsuzen Tanbo, whose dark wood tables seat around 20 people, the lure is rice from Niigata, one of the major rice-producing prefectures. "This is the best rice," Takaharu Tezuka, an architect, said on one visit. It is a rice, said Hiroko Shimbo in "The Japanese Kitchen" (Harvard Common Press, 2000), that is moist, tender, pleasantly sticky, and has a very subtle fragrance. The subtleties may be lost to more Western palates, though.

But the grilled salted salmon served with it was delicious. "Put the salmon on the rice," Mr. Tezuka said, "pour some green tea over it, sprinkle a little miso, and the shredded nori" — dried seaweed. The meal was perfectly balanced in flavor and texture. The green tea tamped the slight saltiness of the fish, the sweet-salty miso contrasted with the rice, and the wisps of nori added crunch. The rice with salmon was $14.50; with chicken, it was $13.50.

Another favorite staple is soba, subtle nutty buckwheat noodles with a toothsome texture. When eaten cold, "there's more authority to the bite," said Yoichi Nakamuta, owner of E&Y, a manufacturer of home furnishings in Tokyo. Lovers of soba served hot, in a broth, feel that the noodles should be eaten quickly before they soften. At Nanaki, in the Ebisu neighborhood, in the southern part of Tokyo, a vegetarian lunch of cold soba was accompanied by string beans, blanched carrots that were sweet and tender, and a fried tofu croquette. All soba lunches are around $8.

In any culture, small rituals are as much a part of the cuisine as the food. The simple gesture of freshly grating wasabi for sashimi is for Japan what grating Parmesan on certain pastas is for Italy.

The ritual is honored at Hibiki Ginza, in the heart of the Ginza, the neon-lighted boulevard, where customers grate sparkling fresh wasabi — brighter and livelier than the usual paste made from a powder — on a plate of shrimp, tuna, squid and mackerel sashimi, for $23.

The first impression at Hibiki Ginza, though, is of the dテゥcor. Backlit glass cubes filled with upright bottles of red wine cast a ruby glow from one wall, while other walls are mosaics of cubes holding beautifully textured layers of hazelnuts, chilies, black beans, black-eyed peas and other dried foods. But the food is impressive, too.

Along with the sashimi and wasabi, silken tofu is served with minced scallions and a tiny dish of soy sauce on the side ($7). "Grilled chicken with skin and salt" doesn't sound very poetic, but this simple rendition of crisp-skinned, boneless chicken breast, with a squeeze of fresh lime, is moist and tender.

Maisen, near Omotesando, the great fashion shopping street, is a shrine to the joys of a proper pig. The pigs come from Okita Farm on Kyushu, in southern Japan, where they roam freely, eating sweet potatoes and wheat. Maisen's tonkatsu are wonderfully juicy and meltingly tender. The tonkatsu sauce had a little applesauce in it, which gave it a light texture and a subtle flavor; it is drizzled over the meat. Tonkatsu costs $13.50 to $25.

More carnivorous treats are in store at Jyu, where grill masters work in an open kitchen. Grilled chicken wings marinated in a savory sauce traditionally made of soy sauce, sugar, sake and mirin arrived on a skewer, and the meat was so juicy it practically squirted. The skin is crisp, and lightly charred. Chicken meatballs melt in your mouth. Yaki-onigiri are a pair of rice balls roasted crunchy and golden. The small plates range in price from $2.25 to $6.

While the cooks at Jyu are impresarios of the quick grill, those at Otafuku Oden, near the Asakusa downtown area, understand the art of the gently simmered stew. Oden is the Japanese equivalent of chicken soup, a mテゥlange of ingredients — sliced daikon, fried fish cakes and fried tofu cakes — simmered in a broth for three hours. A hot pot of broth is brought to the table, and kept to a burble on a gas burner. You can choose your own ingredients from an array of delectables. There are tsumire, little balls of minced sardines ($2.75); kinchaku, paper-thin slivers of chicken, shreds of leek and mushroom wrapped in a bean curd pouch ($2.75); and yakidofu, grilled tofu ($1.35).

The allure at Gonpachi Odaiba, a restaurant on the landfill island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, is its youthful exuberance. On a Sunday night at 10 it was packed. (President Bush ate at another branch two years ago, dining on yakitori, or grilled chicken; tempura; Kobe beef; and a steamed egg custard, chawan mushi, with king crab and scallops.)

An order of soba with vegetable and shrimp tempura on the side is $11. The restaurant overlooks the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Odaiba to the Tokyo waterfront and glows at night with changing colored lights. On weekends, Gonpachi is a date place. Couples arrive, place their cellphones on the table and check their e-mail every 10 minutes. In between, they eat.

For instant gratification there is the Food Show at the Tokyu department store at Shibuya Station. The Food Show, a distant relative to the Food Hall at Harrods in London, takes up an entire basement, where 80 vendors sell hot and cold foods in spotless surroundings.

At lunch, men and women, some with children in strollers, navigate the aisles, sampling, negotiating, coveting. Fried shrimp, grilled fish and handmade sashimi are all made fresh by workers in tiny kitchens, one behind each food stall. (There are also packaged foods, like cookies.) A small grilled salmon steak sells for $3.60, grilled bluefish for $4.95, and a chilled six-ounce bottle of sake for $9.

Despite the crowds, it is orderly, unless you grab a piece of tempting sliced roast pork with your fingers. The cooks will cover their mouths in horror, their eyes will glare and they will point out the toothpicks nearby.

In Tokyo, Lots to Eat For Very Little (Published 2004)

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