THE INTIMATE PLEASURE OF THE IZAKAYA

SOMETHING GRILLED, SOMETHING STEAMED, A SAKE OR FOUR

Dominic Ziegler explored the backstreets of Tokyo for the latest Intelligent Life magazine. Here, he stops and introduces us to his favourite izakaya, a Japanese pub where the decor is chic, the chef is bold, and the clientele small but loyal...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

TOKYO works its magic when the sun goes down. The city’s roar softens, and along the winding lanes swing the lanterns of izakaya, promising an irrestible warmth and glow inside. Slide back the door and marvel at the smallness of things. The staff may consist only of the proprietor, and most of the clientele may be seated at a counter around him. One of my favourite izakaya, run by the same elegant woman for 45 years, though her nephew is now the chef, has seven seats at a counter plus a single low table, on a handkerchief of tatami, that seats four. All the food is fabulous, but a tempura of wild spring plants is unforgettable. (The place is in Kagurazaka, which is a rich vein of eateries, but more than that I will not say.)

Though tens of thousands of izakaya exist in Tokyo, the term is hard to pin down. “Pub”, the most common translation, does justice to that notion of a local where you can pop by for a drink and catch up with gossip, but gives no hint of the place’s culinary possibilities. There, even Japanese admit to an unclear distinction between an izakaya and a koryoriya, literally “small food shop”: both might serve traditional fare with no attempts at boldness, yet either might also have a chic uncluttered décor and a chef willing to try bold combinations, even borrowing from other cuisines.

Once seated at the counter, you’ll be handed an oshibori, a hot flannel for your hands. Men: by all means wipe your face, neck and even armpits too, but that will mark you among any beautiful women present as an oyaji, the chain-smoking lecherous archetype of a salaryman. As you are handed your oshibori, you will certainly be asked what you would like to drink. A cold beer suits me, though shochu, a clear spirit made of potato, rice or sugarcane, is drunk by the modish on the rocks. Even the most avowedly elegent shochu has a little too much of the Irish poteen about it for my taste--useful on a hillside in horizontal rain, in other words, but otherwise to be resisted.

There is no rush to an izakaya meal, and none of the determination or beefy relish that accompanies a visit to the Western steakhouse. Indeed eating in Tokyo often has something of the tapas spirit about it: a number of small dishes that can be ordered in desultory fashion as the whim takes you, or all together. In many joints, what you order could simply be a snack to go with your drink: for instance, negima, small pieces of chicken and leek grilled in front of you and dipped in a tera sauce, with a base of soy and sake, but whose finer points are invariably a house secret. Often you will eat zensai, appetisers, with your drink--little dishes of vinegared seafood, or some crunchy pickles. When these are complimentary,they are known as tsukidashi.

The higher the culinary aspirations of the izakaya, the more reason to order and eat your meal in roughly traditional sequence, even if you have every course. The sequence, typically, is: raw fresh fish (sashimi); something grilled (yakimono); something steamed (mushimono); a simmered dish (nimono); a fried dish (agemono); and a dressed or vinegared salad.

The traditional sequence ends with rice (gohan), pickles (tsukemono), refreshing miso soup (miso shiru) and tea, but these are often dispensed with in izakaya. Still, the sequence is worth sticking to as a natural one. In particular, the heavenliness of sashimi would be spoilt if it was eaten after heavier fare. When in doubt, ask for sashimi no moriawase, and you will get a selection. If you are lucky, you may get two soy-based dipping sauces, a richer one for the oily fish and a lighter more citrussy one for white fish.

Often the grill will be a sand pit before you with charcoal logs forming a tripod and the food on skewers stuck vertically into the sand. Yakitori (chicken) is the most famous grilled food, both in Japan and outside. But whole fish are almost always done to perfection; they will be skewered in such a way as to form a wave, as if they are swimming upriver. This is the season for ayu no shioyaki, salted grilled ayu, a wonderfully sweet freshwater fish from the salmon family, though no more than the length of your hand.

And drink? After your beer, move to sake with the food. Reishu is the term for cold sake, and atsukan or okan for hot (which is drunk very much less frequently in Japan than in Japanese restaurants abroad). You will asked whether you want your reishu dry (karakuchi) or fruity (amakuchi). Start at the dry end. Try a new sake from a new prefecture on each refill of your glass. Try to remember, if you can, that sake’s strength is a great deal less innocuous than its taste. If you don’t succeed, then at least the glow will remind you on your way home of the warm pull of a Tokyo izakaya--perhaps Tokyo’s greatest pleasure.