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Discovering Japan 


Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
The fresh, simple nirvana that is Japanese food comes in a staggering variety of tastes and configurations -- at least if you're at its source on the other side of the Pacific. In Tokyo alone there are a hundred thousand restaurants specializing in specific aspects of Nipponese cookery. Several are identical to the American sushi bars we all know and frequent. But others offer only big bowls of noodle soup, or bonito-stuffed rice balls, or tofu or sardines or eel or turtle in every imaginable manifestation. Some venues are dedicated solely to the varied subgenres of teppan (grilled-meat) cookery -- butter-grilled chicken, stone-grilled beef, charcoal-grilled mutton. Other places concentrate on yakitori, tiny skewers of duck livers, quail eggs, or ginkgo nuts cooked over charcoal; or on shabu-shabu, in which diners boil meat and vegetables at their table; or specialize in tempura or breaded pork cutlets.

Here in the U.S. our Japanese dining options are comparatively limited. Sushi and sashimi have settled into the Western culinary consciousness, tempura delights grease-loving Americans from coast to coast, the show biz of teppan grilling is as close as your neighborhood Benihana, and teriyaki is as common a kitchen mainstay as lasagna. But where can the ravenous Asiaphile enjoy the pleasures of salt-broiled fish, one-pot nabemono, rice with tea and seaweed, and other untrodden corners of Japan's ancient cuisine?

Welcome to Takara, where uncommon examples from the Japanese kitchen pop up regularly for contemplation and consumption. It's located on the second floor of Japantown's Miyako Mall, and in appearance it's not unlike several other eateries that share the building: light wood paneling, immense fish tank brimming with seafood, ubiquitous canvas noren hangings in the doorway. But the welcome is warm, the mood friendly, and the spare surroundings enlivened with rice-paper light fixtures and a large sculpture in black and beige. Takara's sumptuous table accouterments include thick napkins, luxuriant cushions, sleek, rocket-shaped soy sauce decanters, and lacquered-ribbon bows on which to rest chopsticks. Even the hot oshiburi washcloths come on a lovely white oval dish. As the meal progresses, the table becomes further embellished with a fine array of lacquered and ceramic boxes, cups, bowls, saucers, platters, and pots, creating that simple, harmonious dining aesthetic for which Japan is celebrated.

The food is as individual and attractive as the dishes. Most of the menu items come as full meals complete with appetizer, soup, salad, rice, pickles, dessert, and a memorable house specialty, the savory custard. It's served in a tiny, bone-white pot on a little woven mat, and when you lift off the lid a steamy ocean mist billows forth. The custard itself tastes little like seafood; it is warm and ethereal, silky and soothing, with bits of chicken, bean, and mushroom throughout and a pool of hot broth beneath for stirring, like the fruit at the bottom of yogurt. The other starters pale beside it but are interesting nonetheless: light, snappy pickled cabbage; a wonderfully rich, invigorating miso soup that moves beyond the standard thin broth; and one misfire, a flavor-challenged salad of cucumber, daikon, and watery vinaigrette.

We supplemented the starters with an eclectic selection of sushi. The delicacy known as sea urchin is something I hope I never experience again: Deep mustard in color, with the moist, squirmy consistency of raw liver and a weird, smoky-sweet flavor, this spiny echinoderm can remain in its shell if you ask me. Other critters were more conducive to the rice-wasabi partnership: smooth, silky spot shrimp; crunchy yet rubbery geoduck clams; and meaty, delicately flavored octopus. All were as fresh as could be and came jazzed with more wasabi than the usual offerings.

But sushi you can get anywhere. Instead, enjoy sushi's basic components in an architecturally reconfigured form as chirashi, one of the venue's best dishes. A lovely lacquered box arrived half-filled with vinegared rice that was strewn with delicate threads of seaweed and brimming with a luscious selection of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and halibut. Palate-cleansing ginger, thin slices of cucumber, and a cloud of shredded radish provided refreshing accents, and tucked among the creamy fish bits were wedges of omelet and clusters of dark, sweet mushroom.

The two- or three-item dinner is a good way to sample Takara's other specialties. Best among the eight choices is the salt-broiled fish, in which your choice of fillet is salted before cooking to break down the fat, giving the flesh a rich, moist texture and intensified flavor. Our halibut was served in a thick wedge atop a fan of its own skin, and the confluence of tender flesh and crisp, salty crackle was a pure and simple pleasure. Less impressive was the aforementioned tonkatsu, the breaded pork cutlet enjoyed across Japan. Though the meat was moist enough and the breading pleasantly spicy, the end result was unmemorable. (The dipping sauce that came with it was pleasantly tangy, however.) The house tempura, on the other hand, was a fine example of its genre: light, crackly batter enclosing big, sweet prawns, carrots, yams, squash, and string beans.

Nabemono cookery is Japan's answer to Swiss fondue, Korean barbecue, and other interactive, cook-it-yourself family-style dishes. Its purest form is yosenabe ("a gathering of everything"), in which an array of prepared ingredients gets thrown into a simmering broth and cooked to each individual's taste. At Takara the ingredients include clams, oysters, crab legs, beef, pork, carrots, cabbage, two varieties of mushroom, scallions, and rice noodles -- an impressive sight. The server tossed them into a large ceramic pot over a gas flame, and a few minutes later we diners ladled out bowls of tender everything. Unfortunately the broth was practically tasteless, but soy sauce, wasabi, mustard, and other condiments can spice up the flavor.

Another rare example of Japanese cuisine is iron-pot rice. It's cooked inside a rustic contraption of wood and metal and consists of herbs, seasonings, and a single ingredient of your choice. We chose crab meat, and the simple, elemental flavors of rice and crustacean and little else made for a pure, harmonious treat. Ochazuke -- rice soaked in tea -- is another example of Takara's skill with the rice cooker. Though it originated as a means to polish off leftover rice, it has evolved into an often elaborate dish. At Takara, for instance, it's served with a half-dozen fillets of tuna sashimi on top. The juicy, tea-scented rice is as comforting as jook or polenta, and with the dreamy tuna it's even better. (You can also order it with salmon, sea bream, fish roe, or plums.)

To wash down your meal you can choose from plum wine, five kinds of sake, and the expected triumvirate of undemanding Japanese beers that ideally accompany the cuisine's pure flavors -- Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo. Service is excellent -- fleet, adept servers and no waiting -- and our main waitperson brimmed with insight and good humor, edging us away from potential land mines and rewarding our attentions with a basket of deep-fried shrimp heads ("Try them, don't look at them"). Potato-chip brittle and bursting with briny flavor, the shrimp were simple, surprising, and as elementally good as a seaside stroll -- not unlike discovering a cuisine we'd been enjoying all along.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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