Where do the Tokyoites drink ? This is a question that you may ask yourself when you visit Tokyo. While this city has the highest ratio of bars and restaurants in the world, many of these aren't seen from the street and if you don't read the Japanese you will come accross only what is the equivalent of a tiny piece of the iceberg. One thing is sure : the Japanese often drink AND eat at the same time, and the well-known format for this eat-and-drink culture is the izakaya. The izakaya is typically a tavern-style format where friends and co-workers spend hours in the evening drinking while eating a variety of small dishes.
On the top-tables front, the Michelin-guide people made a sensation last year by declaring that Tokyo, not Paris, was now the capital of gastronomy. Their inspectors had spotted there the highest ratio of high-end gastronomic restaurants : just look at the figures, Paris : 98 stars, Tokyo 191 stars, and from several observers, Japan's capital could have riped even more stars but there were so many places to test that the guide's inspectors were in shortage. This was a shock for the Japanese public who is not always aware of the excellence of its cuisine and when the Michelin guide went out last november 2007, it was sold out in 2 days...
Whatever, these restaurants are from the top-tier layer and are way beyound the means of us proletariat of the dining scene. But they are just the now-visible part of the often-excellent cuisine encountered in the middle-market restaurants of Tokyo. In this regard, we'll take a look at Tengu, a chain of restaurants owned by the Japanese company Ten Allied Co. which is both a good example of where Tokyoites drink, and where the food is also worth the detour (and within the means of real people like us).
There are a hundred or more Ten-Allied/Tengu restaurants today, 80 just in Tokyo, 15 in Osaka and 15 in Nagoya, with a few more in Kyoto, Sendai and Kamakura. The first of these restaurants was opened some 40 years ago in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, by the father of Eita Iida, the actual owner of the group. The goal was to popularise the world gastronomy in Japan along with traditional Japanese dishes. The restaurant was a success and many more were opened. They managed to keep the philosophy of buying fresh products directly at the source even when the business reached the size of a chain. What you eat and drink here are rigorously-selected and very fresh products, which is important for some of the drinks as you will see later.
I think that the large success of Tengu among Japanese of all ages, salarymen, executives, students is because they could offer quality products at very reasonable prices. Some of the things that they serve here, including some of the sakes, are unique and can be found nowhere else in Tokyo.
This is the place to go to experience the working-Japanese letting themselves go in the evening. Groups of workmates, friends, business people routinely go out to have a good time in the evening. They sit along these long tables and as they order drinks and dishes, the temperature goes up and work relations turn to fun with some veering-offs sometimes which are very Japanese. A waitress walks on the inside of the table to serve sake or shochu straight from the cask or the jars. Like most serious restaurants in Japan, Tengu has private rooms for people who want more intimacy. The interior architecture seems to vary from restaurant to restaurant and if I believe the pictures on some pages of Tengu's website, some restaurants have more traditional settings, like here where you sit on the floor.
Mr Kimitoshi Iino and Mrs Naomi Matsuoka received us very well and we could sample the great food and many drinks. The main menu has12 pages of dishes with pictures (7 to 12 dishes per page) and 2 pages of drinks. first, we began with a plate of raw oysters, which is a very foreign dish in Japan. These very-fresh oysters come from New Zealand and cost 2646 Yen (including tax) for 12 pieces. They have also 3-pieces plates for about 700 Yen. We both love oysters and these ones are well-textured and taste the sea. We had another opportunity to taste some whale, called whale bacon here, and priced 609 Yen [see picture on right]. We had also dishes from the seasonal menu : fish milt, this is the sperm sack of male fish (shirako). For reason connected to the breeding season I suppose, this is a winter dish. Very delicate. They also serve a very refined Tofu made with soya from Hokkaido and water from mount Fuji. Both ingredients are transported to the company facility where the soya milk (tonyu) is them made. The resulting tofu is then delivered (very fresh) straight to the Tengu restaurants. The tofu is served on a bed of crushed ice and costs 380 Yen. B. knows tofu better than I do and says that it is a top-quality tofThe plate costs 504 Yen (TI). Another winter dish at Tengu is angler fish liver, priced also 504 Yen. To drink with that we get a first sake which an exclusivity at Tengu, a sort of sparkling sake [see pic on left : M Kimitoshi Iino holding the bottle]. This sake had a second fermentation in the bottle like Champagne. It is a traditional drink because in the past without stabilizing techniques or temperature control, sake would ferment again when the seasonwarmer season would come. This Champagne-style sake is made by Tsukino Katsura near Kyoto. Too bad we didn't taste it before going to Kyoto, we would have tried to visit the brewery. The sparkling sake is suprisingly white, with very light bubbles and a small sugary feel. We are also offered 2 types of shochu, one comes from Southern Japan and is made with sugar cane, the other with wheat. We also discover a strange turbid drink made in Northern Japan. It is called Heurige, like Austria's Heuriger new wine. They tried to re-create here this new wine feel. Like our French new wines (called bernache in the Loire), it gets down very well and brings immediate pleasure, plus, it has this very same lactic turbidity [see picture on right]. This is a sort of "cuvée du patron", something that was made specially for Tengu and that you will not find elsewhere. Costs 280 Yen a glass or 1660 Yen a bottle. Our guest says that his job is to find such unique drinks and fine foods in the provinces and villages of Japan and have them distributed in Tengu restaurants. They have now a good distribution and warehouses system to store and deliver the drinks and the food quickly enough to keep the freshness.
Another sake that we loved here and that I think you won't find in many izakayas is their non-pasteurized sake. It has to be transported and stored very carefully and even on the table, the glass is put in a square lacquered-cup full of ice-cold water [see picture on the lower left]. This non-pasteurized sake is one-year old, nothing added. Usually you can only drink this quality of sake in the brewery or very near from it, in a faraway prefecture. After selecting this sake on the production site, they got it transported by refrigerated trucks straight to their Tokyo warehouse and to the restaurants where it is also kept at low temperature. The brewery is located in the Yamagata Prefecture, in the North. Very nice sake, a pleasure, would be worth the dinner by itself. This is a hit among customers here. These sort of unique, niche products, ask for serious transport and storage conditions in the background, and keeping their prices very affordable makes also the difference: it costs 380 Yen for a 180ml-glass. Iino-san says that you can't find this un-pasteurized sake anywhere else in Tokyo.
We pick up another dish from the seasonal menu, a plate full of small fried fish. The seasonal menu adds another 16 dishes to the "normal" menu, most of them seafood, and priced 280 Yen to 480 Yen. The sparkling sake is highlighted on the frontpage, and another 3 sakes can be found inside, at 250 Yen for 100ml. But most of the drinks are in the main menu, draft beers, sakes, wines, cocktails.The cocktails...like in France where wine is said to be abandonned by the younger generation in favor of alcohol mixes, the Japanese youth has its own favorite cocktails and Tengu serves quite a bit of them. Bright colors, like red, yellow, yellowish-green and several indefinitely-colored beverages, and costing between 315 Yen and 441 Yen (tax included). These are "Sawa" ("sour" pronounced by a Japanese) and they are made with a shochu base mixed with fruit juice and sparkling water. The one on the picture (left) is made with a sort of lemon found only in Okinawa, its taste is very acidulous and it contains lots of Vitamin C. There are 12 types of sawa drinks on the menu, plus more than 20 other cocktails (at 473 Yen) and also an Ume (Japanese plum) wine (336 Yen). Ume wine [picture on right] is made from a Japanese plum that can't be eaten, raw or cooked, it would be too bitter. Strange fruit indeed, which gives the best of its nature when fermented. It looks like a whisky, especially with the ice cubes, you feel the plum in the mouth with a bit of sucrosity. It is served with a whole fruit in the wine.
The wine : they have a few foreign wines to choose from, a Chablis Alain Geoffroy 2003 at 1974 Yen, a Pinot Noir 2004 from Burgundy by Alain Geoffroy at 2394 Yen, a Mosel Riesling at 1449 Yen, an Entre-Deux-Mers (Bordeaux white) 2006 Saint Vincent de Pertignas at 1344 Yen, a Beaujolais-Villages 2006 by les Vignerons du Beaujolais, Bully at 1659 Yen, a Rioja Domino de la Plana (Spain) at 1344 Yen, a Chianti Classico from Italy at 2394 Yen, a Marlborough Pinot Noir (New Zealand) at 2394 Yen and lastly a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at 2394 Yen. They also serve Italian table wine (white and red) in glass or jugs, starting at 294 Yen for a 150ml-glass. But the focus for us is all the Japanese foods and drinks and we couldn't encompass all the range of products that they offer. We'll be back...