Sunday, August 8th.
Kudan is an unprepossessing eatery in an equally unprepossessing backstreet, a short walk from the west exit of Gakugei Daigaku Station on the Toyoko line. Its humble exterior belies the little gem of a store inside. While relatively new, it is well worn, which is testiment to its enormous popularity and regular patronage by sake aficionados.
Kudan's kanji, 件、has a fairly obscure meaning. So much so, that even the owner had a hard time explaining it. Basically, he said, the character represents the issue that most concerns him; retaining and giving a modern relevance to the traditional home-style cooking techniques of the family kitchen. In other words, slow food. No instant dashi stocks here, everything is made from scratch with seasonal ingredients, using the tried and true methods of Japan's best chefs - mothers. Case in point, all nitsuke dishes must be ordered well in advance, as it takes a good 30 minutes from pan to plate.
What enticed me to Kudan, however, (once again, props to 食楽) was the shop's reputation for having a well-stocked sake fridge and an owner who is a self-described '日本酒マニアク’. That was enough to get my pulse racing.
Every summer I dread the arrival of the otooshi as it is invariably some type of nebaneba (read slimy) food designed to stimulate the appetite and cool the body. Tonight, it was a double-whammy of goo: natto and tororo (grated mountain yam) wrapped in a fried kinchaku casing with a sprinkling of aonori (blue seaweed) seasoning. My Japanese companion was all ooh's and aah's, while I was more blah! No matter how hard to try to go native, I draw the line at decomposing soybeans and slimy mountain yam goop. Next!
Katsuo and nama tako were the sashimi offerings for the day. Both were of good grade and freshness.
The tako was flash seared (it was a Sunday after all), then served with sadachi (a Japanese citrus) and Himalayan mountain salt - the latter of which came with its own wasabi grater.
The Kudan salad was next up, with a hefty helping of びっくり肉 - surprise meat. Grrr! That wasn't on the menu. My companion polished off the lot, so at least one of us was happy with it.
As we waited for our nitsuke order to cook, I ordered up some smoked tsukemono and 豆腐味噌漬け - tofu preserved in miso, which has a cheesy taste and consistency; not dissimilar to Okinawan tofuyou. Lip-smackingly good.
Drinking snacks in place, and lemon sours drained, I turned my attention to the sake list and its enviable list of good quality junmai ginjou. The first round consisted of Tensei（天例), from Kanagawa, and Biwa no Choju (琵琶の長寿), from Shiga. The latter, a usual crowd pleaser, was poured from the bottom of the bottle, so was not as pert and floral as I knew it should be, but the former proved to be the star of the night. Light, fragrant and easy to drink - a great summer sake.
The gindara (sablefish) nitsuke arrived resplendent in a rich broth packed with flavour and cooked to perfection. Yum. It really doesn't get much better than this.
Back to the sake list. The first round came in hefty ceramic cups, which, given the heat and my lack of appetite, could only lead to disaster. Sensing my concerns (I think it was the forlorn look I was giving the refrigerator), the owner provided a smaller chokko for us to drink from, so that we could order without fear of passing out in our dinner.
The owner recommended Houhai junmai ginjou (豊盃 純米吟醸), from Aomori, to match the nitsuke. It was fragrant and well-balanced, with robust fruity notes that were not overpowered by the rich flavours of the meal.
I must have been so captivated with this Izumofuji junmai ginjou (出雲富士純米吟醸), from Shimane, that I completely forgot to photograph it. Here's an image from the brewer's website so you know what to look for. It was an elegant sake with good roundness and soft acidity. Delicious!
Kudan is another one of the shops profiled in 食楽‘s Nihon-shu Banzuke edition, and the owner chose to prepare a food pairing for the number #2 sake of the season: Kikuyoi tokubetsu ginjou (喜久醉特別吟醸), from Shizuoka. It's mellow and gentle - a comforting tipple for the end of the meal.
Around us tables were slowly being turned over with a steady stream of Gakugei's 30 something crowd. And it's easy to see why Kudan enjoys a healthy trade; it has a great vibe and is an easy place to while away the hours... 5 hours in our case. Eventually, last orders were called and we begrudgingly realised our night had come to an end. If you are ever in the area I highly recommend investing some time in this slow food izakaya. It will be worth your wait.