September 13th, 2010
Nestled snuggly amongst the stylish eateries that line a quiet street in Ikejiro Ohashi's residential area, is Owan. From the street the shop has the appearance of a gallery; the glass frontage perfectly frames shelves of elegantly displayed urushi lacquerware and an interior accented with ceramics.
Talking to the master, he says the starting point of the menu is nihon-shu. From there he selects seasonal ingredients to construct dishes which best compliment his favourite tipple. I like his style. So, what's with all the tableware? Does he have side-line in home interiors? Not quite. To properly enjoy nihon-shu, his wife, a professional food stylist and author, has assembled a selection of urushi, ceramics, glassware and pewter. He believes the feel of the tableware heightens one's sense of the food and sake. Such attention to detail is admirable and conveys the thoughtful approach Konda-san takes towards his customer's dining experience.
Taking our seats at the wide counter, we relaxed into our first round of tall drinks and an otooshi of warm, homemade tofu & simmered watersheild seasoned with katsuobushi, while we perused the handwritten washi menu.
The dishes are mostly washoku classics; humble and simply prepared, but with a few flourishes of modern flavours. These contemporary interpretations of home-style cooking bring to mind the fare of a restaurant just a few blocks away. This is hardly surprising as Kondo-san, in his previous incarnation as the head chef, spent many years developing and perfecting his dishes in the kitchen at Kan.
As per usual, we began with the sashimi-moriawase of shime saba, meiji maguro and kochi, minus the basashi (horse meat) - that's way too surf & turf for my liking, thanks. All were excellent, though the fatty shime saba was the unanimous favourite.
Another favourite, Isojiman Junmaiginjou from Shizuoka, was ordered to wash it all down. Poured from an urushi bowl into chilled glass chokkos, the clean, fresh finish was a nice counterbalance to the richness of the fish.
A side dish of oshinko, which I generally order as a matter of course, was notable only for the inclusion of smoked daikon, which Kondo-san smokes himself using a mix of aromatic teas and cedar wood.
As it was now officially Autumn, though no one seems to have notified Mother Nature about that fact, we ordered sanma shioyaki. From our perch we watched as our dinner was skewered and slowly roasted over the charcoal fire, before arriving, perfectly grilled, on a rustic ceramic platter. The flesh was fatty and rich with a lovely smokiness from the from grill - nothing like the defrosted, tasteless varieties one encounters at less discerning establishments around town.
Potato salad is a dish my eyes immediately skip over when perusing a menu, but my companion insisted - so who am I to stand in the way of a man and his starch? While the inclusion of ham meant that I couldn't partake in its tasting - (Oh, dear. How sad. Nevermind), I did enjoy taking this pretty little dish's photo.
Crunching through it's crispy shell, the filling of the ebi puripuri (fresh & springy) harumaki, studded with sweet shimp & mentaiko (pollack roe), was as fresh and springy as the name would suggest.
From the drinks menu, which stocks a nice selection of shochu, wine and a dozen good quality sake, we ordered Dassai 39 Junmai daiginjou. Sake from this well regarded brewery are pretty prevalent on sake lists these days, thanks to an effective promotion & distribution strategy - but that doesn't discount the good quality of their brews, which are consistently good. The 39 was fresh and dry, with a nice fruity body and a polished finish -
Two of the house specialities are: black pork shumai; juicy and delicious, he tells me; and a yuzu infused uni & pumpkin dumpling in a light dashi broth - velvety smooth & delicious.
Kondo-san selected the Soukuu junmai ginjou, from Kyoto for our ultimate round. Light, refined and with the soft flavour profiles one comes to expect from a Kyoto sake.
I hardly need to identify the next dish. It was overindulgent to order it, as we were both fully sated, but I was keen to compare Kondo-san's karasumi daikon with the dish I had enjoyed previously at Kan. While the dish was indeed pretty and the daikon was cut into perfectly geometric rectangles, the karasumi itself was rather bland and dry. The only bum note of the night.
[I'm cheating here a bit, as this next dish was ordered on a subsequent visit a week later, but had we stayed - and not decamped to Julip for a couple of rounds of aged rum - then I'm sure we would have ordered this hearty meal of grilled sanma and new season matsutake takikomi gohan. It was moreish and perfectly cooked - but, be sure to order it at the start of the night as it takes a good 30 minutes to prepare.]
Overall, the good food, a gracious host and a pleasant ambience made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The service matcha and mizu-yokan were the perfect sweet note with which to finish on. Nicely played, Kondo-san.