The words 'chain izakaya' conjure up images of Watami, Wara-Wara, Gonpachi and the other ubiquitous brands which have glutted the market with their riffs on lowest common denominator washoku fare, using pre-prepared ingredients, assembled and served by indifferent staff, at a customer friendly price point. While the price may be right, these are not the kind of establishments one finds quality produce nor creativity - unless of course you consider those abstract squiggles of mayonnaise that smother the dishes as some attempt at culinary flair.
However, it would be foolish to tar all chain stores with the same brush. Uoshin, for example, is a small chain (9 stores in the Tokyo area) of seafood izakayas which offer consistently good food in a friendly and unpretentious setting. Owned by a major seafood wholesaler that does business out of Tsukiji market, the selection and quality of the fish on offer never disappoints. Reliability, reasonable prices coupled with a pretty decent sake list mean that Uoshin has gotten plenty of repeat custom out of me.
In a basement floor, tucked away from the hurly-burly streets of the Dogenzaka, lies the source of fish: Uoshin Shibuya Honten. The aesthetic can best be described as functional, and the service is friendly but direct - make no mistake about it, the focus here is being fed.
No picture menu here. A densely packed handwritten menu lists the specials of the day, a half page of which is devoted solely to the sashimi and grilled fish options. Don't bother trying to translate it all - just go for the varieties highlighted with a red circle, which signify the market specials.
Naturally, sashimi is the starting point, but if the choosing from the myriad of varieties is too overwhelming then the sashimi moriawase is the best default. The standard omakase plate of 6 varieties starts from ¥1,500 (for 2), but I recommend ponying up the extra ¥900 for the iitoko plate of 7, which uses better cuts of fish.
There is plenty on offer with which to wet one's whistle. Along with the izakaya standards of draft beer, shochu and sours, Uoshin keeps a dozen or so well regarded brands of sake on hand. As the menu is exclusively seafood, I tend to stick to a light, fragrant style of sake so as to not overpower the flavour of the fish. Favourites include: Isojiman honjozo (磯自慢 本醸造), from Shizuoka (left); Dassai 50 jumnai ginjou (獺祭 純米吟醸50), from Yamaguchi (middle); the robust Denshu special brew junmai (田酒特別純米), from Awamori, was the managers recommendation for the male of the group... meh!
The menu even includes a helpful beginners guide to sake grades to aid the selection process, bless.
It's worth taking a surreptitious trip to the bathroom in order to check out the sake fridge on route. In past clandestine missions I have spied unlisted bottles of Juyondai and various junmai daiginjou's which I then promptly ordered - much to the bemusement of the manager.
Juyondai's popularity makes it is nye on impossible to buy retail. Its stellar reputation coupled with limited distribution means that what is available goes to directly to izakaya and restaurants. Even then, when you do come across it on a menu, its either 'temporarily' sold out or the basic Honmaru honjozo label. So colour me lucky when I spotted an unopened bottle of the special brewed Yuyondai Honmaru (
The perfect drink needs a perfect match, and in my book you can't get much better than ankimo (monkfish liver); that fatty and fishy fois gras of the sea. Granted, Uoshin's is of the processed variety, but as expensive attempts to make it at home have failed dismally, I'm not one to complain.
If ankimo is not available, mirokyu (cucumber with barley miso) and a bowl of tsukemono are good drinking standbys.
Tofu salad with fried jakko and an onsen tamago (the latter of which was omitted due to my gaijin queasiness of barely cooked egg) is a pleasant way to get your 5+ a day.
Or perhaps grilled ika (squid) with marinated vegetables is more to your liking. It certainly was for us.
Fried octopus with daikon momiji (grated daikon mixed with a mild chili pepper), was one of the daily specials, and paired perfectly with the above mentioned Isojiman.
Uoshin is one of the few places I order agemono (deep-fried food), as there is no risk of the oil being contaminated with the taste of chicken - so often the case in other izakaya. The name of this little creamy shimp and mentaiko nugget of yumminess escapes me, but I do remember someone saying it hailed from Ehime.
Handline caught Kinmedai nitsuke (gold-eye snapper braised in sweet soy sauce), is my idea of comfort food. Perfectly cooked so that the flesh easily feel away from the bone, this dish exemplifies what Uoshin is all about: good, seasonal food, done well.
Just remember to book.
A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy izakaya. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend.
Uoshin Shibuya Honten