CASUAL DINING : Rating the World's Best Restaurants:Tokyo
No.1: Shabusen, Chuo-ku, Ginza 5-8-2, Ginza Koah Building (B1 basement and second floor), tel: 3571-1717.
No.2: Nanbantei, Minato-ku, Roppongi 4-5-6, tel: 3402-0606.
No.3: Otafuku, Taito-ku, Senzoku 1-6-2, tel: 3871-2521.
No.4: Toricho, Minato-ku, Roppongi 7-14-1, Hosho Building (first floor), tel: 3401- 1827.
No.5: Meguro-Issaan, Shinagawa-ku, Kami-Osaki 2-14-3, tel: 3444-0875.
T HE Japanese have perfected the art of participatory dining, and nothing defines that better than shabu-shabu. This bona fide feast consists of paper-thin folds of marbled beef or lean pork, cubes of fish, whole shellfish or vegetables cooked in individual copper vessels. Participants swirl the components in a delicate kelp-seasoned broth, then dip them into a sauce seasoned to taste with diced green onions and droplets of fiery-red sesame oil.
One of Tokyo's best and most reasonably priced places for shabu-shabu is the Ginza's Shabusen, a large, cheery, efficient, restaurant that offers counter dining as well as table service. Although we sampled both the succulent beef and lean pork variations, I could live happily with the purely vegetarian variation: fresh slices of shredded cabbage, Japanese cabbage, soft pillows of tofu, fresh seaweed, straw mushrooms and bean vermicelli in the bubbling broth.
Daily, 11 A.M. to 10 P.M. Lunch menu, 900 to 2,200 yen (about $8.50 to $20.50); dinner menu, 3,600 to 5,500 yen.
Japanese cuisine favors the natural flavors imparted by foods grilled over oak coals. And yakitori - grilling over charcoal (yaki) cubes of soy-basted, skewered chicken (tori) - offers something rare in modern-day Tokyo: real value for money. Yakitori selections also include varied seasonal vegetables; beef, pork and fish; balls of meat or poultry, alone or in combination.
Of several spots sampled, Roppongi's popular Nanbantei offered the most substantial fare, including slender wands of asparagus wrapped in bacon sliced so thinly that the fat virtually vanished in the grilling, and well-seasoned cubes of pork wrapped in fresh green shisho leaves, a pungent Japanese herb with overtones of mint and lemon. And I loved the huge bowls of crispy, raw cabbage, carrots, zucchini and scallions, for dipping in a "house" sauce that blends white sesame seeds, soy sauce, spices and miso.
Daily, 5 to 11 P.M. A la carte items from 380 to 780 yen. Menus at 3,500 to 3,900 yen.
In a city where polish, newness, hustle and bustle are the name of the game, the well-aged patina, the poised and graceful glow of Otafuku stand in welcome contrast. At this warm family restaurant devoted to oden - a long-simmered mixture of tofu, fishcakes, potatoes, yams, ginkgo nuts, hard-boiled eggs, cabbage rolls and cuttlefish - the rich, buttery sweet broth is the star. A serious oden broth is guarded like a well-tended sourdough starter, nurtured for years and constantly replenished with water and soy.
Seated at the cozy bar with its glazed luster, diners witness the ritual unfurling, as moist hard-cooked eggs, juicy wands of celery, chewy sardine balls, starchy Japanese yams and tofu in many guises are ladled from an oversized copper vessel to individual bowls.
Dinner only, 5 to 11 P.M. Closed second and third Sunday of each month, and Monday. A la carte, 3,000 to 4,000 yen.
The sounds of good times in any language need no translation, and you needn't speak Japanese to be instantly uplifted by the shouts of welcome greeting diners as they step down into the crowded, boisterous Toricho. Here, only counter-style dining is available in the two cozy dining rooms. While the food here has less depth of flavor and less finesse than Nanbantei's, the atmosphere is terrific.
Enveloped in a rhapsody of gaiety, we downed hot and sizzling chicken balls, precision-cut stacks of baby asparagus, cubes of chicken livers sprinkled with sansho, tangy ground pepper, and loved the smooth, soothing crunch of the whole roasted ginkgo nuts.
Monday to Saturday, 5 to 11 P.M.; Sunday, 5 to 10 P.M. About 5,600 yen per person.
Fresh noodles - long and thin, wide and flat, slender or round, made with wheat flour, with buckwheat flour, served hot or served cold - are treasures of Japan's varied cuisine. One of the best-buy sit-down soba restaurants is in the middle-class district of Meguro. At Meguro-Issaan, in a simple wooden house down a lane, guests sit on blue-and-white checked cushions around low tables, relishing the simple, sublime fare that is so satisfying and digestible. I opted for sanshoku, a trio of cold green, gray and white soba stacked in shiny square lacquered boxes. It is delivered ready for transferring to a bowl filled with a season-to-taste blend of broth, grated wasabi (horseradish) and thinly sliced leeks. Slurp to your heart's content.