Friday, September 23, 2011

Chef Onodera at Kagurazaka ... slow food in Tokyo

Kagurazaka is an area in Tokyo that is known for its proliferation of upscale restaurants and small cafes. It is easily reached by getting off the Oedo Line at the Iidabashi Station.
It is in this quiet, genteel neighborhood that I was introduced to Chef Onodera who like the young chef at Kisaku (see other post) is part of a new breed of young chef proprietors who run their own small bastions of fine Japanese cuisine.
My Japanese gourmet friend discovered Onodera and had become a regular patron. I was truly bowled over the first time he brought me there.
Since that first dinner two years ago, I have gone back to Onodera a total of four times. Each time has brought nuances and subtleties of tastes and flavors -- truly worth the more than three hours that it takes to finish the meal.

Onodera is in one of the small buildings along the main street of Kaguraza. The road gently slopes uphill, you walk past boutiques, cafes, specialty shops until you see the lighted sign at the building's entrance.

Onodera is on the fourth floor, you go up via a small elevator and a curtained door greets you as you step out.
Inside, you take off your shoes and slip into the comfortable slippers provided for guests. You have to do this even if you are not sitting in the tatami area.
The place is small -- the counter which is right in front of the cooking area, is good for just seven diners. To the side, a semi private tatami room fits seven comfortably.
All in all, Onodera only makes 14 or 15 covers each night -- there is no second seating.
My friend told me that because of its size and because Onodera is open only for dinner, reservations have to be made weeks in advance.

Before the meal starts, a cold glass of beer sets the mood and tempo for the dinner ahead.
Slow down, Asahi san whispers to me -- relax and put your mind at ease.

There is only one set menu every night at Onodera which consists of about seven or eight dishes. Each diner gets a special handwritten menu so that you can follow the progress of your meal. Since I don't read Japanese, I mentally tick off the items as they arrive.
While there are constant dishes, which are the chef's specialties, the menu changes according to the season and what is fresh and available in the market.
Aside from the set menu, Onodera has plenty of sake and shochu choices -- according to my Japanese friend, it's a high quality, premium drink list.

The dinner starts with a small cold salad of bonito flakes, chopped seaweed and other vegetables. The bonito and the seaweed bring the briny taste balanced by undertones of the yuzu flavored dressing. Bonito flakes melt in the mouth while the pickled greens provide a different texture.

After the salad comes three slices of sashimi -- tuna, flounder and sea bass. Three slices, you might think... in this case, it's about quality and not quantity. I pause to savor each slice and the unique flavor of each. Wasabi is freshly grated and that makes a difference in the enjoyment of the sashimi.

The last time I ate at Onodera was late November last year when meat was still part of my diet.
So I was able to enjoy this simple, comforting chicken meatball soup. In a clear and delicate broth, the meatballs stood out for their rich mouth feel and complex flavor.
It seemed so un-Japanese to have chicken meatball soup but once I had a spoonful, I understood. Hai, wakarimashita!

This is Chef Onodera preparing and cooking everything in his mini kitchen right behind the counter where we sit to have our dinner. He is a terrific person -- as he slices, dices, cooks and plates, he is also constantly bantering and talking with his customers -- most of who are regular patrons.
The second time I ate at Onodera, I brought the chef a colorful Philippine cookbook and some packs of dried mangoes.
That certainly bumped me up in terms of recognition and recall!

After the chicken meatball soup, comes a slice of grilled swordfish -- so yummily fatty that I greedily ate every bit -- saving the bit of crisp skin for last!

We are past the halfway mark and have been eating, talking, drinking for two hours.
Up next is a small bowl of tofu, eggplant, bokchoy and fish cake in a lightly sweet and gelatinous broth.
It is topped with a smudge of wasabi and surprise surprise -- popped corn kernels which Chef Onodera had just whipped up on the stove top behind the counter!

At this point, my friend has convinced me to switch from beer to sake. He says it will perfectly complement the small shot glass of assorted fish roe and grated daikon. We take our sake cold, even if we are in the middle of a chilly November evening.

After that taste breaker of salty fish roe, we are served smooth and creamy chawan mushi but not the ordinary chawan mushi that I usually have. This one has grated seaweed on top and flecks of cheese blended in with the custard. Different but very good.

This steaming earthenware pot placed on the counter to "rest" contains aji gohan or flavored rice. Chef Onodera cooks a pot which can be good for two to four persons. He starts cooking it as you are eating, timing it just so that the aji gohan will be ready to be spooned into bowls at the end of the meal.

The steam rises from the hot rice once the chef lifts the cover. Before doing so, he has finely chopped spring onions and broiled a smoked mackerel on the salamander oven.
The final touch is to mix in the broiled fish flakes and garnish the rice with the chopped spring onions.

This is the last course of our dinner. The bowl of just cooked aji gohan, made more flavorful with smoked fish flakes and spring onions, a small side dish of tsukemono or japanese pickles and a cup of mushrooms garnished with cilantro in a clear broth.
The rice is warm, sticky, delicious. The tiny mushrooms are just perfect and slide down your throat. Crunchy and salty sour bits of tsukemono add texture to every mouthful.
There is more than enough in the pot for another serving of aji gohan but we are both too full.
My Japanese friend asks that the remaining aji gohan be made into an onigiri or rice ball which he can take for breakfast the next day.
The chef laughs and obliges -- he scoops up the remaining rice in the pot, puts it in a square of cling wrap and quickly presses it into a ball. Presto - onigiri from Chef Onodera!

We sat down to our dinner reservation at exactly 6 p.m and it is now past 9.
Somehow, time slows down at Onodera. The chef weaves his culinary magic and delights everyone. It's just as if we had been his guests, sitting in his kitchen, watching him cook, talking and having a good time.
Who cares about time when one is sharing a meal among friends?

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