After the Osaka trip in September, I found myself back in Japan for a meeting in late October.
Autumn in Japan had just started and Abe san, my thoughtful and adventurous gourmet Japanese friend planned a seasonal treat mindful of the cooler weather.
Knowing (and silently despairing) of my vegetarianism, he nevertheless always finds something that we can both enjoy.
Tonight's feast was oden -- a hotpot of various ingredients, most of them vegetable and seafood based, simmered in a dark soy sauce broth. This is traditional winter fare and Abe san had made reservations at one of the best oden restaurants in Tokyo, in the Shimbashi area, within walking distance of my hotel.
We hit a slight snag when we tried to find the restaurant -- and found out that it had moved!
Thankfully, one of the chefs loitering outside a nearby izakaya was kind enough to give us specific directions to the new location.
Otakou, the oden restaurant is just a quick 5 minute walk from the JR Shimbashi station --
don't ask me where, I could probably find it again in the warren of streets in Shimbashi, but I wouldn't be too sure. Even Abe san had to call the restaurant for specific directions when we still couldn't find it after walking around.
It was a relief to see this noren that greeted us when we finally found the restaurant.
Because we were early at 6 pm -- we were able to get the last two seats at the counter where we could easily point out our orders and watch the chef as he prepared them for us.
There is a long menu of ala carte items or you can order the set menus. Unfortunately everything is in Japanese.
For gaijin like me, counter seating is recommended since you sit facing the many ingredients that are available. Turo turo style -- just point and the chef will simmer it in the broth for you! There are bunches of enoki mushrooms, chives, leeks, even skewers of small octopi -- all ready for cooking.
This huge simmering cooking pot is the star of the restaurant. With different compartments to separate the many ingredients, it's just behind the counter -- you crane your neck and you can see all the amazing stuff that you can eat. What difficult decisions to make!
There are fat large rounds of daikon, slabs of soft tofu, atsuage or fried tofu, pockets of stuffed tofu, fish paste cakes of various shapes and sizes, hardboiled eggs, potatoes, yams, mushrooms ...
The broth sends off a mild yet appetizing aroma. I'm glad I've brought my appetite tonight!
Individual orders are placed in these shallow red plastic bowls, set orders or group orders are placed in larger, blue and white chinaware.
Abe san and I start off with hard boiled eggs, soft tofu and a large round of daikon -- which is so good, it melts in the mouth.
Draft beer seems incongruous paired with boiled food but surprisingly, it's a great match!
Abe san points out the small dish of hot mustard -- because oden is boiled and can be a bit mild, a little bit of this adds that killer kick to each and every bite!
Even Abe san is amused at how quickly I finish my first bowl. Time for seconds!
The chef recommends a different variety of potato and a large triangular slab of hanpen, a variety of fish paste cake.
My vegetarian conscience says "You can't eat sea food, it's not Sunday yet. Stick to the vegetables."
My baser foodie self argues back "It's fish paste cake and you can't even see the fish. Go ahead!"
Of course we all know who won.
I go into raptures over the hanpen -- the texture is so soft, it's like eating a slice of chiffon cake.
And no wonder, hanpen is made with white fish, starch and lots and lots of egg whites!
It's unbelievable. The chef smiles through my swoons.
Here is the chef, jotting down each order as it comes in. He prepares everything -- for diners in the tables and the tatami rooms and of course, for the nine hungry people, constantly ordering from the counter seats.
Third bowl! You must be thinking, "Will this woman ever stop?"
I couldn't help myself -- after those two filling and full bowls of oden, I found I had room for some more.
Abe san got tired of watching me eat and decided to indulge in some meat -- he ordered a skewer of beef tripe (which I would have liked too, if I were not vegetarian).
For my final bowl, I decided on konjac -- a glutinous jelly like ingredient which is very Japanese and is made from some sort of potato or yam.
Abe san approved -- he said that konjac or konnyaku is the ideal diet food ... no calories, no fat and he laughed, "No taste!"
I was not to be put off -- I have always enjoyed konnyaku and this generous slice was firm and contrary to Abe san's pronouncement, it was tasty, having absorbed the flavors of the oden broth.
Because konnyaku has zero calories, I added an order of chikuwa, another type of fish paste cake to make up for the calorie loss.
This poster was posted on the wall beside me. Golden yolked eggs over rice cooked in oden broth! Hmmm, how tempting! Abe san offered to get me a bowl but sadly, I had to decline.
I was finally onaka ippai or full.
While I continued to drink beer throughout, Abe san switched to shochu, his favorite drink.
There were sake bottles being warmed in front of us -- with thermometers stuck in each.
The chef checked on the bottles and took each one out once it had reached the desired temperature.
This man did everything -- jotted down the orders, prepared the food, checked the simmering pot, replenished the oden ingredients, heated the sake -- all these done with efficiency, speed and grace.
I was truly impressed.
Abe san and I continued to eat, talk and drink -- by 7 pm, the place was completely full. And very noisy.
Since Otakou is very well known and popular, an early start or reservations are definitely recommended.
Otakou is located in the basement -- after that savory, sumptuous oden dinner, it was time to head back up the stairs and out into the chilly October evening.
Look for this facade and this building when you want the best oden in Tokyo!
The basement entrance to Otakou is just beside this main door.
Happy hunting ... you'll be rewarded by excellent eating!