I was looking forward to a traditional Japanese dinner this cool Sunday evening in March with my long time gourmet friend Abe san. However, he ended up surprising me by bringing me to his latest restaurant discovery - a trendy, cool bar somewhere in the side streets of Ginza.
Itamae in Japanese means cook or chef. Such a basic, simple name for a place that Abe san said was quite new, now very popular and hot with the Tokyo dining crowd.
Itamae proudly proclaims what it offers ... Japanese Food / Sake / White Wine. Oh dear, it seemed quite hipster-ish and young to me.
Looking around the casual, "industrialised" interiors of this modern izakaya, I laughingly told Abe san that we were the oldest patrons in the place.
Counter seating was available, conducive to watching the itamae or chef prepare and plate the dishes. As it is essentially an izakaya or bar, Itamae serves mostly "otsumami" -- the Japanese version of "tapas" -- lots of small dishes meant to be enjoyed while drinking.
It's what you would call a gastro-pub. This being Tokyo, I was sure the pub fare would be superb.
When drinking in Japan, it is normal to start with a cold glass of nama or draft beer.
Then you can move on to sake or shochu or in the case of Itamae, something from their carefully chosen selection of white wines.
We were started off with a small amuse bouche of a shiso leaf wrapped around bits of stewed tofu, bamboo shoots, greens and diced potatoes. The sauce was sharp, vibrant and refreshing.
A single pink blossom garnished this appetiser -- perhaps to evoke the coming sakura season.
Everything was beautifully presented on a large glazed dish that mimicked the sheen and shape
of an abalone shell.
A dark green sauce accompanied the dish. Made of abalone liver and fat, it delivered a
straight umami kick right to my unsuspecting palate. This dip was decadently delicious --
rich, with a light hint of bitterness and deep overtones of the briny sea.
So silky smooth with a complex, satisfying taste.
My Pinoy sensibilities secretly wished for a small bowl of hot kanin or rice to slather all this superlative sauce on.
Extra rice please!
Pork and cheese -- definitely not kosher but oh so delicious.
It must have been all the richness -- from the ambrosial abalone dip to the mouthwatering camembert tempura but I was all of a sudden, "onaka ippai yo" or quite full.
But it just took a little bit of persuading for me to agree to a one-for-the road order of assorted sashimi.
Abe san and I enjoyed fatty toro, slices of tai or sea bream, succulent kampachi or yellowtail tuna, slivers of raw squid that slithered down my throat -- all these artfully presented on a bed of greens, twigs, julienned radish and yes -- a small dish of "nitro" for that foggy molecular gastronomy effect.
I am happy to say that nitro or not, the sashimi was the star of the show.
An evening spent in wonderful company, excellent contemporary Japanese food, beer and sake -- it was the perfect way to end the week-end, fully recharged for the meetings ahead.
I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the bright vibrant lights of Ginza and feeling grateful for new memories made -- of another great food experience with a dear old friend.