5 July 2010

Inakaya, Tokyo - Restaurant Review

We were supposed to have sushi. However, as I mentioned in my last post, finding places in Tokyo was proving to be trickier than I had imagined. Instead, after wandering around the Roppongi area of Tokyo for what seemed like ages, our hunger pangs got the better of us and we stumbled into the nearest restaurant. The restaurant in question turned out to be a small robatayaki restaurant called Inakaya.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and I was somewhat apprehensive given that a) the restaurant was deserted, b) we were in the most touristy/expat area of town, and c) there was no menu or price list to be found. We entered into what looked like quite a traditional and spartan dining room, the walls were adorned with small banners and other Japanese artefacts like fans, and decorative wooden paddles that are used to serve the food. We were greeted by raucous cries of "irasshaimase" from the chefs and waiters. I never know how I'm supposed to reply so we all just smile and nod and generally stand around looking like clueless gaijin.

We were ushered to one of the two u-shaped tables that seat about 10-12 people each. Each table surrounds a charcoal grill attended to by a chef kneeling on an elevated bench. In front of the chef was a mouth-watering array of fresh produce such as asparagus, mushrooms, Kobe beef, prawns, mushrooms, and fish. I gather that robatayaki is supposed to recreate the atmosphere of a traditional farmhouse with guests seated around the open hearth.


The waiters spoke some English and instructed us to pick from the dazzling array of produce in front of us. We were like kids in a candy shop pointing at almost everything. Ice cold, crisp Japanese beer and a little delicious appetiser of ginkgo nuts and pickles arrived. Immediately, I could tell we were in good hands and could begin to relax.

The waiter would then loudly shout out each order to the chef which was then repeated by the rest of the wait staff in case the chef, for reasons I can't fathom, hadn't heard it the first time. The chef then repeated the order back at similar volume and the process was repeated for every dish and drink. It was an fantastically fun and energetic atmosphere in which to eat, not a place for a quiet night.
 

The chef then set about meticulously preparing the food he was about to grill. I watched as he carefully trimmed some asparagus and cut them to identical lengths. These were then threaded onto a skewer and grilled. Once cooked the food is passed to you on long wooden paddles, accompanied of course by more shouting. The asparagus was wonderful; crunchy, sweet and amazingly fresh. Grilled shiitake mushrooms were perfectly seasoned and slicked with a wonderful umami rich sauce. Corn on the cob was crisp, sweet and juicy with a pleasing char from the grill. Mild red chili peppers were roasted whole. A solitary giant prawn that was super fresh, and tender. Cubes of skewered Kobe beef were served with fresh grated wasabi and garlic puree that is mixed into a dipping sauce. I adore Kobe beef and the Japanese stuff is streets ahead of its American and Australian Wagyu counterparts. The beef here was absurdly good, it was richly marbled which, when cooked, rendered it succulent and it really did just melt in the mouth.

All of a sudden the chef got up and left swiftly to be replaced by another. For a second I thought he was off for a smoke/tea/bathroom break, but in fact no, apparently it is traditional at a robatayaki restaurant to change the chef at the end of the meal. We finished with thin slices of grilled onion which was slicked with the same sauce as the mushrooms. I had watched as the chef had sliced into what looked like a perfect onion only to reject it for another one due to some minor imperceptible imperfection. As I've mentioned before about my dining experiences in Tokyo, the sheer quality of produce and attention to detail is unbelievable. Finally to finish the meal was a simple, perfect kiwi. Bliss.

Grilled prawn

Kobe beef skewer

Grating fresh wasabi

Chef serving out food
The damage came to about £100 a head with beer, which seems steep given the amount of food we had but, luckily for me, I was on an expense account. I suppose you are also paying for the full undivided attention of your own chef and a small army of waiters - we were in a group of 5 which put the staff/guest ratio at over 2 staff for each guest, way more than a Michelin 3-star restaurant.

I later found out that Inakaya is a chain of restaurants with 3 restaurants in Tokyo and one in New York City, but it doesn't feel like that at all. The one we went to in Roppongi felt small and intimate and all the staff were super efficient and friendly. The atmosphere is quite raucous but its a lot of fun so this is definitely a place to go in large groups and not for a first date. Yes, this Inakaya is in a 'touristy' area and yes it's a touch overpriced, but with the freshness and quality of the produce and the enthusiastic service, who can complain?


Food:          8 / 10
Service:       9 / 10
Ambiance:   9 / 10

5-3-4 Roppongi Minato-ku
Tokyo, Japan