Izakaya Tsukinoya: The Return of the Stinky Fish

Izakaya Tsukinoya: The Return of the Stinky Fish

I have lived a fortunate life.  I have been blessed with good health, good friends, wonderful family and privileges and opportunities that others could only dream of.  I have seen a fair amount of the world — Europe, South America, Australia, the Caribbean.  In Paris, I dined in some of the most classic brassieres and cutting edge restaurants.  In New York I indulged in the best of the highs and lows: an incredible tasting menu at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, the Sturgeon and Eggs at Barney Greengrass, Kosher Uzbek Kebabs in Queens and so so much more.  In Jamaica, I ate roast breadfruit and saltcod fresh out of the fire in the cool hills of St. Anns.  In Bologna, I had white truffles shaved over freshly made Papradelle.  I could go on and on about all the wonderful restaurants I have eaten in all over the world and describe what made them special, what they smelled like and how they expanded my love and knowledge of the world.  But, there is absolutely nowhere that I would rather eat than the old school Izakayas of Japan.

Izakaya are nominally bars.  The focus is on drinking.  However, like the Cichetti bars of Venice or the Tapas bars of Barcelona, Izakayas serve food.  Where the line is drawn between a diner, a restaurant and an izakaya, I am not so sure.  There are many, many types of izakaya ranging from tiny four-stool establishments to ultra-modern party halls with remote ordering and karoke. The Izakaya I am most fond of are the no-frills classic:  A bit run-down, 20 or so seats, counter space, behind which the chefs prepare food and walls jam-packed with hand-drawn signs advertising menu items and drink specials. Prices should be cheap and the drinks should flow generously. Cigarette smoke will be heavy and joy will permeate the air.

 

So it was that I found myself at Asagaya’s  Izakaya Tsukinoya with a group of friends the other night. We arrived at 8 to a packed house and a fortunately reserved table.  Things were in full swing, tables covered in dishes, glasses of beer, lemon sours and whiskey highballs.  Rawkus stories, laughter and the clatter of chopsticks filled the space.  A placid woman of around 70 indulgently served up another round of drinks to a table full of rock and roll young men.  On the counter there was a spread of the daily specials: baby corn still in the husk, bamboo shoots, a plateful of braised pork bellies, ginko nuts and a bubbling stew.  Four solo diners were seated at counter happily sipping drinks, reading manga and eating their food.   No one is ashamed to eat alone in Tokyo – the izakaya is their home.

My friend and his wife used to live a few blocks away from Tsukinoya.  It was their regular spot and they received a hearty welcome from the grey-haired chef.  “Its been a long time!” He bellowed.  Tsukinoya is known for their sake selection and seafood dishes that pair well with the beverage.  But, we started with freezing cold mugs of beer served with a dish of barely steamed baby wasabi greens.  The taste was that of the springtime.  The dishes came quickly: Roasted bamboo shoots, mixed sashimi, stewed daikon with egg and thin slices of pork. The baby corn came grilled briefly over coals and split in two.  The old woman waitress told us to pull the corn out from the outer husk and eat it, silk, cob and all, with some salt.  It was fairly astonishing.  I have never eaten corn this way and the flavor was so different — grassier, sweeter and more delicate — than the full grown version

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We switched to a light, refreshing sake from Kyushu that highlighted those delicate Spring flavors: a tempura of freshly picked asparagus, tonjiro (pork and root vegetable soup) made with baby tubers and flavored with salt instead of the typical white miso; tiny firefly squid, assorted pickles.  All at once, a familiar and disgusting smell invaded my personal space.  It was chilling.  Like a hanging out at a bar with your friends and suddenly seeing that obnoxious, date-rapey guy you all went to college with.  The Kusaya fish had arrived.  I first encountered this horrifying delicacy in Hachijojima and really hoped that I would never encounter it again.  But there it was in all its stinking, fetid glory.  My friend poured me a new glass of sightly warmed sake from Kyoto.  “It is a little sour.  Good with Kusaya!”  It could have been nectar from the gods, but the Kusaya still hit me like a mouthful of shit.  It was just as terrible as the first time I tried it.  Pungent, strong, lingering like an old, sweaty sock wrapped around a rotten fish head.  I forced myself to take a few bites doused heavily with lemon and followed it quickly with that good Kyoto sake but I had to shortly surrender.  It is just a vile thing and the longer I had to breathe it in the less I would be able to enjoy anything else.  Fortunately, my compatriots love the kusaya and the fish was quickly devoured, struck from the table and replaced with a heap of Tatsu Age (fried chicken) and potato salad. I cannot express how good that chicken tasted after eating the Kusaya.  We had more sake and more beer and the dishes kept coming.  Pork belly slices served with hot mustard; a mousse-like mound of minced mackerel, green onion and miso; yaki soba; ginko nuts toasted in their shell served with a mound of sea salt and more. It is the gift of the Izakaya that you enter into a fog of eating and drinking and laughing — you forget the outside world, the stresses, the unfairness because everything is so good and so reasonably priced that what does it really matter to order one more dish? One more glass of sake?  We finally took our leave, fully sated and giddy — pockets lighter by $40 for a dinner that would have cost a week’s salary in New York.

I walked with my friend, the Monk, down a long, nearly empty shopping arcade.  Heading in the direction of the subway, 45 minutes until the last train home.  The kusaya fish lingered a bit on my fingers.  I must have touched the horror.  On the corner, lit up amongst the shuttered store-fronts, a small yakitori shop belched a fragrant aroma of grilled chicken.  The clatter of glasses escaped from the open door.  “It is chain, but this one very high quality chicken,” the Monk announced.

One last bite for the road? Why not?

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