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FAVORITE RESTAURANTS
Shunju

During my last trip to Tokyo, I knew that if I could only visit one restaurant, it would have to be Shunju. Inspired by the cookbook that came out recently, I had been wanting to try it for months. So on a cold and windy weeknight in early spring, my friends and I went to the Shunju Toriizaka branch in Roppongi.

Shunju was started not by a chef, but by superstar restaurant designer Takashi Sugimoto, who opened the original restaurant in 1986 because he wanted a relaxing and elegant space to hang out with friends. Actually, the term restaurant is not really accurate, as the result could better be described as an upscale izakaya (drinking establishment). It quickly gained a devoted following, and its success led to five other branches, and Sugimoto’s design concept and food philosophy was influential in creating today’s Tokyo culinary culture.

Although I was a little dismayed that the restaurant was located below street level, the interior did not disappoint. Sugimoto used this lack of natural light to his advantage, replacing it with warm low-level lighting provided by a range of ingenious fixtures, including free-form paper lanterns that were rustic, traditional and modern all at the same time. While the bar was done in a clubby western style, featuring one very long wooden counter flanked by a fireplace with overstuffed chairs, the dining area played on traditional Japanese forms. We were seated in a tiny private room that was configured just like a tea room of a 4 ½ tatami mat size 78.47 sq ft. (7.29m²). The walls were attractively rugged, the texture evoking farmhouse walls in rural Japan. A nijiri-guchi (tea room entrance) led to a tiny “garden” of rocks. Ironic touches were everywhere; what looked like a woven bamboo ceiling was actually made of steel. In effect, we were in a cage, and yet, it never once felt like one.

Shunju (shun means spring, while ju means autumn) specializes in seasonal contemporary Japanese cuisine, with a heavy focus on locally produced farm-fresh ingredients. We ordered the basic set menu (¥6,700), but asked to substitute seafood for meat. Although the web site and menu stated that set courses had to be ordered a day in advance, the staff was flexible enough to accommodate us.

Ordering a set menu is a wonderful experience, not at all as boring as it sounds. You are essentially surrendering your choice (okonomi) to the chef’s choice (omakase.) Doing this brings an element of surprise; it is also usually less expensive than ordering à la carte.

Although the first course of bite-size appetizers was uninspiring, the second course; a simple bowl of fresh silken tofu with simmered spring onions and garlic shoots, opened our eyes to the Shunju style. Next came a plate of sashimi in season, of excellent quality, followed by perfectly crisp and greaseless tempura of spring vegetables; tara no me, kogomi (fiddlehead ferns) and fuki no to (butterbur sprout). The tempura was placed on the plate with care, so that it stood upright, touching as little of the blotting paper as possible and keeping the steam released from the vegetables from soaking the coating.

The next course was wood-roasted black cod with a sprig of nanohana (rape blossom) and grated mountain potato, which was simple and immensely satisfying. Then, the highlight: a hearty serving of fried halibut served with organic new potatoes and fresh watercress. The bitterness of the watercress balanced the savoriness of the fish and creamy potatoes, and the ensemble was dressed with a delicious sauce containing garlic and butter. As both ingredients are rare in traditional Japanese cuisine, their presence was a welcome surprise.

When our server appeared with an individual crockpot of steaming rice with bamboo shoots, soup and an assortment of pickles, we knew the end of the meal was upon us. Fresh bamboo shoots have none of the briny taste of vacuum packed or canned bamboo, and no spring meal would be complete without it. Last but not least, dessert arrived in the form of strawberry sorbet; a sweet ending to a perfect meal.

After dinner, I investigated the rest of the restaurant. The other private rooms were likewise Japanese with a modern twist, with a predominance of warm wood tones that produced an effect that was minimal, yet rustic; traditional, yet modern. Past the private rooms, I arrived in the main room, which had a different feel. Here, the small, intimate spaces opened up into one cavernous space with soaring ceilings, the concrete pillars like trees, which created a forest-like effect. Behind a long counter, the young chefs were hard at work, bending over charcoal grills in front of raging wood-burning ovens – the perfect place to sit and watch the action. I’ve already picked out my seat for my next visit, which can’t be soon enough.

NOTE: Shunju has five other branches in Tokyo as well as a less expensive option called Shunju Kitchen.

WEB: http://www.shunju.com/ja/restaurants/ (Japanese only)

Bamboo shoot rice is a specialty of spring at the Roppongi branch of Tokyo's most influential upscale izakaya, Shunju.
 
 
 
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