Kushi Uemon – Tokyo

As is customary during my annual sojourn to Tokyo, a rendezvous was arranged with my posse of oenophile “tomodachi,” whom I met several years ago via the eRP forum. The group comes from different walks of life and settled in this metropolis for various reasons, all united by friendship and a common passion for wine. As usual, they arranged an evening at a restaurant a few steps off the beaten track, generously proffering a bevy of outstanding fermented grape juice, all washed down with a healthy dose of banter and without a Pokémon in sight (well, I wasn’t going to search for those critters on an extortionate international tariff).

We headed for Azabu to dine at a bijou yakitori-ya, Kushi Uemon. For those unacquainted, yakitori is no more no less than skewered pieces of chicken. It's fair to say that it formed a major part of my diet when I lived in Japan in the 1990s. “Kushi” () is Japanese for the metal or bamboo skewer threaded through the meat, one of the rare pictogram kanji symbols since nearly all look nothing like their meaning. Yakitori-ya range from dirt-cheap yakitori stands parked outside train stations, to destinations coveted for the quality of ingredients and the skill of the chef. Japanese cuisine is usually deceivingly straightforward – it is all in the detail. I reviewed one of the most famous, Birdland, in a previous Hedonist Gazette. Kushi Uemon is comparatively unknown compared to that institution. In fact, it was recommended by of one of our party that had chanced upon the Samejima family’s previous establishment and loyally followed them to this, their more central location.

Kushi Uemon is ostensibly a single L-shaped counter with no more than a twenty-or-so covers and on this evening, hungry, de-stressing, jabbering office workers occupied its stools. It is not one of those Japanese shrines where food is consumed in monk-like silence and the chef-cum-diesty gives you an admonishing look if you seem to be enjoying yourself. The ambiance is relaxed and carefree, the right side of noisy. As the saying goes: small is beautiful. That certainly applies to the standard of cuisine here, not least because they meticulously source, slaughter and pluck around nine or ten chickens every morning. Ergo my first skewer of yakitori was so bloomin' fresh that it was served semi-raw. Given that Westerners are conditioned to make certain that their chicken is properly cooked, the idea of intentionally chewing on chicken that has barely seen a flicker of flame can be disconcerting. However, it is not uncommon in Asia where poultry can be so fresh that you half-expect the bird to flap its wings and sprint out of the exit. Granted, it is a little strange...then your tastebuds are seduced by such giddy deliciousness that you soon become accustomed to its flavor, and a light sprinkling of cracked red and black peppercorns set it off nicely.

The minced chicken (tsukune) reverted back to grilled chicken and was mouth-wateringly delicious, likewise the kamo, basically a cross between a wild and farmed duck: tender and perfectly cooked. The skewer of liver was unbelievably rich, perhaps too much for myself, though the oyakodon, essentially fried egg, fried onion and chicken on rice, was outstanding—possibly one of the best I have eaten (and I have eaten a lot).

For desert, we were each presented with a bamboo leaf that had been folded and meticulously bow-tied with the precision and decorative flair that you only find in Japan. Once opened, it revealed a custard cream mochi, a glutinous Japanese rice cake that was irresistibly sweet and gooey. Just three mouthfuls and they were all insanely delicious and the perfect end to the dinner.

The wines were eclectic and all interesting in their own ways. We commenced with two vintages from the elusive Miani in Friuli. The 2010 Sauvignon Saurint was tensile and razor-sharp, perhaps a little more detailed than the 2013, although they do age spectacularly well, so I suspect the 2013 Sauvignon Saurint was simply too young. The 2006 Art Series Chardonnay from Leeuwin in the Margaret River served as a pertinent reminder as to how well these wines age, probably à point and reassuringly Burgundy-like in style. The 2012 les Grands Teppes Vieilles Vignes from Ganevat completely justified Luis’ enthusiastic review, perhaps overshadowing its Margaret River counterpart: a little richer than I was expecting, although I can see why my colleague compared it to Chablis by dint of its tension and mineralité.

With respect to the reds, we commenced with yet another great Burgundy from the 1993 vintage. The 1993 Nuits Saint-Georges 1er Cru Bousselots from Robert Chevillon was brimming with dark berry fruit laced with sous-bois and a touch of earl grey, the palate belying its 23 years of age with impressive depth and body, indicative of Chevillons weightier style vis-à-vis their peers. The highlight for me was the 1971 Château Palmer. I have drunk this Margaux several times and it never disappoints, one of the hidden gems of the decade and unequivocally one of the best Left Banks of that season, to the point where I would prefer to drink this than any of the First Growth bar Latour. The Left Bank wines of this vintage can be austere, not so Palmer that verges on the point of nubile; very pure with hints of violet on the nose betraying its appellation. If you were born in this vintage and cannot find/afford Petrus, then trust me, you will not be disappointed. We finished with a 2003 Cornas Vieilles Vignes from Alain Voge, a producer whose wines I drank quite regularly a decade ago. This was a reminder who well Voge’s wines age and though it does not deliver the bucolic, but compelling personality of Noel Verset, it delivered plenty of gorgeous tarry black fruit and shrugged off the heat of that summer with ease.

It had been (yet another) fabulous evening with good friends in my “second home” of Tokyo. As I have written many times, what this city has like no other is innumerable unknown gems such as this, contentedly serving impeccably traditional Japanese cuisine without any pretension towards fame or celebrity or Michelin stars or eye-popping prices. Like most Tokyo restaurants, they rely on word of mouth and that seems to fill up this yakitori-ya every evening.

And no, there are no Pokémon skulking around here, but if there were, they would have impeccable taste.

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