“Nostalgia is New”…
The one-man/woman-operated-restaurant, in several ways, really suites Japanese society. First, the usual tiny restaurant space that one person can manage offers an intimate environment away from the mad rush of the streets and trains of a Japanese metropolis. There’s just an urban comfort in sharing space with a few similarly-minded souls. Second, with that small space and only one pair of hands, there’s only so much food a person can manage. So ingredients tend to be freshly bought and dishes freshly prepared. And finally, the one-man/woman show puts the proprietor in the sole responsibility to create a satisfying meal. This is important because it suites the Japanese tendencies toward craft and artisan. But it also leaves that person with a sort of accountability to quality, since most Japanese kitchens are open (save for something like tonkatsu). Many places of this nature lean toward seafood, which is often prepared raw, or simply seasoned, and requires deft knife skills more than prepping and mixing environments. (I visited just such as place called Ogawa- http://www.chowhound.com/topics/35153... ). But some places, or chefs I should say, can find another focus. And in general, winter’s chill makes these single proprietor-run places all the more appealing. And there’s something nearly 19th centurish about slipping off a side street in Tokyo, into the comfy environs of a narrow “hole in the wall”, in this case, a minute or so from Yoyogi-Uehara station.
While Japan has its share of grumpy owner-chefs, the one-man show has to be not only the cook, but also the host. In NY, you’d get plenty of verbal banter in such a case. But Japan being more subtle and reserved, you get acts of hospitality. A warm hand towel, a one-word order for beer (“Nama”), and a gently offered choice of ootoshi-mono (small drinking snack)- 3 lightly marinated quail eggs in my case. When presented with the menu, I was directed by Muramatsu-san (said one man proprieter) to two recommended dishes- the tsukune (minced chicken ball) and the chicken-skin gyoza. I had eyed the tsukune lined up on the counter when I walked in and I liked what I saw, so that that was a go. Muramatsu-san, who I admittedly had little contact with other than ordering and observing, obviously takes great pride in this little establishment. The menu is broken into seasonal items as well as standards, most described in a protective, well chosen descriptive language- this from memory. I don’t have any specific examples…Anyhow, the menu boasted of “local chicken” (ji-dori) from Kagoshima prefecture. I’m never sure how to translate this term, so I usually just call it free-range chicken. But “ji-dori” is more like chickens raised with more care and richer feeding. So the chicken skin gyoza had some sort of explanation on the menu that I just sort of glanced at. It’s certainly an intriguing name. In fact, there were several intriguing dishes with similar playful names. So I ordered another one- “chicken chashu”, chashu being a term usually for barbequed pork slices. We needed something to cut all this chickeny oily goodness, and the yuba-dofu sounded just right. Throw in a green salad, and we were covered. Not for any particular reason other than I hadn’t had some in a while, I ordered a glass of Okinawan awamori, which arrived promptly and plumply filled (another good thing about Roman-ya- no skimpy pours, whether for shochu or nihon-shu).
The tsukune arrived, as many very good ones do, served on a plate with a freshly cracked open raw egg. With lesser quality eggs, there would be no flavor. But this was the creamiest tasting egg I’ve ever eaten. The toasty, juicy chicken and the gooey egg were an excellent sensory experience, topped off by the excellent chicken taste. So many times tsukune take on the taste of the sauce or the chopped vegetables inside, but not here. I’m not afraid to say that this was the best I’ve had of this dish.
The chicken skin gyoza, we were warned, was very hot. To the touch, actually not so much. It was when you bit into them and the scalding juice squirted out that there was real danger. Actually, this was a clever little dish that I’d never had before- pieces of chicken skin wrapped tightly around small meat and vegetable filling, with the natural juices of the skin fill up the little dumpling during the cooking process. My only complaint was that they could have been served with something creamy or cool to contrast things. Luckily, we had the yuba dofu which was both creamy and cool. It was topped by some gooey bits of finely chopped raw mountain potato and seasoned with freshly grated wasabi. I’m not sure why it’s called “yuba”, though perhaps it’s the layer of tofu just below the yuba skin.?.
The “chicken chashu’ was, my friend exclaimed, better than any chashu he’d ever had. I’m not sure about this (pork trumps chicken in my book of dining rules), but it was damn good slices of slightly marinated thigh meat served with shavings of long onion.
Roman-ya, which is spelled out as “Dream Shop” (夢屋) is obviously a real labor of love. The business card presents a small “mission statement” far too esoteric to translate, but capped with the English phrase “Nostalgia is new.” Considering the quality of the food and the comfortable atmosphere, wonderful service, and healthy drink portions, I’m more than happy to relive some good times here again.