Eating-out For Kids of All Ages
by Marie Teather
There are literally thousands of restaurants in Tokyo and eating out has always been somewhat of a favourite pastime for those living in this fast-paced city. With authentic cuisines accessible from every part of the world, budgets that range from the very cheap to the astronomical, differing eating atmospheres in the various neighbourhoods, even seasonal differences on the menu; options for dining out seem unlimited.
That is of course unless you have children. Eating out with children requires a little more forward planning but luckily in Tokyo options are still aplenty. Here Weekender reviews three restaurants that kids are not only welcome, but are also catered for in the menu and in the all-round dining experience.
A Restaurant That’s Like Going Home
It’s not very often that the welcome extended to kids is actually a part of the furniture but at Suji’s, ¥where placemats double as colouring sheets and cutlery is accompanied with a set of crayons where you may have expected the napkins to be; the door is quite literally open to kids and all. Feeling welcome is something that Suji, the Korean-born proprietor of the restaurant, and her close-knit team make a priority of. With their motto promising ‘the next best thing to mom’s home cooking,’ eating at Suji’s feels like an alltogether ‘going home’ sort of affair. The first time you enter expect big smiles. The ‘Suji family’ as the website refers to the staff, always stop to say hello and then you’re free to sit wherever suits you. This includes an open-air veranda with six tables that during the warmer months are always full. The second time you enter Suji will remember your name, and from then, you’ll feel like an old friend.
The interior is designed to reflect the kind of stylish New York eatery that sunlight pours into and reflects or creates shadows off the dark, all- wooden floors and tables. Space is abundant unlike the often small restaurants that Tokyo tends to permit and once seated, despite the busy street outside and a hectic city that never rests, time spent at Suji’s seems to just slow down.
The menu too gets its inspiration from lazy, Sunday, American brunches. Imagine reading a newspaper over a plate of large (very large) pancakes, complete with maple syrup, and sipping coffee that seem always to be topped up. Suji’s may have a branch in Seoul and Tokyo but make no mistake, there is nothing Asian-inspired about neither the restaurant nor the food—you could quite easily be sitting in the Big Apple or any other cosmopolitan European city.
Lunchtimes, and Suji’s has become the place to have a business meeting. Expect to see recruiters or bankers tucking into favorites such as the Jason’s Burger Deluxe, a burger with bacon and Swiss cheese, fried onions, lettuce and tomatoes (note this is not for light eaters); the Hot Pastrami Sandwich; a large bread roll filled with grilled pastrami meat, onions and chunky fries on the side; and then there is the Fish and Chips which have said to finally rival those found on the shores of England. The restaurant has also become a regular spot for women taking extended lunches to catch up with friends, and for anyone who would like to watch what they eat, the selection of salads and omelettes have proved popular. Meals from the lunch menu are ¥1,500 included coffee refills.
Kids are well catered for with the choice of Mini-Burger, Mini-Pancakes or Chicken Tenders (all ¥700 plus ¥200 for fries) and the fantastic menu of milkshakes which really should be tried no matter what age you are. Surprisingly it’s common to see groups of children as much during the week as at the weekend brunch and another plus point for Suji’s is that tables are always readily moved around to accommodate larger groups of diners. At any time of the day, Suji’s has the remarkable ability to cater for all clientele be it a business lunch, ‘ladies-who-lunch’, families with children or even the diner alone wanting a little down time. And that really is a welcome extended to all.
For more information see sujis.net.
Upmarket Themed Fun
Walking away from Akasaka station it’s almost easy to miss the small black door that blends into this unusually all black exterior. With no indication you are about to enter a restaurant, the little black door leads into a small cave-like room where you are greeted by a ‘retired ninja’ (a ninja who has graduated from the world of the ninja to the wonderful world of table hosting.) With one clap of her magic hands, from out of the wall it seems, jumps another (still practising) ninja whose job it is to take you safely through various dangers to your table.
Eating at Ninja is no ordinary experience. Getting to your table is an adventure you’ll be glad to have a guiding ninja there for. Challenges await you including a broken bridge that without crossing, you’d surely never make your table on time, but thanks again to ninja magic; a new one is conjured up in no time.
Ninja’s interior is designed to look like an underground cavern and each table is in it’s own private cave. (You can choose to have a western style or the Japanese style.) All you can see of other diners are the occasional glimpses through slotted windows or through the barred cave doors as you move around the restaurant.
Still, of those we did see, a very international clientele was revealed and this was also reflected in the English-speaking floor staff and English menus. The menu (a rolled-up script which is pulled from a secret pocket of the ninja) is very much of upmarket and internationally adapted Japanese izakaya fare. Sushi rolls—much larger than your average sushi from Japan—come highly recommended. Inparticularly, The New York Sushi Roll (¥1,200)—a sushi roll with tuna, salmon, avocado, and wrapped with lettuce, in rice and seaweed—plus an additional outer layer of daikon—was just wonderful and a reminder that Japanese food can be nicely adapted abroad. Other sushi with ‘rice on the outside’ was delicious and each roll suitable to share around a family of four. Families will also love the Hot and Spicy Chicken Wings (¥1,800) that are delivered to the table in an easy to share basket. Despite the order-taking ninja that these are ‘dangerous and very spicy’, the wings were cooked well and not too hot at all.
Nothing at Ninja is predictable and every dish brought to the table has it’s own signature, a twist on the ordinary. For the Rice in Bamboo Shoots Served with a Flare (¥1,200), a cone-shaped bamboo wrapped parcel was lit with a ninja torch to `cook` the contents at your table. Only when cut open could the rice inside be seen and then enjoyed. Sweet and Sour Pork Delicacies with Asparagus (¥2,500) appear as black as night and yet the pork was succulent and a sure-fire hit.
Although we ordered from the a la carte menu, it may have been better to order from one of the many set meals, which includes the Surprise Menu (¥7,777), the Shabu Shabu Menu (¥13,000) or the extravagant Mikado Menu (¥30,000) which includes courses of lobster, caviar, Turtle and Truffle Consommé Soup, Sautéed Shark’s Fin and Tofu, plus other delicacies.
After the meal, diners are then visited by a ninja magician who performs various tricks at the table with coins and cards. From the onset, staff seem to reveal in ‘character’ and the fun they are having while working, creates for a fun and unique eating experience. It is worth noting that reservations with children have to be made for 5pm and children should always be accompanied when moving around the restaurant for them to avoid getting lost (or scared) in the dimly lit pathways. Although Ninja doesn’t have a specific children’s menu, food is to be shared and the selection is vast enough so that even picky eaters will find something they can enjoy.
As a cautionary word, I would also advise to make the reservation a few days in advance. This is a very popular restaurant and leaving the booking to the last minute could result in getting a poorer table and make quite a difference to the whole experience.
For families, couples, groups of friends or colleagues, an evening at Ninja is a memorable and fun eating experience. Food is well presented and of a quality that diners of a higher calibre will appreciate, whilst the playful, show-like atmosphere reminds us that eating out doesn’t have to always be an serious affair.
For more information see www.ninjaakasaka.com.