by Robert Forrest
Nothing fits. Few get past the thighs and nothing, but nothing, can cradle the waist. I am beginning to think writing restaurant reviews for Weekender has somehow hampered my quest for trousers today, though until otherwise proven I’m putting it down to being a Westerner in Japan. Sale shopping has never been so depressing.
A cheeky shrimp and duck meat dumpling sits
next to a pinch of crab in a hollow
tomato with apple vinegar gelee.
Isetan department store is an unlikely nook for my attention but Kitchen Stage is the only place in Shinjuku I find that can suitably satisfy for luncheon. Located in the basement, surrounded by pushchairs and sagging families, a glass wall separates the masses from the mess of cling film discarded on the counter as starters are hurriedly prepared. The name says it all and whether at the bar or sitting behind, one can watch a handful of cooks immaculately conjure wizard food. Each dish is different every time I come and their spare-ribs and duck are superb. But today there appears to be the remains of Christmas under that cling film; though before I had time to ponder, two goblets arrived replete with what was described as “Spanish omelette” soup.
Spanish omelette soup. I write that again in ease you missed it. At first I thought they were preparing a dessert, pumping thick cream into the yellow head of rhubarb and custard in an upturned glass cone. But then seasoning was added to what appeared so sweet, curdling my first impressions. I dearly hoped they were heading my way: it was so satisfying to watch the custard bulge with cream, which turned out to be potato mousse being egged into custard as caramelized strands of onion imitated the rhubarb beneath. Despite the ubiquity of the ingredients, such thick textures feel staggeringly indulgent and mercifully nothing like their namesake.
The main course was the osechi that Japanese savor over New Year. Two white rectangles replaced the three lacquer boxes typically found in domestic homes, each an inch deep and carefully lined with food. One sits upon the other and as I removed the thin lid with a scrape, the topmost pushed its brightly colored fare towards the scrupulous spotlights overhead. Each detail is picked out from the ban bouche stranded upon the porcelain and my eyes scampered from grilled aubergine topped with bolognaise to saikyo miso-marinaded cod. A cheeky shrimp and duck meat dumpling sits next to a pinch of crab in a hollow tomato with apple vinegar gelee. Of course this was passed to Co-diner, who exchanged it for another of those fabulous soft eggplant slices and set about discerning the recipe for future canape courting.
With one rectangle emptied, we stooped beneath for the other trough of chirashi rice flecked with a tiny die of red pepper. Upon this lies triangles of mange-tout, quarters of eel, and halves of shrimp, with orange balls oHkura scattered over all. There is a satisfying layering of colours and glistening shells and pods that gives this plate real depth, like a Kandinsky jigsaw that has yet to be assembled. Though Kitchen Stage may have been more noh today than Hamlet, it is always entertaining when you have the Royal Box.
Isetan, Shinjuku, Tokyo