Snapshots from Japan: Sardine Lunch at Nakajima in Tokyo
Tokyo tops the world in terms of Michelin-starred restaurants, but that doesn't mean you need to spend a fortune to enjoy the food at one of these acclaimed establishments. Not far from Shinjuku Station, in the basement floor of one of the city's many nondescript buildings, Nakajima serves up a set menu lunch at a bargain price of 800 yen (about $8).
Iwashi (sardines) are the star of the show during lunchtime at Nakajima. They're available fried with panko, sashimi-style, simmered in dashi with soy sauce (known as nizakana), or, for another 100 yen, prepared in an eggy casserole known as Yanagawa nabe. The set menu comes with miso soup, rice, and tsukemono (pickled vegetables, which were daikon and mustard greens the day I dined), with green tea available at no additional charge.
In the nizakana preparation, slow simmering keeps the delicate sardine skin intact. Once you pull the flesh from the bone, the meat's oily-rich flavor really shines, thanks to a subtle dashi that lets the fish do most of the talking. In the sashimi prep, the slices of raw sardine sparkle with flecks of silver, and retain their full firm texture and oily flavor. The sashimi comes with wakame (seaweed) and grated ginger, which tends to pair well with silver fish. (I ignore the lemon wedge when I know I'm going to dip the fish in soy sauce.)
With pricing and quality this good, it's no surprise that lines start forming at Nakajima before it opens. While a line that backs up from the basement entrance and climbs up the steps to the street may seem intimidating, service is professional and efficient, with tables turning fairly quickly. Counter seats offer a view of the chefs at work, prepping for the dinner service thats costs more than ten times the price of lunch.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.