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April 22, 2011

Book Review: "Izakaya, the Japanese Pub Book" by Mark Robinson

My favorite Japanese kitchen is Kaiseki, the haute cuisine that developed from - among others - the meal taken during the tea ceremony and that centers on vegetables and fish. In the Edo-period, Kaiseki changed into a sort of party food, eating during banquets where also a lot of sake was imbibed. Nowadays, Kaiseki and its brother, Kappo (where the chef is active in front of his guests, behind a wooden counter) are exclusive and expensive. And today sake plays a minor role at Kaiseki meals, as many chefs put so much emphasis on their own art that they just serve a bland sake that does not interfere with it (but neither enhances it).

So bring on my second favorite, the izakaya, the Japanese bar-restaurant where you enjoy light foods with a variety of drinks, all in a relaxed and easy-going atmosphere. By the way, in California these are called "Japanese tapas," after the similar Spanish type of restaurant. Unfortunately, izakaya food has gotten a bad reputation due to the emphatic prevalence of cheap chain stores you always find around stations. In those places, not only the sake is usually cheap stuff (almost drowned in the volume of shochu cocktails these places serve the young crowd, like the "breezer" culture in Europe), also the food is oily and microwaved.

For the real izakaya experience you have to hunt for the individualistic places where the cook still cooks with fresh ingredients, standing behind the counter, and where usually the choice of sakes is excellent as well. Izakaya, the Japanese Pub Book introduces eight brilliant establishments from Tokyo, all with their own characteristics: passionate chefs, superb food and loyal customers.

Author Mark Robinson also includes 60 recipes for culinary do-it-yourselvers. Although I have to confess I am not one of them, the recipes and beautifully photographed dishes are mouth-watering fun. Robinson discusses cooking techniques and ingredients. He also helps first-timers by providing guidance on izakaya manners and language. The book is interspersed with smaller articles on such useful subjects as izakaya history and Japanese aromatics.

In short, this “gateway to Japan's friendliest dining experience” is a beguiling window on a cornerstone of Japanese food culture. It is also a very practical guide. A book to drool over... I am waiting impatiently until my favorite izakaya opens at five o'clock...
Also see this interview with the author in the Japan Times.