Imahan Bekkan, Tokyo.

May 2016.

We were invited to this beautiful traditional Japanese place by friends living in Tokyo. The restaurant is located in the interesting north Tokyo peripheral neighbourhood of Asakusa, and as we got off the subway running late we found our way through narrow streets lined with tiny restaurants and happily crowded at 6 o’clock on a Saturday.

The entrance and interior are set up as a Japanese rock garden with stunted trees and water features, quite lovely and traditional, giving the impression that the restaurant has been there for some time. Four of us were seated in a closed private dining room, sitting on chairs rather than on mats which I’m sure would also have been available.

There are several fixed menus, and although I had insisted in numerous emails that I intended to pay, our host expropriated the bill at the end. Looking over the menu our multi-course feast must have cost over $100 each, plus beer and sake.

The house specialty is wagyu beef sukiyaki, in which the main course is prepared in a brazier in the centre of the table. But before that things started with a tiny appetizer of a green and white cube of savoury gelatin with few salmon roe, which I found delicate in flavour and, for me, maybe needing a bit of salt. This theme persisted through many of the courses, so that the lovely treats focused more on subtle flavours than on strong seasoning.

Next came a small rectangular plate with five separate delicacies, beautifully arrayed and very pretty to behold. Again the flavours were contrasting but mild. There was a tiny sushi in the centre, and four other varied vegetarian bites. Next, sashimi consisting of three slices of transparent kingfish mackerel with tiny vegetable accompaniment, again delicately flavoured. I believe the next item was a savoury custard with shredded strongly flavoured vegetables beneath.

I may be missing a small course, but my next recollection is of firing up of the brazier and presentation of several plates, the most prominent of which was plenty of thin-sliced wagyu beef, with the most obvious visual marbling I’ve ever seen. A dark coloured stock was poured into the cooker, and leek, a transparent noodle, enoki, and a couple of other accompaniments were fried together, and served in bowls with a raw chicken egg.

I’ve been looking forward to eating this kind of beef for many years, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Fat carries flavour, I’ve always said, and fabulous taste plus literally melt-in-your-mouth consistency made this an incredible treat. The leeks could have used a little longer cooking, but that was up to us.

A trio of rice with a couple of strongly-flavoured chopped condiments and two other items formed the step-down from the main, delicious but falling for me on what was starting to be a need to loosen my belt. There was a sweet, lightly-flavoured dessert custard, a couple of last sips of sakae, and that was it.

Our server was a middle-aged lady in traditional Japanese costume who communicated with our hosts entirely in Japanese. The tone was pretty businesslike as far as I could tell.

Overall this was a wonderful traditional Japanese feast, a lovely example of the sukiyaki cuisine, a spectacular introduction to the famous Kobe beef, and some of the prettiest visual presentation I’ve seen in awhile. Expensive, I’m sure, but worth it as a rare treat on a great holiday trip.

Food 9.3, service 8.5, ambience 8.9, value… probably pretty good but I wasn’t privy to the price. For this style of dinner I highly recommend this place, and we intend to go back to explore the neighbourhood.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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