This wooden izakaya is an intimate space with paper lanterns and industrial tungsten lamps. Its walls are pinned with 1980s beer advertisements and specials written on letter-sized sheets.
It is an ordinary winter evening in Tokyo. I have been wandering the streets of Shimokitazawa, Tokyo’s Greenwich Village. It is getting dark and restaurants are flipping their “ready for business” wooden plates. Feeling hungry, I walk past a few street musicians into a narrow street.
On this street, which is really a back alley, restaurants are filling up. I stumble upon one – an izakaya named Gempachi. While Gempachi has no line-ups typical of Japanese restaurants with quality, I head in without hesitation.
This wooden izakaya is an intimate space with aged, tavern-style decor. Its walls are pinned with 1980s beer advertisements and kitchen specials written on letter-sized sheets. Paper lanterns and industrial tungsten lamps hang from its oily ceiling, casting a warm overtone to the already dimly-lit interior.
The place is empty with just the chef and his sous-chef. After the standard irasshaimase exchange, the duo politely but quietly starts preparation. First up, the otōshi, the obligatory appetizer that begins a drinking session.
The chef pours the sake until it overflows the glass and fills the saucer to the brim. This is a traditional way of serving sake in Japan and demonstrates the hospitality of the host.
For this appetizer, the chef prepares an assortment of chopped vegetables and tofu accented with olive oil and sea salt. They are bright, thin, and refreshing without being astringent. There is also a decent amount of sweetness characteristic of Japanese vegetables in general. Otherwise, nothing extraordinary.
Then comes the sake of the Tokubetsu Junmai-shu variety (special pure rice). It is made with Yamada Nishiki (a short grain Japanese rice) grown in the Hyōgo Prefecture. Served chill, this sake imparts green notes of herbs and sweetness from grapefruit. It is light and silky without much intensity.
What is interesting is the way it is served. The chef first places the sake glass inside a porcelain saucer about an inch deep. He then pours until it overflows the glass and fills the saucer to the brim. This is a traditional way of serving sake in Japan and demonstrates the hospitality of the host.
The sake is followed by Asahi Super Dry. Lightly floral, this run-of-the-mill brew is watery, metallic, with a mild carbonation on the tongue. It is not really designed to be carefully relished, but to make skewers taste more pleasant. This is because skewers are usually sauced more aggressively to complement drinks.
The signature is anchored by tofu in clear broth alongside diced chicken – no overcooked rubbery texture, just the smooth tang of poultry that dissolves into the sulfuric notes of the mashed soy.
Next up is Gempachi’s onsen tofu special, their signature. It comes in an cast-iron pot kept warm by flames underneath. The dish is anchored by tofu in clear broth alongside diced chicken, boiled just right. It has no overcooked rubbery texture, just the smooth tang of poultry that dissolves into the sulphuric notes of the mashed soy.
The tofu itself is soaked in the mineral richness of onsen, adorned with the deep leafy segments of the green onion. This contrasts beautifully with the understated clear broth. The leafy aroma from the green onions also complements well with the chalkiness of tofu and its light broth, adding some zing to the otherwise unified flavor.
Following the tofu comes skewers standard in izakaya – sunagimo (gizzard), reba (chicken livers), yagen (cartilage), udama (quail egg), and my favourite – sasami umeshiso (plum sauce and perilla on white meat). They are grilled over binchōtan, a type of white charcoal from Minabe, Wakayama. The skewers are served unadorned but tender.
Gempachi is an establishment on par with the standard one would expect in Tokyo. Though they boast an impressive drink list (85 kinds of plum wine at the last count), their skewers are more down-to-earth. Devoid of the fancy garnishing common in fancier settings, Gempachi is an every-day eatery with a comfortable vibe.