World Chefs: A hit gourmet standing restaurant in Tokyo

Standing bars – where customers stand to drink – are currently popular in Tokyo, but now a former chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant has taken the concept to a whole new level by serving gourmet food.

Hiroshi Shimada, who once worked at the three-star Tokyo restaurant Azabu Yukimura, opened Shimada in the city’s fashionable Ginza district in January, and now customers are queuing up to sample dishes similar to what he used to make – at a third place or lower cost.

Shimada, 40, maintains his insistence on top ingredients. He uses a whole Ise ebi, a type of lobster, the stock used to prepare a jelly, which is served with sea urchins in the shell.

The secret, he says, is in the turnover — one reason his tiny restaurant, which seats only 14, has no chairs.

Shimada spoke to Reuters about his new venture.

Q: Why did you want to open a standing bar type restaurant after Yukimura?

Answer: The customers who choose to dine at Yukimura are only one or two percent of the entire population. Rather I wanted to serve more people at a lower cost and open my own restaurant. Did I want to open a yakitori place? no I didn’t want to give up what I had achieved in the past. This restaurant is the result of connecting two dots – serving first class food but at a much lower price.

Q: How do you balance costs and profits?

A: Our customers spend about 5,000 yen ($64) a person for food and drinks, which I would charge 15,000 yen at a decent Japanese restaurant. We don’t want to charge more than that but by tripling the number of subscribers, we can enjoy the same amount of revenue. Also the price for ingredients is 50% of what we charge here, much higher than other first-rate restaurants. So rotation is key. And we must always be busy.

Q: How can you prepare so many different dishes? The menu includes fried matsutake, croquettes with snow crab, grilled sweetfish, and then typical bar food like potato salad and stewed beef sirloin with daikon.

Answer: I cook in an isolated kitchen and have two staff who serve customers at the counter. Being inside the kitchen allows me to focus 100 percent on cooking. When you cook at the counter, you have to think about what to show the customers and what not to show them. And you have to keep the kitchen clean if customers are sitting in front of you. That can slow the process. Since I’m in the kitchen I don’t have to entertain customers. If you talk to customers, sometimes the food tastes different from what you want… That’s why I can make different kinds of food.

Q: Why did you choose Jinja for your restaurant?

A: I wanted to challenge Jinja. Ginza is known for expensive bars and clubs and not a place for a cheap standing bar. That’s why I chose Jinja.

Q: What is your next goal? Do you want to go back to Michelin-starred restaurants?

A: I don’t want to cook a meal that costs 20,000 yen for one person again, rather I want to try a restaurant that sells everything for 500 yen because I discovered that you can make a lot for that price.

You know, I really enjoy this job. Here women college students come with friends and start chatting with company officials standing next to them. Sometimes customers who don’t know each other share dishes and I can feel people having fun while I cook. It’s a very special atmosphere that you can only enjoy in a permanent bar. I realized that I wanted to do this for a long time.

Q: How would you like to improve your restaurant in the future?

A: I will not change my basic idea, which is that it takes a lot of time and effort to make good food. And I always want to come up with a new menu. I may allow sitting customers in the future. Because I want this restaurant to last longer – I’m not just taking advantage of the standing bar boom. In 10 years, our customers will be older and I don’t know if they want to stand up during meals. It’s going to be a tough decision because rotation is important for us.

Karasumi Soba

serves one

120 grams of soba noodles

150 g karasumi (bottarga, salt-cured mullet roe)

1 T soy sauce

1 tsp mirin (for sweet cooking)

1 sake

1 t white sesame oil (Taihaku sesame oil is best)

Boil soba until tender; drain

Add the soba to the soy sauce, mirin and sake mixture. Add sesame oil and marinate.

Grate the karasumi over the soba until the noodles are completely covered. ($1 = 78.3150 Japanese Yen)

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