Casual atmosphere to enjoy dinner
The main thing I noticed about ITOI is how laid-back and causal the atmosphere was. The guy who makes the tempura wears a T-shirt and a baseball cap. There is another guy and two women, all young and dressed in casual clothes, assisting with the cooking and serving. The decor is modern with brick walls and fancy mats, and the background music is pop and jazz.
Another aspect of ITOI that I appreciated was that it was entirely non-smoking. This is still quite rare in Tokyo, especially when eating out in the evening. For once I was able to properly enjoy the taste of the food and drinks without cigarette smoke interfering with my senses. Hopefully this type of restaurant will become more common in the future.
The restaurant is fairly spacious – the main area can sit up to 20 people and there is another room in the back with an additional 8 seats. There are four-person tables as well counter seats. I went there on a Saturday night and it got pretty full between 7 and 8pm so I was glad I had made a reservation. It seems like a lot of people what to relax and unwind while enjoying some creative tempura cooking.
Creating new tempura
Talking of creative tempura, what exactly are they deep-frying here? Despite a couple of visits, I have yet to explore the full range of the menu but so far I’ve had the following items as tempura: avocado, asparagus wrapped in pork, scallop, lotus root, ginger “kakiage” (strips of vegetables including ginger rolled into a ball) and emperor shrimp. My favourite one was the fish cake with cheese. Their motto seems to be “Anything that can be battered and deep-fried”. And amazingly it works – everything was crispy and delicious. Most items are priced between 100 and 300 yen, except for the Emperor shrimp, whose “highness” costs 400 yen.
In case it’s your first time eating tempura – don’t panic, it’s really easy. After you order the tempura, you’ll get a dish with, from left to right, grated “daikon” or Japanese radish, some salt and a slice of lemon, as well as a small bowl of “tentsuyu” or tempura sauce. The grated radish should be mixed into the tempura sauce into which you can dip a piece of tempura. You can also try eating it with a bit or salt or lemon. They have an English menu but if you are not sure what to order, they have two course menus, one for 1800 yen and one for 3000 yen.
Incidentally, ITOI also does a very reasonably priced lunch weekdays except Wednesdays. I went by one day to try it out and had the kakiage rice bowl with a large serving of rice. The kakiage was huge, one of the biggest I had ever seen. You can’t finish it with one or two bites. You need to work on it methodically, slowly reducing its size. I asked whether getting a big portion of rice, called “omori”, also increased the kakiage size but I was told it didn’t. Definitely something I want to try again! The Kakiage don was 800 yen (same price for “omori”).
If you are curious about Japanese sake…
Actually there are a lot of tempura shops in Tokyo, but few of them will also offer a wide selection of great tasting “nihonshu” or Japanese sake. I have to admit to recently becoming interested in sake and that is what drew me to ITOI in the first place. There are so many different kinds of sake with such a wide variety of tastes that the best thing to do when you have a large menu to choose from is to do a “kikizake” or sake tasting. And that is exactly what ITOI offers. For just 650 yen they will let you choose from three different kinds of sake from the menu of 15. However, your set can only include one of the most expensive ones at a time (marked with a black star on the sake menu). Between my first and second visits, some of the sake on the menu had been changed so it seems they regularly add new bottles to their selection.
What I really liked is that they put the bottle on the table, all three when you order the sake tasting set, so that you can check out the design of the bottle. They are kept in a small fridge near the entrance so you can enjoy them chilled. If you are at a total loss on what to order, ask the staff to recommend something based on whether you’d prefer something dryer “karaguchi” or something sweeter “amaguchi” (meaning dry mouth and sweet mouth respectively). Once you find the sake that suits your taste you can order more by the glass. The one I enjoyed best was “Mutuhaseen” 陸奥ハ仙 from Aomori prefecture in Northern Japan, a special sake made only in the new year – get it before it runs out!