A place frequented by movie directors and rock artists
It was raining pretty hard and I was late for our 8 o’clock reservation at Nonki. I had to be careful not to walk into the wrong place since they have 2 branches on opposite sides of a small sloping street on the fringes of Arakicho in Yotsuya. On the left side, “Motsuyaki Nonki” with a first floor corner storefront full of brightly lit-up paper lanterns, was highly visible in the nighttime. Opposite, and in marked contrast, was my destination for the evening. “Akami to Horumonyaki Nonki” 赤身とホルモン焼きのんき or Nonki for short. “Akami” means red or lean meat and “horumon” is the name given to offal or organs meats. In Japanese, “Nonki” is an expression that means carefree, easy-going or being in a happy state of mind without any worries.
After taking a few seconds to study the small sign in Japanese and confirm that I was indeed at the right place, I hurried up the short flight of steps leading directly from the street to the entrance door, and joined Shigenobu-san at the corner table. Even though it was a Thursday evening, it was a full house and I was thankful that we had made a reservation. When we left a little after 10pm, the restaurant was still half full. Despite that, it wasn’t overly noisy and I had no trouble conversing with my dining companion. Another positive point is that, even though smoking is allowed, none of our neighbours lit up. Even if they had, it probably would not have mattered, since the place was equipped with air-sucking vents above each table to remove all the smoke created when grilling your own meat. .
The first thing I noticed after settling in was, that the unpainted walls were devoid of any kind of decoration. Instead, they were full of signatures, phrases and doodles made with a black marker pen – produced by celebrities who had dined at the restaurant since it opened, about 2 years ago. The young-looking and energetic manager, Oshitari-san, told me that Makoto Shinkai, the director of the hit movie “Your name”, and Shinji Higuchi, one of the co-directors of the latest Godzilla movie “Shin Godzilla” had enjoyed some carefree time at Nonki. On the wall just behind me was scrawled “Bump of Chicken” a famous Japanese rock band. I could only assume that one or several band members had also tried the restaurant’s famous yet meat dishes.
The “Horumonyaki” course
Have you ever wondered what might be the eleventh dish on all those top-ten-Japanese foods-you-must-try-while-in-Japan lists? It may well be Horumonyaki cuisine, a cooking niche that most visitors to Japan may suspect exists but in the end never get to try. It was originally invented in Osaka in 1940 and is a variation of the korean BBQ or “yakiniku” that uses offal or internal organs and entrails instead of regular meat.
I have never been a fan of “horumon” myself and tend to avoid it when eating out. This is not because of any food allergies or dietary restrictions. I just find the idea of eating organs slightly off-putting. The few times I did happen to pop a piece in my mouth, usually by mistake, it was actually quite tasteful. On the other hand, most Japanese people I know absolutely love it – Shigenobu-san called every piece delicious. Also “horumon” is said to be full of nutrients.
Since he had especially recommended this restaurant and it was famous for its “horumonyaki”, I thought I should give it a try. And I have to admit most of it was really good. As long as I could temporarily forget which organ I was eating at the moment and remember to slightly dab it in some salt between the grilling and eating parts. Shigenobu-san would often shout “salt” at me when I forgot to do so. I was probably too focused on trying to forget that I was about to eat a piece of the cow’s stomach!
So which organs did I eat and what did I think of them? We had ordered the course menu – 9 kinds of “horumon” that you cook yourself at the table. The first one to go on the grillI was “urte” part of the beef’s throat. Its tubular spiky exterior didn’t look appealing but after clearing my mind of all worries, I bravely popped it into my mouth. Even cooked it was pretty tough to chew and swallow. If you like a kind of yakitori called “nankotsu”, or soft bone, you will probably like that particular horumon since the texture is comparable.
Things got better with the next 2 pieces, “buta oppai”, or pig breast, and “reba”, or liver. Both were soft, easy to chew and tasty. These were followed by a piece of “aburitsuki motsu”, or a piece of entrails with fat. Not knowing the exact provenance of this piece of meat made it somehow easier to pop into my mouth, but this again was surprisingly rubbery, and required a big mouthful of draft beer to wash it down. I took another swig for courage.
Maybe it was the beer, but from that point onward, things started to improve. I had a piece of “harami”, which comes from the diaphragm which was fine, unlike the English term that required some searching on our smartphones. The next two pieces were, “jomino”, or a piece of the upper stomach, and “rido” that came from somewhere between the throat and the stomach. From the texture alone, both could pass as a regular cuts of meat and didn’t leave any particular impression. However I liked “hatsu”, which means what it sounds like, part of the heart.
The course ended with “tan”, another Japanese English word which of course means tongue. This last one is very popular and often pops up at yakiniku places. I’ll say without hesitation that it is really good once you get past the idea of biting into a tongue that isn’t yours. I’ve been told that one reason “horumon” is unappealing to non-Japanese is that the names don’t translate well. In Japanese the names don’t usually refer directly to the piece eaten. However in English, since there is no real custom of eating internal organs, the name of the actual part is used.
The meat course
While we were eating our way through the horumon course, the staff brought sausages and Eringi mushroom, both already cooked and pre-cut into bite size pieces. The sausage was delicious, some of the best I’ve had. The mushroom pieces were huge, described as “eringi steak” on the menu, and a real delight to munch on. At this point we were getting pretty stuffed. But the best was yet to come. Here was at last the seasoned cuts of lean mean that had been shown to us at the start of the meal. Now it was my turn to exclaim “delicious!”. As is usual for Japanese beef, it was cut up into small bite size pieces which were tender and easy to chew. It felt like a treat, and I said jokingly to my friends that this felt like a kind of dessert.
At this stage the meal was slowly coming to an end. So far I had stuck to beer but I couldn’t resist ordering a lemon sour, a kind of Japanese cocktail, since I had noticed that this is what most of the other diners were having. It seemed to be their signature drink and there was even a crate of lemons near the entrance. After I got a close-up look, I was surprised by how many lemon slices were stuffed inside the glass. And it tasted as good as it looked. The meal ended with a choice between a small rice and beef curry or rice with raw egg. I had the rice curry, a very spicy way to wrap up a meal! Luckily, I could refresh my palate with the lemon sour.
Despite my initial apprehension of eating “horumonyaki”, I will definitely visit Nonki again. For a 5000 yen course menu, we ate extremely well in terms of quality and quantity. And that is without mentioning the service and the atmosphere, both outstanding. However, I might just order “a la carte” the offal pieces I really liked or try some new ones. Some bits for me were too much of an acquired taste. If you are in an adventurous mood or feel like eating meat, why not give nonki a try? Just make sure to go there with a “nonki”, or happy-go-lucky attitude – happily unworried and trusting blindly in your luck!