Arriving at Koenji station just before 7pm on a Thursday night, I was reminded of how close this popular neighbourhood was from Shinjuku – only 6 minutes by express train. Since our reservation was for 7, I was relieved that Gyokai Nonobu (meaning Seafood Nonobu 魚貝ののぶ), was just two minutes on foot from the South exit. I didn’t even have to consult a map – the wooden signboard above the corner entrance and the huge hanging lantern immediately caught my eye!
I joined my colleague from Tadaima Japan and a friend of his, Iwata-san, at a 3-person table near the entrance. Even on a weekday night, Nonobu was full. Considering the high rating it has on Tabelog, it’s perhaps not that surprising. However there was enough space between the tables to make the restaurant feel quiet and cozy. There are only 20 seats in total, so if planning a visit, it would be wise to reserve in advance. A good thing to know is that since August this year, the restaurant is entirely non-smoking.
Oysters, Sashimi and… Meat Sushi
As soon as we sat down, the compulsory appetiser or “otooshi”, was placed in front of each of us: a large clam and a kind of custard or mousse. At first, I thought it might be “chawan mushi” (a kind of egg dish), but I was told it was made from burdock or “gobo”. This was quite possibly one of the best (and biggest) appetizers I’ve ever had at an izakaya – a shame I couldn’t order more from the menu!
We decided to order oysters since they were in season now and we had seen them at the fish market. While waiting for our order, I found out that Iwata-san was a freelance designer, who had created the website for Nonobu. My colleague had met Iwata-san while working on a project to re-establish a community theater in Miyako city (Iwate prefecture). At present Iwata-san is a web designer for a company that does business with Tsuchida-san, and that is how my colleague (and myself) got to know Tsuchida-san. I was impressed by how these connections had brought us all together. Our oysters arrived – one per person – and although I’m not an oyster person, mine disappeared just as quickly as the other two!
After that, we treated ourselves to an assortment of sashimi or “sashimi moriawase”. I had seen many sashimi platters before, but this one was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. Since we weren’t sure what each fish was, we asked one of the restaurant staff to help us. It was fascinating to think that each kind of fish had been selected from the early morning catch by Tsuchida-san, now diligently working behind the counters a few meters from us. It was definitely the highlight of the meal!
Here are some of the fish used in the platter (the fish kind changes according to the season):
- – Spanish Mackerel or “sawara” (middle left)
- – Mackerel or “saba” (front left)
- – Gizzard Shad or “kohada”(back right)
- – Monkfish liver or “ankimo” (front right)
I had discovered the “ankimo” delicacy at Sushi Yachiyo, so I was happy to be able to eat it again.
Afterwards, we decided to have some beef. Even though Nonobu, is a seafood restaurant, it’s also an izakaya, so the menu isn’t limited to fish. However, the thin slices of beef were served on top of rice, forming meat sushi or “nikuzushi”. Finally, no meal is complete without vegetables, so we ordered tempura made with asparagus. It was light, crunchy and delicious, a proof that Tsuchida-san wasn’t just skilled at preparing fish!
A Shared Taste in Sake
With about a dozen bottles in the fridge, Nonobu is also a sake bar, so we asked the staff to recommend something that would go well with our food. The sake was poured from the bottle directly at our table into beautifully shaped lipped bowls. For every sake we ordered, the bowl and cups had a different design and shape.
After studying the drinks menu, I realised that Tsuchida-san and I had similar tastes. Two-thirds of the sake were the dry type, or “karakuchi”, from the Tohoku and Hokuriku areas of Japan. A few brands were familiar to me like “Aramasa” from Akita, “Mutsuhassen” from “Aomori”, “Shinkame” from Saitama and “Zaku” from Mie, all heavyweights in the sake world. There were also a few new names, which I was eager to try. Since the sake selection changes over time, I look forward to visiting again!
For the last drink of the evening, I decided to take a gamble, and order the hidden sake, or “kakushi sake”, recommended by the restaurant owner. It turned out to be a famous sake from Gifu called simply “Born”. I had tried it before, but it hadn’t left a strong impression. However, this was a special vintage (“tokubetsu jukusei”) dry version, and it impressed me very much. I was almost sorry I had to share the “ichigo” (serving of 180ml) with my two companions. It was by far my favourite sake of the evening!
A Chat with the Chef
During the entire evening, the restaurant remained full and Tsuchida-san was kept busy behind the counter. Finally, after 9pm, he was able to take a short break and chat with us at our table. I complimented him on the excellent food as well as his taste in sake. I found out that we had one more thing in common – Tsuchida-san is an avid hiker. We talked for a while about past and future hikes, but before long he had to return to his cooking duties.
We were ready to conclude the meal, and as I reflected on what a successful evening it had been, I was reminded of the phrase that appears at the top of his website, which roughly translates as “There is a reason that a restaurant serves delicious seafood…enjoy the taste of fish bought in season directly from the Toyosu Fish Market”.
Read more about Tsuchida-san and the Toyosu Fish Market on the Tadaima Japan website:
For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes additional location details:
If you chose to visit this restaurant after reading this article, don’t hesitate to tell the staff you found out about them through the Tadaima Japan website.
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