by Ai Uchida
Fugu is the Kobe beef of the sea: impressive
and often expensive, it is the epitome of fine Japanese cuisine.
But while we all love Kobe beef, how many of us have actually
been to and enjoyed dining at a fugu restaurant? The high
price tag and questionable reputation of the blowfish ("isn't
it deadly poisonous?") have been barriers for both
Japanese and foreigners. Luckily for the adventurous eaters
as well as classy diners of Tokyo, newly opened Kuromonto
in Minami Aoyama is setting a new standard in fugu fare, without
necessarily costing a fortune.
On a rainy Thursday evening, we followed glowing lanterns
to a three-level house, where two smartly dressed women enthusiastically
greeted us upon entering. Before being led upstairs to our
table, we glanced apprehensively around the empty first floor,
featuring an open kitchen with limited counter seating and
square tables placed inches away from each other. To our relief,
the second floor bustled with activity, glowing in the warm
and modern Japanese wooden interior. Lively chatter of businessmen
filled the floor, but the semi-private dining compartments
and the strategically placed screens gently filtered out face-to-face
encounters with the other diners.
Leafing through the menu, we found detailed
English instructions on how to enjoy the blowfish. Strongly
recommended was hot hirezake (¥1,000), a mild sake uniquely
enhanced by the earthy fragrance and flavor of grilled fugu
fins. In addition to the a la carte menu, Kuromonto offers
several courses (¥6,500-¥12,000) to satisfy the
palate and the wallet, each course offering the same basic
navigation with varying degrees of embellishment. Two amber
slices of nikogori (jellied collagen from the fugu skin) started
off our most inexpensive course: supple and slightly sweet,
they melted in our mouths. Full-flavored herring and taro
potatoes, simmered in soy sauce and mirin, arrived next, making
way for the much-anticipated fugu sashimi. Also called tessa,
the paper-thin delicacy was arranged traditionally to resemble
chrysanthemum petals, and had a tender, poultry-like texture.
With a squeeze of fresh sudachi citrus, Japanese chives wrapped
into each slice, and the preferred condiment of fine sea salt
(the ponzu sauce being too pungent), the tessa was fugu at
Regardless of the fully occupied floor, our servers were melodically
and unobtrusively orchestrating our meal, gauging correctly
the pauses between each dish. The latter half of our dinner
began with fugu no karaage (deep-fried fugu) and because the
blowfish contains almost no fat, we eagerly welcomed this
pleasantly adipose interpretation. Meaty pieces of fugu and
vegetables were simmered in a shining copper pot for the grand
finale of fugu chiri nabe (hot pot of fugu), the gentle broth
soothing our evening to a close. With seasonal delicacies
shirako (fugu milt, ¥1,000-¥2,200) and Beaujolais
(¥800/glass) available in December, even the few remaining
weeks of 2003 may find us back at the festive Kuromonto.
2-13-18 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku.
Tel: 03-5770-3221. Open daily noon-2pm, 5-11pm. Nearest stn:
Gaienmae (behind the Cassina furniture store on Aoyama Dori).