Charcoal Grill Anko: Beautiful food comes in small, cramped packages

Charcoal Grill Anko: Beautiful food comes in small, cramped packages

Seasonal dishes and sake get top billing at this intimate izakaya in Ebisu
torinuku tsukune chicken meatballs
Chopped bamboo shoots add the flavor of spring to torinuku tsukune chicken meatballs.

Charcoal Grill Anko takes the local hole-in-the-wall concept and dresses it up with modern Japanese style and flair. The interior is smart and simple, with a counter around the open grill in the center of the restaurant, and tables stuffed into every corner. The place seats 40, but it really shouldn’t. The tight seating arrangements mean that you’re likely to get up close and personal with your fellow diners. While the friendly interaction contributes to an atmosphere of conviviality, for those squeezed together on the slim banquette against the wall, it does little to diminish the feeling of being trapped in the middle seat on an airplane.

The quality of the food, however, makes up for the somewhat cramped conditions. Great emphasis is given to seasonality. On a recent evening, an assortment of small appetizers made with sansai mountain vegetables -- a zesty paste of miso mixed with fuki butterbur, soy-simmered sticks of gobo burdock root and wasabi leaves steeped in dashi kelp broth -- displayed the mildly bitter palate of spring. Bits of chopped takenoko fresh bamboo shoots gave the chicken meatballs a pleasantly chunky texture. Glossy garnet-hued slices of raw bonito sashimi were served with slivers of fried garlic, grated ginger and scallions, and chubby salt-grilled ayu sweetfish came with a vivid green dipping sauce of herb-infused vinegar.

Grilled ayu sweetfish, served with a tart, green dipping sauce.

Like the food menu, the sake list changes almost daily and reflects a seasonal sensibility. Selections are listed on a blackboard and feature limited edition brews such as Gunma Izumi Hatsu Shibori and Tenmei Hon-nama -- both newly released shinshu spring sakes. At any given time, there are several unpasteurized sakes from great producers like Sougen from Ishikawa prefecture or Yorokobigaijin from Kagawa.

Seasonal sakes are available from ¥500.

The prices are as friendly as the atmosphere. At around ¥4,000 per person for dinner, you can afford to come back every time they change the menu.

Charcoal Grill Anko: Ebisu 4-4-8, Shibuya-ku; tel: +81 (3) 5789 9930

Hi, I'm Melinda Joe. Originally from Louisiana, I'd only planned to stay in Japan for a year when I fell in love with Japanese food and sake. The rest, as they say, is history.
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