Usaya (Izakaya), Shimokitazawa

First of all, sorry for the late update...Today's feature is "Usaya", a very cute looking restaurant that looks like it's going to crumble anytime, as does the surrounding near-to-collapse neighborhood.

The cute upgrade shack-like "Usaya"

The izakaya (food serving Japanese-style pub) "Usaya" uses the premises of an old 1923 candy store of the same name, located in the "Kita-Guchi-EkiMae-Ichiba", the North Exit Market. This old market, whose businesses are slowly but surely closing one by one, is also dubbed "Yamiichi" (Black Market) as it used to be, with the still immensely popular American Market "Ameyoko" in Ueno, one of the main locations in Tokyo to go buy stuff more or less illegally obtained from the American bases in Japan.

how to get to Usaya from the station North Exit

Though it is very tiny in size compared to Ameyoko, Yamiichi still has that corrugated iron feel as well as some strange odors (mostly of cat piss...) peculiar to Asian markets and you should absolutely go visit it when in Shimokitazawa. Unfortunately, almost all the shops are closed so don't go there thinking you'll find some butchers, grocers or fishmongers frantically at work. There still are quite some Kodak moments worth the walk, not to mention the pleasure of feeling like you've lost yourself in a little movie set.
There also have been talks for years of destroying the slum-like market, so hurry up before the Setagaya ward decides to flatten the place once for all.

The big surprise at "Usaya" is that THERE IS NO FOOD MENU... "We don't have any menu" was the response of the smily lady when we naturally asked for it. Wow, Ok...We must have looked like deers in the headlight, so she quickly began to explain to us that we should just tell her

1) what is our budget
2) whether we are hungry or just want few things to munch on with some booze
3) if we are hungry, how many dishes we'd want
4) anything we wouldn't want in the recipes

Not knowing whether the place was expensive, there was not much we could say, but we decided to go for "give us three dishes and we'll take it from there"

The first thing that was brought to us was the classic summer appetizer boiled soybean "Edamame" to munch on with our Asahi draughts. Do you see the hairs on the beans? That's usually a good sign that the beans have been picked by hands and not with big machines, which prevents the vegetables from being hurt during the harvesting process, thus keeping it fresh.

What was nice during the whole dinner was the surprise factor. Not knowing what's coming to you is actually quite some fun.
The first main was a fresh and delicately seasoned Katsuo No Tataki Salada (lightly broiled Bonito Salad). As you can see, it was charmingly presented, with a real attention to not only the taste, but the colors involved. Japanese put a special emphasis on trying to make in the summer a cuisine that is cool and refreshing to the palate and to the eyes, and this recipe was a success in that regards. The simple but tasty sauce seemed like a mix of sesame and olive oil plus a hint sour ingredient that I couldn't recognize. The red pepper, the asparagus, the green beans, the zucchinis, the red cabbage and the surprisingly-not-bitter bitter gourd Goya were very nicely boiled, offering nice textures and aromas to go through.
The fish was well cooked and not smelly at all, which combined very well with the overall light dressing.

Next came the Yasai To Ebi No Itamemono (stirred vegetables and prawn), in a pretty red-lacquered antique plate. The ingredients were quickly oil-fried (Su-Age) before being stirred in Oyster sauce. Good stuff. The Indochinese-meets-Japanese recipe contained big chunks of delicately sheared eggplants, asparagus, yellow pepper, carrots, haricot verts and medium-sized prawns. Simple but effective. We loved it.

The "oh my god no menu and no price!?" scare to the "hey, this place is actually really nice!" happy surprise reached almost the summit with the third dish, another summer classic, the Inaniwa Udon (Udon inaniwa style). The Inaniwa Udon is a recipe from the southern part of the Akita prefecture in Northern Japan. The flat-shaped wholewheat noodles are smaller than regular Udon and are usually served cold, to be dipped in Tsuyu (a mix of dashi, mirin and shoyu) sauce. There are condiments on the side, often grated ginger, thinly chopped dry seaweed Nori and chopped leek, which you can add to your likings. Below is my little bowl of noodles floating in the Tsuyu broth with everything topped. The main bowl of noodles in iced-cold water from which you help yourself is not on the picture, but I can assure you that it was big. Probably enough portions for three in an expensive restaurant.
Though the noodles could have had more firmness or "Koshi", it still was a very refreshing dish. The perfect closer.

The steadily climbing level of satisfaction reached its pinacle when we asked for the check. With the appetizers, the three well-cooked dishes, two beers and a glass of Masamune sake, we were charged ¥4,100! It's not jaw-dropping cheap, but the atmosphere was excellent (Try to go during the summer so to enjoy the tables outside), the service impecable and the food good, so...ABSLOUTELY no complains!
You might be lost when ordering, but if you want three dishes (which was enough food as they bring everything as slowly as a classy French restaurant), just say "ORYORI MITTSU ONEGAI SHIMASU". Good luck!

The place is at just over a minute walk from the station. Please refer to the video above for directions. It's easy!

Usaya is closed on Sundays and open the rest of the week for dinner from 18:00pm to 01:00am

080-3158-4613 (that's a cell phone number so the phone bill will be slightly more expensive than a fixed line call...)
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-24-14
Click here for a MAP