Did you know that the hectic Shimokitazawa and the surrounding area was covered with tea plantations until only about a century ago? As incredible as it is, Shimokitazawa seems to have been a moderate player in tea production (for the Edo market) until the completion of the Tokaido railway made the transportation of better and more renowned tea from Uji (near Kyoto) easier at the end of the 19th century.
Today's post is about the green tea room "Shimokita Chaen Ooyama", which is far from being your average tea room: the two resident tea "sommeliers" both rank at 10 dan (a dan is a Japanese rank system used in martial arts and fine arts) which is to my limited knowledge, the highest level you can attain in the art of judging teas. For your reference, there are only four 10 dan "sommeliers" in Japan and two of them (they're brothers by the way) work in this place...
The ground floor is a tea shop, from where sometimes comes a pungent smell of roasted green tea, and they have a "tea room" on the second floor which gets flooded in the summer with customers wanting to cool out on the house-specialty Maccha (green powdered tea) or Hojicha (roasted green tea) flavored shaved ice. The tea room, which you think might look traditional, is actually rather plain looking, making the incredible display of dozens of golden trophies won at tea contests sort of odd.
Until we get to try their famed shaved ice next summer, my wife and I settled for their Maccha Zenzai. A winter favorite dish "Zenzai" is a warm and sweetened red bean soup topped with boiled or grilled Mochi rice cake.
We were first offered a cup of very rich in flavor Hoji-Cha, which we slowly enjoyed before being brought the main dish. You will be amazed by the inspiring roast aroma of this tea.
The Maccha Zenzai at this tea-room consists of said red bean soup, a small quantity of thinly watered Maccha and some salty snack Ume-Kombu (salty plum flavored kelp)
The red bean soup is surprisingly low in sugar, allowing a better tasting of the delicately cooked Azuki beans. Zenzai sometimes comes in an almost puree form, but here at OoyamaChaen, the beans are simmered to perfection, thus letting you easily pick each bean with your chopsticks and really enjoy their texture and taste. The grilled mochi cakes are how you expect them to be: crunchy on the outside and glutinous inside.
The watered Maccha is served as a topping, so you can change the taste of your soup to your liking. The almost neon-like vibrant green and the dark azuki red combines perfectly, so the visual result of the topping is also worth it. Maccha essentially being just powered green tea (thus quite biter at times), I thought adding it on top of the dish would pretty much alter the taste of the dessert, but it happened to blend really nicely. Slightly surprised by this outcome, I tasted the green liquid separately with the tip of my fingers: the maccha in this tea room is very delicate in taste, leaving only a subtle bitter aroma of green tea in your mouth.
Japan has an interesting custom of mixing sweet and salty, from adding salt on watermelon to eating sweet rice cake covered with a pickled sakura leaf (Sakura-Mochi), and the Zenzai dish is the perfect example: you will find a lot of places offering you the Konbu salty snack with the sweet soup and Ooyama-Chaen is one of them.
Their really good Ume-Kombu is covered with a very delicate Ume (dried salty plum) powder, but you may find the kelp a little "difficult" to eat if you're not used to it. It is a little bit of an acquired taste, and some people have a problem with its 磯の香り (Iso no kaori, literally "Smell of the ocea"). I strongly suggest you try theirs though, as it's a great one.
They also served us during the course of the meal a cup of nice green tea Guri-Cha (“Guricha or Guri-tea” is named from its shape similar to “guri” which represents the pattern of elaborately-coated red lacquer ware, or the whirlpool-like arabesque design. The official name of the product is steamed rounded green tea. (taken from this website)), so the slightly high price of ¥800 for the whole thing is to my opinion pretty much justified (I am not sure they always serve those different cups of tea though).
Be sure to always check their website as the menu changes according to the season (the Zenzai is served until the end of February so hurry up!) and they are often closed due to tea-harvesting. Looks like everyone is gone the whole months of April and May!!!
The caracter 休 means "off" so now you know how to look at their calendar.
Shimokitazawa Chaen is closed on Mondays, harvesting seasons and national holidays (make sure to check their website!)
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa2-30-2 2F
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