On this sultry Monday evening in July, we have teetered down a most precarious spiral staircase into a basement izakaya for an early dinner. It’s 6pm at the beginning of the workweek and we are the first people to have trickled in. They serve island food – Hachijo Island, to be exact – but it’s hard to shake off the knowledge that one is in the heart of a concrete jungle. It might be the underground heat enveloping us from the feet up, the noticeable lack of air-conditioning when we first arrive, the fact that the owners are just as languid in in the way they shuffle to and fro from our table, drifting away mid-order to answer the phone.
We order from a handwritten menu: ashitaba tempura, agedashi tofu, the chef’s salad, Hachijo Island sushi. All of it is pretty good, though I keep thinking this would taste better under the stars by the sea, with the wind in our hair. Wishful thinking.
The true star of the night is a deceptively simple-sounding kaki bataa – buttered oysters – pan-fried oysters drenched in a sauce of oyster juices, shoyu, sake and a fuckton of butter. It is as it sounds and so much more. Unlike most Japanese sauces of this ilk, it is not sweet with mirin or sugar. ‘Sultry’ applies to more than just heat; the nutty overtones of this buttery sauce are utterly seductive. If oyster caramels existed this is what they’d taste like, the oysters having released their juices into the sauce and soaking it right back up with butter and salt.
Once we’re finished with the oysters I call for a bowl of steaming white rice, and mix this in with the remaining sauce: why waste? It’s buttered rice but with an ocean punch that’s a million times more delicious. For a moment, I can believe I’m by the sea, under the stars.