The first thing that strikes you on descending the staircase to Akasaka Toda, tucked down a vibrant sidestreet in the entertainment and business district of Akasaka, is a feeling of comfort.
The soft lamp light and the understated entrance live up to the restaurant’s simple but well appointed premises, spread over a series of koshitsu, or private rooms, with tables seating from 4 people up to larger groups of 10 or more.
Shigenao Toda is a low-key chef and now restaurateur who trained in Italian cuisine but moved fully into Japanese food after a change of heart following the devastating tsunami and earthquake that struck northeastern Japan in 2011.
“I thought, instead of promoting foreign cuisines and ideas, I wanted to do something to help Japan – using local ingredients for washoku (traditional Japanese food) ranging over a variety of dishes from full courses to a la carte…”
Indeed, what he has created at Toda is a restaurant that is many things to many people, from reasonably priced but full course menus ranging from Y5,000 to Y9,000, to individual, home-style dishes, such as seafood salad for Y900 and an assortment of sashimi that can be had for as little as Y1000.
There is also excellent soba – buckwheat — noodles, sourced from Nagano, and fine inaniwa udon, wheat noodles, and a thoughtful selection of sake and wines.
Toda-san himself speaks excellent English and Italian, which signals his international experience and his interest in all kinds of cuisine.
His great love now, however, is the food of his native country. His interest is reflected in the quality of ingredients and a certain playful approach to some dishes. On a recent night our hassun (mixed appetizer dish) included two bright green soramame beans (broad beans) that came to life with comical expressions through little “eyes” made with black sesame seeds, and a small slice of ‘watermelon,’ made with a baby sliced uri, or gourd, filled with tomato jam and garnished with sesame seeds as the watermelon seeds.
Other offerings displayed some twists of creativity in traditional dishes such as grilled ayu (sweet fish), curled around a stuffing of scrambled egg and mushrooms, accompanied by taro stem and mustard miso.
Toda san is also a charming and attentive host, attending tables, making expert recommendations on wines and sakes, and having a chat here and there with guests. He readily accommodates special requests, modifying courses to substitute a fish dish for seafood or a salad for a deep-fried dish.
An evening at Toda is really as much about having a relaxing night out as it is about food. For the man behind it, the restaurant is about promoting his country as much as welcoming guests, no matter what their budget or tastes. Toda-san certainly does that through his efforts to spread the word about washoku to his customers.