It’s sad when an outstanding restaurant closes its doors. Such is the case of Aoyama Maru, one of our favorite Tokyo eateries for relaxed yet high quality dining that combines contemporary twists with traditional kaiseki or haute cuisine concepts, at remarkably reasonable prices.
After 15 years in its warm, stylish basement premises off Aoyama Dori, Maru is closing due to building renovation. Owner and executive chef, Keiji Mori says he plans to reopen next year in a new location. But for now, Mori-san has more than enough on his plate, having launched Ginza Maru in late 2013, in an understated yet elegant second-floor premises just behind Ginza Six shopping complex, and in late 2018, Maru Bengara, in the slick new Shibuya Stream building, on the south side of Shibuya station facing Meiji Dori.
With its grey stone, light wood and red-trimmed décor and individual table seating, Maru Bengara has a slightly edgier, more minimalist feel than either Ginza Maru, which features a long wooden counter in a Kyoto-style wood, stone and shoji screen interior, or the Aoyama flagship with its warm wood interior. But there is the same trademark thoughtfulness, not only in the delicious food but also in the interior design, menus and quality tableware.
The specialty at Bengara, like Ginza Maru, is beautifully cooked donabe gohan, or claypot rice, which can be served with a range of side items such as ikura, or marinated salmon roe, Kyo-chirimen, tiny dried anchovies with sansho pepper, and crunchy pickles.
There is a wide range of good regional sake as well as a small but well-chosen wine list. In the evening, both restaurants offer excellent tasting courses from about Y5,500 upward that are great value and feature an array of dishes – including sashimi, stewed and grilled meat and fish, vegetable dishes and donabe gohan and pungent, Kyoto-style miso soup.
The high standards of the food, service and interiors at both restaurants owe much to Mori-san’s years of training in a leading ryotei, or kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto.
But perhaps reflecting his interest in blending traditional Japanese concepts with global food trends, Bengara takes a more casual approach than its Ginza sister, with an à la carte menu of grilled meats, poultry and fish as well as salads and tempura, including superbly simple grilled fish such as saba (mackerel) or gindara (black cod) marinated in Kyoto miso.
Heartier offerings include free-range Satsuma chicken with salt and yuzu pepper (a Maru trademark dish); Yamayuri pork preserved in soy sauce and rice malt; and a tender, Miyazaki salt-grilled wagyu steak.
Vegetable dishes include deep-fried tofu and simmered bamboo shoots; a colorful organic vegetable salad with a flavorful honeyed vinaigrette; and an intriguing combination of strawberries and mashed edamame (soybeans), with white tofu cream. Most dishes range roughly between Y800 to Y1,800.
There is a supplementary menu featuring daily specials of sashimi, always fresh and expertly presented; claypot rice with different toppings and, more recently, a broad range of seasonal dishes.
On a recent visit we had perfectly char-grilled white and green asparagus with a piquant yuzu-chili pepper and a donabe gohan topped with ikura (marinated roe) and snow crab.
Lunch at either Maru is one of the best dining deals in Tokyo – ranging from about Y1,050 at Maru Ginza and ￥1,250 at Maru Bengara.
Both offer choices including a variety of grilled fish, for example, salmon marinated in koji miso, and the ever-popular kakuni-buta, or slow-cooked pork belly, as well as a seasonal side dish, bowl of rice, and miso soup. At Bengara there is also a special bento, (boxed lunch) of beautifully arranged morsels.
Like its sister restaurant, the staff at Maru Bengara are friendly and professional and the chefs are young and creative. The added plus is its location, straight up from one of Shibuya’s many subway exits — a stone’s throw away from the clamor of one of Tokyo’s most frenzied entertainment and shopping districts. Even when it’s bustling on a weekend, Maru Bengara echoes the high standards set by its Ginza and Aoyama siblings as a haven of attentive service where guests can expect delicious food in a relaxed atmosphere.
Maru Bengara and Ginza Maru – http://www.maru-mayfont.jp/en/concept/
Maru Bengara: 3F Shibuya STREAM, 3-21-3, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; phone: 03-6427-7700
Ginza Maru: 2nd floor, Ichigo Ginza 612 Bulding, 6-12-15, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; phone 03-5537-7420