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TOKYO (Reuters) - "Standing" bars - where customers stand to drink - are currently popular in Tokyo, but now the former chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant has taken the concept to a whole new level by serving gourmet food.
Hiroshi Shimada, who once worked at the three-starred Tokyo restaurant Azabu Yukimura, opened "Shimada" in the city's fashionable Ginza district in January, and now has diners lining up to sample dishes similar to what he used to create for customers before - at a third or less of the cost.
Shimada, 40, maintains his insistence on top ingredients. He uses a whole Ise ebi, a kind of lobster, for stock used to prepare a gelee, which is served with sea urchin in its shell.
The secret, he says, is in turnover - one reason he doesn't have any chairs in the tiny restaurant, which has space for only 14 people.
Shimada spoke with Reuters about his new venture.
Q: Why did you want to open a standing bar type of restaurant after Yukimura?
A: "Customers who would dine at Yukimura are just one or two percent of the whole population. Rather I wanted to serve the vast majority by charging less and open my own restaurant. Did I want to open a yakitori place? No. I did not want to give up what I had achieved in the past. This restaurant was a result of connecting the two dots - serving first-rate food but for much less money."
Q:How do you balance costs and profits?
A: "Our customers spend about 5,000 yen ($64) a person for food and drink, what I would charge 15,000 yen for at a proper Japanese restaurant. We do not want to charge more than that but by tripling the number of customers, we can enjoy the same amount of revenue. Also the cost for ingredients is 50 percent of the price we charge here, much higher than other first-rated restaurants. So rotation is the key. And we have to be always busy."
Q: How can you prepare so many different dishes? The menu ranges from fried matsutake, croquettes with snow crab, grilled sweetfish and then typical bar food such as potato salad and stewed beef sinew with daikon.
A: "I cook in an isolated kitchen and I have two staffers who serve customers at the counter. By being inside the kitchen I can 100 percent concentrate on cooking. When you cook at the counter, you have to think about what to show to customers and what not to show. And you have to keep the kitchen clean if customers are sitting right in front of you. That could slow down the process. Since I am in the kitchen I do not have to entertain customers. If you talk to customers, sometimes the dishes taste different from what you want... That's why I can prepare so many different kinds of dishes."
Q: Why did you choose Ginza for your restaurant?
A:"I wanted to challenge Ginza. Ginza is known for expensive bars and clubs and not known as a place for an inexpensive standing bar. That's why I chose Ginza."
Q: What is your next goal? Would you like to go back to a Michelin-starred restaurant?
A: "I do not want to cook dishes that would cost 20,000 yen a person again, rather I would like to try a restaurant that sells everything for 500 yen because I have discovered that you can make many things for that price.
"You know, I really enjoy this job. Here female college students come with friends and start chatting with company executives standing next to them. Sometimes customers who do not know each other share dishes and I can feel people are having fun while I am cooking. This is a very special atmosphere that you can only enjoy at a standing bar. I have realized that this is what I wanted to do for a long time."
Q: How would you like improve your restaurant in the future?
A: "I will not change my basic concept, which is to spend a lot of time and effort to make good dishes. And I would like to come up with a new menu all the time. I might allow customers to sit down in the future. Because I want this restaurant to last much longer - I am not just taking advantage of a standing bar boom. In 10 years time, our customers will be older and I don't know if they want keep standing while dining then. This is going to be a hard decision because for us the rotation is important."
120 grams of soba noodles
150 grams of karasumi (botarga, salt-cured mullet roe)
1 T soy sauce
1 T mirin (sweet cooking sake)
1 T sake
1 t white sesame oil (Taihaku sesame oil is best)
Boil soba until tender; drain.
Put soba in the mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sake. Add sesame oil and marinate.
Grate the karasumi on top of the soba until the noodles are completely hidden. ($1 = 78.3150 Japanese yen)
(This story is corrected to add dropped word in nineth paragraph)
Reporting by Junko Fujita