In Tokyo, no one bats an eyelid when a restaurant saves on rent by opening in a space the size of a broom cupboard. In Beijing, we tend to prefer our restaurants less claustrophobic than our subway carriages.
But despite (or perhaps because of) its small size, Kotetsu frequently has a line of people outside the door waiting for one of the twenty-odd seats. Those that get a space seem to enjoy the everyday Japanese eats, even if they have to do so in the kind of close proximity to a stranger usually reserved for a prostate exam.
Even for its size, this tiny izakaya (Japanese drinking establishment that also serves food) is pretty well hidden. You have to go through a dull office lobby to find it – perfect for show-off types who never shut up about the new hush-hush spot they’ve ‘discovered’. Okay, we mean us.
And if you’re looking for added authenticity, here it is: the menu is almost entirely in Japanese.English and Mandarin only feature on the final page to list dishes and snacks. Still, have a drink and get involved. Kotetsu’s got a liquor cabinet stocked with plenty of Japanese booze. End your week with heady glasses of barley and sweet potato shochu for only 25RMB.
Accompany your tipple with some lunchbox-like snacks such as the spot-on cream croquettes (38RMB) – deep-fried oblongs with a thin layer of panko (a Japanese style of bread crumbs) around a thick, gooey cream centre. It’s the king of bar snacks (and the dipping dish of mayonnaise just makes it richer).
But it’s not all simple eats. Check out the complex flavour of the raw firefly squids (38RMB): marinated little creatures small enough to eat like popcorn. They may look like they could feature in a bravery challenge on some reality show, but they taste great – each bite packs a puckering sour and salty blast. Considering there’s no sushi chef in the kitchen, this is some fine seafood. That being said, the overly-oily mackerel (68RMB) was so dull it could have put us to sleep. If we didn’t have to stay alert to avoid the many, many bones, that is.
The chicken karaage (38RMB) is at the high end of fried chicken. Each ball of the boneless bird is deep-fried and heavily salted, arriving piping hot at the table. Which is more than could be said for the mashed potatoes (38RMB), which came out lukewarm. Most Japanese places serve their mash chilled, and rightly so; serving warm(ish) takes away its refreshing properties.
The understated fish bone ramen (58RMB) is classic comfort food. Perfect noodles and succulent beef share a savoury-broth bath with a soft-boiled egg. If you want the definition of a great umami taste, give this a whirl. The house standard is the bubbling motsunabe, a protein packed cauldron simmering with tofu, vegetables and cuts of beef that, on our visit, adorned nearly every table. It’s a great cold-weather choice that’ll no doubt remain popular even as the weather gets warmer. But while our kimchi version (50RMB) was nice to sip on, with its miso base and plenty of sour pickled cabbage, the overly fatty beef felt cheap – an instant turnoff. The pot also commands most of the table; a taunting reminder of a misguided order.
Kotetsu only does a few standards, but it does them with panache. It may only be a little hole in-the-wall, but there are plenty of reasons to swing by. A quick drink and some inexpensive, authentic Japanese chow – what’s not to like?
By Sean Silbert