It was almost midnight when I left Izakaya Den. I muscled my way out the big, unmarked front doors, turned to face a bracing, cold breeze whipping down the street and staggered just a little. I shook my head to clear away the cotton, patted down my pockets for a cigarette, came up with one wrinkled Marlboro and lit it with a stick match from a rattling box with the beautiful, untranslated Japanese logo of Izakaya Den stamped on the cover in red like cartoon blood. The cold and that first hard, harsh drag — both did wonders for my head. And when I turned back to look one more time into the restaurant's warm, dark interior, it already seemed somehow smaller, less engulfing, less overwhelming. I felt like I was waking from half a dream, from some fantasy of perfect fish and bubbly Japanese beer and cuisine unlike any cuisine anywhere to the hard, dark coldness of reality, escaping something that I hadn't really wanted to escape.
There are stories, popular especially among my drunken Mick forebears, of nights like this. They generally start with some poor but wily Irish fellow wandering alone (and maybe with ten or twelve pints in him) across the cold and windy fields of the old country, always on a dark and cloud-scudded night. And there always comes a point when the poor but wily Irish fellow, tired of walking and chilled to the bone, decides to stop for a moment. Inevitably, just on the edge of sleep, he'll suddenly hear pipes somewhere in the distance. He'll smell meat roasting, hear the chatter of raised, laughing voices, perhaps the hollow boom of a keg being tapped. Never being one to miss out on a good party, he'll go investigate — following the sounds and smells of merriment to a rock pile, unmarked door or hidden glade whereupon he will discover a fairy hooly, a cacophony of little people (leprechauns, not midgets) or some other unlikely gathering of mythological folk all getting plastered, dancing around and having a great time. Cut to morning. The sun is dawning, the dew is sparkling on the grass, and there's our Irishman — naked, bruised, stinking of beer and elf pussy if he's lucky — left with only faint memories of partying with the wee folk. But all delicious memories.
That's how I felt leaving Izakaya Den. I'd been there for hours. I was sloshing with Sapporo, full of fish and Spanish ham, rendered stupid by sensation. At my back, the party continued without me, while before me lay only a long, cold walk to the car. True, I wasn't naked. But my impressions of the night were jagged — a box of broken glass and flatware, vigorously shaken. I simply couldn't believe Izakaya Den had been as good as it was — so strange, so disjointed, so loud and crowded and buzzing with electric joy, surprise, hedonistic fish-eating pleasure and Japanese pop music.
I'd walked into the stunning room — dimly lit, with huge beams in the ceiling made from imported Japanese cedar, set and carved by Japanese craftsmen to get the proper rough-and-rustic look — around eight, twining my way through a milling, pre-this and post-that crowd, following the pretty, waifish hostess who'd insisted I sit at the bar even after I'd asked for one of the banquette tables along the wall. "Bar is more fun," she'd said, dismissing my request — appraising me, apparently, as a guy in need of some fun. "More interactive. More action."
And she'd been right, of course. One of the things I've learned over years of eating at Sushi Den (Izakaya's sister restaurant, across the street) is that Toshi and Yasu Kizaki only hire and train people for the floor who are always right. Eat this fish, not that fish. Eat this much, not that much. Sit here, please, because it will be better for you. You ignore your server there at your own peril — and Izakaya continues the tradition.
At the sushi bar, I was surrounded by revelers, celebrating everything. In singles and deuces, parties of four, of six, of more, they ate and laughed and threw their hands up in the air for more beer, more sake, more food — always more food. The traffic was intense at an hour when most restaurants are cooling down for the long, slow glide into closing. The cooks (five of them behind the bar, backed by who knows how many more working under the titanium glare of white light in the actual kitchen in the back) wore belted kimono chef coats in dark blue with bandanas tied around their heads. They looked like grumpy extras in a Quentin Tarantino chop-socky epic, an open kitchen lost in its own groove, its own jive. "Dropping kombucha chicken on two," said one. "Kobe, watermelon, and where are my mussels, man?"