Hutong Sihefang - Chinese
Address - 21-1 Kitamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours - Open for lunch and dinner 7 days/week, closed only for some New Year's holidays
Telephone - 03-3269-3900
Menu - In Chinese, Japanese and English
Credit Cards - OK
I have always had an ambivalent attitude with Chinese food. My relationship with it has been spoiled by the hyperinflation of lousy imitations, the comparative rarity of truly interesting menus and all those cheap American-style take-out boxes. Two trips to China, where people spit both chicken bones and phlegm directly on the floor, didn't help much, and as a result I usually eat anything but Chinese.
This restaurant was a great occasion to renew my acquaintance with the stuff. It surely deflated the myth I used to believe in that Chinese cooking is always greasy.
Hutong Shihefang is a restaurant belonging to the same group which owns the Benitora Chinese restaurant chain, but it's of a very different breed: it's expensive, excellent and, unlike most other Asian restaurants, elegantly simple and feels slightly forbidding. Just imagine the atmosphere of a classy French restaurant.
The appetizers, cold meats and vegetables, looked and tasted magnificently simple, and in this sense quite Japanese. The main dish, the one all of us were looking forward to, was the three legged duck Claus tells us about, and I must say I was disappointed. Not that the cook's skills left anything to be desired: the bird looked great and, lo and behold, once it had been taken apart on the main plate there were indeed three drumsticks, but I just thought this legendary dish in the end tasted simply like roasted duck.
In conclusion, Shifang is a rare chance to eat in China, but on China. It won't come cheap, but you won't regret your money.
Review by Claus P. Regge
Now, a Chinese dinner is definitely not meant for a lone diner. With the great variety of dishes available at most Chinese places, you want to sample at least three or four, and the lone eater would quickly be sated if not overwhelmed by the quantity. So, true to my other belief, I got three young ladies to join me for Peking Duck at Hutong in Ushigome.
Hutong Sihefang, its full name, was a chance discovery. One afternoon last summer after a business meeting in the area, I was ambling aimlessly around Ushigome Kitamachi when suddenly I noticed a large establishment with a very Chinese sounding name advertising Peking Duck. That being one of my all-time favorites, I would have walked right in, but it was around 4 o'clock and they wouldn't be open for another hour or so. I managed to jot down their phone number, however.
Peking (or rather "Beijing") Duck is a funny bird and the cause of much confusion. Most places in Japan that offer it serve only the crisply baked skin. Asking what happens to the meat just gets you a funny look and some escapist answer, which is why I had concluded that the cooks must eat it themselves. (There are a few exceptions, however; "Agurao" near Shinjuku 3-chome supposedly serves the whole bird, and at "Zuien Bekkan" in Shinjuku Gyoenmae you get a choice between portions of just skin or meat, and you can of course order both.)
About five years ago I found myself in Beijing on an unusual assignment. On behalf of a German company in the automotive field, I was supposed to find and then inspect and evaluate manufacturers of some very specialized hydraulic equipment. One of my sources of information was Dr. Wang, a professor of hydraulic engineering at a local university. Wanting to show my gratitude, I asked him about his favorite food -- Beijing duck --, tracked down a restaurant famous for this dish, and he, my Chinese female assistant and myself went to dinner there one rainy summer night. Having chosen a tasty-looking bird (they were lined up in a showcase for customers to choose from) and nibbling on some hors d'oeuvres while waiting for the duck to be grilled, I was treated to an erudite lecture on the physics of duck roasting and the hydraulics of bird flight. I must confess, however, that I remember more about that meal than of the lecture. The whole bird was served and expertly skinned and sliced at the table, the skin was delighfully crisp (but not tough) and aromatic, and the meat had retained its natural flavors. A perfect dinner not even spoiled by the rain that had developed into a torrent and forced us to wait an extra half hour for a taxi at the end.
Hutong Sihefang offers almost the same high standards. Although you cannot choose the actual duck you will be eating, you get a choice between "skin only" (which they call "Peking style" for reasons unknown to me) or "meat and skin," here called "Canton style." Both categories cost the same, from Yen 2,800 for a plateful to 6,800 for a whole medium-sized bird. For a larger party, you can also put in an advance order for a large bird.
When, after we had finished our mixed appetizers (Yen 1000/person), the bird arrived, it was accompanied by a cook who sliced it at the table, but leaving the skin on the slices of meat and on the legs which were left intact. Naturally, it was served with the obligatory crepe-like wrappers and thinly sliced leek and some leafy vegetable, together with the thick semi-sweet sauce that you can spread one the meat. My advice is to try it with and without the sauce to see which you prefer, but also try a slice or two of meat unadorned, without veggies or wrapper.
The meat, although a substantial portion, was gone quickly. The menu also lists an offer to prepare a soup from the leftovers of the duck, for Yen 1,200, so we ordered that. Again, excellent in taste and texture, not too thin as Chinese soups tend to be, and not too salty, either. And it came with a surprise; not only were there some thick slices of meat in the soup (although we hadn't left any), but also a pair of legs. We must have been served the only four-legged duck that ever existed. Was it the chef's generosity? Or ultra-advanced genetic engineering? Or a miracle? Whatever, we didn't complain.
Hutong Sihefang (which means "the allies' long house") also has a full range of other Chinese dishes on its multi-page menu, including several kinds of "hot pot," China's tastier answer to Japanese "nabemono." So even if Beijing duck is not your thing, you'll find something, and I would expect it to be good. We had only enough space left for some desserts which, the girls desclared, were so succulent that they ordered a second round. The total bill, including about five or six beers for me and lots of soft drinks for the girls, came to a little under Yen 22,000, or 5,500 a head. Very reasonable by Tokyo standards.
Service is quick, friendly but sometimes a little absent-minded. The place, occupying two floors, is large and airy, you won't feel cramped in any way. If you decide to go and need a partner, just invite me along.
Nearest stations : Ushigome-Kagurazaka on Oedo Subway line (take exit A1), Kagurazaka on Tozai Line (take Yarai-cho exit)