Umami Mart Barware
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For the past few years, I've been hoping to get into an Oreno restaurant in Tokyo. Established in 2011, their mission is two-fold:
1. Serve dishes prepared by Michelin-starred class chef, at one-third the price you would pay in a high-end restaurant;
2. Food costs make up 60% of expenses. To make up for the high food costs, all of their restaurants have high bar style seats to shoot for three turns during dinner.

The whole brand felt a little gimmicky, but I was even more curious when I tried to reserve a seat last year and couldn't get in. Nothing makes you want something more when you can't get it. Kayoko and I are staying in Akasaka Mitsuke in Tokyo this visit, and there are two Oreno restaurants in front of our hotel.

I immediately made a reservation for "Oreno Dashi" at 7 p.m. which specializes in oden and soba (Kayoko and my favorites, respectively). Oden made by Michelin class chefs?! Only in Tokyo.

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I definitely noticed the low prices for dishes right off the bat that tasted especially clean and fresh with thoughtful presentations. It seems like a challenging business model, but they seem to make it work with enough people loitering and waiting in front of the eatery (especially around Oreno Italian a few doors down -- the line there never died down).

They have photos of the maitre d' and chefs in the front of the restaurant.

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This is the menu for the soba. Soba for 500JPY (approx $4.50)!

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I started with a cup of barley shochu.

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Then the food started to arrive.

Karasumi and radish. Stick to your teeth slices of pure umami from Mie Prefecture.

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Wakasagi (Japanese smelt) that were fluffy and tender. They tasted so fresh and clean, almost as if they swam into out of a lake and straight into our mouths.

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Unfortunately, the chef working in front of us who gave this to us wasn't very friendly and he didn't give us much of answer when we asked us what this was:

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I think it might have been slices of kanpachi marinated in some kind of miso or guts, like shiokara. Sake please!

All the chefs work along the open bar.

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Various knives.

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We got a big jako (boiled and then fried baby sardines) salad. It's rare to indulge in such a big bowl of salad in Japan.

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Someone else's oden moriawase.

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The steamed hamaguri clams were also very clean like the wakasagi. The dashi was clear and multilayered in taste.

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They cleverly called this the "tsu-fu oden" meaning gout oden.

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This was a steamed dish, simmering as it touched down in front of us, full of shirako (milt, the male genitalia of fish when they contain sperm), ankimo (monkfish liver) and karasumi (mullet roe) all at the height of their glory in the winter. This bowl of cholesterol lived up to its name and was worth every bite. Creamy, rich and accented by fresh spinach, this was very decadent for a Monday night (at least it was a national holiday though!).

Notice the time, we'd been there for an hour and a half and we only about half way done. Their business model would not work if we frequented this restaurant. We were ready to camp out all night.

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Onto the oden!

We ordered the tsukune. These big balls of ground chicken included some crunchy elements (perhaps lotus root or water chestnuts), shiitake and other umamiful foods. They were very tender and had to be handled gently with chopsticks.

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We moved onto the daikon with some delicate tororo konbu, a slimy seaweed on top.

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Then came the fluffy hanpen (fish cake made with egg whites).

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And then we got this huge plate of fresh soba ($4.50). Each strand was chewy and firm. I liked this original style of soba, but could not imagine having this every day (like some other lighter styles of soba). I think that I'll probably think about it and crave it at times though.

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They also gave us some soba dipping sauce with rayu (chili oil) in it. It was pretty salty but good alongside our sake.

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I hadn't had any desserts since landing in Tokyo, so I was delighted to see a few dessert options. I went for the strawberry creme brulee. A very hard, tile-like shell had to be broken to get into the lightly sweetened pudding with strawberries and bananas.

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I ate all of it while Kayoko worked on her dessert (the hanpen).

We ended up spending three hours at Oreno Dashi, ate a full course with drinks and it added up to around $50 per person. Considering the quality of the food, I think they delivered on their mission -- offering Michelin quality food at a reasonable price. The compromise is that you get casual (but not bad) service and bar seats. I'll take it!

ORENO DASHI
3-10-5 Akasaka
1F Akasaka Kuin Bldg
Minato 107-0052
Tokyo
T: +81 3-6441-2902