Depachika, the amazing epicurean basement food halls of department stores have small eat-in counters. These are perfect for solo diners or for customers with limited time. This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine and highlights some of the best dining options in depachika.
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/648/localflavors.asp (text follows)
We all have our fantasies, and mine involves food. So going down into a depachika to take in all the sights, sounds and smells is, for me, a natural high.
“Depachika” is a mix of two Japanese words: depa comes from department store and chika means basement, where the food halls are traditionally located. The basements also often have direct access to major train stations, from where more than 2.5 million people commute in and out of the city every day—and that’s a lot of potential customers. Depachika are almost always packed with finicky consumers choosing from among the best food in the world, from outlets of famous shops from Paris, Milan, London, New York and all over Japan.
My fantasy became reality when I worked as the sommelier in the wine department at Takashimaya’s flagship store in Nihonbashi for two years. Exploring the store, meeting vendors from around the country and, best of all, trying all the food—it was a grand time and I’m still fascinated with these glorious floors of food. Here is a selection of the best that Tokyo’s depachika have to offer.
• For satisfying “fast food,” squeeze into a seat at San Marco Curry House (Tobu Ikebukuro and Odakyu Shinjuku, among other locations). The current wadai (hot) menu item is Iberico pork curry. Iberico pork is the Kobe beef of Spain and is in high demand in Japan. It’s most often seen as Jamon Iberico, or cured. The pork that’s used in the curry is the uncured kind, thin slices with a thick layer of fat. The dark color like Mississippi mud comes from squid ink, which softens the curry, creating a rich and intense dish.
• Tobu department store in Ikebukuro is the Konishiki of depachika. With well over 200 stalls, it always leaves me with my head spinning. Start off with some sake or wine at the Raku bar located in the liquor shop and follow-up with some hitoguchi (bite-size) gyoza from the Osaka-based shop Yamu Yamu Sai Sai.
• At Takashimaya (both in Nihonbashi and in Shinjuku), try Peck’s panini laced with Italian cured meats, or visit a branch of Maison Kayser (Matsuya in Ginza, Isetan in Shinjuku, Daimaru at Tokyo station and Takashimaya Nihonbashi) for its tempting sandwiches. Try pairing them with a salad from the RF1 health food store, which has outlets at most good department stores.
• For a taste of Japan, consider the eat-in counters at Maisen for tonkatsu or Tsunahachi for tempura, located next to each other in Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku. With either the breaded, deep-fried pork tonkatsu, or the tempura fried in sesame oil, it’s hard to go wrong.
• Don’t leave a depachika without stopping at the fruit stalls. The same shops that sell outrageously priced melons also have freshly squeezed juices, cut fruit (for a single slice of that juicy melon), or a fruit sandwich—kiwi, strawberries and melon on white bread slathered with whipped cream. Senbikiya and Lemon are two shops to keep your eyes peeled for, the former in Takashimaya in Nihonbashi and the latter in Seibu in Ikebukuro.
When I was working in a depachika, the constant yelling and screaming of the clerks became white noise, but for customers it can make eating there less enjoyable. Isetan has a new garden on its roof where customers can picnic on the grass or relax on a bench. Isetan holds some of Tokyo’s best food events, too. Vendors come in and set up shop for a week or so, selling their treats for a “limited time only.”
On one recent visit, I first headed down to the depachika, where I found a Frenchman offering samples of exquisite pate de foie, which I bought along with some pork rillettes and pate de campagne from Lean Luc, a Hokkaido company that makes authentic French charcuterie. Then, after picking up a bottle from the wine shop, I headed up to the roof, where I spent a warm weekend afternoon picnicking on the lawn. For a food fanatic like me, it doesn’t get any better.