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Tea Leaves

Small is beautiful but perilously fragile in Tokyo's dining scene

Tiny food outlets struggle to survive but form the backbone of a celebrated food culture

Marologa Bhavan, a South Asian restaurant located in suburban Tokyo's Nakano ward, is part of Tokyo's rich culinary mosaic. (All photos by Melinda Joe)

One of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo is a place you won't find in the Michelin Guide or on a list of the world's best eateries. A far cry from the sophisticated fine dining establishments that the Japanese capital is known for, Abusan is a shoebox-size shellfish joint hidden on a backstreet near my neighborhood in western Tokyo. The L-shaped counter seats seven (or eight in a pinch), and the toilet is located in an alley outside of the restaurant. The chef plies his trade in a corner outfitted with two charcoal braziers and a small refrigerated case displaying the day's catch.

Abusan's modest digs belie the meticulous care with which the chef chooses and prepares the seafood. At the height of the season, the chef slices speckled tsubugai (whelk) into a pile of crunchy-sweet sashimi presented alongside the mollusk's blanched liver and serves raw oysters plucked from the kelp-rich waters off the coast of Hokkaido.

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