Kon: Shaved ice and sushi as you’ve never had them before

The rainy season is over; the midsummer heat has only just begun. Umbrellas have been swapped out for parasols, while fans and towels join face masks and wet wipes as essential accoutrements. Somewhere, unseen, athletes are starting to duke it out for medals. For the rest of us, just getting around the city requires Olympian feats of endurance.

This is the season we need to slow down, drink up and eat light. Looking for specific ideas? Make your way to Hatagaya, just a few train stops west of Shinjuku, head for the Nishihara Shotengai shopping street and don’t stop walking until you reach Kon.

Originally built some 60 years ago as a private residence for a well-to-do banker, it has a retro facade of anonymous gray, with no-nonsense bars protecting the windows. Lovingly preserved and refurbished, with most of its original fittings and glasswork intact, it’s a classic indoors and out.

Dangling by the sliding glass doors of the shopfront, you will spot a banner bearing the unmistakable red kanji for kōri (ice). Welcome to one of Tokyo’s hottest new places for chilled summertime refreshment, kakigōri (shaved ice).

But that’s not the only thing, or even the main item, on the menu. The specialty at Kon, as its name suggests, is konnyaku. Or, rather, konnyaku sushi — little parcels of firm, dark, savory jelly stuffed with sushi rice, each just enough for a couple of dainty bites (or a single generous mouthful). They’re so good, even those who have never been konnyaku fans are likely to revise their opinion.

So how did these two very different foods — konnyaku and shaved ice — end up on the same menu? Opened in the summer of 2020, Kon is the brainchild of haute couture embroidery artist Moko Kobayashi, whose design studio, Maison des Perles, lies nearby in Nishihara. Seizing the opportunity to take over this one-of-a-kind venue, she was inspired to offer upscale versions of two favorite summertime treats.

Kon’s signature umami-rich konnyaku sushi is paired with Nankan inari and delicate quail eggs. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Kon’s signature umami-rich konnyaku sushi is paired with Nankan inari and delicate quail eggs. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Konnyaku sushi is a tradition in the rural Aso region of Kumamoto Prefecture, an area Kobayashi has frequently visited. She worked with a local cafe, Tien Tien, to create a more sophisticated version suitable for the big city. The konnyaku is cooked with dark, umami-rich Kumamoto shoyu, gently sweetened with sugar, then packed with lightly vinegared rice accented with fragrant shiso leaf, wasabi and sanshō pepper.

Kon pairs these with small maki sushi rolls wrapped in deep-fried tofu — known as Nankan inari, they’re another Kumamoto specialty — plus a couple of boiled quail eggs on a stick. Light, tasty and easily digestible, these make an excellent summer snack or picnic item, whether eaten in-store or as takeout.

Next, Kobayashi turned to kakigōri specialist Hiroshi Kawamata, whose shop, Sebastian, in Shibuya’s Kamiyama area, was among the first to offer high-quality, new-wave, “adult” versions of shaved ice. In place of commercial syrups with lurid colors and dubious ingredients, he uses natural flavorings such as Japanese tea, coffee and fresh fruits.

Kon has two year-round kakigōri: one flavored with rosemary, sencha (green tea) and genmaicha (green tea with brown rice); the other with roast almonds and a rich caramel sauce. Both are outstanding, cooling and revivifying.

There is also a seasonal special, which is currently sweet corn. The finely shaved ice is doused with a smooth, sweet-savory potage-style sauce, topped with extra corn kernels and served with two types of salt — Maldon crystals and a truffle-flavored salt that is best left alone — plus a pepper grinder on the side for extra pep. It works remarkably well, and has already established a growing online reputation.

Teas are sourced from Yorozu, a specialist store in the city of Fukuoka. In addition, Kobayashi commissioned chef Shinya Otsuchihashi of Craftale in Nakameguro to develop an original lemon sour (not being served at present due to the state of emergency).

Currently, Kon only allows up to three parties of customers at a time inside its beautifully furnished parlors. Reservations for both eat-in and takeout are best made through its online booking service, although walk-ins may sometimes be possible on weekdays.

Meanwhile, until the end of August, Kon is running a collaboration with Blue Bottle Coffee to provide kakigōri — coffee flavored, of course — at the chain’s Yokohama, Kyoto, Aoyama and Roppongi locations.

Nishihara 1-14-13, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-0066; kon-kon.jp; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Mon. & Tue. (opening days and hours subject to change due to COVID-19); kakigōri from ¥1,980, kakigōri set (w/ konnyaku sushi) from ¥2,640; konnyaku sushi from ¥1,360; takeout available; nearest station Hatagaya; nonsmoking; major cards, electronic money only; a little English spoken

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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Author: Shirley