The weekday lunch menu at Shinjukukappo Nakajima is the cheapest Michelin-starred meal you’re likely to find in Tokyo. A main, side, and drink will set you back around ¥2000 (around the same price as a large Domino’s pizza). The lunch set (available from 11:30 to 14:00) focuses on sardine dishes (iwashi), while the more expensive evening menu features a variety of Japanese haute cuisine.
The restaurant isn’t huge and is understandably very popular, so at lunchtime, you can expect to queue for up to half an hour on a busy day. In summer this really isn’t pleasant, so a parasol or fan is advisable.
A menu (plus an English guide) is passed from person to person along the queue so everyone can decide what to order before their turn comes up. The immediate impression upon entering Nakajima is one of traditional simplicity; the clean-cut wooden décor that the Japanese do best.
The cheerful greeter is fluent in English and extremely apologetic about the wait. I go for Yanagawanabe – the most well-known dish here – and boiled spinach in broth. Yanagawanabe consists of deep-fried sardine (though loach and beef are sometimes used elsewhere) on a bed of egg and onion. The spinach comes first along with complimentary bowls of rice and miso soup, and honestly isn’t anything special. The leaves are over-boiled; cold in a weak seafood broth. I suppose for ¥300 I can’t complain too much, and in contrast, the rice is perfect and the soup great.
When my Yanagawanabe arrives all is immediately forgiven. A much larger portion size than I anticipated (you’ve seen pictures of most Michelin-starred meals I’m sure) there are 5 sardine fillets in a heavy old-fashioned bowl. The strong, fresh onions are a solid presence here, but these are steamrollered by the power of the sardines’ rich, oily, complex taste. These are simple, deep-fried fish fillets, but Nakajima somehow unlocks a level of flavor I’ve not previously encountered in other such dishes.
I leave Shinjukukappo Nakajima feeling satisfied on two levels: I’d experienced Michelin star cooking for the price of a takeaway, and I was (unexpectedly) full! I couldn’t recommend Nakajima’s Yanagawanabe enough – but get there early.