Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Italian Café Marinara, Monzennakacho

Hey, what kind of place is this? Oh, right.

Marinara has been on my 'occasional visit' list since I moved to Monnaka, and recently was about the 4th time (which would mean yearly visits!). It's a long time between visits for two reasons - there are an awful lot of Italian places in Monnaka, and I keep not remember Marinara that fondly after I go. I'm not sure why, because it was pleasant this time, and I'd go back sooner.

I think they've redecorated a bit, and the interior has some nice features - that sealed cement flooring that passes for cool (like the bare cement walls in my apartment building. I know they're supposed to be cool, but I can't help feeling that they go all the way to cold, and they depress me.) There's a nice counter with lots of empty wine bottles on it, some retro-styled tables, a semi-open kitchen with a big, old-and-Italian-looking pasta maker...in short, a lot of touches that you're supposed to think are hip (and be willing to pay more for in Omotesando, I think).

The menu's not bad - antipasti, pasti, pizzas, some mains (I think - didn't have any this time). Some wines by the glass and in carafe, nothing exciting or enticing, but if when in Monnaka... We had a pizza (Bismark! That's standard in Japan, isn't it? Like corn and mayonnaise.), we had some grilled vegetables in a sweet-and-sour oil (tasty! Available by the gram, in increments of 100 grams. I know this because I asked for 150 grams and was declined. Strangely, my request for 155 grams was also declined...). We had beef carpaccio, which I've forgotten the taste of. We had a scallop and octopus oven-bake-with-breadcrumbs thing, which was surprisingly forgettable. So 2 out of 4, with the others being OK but forgettable - I think this is OK when the total bill with a carafe of wine and another glass or two totaled out at Y7000.

Service...I'm a broken record, but a little weird. C'mon girls, snap it up!

Anyway, tolerable for a Saturday night if you're at home, pretty good and priced right for a weeknight. Possibly better than the other weeknight options, which include La Nesta (chain?) and Pappatoria (chain? 2 in Monnaka alone).

No web site. It's kinda behind Mosburger, across from Akafudado, near the Spain bar. 03-5547 0202

Monday, July 21, 2008

Antwerp Six, Yurakucho

Once, several years ago, I tried to go to this Spain Bar called Pero in far-west Ginza, really more Yurakucho. This was before Spain bars got all mysteriously popular (which to me remains a mysterious phenomenon). I was puzzled to see when I got there that it was full, and while putting my name on the list learned that it would be 40 minutes. A bit of walking around cured that, but I didn't find the place special enough to merit the fullness or the wait. The same feeling has persisted as I've gone twice to Pero's sister restaurant in Marunouchi Tokia (Muy).

This is a long way of saying that I tried to go to Pero again, it was full again, I went to a wine bar nearby for one drink (eek2, forget that one also), and ended up at Antwerp Six. This is part of the imaginatively-named "Belgian Beer Cafe" group along with Antwerp Central in Tokia, which I wasn't overly impressed with.

Antwerp Six has the atmosphere going on, if you're looking for a big, artificially-aged drinking hall. I liked it, actually. Almost like being in Europe, if I had any idea what it was like to be in Europe. Dark wood tables and chairs, semi-upholstered benches on the sides, nice beery touches like serving trays for the waitstaff...

Hmmm, the waitstaff. Things were a bit busy (Sunday of a holiday weekend, so a second Saturday night but some places were closed while others, like the dreaded Pero, were already full). Howeer they still seemed weird - forgetting our orders incessantly. One great incident was when they brought my new beer, still sealed in the bottle and with its accompanying glass, and left it on the serving tray 2 meters from me. And left it. The waiter brought it and left it, the waitress came, looked at it, got puzzled, and wandered off. Eventually I opened it and poured it myself. This led to more puzzlement, but no apologies because they each seemed to decide that the other had done it. Ah well. Good theater, and close enough for jazz!

The food is what you expect in a place like that. The beer menu is pretty good, possibly less esoteric than the other Belgian places (how much eccentricity does one really need in a beer though?). Here's one other complaint - when you get frites (and you DO get frites. What are you doing there otherwise?) you have to pick your own condiments - and PAY FOR THEM. Ketchup or mayonnaise are Y100. So is black pepper. Other things are more. I just got ketchup (I like Belgian beer, but I'm not THAT European). It was so tiny that I was compelled, as if by divine command, to bitch at them by saying "THIS is Y100 of ketchup?" which provoked the supply of a dish that was both larger and more full.

You think I'm unneccessarily grumpy, but go and try it for yourself. Better yet, when in Ginza just go to Houblon!

03-5568-0091 Link me, Homes (main site for the group)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chartreuse, Roppongi

This is the restaurant that crystallized my views on 'old' food. Interestingly, it was in a book of
'great lunch places' that I picked up, intending to use for weekend dinners. When I realized how
close it was to the office (i.e., "that place with the French flag that I keep seeing on the side street")
I went for lunch.

The décor has a certain familiarity - it's like the sitting room of your maiden aunt, if you have a
maiden aunt or know what one is. (I don't, but I think I do, respectively). Couches in the waiting
area! Floral patterns! Everything a little faded! Flowers, but either silk or else tired fresh ones.
Nothing actually wrong with it, but nothing exciting either. And the service, as I remember it, is
the same way - like your aunt stopping by the table. Friendly and possibly competent, but you
sort of wonder what she's doing in the restaurant.

All of the above is charming once in a while, depending on what shows up on your plate. In this
case you'll have something like 3 courses for Y1750 (I think), which sounds pretty good! And the
items themselves sound good too - there's rabbit in the meat selections, for instance. Whether
you like rabbit or not, you have to admit that it shows a certain effort on the part of the chef to
put something like that on the menu. I remember some sort of red pepper (piman) parfait too,
which has a bit of scarcity value about it. No? The fact is, all this food looks like (and tastes
more like) it was made in advance from older ingredients, and the technique wasn't fully up to
snuff. So it tastes fine, but you'll feel a bit let down, and then you'll understand what I mean by
'old' food as opposed to the fresh and new flavors that you can get at other places.

As a parting shot, I thought it was neat that there was a pair of dried bird wings in the fake
fireplace (really!) but my friend thought it was gross and wouldn't believe that they hadn't
fallen naturally off a dead and decaying bird trapped in the nonfunctional chimney.

03-5410-6787
Not a real site, but make do

La Cometa, Azabu Juban


La Cometa, 2nd-floor Italian gustatory haven of no little repute...wait,
that's a different place. This one is slightly hidden on the second
floor of a building near Azabu-juban crossing, up a curving staircase.
Next to the door there's a huge and confronting poster of an Italian
pig, which should be a very good sign. But...

Having now been 2 times for lunch, I'm practically an expert on the
place. In fact, I think I had the same thing both times (roast pork,
listed as Okinawa, so maybe it's Agu? Certainly it's tasty, fats and all).
For Y1800 you get pasta, main, bread and coffee; not cheap, not
expensive. The food has a bit of the old-fashioned quality that I
tend to complain about in French restaurants (see also Chartreuse
in Roppongi for the ultimate in this sort of thing). The interior
has a bit of the Italian tile and various other motifs that say
"Hi! I'm Italian!". The waitstaff is a little flustered, but the
hostess is quite lovely (I presume she's also the owner, because
she also looks Italian (presumably). Yes, I presume a lot.

Ummm, pasta for me was 'short pasta' with 'fish ragu', which was a light
tomato sauce with canned tuna (sorry if I'm wrong about this, La
Cometa). The pasta itself was uninspired. The main of pork was actually
decent - seemed like a high quality cut of porker, fat very much in
evidence, whole bites of nothing but tasty, slightly
crispy-around-the-edges fat. It came with some sauteed mushrooms that
were lukewarm, and some mashed potatoes that were cold.

An iffy choice for dinner, but OK for a lunch here and there (twice in 3
years for me...).

03 3470 5105 Not much of a website that I can see...


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Body and Soul, Minami Aoyama

Not strictly food. In fact, not very food at all. In fact, the food looks kinda crappy. But they have food, and plenty of drinks, and this is a nice thing in a tiny basement jazz club in out-of-the way Aoyama.

Out-of-the-way means out-of-the-way. They have a big neon sign, but due to the vagaries of the basement location and wall above the stairs, you can't see it until you actually start down the stairs. Inside, it stays small but in a very cosy way. In fact, I felt lucky not to have one of the extra-cozy tables, which at the most extreme could have involved sitting literally one meter from the performers. If that's your thing, go ahead and reserve - those tables were reserved by people that looked like regulars (someone had their named bottle waiting for them, someone else was a friend of the singer). But reserve in any case, because all seats were reserved when we got there. At Y3500 it isn't cheap, but compared to Blue Note or Cotton Club, it's a full-on bargain.

Anyway, this is a neat opportunity to see some live jazz and have one of those slightly strange Tokyo experiences that you feel like you should just stumble onto but don't unless you look for them a little. Just try to eat something before you get there. I'll go back.

http://www.bodyandsoul.co.jp/ 03-5466-3348

Helpful English page. Look especially at the map with pictures of how to get there. Helps!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sumiyakiya, Roppongi

Frankly, a Korean restaurant in Japan staffed by Sri Lankans sounds too good to resist, doesn’t it? It’s only some of the staff, and I’m not really sure if they’re Sri Lankan, but it does feel good to say. I love diversity. For me, the two draws at this concrete-floor, bare-wood table-kind place are 1) the kimchee, in bowls on the table when you arrive; spicy, sour, sweet, tasty and refillable 2) ishiyaki curry. The mind boggles Indian curry boiling like mad in a superheated stone bowl? Weird stuff, and tasty. I think it changes sometimes, because I remember it being more orange in the past and it’s brown these days. Aside from the obvious attractions, there are other Korean standards like chige and (I think) butadon.

Bring on da kimchee 03-3403-5397

Spice Garden, Roppongi

There’s an Indian place in my neighborhood that promises ‘One Coin Curry’. It’s pretty good, especially the fresh ‘n’ hot naan. Spice Garden is a little more expensive, the naan is just as big ‘n’ hot ‘n’ fresh, the curry is a little sweeter and less spicy (“more Japanese”, some would say), and less than 10 minutes from the office while the place in Kiba is…oh, several hours on foot, so impractical for lunch. This is simpler and less frilly, but if you want Indian for lunch in Roppongi, I’d go here long before Moti.

9/24/08 Hit the Garden again for lunch today, and still like it. In fact, everyone liked it! Naan is super fresh, hot, light and tasty, curries have variety, value is good...I have to complain a little more that the curries are sweet though. In my Y980 2-Curry Set I had a butter chicken that was more like a dessert curry. What the hey, I ate it second after the saag paneer special (paneer, yes, but not so good. My friend thought it was tofu. You can't expect much from cheap paneer in Japan.)

After visiting Moti for dinner on Sunday night, I'd say that I'm still in for the Garden as a preference.

Make with the curry, Jack 03-3408-0085

Azabu-ue, Roppongi

Looks like this could be snazzy for dinner, but in keeping with my policy (“I’m done working, can I please leave Roppongi as soon as possible?”) I’m unlikely to go. For lunch, there are surprisingly tidy and tasty teishoku (either normal sakana stuff done pretty well or else rotating specials – when I went, hambagu; another time I heard it koroke; so not that special, but at least something different). The cheap ones are Y1000, which has to be considered good value around here.

あざぶ上, 03-5770-4599

Tontokoton, Roppongi

Oooh, you can’t beat a place that has sides of meat hanging in a cooler in the entryway. Too bad they’re pork and not beef, but you know the meat’s gotta be fresh and they’re serious enough about it to buy ‘in bulk’ as it were. For lunch you’ll find a small set of yakibuta teishoku (various bits of bacon or steak or mixed grill – all pork) and they’re kind enough to let you dirty up one of the Genghis Khan-style grills even for your cheap lunch set. Quantity is pretty limited for lunch, I guess in keeping with the quality. Much of the seating is in booths that feel quite private, there’s also a nice horikotatsu area, and the counter is attractive too. Overall atmosphere aside from the pig display area is quite dark and mellow. Much like a good woman.

I’d like to go for dinner (have you ever seen pork sashimi on a menu before? I thought not! Incidentally, if you haven’t had chicken sashimi, you’ve gotta go for it. Just like most types of sashimi (to me), it has all the flavor of the cooked but with a nice freshness), but I’m afraid my “get outta Dodge” policy on Roppongi must be observed at most times unless Baggio is involved.

Pork, baby 03-5414-2911

Ogawa, Monzennakacho

In some periods my favorite place to go in Monnaka. The menu is always a single, hand-written page. That’s a little tough for me (in some places, I end up ordering what I can read!), but the writing is basically OK. Some standard and signature dishes show up every time, and these are worth getting. I think the dashimakitamago, which is filled with a nori roll that includes mentaiko and cucumber, is a neat idea and I used to get it all the time. Sansai tempura is always a good bet when it’s there. Various Kyoto-style specialties whose names I don’t know (steamed fish on rice with ankake? Maybe topped with a cherry leaf?) are interesting. Some things are worth skipping, like the salads (yaki buta shouga salad, etc).

Drinks are probably a bit better than expected. I’ve always been a little put off by the way the sake list is a laminated sheet on the wall, but recently visited a ‘sake specialist’ and was surprised at how many of their special sakes I knew – from Ogawa. (On a side note, why is it a requirement for sake to have unreadable kanji names?).

The chef did NOT endear himself to me by loudly asking “where’s your wife?” over and over again when I went with another woman after getting single again. But I’ll still go back from time to time, because he’s creative and brings in great seasonal ingredients, prepares them well, and runs a place with the kind of friendly, well-worn-and-not-very-clean atmosphere that I love in an izakaya.

Ogawa (旬菜料理 緒川;03-3642-7684) Kick it!

Terada, Monzennakacho

There used to be a sad little kitchen-goods store in my neighborhood – sad because it stocked a bunch of really nice things and had a quaint, cramped interior, but rarely had customers. Perhaps the back streets of Monnaka aren’t the place to be selling Le Creuset? I was a little sad when it closed, then interested when the renovations started, then happy once it looked like a restaurant, then surprised when it turned out to be a sweet-looking upscale izakaya. It was full the first couple times I tried to stop in, which may have been a startup feature. Worked out OK when I went after 3 or 4 weeks.

Not a huge menu, which is the way I like things. Restaurants, especially one-man restaurants, can’t stock ingredients or cook fast enough to service big menus (I think). So it’s cool when the menu is just one page. In this case I steered away from the normal stuff and angled into a small and healthy set of dishes that sounded interesting. Not sure what the sashimis were; normal stuff like kinmedai, but really good quality (and a bit expensive). Nice, fatty kinme is one of my favorite sashimis. I also got two vegetable dishes. One was junsai in dashi (if you haven’t had junsai, look out for them and try them once. I think they’re an underwater plant, and the best way I can describe them offhand is clusters of green thorns with crunchy, slimy, clear balls surrounding them. I have no idea how a plant like this comes into being, or why people would try to eat it, or how Terada san could make it so tasty with a little yuzu-flavored dashi.). The other was eggplant nukazuke, which was strange because it was cold, but had a sort of dried/fried texture. I think it was just the nuka-ing, which wasn’t that strong flavor-wise.

Terada san (assuming that’s his name!) was nice and chatty to the weird foreigner ordering junsai, the atmosphere is very ‘new and clean izakaya’ (actually looks like an upscale sushiya, now that I think of it), and I recommend visiting. Ideally with me since it’s so close to home!

てら田 03-3643-2922 Tomioka 1-11-5, just across from the west entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Fukahama, Monzennakacho (Fukagawa)

Right up on the list of ‘best surprises that month’ (maybe sometime around mid-late-05?) was this kaiseki-styled place that I wandered in to by myself after work. It’s really out-of-the-way – first because it’s in Monzennakacho, second because it’s actually almost 10 minutes from the station (going north, the boring direction), third because it’s down a small street that has no other shops. The have a little lit sign in the street, which is what enticed me to walk down that street in the first place. Really good value, with ~7 courses for ~Y5000 and surprisingly high quality, technique and creativity, in a traditionally-styled place that’s dead quiet and empty almost every time I go.

This may not actually be kaiseki, but I may not actually know. It follows a strict formula of starters, sashi, fish in clear soup, grilled fish, fried things, soba, fruit (or a version thereof), with the menu changing seasonally (though I think the seasonal menus may not change from year-to-year. I haven’t been THAT many times.). The tastiest thing to me is usually the clear soup (not the things in it), which is true and not at all meant to make me sound all sensitive and tuned-in to the true magnificence of Japanese cooking. The fried things are sometimes interesting (fish karaage is kinda cool when it’s not fugu) and seasonally accompanied by fried/popped rice grains still on the stalks. Cute.

Service is invariably performed by an oldish woman in kimono who’s cute in an elegant-but-scattered-and-motherly way (which is sensible since the chef is her son). Drinks are limited, e.g. sake comes in two types – hot and cold. Anyway, I think this is worth the trip from Hiroo for the food, especially given the price/quality ratio. Unfortunately it’s hard to arrive after 8 on weekdays (they’ll definitely rush the service by dropping the next course before you finish one) and they’re closed weekends.

深はま  You should go here   03-3641-5987

Genpin Fugu, Ryogoku (and other locations)

What do you do when you’ve had fugu only once before, but your companion says “I really love fugu. Let’s eat fugu.”? That’s right men, you find a fugu place. Even if you think it’s boring and less than tasty. Even if you know you’ll be criticized as having ‘foreign’ tastes that aren’t ‘subtle’ enough to appreciate the ‘boredom’ of fugu.

Ryogoku isn’t a complete wasteland (there’s Popeye for beer, there’s chanko everywhere (the streets run red with chanko, hot and cold running chanko…) and there’s the museum) but you might not want to make the trip. Actually if you live there, you should be making the trip down to Monnaka! Ii tokoro ne? But I was on the hook for several weeks to find places to go in Ryogoku, and the ‘fugu mondai’ reared its ugly head during that period.

Westerners would freak out if you put ‘chain’ and ‘fugu’ in the same sentence, wouldn’t they? Everyone thinks fugu is something really special until they get to Japan and see it on every street corner. Perhaps I exaggerate, but Genpin really is a chain place – practically a Fugu Famires. You can see it in the lackluster and worn décor, you can smell it in the quality of the sake (filesake, of course!) and you can munch it in the tiredness of fugusashi that was clearly cut earlier in the day. This is perhaps just the Ryogoku branch? Oddly, I haven’t been to the one in Monnaka. And I ain’t goin’!

The other time I had fugu was at a place in Ginza. It wasn’t too much more (I think Y6000 for the standard course – tecchili – rather than Y4000~ at Genpin) and it was just a lot better – the fugu for nabe-tizing was twitching when it came to the table, etc. I’m not saying you need to go somewhere that has the sashi artfully arranged into a crane, but I do think you should spend a little extra and give yourself the best possible chance of getting some enjoyment out of what is frankly a pretty bland fish. Don't get me started on the ankou specialty restaurant I went to one time.

玄品河豚, http://www.tettiri.com/  

Shichirinya , Ginza

Everyone’s got their own thing. Recently my friend has been bugging me to stop going to so many French places and go to some equally-high-quality yakiniku. So I did. And here it is.

Shichirinya has 4 shops around the Ginza area, three all the way over on the Yurakucho / Shinbashi side and a fourth that I went to in Ginza 7 (west of Chuo-dori, near Matsuzakaya). This one was going for the old-fashioned / ‘country’ style décor, and it turned out to be somewhat Korean (Korean-looking waiters, Korean specialties on the menu). We got a tidy private room despite being only 2 people.

Summer’s a little hot for serious meat-eating, isn’t it? We kept ordering cold things (fresh tofu, good and accompanied by a little dish of goma, myoga, negi and salt; sashimi, truly excellent maguro akami that was both more tasty and more expensive than most of the chu toro I’ve eaten lately; house salad, spicy with lots of nira and drowned in goma oil). In fact, the staff kept wondering when we’d order meat, and finally asked if they could bring the charcoal to spur us into action. In the end we only got two plates of meat – one duck, one beef (tried to get chicken but they were out of chicken. Out of chicken?! How can this be? Very discombobulatory.) The duck cooked up surprisingly tender and tasty, even the thick fat was nice (usually you want to roast a duck so a bit of the fat runs off, no?). The beef (jou-rosu) was great, nice and beefy but not overly fatty (I don’t prefer the shimofuri / ‘yuki’-type beef – I want a balance of meat and fat). But it really oughta be when you’re paying Y500 per slice.

Including a bottle of wine and two other drinks, the bill was Y16,000 plus tax and tip (wait, no! Ahhh, I love Japan.). Adding another plate of beef, this would be very tasty and tastefully within the guidelines of a similar-quality French place. I guess I’d do it again, but now I’m wondering if there are better places out there…

七厘や 燈 http://r.gnavi.co.jp/g058004/ 03-5568-5011 〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座7-7-6 アスタープラザビル1F

Go South on Chuo Dori, turn right at 6-chome crossing (Kanematsu, Resona, after Matsuzakaya), then second left. Or if you’re like me, ignore your own meticulous directions and make your guest call to be ‘guided in’.

Pivoine, Monzennakacho (Botan)

Periodically I walk randomly around my neighborhood, especially the streets I don’t often go to, hoping that some new little place will have popped up. One night in February I was doing just that and, several blocks south of the minor shopping street that marks the southern boundary of town, saw a new place that looked oddly stylish. In fact, it looked just like a snappy French restaurant from some far, far nicer suburb than Monnaka. In fact, it WAS a snappy French restaurant, and it made a lot more sense once I went in (except that I never really figured out what they were doing in Monnaka).

I opened the door to a big dose of déjà vu when the waitress greeted me with a cheery ‘Oh, it’s you!’ sort of look, and we realized that we knew each other from plenty of dinners at Merveille (referenced mercilessly in my other reviews). Turns out that one of the sous-chefs left to start his own place, and she went with him. Or something like that. Definitely they used to work together at Merveille, but I was halfway through a bottle of wine and trying to speak all Japanese.

Since I was by myself I was happy to work through that bottle and talk to her, but the food was actually pretty good. The chef did a number of things that were right in fashion for Matsumoto san at Merveille (the spring-roll trick, the flash-fried herbs trick…all good tricks) and did a nice job with the fish and meat. Everything had that fresh and clean quality that I love in French food (even when it’s heavy stuff)…dare I say, さっぱり? I felt like it was missing the last bit of flash though – almost like the understudy was trying to copy the master’s cooking. I’ve been meaning to stop in and try it again, but there aren’t many nights these days when I can eat 5 courses and drink a bottle of wine by myself! Getting too fat…

If you go, let me know how it is (or invite me).

http://www.pivoine-jp.com/ 03-5639-1817

Il Ghiottone, Marunouchi

Had heard a rave or two about this place from reliable sources (I thought) and always found it booked when I called. Finally managed to get in for a late lunch on a weekend. The staff seemed to feel it was too late to give us proper service, but that didn’t stop them from charging the service fee. Food was competent but not original or inspired, almost like the second-string chef was cooking that day…it was lunch, but I still want something good. Made me wish I was next door at Viron… I’ll just stop writing now to reinforce the disgust I felt for this place. No web site or phone number, because I don't want to facilitate future custom.

Aux Gourmands, Azabudai (Roppongi / Juban)

I had actually seen this place from the street one time after going to cosplay karaoke (a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I like to say) but only realized that when I arrived for dinner. It’s slightly hard to find, down a small street and up some stairs, but worthwhile! The food was great, the atmosphere cozy, and the service obliging (including the friendly chef-owner, publicized elsewhere as an ex-boxer).

One review that I read described this as a very meat-oriented place. I guess that’s fair – the only other time that I can remember having a choice of three types of pork was when my friend mail-ordered a bunch of famous types of pork and brought them over for a massive shabu-fest. I can’t remember what they were at Aux Gourmands, but I feel like I ate the Saitama Cherry Pork. Anyway, the waitress was happy to go into loving detail about the differences between them. If we can have vegetable sommeliers now, can pork sommeliers be far behind?

If you look for other reviews, you’ll see meat-pictures. I was seduced by the pate en croute and had to eat it, despite that making the dinner meat+meat (pork+pork even). It was OK; I’m not sure I ever had it before, so the disappointingness of the croute may be par for the course. It’s gotta be hard to keep your croute fresh when it’s filled with pork and baked.
Desserts looked pretty good, but I was disallowed from ordering it (or at least didn’t want to eat alone, so skipped).

I’d go back!

http://www.aux-gourmands.com/ 03-5114-0195

Au Gout du Jour, Ichigaya

eek2, you know you’ve been hitting the restaurant scene a bit when you go to a new place and recognize the staff from elsewhere. I guess it’s OK if it’s a different restaurant in the same group, but it’s still disconcerting. Especially when you’ve made what feels like a big hike across town to go to Ichigaya (previously my Tokyo map just said ‘Here Be Draggons’ all around Ichigaya station).

The web sites for the group’s restaurants are among the best I’ve seen in Japan. The thing that got me all hot and bothered about this web site was the vegetable terrine. I feel like a new man, making a big trip across town to eat vegetable terrine…without even a sliver of foie…who woulda thought? Actually the picture of the foie with beans in dark sauce is nifty looking too. My companion ordered that, so we covered the two major bases. The only other thing that stood out to me was the lamb, which was cooked perfectly enough to make my companion do the usual “Oh, I don’t like lamb because it’s smelly, but I love this” squeal that people do when they haven’t eaten lamb as adults. And the plates were nicely-presented and there was a surprising amount of food. As with some other reviews, if I remember correctly I was restricted from ordering dessert.

I think the elegant look of the web sites carries over well into the restaurants. This one and Merveille have simple interiors with white, gray or cream, simple art, somewhat formally-dressed staff, and intimate rooms. I think that’s supposed to ‘enhance the focus on the food’ or words to that effect, but it works. Can I just relate one funny incident? As we approached the table to sit down, I noticed a strange orange spot on my plate – looked dirty. Then I noticed that my companion’s intended plate also had a spot on it. Then I noticed that there was a similar spot on every damn plate in the place…almost like the restaurant’s logo was printed on the plates. My companion, on the other hand, made no such analysis, merely announcing to the waiter peremptorily that there was a spot of her plate. There’s a reason why she was not my companion again.

Reasonably recommended, but for me in my location, I’d go to Merveille. All the food, a little less cost, bring in your own wine for Y2000/bottle, and right near home. Maybe far for you, living in Hiroo and all? Anyway, watch out for the funny side-street location – you’ll recognize the place by the more-visible signs for the German bar in the basement.

http://www.augoutdujour-group.com/au/index.html 03-5213-3005

Labyrinthe, Marunouchi

This is one of those ‘slice of France’ places, in . It’s in Maru Biru, which I find very faceless and unappealing (perhaps it’s just the lower floors, since I haven’t ascended to the heights for any dining yet?), but when you step inside it’s dark and terribly, terribly Frenchy. I can say that with authority because I went to France once, and studied French for 4 years in high school.

About the food, I remember mainly my companion’s cold entrée – unagi and black rice terrine. This was in the category of ‘things that sound so weird you just have to get them’ (usually it’s me that gets those things, and they’re very hit-or-miss, so I’m glad she took the plunge) but it was more weird than good (miss!). I also seem to remember a roast lamb dish on my side, with roasted garlic. I think it was OK. In my memory the food wasn’t quite up to the clean/composed standards of the Au Gout du Jour group, which is my standard for upper-mid-price French, but it was robust and definitely modern, as opposed to some places I could name.

Service was competent in an uncle-y, grandfather-y way, which was very nice. The thing that stands out in my mind is that when we were leaving, the waiter gave my companion’s coat to ME. I thought “No, that’s obviously HER coat, you dunce”, followed a split-second later by “You dunce, you’re supposed to help her put her coat on, and he’s helping you do that!” Anyway, some strange and unclear memories, but I would go back.

5220-7022 http://www.labyrinthe.co.jp/marunouchi/

Michiba , Ginza

Those with Iron Chef fetishes will be well-served here despite the absence of Roku-chan himself from the kitchen (I can call him that because I saw a documentary on him one time and his 80-year old older sisters were calling him ‘Roku-chan’). The three times I’ve been have all ranged from impressive to extraordinary (maybe declining in impact after the initial amazement, so enjoy your first go).
The food manages to combine perfectionist technique with Japanese flavors and ingredients to create something…well, certainly not revolutionary, but at least unexpected, interesting and delicious. We all know what dashi tastes like, right? At this point it’s about making the best dashi and cooking things in it at just the right temperature for just the right time. One dish stands out in my mind from the last time I went (Summer 2007) – a small, whole, fried ayu with a little knot of somen, in a dish of strong dashi (maybe tsuyu. It’s been a while.) That kinda summed it up for me – all traditional stuff, mildly surprising combinations, and done perfectly. Oh, and disgusting to my foreign companions since it was a whole fish!
I would ask to sit at the counter if I went again; the table atmosphere is a little stuffy to me in that way that ‘refined’ and ‘classy’ Ginza restaurants can be when they haven’t been updated for a while. The clientele was of a certain age and sophistication (other than me), so that atmosphere may be part of what keeps them coming back.
Again, recommended, but possibly not for a fourth visit!
http://www.michiba.com 813-5537-6300

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bar Fal, Ginza

Once in a while people ask if I know a good bar. I always say yes, and describe Fal to them. They never go. Maybe I smell bad?

I don't know what you like in a bar, but here's what does it for me: Dark, woody, quiet. Jazz, probably. A wide selection of drinks in different styles and at all price points. A bartender who cares about getting it right, every drink. Nice glasses (it matters, doesn't it?).

If you ask him for a signature drink, he won't mix up fresh fruit puree and exotic liquor, nor swizzle in a dram of single malt despite having hundreds of types on offer. He'll make you a gin and tonic, with Gordon's or Beefeater. And you'll be surprised by how good it tastes - somehow fresher than anything you've had before. This sums it up for me. Nothing fancy, just drinks made with care by someone who knows how to make a drink better than most.

Of course, shaking up a grasshopper in a frozen cocktail glass is also quite within reason...
03-3575-0503



Go-Go Curry, lots of places

I wandered into the one in Ochanomizu soon after it opened and fell in love. The curry wasn't bad either. The quirkiness of the concept (gorillas! funny names! Y2500 signature curry!) cracked me up, and then the dark, thick curry kept me happy. I haven't been back, but that's more a recognition of the fact that I'm getting fat than anything else.

Funny point one: the names for the sizes that you can order (and what a good idea - multiple sizes?): Healthy Class, Economy Class, Business Class, First Class. Funny point two: the signature dishes: "Major Curry" with a big katsu, some weiners, ebi fly, boiled egg, and just a smattering of cabbage, then "World Champion Curry", like Major but with twice as much of everything! Funny point three: C'mon, you have to ask? A gorilla mascot? Actually, the curry is sort of gorilla-colored.

Perhaps this is point the fourth, but I also love the fact that it's from Kanazawa. It's always nice to see the provincials giving the city folks a run for their money. Plus two stores in New York City (New York City? Get a rope.) and other convenient Tokyo locations like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, Akiba, Takakadadanobaba etc.

When in Ochanu, I recommend (far, far above Sumatra curry on Yasukuni Dori, which I heard was ranked one of the top 3 or top 10 curry places in Tokyo. Maybe it was one of the top 10 curry places on Yasukuni Dori in Jinbocho...).

http://www.gogocurry.com/

Au Gout du Jour Nouvelle Ere, Marunouchi

[July 5, 2011: Amusingly, my farewell lunch with my boss today turns out to be three years to the day after I went here for the first time. I can't even remember who I went with in 2008, so I'd have to guess she was un-amusing. What I said below is substantially correct based on this visit too - interior black and modern to a distracting degree, good cooking although somehow disappointing, desserts a notch better than expected though still a notch better than they oughta be, and everything a shade overpriced. Fully booked at lunch today; not sure how I got a table by calling at 10:30. And they still keep the door closed, with a 'fully booked' sign outside (now that I can read it, which I couldn't in 2008).
Go to Merveille.
That is all.]

Something of a departure for the Au Gout du Jour group considering the similarity of the other 2 restaurants I've been to (Merveille and Au Gout du Jour). Possibly in an attempt to live up to the Maru surroundings and view of Tokyo station, the interior is more black and chic. Did it have a cement floor? Maybe. I think it also had silly line drawings for art, like merveille certainly does and Au Gout du Jour may have.

The door was closed when we got got there, which was an interesting touch for a Shin-Maru restaurant - most of them are eagerly touting for custom, but here you had to take yourself in. I think it was booked out, so only those superior specimens with a good reason to go in would do so. I put off going here for a long time, because the food looked similar to Merveille but the prices were up a notch or two (cf 'Shin Maru'...). In summary, the surroundings and service were nice, the food was tasty, and I would absolutely go back... to Merveille yet again, saving myself a bit of time and money in the process.

Sticking in my mind are a couple of items...the asparagus appetizer was nice - on top was a baked paste of (I think) morilles. This was enjoyable in the way that only well-cooked asparagus can be, especially when you've only received two stalks and feel compelled to treat them very seriously and make them last. I'm afraid I can't remember the fish course. The meat course was beef cheek, the refuge of chefs who are trying to maximize profit from their courses. I don't think that's appropriate in the 2nd-level course, but it came with a sorta nice vegetable and pastry mille-feuille.

Desserts, oddly, redeemed the proceedings. I'm usually not a fan of desserts in Japanese French restaurants since I think they put no effort into them (following perfect meats with insipid roll cake, blanc manger, montblanc etc. is irritating). At Nouvelle Ere, there were enough interesting things on the menu that we actually ordered three desserts, prompting the expected flurry of confusion. I know there was a chocolate plate, I think there was a caramel plate (but I may be confusing this with Reims Yanagidate, which is a much better and only slightly more expensive place), but I mostly remember the orange-y cheesecake with citrus sauce. It was sort of 'boiled in bag', if you remember Uncle Ben, and came in a cup, still in the cheesecloth bag. People complained, as people are wont to do, that it had 'only one taste', which it did, but it was a good taste and it was our taste and we made it ours. And then we left.

03 5224 8070 http://www.augoutdujour-group.com/no/index.html

Viron, Marunouchi

I really can't say enough good things about this place. In a dining career that has seen me revisit places only rarely, I've probably been to Viron's Marunouchi restaurant in the Tokia building more than 10 times. It's definitely overpriced for bistro food, but it's so perfect in every other way that I can't help but go over and over again.

It actually took me a few visits to realize that there was a full menu of cassoulet, choucroute, steak tartare, etc. The specials board is quite sufficient - a main board with 3-5 each entrees and mains, a separate little board indicating what 5-6 fish are fresh that day, and carafe wines. I'm struggling to think of anything that I've been disappointed in. If anything, I could possibly fault the roasted meat dishes because they're only sparsely accompanied and are enormous. The first time I saw the duck breast, I thought it was from a turkey. This is not necessarily a good thing, even though I'm America. The cooking has it all together though - everything is kinda sparkly-fresh, and even heavy stuff like fatty meat sauces or cassoulet doesn't seem tired like it does at lesser places.

Service can be a little weird when it gets busy, but that's not really fair. In general they're really nice and helpful (especially once they get over the initial warning period when they tell you that the portions are huge, so you might not want to order that...etc).

Never sat outside, but they have the perfect set of Parisian tables and chairs facing the railroad tracks and ugly street.

Other people write about the sandwiches for lunch (I went for lunch only once, on the weekend, and enjoyed it - much cheaper if you get the sets) or the bread (it IS a bakery, in theory, and the basketed bread is delicious) but to me it just seems like stereotypical Japanese perfectionism applied to the French bistro, and it's great.

Please let me know if you're going. I never get tired of it.

03-5220-7289 http://gourmet.livedoor.com/restaurant/25094/

Brasserie Aux Amis, Marunouchi

Going for the bistro effect, and I guess succeeding, BAA is located at the south end of Marunouchi. Well beyond the Maru's, Tokia and others, if you're coming from Tokyo station you'll probably walk past Viron to get there. You'll be tempted to go in to Viron instead, and you should.

I guess this succeeds in doing the bistro thing, because it certainly has the bistro look, in a somewhat tired and neighborhoody way. The food is also what you'd expect (it's a bistro, so it would be unexpected if it wasn't what you expected, right?) with bistro favorites and possibly some originals.

The cooking is like the decor, a little tired, and the staff managed to irritate me on my one visit - taking a long time to confirm that we could substitute something from the cheaper set menu into the more expensive one (despite us offering to pay the more expensive price. This is like 'waiter, I'd like to pay for the foie gras but just have a salad. Is that OK?' 'Hmmm, そうですね。。。". When the bill came, we had been charged extra for the privilege of that substitution (more than the expensive course). I know this is Japan and substitutions are difficult, but that's ridiculous and we raised hell.

Wow, I'm getting all worked up just thinking about it. Look, just go to Viron, OK?

Shin-Tokyo Bldg, 3-3-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-6212-1566. www.auxamis.com

Monya, Roppongi

With 4 shops, does this qualify as a chain? Inside is pretty much the antithesis of ‘chain’ to me (and I guess most other foreigners), but I used to think that about all the ‘country-style’ places too (think Nishi-Azabu Gonpachi!). Anyway, if this is a chain, I love chain restaurants. Twice for dinner, once for lunch, and loved it every time. They specialize in fish, which they get in fresh from Toyama. This is supposed to be fresher than Tsukiji or something; I dunno, but they have an impressive array of interesting fishies on ice in a cooler that’s sorta built into the counter (to the extent that I sat next to it when I went for dinner; very up-close and personal with your fish. Oh, and for lunch you’re able to point to select what you want yaki-ed or sashi-ed.)

In my ignorant washoku world, this seems like creative cooking, and from the atmosphere it’s easy to see that they take it very very seriously. The best thing seems to be just ordering the basic course (Y6000 or so, good value) and seeing what shows up; I remember some nifty tofu variants (still a sucker for green peas tofu), great roasted takenoko with two colors of sauce (one miso, one green), and then lots of fish. Private rooms exist and are excellent if you can get one.

Monya (Roppongi) 紋屋  03 5447 1333


Sushitokoro Nao, Roppongi

Definitely among the best sushi I’ve had, but far, far from the cheapest. Sort of a nice atmosphere (counter, salarymen, hostesses), convenient to Roppongi Crossing on the Akasaka side (if such things are convenient to you), and very good fish in generous (if a bit thick) slices.

The one drawback is unfortunately Nao himself, who has been observed by my colleagues to be mean when speaking to his service staff. Not really observable to those of us who are far, far from fluent though, and the man clearly knows how to buy and cut a fish. I also remember his other dishes fondly, e.g. nidako. Been two times, would now expect to pay Y20,000 for two with a minimum of drinking, in that highly mysterious ‘here’s your non-itemized receipt on a tiny slip of paper’ way. But I might go back.

Nao (鮨処直, Sushi, Roppongi)
03-5474-8910

Sushi Zanmai, Monzennakacho

What am I doing writing about a chain store with Y100 nigiri in a semi-obscure suburb (where I live)? I love it! I’ve eaten in most of the other chain places in Monnaka. I’ve eaten in some of the expensive ones too. I’ve eaten in cheap and expensive sushi places elsewhere, including Tsukiji, and I just think this is IT on the cost/quality/atmosphere value scale. It helps that the staff knows me and tries to talk to me, and pops up with an occasional treat (last time – broiled tuna intestine at 1 AM. mmmmm!). And always open, according to my standards (I think they open in the morning - I’ve been for lunch - and they close at 4.). One time I got mad at them over a triviality and didn’t go for a couple months. When I finally went back, they still remembered what it was that made me mad in the first place…only in Japan.

As Narumi san says on his tiny web site, it's a little place, but everyone has fun. Call him Narupi kun to annoy him.

Took me years to understand what 'zanmai' means. I ain't tellin' you so easily.
03-3630-8659