Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hyakumi, Monzennakacho

Well, sometimes you just have to lash out and try a new place. This little odenya is in the category of things I've walked by a number of times in Monnaka's dining alleys south of Eitai Dori without seriously considering going in. For some reason last night was it!

Basically a counter, I think with some tatami-floored tables in the back. Behind the counter is the pleasant confusion one expects in a Japanese home kitchen, and the two women working lived up to that promise. Pleasant and homey, but nothing to leave home for!

We just had some oden, gyoza and beer - the old try-a-few-and-see-if-you're-staying trick at little places. Since it was advertised as an oden place, I was disappointed that the items weren't simmering away in a big vat, but rather had to be dropped in and heated for us. We had an egg, some shirataki, and a fukuro (the little tofu bags with mochi inside), all of which were OK. The soup seemed adequate to me, but I'm not at all a devotee (confession: this was the first time I ever went to an oden place). The gyoza were frozen before they came to us. The beer was sorta watery and tasted strange.

We left!

百味 03-3641-0168
Too small for a site, but this'll do ya

L’Osteria, Roppongi

UPDATE 11/14/08:
Had the Pranzo A for the first time. Y2600 seems like good value for the following. I'm not quite as rhapsodic as the same deal at Provinage, however...
- Appetizer: small leaf salad with fresh crab (delicious), small portion of roasted vegetables in olive oil with orange accent (a little weird but tasty)
- Pasta: Small pasta with salmon and spinach in cream sauce (salmon a little strong, but sauce very fresh-cream rich). Rigatoni with pork ragu (very fatty and tasty)
- Meat: Chicken roasted with onions, in lemon sauce. Crispy-skin flounder (better).
- Dessert: Profiteroles (chilled, chocolate sauce already applied...ah well, it's lunch)
- Coffee: Excellent as always, and the sugar comes in one of those too-too cute little copper sauce pans!

Original post follows___________________________________________________
When my boss lived in Japan, it was often a bit difficult to pick a place for lunch. He got to Tokyo several years before me, and lived right near the office in Roppongi. Thus he had been to a fair few of the local restaurants. And he was picky. When we tried to go someplace, he would often say ‘Been there for dinner. Didn’t like it.” which was a firm rejection. In much the same way, l’Osteria ranked as “actually not bad”, which was strong praise.

And it remains among my favorites. This is right up there in the civilized, make-you-forget-all-about-work sweepstakes, whether it’s the suited waiters, the quiet, dim room, the white tablecloths, or the plantbox-filled terrace outside (now covered!). The only downside is that tends to take a while – budget 90 minutes from your desk in Roppongi Hills to lunch and back, and you won’t go wrong – but if you’re pressed for time then you need to relax even more!

The menu has three options for lunch: affordable (Y1500), non-affordable (roughly Y2625) and silly (Y5250) (remember that I eat lunch every day, and it’s not a business expense, and I’m always on the edge of getting fat anyway.). I’ve only ever had ‘affordable’, otherwise known as Pasta Pranzo. It delivers value with a nice salad (real tomato! steamed broccoli! baby corn!), a pasta (I definitely remember the pork ragu with fresh pappardelle I had today, and there’s always one fresh pasta. Also in the past some kind of orecchiette, a spicy squid ink cappellini, various tomato prima vera things), a dessert (a decent dessert! Chocolate-hazelnut cake? Apple tart? Today ricotta cheesecake with pine nuts.) and a proper coffee of your choice (no charge up for cappuccino like those suckers at Burdigala). It’s good, really. One final point: the bread is crap, and I noticed today they’re not providing butter any more.

I am, I have to say, a sucker for staff that recognize me. I don’t go to l’Osteria that often, but quite some time ago they started greeting me in a very cheerful and recognition-filled and itsumo/maido way, especially the hostess (owner? who always seems to be wearing an Italian suit and big sunglasses pushed up on her head) and the head waiter. The rest of the staff can be a little hit or miss, but suck it up, this place is great.

Final note: the unadvertised, shockingly-good-value-for-Japan special is that oomori is a free addition to the pasta. Where else can you get free supersizing? On the other hand, most people can’t tell the difference when they see the two sizes side by side.

Today's pasta...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Teppanyaki Aoyama, Roppongi

Newish-contender in the give-me-your-lunch-dollar stakes, offering a very refined and expensive-looking environment in which to enjoy teppan lunch sets that are, I kid you not, good value for Y1400 or Y2000.

In a nice building (strange narrow concrete front, tucked away down Imoraizaka, large running water feature and spiral starecase in the dark, cool lobby. Also note that the sushi place, Matsue, is supposed to be good. Why are my parentheticals always so long?), Aoyama keeps up the standards by featuring a lot of light wood, a long counter with two teppan, and a section in between displaying some fresh-vegetable porn (you know, “look how big and green today’s asparagus are!”). The chairs are of a stuffed-and-covered (but not smothered) variety which is sort of appropriated from a French restaurant. The dishes are interesting and appropriate, the way we like them. The service, for lunch at least, is pleasant and efficient and gets things done quickly and with no fuss.

Sets appear to be the same; just choose your meat. We had the steak set; a substantial (for Japan) piece of beef, teppan’ed and sliced for you, and coming out fairly tasty, if a little tough. The hamburger set (Y1400) looked like better value and a nice burger. The sides are extensive – in addition to rice, soup and pickles, you’ll get water (which I only mention because the blue-flowered ceramic glasses were so cute!), koya tofu, moyashi/chicken sauté, and dessert (a weird, chemical-tasting lemon-ginger jelly with a piece of peeled fresh lemon. Suuuu-pa-!). Plus strange-tasting hot tea with dessert. There are also pork and chicken and seafood sets (Y1400, Y1400, Y2000), wagyu-level beef if you’re splashing out (Y3500?).

Aoyama (鉄板焼きあおやま)
Matsue Sushi

Final note: You’ll remember the Spiral Starecase, no doubt, for their smash hit “More Today Than Yesterday”, which topped out at #12 in 1969 but has sold over a million platters and remains a staple of oldies radio. Gets my toe a-tappin’ just thinking about it.

Lescure, Roppongi

Well, I went to Lescure for lunch in the Winter of 2007, so it’s perhaps unfair to review it now (especially since I didn’t like it!). On the other hand, in checking for the web site now, I’ve learned that it’s closing down tomorrow. Insert smug comment here. The name on the web site itself should be an indication of something.

Ironically, Lescure is quite close to Chartreuse, which I’ve labeled before as ‘the place that crystallized my views on Old French cooking’ (and not in a good way). I was reminded thereof – despite a somewhat charming and warm environment (mostly one low row of tables with deep red walls – quite ‘modern bistro’ looking to me), the attempt at bistroization appeared to stop there.

Actually, maybe there’s a pattern here – is there a category of restaurants that are good at night but open during the day only to push out budget plat in an effort to make a few extra bucks? In this case, you’d get your salad, drink and one-dish (meat, fish or pasta) for Y1000. I think my colleague sprung the extra Y500 for the steak set, but was uninspired. I seem to remember that my main was in two parts – some kind of chicken and then a pumpkin gratin. This is what turned the corner for me – nothing interesting about it, nothing French about it. Food can’t be interesting every time, but I want to avoid places that don’t seem to be putting much effort into it.

The bottom floor of the building had an Italian / Japanese fish place (I remember it being called Ua, but my memory…) that I liked. They kept changing the lunch concept – for a while, Y1000 risottos. Then Y3000 courses (which were pretty nice value). Then risottos again. Then paper over the windows, and now it’s something else. Maybe it’s the location?

I wish I was Euro-Creative too.

Amor de Gaudi, Roppongi

In a funny little category of ‘Roppongi places I’ve been for both lunch and dinner’ is this Spain bar near Roppongi Hills (just outside Hollywood). There are half a dozen tables and a small counter in tiled / dark wood and metal faux-Spanish environment, and the food is what you might call ‘Spanish Bistro’ or, I suppose, ‘Spain Bar’.

I guess I’d have to say this underperforms the other Spain bars I can think of, like Pero (Ginza) and the related Muy (Marunouchi Tokia) or even Spain Bar Monzennakacho. I’m not such a big fan anyway, so maybe I’m not a good judge. The first time I went for lunch I found it small and bland, but I was somehow convinced to go again recently and ended up with a fish stew that was good. I’d go back for lunch on the basis of that. The limited-edition lunch paellas look OK. Dinner is better – squid cooked in ink (I can’t go past that!), nice chorizo, mushrooms in garlic oil…all normal stuff, but tasty. Cheap-ish glass wine, so the bill comes out tolerably.

Everybody loves crazy architecture!

Kawakami (川かみ), Takayama (Gifu ken)

Hey, how do you like to eat your high-class local beef? Dipped in squid guts and seared within an inch of its life on a piece of hot rock recently extracted from the gates of hell? What a coincidence! Me too! This is the place for you!

Kawakami is a little out of the way – it’s in Takayama for a start, and even then it’s at the very far northern end of the shopping street. Actually quite some distance after the stores have run out, so I’m not sure how you’d find it unless you were just walking aimlessly around. If you know the geography, it’s about as far north as Hachimangu’s enormous torii, but on the other side of the river. We found it while…walking aimlessly, actually coming to it from the back and thinking it was someone’s house (judging purely by the young mother and baby playing in the back room). At the front, it has a clean-and-neat, recently-constructed-but-traditional look that tends to imply to me that the proprietors are serious about what they do.

Since we weren’t available for dinner (see previous post on Sakana!), we went for lunch. Inside is a little older than expected, almost like they transplanted a lot of the fixtures and fittings from an older restaurant elsewhere. I guess I would say outside looked <5 years old, but inside looked 10-15 years old. Not a problem, just funny.

The lunch menu is variations on a theme – normal beef or good beef, served with the aforementioned sauce and hot rock for cooking (the dinner menu evidently expands into lots of normal washoku – the fish delivery came while they were there, and to me a place that’s getting a fresh hamo for the dinner crowd has to be pretty serious). To your lunch set, you can a small appetizer, sashimi, tempura or any combination of these.

I found the beef simultaneously better looking and less tasty than that at Sakana. I think it was filet, judging by the relatively limited marbling, and the taste reflected that. The sauce was an interesting addition: we weren’t really prepared to like beef dipped in squid guts (I’ll stop saying that soon) but I found that I didn’t really want to eat the beef grilled as it was, and kept compulsively dipping it. The appetizer was some type of green jelly (as in, gelatinized dashi loaded up with finely chopped leaves) topped with uni, and was nice. The sashimi was tuna akami, boring, and some kind of kobujime (maybe hamachi?) that was, I kid you not, full of bones. Quite a surprise from an otherwise top-class restaurant, but nothing that ruined my enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sakana (肴), Takayama (Gifu ken)

Beginning a special 4-part sequence of ‘places I ate last weekend’ is Sakana, the reasonably-unassuming izakaya in Takayama that I have said before is at least tied for first in my list of favorite-restaurants-in-Japan. Extravagant praise, but I really like it. Really really.

I really like izakaya, for a start. I love the way the menu is segmented into predictable sections (Fried food? Right this way. Raw fish? Coming up!), but only because I love seeing how a creative chef chooses to populate the pre-determined boxes. Rare ingredients, wacky preparations, home-style food done exceptionally well… This reminds me of getting into a new style of music. You start off saying ‘It all sounds the same to me’, but over time you appreciate and love the nuances.

So I guess I like nuanced izakaya, which is a category not listed on gurunavi. Generally speaking, Sakana is in the ‘rare ingredients’ category. A5 Hida beef is always on the menu, special mushrooms, rare fish and their rare eggs, etc. The first time I went, the otoushi (dare I say, the ‘sakana’?) were some special, special kind of ikura, so fresh as to indistinguishable from normal ones, and a wasabi-flavored grated yamaimo. We followed that up with wild boar 3 ways (smoked, grilled…maybe nama-ham’ed?) shot by the owner’s friend. The time after that, the otoushi was a whole grilled negi ("No knives, just bite off pieces. It tastes better that way.") Another time, I ate the aforementioned A5 cow as sashimi, then wrapped around matsutake and grilled. Highest quality, freshest preparation. Makes me quiver. Look at the web page and blog and you may be set a-quiver also.

On my recent visit, it was suggested that the chef/owner, Imai san, is a bit of a salesman. He does tend to spend a lot of time running through the menu and describing the superhuman characteristics of various items of the day. Here’s another point – I didn’t even realize on my first visit that there’s a regular menu, the daily specials are that extensive. You know what though – I like someone who’s going to go into huge detail about what something is and why I should eat it. Even if they profit from my eating it.

Drinks list is big; I didn’t try to explore it. I’m quite happy with the house junmai ginjo. The wine selection was pretty weak, but Japanese drinks were strong, and that’s what you want with your super-fresh Japanese produce anyway. If you’re me.

That's it - the 3 F's again - fully focused on food. I reserved about two weeks ahead to get a counter seat. Imai san thought I was a nut and said so when I arrived, but the counter stayed full while we were there. The table seat another 12-14 people, so it’s not a big place. Get in early and stay late. Bring money - A5 beef is the antithesis of cheap - or else stick with the more normal fare, which is also lovingly selected and prepared.

Sakana (肴), Takayama (Gifu ken)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Harrod’s Brompton, Roppongi

When work in Roppongi is getting you down, go out to lunch. Hmmm, I prefer to go out to lunch every day…what does that say? Harrod’s is a great place to go when you want to escape – the décor is interesting and comfortable, the food is tolerable, and you can sit on stuffed leather chairs or couches if you ask nicely.

Slightly hidden up a set of stairs on Keyakizaka, down the hill from LV, you probably won’t be stumbling in without knowing it in advance. It’s above the Harrod’s store though, which is a more convenient way to find it. Big wooden doors and nice window displays (champagne, I think. Always a nice way to start) set the tone.

Inside has a number of nice touches. There’s conventional seating in the front, but the tiling on the walls, the nice chairs, the high ceiling and fake balcony are all positives. The bar in the middle looks hip (to a guy who’s always mistaken as being 5 years older than he is…) and in the back is the couch ‘n’ chair area, much like someone’s living room has been transported to a bar. It’s a little difficult to sit on those stuffed couches and leather chairs and eat your lunch, but we suffer through these things for comfort and fashion.

It’s taken me all this time to get to food, almost inexcusable. This is an English Restaurant, which means you can have such things as a sausage platter (sausage, bacon, fried egg, beans, toast!) or add some fried fish or liver croquette to it. There’s always a pasta, and a lackluster vegetarian plate. I’ve seen people order the chicken in cream sauce with some success. For me though, the appeal has always been in the pancake set (I know, more breakfast-at-lunch). I think it’s 3 small pancakes plus a bit of salad, plus a very full range of accompaniments – butter and syrup, salmon mousse, blue cheese-cake, bacon and sausage (recurring themes). This sounds weird, and is, but in a nice way. Everything comes with coffee at the end.

Bring me my smoking jacket, Jeeves 03-5770-5413

Tsubakiya, Roppongi

Visit Tsubakiya for a guaranteed shot of nostalgia that will take you straight back to the Taisho years (if you were alive and living in Japan, of which I was neither). Pleasingly, this place manages to pull off the requisite ambiance without feeling as if it hasn’t been remodeled since Taisho – which is a problem that I think happens a lot based on my informal survey of looking in the windows of coffee places and deciding that I would never set foot in them. It's a small chain, and they explicitly state their desire to recreate a 'Taisho chic motif', so I guess that explains it all.

I go to lunch places to eat lunch, not to soak up the ambiance (usually. Actually there’s at least one other place where the food is OK but the ambiance makes it for me, and that’s Harrod’s, where the coolosity of the surroundings makes it a real trip outside Roppongi every time you go. Hmmm, Umaya used to be in that category too. OK, I take it back). The food here is pretty good (based on my highly scientific and reliable single-point survey – all three of us had the beef curry lunch). Small salad of iceberg lettuce with two pieces of red bell pepper on top to make it look serious, then you’re on to the main event.

Curry lunch (Y1300) comes with a fair amount of fanfare – a plate of yellow rice with some raisins on top (I bet there's a name for this), then a small silver tray with a china serving dish of curry and a glass dish with two kinds of pickles. Everyone gets one of these, which is…special. The curry itself was amply-supplied and had a lot of nice soft-n-fatty beef in it. It’s not any kind of luxury curry, but it was tasty! There are also sandwich sets.

Coffee comes with more fanfare (since they specialize in it), starting with china cups delivered to the table in advance of the coffee’s arrival, presumably to increase excitement. The coffee is vacuum-method brewed (the kind where the machine uses two glass globes, also described as the ‘science experiment’ method!), and they bring the beaker with attached stand to the table before putting the cups back on a tray and pouring carefully. Dramatic and civilized!

Cakes look good too (Y500-600 separately, Y1050 with coffee, I think) but curry and coffee was enough for me.

Group home page 03 5785 3323

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Dolce MariRisa, Denen Chofu

Denen Chofu is what's properly termed a 'Garden Suburb'. The whole area was bought up by a developer named Eichi Shibusawa around the turn of the (last) century with the intention of turning it into a cleaner, greener planned suburb (and anyone who's been to Japan will attest that urban planning is not a deeply-held value here). Evidently the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 actually helped the area - which was less damaged than the rest of Tokyo - by convincing people it was a good idea to live that far from the city center. Now, of course, it's relatively central, especially if your world centers on Shibuya. And it sure has succeeded in being a garden suburb, with trees, parks and gardens pretty much everywhere. The only downside is the limited shopping.

The station is quaint in a vaguely Swiss way - at least the building above the station that looks like it used to be the station, before the residents successfully petitioned to have the train line buried as it passed through their gardens. And in one of the buildings adjoining that quaint faux-chalet is this nice cake and tea shop. It's a strong representative of the painted-wooden-chairs, paned-windows, flowered curtains cafe that prevails in Den-en and neighboring Jiyugaoka.

All of this is by way of saying that I just drank a matcha latte. But it was pretty nice, the prices were very normal considering the surroundings, and the cakes looked very pretty! I was especially interested in the grape tart. Looked a lot like a cheesecake, but had cut kyohou grapes on top. Normally this would be tremendously scandalous - they weren't peeled! This tart had a sign on it saying that they were special grapes and you could eat the skins. Because in Japan, no one eats fruit skin. Really. Only me.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reims Yanagidate, Aoyama

It's cool when you ask for a glass of champagne to start things off and the waiter says 'white or rose, sir?' I suppose you might expect that when the restaurant is named after the capital of Champagne (and still a word that my crappy French accent can't negotiate). But it still set a nice tone, and was a pleasant surprise when the rose champagne was even reasonably priced (not a feature I usually associate with it!).

This was a while ago (June 28th, 08, if you HAVE to know), so I'm slightly struggling to remember as much detail as I'd like to in order to convince you to go. You should know up front that it's grazing the upper limits of what I think is plausible in pricing - I sprung for the Y9,000 'fish and meat' course, which of course represents significantly good value compared to some other places lurking around Aoyama (to say nothing of the upper floors of certain famous buildings...). But the service is pretty much impeccable, at least enough for me since I'm really there for the food, and the single room is quiet, pleasant, and neutral without being boring. It's slightly tucked away off Aoyama Dori in a way that makes you feel you've gone somewhere by the time you get across the courtyard and into the restaurant, which is also nice.

So the menu is what I'm struggling to remember! That's too bad, because the food is clearly good enough to go back for even at the price. Crab and avocado tartare, chilled and tasty for early Summer. Ray sauteed in butter, pretty much as expected (bone-in though, which surprised me. Maybe you expect it that way, but I'm not French). A big, meaty main of pork roasted with truffles for two people (it's always a good sign when you can agree enough to get the 'なんとか for two people', don't you think?). If you look at the menu on the web, you'll see plenty of standards - beef tail, quail, supreme of duck...once you get to the Beef Rossini, you know what kind of restaurant you're in. I guess a good summary would be that you're not going to be shocked and awed by the choice of ingredients or preparation, but the quality and the skill comes through everywhere (in an enjoyable and tasty way, naturellement).

Come to think of it, my friend alerted me before I went that the Japanese-language reviewers said variously that this place was 'their favorite' and 'popular with rich women'. There you go, strong recommendations from everyone!

Group home page 03-3407-3538 The other places look good too - Le Charbon in Azabudai and Le Remois in Shin Maru.

Right near Omotesando Exit B2, on Aoyama dori. Just make the first right and look for the arch.

Issui (一穂), Monzennakacho

Is there anything better than a good izkaya? Well of course there is! Lots of things.
Don't be silly. But this place is definitely a good izakaya, which I would summarize
with the 3 F's - friendly, fun, and fussy about food. I guess that's 4, but I just
made it up.

Issui is close to my place, in a little strip of restaurants that's otherwise in a
sorta dead zone between Monzennakacho and Kiba. There's the chicken-specialist place
with ji-beer and the really slow, grumpy master, there's the ramen place, and the
hair salon. I don't recommend eating there. But strangely, I never managed to go
before (in just under 4 years of living 2 minutes away). Two reasons: it's past my
place if you're coming from the station (heavens! But just that little extra impetus
not to go.) and it's frequently full. Last night was kind empty, and I jumped in.

I like friendly staff. It's cool when the waitress asks you where you're from and
all like that. I haven't gotten tired of it yet. The bit of banter between the
waitress and two chefs over my head was very endearing. Talking about the upcoming
festival was fun too, but I'm still not springing for a jacket and suffering through
hours of punishing sun, heavy omikoshi, and drenching water. There's always a balance
of professionality and friendliness (and perhaps regular human courtesy), and I'm
not fixated on the perfect balance, as long as there's some of each.

What I REALLY like, though, is tasty food. And this place has got it. The hand-written
menu had me kinda depressed until I realized it was just the specials - three kinds of
eel dishes? Right, it's summer and we all need more power. I had the eel-and-cucumber
-in-vinegar (uzaku) and liked it. The fish in the cooler wasn't that good-looking
(like it was sitting for a while and was kinda dull) but once sliced it was shiny,
fresh and tasty (scallop and snapper. They also had hamo; I don't know about you,
but I don't get the attraction.). I rounded things off with some buta kakuni, which
was eeexcellent. Made me wish I was there with a group of people so I could try
half of the menu! It's interesting, because the menu is very 'jokey' - names for
different sets of sushi, little jokes about how great things are…you can see it on
the web site too. Their slogan is 'らしい男のらしい店' - is it just me, or should I
read that as 'Real restaurant for real men'? But the food was clearly very serious.
I'll go back any time. Any time they're not full...

一穂, らしい男のらしい店 03-3643-2255

Café Singapura , Roppongi

For the regular lunch crowd, this used to be Golden Burning, variously known as
'the Thai place', 'the Vietnamese place', 'the Asian place' or 'the red place'
across from TV Asahi, at the bottom of Imoraizaka. 'Red' was a good description,
what with the whole exterior being painted red and all. Now the red is gone
(white, with a big logo) and the menu has changed (in keeping with the new name),
but the interior hasn't moved an inch, and some of the staff is still the same.

The old menu would always have a coconutty curry, some pho, sometimes Taiwan-style
stewed chopped pork…all things you like (I hope). Actually, I pretty much stopped
going after they took the stewed pork (basically chopped kakuni, sorry Taiwan-
jin...) off the menu. I went a few times to see if it might have come back, but
eventually lost interest. What with the repaint and all, I figured I should
go again. Still took a couple months.

The new menu is (I think) more focused and in keeping with the name. It's definitely
more Singapore-y than it used to be. How do I know this? Pho is gone, laksa has
arrived. Once I saw that, I was sold. Just the word laksa takes me back to the
world's best lunch, to be had in Sydney at the aptly-named Malaysian Chinese
Takeaway. $7 for a laksa, $.50 extraordinarily well-spent for a bid, and away we
went… Singapura's laksa wasn't anywhere near MCT's, but it was OK. Where else are
you going to get a big bowl of noodles in spicy coconut milk with cha shu, moyashi,
prawns, quail egg and tofu? That's right, nowhere around here. So the basic taste
was there, but the noodles seemed like the wrong consistency (I think they were
rice, while I remember MCT being half wheat and half rice, or all wheat) and the
soup wasn't spicy enough…but you know, I was still darn happy with it.

No point complaining about service when you're looking at 'ethnic' food for less
than Y1000, so I won't go into my usual 'service was weird' point. One thing I
WILL complain about is the side dishes. I've ordered things like spring rolls
a number of times at Golden Burning in the past, and always been disappointed.
Today I figured the new menu could be different and got the 'green papaya salad'
(I do love a good somtam, don't you?). This turned out to be a mixed salad - lettuce
with a bit of somtam fixin's on top. Skip it.

The group's main page, in case you want to go to the remaining Golden Burning in Shibuya