Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nataraj, Aoyama

I'm afraid it's Rude About Food time again.

Vegetarian Indian in an Aoyama basement. I have no problem with vegetarian food - I often order dhal even if other things are available. What I DO have a problem with is bland vegetarian food made with mediocre ingredients. It should be a good indication of flavors to come when the menu advises "Spicy red and black pepper: Y100. Extra Garam Masala: Y150". Wait - you're actually threatening to make the food bland unless I pay extra? I was also excited to see a lot of paneer on the menu, but less enthused when the paneer-in-tomato-gravy arrived: dessert-sweet gravy with a few buried chunks of wooden cheese.

Couple this with a degree of overpricing, possibly introduced by the location across from Gaien, and you have an altogether unsatisfying experience. However one that's ideally located for a trip across the street to inspect the trees!

Saji Sushi, Jiyugaoka (鮨どころ佐治)

Jiyugaoka is a nice place. Have you noticed that? Perhaps you've seen it featured in every magazine and food/shopping TV show in Japan? No? Then I recommend it. Lots of fun little shops, quiet backstreets, restaurants. Really good.

Waaaaay down the road (walking) from the station, the feeling of being in town dies out. In the dark, I could easily fool myself into thinking I was on the shopping street of a small town out in the countryside. Houses mixed with small stores, and the occasional restaurant. Quiet. Quiet. The charming sushi place on the right side wasn't Saji, but the charming sushi place on the left side was. [4/26/14: I took this picture today. First time I've walked by Saji since having dinner there.]

Is it a characteristic of sushi places that the master remembers your name? Or just good sushi places? In this case it was 5 years since the last visit (not for me) but the master clearly remembered. Despite being quite young, Saji's master has created a sort of timeless appeal in his place - slightly worn around the edges but in a way that lets you know it's from constant cleaning, not neglect. The long counter is the primary attraction (it's sushi!), and is backed by several tables. I'm not sure about the relationship between the young master and the older one who works the far end; it would be strange for the young guy to be in charge, wouldn't it?

How does one review sushi? It took me a looong time to recognize differences beyond the obvious (this flounder is bad!) and come up with my own preferences. Saji does a good job with the variety, the freshness and the preparation. There are some things you don't always see, like ankimou and shiitake. The only thing I could fault was the rice - a little small, a little soft. There's an ideal size and balance to these things; this was clearly within the limits of acceptability, but not exactly to my preference.

Relaxing and tasty local sushi, no pretense, no excessive bill. Maybe you don't want to make the trip, but if you live nearby it could be your new local.

Nice web site! They'll make osechi too, if you get your orders in soon.

Friday, November 28, 2008

l'Auberge de l'Ill, Roppongi

Well, now I have some inkling what 3 stars in France would mean. The recently-released Michelin guide rates l'Auberge at 1 hoshi, which feels distinctly miserly after today's lunch. I can imagine taking today, amping it up, adding some courses and doubling the price, and then we'd be about right. This will sound weird, but I felt that Y5000 was prefectly reasonable for the food and service I received, and I would recommend l'Auberge to anyone who can imagine spending Y5000 on lunch (note that this is weekdays only. The weekend lunch plan is more expensive.). The 'head office' in Alsace is 3-star, and has been so for 41 years (as of press time), making it the second-oldest of France's 3-star 'dynasties' (Troigros and Bocuse, I think). Evidently it's known for being amazing with a warm and casual flair, whereas many of the other 3-star places are not so warm, nor so casual.

From the outside, l'Auberge looks the business. I'm told it used to be The Georgian Club, whatever that means; the expansive (for Tokyo) area for getting out of your limousine, the huge columns and the impressive facade all conspire to make you feel very serious about your arrival. Inside, we were shunted into the waiting room before making our grand entrance. This is a cramped and overdecorated little salon done up in reds and pinks, with Louis someone armchairs and a cute bar. I truly suspect that this is just to make the experience more impressive...but it works!

We made a grand entrance. There's no getting around this - you enter through double doors at the head of a large, curved, double-sided staircase. You overlook the dining room, which is large, airy, and decorated with various 4-meter-high portraits and enormous chandeliers. You will feel like you're in a chateau, no question. As the waiter escorts you down said staircase, you can't help but notice that you're the only men in the room (aside from the staff). I always end up in restaurants with no men...

We started with butter. 2 kinds. One stamped with the Auberge logo. On a slab of chilled marble. The bread is delicious, and the butter would be a suitable amuse by itself since it's so tasty. The actual amuse was 3 bread-and-meat confections - one a tiny, perfect cube of fried chicken, another a minute pepperoni pizza, the other a little chou.

The serious food started with a parmesan mousse, topped with prosciutto and surrounded by parmesan foam. Then two nicely-grilled shrimp tails with a little salad and a delicious, tiny, square crab cake shaped just like a square of chocolate. The really serious thing was the main - Tasmanian salmon cut into a long rectangle, wrapped with spinach, wrapped in spring roll skin and fried. Or maybe not spring roll skin - it was so perfect.... Surrounded by a complex mix of sauces - one side finely-shredded cabbage and bacon (referencing Choucroute Alsacienne, no doubt), the other side finely-scrambled eggs (I don't know how to do this, but I wish I did - so soft, so scrambled...I have a feeling they were double-boiled.), the whole thing surrounded by white wine. It was so perfect that conversation basically stopped except for grunting about how perfect it was.

Pre-dessert: blancmange topped with rose-wine granite. Dessert was fancy - stewed grapes (巨峰, even) topped with custard, topped with a quenelle of ice cream, topped with grape mousse. Topped with a series of white and purple (grape, one imagines) meringue sticks (you can see these in Tabelog pictures). My colleague skipped dessert in favor of cheese, served from the trolley, including a St. Marcellin that was creamy to the point of runny, and delicious to the point of conversation-stopping.

Service: exacting and attentive without being distant. I mentioned that we needed to leave in order to get back to the office, they clarified exactly what time we wanted to leave. After a slight pause, our dishes came more or less in sequence, just after we finished the prior ones. This left us with sufficient time to drink our coffee at normal speed while the girls who came in just before us were receiving their salmon. As with the salmon, we had to stop talking (again) in order to focus on how impressive this was.

Can you spend Y5000 on lunch? It's not easy. This is so clearly a ladies-who-lunch place. But it's awfully, awfully good, and I would have to say that both the price and service charge were well justified. Dinner is terrifyingly expensive, but I would feel safer about it now that I've sampled the more reasonable wares over lunch.

Definitely more than 1 star. Expect it to go up next year.

Sakura Shokudou, Roppongi (Sakura 食堂. Really.)

This pleasant place opened during the 'renewal open' period a while back (errr, it may be 6 months already, but the last 6 months have been kinda surreal as you may have read). It has all the elements of a 'healthy cafe' that you might expect to find in a side street of Shibuya or Nakameguro, but is oddly wedged between a steamed bun shop and the old-record-albums-and-reel-to-reel-tape-player counter ramen shop in the passage of the Metro Hat in Roppongi Hillz.

I think you've seen this kind of place before (on Saturday morning shows aimed at late-teen girls, if nothing else). Pleasant light-blue woodwork on the doors, cute slogans painted in white on the windows (including the charming 'Let's drink!'), waitresses wearing clever little caps and carrying small handbags as part of their uniforms (sort of '1920's newsboy' chic), menu advising what's healthy, brown rice instead of know the drill.

In fact, the food is tasty and the sets are good value from a volume perspective. My colleague's sukiyaki looked quite tolerable, and my tofu meatloaf with fried egg (any accidental overseas readers will be even more puzzled at this point...) was juicy and tasty, topped with a leaf of shiso and some roshi'ed daikon. These came with a choice of regular rice, salad and side dish or else ochazuke (brown rice, some leafy vegetables, and your choice of two toppings out of 4 or 5).

Time for the obligatory complaint: the place is small and packed. The tables are almost too small to fit the trays plus drinks plus napkins. They're close together, and the place is full. I grant you that not everyone is 185cm, but I felt packed and uncomfortable and eager to eat and get out. Not only is this not my concept of lunch, it's oddly opposed to the healthy, bright, ごゆっくり atmosphere the place is trying for.

Izakaya by night.

Ichiriki, Monzennakachououou (一力)

[Jan 2011: This closed ages ago. It's a shame, really.]


I'm really not sure what prevented me from going into this place over 4 years of walking by it. I have a feeling it was the lack of menu outside, which is of course a frequent problem in Japan and one that any self-respecting food lover needs to get over toot-sweet if they want to enjoy the Japanese dining experience fully. All this week I've been deeply desirous of fish, but hadn't managed to close any transactions. Ichiriki went full-bore into the fish, so I'm partially done now (but not so much that I'm not looking forward to sushi tonight!). In fact, the billing of '魚料理' seems exceedingly appropriate, considering that the only non-魚介 things I remember eating were 2 chestnuts, a piece of ginger, some rice, and miso soup (which had half a crab in it).
Food: check. Somehow, I can't explain this, the Y3000 5-course menu included: a whole aji, sashi'ed. Half a squid, sashi'ed. A whole hairy Hokkaido crab, steamed and cracked and accompanied by vinegar. A whole hirame, simmered in sweet soy sauce. A big plate of rice. A bigger bowl of miso soup with the aforementioned crab's body stuck back into it (unless this was another fellow, but I thought I recognized his hairstyle.). Half an apple (you got me, I ate that too and it wasn't fish) and a small manju (alright already!).
Fun back-story: check. The master worked at Tsukiji for 30 years, in lots of different divisions (he's from Tsukiji but now lives in Kiba). He wanted to do something different, so he opened his own place. He sources the fish himself, directly from ports in Japan, because he thinks the fish at Tsukiji comes from too many weird places (like Boston!) to be reliable. We spent a lot of time talking about Kiba, but couldn't really come up with good ideas for good food there...
Pleasant, family-style service? Cozy atmosphere? Tasty food? Check^3. Value? Amazing.
Gurunavi seems to have the prices wrong, or else the lower level was a weekday thing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Goroku, Monzennakacho (伍六)

It's a hard job, being a famous food writer, and my liver bears the scars for it. But I feel a responsibility to my fan, so I keep going.

Tuesday night found us shlepping home (in the royal plural sense) from work, in the rain, remembering that the new restaurant we had spotted the day before on the way home from the cleaner was due to be open, debating, nay, struggling with ourselves about whether to visit or whether to go home and sleep, but also whether to end this sentence or just continue to use more, commas. In the end, food won. And that means we're all winners, doesn't it?

Seriously, this place is on a half-deserted side street of Monzennakacho. It's next to one of the 2 smallest, grubbiest izakayas in town, which specializes in whale. I was stunned when I saw an attractive facade, a proper, modern fitout, and a signboard saying 'French Japanese Food'. Ooooh! Staff said opening day was tomorrow, so I contented myself with a card and went home.

When I got there on opening night, it was almost full. I got the last seat at the table. The table, because in modern style, the first floor has only one large, combined counter/table (second floor, private room, up to 24). The counter has a sushi fridge and a work area, but the fridge is stuffed with vegetables, and the rest of the table seats 8. You'll face some people who you may never have met, and sit next to them too. It's also worth mentioning that the atmosphere is artfully lit, clean without being too bright, and looks out a low window to a tiny and interestingly empty garden.

This was opening night. I sat next to the owner; the chef is his business partner. Their first restaurant is in Kagurazka, and he said they found that Monnaka had the same appeal as KGZ but was less developed and more authentic. Or something. He studied English in London around the same time I was born, OK? I sat across from the chef's artist sister, who came from Aichi for dinner, and her friend, who teaches college in Chiba but came from home in Mitaka. We bonded. [Aside: despite having been through two funerals in Japan, I learned something new about chopstick etiquette. Evidently the chopsticks you use to pick up bones after cremation are supposed to be different from each other, so the ones you use at dinner should be the same. These were the same shape and roughly same color, but the patterns were different enough that it bothered the Professor. Mary Ann said she was fine with it, and she was an artist. I settled in for a 3-hour tour.] Also across the table was the financial backer - minority owner? Debt holder? Unseemly to ask.

This is French Japanese food - it's not hyphenated and the 'French' is thus the modifier, indicating that it's Japanese food with a French twist. I hope the opening-night menu persists throughout (course only, two options, had the smaller one). Amuse, 9種類 appetizer, chawan mushi, hot appetizer, main, rice-based dish, dessert, Y4200? OMG, shut up! Let me not summarize all the elements, OK? Illustrating the chef's creativity and approach, I'll just point out a few things. Amuse of grilled cheese tofu (errr...that came out wrong for those who know what grilled cheese sandwiches are. Whipped and airy tofu, with cheese in it, oven-baked to a slight brown.) with an intense cheeziness mixed with the smooth tofu tonality. One of the 9 bite-size treats was Spanish prosciutto, wrapping nicely ripened persimmon. Ever seen that before? Me either! I thought it was melon until I picked it up, at which point it became a delightful seasonal reference as well as a nifty Japanese twist to traditional food. Seafood pot au feu...half a little lobster, a few incredibly sweet scallops...I'm not a fan of lettuce in soup, but I'll grant an exception. They can't keep this up for the price, can they? Some of the other dishes were ordinary. Let's pretend they didn't happen, OK?

Didn't really get a look at the drink list; just allowed myself to be steered into glass wine. Service was charming and attentive, if a bit overwhelmed - and I'm not complaining, I went in expecting worse since it was opening night. Not everything hit perfectly, and Mary Ann and I agreed that we wanted bread with it, but it might get better over time, and represents really great value.

Here's the original restaurant in Kagurazaka, since this place isn't online yet. But the correct phone number:

Wow, there were some wacky customers too! I really liked the executive-looking guy and his Eastern European friend. Fine features and big, dark eyebrows!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kurosawa, Roppongi

Man, I really feel like I wrote this before. We've all been to Kurosawa, right? Shifting set of lunch options anchored by soba as well as buta-don, slightly interesting and slightly expensive dinners? Sure, we've all been.

This is the Roppongi Kurosawa. It does that sorta 'country Japanese' ambience quite well, managing to feel homey and a touch rustic while also being clean. The counter is quite nice for some reason, and I'm a sucker for places where the chefs display their knives on racks behind the counter. Having the fish cooler at the end of the counter is good too; the first time I went for lunch there was a live squid in a bag of water. Cute and tasty!

Lunch food: your choice of soba, varying prices but a bit steep - supposed to reflect the highest-quality ingredients as discussed on the web site, but I found the soba quite ordinary in the past. Definitely prefer Honmura An. Or your choice of buta-don - comes in colors - I think white, black or red. Only had this once, and found it quite ordinary. Today's grilled set (炙り膳, I need to practice so I remember these) was aji, which was on the small and bony side, but decent once you got a bit of meat off, as well as good rice, decent soup and really lame pickles.

One time I went for lunch and the chef was making sushi for another customer - I ordered it up too. This was seared mackerel pressed sushi (炙り鯖棒鮨) which was fantastic - a whole flame-seared saba fillet, coated with wasabi and sesame seeds, applied to a brick of rice and sliced into 8, with a slice of sudachi between each slice of sushi. Only had this one time - too fancy, I can't believe they were making it for lunch, and I went back for dinner specifically to eat it. I also have a soft spot for the dinner because they have tori-wasa (I've said it before and I'll say it again, nothing like raw chicken with green horseradish to kindle the flame of love!). I have a bit harder heart when it comes to the Y800 'tomato salad', which turns out to be a single small tomato, peeled, surrounded by sliced green onion. This illustrates the dichotomy of Kurosawa for me - some good stuff, but not all of it, and you'll be a touch surprised at the end.

I'm getting converted to Tabelog now that I understand the scoring. Next step, reading the comments...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Boschetta, Shiroganedai

Boschetta will likely sound very good to you based on the following:
- Located in quiet Shirokanedai, in an even-quieter back street, down at the end, just before it dead-ends at someone's house.
- Located, in fact, in what clearly used to be someone's very expensive house. The entryway feels like an entryway. The stairs feel like they're going to the bedrooms. The dining rooms feel like converted bedrooms. This is pretty charming, and extremely cozy.
- The former garage has been converted into a glassware store. They sell all sorts of interesting and modern plates and glasses, and these are the same ones you'll get to eat from in the restaurant. A lot of clear things with colorful line-designs, or gilt edges with textured, translucent centers.
- Menus come in the 6-7 course Cena or the 8-9 course Degustazione (depends how you want to count the sorbet, which was a pretty entertaining interlude, so probably deserves the designation of 'course'. Cena Y8000, Degus, Y10,000 (サ別、水別 - it's an expensive Italian restaurant after all).

The food had some definite high points.
- Amuse featured a slice of zucchini, lightly fried and then topped with chopped pine nuts. Also a slice of deer sausage topped with pickled cauliflower. Also a nice little piece of frittata topped with fresh tomatoes. All pleasant, if a little uninspired.
- Pumpkin mousse with tomato puree. Interesting use of sweet spices in the mousse, nice job liquifying the tomato. Overall sweet and fruity.
- Shrimp fried in spring roll skin, atop a small baked risotto cake. Shrimp was excellent. Something about the frying made the skin taste like McDonald's to me (this isn't a bad thing, I like McDonald's. But I don't like being reminded of it by fancy food!). Something about the rice cake was overdone.
- Pasta, yum. Weirdly, this was the high point for me despite the pasta itself clearly being dried and purchased (I think it's dishonest to make a big deal out of it being 'fedellini' when it's really spaghetti that you've bought at the Tokyu store near the crossing). My pasta was Iwate oysters and panchetta. The oysters were really...plump. You can't put it any other way, and this is why it's better to eat oysters in Winter. They were terrific. I guess oysters and bacon is a normal thing, because it tastes great. Other pasta I was was similar fedellini, but with confit guinea fowl (ほろほろ鳥, I just looked it up) and broccoli and cresson; looked mediocre, but I'm told it was good!
- Mains were a normal-ish grilled pork with salad and lemon, which resided in front of me briefly before being snatched away on the grounds that the other main was inedible. This being a veal Rossini, I was a little confused, but bravely ventured into the breach to consume the veal, foie gras, black truffles and asparagus stacked on the plate as well as the potato puree and thick, reduced jus. Argh, did I really italicize that? Pretentious. The sauce was on the salty side (hi Seat!) but the whole thing was decent.

Right, obviously I'm just holding off before I get to the complaint portion. I think I can stick to reasonable complaints this time rather than rehashing my usual Italian サ水別 points.
- The food doesn't seem that fresh. Some of the ideas are good, but I don't have the feeling that they're pounding the pavement and bullying suppliers to get the freshest ingredients. Nor are they executing brilliantly. Things were lukewarm.
- The service is mixed. There was at least one guy who I found flat-out pretentious; it's quite possible that the sort of clients they get prefer this sort of thing, but he had no grace, in my humble estimation. On the other hand, some of the less-senior staff were quite charming. One bad apple spoils the whole barrel, as my gran-pappy used to say back home in Alabama.

Didn't drink wine; the previous post should give you some idea why. I must give credit though - the wine list was big, interesting (to me) for being Italian-heavy and organized by region, hand-written with cute drawings of wine labels, and including a broad range of bottles in all price ranges.

A decent and cozy experience with some good points! I'm afraid I can't recommend that you drop your dollars here though, let alone your yen. Perhaps the charming La Boheme branch across the street? Or Quintessence, just around the corner?


Kavach, Tokyo (カバチェ)

Well, if you're going to have 4 work dinners in a month, some of them might as well be in decent locations. Kavach is the Yaesu branch of a 3-restaurant Italian chain specializing in reasonable-if-dull repetitions of Italian classics. In fairness, I was in a group of 30, and I think that even the best restaurants struggle to keep up with that. Plus we weren't the only group; there were probably 20-30 other patrons.

Dishes I can remember, before the carafes of house wine and repeated 'Bottoms up!' toasts with colleagues took hold:
- Fresh mozzarella salad with some tomatoes and disturbingly long ribbons of carrot. Tolerable but awkward since we had to split one smallish salad among 6 people at the table.
- Grilled scampi and white fish in pesto. Much more boring than you'd expect from something as apparently tasty as scampi (yum!) and pesto (double yum!). I can put pesto on just about anything and enjoy it (hey, have you tried shirataki with pesto? Delicious and extremely low calorie!) but in the group setting this disappointed.
- Mushroom pizza. Pretty good, I think, but I was starting to lose it...
- Pasta. I liked this, but I have no idea what the sauce was. Things were getting bad.
- Grilled pork, simple and Italian in style. I didn't manage to try this. Don't ask.

Ooog. I think this might be OK if you visited on a more normal night and not in the company of 20 of your hardest-drinking friends...


Outback Steakhouse, Roppongi

Good lord, what was I thinking, missing Outback? I shudder to think of all the places I've been in Roppongi that I won't be able to get back to in time to post legitimately on them before shuffling off to Buffalotemachi, but at least this one's out of the way.

After the menu revamp a few months ago (probably a year, now that I think about it), there are more options at lunch. Several types of burgers (Deluxe or Premium for Y1350 with a few fries, a little coleslaw, and a big pile of chili under the bun; regular for Y1100), some salads (ideally with fried chicken on top!), grilled chicken sandwiches, fish burgers (nothing will ever, EVER compare to Tark's of Dania, so don't even start. Eat clams and live longer - eat oysters and love longer!)...yep, all the Australian classics are here! I think you know this already, instinctively if you haven't been there.

Quality isn't so high, the music can be a bit blaring, you're going to feel guilty for sitting around a little slice of America dissecting everything that's wacky about your life at work...but it's a good burger, the drinks are refillable, and the staff is friendly.

Used beer department, this way -->

The Siam, Ginza (ザ サイアム)

I'm starting to feel like I chose the wrong blog as my inspiration. Eating Out In Tokyo? More like Rude About Food...

4 out of 5 dentists agree, The Siam is not a tasty restaurant. As we received one tepid dish after another (fresh spring rolls, tom yum goong, shrimp cakes, yum woon sen, green curry, pad thai), all I could think was how close we were to Tinun. I admit, the woon sen were pretty spicy, but they were missing something. It was lime juice either...I think it was herbs, now that I think about it. Not a lot in the way of fresh herbs. And for something like green curry, I think that in this day and age it behooves one to splash out on a decent proportion of coconut milk, to say nothing of including the real Thai vegetables (those too, too darling little green eggplants!) that are now actually available in Tokyo.

Service was quite attentive though! Impressive considering that every seat was full and people kept coming and going.

You shouldn't need the info on this one. I would, however like to recommend the following 19 restaurants as good sources of Thai. Or this one in Shin Okubo, which is right near the guitar store. Or even this one near my place...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Saraku, Tokyo (茶らく)

I have a feeling that I need to adjust my rating system. The lunch contained herein felt like Y1200 or even Y1500 by Roppongi standards, but was Y1100 (and the under-Y1000 lunch looked just fine too). Similarly, if every day is going to bring a new teishoku, just tagging all these entries 'washoku' isn't going to work so well.

Right, after concluding our 2 hour meeting with someone who was pretending to care about the topic but knew that he was only minutes away from being formally transferred to another continent (the announcement was being made as we left the meeting), everyone really needed a decent lunch. My initial thought was to walk over to Nihonbashi and hit up Coredo (コレどう?), but along the way I saw Tokyo station, and remembered the delicious and quite luxurious miso katsu I once had in the basement. We changed course and headed for Kitchen Street.

There are a lot of options there, but the mutually agreed winner was the ochazuke, Saraku. The lunch options were essentially combinations of a few things: ochazuke with regular dashi (white, for some reason), ochazuke with tonkotsu dashi, toppings of your choice, and cooked items. We each had an ochaz + cooked - for her, grilled fish (probably sanma. When will they go away? It's 刀魚, after all, and 秋 is almost over.) and for me grilled eggplant ankake. Cooked things were surprisingly good, ochazuke with your choice of two toppings (gomakonbu, mentai, shisonomi, takuan, etc) plus standard toppings (nori, those crunchy little bread balls) was quite surprising, the ocha came in small iron pots, the rice and cha were refillable...all in all, a very pleasant experience.

It does worry me a little that there were practically no men in the place though...that happens to me far too often.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hien, Roppongi

Tasty Korean takeout, most well-known for being the first floor under Cafe 8 (which is most well-known for being the Chinese place with the wacky decor...).

I've had the chapchedon too many times. It's something like harusame cooked in sauce, with vegetables, on rice. I had the yukedon one time; raw beef with raw egg isn't the first thing that I think to get at a takeout place, but that's why I got it. Today I went the ikadon, and this would have to be my favorite so far. There was a lot of sauce and vegetables, so always something interesting to eat with the rice. With the chapche, it tends to clump together and you sorta have to eat the noodles before you get to the rice. I think you can get side dishes too, of course little portions of kimchee but I'm not sure what else. Let me know!

Cheap lunches by Roppongi standards - Y700-900. And tasty!

Extra kimchee, please.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Table d'Hote, Kayabacho

Hey, my new favorite Italian restaurant! Dangerously close to the route between home and the new office (moving date still to be determined), so could prompt frequent stops for a pasta and glass of wine on the way home. As long as I'm walking or biking, I think it's OK!

One-man restaurants are dicey. I went to a place years ago way out in the hinterlands (Musashi Koyama, which I think is actually in Gifu ken) and found that the combination of one guy cooking and serving for a medium-sized restaurant (by Japan standards, so perhaps 30 seats?) had its charms but also obvious drawbacks. The chef there wanted to make complex food, and thus spent a lot of time on pre-work, which made some of the dishes feel pre-worked. Elaborate and interesting, but pre-worked. This was French, so it's slightly more forgivable than for Italian. Even after the restaurant emptied out and it was just the three of us, there was a solid pause between things. Of course the service was interesting and charming, so...anyway, I try not to leave the state just for dinner.

Table d'Hote is charmingly and confusingly named - the chef traveled in Europe before deciding what he wanted to do, and decided to open an Italian restaurant but liked the meaning of the French name that he ultimately settled on. Evidently his wife speaks English and a little Italian, but she wasn't there on the night. I really suspect that this sequence of events led to the nice French family coming in, and we all had a good laugh together as they tried to figure out the menu. At one point the chef was forced to show his hand, admitting that the polenta with ragu and the spaghetti ragu were the same. This was a problem for the French, who tried to order both, but not for us, since we had had the polenta but were shooting for different pasta options. [Geez, this reminds of me The Little Snail in Pyrmont. I only went there twice, several years apart, but both times I managed to order an entree and main that had the same sauce. Neither time did the staff warn me, but hey. No wuckaz!]

Other food included the terrine, which was interestingly rare and mixed-meat-y (sounded fancy and layered, but turned out to be minced. Either way, enjoyable, and accompanied by the chef's pickled cabbage which was surprising and tasty due to the fresh rosemary and raspberry vinegar used in the process.) and Amatriciana pasta, which was nicely robust (again, chef-made pancetta). There's no wine list, just a 'tell me what you want' system, which in our case led to 4 suggestions at reasonable prices and a nice bottle in the end.

Definitely a place to go after work or for a casual weeknight out, due in large part to its dead-zone location and not all to its ambience, food or service.

Extra servings of national identity confusion, free of charge.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Usagiya, Kayabacho (うさぎ屋)

Good lord, first it was Night of the Living Zens, where I had lunch two days straight at places with Zen in the name. Now it's the Killer Rabbits with nasty, pointy teeth. At least there are a few weeks break in between these.

I love being in places that seem like they haven't seen a foreigner or redecorated since early Showa, so this was right up my alley. Plus I haven't had okonomiyaki or monja this year, so now I've gotten the obligatory consumption out of the way until 2009! On balance, I was fairly positive about this place. How bad can it be? How good can it be?

Two okonomis passed out lips - the first was 'pizza'. What can I say, if I'm eating 'Japanese pizza', I'm going to go whole hog. It tasted pretty good, sort of like...let me think...oh, right. It tasted like okonomiyaki. One odd thing about this place is that the mayonnaise was very thin, in fact I'm thinking that I misunderstood about the white stuff that goes on okonomi, and the tip of the bottle had been cut too much, so it wasn't possible to do that really cool thing where you move the bottle fast and get a nice pattern of mayo-strings. The fish flakes were also very finely cut, but this wasn't such a big deal.

The second oko was actually interesting - squid ink, squid and cheese! You'd never get squid and cheese in an Italian restaurant, right? Cooked up to a lovely, gluey gray color with some brown crispy bits. Thinking back now, I had a slight twinge of 'I wouldn't mind eating that again', but unfortunately it will have to wait at least until January since I've met my 2008 quota.

Learned one other thing - evidently the fabled mentai-cheese-mochi combo is only for monja (so claimed the staff). Never heard that before, but I'll be on the lookout for the tendency next year when I go to okono again.

Rabbit attack!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Kushinobo, Roppongi

Squarely in the category of 'places you've been to a lot of times in the last few years', Kushinobo offers up surprising value in battered and fried items. One challenge is that you have to be a Roppongi worker, or find some other way to get a Community Passport.

I guess Kushinobo is a pretty big and old chain (Osaka, 1950, now that I look). If you look at the web site, you'll what look like 20-30 year-old pictures of elaborate kushi platters. The shop on the 5th floor of Roppongi Hillz is quite new and attractive, with an interesting set of spaces including the counter and also an open 'balcony' area that overlooks some of the shopping / hotel areas of Hillz. I don't quite understand the wine coolers - some quite expensive wine and aged sake, but maybe this is what you're supposed to drink with deep-fried items? Something expensive so you can feel luxurious even though you won't be able to taste it?

The 'Hillz Lunch' is excellent value. I'm told that it's 8 kushi; it always feels like 10 to me. Comes with some tsukudani, pickles, your choice of rice (white with soup or else ochazuke, which is by far recommended) and of course the obligatory dish of raw vegetables including cabbage leaves. If you go at rush times, the service can be weird but the quality doesn't really suffer. If anything, it's faster, which is not really better for kushi. When you go late, things are relaxed and you get 1-2 kushi at a time so you can proceed through lunch at a normal pace. All the normal things are there: niku-piman, kabocha, buta negima, ebi, hotate, konnyaku dengaku (ish), a fish with tartar sauce (yesterday was salmon, which I thought was weird) and some other meat (yesterday was tsukune, which I thought was distinctly weird!). Hmmm, that's 8 kushi, so I guess it's true. Good quality, but you can leave feeling a little oily...what did you expect?

Excellent value if you can scare up a Community Passport and pay only Y1050.

Batter 'em up, fry 'em down.

Bistro Khamsa, Nakameguro

We were stumbling around Nakame last night, and I was freezing my patooties off. Despite being hungry, tired and cold, I still wasn't willing to compromise on the vittles. We passed some places that looked good, and I wish we had gone to Bacione, but there's usually a next time. So next time!

Along the river there are a bunch of nice little places, including the very famous motsu-nabe that everyone knows (except me). We passed up two Italian places in favor of this medium casual bistro with an Indian-sounding name. Being on the 5th floor is not a great way to draw custom, and I admit I was trepidatious when the elevator opened into the space.

Turns out that the Indian name is actually a North African name. There are tagines on the shelves as well as the menu, and a cute collection of tea implements (silver pots, ornamented glasses). With the tiled floor and short curtains, I felt distinctly like I was in Paris, or Dakar, or at least in Tokyo.

The menu featured slightly odd takes on bistro favorites - a giant store-made sausage (interesting and tasty in a sort of mystery-meat way, as it nestled naughtily among the lentils), a tuna tartare that was really more sashimi covered with herbs and dressing (though not in a bad way), breaded pork cutlet swimming in mashed potato-ey, cheezy sauce (porcine in a yoshoku way) and finally roasted duck with confit turnips (disappointing in almost every way). Things were going well until the duck, which was a disappointing way to end.

Wine was an interesting Loire red made from Cabarnet Franc, and the sandy soil was evident from the bouquet. OK, not really, but the web site is kinda cute. I feel it was adequately priced at exactly 2X the discount price available on Rakuten, or less than 2X MSRP. The wine selections were limited to a single, slightly crowded, page, and seemed to be banded into Y4500, Y5500, and above. Very sensible casual-bistro pricing. In fact, I think these are all directly-imported bio wines, which seems to be gaining a bit of popularity...

Overall I didn't feel hard-done-by at the end, but now that I think about, the wine, atmosphere and company all played a part in that. Khamsa was merely adequate re: value for money and tastitude. Next time, it's definitely going to be Italian down the street.

Ahhhh, you can tell from the web site that it's very conceptual. They've spent a bit more time on the concept than the food. The fact that the sister restaurant is "French-Vietnamese with bio wine" doesn't make me any happier. Next will be Alsatian with bio wine, then Dalmatian with bio wine, and where will the madness end?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Honmura An, Roppongi

Hey, thanks Tokyo Calendar! This is one of the first times that I've found something really different and special for lunch as a result of my recent forays into magazine readership. There was a special feature a few months ago on soba places, and I was puzzled to discover that this one was located next to a sushi place I've been to a few times. Plus the restaurant and food looked very stylish and tasty (respectively), the prices seemed low considering the quality of food (or photography), and it was open for lunch. How did this one escape?

Turns out that it hasn't been open that long (almost 1 year). You know on Roppongi Dori, near the crossing, where there's that really, really cheap and bad ramen/soba/curry place, 幸楽園? And the Mizuho branch? It's on that street. (The sushi is called Rosan, incidentally, and it turns out to be a branch of a place I almost went while browsing around Tsukiki one time.) The difficult thing is that it's upstairs, and even the menu that they've got on the street is only marginally on the street, or rather tastefully recessed and up a short flight of stairs. You'd walk by it, really.

Soba places are their own breed, I think. When we saw the menu, my friend quickly said that it looked like the one at Kurosawa (but smaller). It starts from basics - Y800 cold or hot soba - works through variations (sansai, tenpura, oroshi, yuba, and onward), heads into tsumami (toriwasa! Nothing beats some nice raw chicken with green horseradish, I always say!) and finishes with two lunch courses (Y1600-1700) that include an almost ridiculous amount of food. I'd like to go for dinner.

These two lunch courses are a bit of an attempt to cater to the punter, as you often see at specialty shops. You get a serving of soba, hot or cold (said cold on the menu but it's freezing today, so we asked), a largish donburi (ten or oyako, both tasty!), side dish (cold chicken with tofu and carrots; there's a name for this...) , soup and pickles. And soba tea during lunch and regular tea after lunch. Big stuff, tasty, and good-ish value despite being pretty expensive as lunches go.

This is really a crappy page. But I'd go if I were you.
Closed Mondays and 3rd Tuesdays

Sushi Aoki, Monzen Nakacho (鮨あおき)

I admit, I had looked at this place before and thought it was fairly nondescript in that slightly scary sushi way where you don't know what you're going to have to pay. Then I looked on tabelog, found that this was the top-ranked sushiya in Monnaka, and shamelessly planned to go. I'll go back; it was very good quality and reasonably-priced, with the kind of master who's slow to warm up but could be nice once you get to know him.

I wanted to have a reasonably complete sushi experience despite the weeknight, so I tried to order a little of everything. Drinks were a nama and a Hakkaisan, the standard one-two for me and sushi... The menu outside said there was an omakase including cooked morsels, so I asked for a menu of such delicacies, was told to ask the chef, and promptly heard that there wasn't much. All I remember was the helmet-style snapper...and then I started on nigiri.

It's Fall, right, so the silver fish are in season? I've said before that I'm not such a fan of sanma, but now I realize that yes, I've just never had a really good one. The sanma was excellent, and you can see on Tabelog how the chef gives blue fish a bit of extra knifework around the gills. Maybe removing more skin like this reduces some of the fishiness? The only thing better than the sanma was the saba. I nearly fainted, and ordered another 2 kan later. That good.

White fishes weren't as good, but I think that's to be expected; there were two different types of snapper (one pink, one brown). Shellfish were in good supply; I just had scallops as usual, and they were fresh and firm. There were tailagai also, and aoyagi and maybe some other things. Uni was excellent, but reminded me why I don't usually want to pay for it. Oh, the akami was great! I'm working on a theory that you can judge a chef by the care he puts into selecting and preparing his akami. Since it's not a luxury ingredient, it shows attention to detail. Egg was similarly interesting - a very individualized yolky and heavy version.

Very normal slightly-worn clean wood sushi environment, good food, fair pricing (I would say about 50% more expensive than Zanmai, which is really quite cheap - many things are Y100). This would have to be my new favorite sushi in Monzennakacho.

Allabout da mackerel...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Shina Hanten, Shiba Daimon (新亜飯店)

This company dinner worked out better than expected. The overall score of 3.5 on Tabelog was much-remarked-on before the event, and the shabby atmosphere led to somewhat predictable discussions of how dirty=tasty for ethnic restaurants. But the food was pretty good, really, and abundant, and they brought the beer really fast.

While one guy took charge of the ordering, everyone else got busy with the amber fluids (this includes Oolongcha, in case you're wondering, but not 紹興酒. Yet.). He went a little nuts on the ordering, and massive plates of reasonably good Chinese began arriving in parallel. This included mainly normal stuff - beef with been sprouts, chicken with chives, eggplant with ground pork, a massive pile of fried egg rolls (that's what we call 揚げ春巻き in ヌージャージ州), shrimp tails in chili sauce, etc.

Much hilarity ensued. Several bottles of 紹興酒 came and went.

The highlight is supposed to be the steamed buns (in fact, advance reviews said that the buns were great, the rest of the food ordinary). They seemed good, not great, and anyway I'm traumatized by these guys since my poor technique caused one to explode pork fat and gelatin onto my suit in Hong Kong. I was a little too nervous to enjoy them properly.

Verdict: nice food, ordinary buns, tolerable moldy Chinese liquor.

Chao Ma Ma, where are you now?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Merveille, Nihonbashi

I approach this 100th review with some trepidation (And a busted liver.). After all, Merveille IS my favorite restaurant. This is really a weird thing to say - it's a French restaurant in Japan, and I don't like to have favorites in anything. But I've been going to Merveille for almost 5 years (I can't remember if I ever went before moving to Japan, but it's possible) and it's never let me down. Here's why:

Food, service, atmosphere, price. Merveille gets it all right for me better than anywhere else I've been. This has survived through various changes of staff, menu and dining partner, so I'm tempted to conclude that Matsumoto san (chef 松本一平) and I are soul mates. Perhaps in a previous life I was an Egyptian princess and he was a cat. Or something a little more Roman involving wolf-children...

I always complain about this, so let me start with price. Used to be the daily set menu was Y6000 or Y6500; now it's Y7000 (this is amuse-appetizer-fish-meat-dessert-petits fours-coffee). For Y8500 you get to choose your appetizer and meat. For Y12,500, bells and sirens go off and confetti and balloons drop from the ceiling. Or something. Tax included. NO service charge. All the Nihonbashi water you can drink, from a silver pitcher, when your glass is empty. And...wait for it...Y2100 corkage on BYO wine. If you're Australian, I know you're wondering why it isn't $5, but the ability to bring your own is a major and unexpected advantage in Yapan. The in-house wine list starts around Y5000 and has bottles to fit all budgets above that. I have exactly one complaint about Merveille, and that is that the glass wine is always a very small pour; avoid it unless you're desperate.

Atmosphere is also of the style I like (in fact, I'm now wondering if I'm just looking for places that are like Merveille). Probably seats about 30, plus a private room for 6. White walls, weird little artworks involving pencil-drawn elephants. Soft lights. Green carpet. Window to the kitchen. Staff in waiter-y semi-formal.

Service - again, if I could have warm, friendly, a little casual but very professional service everywhere I went, I'd be a much happier guy. The descriptions of food are long and loving - a little quick for me because they're so long and loving! Things are prompt - the menus, the bread, the refills - and this is even when it's full, which is always. In fact I tried to go for lunch on a recent Friday and was turned away for fullness! At 11:15, so it was clearly full of bookings.

And now an extensive treatise on the food. Somehow I've managed to forget half of what I ate, but I'll endeavor to reconstruct (thanks for the help!).

Amuse: I feel like this is slightly upgraded from the past (along with the prices, but hey). It was a tiny, tiny pastry chou filled with rillette, accompanied by a small savory blue cheese creme brulee. The brulee was adequate, but the rillette was one of those 'perfect mouthfuls' that made me say "I hope the whole dinner is like this!"

Appetizer: Two crossed our table. I'd like to say mine was more memorable - meat in aspic, basically, 'marbre' style. In practice, this was foie gras and (I think) pork terrine-d in port wine jelly. The pork chunks were the highlight, tasting like they had been confit-ed. I suspect other participants may have found the pumpkin mousse topped with blancmange topped with uni topped with consomme jelly to be more memorable; it was certainly good, but less memorable for me because it's one of the key elements of the Merveille style.

Fish: No option; scampi tails in Americaine sauce. Not really something that requires a further option, wouldn't you agree?

Meat: The first thing we saw when we came in was the table next to us receiving their Hokkaido "Louis Vuitton" pork roast. This looked magnificently roasted, sauced and topped with something green and negi-like. So we ordered lamb roast (in my case, which was tolerable but not da bomb) and quail, stuffed with foie gras and roasted until it pled for juicy mercy. This was really good, and I readily conceded to defeat in the 'who ordered the tastier dish' battle.

Dessert: Not the strongest suit at Merveille. Actually, I think the strongest suit is the fish, which in my shining memories is white-fleshed and juicy, reclining provacatively on a bed of vegetables, and sporting extraordinarily light yet crisp skin. But I digress. I'm told that the desserts were a montblanc (and I've forgotten the special ingredient already since last night) and a fruit tart (all the rage this season. The tatin at Viron is quite good...why does Viron get only a 19 for food in the new Zagat?).

Look, I can't make you go, and I don't especially want to force you. It's already the case that you should call ahead, and with a day or two notice, especially for things like Saturday lunch. If we try to go on the same day, give me priority OK? It's my favorite restaurant.

Closed Wednesdays, open Sundays

Friday, November 7, 2008

Iruchi, Roppongi (Nishi Azabu)

Recently alerted to the entry of this place to the lunch scene, I fooled a friend into trekking down to Nishi Azabu for some Korean luvvin'. No, it's not a barber shop, but it IS a tasteful and modern basement space serving chige and bibimbap that meets or exceeds expectations.

The menu is a little simple; basically for your ~Y1000 you get a chige concoction with your choice of beef, chicken, pork, seafood or tofu, in your choice of hotness. Or you get a bibinbap, for which you can choose between the traditional stone-bowl-of-hellfire or normal varieties. This is what we had, and it turned out well - the hellfire was truly hellacious, leading to quite ample crisping of the rice even after we had maze-maze-tized it. That's how I like it!!

Another thing I like is the atmosphere. One big table down the middle, a few others on one side, and then round hori-kotatsu on the other side. Overall it's a bit spare and empty, like it was when this place was called Coriander and served Thai made my Japanese guys who went to international high schools. It may not meet several of your needs for dinner, in that it doesn't have any particularly Korean ambiance, like smoke grills, I don't really know what would make it more authentic! But it's definitely a modern-styled restaurant serving a basic Korean menu, which seems like an odd combo.

Muy caliente!

Agave, Roppongi

Ohhh, it's hard to remember what to write about Agave. That's partly because it was almost a week ago, and partly because,'s a tequila bar. What does one write in a review of a tequila bar except "Oh, my head?"

No, I know that these days tequila is all about 'sipping', and in fact the guy sitting next to me was working on a small snifter of something called "Aha Toro". Put an exclamation point in the middle and this sounds like someone who's woken up in the streets of Pamplona with a massive hangover, being stared down by two tons of Spain's finest.

I write about Agave not due to any great love of Tequila (he didn't even finish the Aha Toro, but kept looking at it queasily), nor fondness for the poorly-made frozen margaritas I consumed, nor any rancor due to my hangover, but simply because the nachos were really tasty. In a harsh dessert climate like Japan, devoid of human comforts like rain, plant life and Mexican food, these nachos were close to heaven. The 'you've been stuck in a Mexican cantina where the sun don't shine' atmosphere is pretty cool too. The live music (guitar and harp) is another great touch, although I was peeved that they wouldn't let me play the guitar. Then again, I wouldn't have let me play the guitar either.

In the name of the Blessed Virgin,

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zenmaru, Otemachi (膳丸)

For the inaugural lunch of our Otemachi encroachment, we were shepherded into the basement of the oddly-named 'First Square' building and given a choice of two teishoku places (since I had ventured that I wanted to eat teishoku, being in the center of Japanese business and all that). Maruzen looked better, and turned out to be pretty good.

Your choice of 7 teishoku, I think (actually 膳 on the menu; funny that!), with two weekly specials, all Y1000. Standard stuff like fish miso (sawara), menchi katsu, karaaaaaage. The karaage looked really good in the sample plate outside, and they turned out well for me. The funny thing here is that in addition to your main, rice and soup, every set comes with 5 sides! There was a little piece of tofu, a wakame in vinegar, a moyashi, a kinpira, and I can't remember the 5th. The seaweed stood out for me since I wasn't expecting it to be vinegared, and I liked it. I predict that I'll be back to this place.


This is two days in a row, but I don't think I can keep having lunch at places with 善 in the name...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kyouzen, Roppongi (京善)

Kind of an interesting place, this. There aren't a lot of lunch places where you can feel like you've stepped out of Roppongi and into an altogether more civilized and Japanese environment (Umaya comes to mind, R.I.P.). I suppose for foreigners this means Kyoto style, or at least 'traditional' and 'Japanese' and 'the kind of place you'd take your parents to on their sporadic visits to Japan so they'd be impressed and go home and tell their friends "Ohhhh, Edna, you should SEE the cute little place that Junior took us to! They had the gee-sha girls and everything! The food was a little weird though..." There's a counter plus 3 or 4 koshitsu with horikotatsu. Very sensibly, they let (force) customers share the private rooms, which cuts down waiting. And you will wait. We arrived at 11:50 and felt lucky to get seats.

Lunches come in a few varieties: Y1000 pick-one weekly lunch, Y1500 get-both weekly lunch (incl. smaller portions of both of the things you can pick from in the Y1000 class) and Y1500 wagyu steak strips lunch. This week the choices are, errrr...soft boiled cow tongue (牛舌のやわらか煮), which you would probably want to describe to Edna as soft brisket in brown gravy, or else ajisashi in miso sauce. [The steak strips thing I only had one time; I remember it as good, but with thin strips of steak that came up a bit crispy and fatty - unfortunately quite a lot like Steak-Umms.] The tongue was indeed soft, and nicely done, but a bit cold. The aji was definitely good; now that I think about it, it looked more like saba since it was slices across the fillet, not small pieces like you usually get in aji. In the bowl was a delightful condiment of sliced turnip - very technical, it looked like they had peeled a cylinder of turnip in one piece (like chefs do to make strings of daikon), then rolled it up again, then cut off a thin slice to form a single coil in the bowl. This comes with two more small dishes (a slice of dashimaki tamago, some boiled greens), plus red miso soup and rice. There's a dessert too, but I couldn't identify it - closest I could come is 'flavorless anin-dofu with cornflakes topping' - so let's not talk about it. Houjicha is plentiful.

I could almost recommend this place. The temperature of the tongue put me off today, as did the realization that they never change the egg and spinach side dishes. But it's worth a visit!

I don't wanna go down to the basement

I should explain - this place is in B1, just above that wacky Brazilian place where they sometimes have the lunch buffet and always have the blue margaritas at night...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Seizan, Roppongi (漬山)

Stepping back to a nondescript moment in time...Seizan is "the 5th floor sushi place" that I've been to or had takeout from lots of times. I even struggled to remember the name for this after going there yesterday. Due to its location in my office building, it tends to get visited on rainy days. Something about the atmosphere, which is perfectly normal open-plan, light wood, mid-range sushi, thus makes me think of rainy days and gets me down (like Mondays).

You know, the food was better than I remembered. There are about 5 lunch sets with semi-picturesque names (in addition to ばらちらし, there's 花ちらし and 江戸小町. I know these are normal names for things, but still! You know, my Chinese colleague cracked up when I told him that our new Japanese colleagues were named 鴨川、鈴木、桜田, etc.) The chirashi's are good, the komachi is good...prices range from Y1000 to Y1500 for a special nigiri set or something. These all come with some combination of pickles, soup, salad and roll. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the fish in my hanachirashi; in the past I've found this place a little tired-tasting despite the fact that the chefs at the counter look the business and make everything fresh. [Aside: I was really stunned the first time I visited this standing sushi place in Monnaka, I think called Chiyoda. The fish was pre-cut, and almost looked like it was cut by machine. ]

Weird, I can't find a link. But you shouldn't need one. It's the sushi place on the 5th floor.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Narukami, Ginza

I was pleasantly excited about Narukami - the lunch course looked like (and proved to be) quite good value at Y6000 (ish). The food was interesting for a number of courses, the service was attentive, and the 'counter' seating was fun. Overall I'd give this about a 6 out of 10, with potentially a small bonus for being open (with Narukami cooking, even) at Sunday lunch when a lot of places in the area are closed. The basement location is a little old-feeling - sort of like a place that's been redecorated and looks new, but still in a bubble-friendly style. After the 2.5 hours that it took us to get through 6 courses, it felt distinctly claustrophobic.

Since this was the biggest meal I've had in a while, here's a complete rundown course-by-course. I'll even save my bitter complaints until later, for a change!

Salad: mixed greens in that currently-popular 'chirashi' style, very very fresh nama botan ebi, squid two ways (nama, roasted) and nice grilled scallops. I envy people who can cook squid like this. I love the flavor and texture, but am too scared to buy it for home use. Perhaps the next hurdle...but scallops don't scare me any more since I went home and made some that were almost as good!

Risotto: served in a huge 'spoon'-shaped dish, and a bit swimmy from the soup. Good amount of crab meat and shellfish flavor (actually it was remarked that the sauce tasted very Americaine, which impressed the heck out of me because I had to look up the term a few weeks ago when I had it at Provinage.) The rice was too al dente for my tastes, but I know how hard it is to make proper risotto on a Sunday afternoon for a small group.

Fish: pan-fried amadai with...mushroom sauce, I think, in a 'cappucino style', i.e. whipped. Good stuff, but I love it when the skin is fully crisped up and the vegetables are only lightly boiled and not overwhelmed by the sauce...but that wasn't the style at Narukami.

Meat: Hokkaido pork two ways: 1) roasted, slightly well-done and with high fat content, but a good showing, and 2) ground, spiced heavily, and rolled in pasta to create a sort of Turkish canneloni (look, I just make up the similies, OK? Not the food.) With two sauces - a very thick meat-juice reduction (which was delivered with a skin already on top since it had so much gelatin in it) and menegi sauce (took me back to business school days when I used to drink wheatgrass juice sometimes for health reasons). They sort of went together, but the menegi sauce was just too grassy for human consumption. もおおお. There's a picture of this on tabelog.

Sansho sorbet. Made my mouth all tingly, as sansho does (like when you eat too much mapdofu, ne?) Also, this was served (literally) in an ashtray. It was that 'single serving' cigar-style ashtray, which could be interpreted as a single-scoop ice cream dish with a convenient spoon-rest, but it's definitely an ashtray. Nice idea!

Dessert: I'm pretty sure this was the 'Caprese' dessert, though it wasn't presented as such. Imagine a mound of basil mousse, layered with a dome of apple mouse, doused with coconut milk and topped with a fried basil leaf and a cooked cherry tomato. Get it? Caprese! It was decent, actually.

So: the food had a bunch of creative elements, although it was a bit fussy and I got the feeling that the cooking talent wasn't quite up to executing the concepts for some dishes. Wanna hear my complaints?
1. 10% service charge
2. 5% tax, 別
3. One bottle of wine in the Y7000's. 2 bottles in the Y8000's. Everything else over Y10,000. Many over Y15,000.
4. No tap water service; buy water or don't drink it.
I drank beer, and half a bottle of still water. I'm a grumpy old guy sometimes. Hopefully not as bad as John McCain. Total bill was close to Y2万, which included 2 glasses of wine.

In summary, this was OK and sort of stimulating on the day, but I cannot in good faith recommend that you go for dinner.

Enough with the damn up-charges already, 'kay?

Hacchakiya, Monzennakacho

Ahhh, we like ramen, don't we? Hacchakiya is my favorite ramen in Monnaka, on average. It wins for the huge bowls, curly and eggy noodles, miso-focused soups, and ample vegetable toppings. I loved it a LOT more when they had the special chashu option (I don't know where they were getting it from, but it was more like American style barbeque brisket, and well worth the extra Y200) but have stopped going so much recently. This time I had the Hokkaido-style chashu (what's this called?) where they say "Hey, how do we make roast pork less healthy? I know, let's batter it with egg and fry it!!!". They compensate with lots of vegetables, but the artery insult persists.

For reference, I favor Wan Zhu Ji (万豚記, geez I love that name!) for tantanmen, and there's this sanramen place on the other side of the crossing called Gomaya that seemed great on my one visit. I should leave all of this for another time when I can write a whole Monnaka ramen section.

Oof, I'm stuffed.

Usagiya, Monzennakacho (Ginza)

Not a situation I like to be in, walking around Ginza with only 30 minutes to choose a place, eat, and get to an appointment. Difficult times call for desperate measures, which in this case involved noodles, rabbits and plastic.

Usagiya is a hand-made udon place. These are of the nice, rough-but-springy texture that I associate with the genre. Unfortunately I ordered a Chinese-style donburi, so I only got 2 or 3 noodles in a separate bowl. They were good! The overall experience was as expected in terms of quality, but it was cheapish.

As is the custom these days, I tried to pick up a card on the way out. They didn't have cards, but they did have matchbooks (is that an indication that they encourage smoking customers?). The matchbook mentioned their Fukagawa store, which of course got me all excited. Getting back to Monzen Nakacho, we immediately saw Usagiya. I've walked by it many, many times (it's on the far side of the station entrance that I usually use, but on the way to the barber!) and looked at the window displays, but never felt remotely inclined to go for dinner. I also couldn't read 兎 until now. Thanks to a difficult situation in Ginza, I was able to check off another Monnaka restaurant!

Overall rating 3.07 on Tabelog...neither you nor I will be going any time soon.

Marugo, Shinjuku

Shinjuku sanchome is a little odd. Some standing bars, some general washoku places, one really nice-looking Italian place that was full (boooooo!!!) and a TON of wine bars! That's just not what I expect in a reputed salaryman hangout.

Marugo may be cleverly named after Margaux; it wasn't obvious to me until I read another review and it mentioned their special 'Margaux nights'. We visited the second branch, which has a dramatic wine cellar along the side and back wall - picture something curved and just wide enough for a rack of wine and a person standing sideways. Staff have to inch their way along, and there's no question of more than one person being in at any one time. This cellar is stuffed with expensive name wines from all regions (ok, it's just one or two bottles of each, but it's cool).

Since I presume you won't be lashing out on multi-hundred-dollar wines at a casual small-plate after-work French/Italian bar-stool sort of place, you'll want to know about the glass wines. There were 15 or 16, ranging in price from Y500 to Y1500 (I love cheap and interesting, don't you?). We got through 4 or 5 different things, and found them generally good - for more detail you'll have to go and check it out for yourself. The list was on blackboards or photocopied sheets, so I suspect it changes often. And if you want a bottle of Lafitte or Krug, it's there too.

Food-wise, this was your basic casual small-plate after-work French/Italian bar-stool sort of place (is there an echo in here?). Bagna cauda was creamy and tasty, but not overly distinguished (or even that recognizable as bagna cauda to the more informed members of our table). Store-made roasted chorizo was good - not too spicy, and with big chunks of fat still in, but tasty and served with some lemon and rucola (yes, that's 'rocket', you crazy Southern Hemispherians). Mushroom pasta was good without being too...well, distinguished. In short, this was your basic casual small-plate after-work French/Italian bar-stool sort of place, and the big list of glass wines is a fun bonus.

Maru and Maru and Maru we go...