Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sake no Daimasu Wine Kan, Asakusa

Wow, there's not a lot to do in Asakusa on New Year's. I thought all the junk vendors on Nakamise Dori would stay open all night, but they were closing up around 8. There were an amazing number of yatai around and behind the temple, but we all know what they sell.

Walking around a lot, feeling cold and downtown-y, we stumbled across this place. It looked warm and appealing from the outside, and inside it turned out that the concept and execution were quirky and pleasant. As far as I can tell, it's a grocery/liquor store that decided to open some restaurants. Good job, guys! We stayed for about two hours, just reading travel and food magazines.

At the wine-kan (where we were), they have about 10 wines by the glass. These are relatively small pours, but at relatively low prices, and the quality range is pleasingly broad (e.g. choices in red ranged from Chile to California to France). The glass wines we had were all good value drinking. For bottles, you can go in the basement (the doorway is literally 4 feet high, so watch it) and choose from the liquor store selection. This ranges broadly - from Y1000 South American bottles to more than a few famous names at apparently reasonably prices (Sassicaia at Y17,000 sounds OK to me, but I'm not that well-informed. Anyway, you can drink it and have someone cook for you at that price, so it's a steal if the food's half decent.) Or you can bring your own wine for Y500. Staff said the Kaminarimon store is the same concept, but with sake. And presumably Wa food.

This was after soba, thus there wasn't much space for us to eat. The chorizo/salami we ordered (6 or 8 types, all Y500, so the picture is Y1000) were excellent, exactly the kind of dry, spicy chorizo I was hoping for. Based on these few bites, I would be more than willing to go back and try some more...if only it wasn't in Asakusa. I just realized, this is quite similar to Hatchobori's famous Maru, although slightly upgraded in appearance.

Well done. More like this, please!

Couldn't resist this bit of Engrish on the menu...especially piquant since I'm a fan of salade gourmande.

Namiki Yabu Soba, Asakusa (並木藪そば)

I confess to some confusion as to how we ended up at this place, but it was sure a traditional way to begin the New year evening. When someone says Monnaka is 'downtown', I always say "It's half downtown, and half suburban. If you want to see downtown, go to Asakusa." Well, we went downtown to Asakusa, to do the traditional eating of the soba, see what else was going on, maybe wait in line at Sensoji for the new year.

Of course, this being New Year's, we had to indulge in that other great Japanese tradition - waiting in line for perfectly normal things because they're famous. In this case it was pretty good - less than an hour! I had dressed for the occasion, with warm socks, thick gloves, a wooly hat, etc., so it didn't matter so much. And with more than one person you can take turns waiting in line, which it seemed everyone was doing.

Inside is super-渋い - half tatami, half tables, little old women in white uniforms running everywhere, faint smell of kerosene, everything a bit yellow from age. Larger groups had to wait longer to get one of the big tables all to themselves, but then it's a very festive and familial atmosphere.

Your humble correspondent looks exceedingly festive, ね?

One can't adequately celebrate soba without sake, so we ordered up an atsu and a hiya. They came with these little balls of miso, semi-dried from sitting out for a while. I found them delicious - sort of sweet, dark miso (my preference in any case) mixed with further sweeteners to smooth it, and also some sesame. Goes well with sake, which would be the point of serving it...

The tray is a nice touch, don't you think? Really adds to the feeling of downtown-ness due to its woody-but-worn atmosphere.

Strangely, we had to wait quite a while for our food. This isn't a bad thing, since we had resolved to relax and make the poor people waiting out in the cold...wait a while longer. But Yabu isn't really geared to extravagant dinners. Some soba places will have complete menus and lots of interesting things to do while you build up to the main and noodly course (I'd like to try Honmura An for dinner, but I don't work near there any more .). At Yabu, it's really all about the noodles - hot or cold, with or without tempura or duck. There's a little more, but it's all about the classics, and nothing extraneous. The guy next to us (the table-sharing does little to promote leisurely contemplation of your noodle) had a kamo pot, then a mori plate, then a kake plate. Three separate orders of soba - determined to maximize the return on his waiting-time investment, as well as extending his life significantly.

I found the treatment idiosyncratic. Even the ten-mori that we ordered (above) were odd since the ten was only shrimp (on the one lonely shishito that you see pictured). I guess the shrimp are the best part, so it should be nice to have more of them, just like it's winter and cold so it should be nice to have warm tsuyu, but it was funny. The noodles themselves were certainly a cut above the day before but due to their softness and very mild flavor still didn't get me fired up the way I've been when I was, for instance, driving in the mountains of Nagano and stopped at a random place.

If you have visiting company and go to Asakusa, I don't think you'll find a more downtown place to take them than this. Anyway, now you know what you're getting into if you decide to go.


Didean, Monzennakacho

Well, it was a strange idea to go for healthy ethnic food on New Year's Eve (lunch). Didean moved some time ago, froma dead-zone location several blocks back from Eitai Dori and into the more glamorous environs of the main approach street to the Fukagawa temple. I thought it was a 'healthy cafe', but inside it looks much more Chinese.

New Year's Eve saw a limited menu being offered - curry or soba. Since I was planning to have soba at night, I had curry. This was something like '8 types of beans and 15 spices', and it wasn't bad. Quite spicy, and with a complex if not overly-satisfying flavor.

I'm going to skip the picture and links; I can't work up the enthusiasm to go back.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shimada, Monzennakacho (しまだ)

For some reason I had it in my head that this was a good and recommended soba place. I'm pretty sure this was because of the hand-made aspect - they have a room in the front window where they make the soba, and even when I was there Jiji was up there rollin' and foldin'. The interior is appropriately dark and worn to make you think you're in Shitanmachi, and inside are various Fukagawa / Shitamachi-themed items. [Today's aside: the definition of Fukagawa on the poster was HUGE. From Monnaka up to Ryogoku, extending as far east as Oojima, and south to Toyosu and Tatsumi.]

Well, here you go. I cropped and color-enhanced this picture to make it look as good as possible, and it still looks boring even for soba. What do you look for in a soba? Personally I look for a dark color, and maybe some graininess - these characteristics indicate higher soba content to me (as opposed to wheat flour), and I like both that flavor and texture. I don't think 100% sobako is a good thing, but 70 or 80% works for me. (うるさいね!) This soba looks very very wheaty, and tastes like it too. The plate at left was part of a kamo seiro (Y1155, pretty cheap for kamo seiro ne?), and the duck was decent. The soup was probably the best part of the meal; I drank it all, and the whole pot of sobayu.

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Santa, Shinjuku (三太)

Today's a cooking day (though with a little less chicken and a little more attention to food safety, thank you very much), but I was reminded of something and thought I'd fire off a quick and gratuitous post.

Last time my parents came to Japan (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!), we were nearly stuck in Nikko due to crowded trains and poor planning, and thus arrived into Shinjuku fairly late (as opposed to Ueno at a decent hour). Eating around there seemed the done thing, but I was and remain a dunce about eating out in Shinjuku, let alone navigating the streets. In fact, I can't reliably find the right station exit.

We wandered around for a while, and finally hit on this tonkatsu place, which I've now learned is called Santa, of all things (better 4 days late than never). I was reminded of this whole episode when I wandered by Santa on Saturday looking for Rock Inn, which is a decent store but really not a patch on the Ochanu or Shibuya stores, especially the whole Ikebe / 246 complex that seems to take up the whole street in Shibuya, including the awesome basement Amp Station and Guitar Station stores. Yes sir, I would like to try the $5,000 guitar (Suhr) with the $6,000 amp (/13)! Thank you! Errrr...I think I digressed. And drooled.

This is a gratuitous post because I didn't like Santa (children everywhere are shocked). Their whole 'tiny sticks of bread' coating was weird, trapping a lot of extraneous grease without really integrating with the meat or adding to the experience, and the prices are pretty darn high. I guess that's often a symptom of good tonkatsu or Shinjuku. Plus (here he goes again) the service was inattentive and a bit on the alien side (as in "OMG, what's this 宇宙人 doing in our restaurant?! How will I serve him?")

OK, back to cooking.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pierre Herme, Shinjuku (Isetan)

Good question, isn't it? Could things really taste better at the Paris headquarters of the various places whose macarons I regularly consume? This is the subject of obsessive debate in some quarters, but not here. We just eat.

I suppose Pierre Herme is famous for all sorts of things. Evidently chief among them is the Ispahan (Y840), a fantastic-looking assemblage of jumbo macaron shells, raspberries, lychee, and rose flavor.

Fantastic-looking, isn't it? Alien invasion dead ahead. In pink. (Presented here in the regular version; there's a buche version that's even more terrifying.)

In my usual detailed, thorough, 5-second research, I saw another blogger mention that this is a truly delicate balance of flavors. And that Herme invented it while he was head chef at Laduree (where you can also shop in Tokyo). And that they're just not the same since he left. Seriously?

In any case, the tremendous appearance of the Ispahan is a bit deceiving - it's hard as heck to eat because it's thick and crumbly (look at the picture of the buche version if you haven't already. But seriously, macarons just aren't made to cut.). And in this example, the flavors were a bit on the strong and under-blended side. One attendee at the extravagant tasting party described the experience as "like perfume" and then "like eating lipstick". This shouldn't be because things are shipped from Paris, right? It had fresh lychee in it. We may have to chalk it up to a bad day in the Tokyo kitchens, or simply an allergy to eating lipstick and perfume.

Back to macarons, ne?

Truly impressive - three boutiques in Paris, three outlets in Japan.
More, I think. At least the one in Daimaru Tokyo Station.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Murasaki Takumi No Tsukemen, Monzennakacho (紫匠乃)

A new tsukemen place opened in Monnaka a while back. In fact, I have a feeling it's going on 2 years, but time moves more slowly for us 江戸っ子. I've thought many times about going, but never pulled it together. Partly it's the plethora of other options in the dining paradise that is Monnaka, and partly it's that tsukemen seem to me like another unnecessary twist on what's already a pretty good thing. (I'm not sure what else I put in this category - how about the endless variations of mochi and red beans that you get on domestic trips, each billed as a unique regional specialty?)

Today, recovering from 2 days of apparent food poisoning brought on most likely by poor food handling (the chef got sick, but not the patrons?), I had a significant desire for ramen or pizza. This led me to brave the elements and visit Menya Kissou in Kiba, finding a solid 25 people in line, and then Koukaibou in Fuyuki, where there were only 15 or so (the length of line corresponds to their fame, and these lines were at 2 PM). I went home hungry, but the desire for noodles persisted. Tonight, after crusing around the neighborhood for a while, I settled in at the tsukemen place.

Options are pretty limited - whatever color you want, as long as it's black - plates of noodles in the size of your choice and with toppings of your choice (nori, chashu, menma, there any need to ask?). The noodles turned out to be interesting - very thick, curly and wheat-y, more like a dense udon than anything else. The soup was fascinating at first. Clearly a mix of pork and fish, which I hear is all the rage (that's what you get at Kissou and Kaikoubou), it included plenty of chunks of hakusai, ground pork, and a cute quail egg. [Aside: I don't like uzutama. The white gets tough when it's cooked, and this bothers me. Last time I had them was at yakitori a while back, and I thought the toughness was just due to the grilling, but this boiled one was tough too.] The problem with the soup was the cloying sweetness. After 2 or 3 minutes, it, well, it cloyed. Cloyingly. This was when things went downhill for me, and I just ate up and left. In fairness, I should note that the chashu was excellent - the long strip version, not the usual rolled kind. Please let me know the names of these if you know 'em!

None of this served to convince me that tsukemen are a necessary foothill residing in supplication to the mountain on the culinary landscape that is ramen. I may try Kissou early tomorrow, like 11:15, and see if I can get in before the line. Or get a pizza...

Errr...I don't think reservations are accepted.

Nadaman, Shinagawa (なだ万)

My friend Mayu was visiting for a weekend wedding (I only mention this because it's funny that he's a Sri Lankan visiting Japan and yet his name sounds fully Japanese-girl) and I wanted to take him someplace impressively Japanese (read: kaiseki), yet within easy reach of his Shinagawa hotel. This proved surprisingly difficult - there was a nice-looking place in Oomori (a place I had never heard of, let alone considered visiting) - and they were full for Monday lunch. This meant that we ended up in (horror) a hotel restaurant.

Nadaman's main restaurant is in Hotel New Otani, and the website tells you a bit about their illustrious history (in English, even). Browsing briefly, it mentions things from ancient history (e.g. Regan and Thatcher really loved it!), and that's a bit of the atmosphere you get when you visit - very nice, very professional, in that slightly threadbare way that you see...well, all over Japan these days.

For lunch, the choice ranges from small (assorted items or beef specialty) up to the mini-kaiseki (which looks like a normal kaiseki to me, except that it doesn't have fried items). We opted for the mini-kaiseki. Trying to impress!

Impress it did. This is the full kaiseki experience (except the aforementioned lack of fried item). The variety is the thing that gets most people - the first course with 4, 5 or 6 items (notable one here was a small sato imo topped with uni and a caramelized walnut). The suimono was also nice - looked like tofu but was in fact a soft kamaboko. The soup itself was delicious, and came with (as the waitress proudly pointed out) two star-shaped pieces of pepper since it was almost Christmas. Yakimono was a bit disappointing (sawara?) - somewhat dry. However it came in a nifty 'treasure chest' dish with paintings of pirates and black ships on the outside, so all wasn't lost.

Service was notable primarily for the amazing fakery of the main waitress's smile. Really extraordinary how much one person can smile when they clearly don't mean any of it.

Within the requirements of the day, this was a great choice and very enjoyable. As a place to go back for dinner, I think one could find better options for the Y10,000 (dinner kaiseki price, plus service). On the other hand, that's pretty cheap for kaiseki.

Loved by local and foreign VIPs!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tobishima, Sakata (酒田、山形県)

One dangerous thing about having a car is that you'll tend to drive it. So when faced with the prospect of nothing to do in Akita and a train late in the day, we looked at the map and set out semi-randomly for the coast. Sakata in Yamagata was the nearest city, and 2 hours later we rolled into town. There are a bunch of old houses and one or two decent tourist attractions (the prefectural rice warehouses were OK, and had an interesting little doll museum).

Tobishima was the top-scoring place on Tabelog, and has a significantly higher number of reviews than any other place (which ain't saying much in coastal Yamagata). It's located above the small, commercialized fish market at the port (where you can still buy whole buri, so it's not all bad). As the sign says, it's a kaisendonya, seafood rice bowls. This is like the little restaurant at the fish market in Odawara - the promise of fresh fish and low prices is enough to entice the most hardened oyaji.

And entice it does. In addition to the field-sized seating area pictured here, there are several long long tables that stayed full most of the time. There were only 10 people in line when we got there (11:45?) but by the time we left there were, count 'em, 50 people in line. It's pretty good, it's really cheap, there's nothing else to do on a Sunday lunch...? Semi-self serve, where you order at the counter, the chefs in the back are perpetually slicing and plating the limited menu options, and your order comes up quite quickly.

Special kaisen. A couple big shrimp, some crab, some abalone. This picture doesn't do justice to how big it was; for less than Y2000 it was ridiculous value.

Special sashimi set (Y1250, I think). Lots 'o fish, very fresh but not highest quality. I think they should leave out the salmon, because it's probably farmed in Chile (like the ones for sale downstairs), and I think they should include some fresh buri, since it's seasonal and they had such pretty ones in the market! Ah well. Still well worth the drive to see the town, visit the rice warehouses and fish market, buy some jizake, and get stuffed on fishes.

Snacks, Part 2

OMG, this ice cream is like, totally BLACK!

Actually it's not, and it didn't have a single particle of squid ink flavor in it (which is what we were expecting from the name).

Live and learn.

In this case, I have to confess that I learned long ago that ice creams that are supposed to have funny flavors usually taste like vanilla. I wasn't disappointed, because this was just an excuse to eat some ice cream under the guise of 'research'.

Okuyama Ryokan, Doroyu Onsen, Yuzawa

If you saw this while out for a Saturday drive (ominous smoke, signs warning you not to get out of the car...) you'd hardly get excited, no? The pleasant approach to Doroyu Onsen (yay, "Muddy Hot Water", sounds great) looked like we were entering Hell Town. Get ready for a long digression.

This reminded me first of the scene in High Plains Drifter where Clint makes the townspeople repaint all the buildings red and then changes the town's name sign on the approach road to 'Hell'. But that's a weird and not-overly-impressive Western. Then it reminded me of the John Wayne B-Western 'Hell Town'. Wayne made a long series of these in the 30's, before he figured out his character fully and before Hollywood figured out how to make Westerns properly. I got excited when I realized there were TONS of John Wayne westerns that I hadn't seen, and I downloaded this one to start things off. It was unwatchable - the first ten minutes featured horrible production values, rapid cuts between nonsensical scenes, a horse 'n' gun fight, and terrible dialogue. This marked the first time I didn't finish watching a Western, and the last one of these B-movie stinkers that I bothered with. Sheesh. I'm still a big fan of Westerns and Marion Morrison, though!

Doroyu is famous for the outside baths. They're nice, if a bit muddy. There isn't much glamour to be had here, and there isn't a town either - just the baths, perhaps 3 places to stay, and some other buildings of indeterminate use. I neglected to take a picture of the more famous bath; this is the large women's outdoor bath (only large women allowed!) which I took by sticking my camera over the fence from the men's bath. Everything was deserted at 1:30 when we went; we 混浴’d the men's bath and had no problems.
Here's the food:
Wacky preserved carp - really sweet, strong soy sauce, etc. Clearly the kind of thing you need to get through the winter when your only pastimes are going to be counting snowflakes, drinking, and inbreeding. So it's more understandable, this is one slice out of the fish, so the circular part is the cavity containing the organs. OK? Glad we cleared that up.

Stew with sweetfish (I think). Anyway, who says 'sweetfish'? That's one of those dumb things you see when people are trying too hard to translate the menu. If there's a better English equivalent, I'd like to know. 'Little river fish' is a better description as far as I'm concerned. Confession: the point of this dish is that the ayu are full of eggs, which cook up in famously tasty fashion, and I didn't eat them.

Jaws. This was the hottest, stringiest 葉生姜 that I've ever eaten. Ouch.

I'm leaving out the steak, which was a special order but really nice, as well as the cooked beef and sashi beef and sashi horse, all of which were mediocre. I guess where I'm coming to is that this was an interesting and worthwhile but not tremendously tasty meal. Still, wouldn't trade the experience!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Motoyu Club, Yuzawa

Not being really in the business of reviewing onsen (nor foreign prefectures, for that matter), EOITwJ will concentrate on the food at the various Akita onsen where we just stayed, and probably just the interesting food at that. If you've ever been to an onsen you have a pretty good idea what to expect; variations on a theme. If anything, the food was disappointing in that it didn't have any game elements (I was definitely expecting some wild boar!) but there were a number of good and different bits.

Motoyu Club is a nicely-renovated, warm and friendly place. The rooms are good, the baths are clean and pretty, and they do a good line in private rental baths (Y1000 per hour, choose between hinoki and kihada baths). The food was about what you'd expect; the interesting elements that I can remember from the picture were:
  • Houba miso: Wasn't expecting to see this in Akita; maybe it wasn't really magnolia leaf? Either way, they had rustled up some good beef (Yonezawa is a stop along the way), covered it with miso, and plopped it in our dishes to cook.
  • The green-vegetable-and-goma-and-ikura thing, that was an interesting twist
  • The kiritanpo, which are widely lauded as regional food but are in fact merely sticky rice, cooked and molded around a stick, then grilled, then dropped into your soup. At Motoyu, they were trying to make them different, so it was really just balls of sticky rice in the soup (kiridango?). Since this was the only kiritampo we saw on the trip (!) it was a little disappointing
Anyway, if you've never been to an onsen before, you get some idea from the picture about the variety that confronts two people. The green lid is the stew pot, which cooks while you eat the rest (and you can see the opened version on the other side of the table). The brown thing below it is the uncooked hobamiso. The blue plates are empty because they're waiting for the grilled fish to arrive. Actually, the fish here were iwana wrapped in foil and grilled, not salt-grilled like you (I) might expect

Pretty nice as onsen go, and good value at around Y11,000 (1名1泊). Truly difficult to get to though.

Snacks, Part 1

I'm kind of a sucker for local snacks. I know I'm a sucker because I was told there's an expression in Japanese like "1,000 local delicacies, and none of them good", and yet I always peruse the souvenir snack selection. On this trip, I was relatively seduced by a few things.

At left is a shiso-maki, or I think that's what they called it (and it's an appropriate name, no?). Take a shiso leaf, spread on some miso mixed with various secret spices, roll tightly, skewer, fry. Not bad, a little oily, a little sweet, not very shiso...Hmmm, that sounds worse than it was.

Sato Yosuke, Yuzawa (秋田県。本当。)

Sato Yosuke is a fairly good-sized chain of udon shops, with their spiritual home in the Yuzawa region - the town of Inaniwa, source of the eponymous udon (there's also a Ginza branch, making this review genuinely relevant). Pictured at left, I kid you not, is Inaniwa Castle, though you could be forgiven if you mistook it for an oversized country house. I'm told it's bigger if you climb the hill and stand next to it, but tall people can still touch the top if they stretch.

I like Inaniwa udon (even though it's hard to type). They're thinner, smoother, less chewy, and whiter than normal udon, and after eating them at this place I understand why they're famous. Having tried them both ways, I have to say that cold is probably better, but December in Akita meant that we didn't even consider having them that way.

Lunch sets at Sato come with two big 'knots' of noodles plus a pot that cooks up whatever you've ordered - duck or pork, of course, but some vegetable things as well. These are Y1100 - Y1400, or you can pay a bit extra to get double noodles, which I wouldn't recommend based on the volume of the single-serve. The greatest things are the fresh noodles (lots of pictures on the walls of how to make them) and the individual hot pots. Nothing too unusual about that in Japan, but something I still think is terrific.

There are also bags of free 'trimmings' at the exit, so you can recreate a little of the experience at home (or of course buy bags of the real thing in proper lengths!).

The site has all the pictures I took of the food and restaurant and more. Why fight?

This way to...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Tucano's, Shibuya (Shi-Boo-Yah!)

I was asked several times during this end-of-an-era team dinner if I was going to remember everything the next day. And I remember now exactly what I said I was going to remember when asked: MEAT. That's not very original, but we don't claim or strive to be original every day, folks. It's not original for the simple reason that Tucano's is churrascaria - also known as 'that Brazilian thing where the cowboy-looking guys bring around huge chunks of meat on skewers and slice off pieces until you beg for mercy. Plus buffet.' Plus it's in Dogenzaka, which I'm told is a fun place to hang out if you're young and hip as opposed to old and creaky.

That pretty much says it all. Can I stop now? Just to spite the doubters, I'm going to list all the meats I can remember. Y'all are all a buncha haters, alright? One note before we start - 90 minutes of all-you-care-to-eat-with-buffet is more than enough. Don't go the 2 hours.
  • Sausages. This sounds normal, but several people agreed that it was the tastiest meat of the meal (me and Ponkan, and those are the opinions that count!).
  • Chicken hearts. While I heard about chicken hearts around 1989 from Andy LaFountain (real spelling folks! His family lived in Brazil before moving back to good ol' Pitman NJ. But I see that I'm mentally conflating his memory with the other semi-Brazilian guy I knew in the past, Dan Abrahamson.) this was my first time to consume the genuine article. Considering the quality of the other meats at this meal, I think they must have been reasonable examples of the genre, and this means I plan to avoid the genre in the future. Edible, even tasty, but with a disturbing squishy texture, and a noticeable artery sticking out the top of each one like a small rubber hose.
  • Beef 1: Rump roast, I believe (ランプ on the menu, so it may have something to do with light bulbs instead?)
  • Beef 2: filet with onions and peppers (yes, I mean 'capsicums', you miserable convicts)
  • Beef 3: cold roast beef with onion salsa on top. Looks for all the word like the plates of negi-tongue you get at yaki niku
  • Beef 4: Brisket, roasted on the skewer. A little dry and not as good as boiling your own corned beef at home, but still with the characteristic flavor that I love, and you can't get those brisket-in-a-bag-with-spices things that I used to love to make when I was younger and lived in the land of cotton.
  • Beef 5: Brisket, oven roasted? Very dark with more more flavor, served from a plate instead of a skewer (blasphemy!)
  • Pork: I think some kind of roasted belly? Lashings of fat, crackled around the outside
  • Chicken 1: wings. I dislike eating wings, but these were delicious
  • Chicken 2: Chunks wrapped in bacon
  • Sausages: That's right, it just keeps coming...
  • Pineapple: on the 7th day, God had finished with the meats, so he served skewer-roasted pineapple to his guests
The meat is really tasty, I found the caipirinhas to be very good, and the company was excellent as always. Monday things start over in year in Jerusalem!

More than one man finished the meal with a girlish cry of "I don't feel so well..."

Picture of Der Meistersinger used without permission. I'll take it down if asked nicely and bought a beer next week.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tatsumi, Monzennakacho (竜味、辰巳新道)

My friends, I believe this to be the first review of this establishment since the world began. Or at least in the 3 months since the place opened.

Located near the northern end of Tatsumi Shindo (picture shamelessly lifted from another blog), the charming, slightly decrepit, and frankly fairly daunting brick alley near the Monnaka Akafudado, Tatsumi is of a similar size to the other establishments in that environ (6 seats at the counter, with significant difficulty squeezing behind seated patrons to get to the inside). The difference here is that it's the fairly clear winner in the appearance sweepstakes. Tatsumi Shindo is crowded with tiny places that have frosted windows, or paper screens and no windows, and thus permit no view of the festivites inside. But one can often hear a bit of karaoke, or a lot of laughter. It's the kind of place that makes you want to over come the fear of opening the door and just jump in, but I've been very remiss in doing so (other than the sad sushi I had previously).
Thus we have 6 seats at a counter, about 20 menu items written on slips of paper overhead, and a bald master waiting expectantly for your order. Friendly guy, perhaps because I was the only customer up to that point on the night (other people arrived as I was leaving). He recommended a few things, some of which I took up. There was fresh tuna, with slices cut from halfway down the fish where the akami meets the toro - some incredible stuff there, especially the fatty side of the cuts, which was full of fatty, spicy flavor. A big, big bowl of mozuku酢 for health reasons, fresh and somehow not as slimy as it had a right to be. Red salmon harasu, deeply flavored and nicely crisped on the skin side, but not too fatty (which 丸禿さん said was due to the red-ness). Rounding out the evening was a mentai ochazuke, assembled with care and containing plenty of healthy seaweed. If I had any complaint on the night, it was that the mentai was pretty cheap - the low-class version comes in a plastic skin, doesn't it? This was it. Made me want to order some fancy Hokkaido mentai or something for New Year... Throughout dinner the master plied me with hojicha which he made in an individual pot, and he also passed over some pickles, サービス.
Tatsumi is a reasonably priced, reasonably tasty, and quite friendly. If you can get a seat (which I couldn't before tonight), it's worth your while.
Ahhhh, I had a 3643 phone number before I switched to Flets IP. 懐かしい!

Roppongi: R.I.P.

Well, my friends, this was it - the Last Lunch in Roppongi. Did I feel a bit like Jesus, surrounded by my disciples? No, not a bit. This is a repeat post, but it's also a sad and special occasion.

It was decreed that our last lunch be a Burger. And it was subsequently put forth that said burger should be produced by our good friend Yoshi, previously reviewed in these, er, pages. It was further decreed that one of the team needed to finish by 1 PM in order to attend another lunch (last week in the office, all that), so we dutifully trundled off and got there at opening time.
Verily I say unto you, my friends, one of you betrayed me. And it was Yoshi. I had pleasant memories of the establishment from our first visit - juicy burger, tasty fries, pleasant atmosphere. On this day, the very specialness of the occasion forced us into dangerous territory: the Foie Gras Burger. (I like to think of it as the フォアーバー, but I have different preferences in this kind of thing). As a Y2500 burger, this pushes the bounds of good taste, but of course is conceptually exciting, a real special-occasion sort of meal, and a good deal cheaper here than at other restaurants that might attempt it.
Yoshi ended up with enormous, misshapen chunks of foie on each burger. I have never seen pieces as big as those that graced any of the 4 burgers at our table. The picture here is of the most regularly shaped piece. Think you're looking at a beef patty? Uh-uh. Mine was like a quarter-lobe, which meant it had to be diassambled before eating. At the price, this is clearly a lot of foie, and the quality showed it. The burger itself was red in the center, too bad. The fries were today's lowest point for me - dramatically uncooked and quite greasy.
At least it was memorable, and we said goodbye to Roppongi in appropriately decadent style. I'm having chest pains. On to Otemachi.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cogito, Roppongi

Let's begin today's post with a link to Terry's review of the same establishment, to save him the trouble of posting the same...

Cogito is a charming, cozy, warm and cluttered French outpost that nestles in a secluded mountain clearing across the street from the Grand Hyatt and barely 1 minute's walk from Terry's apartment. From the street, one sees...well, nothing. I've walked by the alley where it's located for several years and never noticed that there was a restaurant back there. Then I saw it on some maps, then read a review, and it entered my list of places to go before my Roppongi 'death', which is this Thursday. [Fortunately this completes the list, so I can now die happy and move to Otemachi sadly.]

I love the interior. It really feels like a French country hunting lodge, or something to that effect. Yellow walls, lots of dark wood, fireplace, antlers, amiable clutter...and the odd atrium that forms half of the restaurant. A little drafty on winter days like today, but a nice atmosphere (very similar to Harmonie in Nishi-Azabu, which I've never visited but is recommended by my friend Frederic. You can tell by the way he misspells his name that he's French, so there you are.). The staff is pleasant as well.

Ponkan and I were pleased to find the restaurant empty when we arrived without a reservation. Evidently we preceded the noon seating by a bare minute, because as we were being seated other parties arrived in sequence and filled all the available seats bar two. The waiter advised that it's not usually like this, but if you want to make sure you'll have seats it's best to call ahead (sound advice under any circumstances, don't you think? I read a review this morning by a woman who was irretrievably pissed at a sushi place she went to without a reservation because they 1) Didn't have a table for her 2) Didn't have a high chair for her daughter after they waited for a booth 3) Wouldn't move them to a (full) table after the booth wasn't satisfactory. Seriously, get over it and call ahead! I can maybe see that a restaurant should have child seats, but at sushi? This was in Minnesota, which is bound to make you wonder why she wanted to eat sushi or why I was reading the review, but let's leave that unexplored in the interests of ending this digression, shall we?).

The food at lunch appears to differ a bit from that experienced by Terry when he last visited and wrote about it in this post. I'd have to classify it as verging on the old-style French that so disappoints me when I have it, but with flashes of brilliance that make me think dinner could be worthwhile. We both had the Y2000 1-plate lunch (actually soup + Plat + coffee; dessert is Y600; B course with choose-your-appetizer-and-main is Y3500; C course is Y5000). The soup was cream-of-mushroom; Ponちゃん pronounced it to be very tasty, but she's been eating her own cooking for the last 5 was pretty good. We both chose the veal stew over the grilled fish; veal is such a rarity that I feel like I have to order it when I see it. In this case, the one-plate-ness meant that the veal in white sauce came on the plate with a mound of risotto-style rice and also a mass of excellent steamed vegetables. The veal had a flash of brilliance - soft but textured, with a nice sweet and savory spice mix that made me think of brisket (pickling spices; I think this is normal for veal, but I'm so ignorant...). The vegetables were actually what surprised us though - nicely steamed, crisp and fresh and tasty. It's not often that you hear someone say "That's a really good turnip!".

I would potentially be willing to give Cogito a go for dinner, in the company of someone appropriate, and especially if I had the luxury of merely stumbling across the street to get home. As it is, I'm afraid other places are going to claim my dollar in the immediate future.

The pictures don't lie...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shioya, Roppongi

In the basement of this building you'll find the famous grilled-pork specialist Tontokoton. Upstairs there's a very dignified-looking sushi place, and a very un-dignified-looking Okinawa place specializing in salt-grilling. We went the undignified route!

Not a lot of options at lunch - today there was sanma (I thought the season was over! O'Hara served us deer last week because sanma season was over. Must have started again. This week, William Holden stars in Raoul Walsh's production of The Sanma Who Came Back.), or hamburgu, or fried pork in miso sauce. These came with almost-clear soup (not miso), rice, and some miscellaneous fresh crunchy vegetables.

I'm pleased to report that the hamburgu was juicy and meaty (comprised, as it was, of meat) and that the sliced pork shoulder in special-blend miso sauce which graced my plate was soft and delicious. The special sauce was just that. There are a fair few kept bottle, lots of awamori, and a generally muted good-time vibe that lets you know the place is probably pretty swingin' at night, in a cheap and friendly way.

Shio Yah!!!

Kokonotsuido, Futakotamagawa

Yummy washoku anchored by soba in a basement setting calculated to remind you of rustic farmhouses. I think you've been to places like this before, but the food here is quite good.

In a strange twist for Tokyo, and I must say one that makes you think of the country, this place feels big. The entry room is spacious and not cramped, there's a large cement-floored area reminiscent of the entryway of a traditional country house, i.e. where they keep the horses, and this area has some random lanterns and other objects on the floor. There's a large tatami-floored room which seems to be excellent for the kids to run around in, if you're into that sort of thing, and there's a grown-ups room with long single-plank wooden tables and rustic cut-from-a-log stools (I'm crazy for this stuff, as any reader will attest if they've been to Takumikan in Takayama with me. Look for 一枚板 on the 2nd floor in the shop guide.).

As for food, we had already eaten a little in advance and mainly wanted a chat. We had some beef sashi, nice and fatty once it warmed up from refrigeration; a bit of salad as a concession to health; and a plate of soba, which looked low on sobako, but had a great texture and plenty of flavor. People at other tables were relaxing around the shichirin, grilling up various items (but the Y5000 option for grilled beef seems a little rich in context).

If you're in Nikotama, you could certainly do worse than this place. I'd happily go back; my only complaint might be that it feels so homey, I want to lie down after eating, and it's so warm and inviting that you'll feel a bit let down when you go back out on the street (if it's December and cold out).

I love a good noodle.

Maruume, Futakotamagawa

Apparently a 7th-floor-of-Takashimaya branch of a bar down at street level elsewhere in Nikotama. Small and quiet, dim lighting with a red tint, nice selection of frosted and cut glasses behind the bar, reasonable prices and charges. A good place to get lost for a while, albeit incongruously facing a courtyard with a big water feature and a french bistro on the other side. You have to cross the courtyard and then the shopping area to get to the bathroom, which is a bit of a downer. Open from 3 PM, which could be a plus in some circles.


Saizeriya, Monzennakacho (Toyocho)

You will ask yourself, gentle reader, why I went to Saizeriya. Truth is, it's not so bad, it's dead cheap, the food doesn't always contain excess melamine, and the only other choice in that location (Toyocho's East 21 center, home of a new Queen's Isetan that I was test-driving for dinner shopping) is...Sushi Zanmai.

2 pastas (rigatoni with tomato, macaroni with white sauce and shrimp), a salad, a side order of sauteed spinach, a small jug of wine and thou? Y1600, my friends. Lashings of artificial flavor, not always pleasant, but somehow fitting with in the company of a flavor salesperson!

You can do worse than this.

Why you'd want to call is beyond me, but in the interests of completeness, here's the phone number.
TEL : 03-5632-3830

Sushi Yata, Monzennakacho (すし やた, 牡丹)

This place is closed, and the chef has opened his own place here. But you know, after I went to the place described below a few times, I really soured on the experience because he was a creepy dude and an aggressive biller. Now he's recreated it, at a much higher price point. Anyway, the below review was a nice dinner at least.

やった!No, not that. I still don't understand the provenance of the name or the restaurant. At first I wanted to ask, but after a while I started thinking it would be better to hold back on the questions so I'd have something to talk about the next time I went. Because after only a little while, I was convinced that there needed to be a next time, soon!

Yata showed up on a random neighborhood walk - I think this means it's only been open for a few months. It's over on the bad side of the tracks...or rather river, being on the South Side of Monzennakacho, which everyone knows is the baddest part of town. Still, it looks clean and neat. Subsequent investigation (OK, I just opened the door and asked for a card. Everyone looks at you like you're a nutjob, but how else is a guy supposed to get a good look at a place?) showed the same results, and I planned to visit at earliest convenience. Looking at the web site listed on the card, I got confused, because it appeared to be a fish wholesaler, but then excited, because it appeared to be a fish wholesaler. That's a heck of a business model for a sushi place, right, having a fish wholesaler as your parent company?

The food started off with...namako. If you told me 5 years ago that I'd be eating raw sea slug in vinegar and'd be wrong, because I never enjoy it, and this was not an exception. However it was undeniably fresh, and if you like the crunchy-chewy texture, you'd be in heaven with this guy. Second item, which we actually ordered, was half-cooked octopus (they meant it to be that way, honest). The chef showed a bit of creative flair on this one by giving us two dishes for dipping - pink grapefruit juice and pink salt - and instructing us to do 'em in sequence. Well, creative! And actually pretty good. Also maguro-avocado salad, featuring a rare part of the fish (中落ち).

Around this time the group of 4 middle aged working guys at the other end of the bar ordered up maguro negima (take a bamboo skewer, alternate two big pieces of raw tuna with two cylinders of negi, dip in flour, dip in egg, dip in bread crumbs, shallow fry and serve with barbeque sauce. The chef gave us a little dish of sauce because I pestered him about the secret recipe - it was incredible.) but we didn't indulge, and started in on nigiri. Same reason as above - the other cooked items look great, but we wanted to save something for next time. The nigiri were terrific, some extraordinary, and the maguro selection more than convinced us that there are certain benefits to being owned by a wholesaler.

Projects for next time: Make friends with the chef, eat a lot of cooked food, and generally overindulge in fish. This is in the mid-price range (normal nigiri Y300) but the overall bill was comfortable for a Friday night in the neighborhood when you factored in a beer and two bottles of nihonsh.

Meaner than a junkyard dog.

Ohara et CIE, Roppongi (Nishi Azabu)

I can die happy, my friends. Along with l'Auberge au l'Ill, this was the remaining high-end French lunch I wanted to eat in Roppongi. With it out of the way, I think we can regard the Roppongi lunching experience as mainly closed (although there's still a whole week of lunches to go, and one hopes to deliver a few more reviews).

O'Hara is of course a French restaurant in Japan with an Irish name, so things are bound to get a bit confused. It's tucked away on a back street in Nishi Azabu, on the north side of Roppongi Dori and almost down to Gaien-Nishi, and is further complexificated by being both basementalized and poorly signpostified. Various random reconaissances had detected signs of its presence, but I was put off by the price (Y2800 for the pricks-ficks, Y3500 if you want to choose, Y5000 if you want to go all out, 5% service charge at lunch, 10% at dinner) until the situation became desperate and the days in Roppongi had dwindled down to a precious few. I picked, my colleague didn't.

I think the interior is supposed to enhance the focus on food - very white. Marble floor, white walls, frosted glass windows, and somehow strong lighting all create a feeling of...whiteness. It might be different at night, but during the day I found it somehow a little cheap. The service did enhance the focus on the food. I agree with Ohara's promotional site, which says the service is attentive without being obtrusive. They also provided brief but complete descriptions of each dish, which I prefer.

Dishes I can remember:
  • My starter of deer and potato terrine, sort of like what's on the gurunavi site, but with a topping of bread crumbs that had been briefly grilled in place. Mediocre, but with a very tasty mini-salad.
  • The soup: I think just potage, or perhaps Shimonita negi (I may be getting confused with Saturday night's dinner at home where I roasted some of these!), but importantly with a bit of foam on top and a slice of bacon on the bottom. The bacon had been roasted and slightly caramelized before insertion to the soup, and this made the whole dish delicious.
  • Her main: a grilled white fish (mutsu, I think. I thought mutsu were always colored, like akamutsu or kuromutsu.) on vegetables. Good, and nicely grilled skin, but a bit strong flavor-wise, which made me feel like they were missing the last 5% of freshness or cooking technique. Still good though.
  • My main: grilled quail topped with salad. This was the single tastiest quail I can remember eating anywhere (although I have vague memories of a quail that had been deboned while preserving its shape and then stuffed fith foie gras and breadcrumbs). It was extraordinarily juicy, and yet the skin was extraordinarily crisp and brown. I'd had to say it was extraordinary, and it came with that delightful cup of lemon-scented soup that good restaurants always serve with quail.
  • Desserts: her yogurt ice cream with lemon jelly and fresh fruit - much less a waste of time than I'd think if I read that description. My tiramisu a ma facon, which turned out to be a multi-layered affair including coffee granite, crushed cornflakes, ice cream and whipped cream.

Unusually, it was the quail and the dessert that did it for me - until then I was happy but not overwhelmingly so. With those two, O'Hara pushed things over the edge and into a realm of recommendation.

Not perfect (except the quail), but good!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sushi Zanmai, Akihabara

I have a bit of an unnatural attachment to Sushi Zanmai, at least the Monnaka branch that I like to think of as 'home base'. The prices are extremely low, and I like to think that the quality is very high if you order carefully. Just so's you know, that means: scallops, salmon, chu-toro. The white fish are often quite ordinary (but how much can you expect for Y100 sushi?).

After a shopping expedition to Yodobashi in Akiba, which led through various circumstances to the unfortunate breakdown of my internet and phone service (half restored, thanks), I was deeply desirous of fish (as I had been all week, which led to suzhi the next night also!). The Zanmai branch in Akiba is built into the corner of Yodobashi, so....

Looooong counter, many tables, 6 or 8 chefs, and everything humming along at capacity on a Thursday night at 9 PM. I felt a little lucky to get a seat down at the end of the counter, and went about my usual business of ordering and drinking tea. The scallops were the same as at other branches - so fresh, so plump. (When I lived in San Francisco, I used to read the Zagat guide. I swear to you, every review of a sushi place would say something like 'So fresh, it practically swims away from the table!' I would say that about these scallops, but scallops don't swim a whole lot.) There were some specials (toro saba, buri) that were also excellent (but Y260 per). And the service was fast and to-the-point, which is always pleasant in a big and crowded restaurant.

Hey, it's not great, but it's ril good, and it's ril cheep!
Open 24 hours!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Zen, Roppongi (膳, 芋洗坂)

In troubled times, nothing comforts like soul food. Thus on a difficult day like today, suffering through bizarre work orders from various sides, trepidation about the future of the team, and existential angst about life, it was a pleasure to be turned away from two other establishments on Imoraizaka and find ourselves in Zen. (The Swedish place next to the pet shop and the Japanese place across thre street advertising crab-don and fried oysters. Damn their eyes! Arrrr!)

Tiny, cluttered, and not especially clean, but in a homey way, describe both the restaurant and chef. A small counter leads to a single table in the back, where we sat once the chef had cleared the newspapers and other objects. Fortunately several large plant leaves remained, so we could admire some greenery during our meal.

Your choice of lunch - grilled salmon or grilled mackrel! The mind boggles at the possibilities. However the fish was preceded by a steady stream of small plates: some boiled vegetables (including konnyaku and chikuwa) and a warm, moist unohana. Fried tofu in broth with an unusual boiled green leaf on top - I think morning glory leaves, but I should really learn the names of more greens. Several bowls of rice. Thick, strong miso soup with clams. And the salmon was excellent - strong and salty with crisped skin. From the dark color I figured it was something special, and the chef confirmed happily as we were leaving that it was from Hokkaido. All that puzzled me was the omission of grated daikon to go with it (Y1260).

Very comforting. All is right with the world, and it's time for a nap. Hard to imagine what Zen is like for dinner, but might actually be worth a shot considering the effort obaa-san seems to put into picking food for lunch.

Phew, hard to find a site for this one...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jewel of India, Roppongi

The hits keep on coming, don't they? Today's lunch was the curry buffet at the famous Jewel of India. I went with Double-R, who tells me that this is a favorite hangout for Indian movie stars visiting Tokyo, as well as being K-Rizzle's favorite lunch place (and K is Pakistani, so he should know something).

For your Y1000, JoI serves up a buffet of 4 curries (Keema, very meety; chicken soup curry; potato yellow curry, the agreed winner; kidney bean curry, not bad), salad, rice and sweetened wallpaper paste for dessert. In addition, you'll get one nan each (very fresh, but a tiny bit thin for my tastes) and one piece of tandoori chicken (hellz bellz, this actually tasted like tandoori. I had forgotten what it tasted like!).

Not bad, not bad. I don't retract my comments about Raj Mahal, but not bad.

Bhangra all night!

Bon Monsieur, Roppongi

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Bon Monsieur is a tiny, highly recommended J-Bistro (ooh, did I just invent a term? J-ing is like e-ing, the process of making everything 'webby' by putting an 'e' in front of it.) tucked away in a deep corner of Roppongi. I admit I was lucky to get there through improvization - turn left off Roppongi Dori at the Mizuho branch, pass Honmura An, jog left and pass Aux Six Arbres, persevere when it looks like the street is becoming an alley and running out, turn left at the single-width sidewalk that looks like someone's entryway, then pop out and find you're right next to the restaurant! We had called ahead to make sure there was space, which is good form at a place that seats 6 at the counter (reputedly; I don't see how more than 4 could manage) and a few more at two tables.

The wine is good fun - Chef had to show us the trick since it was our first time, but I'm sure you can do it at your leisure once you're a regular (i.e. from the second visit). There's a big wine cooler in the corner, and every bottle has the price marked on it. White on top, red on the bottom. Have a look around! I picked a Rhone with a nice hand-written-style label, which I'm a sucker for, and we started warming up from the filthy weather outside.

The menu's all on the blackboard (when you're a one-man operation, it takes too much time to pass out menus!). I like to think based on our experience that this is French food with a heavy Japanese slant - one first course was pork 'n' veg comprised of a a long slice of pork belly (I think; the cut with wide strips of fat and a tough rind) and fancy vegetables with pesto. [Seems that all the vegetables are fancy, by which I mean: sourced from various places that are famous for individual vegetables. Purple carrots, long white turnips, that sort of thing.] The other was a whole lotus root, baked (I think) and covered with blue cheese sauce. How's that for East-meets-West and all that rubbish? It was really good in a sort of baked satoimo way. I hesitate to call these 'appetizers' or 'starters' as they were huge, and in fact everything came in very even numbers, almost as if each item had been planned for two people.

Not long after opening the wine, we began an animated conversation with Hubert, the Japanese-fluent French narrator, voice actor and MC who seems to spend a good deal of time perched by the coffee machine, making himself cups. We learned an extraordinary amount about the history of the restaurant, the chef's philosophies, and the relative merits of apples in Japan vs. Normandy. See you next time, Hubert!

We cancelled one of the two main dishes (the scallops) once the second starter arrived. The remaining main was two good-sized lamb chops with a selection of roasted vegetables (notably sweet potatoes), which was fairly impressive all on its own. Desserts were non-existent; there was demand from the counter, but the kitchen replied (as always, my loose translation) "No, I don't have any desserts. Truth is, I hate making desserts. It's a pain."

I think I'm in the club now, and I'm happy to be there. This is sensibly priced, tasty, interesting food in large quantities and a highly engaging, friendly environment. I was surprised that we could get seats when we called on short notice, and having visited, I'm even more surprised.

Tabelog is a little unfair here.

B-Bar, Roppongi

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you a burst of vitriol...

I knew how much the drinks cost before I went here. I knew what the charge was. But as I watched the bartender pour flat champagne into my glass and add blue food coloring, all I could think was "I'm being screwed."

Yes, as the bartender told us, you can try very expensive glasses (e.g. my $300 parfait-style glass). And maybe after you hoist the famous '8-inch-2-pound' champagne flute, you'll realize that you don't need a set. On the other hand, you could walk around the retail store and pick up the glasses at your leisure, which would save you a heck of a lot of money. You could even bring a bottle of water, or perhaps a split of champagne, and have a quick pour-n-sip.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Giliola, Roppongi

The streets around Roppongi Crossing are a mess; I was noticing today that there are far more sandwichboard lunch advertisements than I ever thought before. I don't know what these places are, and at this point I'm never going to find out! Giliola is a little more notable - it faces Roppongi Dori on the East side of the crossing, near Pronto, Sushi Zanmai, and Badd Girlz Campus Cafe. It has a nice trattoria vibe going from the street.

Inside, the vibe is a little wacky. The kitchen is in the front, with a narrow hallway, then a main room that's bright and cheerful and tiled and Italiante and usually full, and a back room that's a little dim and cramped - like a bedroom that happens to have some tables. Today the front room was empty, but they insisted on shunting us into the back room anyway. Grrr...

I'm not quite sure what the attraction is here. It's a little like Del Sole in that you can get surprisingly large portions of low-quality pasta at reasonable prices. Sometimes that's an attraction in itself, I guess. Y1200 gets you stale bread, a small salad, a large pasta, a tiny dessert, and a tolerable coffee in a Lavazza cup. The pastas sound OK on the menu in a standard way (mushroom bacon creem, that sorta thing), and Y150 gets you a truly tremendous super-sizing. There's also a lasagne offering, which is what I really went in search of, and also a steak option where you get a quite large steak (I've seen it. It's big. Must be mediocre, ne?) and a half-size pasta for Y2000.

Service is a bit pissy.

Again, Tabelog gets it right...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sunny Diner, Kita Senju

I went to Kita Senju, Sharon, to buy myself some cheap ties. It's a sort of personal-improvement project. For the next period, still to be determined but at least 4 weeks, I'm wearing nothing but ties that I would never have considered wearing 2 weeks ago. Since these are items that I expect to go back to disliking in the immediate future, cost performance is a must. I figured KSJ would be the place to pick up some cheap oyaji-kusai fashion.

I was wrong about this, but found an Aoyama branch and got 5 ties out of their clearance rack. Walking the shopping street on the west side of the station, and the other one that crosses it, reminded me that KSJ is great and put me right in the mood for some cheap downtown eats - kani-kreem-koroke-kurry, anyone? If you're in this market, or ramen, or anything along those lines, it's hard to go wrong up there. I realized what I like about the town - I feel exactly like I'm on vacation! Domestic vacations for me invariably involve walking around a shoutengai somewhere in a country town (possibly a country town masquearading as a city, like Kanazawa), thinking how quaint it is, what with the shopping arcades, the dusty little shops, the okashiya...and maybe it's KSJ's former status as the first stop on the narrow road to the deep north, but it has this feel despite being 20 minutes from Tokyo.

Sunny Diner gets big props from Tabelog, and the more I look at the scores and try places, the more I agree with them. It seems democracy has some advantages after all, or maybe Tabelog readers are just extraordinaryily elite? After figuring out that I was on the wrong side of the station from Sunny, I started off in vaguely the right direction (you know what Japan is like without a map), and realized along the way that I was in fact on the right side of the station, and just on the next street over.

Ohhhhh, I'm getting old and have been here too long... Not really, but I did come to the odd revelation that I had seen Sunny Diner before. Only been to KSJ once in the past, found nothing too remarkable, but I remember this place. It's a slice of America, in that extraordinarily perfect way that things can be replicated only in Japan. The outside is red and cheerful, the inside is 110% American Diner, and somehow in a more authentically cluttered way than you get at those recreation places in America. Cartoons on a flat panel TV, loud teen-rock (all I know anymore is Green Day, but it was that and things derived therefrom), Chef wears his cap to the's SoCal.

They open at 11:30. When I got there at 11:50, there were 5 people in line. By the time the first of those people got inside, there were 15 people in line. Part of the problem is the takeout policy - if you show up and ask for takeout, you get to jump the line and wait inside where it's warm (or cool, depending in season) which is probably a pretty good thing. Note to self. On a positive note, one of the waitresses comes out to ask each new customer whether they intend to eat in the store, and if they do she comes back with a plastic cup of chicken soup.

Chicken soup in plastic cups is nice, but I'll take a burger, 'K? The menu is a little bigger than I think it oughta be - you get your choice of burgers with cheese, bacon, avocado, etc. I don't think there was chili as an option. There are also other sandwiches - your grilled-cheese kinda thing. I really like grilled cheese, but I think it's a good idea to start with les specialites de la maison when first encountering a new dining experience. Bacon burger, chocolate shake, hot coffee!

Now that I've written all this crap to obscure the simple truth, I don't really know where to start. This was a transcendent burger. The meat was meaty - wide, thin, cooked all the way through. The bun was perfect (sorry, Waッchan, I didn't ask where to buy them. You should call!). The lettuce was abundant and fresh. The tomato was thick. The onions were chopped. The bacon was slightly burnt, which only maked it more delicious. The fries were thin and crisp, almost looking like they had been very lightly battered. This whole plate of food...I wanted to eat it again and again. It was better than Cats.

After a fun interlude where we discussed America, worked together to find Philadelphia on the map (no dear, it's not in SoCal!), and discussed the other (wait, THE) Great American Food, the cheesesteak, I stubmled back into the street, unable to spell, and smiled all the way back to the station. Thank you little tiny baby infant Jesus, all wrapped up and sleeping cozy in your manger, but still all-powerful and wise, for giving us cheeseburgers.

In heaven, this is what the angels eat

Note strategically placed flag and Blackberry.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dhaba India, Yaesu

Arriving at TY Harbor Brewery in Shinagawa expecting mediocre food, nice views, and a pleasant buzz to go home by, we were disappointed to see even from afar the sheen of white tablecloths and centerpieces. Getting closer, the presence of suited waitstaff loitering by the entrance confirmed out worst fears: wedding.

Milling around, wondering where to go in the relative wasteland that is Shinagawa, we hit on trekking back to the famous Indian hill station at Dhaba. This is a well-known and recently-reviewed destination that was in fact recommended by a new South Indian acquaintance at an otherwise forgettable dinner (actually not that forgettable; I wrote a very cranky post about it!).

Ethnic food has this problem in Japan - you're expecting Southeast Asian, "Wow that was great, you made it in front of me, and it cost a dollar!" and they're in a territory off the map where the territorial motto is 'exotically spiced, exotically priced'. This is Dhaba in a fragrantly-scented nutshell - it does the business taste-wise, but it annoys on the cost side. That said, I'm not sure you can get this kind of food anywhere else, like the shredded coconut curry with shrimp. Or the dosai. It's good stuff. The sets are reasonably-sized for your ~Y1800, but Y1800 really should go a bit farther in most people's minds.

The atmosphere is quite cheerful - at 1 PM+ on a Saturday, it was pretty full, and we got the last table. Things are on the slow side as a result; hopefully you don't mind. One fun way to while away the hours is with Indian wine. I know what you're thinking, but it was fully drinkable. Y700 a glass for the house special, and the red was a lot more drinkable than the white (something about the presence of flavor and absence of chemical aftertaste, I dunno). After a few glasses, the blue walls may confuse you into thinking you're in Jodhpur, the Blue City, which would be a shame because Jodhpur is in the north, as I found once I sobered up and checked the map. Actually we only had one glass each of wine, but I was genuinely confused about the geography.

Goooooooooo Goa!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Raj Mahal, Roppongi

Well, since today's lunch (12/8) was a (really crappy pastrami-pasta with blueberry sauce, and I'm not making that up) salad from Lawson, and I have three posts to catch up on goes.

Raj Mahal is the clear winner in the Roppongi Indian Lunch sweepstakes. The ambience and service are quite similar to Moti, but the food is at once more tasty, more plentiful, and cheaper. Where's the downside? Distant location for Hillz-dwellerz (close if you're in Midtown like Harapeko chan. Hi Harapeko chan.) is all I can think of. I've never been turned away for full-ness, nor have I gone away hungry.

Possibly, one could complain about the variety. The lunch sets only give you one choice of curry (plus a little piece of chicken, plus refillable nan and rice. All the nan you can eat, that's a rarity.) for Y1000, but it's not worth upgrading to the other sets. The curry actually has some flavor and some spice. The nan isn't perfectly fresh, but it's free.

In short, I can't find anything to complain about here. We have a winner. Great inspirational web site too.

Friday, December 5, 2008

All Choked Up! at Artichaut, Ebisu

Having Invited a Friend to Supper (the Curmudgeonly Old Bastard, in fact) and failed to make a reservation, I arrived fashionably late, if you, gentle reader, consider rudeness to be in fashion. After paying my respects to the pheasant hanging around (by his feet) outside the door, I found the COB comfortably ensconced in his usual position behind the table. He had already confirmed the presence of various gamey delicacies in addition to the one by the door and the one at the table, discussed the chef's curriculum vitae (7 years in France, including Pierre Gagnaire), and was eying the menus with a trencherman's regard.

The done thing at Artichaut appears to be the omakase, which we opted for after the COB rescued me from a brief and embarrassing attempt to confirm that we could have gibier and more gibier rather than the customary poisson and viande. The COB ordered a sprightly young bottle of Sancerre, and we were off to the races.

Chef chose to begin the festivities with a single oyster of brobdignagian proportions, lounging saucily in its shell and bathing in a bit of sea water and lemon juice. The COB daintily tucked into his with a knife and fork as befits his dignified Queensland heritage, while your Humble Correspondent hoisted 'n' slurped as befits a dedicated glutton. Chef sent out the first round of bread, which was positively revelatory in its doughy, crusty goodness (soft and chewy, with a hint of brioce, rather than baguette) and provoked exclamations of glee from at least one member of the audience.

Gentle and Astute Readers will have noted the picture of Chef's vegetable terrine on the web site, as these things are in fashion in our day. Artichaut's version is lovely, with more color than the versions at some establishments I could name, and is fairly wreathed with fresh herbs. In truth though, Your Humble Correspondent must report that its consumption provoked a short and awkward silence in which the COB and I looked at each other before he bravely sallied forth with "'s awfully bland, isn't it, old man?". The warm appetizer was more appetizing - a presse of eel, foie gras and artichoke with a rich demiglace sauce. Impressively, the bread changed at this point, to a slightly nutty and raisinified concoction which better accompanied the rich rich fatty and rich texture of the presse.

Suddenly conscious that we were in grave danger of being confronted with meat dishes in the absence of red wine, we fairly lunged in urgent simultaneity toward the wine list. Your Humble Correspondent, in a misguided effort to appear worldly and gracious, insisted that the COB indulge in the well-aged Bordeaux that had earlier caught his eye. Chateau Malescot St. Exupery will of course be well known to you, Gentle Reader, as the Margaux estate formerly owned by the family of Antoine de St. Exupery, author of Le Petit Prince, as well as a property some of whose vineyards abut the glorious Chateaux Margaux itself. The 1983 was full mature, showing some loss of colour, with visible separation on the meniscus. Raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg and sultana infused the nose, while the lean texture showed raisined fruit, leading to a short finish. In company as excellent as that of the COB, this was an enjoyable and thought-provoking wine, but clearly one from which no further improvement should be expected in the future. If it rests in your cellar, Gentle Reader, please abandon moderation and drink up with all due haste.

The gibier-festa portion of degustation began with a porcini risotto, mildly abusive to Your Humble Correspondent's sensitive teeth in its al-denteさ, topped with a slice of richly sauced deer thigh, topped with a slice of fried-but-sadly-un-caramelized foie gras. While this was fully consumed on both sides of the table, and moistened with lashings of Chateau Le Petit Prince, it also prompted a note that the food was heading toward 'forking tradesmanlike'. For the second gibier, chef allowed us to chose between a pigeon and another bird name しげ, at which point we indulged in a lively and uninformed debate on the names of various Japanese game birds. The debate may have been more interesting than the birds, which were well-aged, a bit salty, and presented in an interesting deconstructed style that feature legs, wings, bits, and head in sequence. A tiny gold spoon accompanied our featherless friends, the better to extract the, err, miso from their tiny cranial cavities.

The wine had fairly blossomed by this point, and the COB opined for the consideration of patrons at all table that he "had a remarkable post coming on!" While we discoursed on matters germane to every civilized society, such as window tax and the introduction of the auto-mobile, a cheese plate came and went before each of us. Chef introduced us to several desserts including a lemon-curd strawberry mille feuille (in that peculiar style common to old Nippon while includes only 2 or 3 feuille) and a roll cake drolly decorated with seasonal chestnuts. The COB was flagging by this time, exhibiting some fatigue as well as high epidermal abrasion to the palm of his hand, so after a marginal coffee we stumbled out the door and on our separate ways.

Though the victuals were in truth workmanlike in execution if not ambition, Your Humble Correspondent cannot remember a more mirthfull board, and was in no respect sad the next morning. Clothes maketh the man and, Gentle Reader, friends make the occasion. Visit Artichaut with some caution, in good company, prepared to abandon caution to the Winds of the Whitsundays, and you shall enjoy.

There's a coupon here. You can forget to use it like I did.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

La Colina, Roppongi (Midtown)

I enjoyed the Mexican lunch I had today in Tokyo.

Let me repeat that.

I enjoyed the Mexican lunch I had today in Tokyo.

Phew, I feel like a new man. Who ever would have thought that 'Mexican', 'enjoy' and 'Tokyo' could be in the same sentence (without a 'not', at any rate)? La Collina was not cheap, but it was tasty, and considering certain aspects of the lunch, not bad value.

Lunch sets - Y1500, Y1800 or Y2300. Plus 10% service charge. Grrrr. The most basic of these is pretty workable - choose from main items that include chicken or pork tacos. Pay Y300 extra for the beef or seafood tacos. The top-class set features all kinds of bellz n wisslz, including coffee and dessert (coffee is otherwise Y900). Most impressively, the Y1500 lunch set includes a drink, and the drink selection includes beer!

Sets come with a decent-sized salad with limey dressing and some cruncy tortilla bits, a bowl of black-bean soup with sour cream and...errrr, tortilla bits, and then the main (which feature more tortilla than just bits). The tacos were nice, I think authentic in some way - small, fresh tortillas (soft) with chicken or pork. The pork was pretty well-stewed.

And lest your interest was not already piqued, let me say those two words that elevate any Mexican restaurant to greatness: Live Mariachi. That's right folks, accordian, guitarron, and a few other instruments, played by mustachioed men in white spangly suits and sombreros. Muy caliente!!

Es sabroso.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tamura, Roppongi (田村)

Ohhhhhh, this was good. Bangkok was full (down the street kinda behind TGI Friday's, right? Near the Oakwood serviced apartments, formerly Weekly Mansion?) so we continued walking down the street and saw a sign outside. That was for the motsu nabe place, which draws resounding 'yucks' at lunch from most people (like me). Across the street is an extraordinarily humble little yakitoriya, Tamura, whose menu advertises fried chicken 南蛮 and oyakodon (Y900). That's it.

Inside is dark, cluttered, and smoky, even at lunch when there's no yaki-ing going on. It's just a small L-shaped counter, with a large sort of iroha-style grill at the corner. The master was spearing gizzards when we got there, but took a short break to rustle up one each of his lunch specialties. You know how much I love finding random little places. I've also come to have a deep appreciation for places that are open at lunch only because they have to be there while doing prep for dinner. I think they end up offering higher quality and lower prices.

Based on my fried chicken, Tamura is all that and a bagga chips. The chicken is high-quality (or at least tasty; I don't know how to judge), the breading was different (smoother) and delicious, and the vinegary potato salad covering everything was different and delicious. I wish I had had twice as much of it, but there was also rice, soup, pickles and some boiled pumpkin. This is gonna sound weird, but the rice was delicious. It was very plump, sticky, and perfectly cooked. I could turn Japanese for rice like that.

He insists that the food is just as good at night. Shelves packed with kept bottles of Jinro tell the story!

Per Regalo, Shiroganedai

My fake Italian friend lives in Takanawa, so Shiroganedai seemed like a nice place to meet for fake Italian food (until I remembered what a pain it is to get home). He was laid off recently, so now he's paid contractor wages but goes home at 5 when it's a slow day like yesterday. Errrr...

I noticed Per Regalo on a recent scouting mission, but the only way you could miss it is if you never went to Shirogandai - it's on the main corner, the intersection of Platinum Dori and Meguro Dori. First floor takeout pizza, second floor semi-elegant Italian restaurant.

I say 'semi' because they've got the soft lights, the tablecloths, the glass wine cellar and other accoutrements of the modern Japanese fake Italian restaurant, but it feels a little thin compared to some others. The staff seemed mildly disturbed to see us, asked if we wanted food, and stayed a little awkward the whole time. Ah well.

Menu is a little big; perhaps 20 antipasti (grilled eggplant in garlic oil, very very tasty; arancini, fried rice balls with cheese inside, quite good; grilled mushrooms with no oil or salt, negatory cap'n), 2 salads, 10 pastas, a few mains, and 15-20 pizzas. We got through the 2 pizzas between the two of us big, strapping lads: mushroom, which had more sausage and vegetables than mushrooms but was ok, and 'Fantagista' (soft g), which turned out to be a calzone with shrimp, asparagus, bacon and cheese, but didn't turn out to be hot in the middle. And a calzone should have sauce on the side in my world, but my New Jersey fake Italian doesn't really align with the slightly more authentic fake Italian that prevails in Japan (though my vision evidently aligns well with Geno's Salem, Massachusets fake Italian). And no, I've never been to Italy.

Wine list has less than 20 bottles, but in a good price range a lot of the time. This is a fine place for a casual meeting, and good if you live in the neighborhood. I was pretty happy with the quality, price and experience except

I feel alright tonight.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Miyama, Nishi Azabu (味やま; Roppongi)

I've walked by this place a LOT of times but never been in. Sometimes it's been too late to go, but most times I've just been put off by the standard teishoku-ality of the menu. It's strange because the entrance and pictures of dinner courses are modern/traditional and very impressive, but the lunch menu is limited to nizakana, yakizakana, gyudon and oyakodon. Not the mark of a place that's trying real hard to meet the lunch crowd, right?

In fairness, this isn't a location that you'd stumble on, unless you were me and tended to spend your solitary lunch hours stumbling around Roppongi and Nishi Azabu looking for lunch destinations. Know where the Romanian and Lao embassies are? That street. On the hill up from Gaien-Nishi to the back of the Grand Hyatt. This probably explains the patrons - mainly groups of women (there's that theme again) who must have found the place in a magazine and wanted to enjoy the modern, classy ambience and affordable pricing.

I have no problem with a teishoku if it's done right, and I would have to say that these were done right. My gyudon didn't include too much meat (which is sort of a blessing), but the meat was extremely high quality for a don. Lots of vegetables, good sauce. Nizakana was saba today (isn't it always?), and the piece of this that I stole was really good - firm yet yielding, sweet and salty, much like a...well, never mind. Everything came with tofu, soup, pickles, and the table got a mid-size dish each of gomakonbu and red beans poached in ginger syrup (I'm not making this up) to share.

All of this in a very modern and stylish environment - I think it was the marble floors that really made me feel modern. Actually my actual comment was 'museum cafe', but museum cafes don't have lovely prep counters with seats, nor do they have big glass wine coolers. This is a place that looks distinctly worth trying at night since the kaiseki courses start from Y5000 and Y6000.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Isekan, Azabu Juban (伊勢貫)

This has been a long time in the making. I don't know how many times I've walked by the stairs to this second-floor place...on my way into La Brace on the first floor. I'm not sure if I know anyone that's been before either, which means that Kathy and I are brave, intrepid adventurers, as befits our mutual heritage in the Lucky Country. Or just suckers.

I thought this was a sushi place. The pictures on the menu outside certainly look raw. Turns out the only raw thing they had was beef (which I ate). In fact, it's a modern and stylish Japanese place, evidently specializing in Ise's Big Three (Matsuzaka beef, lobster, abalone), but offering cheaper things for lunch. (The dinners don't look that bad either - there's a Y5500 option.) Big open kitchen with a counter around three sides of it, then some other tables...tidy.

Only 4-5 sets for lunch - oyakodon, beef stew bowl (I guess more like beef and vegetables kinpira - not thick or wine-y sauce), zuke-beef bowl...ohhh, and some other things that I forgot in the last hour. Most Y1200, but the raw beef was Y1500, and worth it too, being underpinner by nori and rice as well as pleasantly zuke-d and fatty.

Good flavor, adequate portions, free-flowing tea, attentive staff, and the chance to complain about work with a maaate? I'm in!

Part of the Seven Sea Diner group...which I've never heard of, but has a LOT of stores.

Just because I can't resist this stuff, here's the company's mission statement:
If open the door of the shop; from the time.
Dazzling dramatic Sheen unfolds in sequence.
I continue making an impression restaurant. It is our mission.