Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tsushima, Monzennakacho (つしま)

Wow, everything that's great about Japanese dining, under one roof! I was positively euphoric after this dinner - so fresh, so delicious, seasonal, well-cooked, nicely presented,'s a mystery to me why this Tsushima isn't profiled in the usual places or rated more highly. It's also a mystery why I didn't visit for the first 3 years I lived here, and also why it took me 8 months to go back after the abortive first attempt.

It being Saturday, there's plenty of time for digression. Let's begin.

Last March, I was at Maru Biru for dinner (Labyrinthe, to be specific), and got in a taxi to go home. As soon as I said 'Monzennakacho', the driver turned around and said 'II TOKORO NE!'. That, my friends, was the genesis of this blog's name, so it's fairly historic as an event in itself. But the reason he thought Monnaka was such an ii toko was that his friend ran a restaurant there, and that restaurant turned out to be Tsushima. I had been meaning to go for a while, but had been put off because the menu is very hand-written (difficult to read) and rankly, it looked too nice!

In May, Fred came to visit (hi Fred). He got off the plane, went to my apartment, and we met up for dinner. Like a dummy, I thought 'Hey, this is a great time for that Tsushima place!' and took him there, reasoning that he loves sushi and all that sorta thing. It didn't go so well - he was frankly challenged by the food (I distinctly remember the first time I was presented with something moving, and I was pretty challenged by that too; I can't remember the first time I was presented with sea cucumber, but it remains a challenge for me). Partly tiredness (I just got in from Cleveland, and boy are my arms tired!), partly difficult food...we left after 3 or 4 courses, and the staff were quite pissy about it. But I was highly impresed with the food, and always wanted to go back.

Last night I was out of work at reasonable hour and figured it was time to try again (actually I figured it was time to try Shizuka again, the place behind the drug store at Monnaka crossing, but it was packed full, as it always is). Impressively, the waitress greeted me with a 久しぶり, and we were off to the races with the Y7000 course.

There's something weird going on here, but I can't put my finger on it, 釜知らない. The main waitress wears a kimono, while some of the others wear slightly odd and flashy clothing. Everyone wears too much makeup. There's a 'mini-club' upstairs through a separate entrance called Ahiru (duck), which seems to explain things - the waitresses go back and forth a bit, taking food from the kitchen up there. Once you see that, their demeanor makes more sense - lots of makeup, tough But what does that have to do with a nice little kappou?

So here's how we started. A dish of ikura that were extraordinary - light and fresh and tasty, seemingly soaked in dashi. We discussed the received wisdom that crunchy, 'popping' ikura are fresh. Eating these made me not-so-sure - they tasted to natural and delicious to be anything but fresh, and they were quite soft. They were also served with a dumb joke from the chef (英語でハウマッチ?) that indicates a lot about his personality. Fortunately he's also very, very picky about his food. The soramame (スカイレージンズ!) were forgettable, but also one of the very few things in this meal that were the same as the aborted one I ate previously. Items on the front plate: stuffed squid, kazunoko, boiled crab, raw baby daikon with miso, satoimo (ヴィレッジポテト!OK, he didn't say that, but it would have been funny.)

We more or less forgot to take pictures after this, which is a damn shame, because there was a veritable procession of dishes. At the same time as the above plates, we also got a big dish of fugu shirako with fugu skin (like, totally seasonal, man...) and a chawan mushi ("Could you please go slower and stop delivering all this stuff?!") Then a further covered dish of boiled things (potatoes, nanohana, crab, with a little butter; exhibiting the characteristic puff of steam on opening. Us: "For the love of god, would you please stop putting things in front of us?!") that I found similarly fresh and tasty - it's not often you can eat a boiled potato and think "Damn, that's a good boiled potato."

The sashimi course came after this. Barely after this. You've noticed my complaint by this time - no attempt made at pacing. And after I sent back the emptied nimono dish, the waitress said "Ohhh, good! It's rare that you eat everything." To me, this played like a reference to my first visit. Grrrr...

But all sins are forgiven with fish like that. A huge dish filled with ice, and topped with squid, akagai, flounder, tuna, scallops and shrimp. I can't express to you how fresh this was - have you ever eat a scallop where it's cold, salty, and slightly crunchy? That, I think, is the natural state of the beastie, and anything else (warmer, softer, whatever) is less fresh. The akagai were the same - it was almost like there was a slight crunch when you bit them, followed by a little spurt of seawater in your mouth. The shrimp...we had a good time playing with them. This was where the problems started for Fred - the shrimp hang out in a tank behind the counter until it's time for their 'close up', and the tails are still twitching on the plate. (On the first visit, there a slice of abalone as well, with the top still waving slightly.). All of this was throw-your-chopsticks-down delicious, and all I could think was "I was Chuck was here".

Starting to get really full at this point, we were excited but a little disheartened to see the enormous crab legs being grilled behind the counter (presumably for an upper-level course - we had Y7000, but there's Y8000 and Y9000). Fortunately/unfortunately, these weren't for us. The pair of mutsu in the pot, however, was. This style of food really suffers in pictures, don't you think? This was a beautiful, beautiful fish - so rich from the cooking tsuyu and the winter fat.

As you'd expect, fruit came after that. watermelon (wintermelon? No, seriously, it was pretty anemic) and grapes (wacky, wacky stuff - these tasted like August in Yamanashi, not January in Tokyo). We were offered ochazuke but begged off with cries of surrender, and wandered out the door pleasantly estufado.

This place should have a better web site. Geez it's good. I wonder what the club's like!

About the Tabelog, you'll see that there's only one rating. I respect Nao-sann, but I have to think he or she would have a much better opinion of this place if he or she went for dinner. It's over 4 in my book.

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