Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kita no Maru, Otemachi (北の丸、新大手町ビル)

There's a weird 'network' concept going on in Marunouchi. All of the buildings above a certain size seem to belong to a sort of neighborhood association for mutual benefit. Nothing sinister, of course - here in Japan even the mafia aren't sinister. But they cross-promote each other through magazines, video screens and takeaway pamphlets in their lobbies. It's especially incongruous to me in the New Otemachi Building (新大手町), one of the grubbiest and saddest (especially now that the JA Building seems to be shuttered - time to scrap 'n' build over there, methinks!), and one without a real lobby. The video screens are slapped in a wall near the end of what's more or less a long hallway through the building that happens to contain the Doutour Coffee, the Kiosk-like snack-and-newsstand, and the elevators. And in the low-ceilinged, yellowing basement, there's a traditional Japanese restaurant that seems intent on ignoring and rising above its surroundings. A tree growing in Brooklyn, a rose by any other name, a lemon verbena-infused mixture of metaphors. I haven't been trying hard enough lately to make these posts interesting.

Seriously, the basement of this building is downscale. All the places are of the 'budget washoku lunch for salarymen' variety, and it leads directly into the subway station (in fact, it's how I come to and go from the office when I train). But the excellent and helpful Ding (thanks again for the IP, duder!) pointed out that there are several other places down a hallway where I hadn't been. We went to Kita no Maru, where he had been before; fortunately other people are less picky about repeats than me (7-month millstone is right around the corner, if I make it).

What was confusing here was the fairly nice noren at the front, the faux samurai house wall section further shielding the restaurant from the view of the corridor, and the rest of the atmosphere. A large communal table had a giant umbrella and some faux bamboo perched in the middle, and hanging curtains partially obscured other areas of the restaurant. Gentle music of a traditional strain wafted through the air, making one think of other refined, cultured Japanese situations like the electronic tones of street crossings in country towns, or the music that plays in our corporate bathrooms over New Year.

At 11:55, it was oddly empty, but by 12:30 it was full. An odd twist, that, for this area, where many people follow the financial markets and leave their offices for lunch at 11:30. The other customers seemed to be there for the sets and the (not included) coffees. Ding (and several others within earshot) opted for the tonkatsu set - 3 small cuts of pork (very lean, just the way he likes 'em) accompanied by some grainy mustard (unusual in Japan, where it tends more towards 'hot yellow'), oo-sta sauce, lettuce and tomato with dressing, soup, rice and pickles.

I had the 'chirashi don', and it was odd. Usually you'd expect a chirashi ('scattered') to include several types of fish, artfully strewn about one top of a bowl of sushi rice. In this case it was more of an oyako (parent-and-child, the eating of which reputedly inspired Paul Simon to write what may be one of my favorite songs) chirashi, consisting as it did of cooked salmon flakes, salmon eggs and fresh seaweed. Oh, and a few leaves of mitsuba, either for some bitterness and freshness to cut the fat and oil of the salmon and child or else just because it looked nice. I don't ascribe that much forward planning to chefs, especially in their lunch courses. It was pretty good, in fact, if rather salty (my usual heavy hand with the soy sauce doesn't help things either; I'm always being criticized for excessive salt intake, but I drink a lot of water and also have not seen any believable evidence linking salt to high blood pressure. So there.). Do I digress? Good. The main reason I got this was because of the trio of brightly-colored vegetable pound cake slices that accompanied it. While we perused the samples outside, the waitress told us that they were flavored with tomato (red), pumpkin (yellow) and komatsuna (green; sorta like spinach but with longer stems and bigger leaves than Japanese spinach. Maybe like spinach crossed with bok choi for those of you following along at home.). Well, they sucked! Ha! A little sweet but flavorless and gummy, they were the usual slap in the face of constant exploration.

One of these days I'm going to stumble across a great little cheap washoku place. One of these days. Until then, I'll have to be content with the salmon-don and faux-classic music.

For down-home goodness, how about Kameido this weekend? The gyoza are reliable, and there should be some other stuff to do. I'm not sure if it's a full day like Shimokita or Kichijoji would be though.

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