Friday, August 21, 2009

Yamada Mongol, Kanda

Years ago I read a book by Haruki Murakami that was called 'A Wild Sheep Chase' in English. Aside from the funny bit about the girl's ears, and the overall spaciness and magical quality that it had (first Murakami book I read, so it was especially memorable), I remember being struck by the statement that sheep are rare in Japan. And this is still true - they're mostly confined to Hokkaido, and if you see sheep on a menu it's just as likely to be Australian (not a bad thing). This scarcity leads to sheep being marginalized in restaurants, and when combined with the Japanese penchant for specialist shops (cf sushi, tempura, ramen...), you end up with lamb being consumed mainly in Mongolian-themed restaurants.

These are often titled with some variation of 'Jingis', a pronunciation of the beginning of Genghis Khan, since everyone knows that Mongols love lamb, and Genghis was the king of the Mongols. Also, the common cooking style is to use a domed metal plate placed over an open flame; the grill is said to resemble a Mongol hat as well.

A lot of such places are all-you-can-eat. Yamada Mongol is not, but for the Y3500 course we had, it might as well be - we thought several times that the course was over, but the staff brought more meat and we eventually conceded defeat with bits of lamb remaining on our plates. It started off with a small salad, a plate of sliced lamb tongue, and a big plate of vegetables (mainly bean sprouts and onions; these are thought to be healthy in a way that counteracts the lamb. Incidentally, signs on the wall proclaimed that the lamb is naturally low in cholesterol, in case you were worried about that.). The basic concept is to heat up the grill, put a chunk of lamb fat on top of the dome, set the vegetables around the outside where the fat will run down the dome and fry them a little, and start frying bits of lamb around the dome.

It's unfortunately difficult to keep track of which bit is which, but there are clear differences in flavor and texture. After the tongue (really just an appetizer, with 8 slices, and so much smaller than cow tongue), there were two plates with some shoulder and some other meat. These seemed a little puny to comprise a whole course, and rightly so - there were two more like them afterward. Then another plate with fillet, which was nicely soft and surprisingly marbled. The sprouts and onions are refillable, and the waitresses will drop a new hunk of fat on top of your grill when it gets dry, as well as mopping up excess fat from the trough at the edge of the dome if such is required (incidentally, the waitress seemed a little horrified that we put the veg into too much fat. I guess you're supposed to keep it kinda dry for 'health'. I was thinking of the Thai version of this, where the trough is filled with soup and the objective is to get a lotta fat into it so you can then dip your veg and noodles and fish balls in.).

After you surrender on the meat, the finishing touch is the noodles. They take away the grill and bring back a pot of hot water and two mounds of fresh, yellow ramen. Cook'em up and eat 'em with the dipping sauce that you've been steadily working through (either the darker 'Mongol' sauce or the lighter 'Kanto' sauce). At this point you WILL want to surrender decisively, and they'll politely deliver a small dish of almond tofu and the crazily low bill.

Gurunabi has a coupon.
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