Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Maisen, Tokyo (まい泉、大丸東京駅)

As a memorialist, I have little value. By this, I mean that I can't remember things worth a damn. It used to be that I was the kind of person who could go from one room to another, then realize an hour later that I'd forgotten the thing I went for. Now, in our hyper-digitalized modern world, with all the attention deficits that implies, I can actually forget what I'm doing in the time it takes to Alt-Tab between windows. I'm not proud of this.

Of course, forgetting about a weekly initiative is nothing too bad when you're prepared to embarass yourself on a scale of seconds. So I feel OK about forgetting yesterday, after a whole week off, that Tuesdays are for tonkatsu. I remembered today and rectified the emission, but Tonkatsu Wednesdays just doesn't have the same mnemonic value or appeal as a hook. Next week, I'll remember.

All of this is by way of avoiding my one-line review of the famous Maisen tonkatsu chain - I didn't like it. I just feel a little bad about it. Here's another object lesson in some things that comprise my view of how tonkatsu should be done, and why Maisen wasn't it (today, in the Daimaru Tokyo 12th-floor store).

The established pattern for my tonkatsuing is to get a normal-sized roast cutlet in the higher-quality grade offered. At Maisen that means 100 grams of Okinawan black-pig pork. I get roast because it has more fat, which means it's more flavorful, but it's also a little tougher than filet. Point the first: the meat is what it is, don't try to tenderize it. I didn't know it until today, but Maisen's slogan seems to be "Tonkatsu so soft you can cut it with chopsticks", and this piece was all that. Disturbingly so.

Point the second: breading should be nice and crackly. I think the inner breading (the non-crumb part) is there as a vehicle for the crumbs. It should add heft, unobtrusively. I found Maisen's to be a little squishy, sort of airy, almost cakelike. Combined with the outer coating, which had soaked up a lot of oil (though it was nicely browned), and the softness, this made the texture a lot like curry pan - kind of a tonkatsu donut.

Exacerbationalizing that situation was the sauce. I actually got three sauces, the standard two on the table (Maisen special and worcerstershire-heavy) plus the one with grated apple and pork fat (I think) that goes with the Okinawan pork. They were all sweet, especially the special one - which really made me feel like I was eating a pork-and-sauce donut. Nuts. Sauce needs to be balanced, with not too much sweetness compared to the salt and sour flavors.

But But But I could overlook all of this for exceptional pork flavor. In this case, there was no discernible pork flavor. It was so odd that I didn't sauce a piece, and took off the breading, and still didn't taste much. I expect more in an expensive tonkatsu than this. Maisen is famous for their tonkatsu sandwiches (fried pork cutlet with worcestershire-based sauce between two thin slices of white bread), and this tasted in total just like one of those. Which is not a strong recommendation.

Please let me know if I'm wrong about this one. I know some people like it. Maybe other stores?


  1. Hi Jon,

    Thank you for the great report. I've been thinking of trying Maisen for a while (generally hearing good things), but your review makes it sound like everything I don't want in a Tonkatsu as well.

    May I ask, what are you recommendations for your favorite Tonkatsu restaurants around Tokyo? Thank you! :)

  2. I always favored Katsukura, and I see that they have a bunch of shops left in Tokyo despite being from Kyoto and also closing the Roppongi Hills branch.

    You could also troll through 8 tonkatsu places listed under the sidebar; I think Katsugen in Tokyo Station was the best of those, but I don't actively seek out tonkatsu.

    Finally, I think you can read as well as speak Japanese, right? Tabelog will give you the top-ranked tonkatsus in Tokyo.

  3. I went to Maisen once and wasn't overly impressed, they should have left it as the local sento it once was. Likewise, I don't actively seek out tonkatsu, and on the rare occasion I do, I'm selective. Life is too short to eat bad pork, "cheap is expensive" as my Grandmother was fond of saying. First two places suggested below use top quality pork and IMO get it right when it comes to frying to perfection. It's been a while since I've been, so apologies if any details are no longer valid.

    Ebisu Garden Place B2F
    Open 11:30-21:00 daily
    Lunch sets very good value, more extensive/expensive a la carte menu. I believe the restaurant sources its pork from their own a free-range pig farm.

    Nishi Azabau 2-24-9
    11:30-15:00, 17:30-23:00, Mon X
    Nice old house setting offering privacy upstairs (without being charged for private rooms). Various cuts from around the globe, Iberia included (try the moriawase set to compare).
    Good wines by the glass as well, lunch menu easier on the pocket.

    One notch down in pork quality, but not bad, worth a visit to see the "tonkatsu factory" in action.

    1-1-2 Shimo-Meguro
    3491-9928 (no reservations)
    4pm onwards, Mon/Tues X
    Arrive early or very late to avoid queues
    Very famous and popular for good reason. Sit downstairs at the counter and have a lesson in efficiency. 2nd helpings of shredded cabbage & rice for no extra charge.