Friday, January 30, 2009

Aji-Ichii, Otemachi (櫟)

Cleverly exploiting the advantages of Otemachi (The Underground City) to avoid pissing rain and the general malaise on the streets, Lin-ji and I migrated through the long, marbled halls of the Otemachi building, finding no open seats in restaurants, but only lines of hopeful patrons longer even than this sentence. We ended up confused and under the First Square building, home to some recommended places (which also featured lines).

Ichii did not have a line, but I surmise this is because of price rather than quality. The weekly sets (your choice of 'Grilled' or 'Boiled') for Y1660 are pretty reasonable given the quantity and quality, but still a bit much at face value, while the other sets are Y3000+. Given my usual proclivities as well as LJ's intractable insistence that it's her shout, yet again, I didn't mind.

The setting is modern-traditional, by which I mean stucco or block walls, concrete floors, some artfully-placed bamboo, a room of tatami with horikotatsu, food on high laquered trays, and good variety in the tableware. The food is quite nice. My Grilled set included a shaki-shaki daikon salad with fresh nori, a bowl of very properly-cooked nimono, a tofu hamburger, soup (again heavy on the nori and tofu), rice and pickles. LJ's Boiled set replaced the nimono with some fried chicken (ささみフライ, not 唐揚げ) and the tofu burger with a piece of snapper.

I'm starting to think that the first few weeks of crappy lunches were more a result of going to obviously crappy places. Life is good! Hooray for Otemachi!

Maybe not quite that much...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kua'aina, Marunouchi (Shin Maru 5)

In the heady days when we worked and lunched in Roppongi, I used to provide lengthy discourses to anyone who would listen on the Roppongi burger scene. With a solid half-dozen notable places (not including fast food like McDonald's or First Kitchen or Freshness or Mos, and definitely not including Japanese-style ham-ba-gu), it was certainly possible to differentiate by style and then rank on cost performance.

Along with the global Credit Crunch, a Financial Tsunami of Unprecedented Proportions and Various Other Superlatives, we've suffered a genuine Burger Crunch. Am I missing them? Where are the burgers around Otemachi?

Today we made the mildly long trek down to Maru Biru, and the 5th floor, wherein resides the Hawaiian burger specialist chain Kua'Aina. It's been many years (over 4!) since I started hearing about this place from my friend McNoonan, but today was the first time I visited. When I mentioned this, Wolf immediately said "You're going to think the burgers are dry". He was right, but this isn't a grumpy review.

I didn't check out the menu that much - you can choose your burger (there are tuna sandwiches and stuff too), you can choose toppings (avocado, bacon, 3 or 4 cheeses) and you can get onion rings or fries. What else do you need? The burgers are a good size, a little big for Japan, have a strong flame-grilled taste like The Whopper, and are, yes, dry. I can only imagine that this results from using healthy foreign beef. Fries were adequate - very thin and with the odd sort of 'breaded' exterior that I met at Sunny Diner. Everything comes on wooden plates that I think might be attempts to reference longboards, and hovers between Y1000 and Y1200. Kowabunga!

Since I think I'm the only person in Tokyo that had never been to Kua-Aina, how about I stop there? I must say though, this week's lunches have been a cut above the first 3. There's hope.


Mio Posto, Ogawamachi

Eeeeeeeeeeeyep, still a reformed man since I ate Italian for lunch and dinner last night. Seemes like there's a whole company culture of mid-priced restaurants that are suitable destinations, because the staff at this place sure knew who we were.

Mio Pasto is, to be terribly brief, a casual and mid-priced 'old Italian' place just south of Ogawamachi kosaten (convenient for guitar shopping, especially that place in Ogawamachi 3-chome on the north side of Yasukuni with the incredible old banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars. Only store like it that I know. やった!That was hard to find.) Hmmm, including the digression, that wasn't so brief. There were a few high points, but not so much in the cooking.

Wine was good - cheap spumante (Y3000, really budget prices in a restaurant) was full-bodied, dry and drinkable. Chianti after that was fruity and fresh (not characteristics I usually associated with Chianti, but maybe that's just me). Nama ham was good - they wheeled a cart over to the table and cut a few slices (and cut it very well, thin and smooth) and served it with melon. Other than that, pastas were hearty and a bit rough, lentil pizza (!) was thin and a little frozen-pizza tasting, and cooked meats (something quail-like, then veal slices in mushroom sauce with fresh porcini (!)) were either cooked dry or else undercooked. I suppose I should give credit for having 4 veal options on the menu; I love it, and it's so rare here.

So some good points but not overly impressive even at the price (Y27k for 3 beers, 2 wines, pizza, 2 pastas, 2 metas, 3 coffees), but evidently a 'safe' place if you need to pick something and can't risk offending your senpai.

Being a member has its benefits.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

S. Stefano, Otemachi (Marunouchi)

It's official, I'm reformed. A new man. I used to eat nothing but French food. Now I eat nothing but washoku and Italian. Haven't eaten French since last Wednesday. The first step was admitting that there's a higher power than myself, and one of these days I'll get around to seeing what the other 11 are (I always used to think Step 1 was admitting you have a problem until I actually looked it up).

Italian for lunch again today, and in an odd, tucked-away location. From the street, the Mitsubishi Trust building doesn't look like it would have a promising basement, except for the standard issue restaurant directory by the stairs, which is small. The basement is confusing too - you have to walk around a bit and find the back of the building, which is where the 5 or 6 restaurants are. But from that side of the building, you'd see Dean and Deluca at street level, and that might clue you in that there was something down below (as they say).

S. Stefano's is one of the three European/wine-themed restaurants down there (Polestar, Vin de Vie). It's evidently no relation to the other Italian restaurant called Stefano's in Tokyo, which is fine with me. And it had a table open at 1:30 today, which was also convenient.

Lunch courses are limited - you have a choice of pasta and pasta, pasta and rice, or pasta and meat. You can't choose within these sets - my neighbors tried to substitute a pasta from the pasta-pasta set into the pasta-meat set, and that proved to be 'difficult'. But they're Y1100 (meat is Y1400), and come with a salad (a few sprouts on top and some shredded carrot liven it up), coffee or herb tea (rose with lemon grass) and dessert (tiny, rich, profiterole-shaped brownie with cream and chocolate sauce). Pasta-rice set was tolerable; pork and mushroom pasta, pleasantly heavy on garlic, and tomato rice topped with fuwa-fuwa scrambled eggs (errr...). Service was efficient and demonstrated more class than I usually expect (i.e. working around the things I was reading on the table). 以上.

What smells and tastes transport you? Used to be, in the dark years after I had started visiting Japan but not yet moved here, when I was served shiso it would make me feel like I was in Japan. Now that's not such a big deal, since I never leave Japan (10 months and counting, I think). Now it's lemon grass - I drank the tea today, and had the strongest sensation of being in Thailand getting a foot massage. Or something. Really a great feeling (but nothing at all to do with the quality of the tea).

Wouldn't be my first choice for dinner.

Osteria Vincero, Shinjuku (三丁目)

Continuing with our neighborhood exploration theme (after the recent Kagurazaka excursions) the EOITwJ staff returned yet again to the greater Shinjuku area following the weekend's exploration of Arakicho. At less than 20 minutes from the office, it's not so onerous to head over here after work.

On short notice, the Scheduling Team reviewed available options and found a semi-casual and highly rated Italian palazzo. We all convened, synchronized watches and agreed survival plans in case we were separated, and began The Long March from the station up to the Moa building in the dark, quiet reaches of northern Shinjuku San-Chome. We only got lost once, trying to be clever but choosing the wrong alley and ending up at a dead end with a small shrine. After some quick prayers for better guidance from the navigation team, we arrived at Osteria Vincero.

Located in the ground-floor corner of an apartment building, Vincero seats perhaps 20 in a warm and cozy room slightly cluttered with wine bottles and Italian paraphenalia (like a commemorative Giro d'Italia cycling helmet in Gazzetto dello Sport's iconic pink). The staff had questioned our Reservations Team closely when we called: "Can you drink wine? If you can't drink wine, don't come here." We could, and the staff quickly set about explaining our options.

This is an interesting approach to menu-ing. You can either order the 3-course Y3,990 a la carte menu (roughly 10 choices for each course, plus Italian water, bread and espresso), order your wine, and pay various service, tax, and table charges, or you can go the all-inclusive Y12,000 'Club Med' 5 course plan which includes the aforementioned 5 courses, glass wine with each course, and all taxes and surcharges. Being a bit leery of this interesting approach, the advanced hour (already 8:30 when we arrived) vs. 5 courses, and the very Tuesday-ness of it all, the Selection Team chose to go a la carte and didn't look back. [Aside: we ultimately saved about Y500 this way, but the Value Committee still felt after the event that it was a good idea.]

The Eating Team took over with a glass of house spumante (from Franciacorta DOCG, imported specially by Vincero) and a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. There's no wine list; the staff say that there are over 7,000 bottle in the cellar, and when you give them some ideas about what you want to drink and what your budget is, they bring back a few selections in the right style and above your specified range. Good stuff, both of these bottles. Bread was chewy and not overly fresh, but tasty, and olive oil was excellent.

First courses included some lightly-cured scallops topped with shredded green onions and other strips of green stuff, napped with a light anchovy sauce (I hate it when food writers say 'napped' or 'teamed', don't you?), and a 'soup' of chick peas and walnuts in tomato paste. The scallops were fresh and good, but the soup set the pattern for dinner - heavy, earthy, complex flavors that tasted like they had been made with care and 'aged'. I mean this to be positive - when I make tomato sauce, I try to make it the day before and leave it outside overnight (not so much in summer). Same with curry. Vincero has got this technique down far better than me, as befits their professional status.

The short pasta with goose ragu (really!) was similarly terrific - oily and massive-tasting, with the bird seemingly confited before being sauced. The 4-cheese penne was a bit less exciting, but extremely creamy due to the inclusion of mascarpone. I thought the portion was too small until the end of dinner, when I realized I was extremely full and shouldn't have complained (mentally).

Special Basque pork (+Y1000) was two thick slices of beautifully grilled buta. Somehow it seemed that the center of each slice was pink while the outsides were well-done, which I think was the result of including two cuts of meat in each slice (demarcated by a thin band of fat). This came with a honey-mustard sauce that was sweet and distracting and a salad of genuine Italian ruccola that was fresh, bitter and delicious. Horo-horo-chou (after seeing this lots of times I finally looked it up, and it's a guinea fowl in English and a pintade in French. They're sold around 1.5 kg, and are supposed to taste like chicken (duh) but with more flavor, fewer calories and more protein. They look more like little turkeys.) was breaded and fried and deposited atop a mound of aged sauce and topped with melted cheese...and a bit average tasting.

Desserts are dead cheap at Y500; the vanilla panna cotta with strawberry sauce was quite average, but the tiramisu was extraordinary. The waiter made a big deal of how it had been assembled only after ordering (actually, the waiter made a big deal of everything, including a solid 2 minutes on the process of making sparkling wine). I was skeptical of this, because I thought the cookies are supposed to soak up the coffee and get soft and mushy and combine with the cheese and all like dat, but I have to say the mix of flavored cheese, granulated sugar, cookies and coffee gradually mixed together over the all-too-short period that we took to get through it, with pleasant contrasts and changes in taste and texture throughout. Great idea.

Looking at the tables on either side of us, we were a bit disappointed not to get the quail, which was sold out after our neighbors order it, but not at all bummed about missing the long course. It included the aforementioned nuts 'n' beans soup, a plate of odd-looking cured hams (odd looking is probably good, I guess), a risotto onto which the chef ostentatiously shaved black truffles...and then we left. Didn't seem like much better value.

This is worth going back to, especially if you're in the area conveniently (big-size store Sakazen and big-shoes store Hikari are both close, all you big men in the audience). The tastes were hearty and interesting, the service was friendly and knowledgeable if a bit talkative, and the level of expense is basically up to your choice of wine - you could keep this under Y10k if you so desired, by not drinking. But I'm not sure if the staff will allow that.

They're proud that they don't have a web site. They also say 'reservations only'.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bamboo, Otemachi

Ladies and gentlemen...

I present to you

after weeks of searching

a pretty good restaurant in an Otemachi basement. And it's Ethnic!

Bamboo is in the long, long, forbiddingly long and crowded corridors of the Otemachi Building (creative names abound here). It's in a strange place where the walls of the canyon press in a little tighter, so the stream of people rushing through is squeezed and accelerates, creating dangerous rapids. And Bamboo does a huge business in bentos - they have two big tables out front, and I thought when I saw it before that they didn't even have eat-in for lunch. But Ponkan had been there, and suggested we go today.

Dad, there isn't a lot more I can say that will interest you here. The generic Ethnic food (pho + Thai) is only slightly Japanized, and not in bad ways. My green curry was a big, big bowl with good rice, lots of thick, coconutty, sweet (Japanized), oily curry, a few pieces of chicken, a few shrimps, and lots of fried eggplant. And it tasted good, and I stuffed myself. It also came with a bowl of nori-heavy soup (Japanized) and few leaves of lettuce being passed off as salad. And it was Y1000, which was perfectly reasonable. Ponkan and Wolf both had Ga Prao's, which looked nice except for the (Japanized) half-boiled egg that replaced the more normal fried one. Choco had pho, which is hard to judge from a distance and was pronounced 'unique' (looked light on herbs, and was pre-spiced as opposed to 自由 spicing at the table).

There you go! I could go back any time, but from today I promise to redouble efforts to find the second worthwhile restaurant in Otemachi. Should take more than another 15 days.

Weird, this is part of the group that includes the lovely house-restaurant Bamboo in Omotesando and the lovlier Ogasawaratei near Shinjuku.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sushi Sei, Otemachi

You know how the Japanese alphabet (errr, syllabary) works, right? [Actually it's already time for a digression. Do you know the story of the Cherokee syllabary? The Cherokee had no written language until the 1820's, when one of them decided it would be cool to have, and made up a syllabary. Only recorded instance of an illiterate people becoming literate overnight (relatively).]

Right, we're back. Japanese doesn't have a 'di' sound, as in Rollatini di Mellanzane. If you said this properly, it would sound like 'ji'. But no one wants to sound uncultured, and there are so many foreign words that require the sound ('building'), that there's a workaround and everyone says 'di'.

But not the architects of Otemachi. When they were putting up some of the older buildings, they went right ahead and spelled it correctly - builjing (ビルジング). So you have the quite imaginatively-named Japan Builjing (日本ビルジング). I think this building houses some kind of municipal water and sewer department, because there are exhibits of pipes and manhole covers. And I'm sure the basement of this building houses the latest in the interminable series of restaurant streets that I've explored this year.

I went at 12. Mistake. There were places with, no lie, 30 people in line outside. This means I was somewhat steered into choosing a place with no line, and that left me with...sushi. Sushi Sei was adequate, nothing to write about really, but fairly fresh fish and a few more interesting menu items (中落ち, 鯛ごまだれ, サーモンとろろ). All the donburi were around Y1000, and the smaller ones (like I had) came with three nigiri as well. Now that I've looked at the web site, I recognize the head store as one I've seen while browsing around Tsukiji at night looking for sushi (I know, I know, shouldn't be that hard to find).

There are some better-looking places down there, including a steak place (should you want to eat teppan wagyu for lunch) and a pizza-pasta place with confusing epigrams about Taos, New Mexico on the walls.


Aux Bacchanales, Kioicho (Asakusa)

I can hear more curmudgeonly members of the audience already: "You went where?!" Then again, I post some crappy lunch place every day recently, so perhaps this is just indicative of my declining standards?

Aux Bacchanales is a small chain (7 shops across Japan) that strives for bistro-style perfection without trying too hard. On the other hand, it does offer red woodwork, wicker chairs arranged in lines behind tiny round tables, carafes of house wine (Y2100), steak frites... Due to the pleasant atmosphere, fairly low prices, and overall foreign-ness of the place, I think it's a bit of a foreigners haunt. Certainly the vast majority of patrons when I was there were couples or small familes, generally with at least one foreign member.

But you know, it's really very pleasant! It's right across the street from a park. This is a definite selling point, even in Winter - I was thinking how brown earth and bare trees are pretty nice, then wondering why I was so easily duped into this Japanese-style mentality, and realized that the alternative is to be looking at a gray building 20 feet away across the it's nice. There are some cherry trees in the park, so god only knows how hard it must be to get seated for brunch when those are open.

In addition to the aforementioned carafe of red (seemed kinda gamay-based; very fresh and grape-juicey) we sampled a tomato salad (deeply out of season, but not bad with the basil-heavy dressing), a croque madame (very much in the Japanese style, as the egg on top was barely deluding itself that it was cooked, and didn't fool me for a second), and a steak tartare (you know what, it was fresh, had good texture, and the fries were terrific. So there!).

In addition, we sampled the lovely feeling of sitting on a terrace under heaters, looking at a park, for a nice long lunch. Then we turned down coffee and dessert and walked to Akasaka Biz Tower, to find that it was closed for the day. And went home, a little sad but a little healthier than otherwise. But nothing wrong with Aux Bacchs, I tell ya (not sure how I would feel about the Akasaka or Ginza or other branches which are sans atmosphere).

We live in Tokyo. When we want to feel like we're in Paris, we have to make do.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ryuan, Yotsuya (柳庵、荒木町)

Gotta admit it - I'm truly impressed by the vigor that Seat applies to dining out in Tokyo. And the way he or she gets to all the restaurants I want to visit, before I visit them. A while back the Pig Out Diary visited Arakichou, near Yotsuya 3-Chome, and a place called Suzunari. Lightly inspired by that, as well as the facts that Arakicho looks interesting on the map and I've never been there, I headed over for a wander and potentially some food.

Turning randomly into the nest of alleys, stairs and bars that constitutes Arakicho, the first two things I saw were 1) a German wine specialist restaurant (!) and 2) Ryuan. Unfortunately I'm opposed to taking the first alternative (always) and since I couldn't read the sign, I was afraid that I was going to dine at Suzunari accidentally. I kept walking, but Ryuan was still the nicest-looking place in the neighborhood after 30 minutes, so I went back (didn't see Suzunari). The promise of short-course kaiseki (会席 in this case, not 懐石) for Y5800 plus service was too much to resist.

Things got off on the good foot with house junmai ginjo (my favorite polish, bonus!) and a toushi of yuba and uni. The first real plate featured some luxury items done well - preserved abalone, snapper nikogori (the cubes of gelatin with meat and skin like you'd get at a fugu course, but less fishy in this case), a strange sesame-covered cube whose ingredients escaped me, and a sort of creamcheese whip mixed with snapper intestines (鯛の塩辛, if you're keeping score). Good stuff here, and I was licking my lips and congratulating myself for picking a great place out of the hat.

Sashimi was delightful - the botan ebi was extra-fresh (even the head was delicious) and topped with some gold leaf. The tai was translucent and tasty, with a nice contrast between soft fish and chewy skin. And the accompaniments on the plate were cool - a sort of ribbon of sliced and reconstitued daikon, a water bucket made from a cucumber that was filled with salmon eggs. The maguro was where I started to wonder - it just wasnt that interesting, and I felt like the tricks on the plate were meant to distract from the ingredients a bit.

Since it's January, I definitely wanted buri, and requested it as the fried item (which was served before the boiled item. Sounds odd for a normal course, but made more sense when I saw the nimono). This was cool too - seemed like it had been saikyo-grilled, with a yuzu slice, then wrapped in cedar veneer and grilled again, tied with a bow. Very elegant, and a nice piece of fish.

The boiled items were just OK. Served in an individual earth pot that was boiling furiously when presented, the tai, scallop and vegetables were overdone by the time I got to them, and the soup wasn't anything special; more weak than anything. The service course of beef tendon that I got after was, again, mediocre - almost properly cooked, almost properly flavored, but not quite. The rice was supposed to be impressive - again cooked in an individual pot, and a healthy 2 servings including lots of おこげ, the crunchy burnt bits at the bottom when you make rice the traditional way. But nothing that bears particular mention.

The staff were nce enough - eager to be helpful and make an adequate degree of smalltalk - especially since they had no other customers most of the time, until a businessmen's group of 9 showed up and monopolized their attention. But the overall experience was lacking something that I pretty much had last weekend at Tsushima in Monnaka (same price), and emphatically at Onodera in Kagurazaka (25% more expensive, and well worth the supplement). This would be nice if you lived in the area, but is not destination dining.

For your viewing pleasure, the courses mentioned above, in order:

Private room など looks gorgeous too.

Rinya, Otemachi

Day 14: We continue to explore. Day by day, we hack away a few more meters of jungle with our machetes, but the work is slow and we frequently have to stop so the coolies can sharpen our blades. They seem to be growing restless due to the steady diet of teishoku and Indian, and some of us among the expedition's leadership team are afraid that if too many of them get machetes at once we could face an uprising.

Today we stumbled into a small clearing in the jungle near the north bus terminal of Tokyo Station (Sapia Tower) and on the second floor were confronted by a Starbucks, a Papa Milano (cheap chain Italian), a convenience store, and a soba place. Exhausted from our travails, we said 'stuff it' and went for the soba.

Rinya's soba was reasonable, their tsuyu quite good, and the tempura (mixed for Koala, croquette for me) was light and fresh. Tempura is a funny thing, isn't it? I think the expensive stuff is expensive because they use wonderful copper pots and pure sesame oil, and also because they change the oil every 15 minutes or something. I need to try one of those places before passing judgement, but until then this cheap tempura is just fine for me as long as it's fresh.

Not sure how this became a tempura post, but Rinya is perfectly good when you want a soba lunch, and more to the point wasn't full at 12:30, which is an excellent course of events if you've been chopping jungle vines all morning.

Ahhh, geez, now I know where I've seen this name before. It's the soba place that opened in Roppongi Hillz' Metro Hat mid-2008. We had to change offices to go there?!
03 3216 5777

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Tandoor, Otemachi (Kanda)

Ishikawa Tei is a somewhat-famous French bistro in lower Kanda (just the other side of the river from Otemachi). It's reputed to offer the #1 tastiest-valuest lunch in the area. That's why there was still a line outside when I tried to go at 1:45 (lunch hours are 11 - 2).

Around the corner, I was drawn in by another place displaying a similar flag. Sure, compared to Le Tricolor the red was a little washed out, and the blue had taken on a greenish cast, and the stripes went the wrong way...but it was a flag nonetheless, so I went in.

Za Tandoor is your basic concrete-floor, hole-in-the-wall Indian place, with a less than enviable location. They've made some efforts to spruce it up with wall hangings and various colorful items, and it was nice and warm - my glasses fogged right up as soon as I stepped in! The staff is all Indian (I think; some of them looked confusingly Japanese but spoke something else among themselves), which some people regard as a good thing. Actually, I guess I'm one of them. It's like Thai; the pure Japanese palate doesn't get it right.

Lunch sets start at the bargain Y750 for 1 curry, naan or rice (actually I think it's and, if you're keeping score), salad and plain sweet (thin) lassi. I had the veg curry and the dreaded keema (Y1050). I dread keema because I have a feeling it's nothing like what an Indian would regard as keema... Both of the curries were surprisingly good - like, totally spiced out, maaaan - and the naan, while clearly reheated rather than slapped on the wall of the tandoor while I waited, was fine too. I would go back here again, the next time I get turned away from Ishikawatei (which does indeed look good).

Attention big eaters: these guys want to be your friends. At night they have a special - all you can eat from their special menu (4 curry varieties, 4 naan varieties, a bunch of other things) and all you can drink from beer, wine, spirits: Men Y3500, Women Y3000.

And a big shout-out to anyone who thinks this post is unneccesary because the place is so plain and so far away from anything: y'all are all a buncha haterz. Hate tha game, not tha playa.

This isn't their site, but I think this blogger took good pictures. The keema picture has a certain '2 Girls, 1 Cup' atmosphere.

Le Remois, Marunouchi (Shin Maru 5th)

Update February 17, 2010:
Lunch, 3 small courses at Y1800. Salad, good grilled white fish with veg, scoop of excellent ice cream with pistachio crumbs. Service as rough as before, a touch odd.
January 22, 2009:
Lest one think that EOITwJ has descended to reviewing nothing but smoky oyaji lunch spots, here's some genuine fine dining. The experience had a few low points, but the food was great and this is well worth a visit as long as you know what you're getting into.

Japanese attitudes toward Western food remain a little odd - and I'm not talking only about 'Yoshoku', or pretend Western food. French food is still perceived as a bit of a luxury item, even when it's bistro and should be casual and friendly. I really enjoyed Reims Yanagidate when I visited over the Summer, but have held off on visiting the bistro version for ages. Multiple factors against it - I'm mildly against the Maru Birus on value grounds, I love Viron (nearby and similar food), and Le Remois's value equation seemed out of whack for a bistro. Finally though, when the Curmudgeonly Old Bastard (COB, now 50 and hence even more curmudgeonly!) asked me to go out, I picked LR.

In fairness, I'm probably the more curmudgeonly out of the two us. It really annoyed me when the staff refused the COB's request to substitute meat for his fish course (。。。難しい。) despite the prices being almost identical on the menu, and it also irritated me that in ordering the mid-level course (starter-fish-meat-dessert, Y7500 plus service) I was denied the opportunity to choose my fish course among the two on the menu. Once we got over these complaints and ordered some champagne (the wine list is small and perhaps well-chosen; I don't know. I DO know that there were a number of interesting varieties of champagne, and the prices were actually very reasonable - of the bottles I knew, prices were only 30-70% above retail.) we settled in to grouse enjoyably at each other and eat.

The starter was grilled white asparagus - not the green-wrapped-in-bacon on the menu, and awfully early to be seasonal. It was tolerably grilled, though not quite shaved and a bit fibrous at the bottom. The lettuce-n-tomato salad on top was quite nice because of the dressing. The fish-of-the-day was 'soi' (looks small and mean in the pictures!). Neither of us knew this fish, and both times I asked, the staff said "It's a white-meat fish." Thanks. It's difficult to find in dictionaries, which often means that the lookup produces a fish no English speaker has heard of outside of leading fish universities. In this case - 'Fox Jacopever'. Mmm hmmm. It's a small, delicate white fish, like a largish whiting, and was done up with beautiful skin, moist meat, American sauce (lobster reduction), and a cute presentation where it was 'jumping' out of a small bowl with a wide rim. The two pieces of toast and the grated cheese were odd and unneccessary. The COB's terrine seemed excellent to me, but we'll let him weigh in on that.

Meat courses went similarly well - confit for the COB was very juicy and one of the best that I can remember (though he disagreed, having perhaps more recently eaten his own cooking). Lamb Navarin for me was quite good - a bit strong on the lamb, but tender and with the fat fully rendered. A nice tomatoey sauce and plenty of herbs to go with the white beans that filled out the casserole.

Creme brulee for dessert was forgettable, which is unfortunate for a place that's trying to turn out perfect bistro-style food, but the pear sorbet that topped it deserves mention. I don't know how people get that lovely oily texture in their sorbets (perhaps it's oil?), but I covet it.

The atmosphere is suitably 'bistro' and the service is attentive but suitably rough (for the atmosphere, not the prices), but the food was good enough within its genre to make me forgive those failings.

Chef has 4 restaurants. Does that make this a 'franchise'?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Amalfi Moderna, Otemachi (Oazo)

Ahhh, the limitless options continue. Here in week 3 of our new Otemachi Adventure, my friends, there's not even a hint of revisiting the same places. Several readers have now accused us here at EOITwJ of excessive completism, but we continue to view it as our public service, nay, sacred mission, to provide information on the dining environment, which includes ideas for those poor souls destined to eat lunch in Otemachi every day for the term of their natural lives. If that leads us to an extended discussion of which conbini has the freshest bentos, in among the fine dining excursions, so be it.

Amalfi Moderna showed up on the radar as a potential destination when we dropped by Oazo's upper dining floors the first time. It's a fairly bright-and-snappy Italian place that I had noticed before on ads in the station, but never got inspired enough to try. It's a little more tired-looking once you sit down and notice that the tablecloths are plastic and a little sticky.

Lunch features a broad variety of sets - I think pasta 'n' coffee started at Y1300, then 'meat lunch' was Y1580, and there were sets in the Y2000 and Y4000 range as well. Our whole table went the Meat Lunch. The dish billed as 'zensai' on the menu turned out to be a small salad and a comically tiny mug of soup described as minestrone. The meat was a roasted-and-souped chicken (nice, but not enough roasting to crisp the skin, so a bit rubbery at the thicker extremes. Steamed chicken skin is one of my pet peeves, so you might like it.) with a single sausage, very pink and with a fair few cartilege-y bits and 'crisp' Japanese-style casing, but a decent flavor. Coffee and a slice of bread are included. I saw a pasta and dessert at another table - sort of penne with tomato sauce and spinach, and then ice creams, all of which looked decent as well.

Verdict from me: slightly overpriced, not that exciting, but decent ambience makes it OK for a rare occasion.

Not exactly Positano.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wu Shang Lu, Otemachi (五香路)

If it quacks like a duck...I dunno. Things get really crowded around Otemachi at lunch time. I mean like "If you don't leave the office at 11:30, lots of places will have lines of people waiting outside"-full. This is one of those places (quacks) but it didn't really taste like duck (platypus?).

Going with the dark-wood-lightly-carved genre of Chinese restaurant decoration, Wu Shang Lu (I'm just going to call him Wu from now on, 'k?) is one of the big places in the basement of the Sankei building, like Manhattan Blah. I didn't quite follow the layout, but a long corridor with lots of 2-person tables gives way onto a big room in back that holds a lot of people and allows service for a big lunch crowd.

Honestly, there are a lot of choices for a lunch like this. Benefits of scale? Several types of noodles (soup, dry, ankake), fried rice (looked good, with a lot of color on the rice), weekly sets. I had the weekly lunch (Y930, everything more or less the same price within Y150). Stir-fried chicken with an unfortunate level of steamed skin still on it (it's Chinese food, so I suppose I should regard textures that I find unpleasant to be 'authentic'. If you could get Chinese food like that in South Jersey, it wouldn't be authentic.) mixed with eggplant and a few green vegetable shoots. Big bowl of rice. Egg Drop soup (at least that's the South Jersey term) distinguished by a meatier broth and the inclusion of some minced pork. Almond tofu. Reasonable food, in a quantity that tends to make one feel a bit stuffed. I noticed that the fried rice didn't get finished either...

One inspired comment from Koala: "The prices in Otemachi are all about Y100 cheaper than Roppongi, but the quality is definitely off by more than Y100."

What does platypus taste like? They're too small to have much meat...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Kassen Ichiba, Otemachi (活洋市場の大手町2号店)

Having lunch with different friends is good, my friends, because they surprise you with destinations you wouldn't otherwise think of. I'm in office-building-basement mode for lunch (unless Oazo is involved), but my friend Fred is decidedly not (not the one who was scared of still-twitching shrimp, but just as bald!). He's now driving to work since the trains are, well, uncivilized, and on the walk from the parking garage to the office, he passes a row of restaurants under the Yamanote sen tracks (like last week's dismal ramen). And that's where we went, to the first one in line.

There are only 6 branches of Kassen Ichiba according to the web site, but since they're all around this area, I've seen the signs tons of times and had the impression that it's a huge chain. This branch is a little decrepit. I guess not in a bad way, but sort of like it hasn't shaved for a week and is living kinda rough. Outside there were these odd beaded curtains that made me think it was an Indian place for a second, but then I saw the fried foods 'n' sushi.

Menu is 2/3 seafood rice bowls, 1/3 fried stuff rice bowls. We went the fish - buri & negi toro for Fred, Kassen don for me (negi toro, maguro, saba, shrimp, egg). Mine was quite fresh - low, low, quality, but fresh. Does that make sense? Like, the negi toro didn't have much taste, and the maguro had pretty thick tendons in it, but what can you expect for Y800? This left us spending part of our lunch discussing how you wouldn't get this kinda thing outside Japan, and another part discussing Fred's trip to Sushi Isshin in Asakusa.

Donburi come with soup, and there are thermoses on the tables for you to pour your own tea, which looked for all the world like dishwater once it was poured into the dirty-looking (which is different from actually dirty) plastic glasses.

EOITwJ has recently been accused of excessive completism, reporting on places like this (or the counter curry, or the crappy croquette) but I've talked it over with the staff, and we all agree that it's fair game.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Onodera, Kagurazaka (おの寺)

Welcome back to another exhaustive installment of Eating Out In Tokyo. My camera was on fine form last night, so you can get a good idea of the food at the second highly-recommended washoku place I visited this weekend.

Onodera is hidden in plain sight, on the fourth floor of a small building in the middle of Kagurazaka's main street. When I reserved, Onodera san asked if I knew where it was. I said I had the address and map, so it was probably alright, and he said ' if you can't find it.' It wasn't any trouble to find, but I see his point. The building is small and thin, and from street level evinces an undeniable lack of class. Anyway, what's better than finding a cool little place tucked unexpectedly between dross?

By my count, there are 14 seats - 10 at the counter, plus a lovely private room (which isn't that private since it's just at the end of the main room an the screens aren't kept closed - think about the seating area at the end of a normal ryokan room). We sat at the counter, and Onodera san did a lot of entertaining throughout the evening - making jokes, talking to everyone, and generally creating a really nice atmosphere. [1/25/09: Digression: I just learned that the distinguished-looking guy in kimono at the far end of the counter who seemed to be amused to hear me talking about the food was in fact a yokozuna, 北の富士, who is now an announcer for the sumo on NHK. うれしい!]

His sake selection is very nice. - at some point, I decided I preferred junmai ginjo, and so when there's no menu I tell people that's what I like. Much of the time, they look at me like a nut. Onodera has 4 varieties to choose from just in junmai ginjo, and each time you order sake it comes in a different pitcher with a tray of glasses to choose from.

Yes, Virgina, there was food here, and I'm getting to it now. Kazunoko with nanohana - getting into the spirit of 'it's almost spring'. Kazunoko was very light and clear-tasting, not at all the kind of kazunoko that I usually dislike. Nanohana was lightly boiled and then left alone.

Sashimi of squid 'three ways', plus flounder. Cut from two places on the squid (thin and thick), plus a leg that had been wrapped and cured in seaweed, this was of the more mealy variety that I don't like so much, but was fresh enough to eat. The flounder, which I think had also been kobu-jime'd, was extraordinary. Flounder can be tough, but even in thick slices this was appealingly tender 'n' toothsome, with tons of fish and seaweed flavor.

Special order oyster. There's only one course, which changes every day, and last night there were only two special-order items - homemade karasumi (dried, spiced fish egg sacs, often described as 'Japanese cheese', and looking a lot like mimolette) and these King Kong oysters that took 4 bites to get through. I have to admit that the flavor was lacking here, but the size, texture and freshness were spot-on. You can't win 'em all, and you don't know until you bite it.

An amusing course: ozouni, but not for the new year. Excellent chicken broth with sliced vegetables, bits of roast chicken skin, and a piece of mochi (oddly, not grilled first).

Croquette of shrimp potato (so-called because the potato has light and dark bands like a shrimp tail), fantastic oily broth, and I always forget the name of the crunchy bits that you also get with Ochazuke.

Sawara. I have a feeling some people would say this was overdone, but the fish is so darn fatty for winter that it remained juicy regardless. Crisp skin, tasty flesh, all-around great. A texture sort of like I remember swordfish steaks when I used to eat them in America (or the Cajun swordfish sandwich that I had at Roti about two years ago). The pickle-looking thing is nagaimo pickled in soy sauce. I don't like nagaimo, but I liked him. I want to make this at home since nagaimo is so healthy. I want to buy the soy sauce that Onodera san uses.

Tempura of taranome, bamboo shoot, eringi mushroom. I told you he was going for that Spring-In-January theme. Taranome and Erinigi were very good, takenoko was extraordinary (there was some special kanji for this pre-season bamboo shoot, but the chef admitted that he also didn't know how to pronounce it!). The breading seemed like it had corn or semolina in it, reminiscent of the fried eringi at Quintessence...but better.

Chawan mushi with cheese and fresh seaweed. This goes in the category of things-that-are-more-impressive-to-Japanese-people-because-they-violate-the-standard-conventions. It tasted pretty good and was certainly an interesting flavor idea, but the cheese wasn't mixed into the custard - still concentrated in bite-size pieces.

Piece de resistance, the aji-gohan. One of these earthen pots per couple, steaming away on the stove for 40 minutes to prepare your rice course. He puts fish on top of the rice to make it...fishy tasting.

Again, I think this is a little more impressive to Japanese people, but it was very good. And adding the pickles at left for the second bowl worked a treat.

Miso soup was extraordinary - very little miso and a lot of clams, but the best dashi I've had in ages. Quite smoky flavor. I had to order a second bowl!

In thinking back, it's hard to point to a course that really stood out. But the whole time I was there, I felt relaxed and happy, and I remember everything as delicious - is this a balanced meal? A smooth progression of courses? I highly recommend this place. The food is great, the atmosphere is wonderfully warm and welcoming (did I mention that it's a shoes-off-slippers-at-the-table restaurant?) and the overall experience will make you feel like you've wandered into the home of someone who just happens to be a really, really good cook. Three and a half hours went by at a pleasant clip, not at all too long, and we left full and happy.

Are we on a roll with the Washoku this weekend or what?

Geez, when will I manage to get to a place that Seat hasn't been already?

Le Train Bleu, Kagurazaka

Special mention: stopped for a glass of wine in this charming and charmingly-named French bar-restaurant. It's sort of around-the-corner from the main street in Kagurazaka, but seems worth seeking out for further research!

Wide selection of glass wines at sensible prices (under Y1000), large bottle menu at sensible prices (all under Y10,000, most cheaper), tasty-looking food, friendly staff, no bar charge. What more can you ask for?

I see that I'm not alone in this opinion, as it's been reviewed in Japan Times and other venues. This is the Iwatocho branch, the newer one, and I stole the photo from Japan Times directly.

Wine, wine, wine - that's all you ever do. I'm sick of it. Get a life.

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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Kamiya, Yurakucho (実は香味屋から弁当だ。)

Mmmmmmmm, Yoshoku. Some people love this stuff. I don't quite see the attraction, and today's pre-made bento did little to dispel my preconceptions. I should really go somewhere famous to try serious yoshoku.

Kamiya might be kinda famous. Anyone else know it? This branch in Yurakucho near the corner of Hibiya and Harumi (from the map, looks like it's in the concert hall, which would tend to make it famous, 釜知らない) delivered the bentos for our lunch today. Delivered bentos can never be that good, regardless of the quality of the original.

These 2-level bentos came with a full range of yoshoku delights. I started in on the sort-of ham salad terrine wrapped in ham, then went on the the mushroom-mayonnaise loaf. There was a decent piece of fish, cod-like, sheathed in an orangey, soft breading. A boiled shrimp. A deviled egg. The lower level contained cold, dry rice as well as a selection of the fried items (chicken, pork, croquette) that yoshoku lives on. Despite the coldness of the hour and the lateness of the eating, I gottaadmit that they weren't bad.

This is too far from the office for lunch. It's near 'My Square', which I walked to yesterday underground. Do you know how far you can walk underground around here? I don't. Yesterday I walked from Otemachi crossing (Hibiya and Eitai) down through Marunouchi, Nijubashi, and almost to Hibiya - and the passage keeps going. On the map, it looks like it will run out at the far end of Yurakucho station, which is more or less the middle of Hibiya Park. That's like 30 minutes walk underground. I'm very impressed by this today!

Yo-yo-yo shoku.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lion D'Or Beer Cafe, Otemachi

Have I mentioned how hard it is to find a vegetarian counter lunch place in Otemachi these days? It's hard.

The basement of the Otemachi Building is massive. At a guess I'd say there are 50 restaurants down there, and at 12:00 sharp, when I went today, many of them were packed. A few places must be popular, as they actually had lines of 20+ people outside (udon, I saw). Not a lot of counter places though; one ochazuke place, but I reviewed an En branch only last week and didn't want to face another zuke. The Lion has certain issues with vegetarianism, but it was mainly counter-based, and did have open seats. It's a good thing I'm not actually vegetarian.

The menu is pick-your-poison - choose a type of curry (beef, keema, hayashi), choose a topping (fried chicken, fried potato, fried shrimp, or egg) and choose a size of rice (small, normal, big, special, all the same price). Basically Y750.

I had hayashi with egg (closest I could get to meatless!). The curry was pretty good, but pretty sweet (which is pretty good for me in a Japanese curry). The egg was actually described as 'fluffy' on the menu (ふわふわだ!) and it had a really disturbing texture. Once I got over the extreme softness, I decided it must have been made from powdered eggs, which would account for the highly uniform shape as well as odd scrambled-eggs-with-helium texture. All in all, not a bad thing. There will never be another place more deserving than this one of the tags "Otemachi cheap curry lunch".

One service anecdote that I liked - as I was finishing, I noticed that there was a 'Reserved' sign on the stool next to mine. Turned out that waitress had reserved that seat for a few minutes to make room so that the three guys who were waiting outside could sit together.

Roar, roar, my beauty!
Looks like they'll cater your dinner party too!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sekkomon, Otemachi (石庫門, Oazo B1)

Oazo B1 branch of this purportedly Shanghai restaurant. 4 choices of lunch set hovering around Y1000, with today's choices including Ma Po Tofu, Tan Tan Men (these are Shanghai specialties? I didn't know Shanghai was in Sichuan!), Hoi Ko Lo (sorry I can't spell this) and egg/jellyfish/pork stir fry.

My ma po was adequately spicy but weak on the other flavors. Ponkan described the tan tan as 'peanutty', which was true, but I think she was just trying to think of something nice to say. In other news, have we talked about how hard it is to avoid eating meat in Japan? I was thinking about staying vegetarian this week for health reasons (save it up for the weekend, dinner with Whitey next week, etc.), and managed it from Monday dinner through Wednesday breakfast (aside from a few bits of bacon in my pumpkin soup, but we can't skimp on flavor eh?). Today the closest thing to veg was the tofu, which of course includes a liberal helping of minced pork in the sauce. Ah well.

Adequate food, distinguished mainly by the tiny size of the tables. Really I'm just posting this for completeness, OK? Better luck tomorrow!

Free drink coupon here, if you're into that sorta thing.

Ganesha, Otemachi

"I just saw Slumdog Millionaire and boy am I hungry!" ==> Indian lunch.
OK, that wasn't really how it went, but the movie was mentioned at lunch (again, after its strong performance at Golden Globes).

Ganesha is in fact the Indian restaurant in the basement of the JA building where I knew the waitress from another place in Monnaka. I should point out that JA means 'Japan Agriculture', not 'Japan Airlines', which is JAL, since that caused some confusion previously. It's also a tiny place where the tables are absolutely packed in - a room perhaps 25 feet square containing seats for 30 plus the kitchen. The two waitresses were constantly threading their way between tables dispensing lunch sets, water, and refills of bread.

Food wasn't bad, especially the yellow dhal, which surprised me. The lunch sets follow the usual Indian Lunch Formula - choice of curry, rice and dhal, salad, tandoori, drink. Here the Y850 A Set is a weak value, containing only 1 curry (but rice and dhal, refillable). B Set adds a second curry of the same size for Y950, and C adds a tandoori chicken piece and a drink (small iced coffee, today).

Ehhh, what am I going on about? It's just a Tokyo Indian lunch place. This is only distinguished by the quality of the dhal and the fact that they include refillable salad, rice and bread with all sets.

More slumdog than millionaire.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Acquarium at Dunhill, Ginza

Ever since I saw a picture of this place on someone else's site, I wanted to go. It's not the food, as you'll see below, but it IS the ambience and location.

Similar to Harrod's Brompton in Roppongi, this captures some refined English atmosphere in the heart of Tokyo. It's very different; in fact the common touch, and maybe what gives me a warm feeling, is the overstuffed leather furniture. Dunhill goes one better on Harrod's by importing their furniture from the main store in London, and in fact it's 'pre-loved' or antique, but certainly worn and slightly scruffy in an appealingly English way. It's set up in groups of four, all of which are different, and the rest of the decor is similarly antiqued (except the walls, which are painted with shelves of books to further the atmosphere without taking up space or giving off an old-book smell). All of this, plus the floor-to-ceiling windows look out from the third floor onto Chuo Dori directly across from Tiffany's...or Bvlgari if you look right, or Melsa if you look left. It's especially nice on a Sunday or holiday when the street is closed and full of people - busy street, quiet interior.

The food's appealing 'English picnic' - light, quaint, not especially satisfying, and of course you pay a premium for the location. At left is the 'Afternoon Picnic Set' - sandwich, scone, cream and jam, cheesecake, raspberry cream dessert, chocolate square. Served with your choice of teas and coffees (Dunhill Blend for us).

We also split a cake set; the strawberry tart was described as available, then the offer was cruelly revoked after we ordered...the chocolate cake was fine, neither great nor worth criticizing. The cream and chestnut cheesecake were actually very good.

Not cheap, but excellent to while away a solid 2 hours on a Sunday just drinking tea and looking out the window.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Quintessence, Shiroganedai (カンテサンス,白金台)

There's a set of people who apparently spend a fair part of their time and money going to the world's best restaurants. I don't aspire to be one of them, because it's so damn expensive, but I do enjoy reading their reviews and seeing the pictures. In that spirit, here's what it was like to visit the Michelin 3-star Quintessence, noted in Tokyo for the youthfulness of the chef and the refined-yet-tasty cuisine.

Knowing the price, I came into this in the wrong frame of mind on January 8th - hugely high expectations, and a hair-trigger propensity for disappointment. Keep in mind that this is actually quite cheap compared to some of Europe's best - something like half of the price of Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, or example. As a result of my mood, the first few courses didn't feel great, but things improved as the night went on (and on).

Throughout dinner we were drinking Krug Grand Reserve (which we BYO'ed; corkage Y5000 ++, and this is a very good deal when you consider that most of the enormous wine list is above Y15,000, with the bulk of that being Y20,000, Y30,000 and then into the stratosphere, as befits a restaurant aiming for Michelin rankings). This turned out to be an excellent choice for the food - keeping it cooler for the earlier courses and then warming up a bit out of the ice for heavier courses. Like no other champagne, the Krug is massive but stylish, and seems to contain a bit of everything. For me the overall impression was of maturity and, dare I say it, power, with the lighter components of the wine seeming to give way to a heavier core with every sip (relatively high pinot noir percentage, which means it's nice at various temperatures and displays different personalities). I shouldn't go on too long with this.

Poor communication on my part - they opened the champagne and poured us healthy glasses, which annoyed me because that bottle had to last all night. On the other hand, I have to give credit where due - on the next pour we told the waiter to stop at half a glass, and on the third pour we said "Only with new courses", and each time he adapated perfectly. On the whole, the service was really world-class once we (I) settled in, but I was disturbed that they served one person at a time, i.e. none of the 'multiple servers drop the plates on the table for everyone simultaneously' stuff, and certainly none of the coordinated cloche-removal that you might see at restaurants that still use cloche.

We also had a brief kerfuffle with the staff when they reconfirmed that one of our party wouldn't eat foie or lamb, and we reconfirmed that it was only one of us, thank you very much, and don't skimp for the others. They said "ohhhhh, only one menu per table", which is amusing considering the 'no menu' policy, and after some back-and-forth went to check with the kitchen. The kitchen cleared things up nicely by saying "There's no foie gras on the menu anyway", and we started with the first course of...

Sable Foie Gras. Tiny sable crouton topped with a round of foie and a slice of pear, drizzled with olive oil (or maybe that oil was just runoff from the foie!). Very nice in the way that the foie fat combined with the dry-and-sandy sable crouton, and the pear provided a little texture and fruitiness on top. Perhaps meant to be playfully eaten with the hand, so that you have to get a little oily because the crouton is so small? Well, I did at any rate.
Very good.

This was the point where they unleashed the 'no photos' rule. On top of the other perceived indignities, this had me deeply irritated. (And the evidence on Tabelog says that at least a few other people have taken pictures in the past, of the same dishes.) I persisted in furtive picture-taking, and while the staff must have known after 4 or 5 courses, we probably had an unspoken truce where they admitted that my photography was quite discreet, and I kept it as such.

Sweet Potato Soup. One of these 'no added anything, essence of the potato' dishes. The soup was squeezed from sweet potatos, with some added butter but no water or sugar. Delicious, like the most perfect yaki-imo ever, in liquid form. The little potato financier was interesting because the texture contrived to make you think of financiers as well.
Very good.

l'Assaisonement (Biology? Chemistry?). Described by the waiter as a vehicle for enjoying salt and olive oil, this was a bavarois of very mild goat cheese topped with lily bulb and sliced macadamia nuts, sprinkled with salt and doused with oil. The oil and salt were indeed delicious, as befits special Provencale oil and Bretagne salt, and the lily and macadamia gave a bit of texture to an otherwise smooth and soupy dish, but we didn't feel that this really came together. It was also a lot lighter and less seasonal than the potato, which was confusing. Good.

Kyoto turnip with 4 kinds of shrimp tartar, baby ruccola, herbs. One of the star dishes of the evening, mainly because of the produce. The waiter described the turnip as something that I can't remember, a fruit. In practice, it had a very earthy smell for a turnip, with a lovely sweet taste and a texture that was exactly like just-ripe persimmon. The shrimp were nice of course for their freshness and texture, and the inclusion of the (non-seasonal, hence dried?) sakura ebi was a terrific touch. Excellent.

Far Breton. Filled buckwheat galette in several layers, topped with kobashira (bay scallops?). "Eat from left to right because it gets sweeter in that direction, and you'll feel like you've eaten a complete meal by the end." (Unfortunately only the 5th course...) A very good idea here, with the strong buckwheat taste leading to the scallop taste and slightly crunchy texture (actually kori-kori ; how do you say that in English?), and then back to the sweetness of the pastry. While not explained the first time, we asked a question or two, which prompted the head waiter to start explaining every dish to us in exhaustive detail (and may have contributed to his tacit revocation of the earlier 'no photos' rule). In this case, the interesting point is that the scallops were dropped into a hot pan whose bottom was covered with hijiki, then taken out as soon as they started to cook, being left on the side to finish themselves off with residual heat. Very good.

Endive and Tsubugai. I thought tsubugai was 'conch', but it's not. Anyway, it's something like that, a wacky shellfish. In this case it was cooked, sliced thin, topped with seaweed butter, and layered over an endive that had been cooked sous vide, then browned a bit, and had ankimo-butter paste on the side (the orange paint). Texturally interesting dish with a lot of flavors - crunch from the endive, then butter flavor, then bitterness of the endive, and finally the chewyness and flavor of the shellfish. The strong ankimo added something, but overall not that exciting. Good.

Cuisson Nacree (Pearly Cooking?). First 'main course'. Amadai, roasted in a large piece to preserve its integrity, then sliced and served to multiple tables at once. Lime-nori sauce (the brown one). Dill sauce with salt - extraordinary. Spinach with basil, delicious. The fish was nicely rare, but the taste was heavy and fatty, the skin got soggy, and try as I might, I couldn't see how this all fit together. Some good elements, and judging by Tabelog it's been on the menu for ages, but overall this was a real letdown. Not good.

Poulet Roti. Before the fish, they asked if the portion size was going OK for us, and I said I'd be happy to eat more. The fish came normal sized, but this roast chicken came out super-sized. The waiter described the grower Takasaka san's chickens as 'the K-1 fighters of chicken' due to their extraordinary size, and this fellow showed all the evidence. The waiter's description had some other interesting elements - this was slow-roasted over 3 hours in a process best described as 'roast-rest-repeat - 30 times'. This led to a texture, probably intentional, that was quite soft and a bit spongy - not much fiber and stringiness there. Two other problems I had were the gaminess of the meat - not ordinarily an issue, but bothered me here - and the thickness of the skin. You can see in the picture that the skin is beautifully roasted and lightly salt-crusted, but it preserved a thickish layer of (K-1) fat underneath that made the texture disturbing. On the side are deep fried vegetables (peanuts as well as semolina-crusted mushrooms that were an eringi-awabi mix). Roast potatoes, herb sauce. Like the fish, this didn't seem to come together. Add in the lukewarm temperature and overblown portion size, and I couldn't finish this. On the night I thought it was Not Good, but I'm forced to admit that I was just getting tired and it was probably Good.

Cantal Vieux. You wouldn't know it, but this 9th plate marked the beginning of our 4th hour. The Cantal is a fairly normal cow cheese with a lot of buttery flavor, and the 'old' designation means it's over 6 months (I looked this up, OK?). In this case it was combined with butter to form a super-luxury Cheez-Wiz, with a really delightful piece of walnut bread on the side (toasted outside, soft inside) and a dried white fig that had been rehydrated in grape juice. The fig was meant to provide some acid to cut the butteriness of the cheese and butter, but got mostly lost in the transition. This was just OK - something more traditional in shape and presentation would probably have been better.

Sorbet Raisins Sec. Again, a humorous name since this was a sorbet made from 1979 Marc and topped with a Spanish raisin. This was decent, and the fact that it seemed to retain all the alcohol, which must be hard to freeze, made it even more refreshing. No picture.

Biscuit de Bis-Cuits. ('Twice Cooked' Biscuit) This appears on the web site as well as in other people's pictures, and is a decent item. If I remember the description correctly, the cake is made with almond meal and amaretto, and on the night I swore I could taste both flavors. The almond meal is pleasantly rough and grainy, and it goes very well with the coconut cream. I was puzzled that the 'shell' was only half full, since I quite liked the cream and the pairing with the cake. However I couldn't shake the impression that I could make something like this with the almond meal I picked up a few weeks ago. Good.

Tendre Guimauve. (Soft Marshmallow). Caramel marshmallow with caramel crunch on top and a tiny spot of caramel-rose syrup. "Usually made with pork fat, but this is all vegetable-based. Chill to -40 C in order to cut since it's so soft." The deep caramel flavor, soft marshmallow, textural crunch, and outstanding rose syrup made this one of the other best dishes. Should have been bigger and had at least 2 dots of syrup! Excellent.

Glace Meringue. I go to restaurants in search of basically one thing: those moments when the taste of something is so extraordinary that I feel compelled to throw my fork down theatrically and say "Umai!" or something equally cheesy. Finally, here it course 13. This house specialty is made by baking meringues, then crushing them to a powder and combining with creme anglaise to make ice cream, then spraying the quenelles with salt water before serving. The taste was deep and complex, with the salt somehow giving the impression that there was a whole set of savory flavors also going on. Again, the temperature control was a little weak, because this started melting during the lengthy explanation, but I'm forced to say this was Awesome.

One picture gets you the mignardise, the coffee (metal demi-tasse in the background) and a hint of the Krug...these were white chocolate covered with black sesame or crushed pine nuts, and were the full extent of the mignardise. At this point we had been through 4 hours, which seems a bit long for the above, so probably shouldn't have been that disappointed.

The pictures kind tell the story, don't you think? While the chef was previously sous-chef at the now-3-star l'Astrance, he's clearly brought a lot of Japanese to the equation here and taken out much of the playfulness and joy that I see in pictures from their dishes. The room matched the food - rectangular, done in shades of brown and white, very reserved. If that was the case, I'd expect more extraordinary flavors to be hidden in the whites and browns, but for the most part they weren't there.

Due to this, plus the overall intellectual feeling of the food, I described it to my colleague as 'not for novice eaters' and had to advise him not to try it. Certainly the quality of ideas, ingredients, preparation and service are extremely high, but with the big dead spot contributed by the two mains, I came away feeling like this was perhaps worth 2 stars and could use a little more work to get to 3, where I'd feel more affected emotionally by the end.

Haha, the opening picture on the web site is one of those delicious turnips.

Uomatsu, Monzennakacho

Post-ice cream, pre-dinner snack? Check.

Uomatsu opens at 3 PM on Sundays, and is always full when I walk by at night. Has to be something going on there. They specialize in cheap, fresh seafood, cooked 'beach style' on the red charcoal grills that sit on every table. For lunch they advertise the 'one coin' specials (Y500), but for dinner the menu is more ambitious and has the whole range of options - sashimi/nigiri, lots of grilled items with shells (scallops, clams and squid were among the most recommended items), a few other normal izakaya things.

Just a quick snack - some negi, tsubugai, shishamo (the little whole fish), and tuna cheek. Definitely fresh and tasty, especially the tuna (to me; others thought it tasted a little like lamb!).

The walls are fully covered with these sorts of fishes (which aren't on the menu). The bathrooms actually say "Shower Room" on the doors, which I guess is supposed to maintain the beach theme even though the floor is concrete and you're deep in Shitamachi.

Web site continues the 'jokey and cheap' atmosphere too.