Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chailly, Kanda (シャイー)

My friends, I just want to highlight the effects of popularity in Asian culture. (In a broad, overly general, and likely patronizing or imperialistic fashion.) When something is popular, everyone wants to do it. No lie - all ~10 million people who live or work in Tokyo's 23 wards want to come to Kanda for lunch at Bistro Ishikawa Tei every day. Documented fact. This means that despite Wolf and Ponkan's hopeful stance towards leaving the office at 11:30, the first thing we saw when we rounded the corner onto the target street was the end of the line, with, I kid you not, a police officer hanging around the end of it. There were 35 people in that line. The restaurant probably holds 40. And thus EOITwJ was able to make good on the brave creed of not eating lunch in the same place twice for 3 months straight. Otemachi's options are still far from exhausted; the quest goes on, despite the mockery.

We crossed Sotoboti Dori and tried Chailly, a lovely-looking Italian place. Perhaps Kanda is trying to shed its salaryman image, or perhaps not, but certainly there are a few brave chefs like Osaka san who have taken the time and care to produce a stylish, modern restaurant. And we thank them for it! The exterior of Chailly is probably better described as 'French Bistro windows, with the woodwork painted gray instead of red'. You can also recognize it by the big sign over the top that says Chailly...

Inside is definitely stylish - even at lunch it's a bit dark and moody, and they've gone for a lot of dark red (the wide, glossy counter, some of the wall tiles, the woven placemats). They've also gone the full monty on the glassware, which is new, high-quality, and a bit groovy (e.g., the glasses are a bit more angular in the bowl rather than just round). I would certainly enjoy coming back here of an evening for some casual Italian dining bar atmosphere. The intimacy with the kitchen is quite extreme too, as the floor behind the counter is raised, meaning you look slightly down into the kitchen rather than the usual reverse. Very humble of the chef, or maybe just confident, and more entertaining for the customers.

For lunch, you get a poppy seed roll plus a bowl of very fibrous vegetable soup (by which I mean that it had kale, or something equally tough, which makes you feel virtuous and regular when you eat it), a pasta, and a coffee. Pastas today were: penne with fresh tomato and mozzarella (gooey! looked good!), and then three things using the fresh linguine of the day - how often do you get fresh pasta in a standard lunch set? There were 'lots of sardines' in spicy oil, bacon and spring vegetables in garlic oil (I think it was just nanohana, but it looked good, and I loved the way Osaka san popped them in a pasta bucket and into the pasta water to cook them), or my choice: white beans and chicken in tomato sauce. I could go either way on the chicken, but slow-cooked white beans and a nice fresh tomato sauce are certainly a good way to my heart.

This was darn good, my friends, and I would happily eat here again. The espresso was excellent. The waiter further endeared himself to me by remembering that I had stood outside one time when they were full, thinking about coming in. I don't think I even talked to him at that point. (Thanks for the translation, Pon-chan.)

Sakura chan is very excited about talking to Osaka san. You can tell by the pictures.
But I can't find any official site, and there's nothing on the card.

Toriyoshi, Ginza (鳥よし)

A work dinner with Koala, Ponyo, and three guys who don't have cute nicknames (and for some reason don't inspire me to assign any). There were some elements of tastiness, but this seemed like run-of-the-mill yakitori to me despite some recommendations. I did pick it from a list, so I'll take responsibility; live and learn.

First things first: it's hard to find, being hidden in plain sight on Ginza Corridor Street (the long row of shops under the Yurakucho train tracks). We walked right by it, looking intently at every sign. After a few more blocks we called, and they told us "Look for the sign of this other place, Negishi (ねぎし)". That's a good description; their sign is a small lantern at ground level, while all the other places have some kind of dramatically lit signage to stand out in that bright and crowded street.

Inside looks like it used to be sushi! The front is a counter with glass cabinets wherein they store all the pre-skewered chicken bits, while in back is a small private room (holds 6, really, and that was us). The front is really dark; perhaps the better to hide the smokiness?

As a private-room group, we had no choice other than 'omakase'. This started with a bowl of grated daikon topped with a raw quail egg, some pickles, and three slices of chicken breast 'cured' in vinegar. That last item would look raw to you if you were American, and I have to say that the freshness and taste were a bit lacking compared to raw chicken slices I may have eaten in the past. Zan nen, a worriesome way to start.

Available items at yakitori are divided into three groups for me: 'safe' meats, 'scary' meats, and vegetables. They started things off nice and safe with meatballs (although chicken meatballs in Japan always include bits of cartilege, which lots of people like to gnaw on. Not me.) and kashiwa; one of my colleagues translated kashiwa as 'head', which puzzles me. In addition to 'oak' (tree), the dictionary says it means 'white meat chicken', so I guess that was a safe element. Certainly it wasn't objectionable. Next were quail eggs, always a staple item. And then we started the descent to hell...

I know a lot of people like this stuff, but crunchy or overly chewy meat is difficult for me, as is liver (not pate, not foie. Heavens!). Thus the sunagimo ('sand liver', gizzard), the chigimo (that's my best guess; it was 血肝, and no one else knew how to say it either, but it was just regular chicken liver. Albeit in a large portion...), the skin (lovely when crisped, but not when singed on the edges and just heated in the middle), and the god-only-knows-what-this-intestine-thing-is-but-it-has-a-weird-'nugget'-in-the-middle-and-I-staying-away-from-it were all a bit hard on my delicate sensibilities. Ah well. At least a number of them were nicely fried, with plenty of smoky goodness.

There were some other good things, of course. The shishitou, small green peppers, were good (I'm partial to them), and the 'sabi yaki', lightly-seared chicken tenderloin (raw in the middle) with generous applications of wasabi on top, was great. Not for all readers, of course, due to the wasabi. Oh, and the rawness. The masterstroke (or at least the last item on the course) is the duck breast with negi (Welsh onion? Spring onion? Much thicker than what I think of for these terms, but not a leek). We learned at this point from one colleague that eating more duck actually neutralizes the calories in the other items! Yay! There were various rice bowls to fill in the cracks (egg 'n' chicken or else minced chicken), as if any cracks existed by this point, and also a really nice chicken soup with bits of onion in it. Healthy.

Yakitori remains a mystery to me, so I'll refrain from judgement. Do keep in mind that Antwerp Central is practically across the street, and also remember that you probably shouldn't go to 'The Wine Bar', which is directly across the street. They mostly have only bottle wines; it's an old-style wine bar. Although that means the decor is very satisfyingly Art Nouveau, which could be good for you once.

Other stores in Nakame, Nishi Azabu...よ~~~しっ!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Grande Mama, Yoga

Yeah, I can see where that name is a bit funny in English.

Well, the staff here at eoitwj never like to let an opportunity pass. Today saw us gettiing our skates properly on for a bit of Hanami in Yoga (yes Shaft, at Kinuta! The trees were quite non-compliant. In fact I worry that next week might even be too early.) And hey, why not check out the neighborhood after and see if anyone wants to give us a square meal on a Sunday night?

The menu is of a decent size; I didn't get into much detail, just checked the main ingredients and found a couple dishes I felt like eating. A bit of wine, and we were off.

Pazta time, a concoction of store-made bacon, sky beans and white asparagus. Actually, the pasta was store-made also. actually we wonder what jikasei bacon really means - they cured it here? Smoked it here? The staff is wondering if we can do it at home...regardless, it sure was smokey and tasty. And importantly, it was on store-made orecchiete, which we remain ignorant of the proper preparation techniques despite trying it a couple times (and being perfectly competent with regular pasta, thank you very much).

Jikasei bread too. Small, warm, crusty rolls that immediately made us feel very kindly disposed toward Grande Mama despite her French name and questionable taste in overhead Italian pop music.

For the main, Auntie's urging made it difficult to go past Cherry Pork. Not her urging so much as her disbelief that there could be a difference. There is. Especially when it's roasted over charcoal with lots of rosemary. I came close to throw-the-fork-down delight, which is not what I expected in Yoga on a Sunday night.

Along with the pork, the house wine kept reminding me of cherries - no mean feat for an Italian red. Barossa pinot, OK, but not in Italy. Easy to drink, yet structured and tasty.

No dessert was needed after that...but with predecessors like those, who could say no? I went with the caramel sherbet. What the heck is that? It reminded me of amaretto cookies, crushed, caramelized, and made into icy quenelles. If this were a higher-end place, I'd be pizzed at the iciness. As it was, I was fairly enraptured by the taste.

A funny thing about Japan - as everyone knows, worldwide, the Japanese are really into their thing. Whatever that thing is, boy are they into it. That doesn't always mean it's good; the triumph of enthusiasm over experience. And skill. You can get a bunch of old Italian wine bottles, you can get the odd pink page from Gazetta delo Sport, but your food might not turn out so well. These guys, on a Sunday night when the three staff were barely outnumbered by the one couple and two lonely guys, were cooking and serving like their lives depended on it. Even if they didn't know it. I'm getting a little teary even now. As mentioned after Mikawa's whitebait, I love Japan.

What was on the jukebox? 'I get knocked down. But I get up again.'

Mammoth Curry, Akihabara

Sure, I have a weakness for bright-yellow-themed curry restaurants. And I definitely have a weakness for curry when I had a long night eating tempura and then had to work the next day. So when I finished work of a Saturday and traipsed up to Akiba mid-afternoon, all that was on my mind was supplementing the inadequate BLT provided as compensation for attending the special weekend meeting with some real, cheap, greasy food. Ahhhh, the healthy Japanese diet.

Akiba has a lot of Chinese options, a fair amount of ramen, the odd kebab shop, and of course lots of curry. For some reason I was opposed to the more Indian-looking places; it had to be Japanese curry. And Mammoth was appropriately yellow...A quick Google makes me think that it might actually not be a chain, wonder of wonders. That can't be right.

At the cheap end of the scale, cleanliness is not a factor that I put next to tastiness. Mammoth, however, is unclean in a weird way - sort of unkempt rather than worn-but-clean. The floor was muddy (even weirder since it hasn't rained for a few days), and the kitchen area was funny to look at - they had half a dozen pots of curry perpetually on the boil, with thick rims of curry sludge around the top of each pot. Mmmmm, curry sludge.

In a half-hearted attempt to avoid unhealthy eating (I know, I know. Read the header.), I got something with no obvious meat - eggplant curry, with a boiled egg for topping. The eggplant was deep-fried briefly, the curry was appropriately brown and Japanese-tasting, and the whole thing went down smoothly and with appropriate medicinal effects. The pickles get an honorable mention, both the daikon and the rakyou.

Katsu or 'stamina' (yakiniku + raw egg?) curry seemed to be the go here, judging by what my fellow otaku were otucking into. You might want to consider that when you go.

Try the special frozen-in-arctic-ice-for-100,000-years curry

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mikawa, Kayabacho

The cause of much trepidation, my friends, this tempura expedition. The staff at EOITwJ has been thinking for ages that there's probably more to tempura than lunch teishoku or the very occasional tendon from Tenya (although their conveyor-belt frying system is pretty sweet). Last night we put it to the test, with very good results! I took a ton of pictures, so you should be able to get an idea just how much brown, fried food comes with the omakase course (I won't be vulgar, but if you have to ask the price...). Some single pieces are left out, because you generally get one at a time.

Mikawa came to our attention while walking around Kayabacho one night. Not that we found it at random - it's too effectively hidden in the middle of a mostly-unlit alley for one to stumble on it without serious luck. Actually we consulted the trusty Blackberry for 'kayabacho restaurants', and Mikawa was the place that came up. Of course, it was full on that occasion. I have a feeling it's full for both seatings every night. And it's not because the food sucks and the atmosphere is bad.

We arrived in Kayabacho around 7 for our 8 PM reservation (if you don't reserve, you won't eat. In this case, when I called on Tuesday, the counter was full until 8, roughly the 'second seating'. There are also two small Japanese-style washitsu tatami rooms with low tables and woven-mat flooring and no chairs, if you'll pardon the redundancy.) I guess I was a little taken aback to see it so packed and swinging, so the staff reassured me that it would be OK as long as we came back at 8. At that point I also enquired as politely as possible whether I could bring in my own wine, and I could, for a fair Y2000. Thus, off to Maru for a standing drink, pre-dinner conversation, and a bottle of champagne (what goes better with tempura? What DOESN'T go with champagne?).

Back at the ranch, all 8 seats at the counter were still packed at 8. Not to worry, we squeezed into the tiny waiting area, a small bench in front of the pottery storage closet; it's big enough to fit two waiting customers as long as they're pretty friendly. We were eventually seated in what I imagine to be the best seats in the house - directly in front of the cutting board, with an unimpeded view of the oil! (Although I find that I'm sometimes excited about things other people find to be the opposite.) Things kicked off with a big bowl of oroshi daikon, and a healthy helping of mozuku (small concession to health before the fried onslaught). And of course this bottle of Gonet Blanc de Blancs, which I found to be tasty and good value, if you're looking for recommendations. I was really impressed with how the young guy handled the speecial wine situation - it can't be very usual, but he was diligent to the extreme in finding a way to open and ice the champagne.

After that it was strictly fried foods right through to the soup (in fact there's an option to put the last fried course in the soup rather than miso). For some reason my sensibilities don't align with tempura fashion - I expect shrimp to be a bit of a luxury at the end, not the first thing up. But there they were, a pair of lovely peony shrimp and their heads (served one at a time for maximum freshness). Yep, completely different from any other tempura shrimp in living memory. Maybe the intention is to start with a bang? It succeeds.

This is Edomae tempura, meaning that the ingredients are all from half a day's walk of Tokyo (i.e., could be caught and carried unrefrigerated for consumption in Edo). In practice, that means you get some odd fish that are native to the area, which are interesting if sorta unrefined.

Squid. The merest hint of chewiness, Andy.

Whitebait. Around this time I was moved to say 'I love Japan'. It was something about the way the master precisely hoisted, double-dipped and dropped each fish into the oil...or the positively poetic way he stirred the oil with a screen to remove the leftover floating bits of fry.

Kisu. My, how we love kisu. Seemed to be battered extra-thick, which I guess improves the texture.

Ginpo. Semi-exotic, which I've come to decide means 'muddy' in Edomae terms. It's uncommon in Japan to eat catfish or carp - people say it tastes like mud. Well, maybe. But it's certainly a unique and interesting category of flavor, so what the hey?

Megochi. Again, like catfish. Only different. This was a good excuse to get into conversation with the master; until this point he seemed quite forbidding. I guess making the same thing every night for 30 years tends to produce a certain kind of serenity that's hard to penetrate. Once we got him started, he had a lot to say; par for the course, I think.

The token vegetables. Opinions vary, but I found these disappointing. And I wished there were more vegetables to break things up. It's spring - no harm in some taranome, fukinotou, etc.

Eel. Big slices to finish off the piece-by-piece tempura. Since we were ringside, the master treated us to a lengthy discourse on the merits of his eel - the freshness, the springiness of the flesh, etc. When he served and cut it with his chopsticks, there was a charming puff of steam. Ahhh, the freshosity. Since everyone on the same seating got the eel at the same time, I knew that steam was coming. Still failed to capture it in the picture. I liked the thicker coating on the fishes, not that I think about it.

Final courses - a bay scallop (kaibashira) kakiage, either as tendon or chazuke. The tendon was the best tendon I can remember having. Great sauce, great scallops, great cooking. Great. Great.

The level of coordination among the 4 staff squeezed into that tiny place was extraordinary. Many times, the master would finish something, and with no apparent announcement, someone was at his elbow to take it for serving. Likewise, piles of food kept appearing just in time for cooking.

Interior shots: the glasses must be a significant draw if you're into that sort of thing. Even to me, there was a tremendous variety of beautiful pottery available for use. They had brochures for their new venture as well, which seems to be a pottery gallery and tea salon in...Monzennakacho. Ii toko ne?

Yeah, if you have to ask about the price, it's probably for the best to aim lower (same as other expensive tempura places though). I can't decide if it was worth the money or not, but I'm almost tempted to go again, or try another high-end place!

Geez, I even forgot to mention how it must be great because their second store is in Roppongi Hillz! You don't get the original master there though.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pizzeria da Cibo

When Coredo comes to mind, all I can think of is compliance. Ponkan and I went to compliance training in Nihonbashi which was notable mainly for the length of the breaks and the relaxed atmosphere in the back of the room. This allowed us an extremely long lunch involving Coredo's Quatorieme, both their standing bar and their restaurant (eek2).

I digress. A long morning meeting at the mothership left us just around the corner from Coredo at a time suspiciously resembling lunch. We pounced on the opportunity, then waffled between shops on Coredo 4, selected one that proved to be full, and went back to our first choice, da Cibo.

Memories of Baggio and Savoy danced in our heads as we saw the gin-u-wine brick oven near the door and felt its heat (really, it was hot). The menu is mostly choose-your-pizza, which comes in about 5 varieties (cheese or not, a bit of meat or not) along with a salad and a coffee, forY1000. I opted for the real buffalo mozzarella, and Koala super-sized (both Y300 or Y400). The pizza was certainly real oven-fresh. In fact, it came with amazing rapidity - before we could even finish the salads. It must have been a bit more pre-made than Baggio or Savoy, and that would account for why it wasn't quite as good as either of them. Still nice though, because it's hard to find that sort of thing in general.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bistro Ishikawa Tei, Kanda (ビストロ石川亭)

A-MAZ-ing. I was so struck dumb with disbelief that I couldn't even write a post this afternoon, my friends. If this isn't my new favorite restaurant, I don't know what is. Pictures at 11, or once 花水 gets them out of her camera and over to me!

Koala told me that she saw Ishikawa Tei at the top of a list of 'best cheap restaurants'. I've tried to go, twice. Both times were fairly late in the day (they're only open 11-2 for lunch), and there was still a line outside. Today the weather was OK, I got caught in a meeting until 1:30, and the lovely 鈴時 said she didn't mind waiting...so we arrived at 1:50 and took our place in line behind 9 other people. I guess the 1 PM crowd is finishing up at that time, because we got in by about 2:05. Don't expect that kinda treatment all the time.

The attraction here is pretty simple - value. Cost performance. Like no other place you've ever been to. After our starters, I was momentarily confused because the volume and quality were like the full lunch at various other places I could name (but have forgotten). After our mains, I thought it was a joke and the bill would be 2-3X what we saw outside. But it wasn't.

The menu is standard low-end bistro (not meant judgementally; just that there are equal amounts of Japanese and French influence). For starters. you get a choice from 7 or 8 items - country-style pate, steak tartare, sauteed scallops, various veggie and cheesy items...we went one each of the first two (which is why I remember them so clearly) and found them rough, ready and substantial. The pate was more like a very light meatloaf to me; a bit of liver, a bit of veal flavor (odd, since I doubt there was any veal) and some sweet spices, plus a side salad. The tartare was on toast, and consisted of heavily-dressed chunks of meat. No ground meat here, and it was tasty, but I wish they had chopped it a second longer.

For mains, you also get a choice of 7 or 8 items. The really nice-looking grilled chicken with nanohana at the next table was sold out, and it didn't occur to either of us to order the hamburger until we saw it looking great at the next table (too late!), so we ended up with 花水's grilled buri and my confit pork belly. The buri was enormous - two solid slices, grilled with soy sauce - and was a touch strong, but it's not a weak fish. The pork was not as big, which is a good thing because it consisted mainly of meltingly-soft pork fat, topped with mustard and breadcrumbs and briefly grilled. Both came with mashed potatoes and broccoli.

After, a small slice of matcha pound cake and coffee or tea. A solid performance in a nice environment; we wished we had more time to linger, but it took almost 80 minutes as it was, by the time we walked from the office and waited in line and ordered and ate.

Y1100. When I said I couldn't believe how huge and tasty it was, the chef actually seemed a little tired of the adulation. I bet she gets it all the time.

Dinner may be the same menu for Y3300, which would still be very solid value.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Maharaja, Marunouchi (My Plaza B2)

In need of a lot of exercise plus a tremendous Indian repast in order to burn it off? Actually, I wonder what's the opposite of 'burn it off'. Any ideas? Maharaja, it has to be said, is REALLY far away. If you're coming from the office in Otemachi, it's a healthy 15 minutes, or probably more depending on your fitness and company. Speaking of 'company', if you work for Bain & Company, it's just in the basement. Small consolation, really.

M is bright and modern for an Indian place. There's a lot of white on the walls, and the plates are modern white rectilinear jobs. The chairs are leather(y), a bit stuffed, and have nice high arms. What I'm trying to inflict on you here is that it's a comfy place despite the lunch frenzy. And the staff is mostly Indian, so they speak excellent English, should that be of concern.

Today we all went the Maharaja Lunch. It's a lot of food. A piece of chicken from the tandoor, a big sausage (sheek kabab, I think), some salad, a curry rice plate, and unlimited naan for the table. The sheek was really good - lamb-y and spice-y; the standard mutton curry was bright and flavorful; the special-order chicken curry was rumored to be not as good by Wolf, the only member of the party to have bagged both beasts (I really want to get into an Indian big-game hunting thing here, but I don't have the energy. I was reminded of this wacky book Tiger For Breakfast which was set mainly in Kathmandu and featured a lot of Maharajas hunting wild beasts, often from luxury cars. It was a while ago. Amazon knows of only one copy, and it's GBP 90 used! Mine must have been a hella steal.). The naan were a bit thick and doughy - more oven than tandoor, methinks - and the chicken also bespoke a tandoor-free past life with its dry, sad little voice.

Well, how much more can I say? 30+ minutes of walking is good for you under any circumstances, and here you get a solid, spicy lunch to boot. Just don't expect a 1-hour round trip.

Wow, since 1968! 17 locations!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rui, Otemachi

My friends, the Sankei Building still has a few tricks left to surprise and delight us even after lo these many months of unbroken newness in our daily lunch quest.

Well, maybe not 'delight' so much. Surprise...sure, let's give 'em the benefit of the doubt.

Respecting the wishes of Joey, Dee Dee, et al, I had yet to venture down to the basement of the Sankei. Clearly we're talking about B2 here, as B1 includes three places already graced by our presence. B1 has 5 or 6 places that all look OK, including a sushi. Which Zone and I didn't go to.

Rui is decent-looking teishoku, comes with a bunch of dishes. I had a zuke-kaisen-chirashi kinda thing, and it had plenty of egg and cucumber. I think you know where I'm headed. The fish was mainly aji, which was a little fishy. Zone-kun had a grilled chicken don that was called 'kiji-don', a cruel joke since it wasn't anything as luxurious as pheasant. The side dishes and soup were normal but plentiful.

Maybe that should be our motto for Otemachi lunch, come to think of it.

It's normal, but it's plentiful.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Kamonka, Tokyo (過門香)

There's really a wealth of semi-hidden nooks all around Otemachi. As discussed with Koala yesterday, a lot of them aren't worth seeking out, but I maintain the search is...oh, about 20% of the fun. Still, we soldier on.

The North side of Tokyo station has a big bus boarding area (this is the convenient entrance for, say, Kitchen Street, if anyone's keeping score). Around this are some minor office buildings, and since this is Otemachi, every one of them has a few restaurants. On the east side (left if you're facing the station) is the Trust Tower, and on the second floor are a minimal selection of largish places, including Kamonka.

This is semi-fancy Chinese. You know how there are levels of Chinese in Japan (maybe anywhere, but I've got precious little experience with Chinese in Japan, let alone outside)? You start with plain Chinese - formica tables, laminated menus, normal food. Semi-fancy (not a technical term) involves some attempt to make the place authentic - often black and red theme, latticework, dim lighting, and kung fu floor shows (well, not that often). After that you get into full-on fancy Chinese, which goes back to white tablecloths, waiters in suits, elaborate plates, shark fin, bird's nest, etc. So Kamonka has the black woodwork, lots of semi-private small rooms, and a more expensive menu, but no floorshow, and the waitresses are wearing 'traditional Chinese costumes' or some such.

And the food was pretty good. I had a mapo tofu that was an extraordinary quantity (had to ask for additional rice to get through the tofu and sauce) as well as a solid taste. It seemed to be more balanced than the usual, since the usual usually has one of the usual tastes in extreme prominence, be it chili or sansho. In this case it was quite spicy, and not shy of sansho, but everything was somehow smooth and integrated. Yay for good Chinese!

Bustin' a move

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Menosou, Kagurazaka (目乃想)

Kagurazaka is a little...bewitching. It's the small, dark alleys, packed with the promise of exclusive Japanese-style dining where you need an introduction and a 3rd-generation fortune to get in. For the rest of us, there are plenty of interesting places tucked away off the main street (both behind and above). You just have to work a bit to find them.

Menosou is definitely tucked away. The alley is more-or-less person-width, and it's mainly obscured by the large, glass-fronted, famous (?) tea shop at its head, Rakuzan (楽山). Get past that, and you'll see a woman washing vegetables in front of her door (maybe you won't, but I did) and beyond that, this poorly-lit noren indicating that you've arrived at Menosou.

It wasn't my motivation for the choice, but it turns out the chef...won on Iron Chef. He's got a big picture of Kaga and Morimoto, presumably after he whupped ass on the latter, and also a large glass trophy cup. He's a third-generation chef, presumably in the same style as his forebears, and is a nice guy once you get started talking. With that in mind, the games began. This assorted appetizer plate included sky beans, boiled abalone, an indeterminate nikogori, and some boiled firefly squid with white vinegar miso sauce (early Spring, can't avoid it). All of them were acceptable or maybe as far as Good.

Drinks come in these cute glass pots, in unfortunately small servings. Still, they'll give you another serving if you pay for it. There's also the opportunity to choose glasses from the tray, which started off having more options got pared down as the team worked through them (one per type of sake, ne?).

Sashimi, nothing too notable. The snapper in the back was good though. As long as you're prepared for the skin to have some chewiness!

Getting all seasonal yet again, this shrimp dumpling was wrapped in pickled cherry leaf, and topped with a piece of rape blossom (this English-translation thing is going too far).

Either salmon or trout; wasn't inspired enough to ask which.

However this bowl clearly WAS inspiring enough to make me take a picture. I felt like there was something unusual about the style, and of course it's nice and springy, which puts you right in the mood for...

Yup, bamboo shoots, boiled, peeled, lightly grilled, and covered with grated dried bonito. Good stuff - tender, toothy, sweet, savory.

Described as this place's famous items, ebi shinjo. These deserve to be famous, and were certainly the highlight of the meal. Lovely shrimp taste, but equally beautiful airy texture with a good fry on the outside. So darn inspiring that I tried to make my own the next day. Tasty, but not all that successful. And my apartment STILL smells like frying oil.

The winning Iron Chef dish, cold Chinese-style chicken ramen. The noodles were ridiculously toothy, but not underdone in any way. The chicken was also very well-roasted, and the soup pulled it all together.

Let's not mention the plate of strawberries and cream that followed. There were some very good to excellent elements in this meal, but the overall quality was a bit tired...sort of like the third generation doing the same thing. Too bad, since it's a great little environment and always entertaining to visit a semi-secret Kagurasaka back street. Still, it's difficult to recommend as a vacation dining destination though. First there's the cost performance...and second, in conversation the master mentioned that he had a foreign couple come in, a few weeks back. They were from HK, and found him by searching Iron Chef-related things. He seemed pretty puzzled by the whole thing.

Lovable but not outstanding.

Tant Pour Tant, Tsukishima

Nothing follows monja like cake (?), so after lunching at Bambi and strolling around a bit more, it was time to enjoy a quiet coffee and a piece of cake in my maiden aunt's living room.

Not really, of course, but this cute cake shop has a second floor that features the owner's landscape paintings (probably; they're all by the same person at least), lacy curtains, a dim and lazy ambience, and various regulars sitting around talking to the staff. The coffee was predictably normal (in Japan, if it's served in China then you're in for a very specific sort of experience - elegant, but not necessarily that tasty), and the cheesecake was nice enough. Their famous item seems to be these apple tarts consisting of a whole apple baked in crust, which could be good or could be not.

But if you're in Tsukishima want to go somewhere pleasantly refined for a cuppa coffee, this would be your only bet! In fact, I'm not sure there's any other place to go after monja, even an old-style kissa.

Bierstadt he's not. Similar themes though.

Bambi, Tsukishima (バンビ)

My friends, I'm pleased to say that I broke the 'one time per year' rule and enjoyed it. With the weather as nice as it was today, walking around Shitamachi just seemed like the thing to do. And one's steps naturally seem to lead to...Tsukishima. At least if you live in Monnaka. And don't start heading toward Kinshicho. Or Ningyocho. Hmmm.

If you've never been to Tsukishima, you should go at least once (until now, I would have said "you should go exactly once"). It's deep, deep Shitamachi, with tiny alleys crowded with plants, kid's bikes, and washing. There's a normal mix of stores - a grocery, a few shoe and clothing stores, etc. And then there are the restaurants, which are 90% monja.

Not an exaggeration, my friends. I've seen one sushi place, one tongue B-B-Q, one stewed-intestine, and maybe there are some others. But the rest are of the 'hey, the table's hot, so let's just slap a mess o' cabbage and batter on there and get right to it!' variety. The really weird thing is - on a Saturday, around lunch time, you could struggle to get a seat. People are waiting outside a bunch of places, and most of them are close to full.

Bambi is kinda middle-of-the-road, and in the middle of the shotengai. The inside is pretty much like everywhere else, maybe a little downmarket, but in a new and clean way. It's very appealing, especially the horikotatsu along the edge and the fire-engine red smoke pullers above every table. They look positively industrial-strength, but they don't suck a lotta air. This is probably why the staff very sensitively give you big plastic bags to put your coats and jackets in - you'll smell all monja otherwise.

Special mention goes to the turmeric-flavored highball that I drank (described on the menu as 'Terrible! Gimme one more!", which I guess is meant to imply that it's strangely addictive. I dunno if it was either of those things. I know that my liver thanks me for offsetting the cheap liquor with cheap ukon. So genki!

Mentaiko-mochi-cheese monja. It's the best, isn't it? For lack of much interesting to say about the restaurant, let me just say a few things that I believe constitute the secrets of monja. You've gotta cook and chop the cabbage adequately to get things starter. Then you've gotta build a good 'wall' to keep the batter in. Everyone at the table needs a spatula and needs to help push back escaping batter until things solidify a little. And then you need to wait. It takes longer than you think, and 'hot' does not equal 'cooked' does not equal 'tasty'. Lengthy cooking is required to make it gooey and burnt on the bottom, which is the way you're going to get the most flavor into it.

Ohhhhhh, it's all gooey and burnt and crisp and delicious! At this point I should make a joke that monja is my new favorite food, but that's going to far. Some things are too serious to joke about.

I love that there's a monja organization, and you can also see the fire hoses in this picture.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hap, Kagurazaka

After being a bit disappointed with the Artist Cafe, I wanted to redeem the evening by walking around somewhere nice - and thought that Kagurazaka was close. Y'know, it's hard to find stuff there when walking around at random.

Hap, I think I had seen before on a random expedition. It's kinda neat and modern-looking from the outside (concrete and glass, those arbiters of Japanese modernity), and inside has a counter and two (very) small tables. The counter was full, they said (reservations for 10 PM! City life! So Italian!), but the tables were OK.

Illy coffee has a big place in my heart. In Australia, lengthy testing convinced me that it was the best brand, and nothing has ever disabused me of that notion (just like I think the style of coffee that I love in Australia is the best; I don't know if it's 'real Italian', but the preparation and proportion are far superior to your Staba/Tulleez etc.). So seeing Hap serving coffee from a big tin of Illy beans, freshly ground and packed laboriously into a gleaming Italian single-shot machine...well, it had to be good.

Good coffee, good cake, a scoop of ice cream from the kitchen (maybe for the table charge? Strawberry with some crunchy toffee bits on top - they put in a touch of effort.). The rest of the food looked OK too; everyone was particularly impressed by the scallops, which were from Hokkaido (like one of the chefs) and were residing peacefully in a bucket of water under the counter - demonstrably alive and squelching until called to...errr, duty. I'd go back here for a casual night to see what they could do with the other food. Empty cases of Sassicaia made things look appropriately serious on the wine front as well. Terry has been when these guys were running a different shop elsewhere before buying this one a year ago, and he liked it - what else do you need to know?!

Not exactly like the coffee machine in your office.

Artist Cafe, Korakuen

This sounds like a great idea - live jazz every night with stunning views from the 43rd floor of Tokyo Dome Hotel. In practice, it's a little less impressive than that...

The decor and menu are a little on the family-restaurant side. I know they'd be pizzed to read that, but it's true. The names and ingredients have aspirations, but you can tell from the surrounds, the uniforms on the waitstaff, etc., that the presentation isn't going to cut it. I only tried the ham plate and the cheese plate but...well, I could be wrong. You may find out for yourself some day.

The music is the draw (other than the view). Seriously - live jazz every night, Y500 cover charge? At higher-end venues like this (I'm thinking of Maduro, New York Bar...) the charge is Y2000 and the drinks are also 2X or more. I know, this is terribly vulgar. But the last time I went to Maduro the band and the drinks were certainly insufficient to justify the additional expense. At Artist Cafe, the band wasn't so good on the night, so I'd advise going with low expectations and also picking carefully from the schedule.

The view is definitely good though! It reminds me of the view that you get from restaurants and bars in Shiodome building tops. What's really funny is the people looking at the view - plenty of families, old couples that look like they're in from the country...classic and cute.

Go-----tta sing! Go-----ta dance!

Rock Inn, Shinjuku

The latest in a continuing but rare series of posts (this is the second one, isn't it?) about guitar stores.
Rock Inn has a few stores around Shinjuku, with the main two right across from each other in the alleys of 3-chome behind Mitsukoshi (I say this to remind myself for next time). They have a decent selection with a fair number of boutique items thrown in - Suhr guitars but not Andersons, for instance. Today they had a couple Dr Z amps, on which I rocked out using a 52 Tele reissue.

The Z-28 is basically a Deluxe - 22 watts of 6L6 power. With a Tele bridge pickup it just starts to pick up some edge at 12 o'clock, but it's already kinda loud for open-store testing. With a boost pedal it got a bit more hairy, but of course nothing _too_ saturated. Should have tried a humbucker, but it was plenty fun, balanced and snappy, with the Tele. It's a good thing it sounds good, because the bass and treble knobs (and the guitar tone knob) were all marked 'crappy', as in 'change at your own peril'. Couldn't get that neck-pickup Tele jazz sound.

The Mini Z was a bit less fun; at 5 watts of EL 84, it's subjectively pretty loud in the store with the volume at 12 o'clock. By that point it's already well-saturated and very compressed; the boost pedal pushed it immediately into pick squeals and the like. But the top end had a nasty buzziness to me, and the tone knobs on the boost pedal did nothing to tame that. The amp is blessedly free of suchlike encumberances, having only Volume and Attenuator, so there's no help there either. I'd sure like to rock the heck out of one of the Doctor's bigger EL-84 numbers.


Carta Bianca, Nishi Shinjuku

Shinjuku is a difficult area for me. It's huge, it's complex, I get confused, and it's tough to find restaurants worth going to. Clue me in if you have good ideas; I struggle a lot. Recently I needed a destination for a holiday lunch with Nanban (南蛮) and others, and happened across this charming-looking place between Minami Guchi and the Park Hyatt. It was, in fact, quite charming, in opposition to its neighborhood, which was extraordinarily seedy even at 1 PM on a holiday (pretty empty, but abundantly clear what it's like when it's more populated at night).

This being a holiday, the kitchen gave themselves the luxury of having only two fixed menus - the cheaper one with chicken as a main and no soup, or the more expensive one with the soup course and their special pork. These (mostly raw) vegetables started things off. The brussels sprout was really good (I can't believe I like brussels sprouts. I have such a stigma about them, but I've grown to love them.) as was the purple potato. The raw radishes (two kinds) not so much - so organic-looking that the skin was still a little dirty! The nanohana, I can't remember.

The soup doesn't look like much except for the mold floating on top. No seriously, whatever they had done with the pesto made it look quite moldy. But the soup was deeply-flavored, and the store-made, hand-cut pasta was a nice touch.

A little close-up food porn here - (factory-made) spaghetti with store-made pancetta, snap peas and potatoes. The elements were nice, but the pasta itself let the dish down. At least there was a lot of it!

The special pork was indeed special. They made it in large pieces and cut it, which has certain benefits but also left it a little cold. Still, excellent pork, cooked well. I could see this being terrific at dinner when they're not as focussed on the fact that it's a holiday.

They also served these 'young and hip' Laguiole knives; first ones I've ever seen without flies on them. I was disappointed by that, and the waiter agreed that these were 'women's knives'. The women were too busy cooing over the pretty colors to notice what we were talking about!

I took some pictures of dessert, but I'll leave them out to protect the innocent. If you need a place in southern Shinjuku, I think you wouldn't go amiss here. If you can stand the trip, it's probably more worthwhile to toodle down to Shibuya or Ebisu or something.

Nice style and atmosphere, but the staff were very young, rough and ready. Check the web:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pui, Kiba

The whole team here at EOITwJ has done a LOT of scouting missions around the greater Monzennakacho area (the 'metro area' we like to call it). Outside the main regions, there isn't usually much to see, and things don't come and go the way they do on the Monnaka back streets either. So when we saw a Thai restaurant a few months ago, we were pretty excited.

The only reason we missed it before is because Pui is little, nondescript, and closed most of the time. If I remember the door correctly, it's open only for dinner (6-9) on weeknights. Not conducive to maximizing trade, but maybe they have other jobs? It's also in a weird location - across the street from Ito Yokado, on the big street with the highway that leads only down to the more industrial areas like Shin Kiba (I think it's actually Mitsume Dori, but south of Eitai it's pretty dead). Thursday we were getting our bikes fixed (now that it's Spring and we're bike commuters, we found some weaknesses in the construction of our ちゃりんこ) and since it was going to take a while we needed to eat dinner and thought of Pui, which was miraculously open. Can I stop with the royal plural already?

I'm guessing that the waitress is Khun Pui. She speaks a very melodious and gramatically-correct Japanese (or so I think, since she's much better than me), and I didn't try to bust out any Thai on her. She probably speaks better English than me too. The cook is...indeterminate, but a young Thai guy.

The menu is kinda big, and hard-ish for me to read since they have no English. The katakana is of course kinda incomprehensible since it's, well, Thai, and that leaves us trying to decipher the descriptions of the items. But suffice to say it's a big menu for a place that seats less than 20.

Unfortunately, some of your favorites will not appear on the menu - most notably this includes som tam...I guess it's really that hard to get papaya in Tokyo. They do have carrot somtam, but it doesn't feel the same to me. I got a pork larb, which was fresh and fragrant, including some odd herbs that I wouldn't have expected (something dill-like?) and also more sugar than I find usual. It was plenty good though; just that I wonder if there's a sourcing problem and they're getting creative with what they can get. Other than that, I got through a satueed woon sen with mushrooms and eggs and stuff. Not bad, not bad.

This is perfect for a quick dinner if you happen to live in Kiba (errrr...), or if you really need some Thai food, like the half-Thai mixed couple occupying the other table when I was there.

Bang a gong, we are on!

Ikoi, Tokyo

Anonymous, I stand by my amended statement that nothing good comes from Nagoya except your aunt and grandmother and miso katsu (and you when you come back from holiday!). Ikoi's miso katsu is different from those I've had in the past; some would say worse. I'm trying my darndest to be positive, so I wouldn't be one of them.

After going-on 5 years in Japan, I've acclimated to most of the accepted tenets about food. One weird foreign habit that I've never managed to break, however, relates to miso. Japanese people treat miso strictly as an ingredient, not to be eaten alone (unless it has bits of something mixed with it, like barley in moromi miso or spring vegetable buds in fuki miso). And there's a separate category of 'things to put on rice' (both dry furikake and wet pickled things). Why doesn't miso cross the line? It's beyond me, and I'm prefectly happy to dab a bit of miso on rice to change the flavor (although the more I get to appreciate the flavor of rice, the less I feel compelled to do this).

So hey, liberally swabbing the top of a deep-fried slab of pork with sweetened miso sounds...good. And proper. Miso katsu is like katsu curry - two great tastes that taste great together, why didn't someone think of that centuries sooner, etc. Ikoi's version is a letdown to me because they thin the sauce way down. It's more poured-over-and-around rather than slathered-upon-and-never-coming-off. But the pork is good, the sauce is tasty, the cabbage is...let's not push it. The rest of the menu is cheaper than the Y900 for the miso katsu, but only in a range between Y880 and Y850 (seriously, all ~6 sets are in a Y50 range. They must really be calculating the cost of ingredients and labor closely).

I think I saw the lead singer of the Vapors teaching English in Shibuya last week.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Champs de Soleil, Kanda

That's right folks, 2 days in a row both see EOITwJ visiting the same Kanda street for Euro-food. This time it's the highly-recommended Belgian outlet Champs de Soleil (but his friends call him 'Champ'). Widely known among the underground, this is firmly on the list of 'places to leave the office at 11:30 for'. After a small breakfast of 'pepper hash' (1st attempt only; the food processor is an unsatisfactory way to mince the cabbage and peppers as it pulverizes them too much) and a few glasses of tea to tide me over, Lincoln and I headed up across the bridge and into the provinces of Kanda to sample les delices Belgique.

While dinner trends in a very agreeable direction (Belgian food, heavy on the frites and endive!, plenty of beers in bottle and tap), lunch is a bit limited. There are two pastas (Y1260; eggplant and okra (good, though the crab mentioned on the menu was MIA) or else bacon-spinach), a meat (roast chicken parts topped with tomato and melted cheese) and a fish (itoyori, a type of snapper who I certainly wouldn't recognize on a dark night). These come with a tolerable little salad (mostly just lettuce, but a few sprouts), some bread (with a healthy little tub of butter, something that I realize has become an unexpected and welcome 'luxury') and coffee (served in china, and actually quite good unless I'm unfairly influenced by the fact that I'm still not drinking much coffee). The pasta had a lot of flavor, plus of course eating eggplant and okra is bound to make you feel healthy, but the chicken looked made-in-advance to an unfortunate degree. There were two tarts on the counter that I noticed on the way out; the cherry clafoutis-looking one would have been worthy of further study had I made its acquaintance earlier. Lunch beers are Y500 (didn't ask if this includes Chimay etc), but the water is served in Duvel glasses to maximize your irritation at not being able to drink during the day.

Very pleasant on the whole. Nothing exciting, but a nice walk and good atmosphere on a temperate day (although a bit time-consuming), and someplace I'd certainly go at night for the libations.

Ahhh, it makes me long for the good old days in Brussels...

Trattoria Birichino, Kanda

My friends, I know I've maligned Kanda in the past. But today the sun is shining, the sky is clear, the weather is warm, and even the salarymen look a little less gray. With no intended sarcasm, it's nice to be alive, employed in Tokyo and able to walk to Kanda for a late lunch. The odd little section of small office buildings on the west side of Inner Kanda between Sotobori and Hibiya roads is a veritable treasure trove of new things to explore - no less than 4 Italian, 1 French and 1 Belgian restaurant grace its narrow lanes, to say nothing of the various Japanese, Chinese and Thai options to be found.

Trattoria Birichino is one of the Italian places (two doors down from one of the other Italians, and just down the block from the Belgian), and a pleasant one at that. Its long, brick hallway gives way onto a dark, L-shaped dining room with a semi-open kitchen, and the staff bustle about at a furious pace even when the place is half full. Everyone seemed happy and pleased to see customers coming in.

The menu has what's good for what ails you (as long as what ails you is ameliorated by Italian!). A few basic pastas (Y800) included meat sauce (oil-heavy ground pork and tomato, really enjoyable) and smoked salmon with store-made short pasta (the spaghetti was supposedly store-made also, but didn't have the right texture to me). There's an Italian-style hamburger and a grilled chicken main (Y900), or a course of starter, main and dessert (Y1500). Drinks are Y100. Pasta came with a tiny salad and a little piece of bread.

Usually you get what you pay for; in this case Y800 seems to cover a pleasant pasta and sauce and a lot of good will from the team.

Funny, I sat right in front of the bottles pictured on the web site's front page!

Provinage, Roppongi

While Provinage is a repeat visit for EOITwJ, I'd like to reassure any worried readers that we have not abandoned our borderline-pathological focus on eating somewhere new at every opportunity. It's just that Provinage is so pleasant, as is the opportunity to have a special event like the first 'Eating Out In Tokyo' dinner. I started writing this blog because I was impressed with two others titled 'Eating Out In Tokyo', so a combined dinner with Terry 'COB' White and Dominic 'Carter of Mars' Carter was a special treat. Stir in the fact that I always wanted to go to Provinage for dinner, and you have a happy event.

This is the kind of restaurant that I can really get into - small but stylish, the food is good quality and has a few modern ideas thrown in, and the service is excellent (Manager-Sommelier Tanaka san and the other waiter both inquired very pleasantly why it's been so long since I was in for lunch. I could only cry and hang my head...). I can only summon up two small complaints, but in the bigger picture, no problem. I urge you to visit Provinage (lunch remains an extremely good value from the look of things). As I went full-geek and showed up with the camera, let me dive in to what happened on the plates:

Under stern recommendation from Tanaka san, we all had a few oysters to start. COB knew a lot about these guys, which were a well-known Hokkaido species, so he may have more to say. They were exactly bite-sized, completely fresh, and very good. With lemon, cocktail sauce, and shallot vinegar.

Amuse of foie blond mousse (or words to that effect), very soft and flavorful and topped with something like liquor-soaked dry fruit that added a lot of extra taste.

The COB blessed us with his wine expertise; the 2003 Gevrey Chambertin on the right was lovely if still a little young to me, and the 9-year-old Sancerre on the right was quite interesting. I feel like it would stand up to several more years at least and get more interesting - slightly reminiscent of Hunter Semillon in its oldest and best form.

And interestingly, the sommelier decanted the Sancerre. I'm not sure if the COB requested this, but the wine came out very big afterward, so I suppose it's a good idea. Interestingly, he also recommended red wine with the oysters that we had to start - funny because it seems like only yesterday that I read this article about that very topic. I think the wine was something like Rhone - light and fruity, not too tannic, not too acidic - but I'm talking out my azz again...

Getting silly up close and personal with the foie, which was a quality piece of fat, cooked reasonably well. The celeriac noodles (I think) were OK but didn't add much; the orange sauce, on the other hand, was lovely.

It wasn't as big as it looks.

COB had the 'Terry' white asparagus (not my joke) which was very fresh and pretty looking, but strictly off limits to anyone not sitting in his chair.

CoM had this salmon starter with an odd little pizza; I'm not sure what it was even though he generously gave me a taste. I'm afraid it didn't make much impression, and the style of this plate is also out of keeping with most of the food at Provinage.

Lamb loin, rolled in olive paste (some would say 'tamponade'), wrapped in pastry. The lamb wasn't as flavoursome as it might have been, and the pastry didn't do much. With sauce and veg, the overall effect was still nice. I'm pretty sure the roast veg was a turnip, despite looking quite potato. As you may have suspected, the arty camera angle is indeed covering up for the rookie mistake of taking a bite before taking a picture.

Ham steak and its vegetables. Amazingly, we were able to break the COB's cardinal rule of food sharing ("NO") and get a bite. I thought this was pleasant, in a ham steak sort of way - really put me in mind of ham suppers in the country. I mean this seriously even though it sounds fake! We went a couple times to Richwood, I think it was the Oddfellows hall. They'd have all-you-can-eat ham steak and various accompaniments like 'pepper hash'. Haven't thought of pepper hash for years, but I used to love it. Interestingly I just looked it up and one web site said the cookbook listed it as a New Jersey recipe and another as 'Philadelphia Hash'. Who knew there were regional South Jersey recipes? I guess this goes on the list of 'things to make this weekend'...anyway, roughly equal amounts of shredded raw cabbage and bell pepper (all green in my memory, but a little red would be nice), with plenty of vinegar, mustard, celery seed, and a little salt. Let stand so it pickles a bit. Mmmm, I could eat some right now.

Camembert mousse with stewed apples and strawberries plus mixed nuts (pine, wal, almond). The moussing lightened up the taste of the cheese so it went better with the fruit, the light crumb crust added some texture, and of course the nuts were crunchy. Simple but a nice idea.

COB requested cheese instead of dessert. Mimolette plus something washed. No chance of getting a bite of these!

There you go. Looks pretty good, doesn't it? If I wanted to complain (which I don't), I would say that it's a bit cheeky to price the prix fixe at Y5000 but then levy a surcharge (Y200-Y700) for every dish barring one entree and one main (the entree was the head cheese, which gives you some idea). But that still works out to a good value. They also seem a bit outgunned by the patrons - with about 12 customers, the kitchen struggled to put things out at a good pace (thus we were there almost 4 hours). But with an erudite group and wide-ranging conversation, this isn't a problem either. Make sure you go with interesting people, but make sure you go!