Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Delizioso Firenze, Marunouchi

The happy days are over, folks. As of this week, technology issues have removed my ability to post at will. I'll continue to post relentlessly on indiscriminately-selected dining venues, but the updates may not make it live in the afternoons. And they may be shorter and even more typo-ridden.

Today's venue is anything but indiscriminately selected. I've probably tried to get in 3 or 4 times, sometimes with specific intent and sometimes just as a result of being rejected by other places on Shin Maru 5. Today specific intent paid off (after a short wait to clear and set a table) and Pon and I were rewarded with an excellent Italian lunch (her new favorite in the entire Otemachi area, and as I'm always saying, she IS the most discriminating of the regular team members). This was a good way to celebrate the relaxation of the no-repeat dining restriction now that I've hit 6 months without visiting the same place twice!

DF goes for trattoria ambiance and largely achieves it. The walls are stucco, the floor is tile, the furniture is woody, dark and rustic, and the servers are all dressed in black (OK, that's not quite in keeping, but who knows what actual Italians would wear in an actual Italy? Surely I don't actually know. There are plentiful grappa bottles as well, which is something I want to love but can't.

There's no cheap option here. Lunch menus start at Y1800, with some sensible upcharge options (Chez Tomo take note - Y500 to add a healthy portion of crab to your pasta is perfectly acceptable). While we of course had this starter-pasta/pizza-dessert-coffee option, replacing pasta with meat (and upgrading dessert?) for Y1000 might be worth it.

Things are pretty serious - 3 starter options are a regular salad (who gets that?!), a prosciutto salad (which I only skipped because it said '19 month ham' and I had a feeling, not knowing about ham aging, that I was being marketed to) and a mixed appetizer. Two mixed appetizer plates later, we were happy. A small central salad ringed with various Italianate items - a ball of mozzarella, slices of cold cuts, some stewed onions and tomatoes, a piece of quiche, and two slices of lovely sashimi (ooooh, that's crudo, isn't it? Cultured, aren't we?) - and all of them fresh, delicious and happy-making.

The staff asked if we wanted our mains in sequence, to share, and we said yes...but then they got worried. To be fair, I think this was a standard question to all business-y looking tables: "How much time do you have? Do we need to rush to make sure you get out in time?" and that's a good thing. We weren't rushed, but they still brought our pizza and pasta at the same time. Ah well; the table was crowded, but abundance is a good thing. Abondanza!

They have two pizzas for lunch - margherita or bianco (and maybe the bianco is del giorno or something). They also offer the lovely try-em-all half and half option, so we could sample both the margherita (tolerable; decent ingredients, decent cooking, medium overall satisfaction despite the real Italian oven up the front) and the ruccola-and-shrimp bianco (ruccola pizzas are weird to me, including the ruccola and prosciutto ones, and this was no exception but was still decent). Not that that was bad, but the pasta was a touch better to my mind - lasagna! I've been craving lasagna to the point that I'm thinking of making it myself. This didn't do anything to foreshorten those cravings (since I was thinking of making the noodles and ricotta at home, which would be a pretty darn luxurious version), but it was nice. Somehow, Japanese places manage to pack lasagna with a lotta meat. This was no exception, and the relatively small quantity of noodle had been cooked into ephemeral transendence, by which I mean you couldn't taste it much. Still, served sizzling in a small crock, topped with lots of cheese, this was as comforting as a lasagna oughta be.

Dessert was milk gelato with rasperries in it. Good, if you like gelato (and I don't mean that sarcastically; it's a very basic texture and flavor thing when you just make it with milk). Coffees were top-class by Japanese standards. We left stuffed and very happy - as mentioned before, this has miraculously shot to the top of Pon's Otemachi ranking. I'm not sure what's #2. Now that I've been through 6 months, I should probably make a top 10 list, at the very least. Who has the time to wade through all this historic crap looking for recs?!

Molto bene! Bravo! Mortadella!

Al Porto Don, Tokyo

Whoo, that was close my friends... 鈴時さん and I actually got all the way to the table of Suginoko before the sight of the menus reminded me that I had been there before. Oops. Fortunately this was the penultimate day of new-venue restrictions, and in the future such little slips won't risk endangering mt, errr, reputation.

Fortunately, Al Porto is just across the 'street', by which I mean Kitchen Street. While it looks confusingly similar to some other places in that immediate vicinity, it is indeed a separate (and new to me) establishment. It promises to serve 'Italian Don', by which we mean either pasta bowls or else Italian-themed stuff over rice. The head restaurant is in Nishi Azabu, and how I came not to eat lunch there ever is a bit beyond me since it's well within the ambit of a walk from Hillz.

The dons here are decent, if basic and unadorned. 鈴時 had the daily special crab pasta, which was a healthy portion of shredded king crab mixed with some vegetables in an oil-based sauce. I had the seafood ragu, which turned out to be a fine dice of mystery shellfish mixed with red sauce; it was comfortingly red and the shellfish were nicely chewy. Not much else to say about these - they come in small round bowls, and are blissfully ignorant of modern trends like including a small salad or a coffee-themed beverage. You pay your money, you get your pasta. It's even served on a cafeteria-style tray to maximize the utilitarian aspects of the experience (which I don't think is their intention).

Well, the head store actually looks like it would be pleasant, so if you're in that neighborhood why not check it out? At Tokyo Station, I'd probably err on the side of the Illy Cafe for pastas like these, with excellent coffee to boot.

Is Don? Is good.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ichino ichino ichi, Nihonbashi

Fire, water, wind...an elemental dining experience is on offer here at Ichinoichinoichi (can I abbreviate that as 'hey you' or 'the place'?). I first saw this n a magazine and was mildly impressed by the outdoor terrace, big torches, and overall resort-y aspect...until I saw the address was Nihonbashi! 'Where could that BE,' I thought to myself. 'I've never seen such a thing before!' After that point it became my mission to visit this place and enjoy, if only for an hour, the relaxed atmosphere.

What the heck was that paragraph all about? This place really DOES have a prime location - the name refers to its address in 1-1-1 Nihonbashi, about 10 meters from the actual bridge, the technical center of Japan. And the group (this place is too well-developed not to belong to a group) has done a good job building it out. The entry point is in the bar, the back dining room has clean lines and modern, woody furniture, and it all flows smoothly through to the terrace overlooking the river. Which is slow. And green. And is covered by an elevated highway. That's Japan; I like to refer to this as the Tragedy of Nihonbashi.

For lunch, you get a choice of 4 or 5 sets anchored by soba. These mix it up by combining the soba with miso-grilled pork (like a katsu, but misoed not crumbed, and grilled not fried), a light and faintly Indian-tasting curry, or a chirashi sushi bowl. The soba were pleasantly gray and grainy, but lacking in flavor and texture. They DID come with a healthier complement of condiments, including extra wasabi and also some sliced myoga, and the tray already included a small pot of sobayu, which was unfortunately cold by the time you'd want it. I also had the chirashi, which was kinda chunky and chewy, but in a decent way, and included mostly fish rather than what you get at cheeky places that bulk it out with squid, octopus and egg.

I don't care what anyone else says, I liked this place pretty well. Dinners seem likely to deliver a classy/pricey/not any more delicious/ambiance-focused sorta thing, but might be good since you could sit outside. I'd try it, especially if I needed such a place in Nihonbashi or already worked there.

'Salotta ichi.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hazu Sushi, Mitsukoshimae (寿司筈、三越前)

Sometimes the most tenuous things link us together in this beautiful dance called life. For instance, today I ended up at a restaurant just because there was empty space on my map and I thought it would be fun to explore a little. If the food had been better I could talk about serendipity, but it was just OK.

For several weeks I've been craving sushi. I know, I know, Japan is supposed to have the stuff just lying around in the street, preserved with a little vinegar so it doesn't go bad. But if you don't seek it out you won't get any, and it never seemed like the right time. Well, today I made this 15-minute walk to Mitsukoshimae (sorta two blocks north of Nihonbashi), and out jumped a nice-looking sushi place. Having to take a semi-private elevator to the third floor only increased the appeal.

Can sushi restaurants be better for dinner than lunch? I didn't think so before, but now I'm wondering. Maybe it depends on level? I've seen comments that you can go to top sushi places for lunch and it's better because 'the fish is fresher' (playing off the fetish that says 'the master personally selected the fish at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market just this morning'). I always took this as rote until today when I realized that the Hazus were clearly serving last night's fish for lunch. There's nothing wrong with that, it tasted fine, but it made me wonder - if you were paying $100 or $200 for your sushi lunch, would they still do it? Hazu is a decent place with somewhat upscale aspirations, so I think they must be serving fresh fish at dinner.

For unknown reasons, I gravitated to the special mixed Lunch B - I think 8 nigiri, two thin rolls and some egg, Y1890. There are basic 8-piece sets for around Y1200, but with less stuff. This one included a big 'ol sea urchin battleship as well as a crablike bit that shocked me by being, well, crab. In addition there were two pieces of tuna which were both poor quality, some white fish that was decent, a scallop that was big and plump but not that fresh, a katsuo starter and a bowl of soup.

The counter was nice, the room was good, the waitresses wear kimono, and the assistant chef looked to be about 17...this was a few percent overpriced, so I wouldn't run screaming back. And I still want some good sushi.

As a special bonus, on the walk there I got to look at the beautiful old Bank of Japan buildings, learn that they have a Museum of Currency in one, and receive the evil eye from a security guard in a bulletproof vest!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ikada, Monzen Nakacho (いかだ)

After the minor debacle of the grumpy grandma, I felt a little burned, but also a little hungry. Ever the glutton for punishment (see prior comments about needing to search to find those hidden diamonds), another sign piqued my interest.

Ikada was equally a bit scary - a very normal izakaya on a very small street (more of an alley, and not very well-paved; really kind of a broken-up sidewalk between buildings). A normal counter and a few tatami tables. Average bad lighting. A run-of-the-mill old master and younger waitress. No customers. Hmmm....well, they had some banzai on the counter that looked nice and healthy, so a good dinner prospect.

You know what? I'd classify this as a hidden gem. Friendly master, simple food with exceedingly good taste, low prices. Perfectly happy to serve water!

Out of the banzai selection, I tried a bit of the unohana (really deep, delicious flavor, somewhat like he used chicken stock. If you like unohana, or okala, at all, you couldn't help but love this.), gobo (really nice, boiled soft but still a little firm, mixed with gray strands of konyaku), hijiki (not quite as good as that place in Kurobei Yokocho, but good; more beans than usual) and some chamame (like edamame but not quite; often more brown, and a bit smaller this time). For fish, a pickled mackerel was quite good, but the fresh sardines were exemplary. Who knew they could be so soft and fresh, not at all strong-tasting? The wasabi and ginger were grated fresh, and all was right with the world.

Oh, they have oden also. The soup was decent, the daikon were looooong-simmered, the tofu came as a whole block, and the other items were tasty too. There's a big menu outside these things, with some oddities (okala korokke?).

The master says his brother runs a similar place near the temple. This might be the really dirty-looking place near Ninotori that always has some jokey sign outside; it looks thematically similar. He also says he started out making yoshoku, so he's very flexible (still making omelettes and things). He says he likes interacting with the customer and making what they want, and in fact if you call ahead he's happy to make whatever you want! In short, a happy accident and a friendly place to go for a cheap, tasty dinner.


Kimiyoshi, Monzennakacho (君代柴)

Hey, it's time to be rude again! Seems like only yesterday...

One time a few months ago, I worked up the courage to try this place in a back street of Monnaka. It's got a nice aspect from the outside - dark, traditional house, a bright sign with difficult-to-read print, no menu outside...The kind of place that you really hope is going to be a cool find, but you're not quite sure if it's open, or if it's expensive, or what's going to happen.

I stuck my head in. It was empty. And old. There was a counter with some banzai, and a case with a bunch of decent-looking fish. And a tiny old woman who stared at me. I said hi. She stared at me. I asked if I could get some food. She grunted. I looked around for a minute, thought better of it, and walked out.

Well, last night, it seemed like it was time to make good on this place. I stuck my head in. There were a bunch of salarymen drinking. There was an overpowering smell of moldy air conditioner. And there was the same woman. At the counter, the conversation went like this:
"What'll ya drink?"
"Just water, thanks."
"Water, thanks"
"We don't have water."
"OK, tea then."
"People come here to drink liquor."
"How about I leave?"

If you feel any love for me, stay the hell away from this place.

Gala, Tokyo (伽羅)

Well, notch off another one under the tracks. After this we're down to branches of Kassen Ichiba, Takadaya, Beck's Coffee and Nakau (oh, and one tiny noodle place). It's going to be a slog, my friends. But we will persevere because...well, there's nothing much better to do some days.

This was very ordinary Chinese food. I was mildly interested for a second when I realized that the chef dangling his cigarette over the wok, as well as the waitress, were Chinese. That soon faded when I received my boring ramen (noodles were nicely chewy, but soup was dull, pork was overcooked and tough, and menma were terrible; I didn't finish) and mini-mapo (finished it, but only barely). I used to think small, grungy places were exciting because dirty=tasty, but I've come around to thinking that it's a crap shoot just like any other genre. You've gotta look for diamonds, and this was not one of them. Cheap though.

Man, this report is a lot more complete than I feel compelled to be, and includes a picture of what I ate. If only I could read it...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chez Tomo, Shirogane

Ahhh, it's been simply ages that I've been thinking of going to this place. I suppose I had heard of it, but then I ran across it one night while walking randomly around after work (when you worked at the one of 2008's most spectacular failures, you've got plenty to walk and think about). And when Dominic said he had booked it for our second 'blog geek dinner', it was a pleasant surprise. The Curmudgeonly Ol' Bastard was also in attendance, having pulled out, then thought better of it and thrown over his global CEO to be with us. Tomo is slightly out of the way, south of Hiroo's Tengenbashi intersection and a bit to the left, down the shopping street of Shirogane (not Dai, not Takanawa, just the quaint, plain Shirogane street that has a lot of cute little restaurants and old shops). He's got this neat place, shielded from the street with a wall that has some lights built into it, and a little garden out front, and a semi-exposed kitchen, and staff that grab the door and really make you feel that you've arrived. The customer base seems pretty glamorous too; well-dressed and attractive, other than the 3 of us in the corner. The atmosphere deserves the Michelin star that they got last year.

Michel Bras is a chef in Laguiole, France (the knife town), who is famous (among other things like being 3-star and also the #7 restaurant in the world according to San Pelegrino) for gargouillou. This is not a mouthwash, and is legal in all 50 states as far as I know. It's a heavily-prepared salad, heavily-prepared in the sense that zen gardens are heavily-prepared - to seem like a perfect, flawless, exaggerated version of nature. In pictures, the salad looks like a huge variety of vegetables have somehow picked, washed, cooked and seasoned themselves, and then, suitably attired, are having a festive and freewheeling party on your plate. People talk about how the smell of the vegetables is overpowering. Tomo is most famous for his composed salad too! It's the one that always shows up in pictures, and on the web site. It's a bit different though. Tomo is trying pretty hard to recreate a serious French dining experience, and getting at least part of the way there.

The service is really excellent, if a little stilted. The waiters are all significantly dressed up (in fact, gentlemen are requested to wear jackets, but we followed the 'take it off immediately' rule and heard no complaints) and had a hard time all night deciding whether to speak English, French or Japanese to us. Once we let them know we weren't going to fill up the 4th seat at the table, they brought bread 'n' bits and we got started. These three containers were generous (and easily refilled) portions of rillettes (moist, not overly flavored), green olive tamponade (my best guess; not really pesto; the spelling is a nostalgic joke), and butter (undistinguished). The bread was thin baguettes, brought one piece at a time but replaced in a timely and unobtrusive way.

The menu is 'semi-fixed', meaning that you get to pick 3 of 6 courses. It's also cheap, about Y6500 (including service), although they do a bit of nickle-and-diming by including surcharges on quite a few things, and these are significant - Y1200-2000 - which is an odd choice. If you can be happy with the un-charged items, this is great value. If you feel compelled to order up, the value-for-money goes down to average (but not bad).

The course starts off with an artfully-photographed sea urchin, cruelly hollowed out and filled with a sauce made from its own ovaries. Some will say this was fantastic; I'll say it was good, but many things that contain this much cream and butter are pretty good too.

First courses. The morels on the left (in cream sauce, with oysters) were a special order (Y1200) and were very nice; I'm not sure what great morels taste like, but these were shown to us beforehand in a big bowl so we could be convinced to order them, and it worked on one of us! In the middle is the 'cubic black pudding'; this looked extraordinarily like a brownie in color and texture, but I presume tasted more...dunno, bloody? This was the COB's dish, so no sharing was permitted. On the right, eel and foie gras terrine (mine), which was a real study in texture. I think the surrounding jelly was port, but I'm sure that the terrine contained foie, eel meat and skin, so it was a neat combination of soft, slippery and chewy. The accompanying jelly was another nice textural element, but I can't remember the taste, and the sauce was Earl Gray cream! Pulling out all the stops there, and it was pretty good.

At the time I thought this shark knife (and fish-shaped fork) was a cute way to lead in to the fish course, but it was just cute. Coming up next was...
The Salad. I think it said 30 varieties (and a quick count roughly affirms that theory) of organic vegetables from Yamanashi. I'm not sure if this is inspired by Bras (who has been making some version of his salad for over 10 years now and has certainly inspired many others) but it features the same theme of lots of vegetables, each prepared separately in a different way. It's just that here there's no apparent attempt to combine them, and there wasn't any direction about what order to eat in. That's a nice lack of pretense, I think.

Getting up close and personal, you can see the different treatments of many things. The foreground's melon-like item is a steamed marrow; in the row behind that you can see (I think) a piece of gobo with sumiso, renkon, daikon, takenoko, and on to the mini asaparagus city. The standout bite was the eggplant that you can see (half-peeled) above the gobo and renkon; it was cooked and marinated, so was oily and spicy and tasty. A lot of things seemed marinated, or doused in oil, or in some other special sauce. They were all fresh and nice, but it would have been cool to observe some logic at work (which I may have missed).

This chicken-based carrot soup was just filler. They should skip it.

COB and I both went for the pork, which was described as something like "Lombardia Pork, Cinderella Style", and that meant roasted with hay, which smokes it a bit. They brought it to the table in a glass pot filled with smoke, which they situated (annoyingly) in front of the COB before proudly opening it to let the burnt hay fragrance fill the room. (In their defense, he IS a lot bigger, older and grayer. And more prone to wearing hats.) This is a good trick that's showing up in a bunch of finer restaurants recently; if it's made its way here it may have played out its line. I just couldn't enjoy this. You can see from the picture that there was a very high ratio of rind to meat. I've worked hard to train myself to be able to eat, and often enjoy, fatty meat, but in this case, with un-crisped skin covering firm sheets of fat, I struggled. Dominic's Tower of Duck was pretty good, if a bit workmanlike (ground meat, roughly flavored is what my notes would say if I took notes), and the little piece of terrine that accompanied each dish was pumpkin and lentils, cute and tasty.

We kept seeing desserts delivered throughout our preceding courses, so it was pretty well a foregone conclusion that we were all going to have the souffle (pronounced "soo-full"). As with the morels, they brought out a cute presentation to show the options - a big bar of Valrhona chocolate for the choco dessert, a lime to represent the souffle, and a cup with bread, sugar and egg to represent the bread pudding. But soo-fulls it was, and with a pleasing 'whump!' they were lightly flambeed tableside, prompting cute if repetitive giggles from the table of women next to us (who still feigned surprise even though they had seen their own souffles flamed, and watched the waiter doing ours).
Not a bad souffle; the lime ice cream melted into the cracks, the outside bits were pleasingly crunchy and caramelized from the flame. The bottom was a bit heavy and eggy, but not in an objectionable way. I wish I could compare this to Cafe Jacqueline, but it's been, ohhhh, 7 years since I ate at that all-souffle establishment on Telegraph Hill.

Coffee or your choice of about 15 herb tea blends (note that you have to pay a cheeky Y300 to drink herb tea, possibly to cover the capital investment on these cute cup-and-plate sets).

For some reason I was dying for mignardise, so these vanilla caramels were very welcome in addition to being cute. They were nicely vanilla-flavored, but very soft and a bit greasy (related problems, I think), more like a soft vanilla fudge than the caramels that are so popular this year.

Overall, this is a terrific environment, everyone is trying hard, and the food delivers top-class mannerisms most of the time and very good taste some of the time. The whole experience is worth the money, but if Michelin were really judging only based on what's on the plate, there could be some difficulty with the one-star thing.

Some people say Bras has become a caricature of himself too, so it's no crime.

Shigenoi, Tokyo (繁の井,東京駅キチンストリート)

Yup, the Delicious Link Group is getting all my lunch dollar$ this week. Straight up. Seriously, I think the whole basement of Tokyo Station's Kitchen Street is controlled by this same shadowy organization. Well, they've got a bit more style than many other restaurant groups, so I'll let them pass.

Shigenoi is a bait and switch. For real. It has a big menu board out front that appears to promise all manner of delights, but when you get in and sit down (and the fact that there are available seats is possible a clue, since things like the Korean and Okinawan were already full at 12) you'll realize that there are only 3 options. And one is sold out. And the other includes guts. So there you are, eating oyakodon. Just to round things out, the choices are oyakodon, oyakodon with added guts, or pheasant-don (limited to 30 per day and sold out by 12 today). So just the one choice, really.

Good, that's all the off tha hook grumpiness for today. This was a good oyakodon! The distinguishing feature to me (and Shaft, who mentioned it) was the fact that the chicken was charcoal-grilled before being added to the pan with the onions and scrambled egg. This made it taste like, well, charcoal-grilled chicken, but that's a lot better in my mind than the usual sauteed flavor that you get with oyakodon. I should, however, figure out how to order mine 'dry'. Most people find it desirable to have the top part of the 'omelette' raw, i.e. still slippery and jiggly. Most people here think raw eggs are great as well. While I recognize my minority status, I feel compelled to stand up for the Human Rights I learned about in training recently and ask for my eggs cooked through.

Come to think of it, I wish I had known about Human Rights when I was a kid and my grandmother would make Dad and I eggs for lunch. I always hated those runny eggs. Fo shizzle.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Osainotame, Tokyo (為御菜,東京駅キチンストリート)

Old-time food? Well, that's what the man said. You pay your money and you take your chances. I enjoyed this place, in a healthful and cleansing sort of way that seemed appropriate after a long weekend of eating.

In some way they're trying to recreate Edo food. I think. They also make you getcher shoes off, and sit on cushions, and put your feet in a little moat in the floor. It's dark and cosy, almost like a machiya would have been without electric lights. Things are classy, and the night prices reflect this - various bits and bobs of sashimi are a lot more than at a normal place (shime saba - Y1200. Discuss.)

Lunch has its ups and downs, price-wise. There's a daily set for Y1000, only 20 made, and then options at Y1200 and Y1600 (or up). The mid-level sets included the niku jaga, which I had, while the top flight included Y1600 worth of 'old fashioned omelette'. Not sure what that was, or why it was so good! The niku jaga was a real luxury version - the potatoes had been just steamed (I think), and then stewed for a long time. They were still firm, almost with a crunch, but deeply-flavored. The meat was also good quality, but somehow the whole thing tasted a bit more like sukiyaki. Maybe that's the old-fashioned way? All sets come with rice, soup, good hakusai pickles, and the best hijiki I can remember having - plump, fresh, juicy, sweet and delicious. I could eat that every day, with genmai.

When I was your age, son...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Asso, Shimo Kitazawa

This place looks sorta nice, and has the great advantage of outdoor seating, though it lost out and wasn't selected for lunch. But I only ate a grainy matcha-vanilla softcream on the way back to the station, so the real reason for this post is as an excuse for the picture.

I'm not sure if the proper word is 'juvenile' or 'puerile'.

Tobu Sakana, Shimo Kitazawa

Wow, the main course. This is close to the station, and one of the first places we saw when we started walking around. Stayed on my mind all day, and I wanted to go back. This being Japan, the good-looking places get packed, as was this one when we got back (at 6:30). Fortunately the place across the street, which had also looked very nice, turned out to be a branch of the same place, and had exactly two tight-packed seats at the counter. Bonza.

You can't really see it in the pictures, but this is a 'market fish' kinda place, with cases of ice filled with fish. The white things by the door in the middle picture are actually iced cases of crabs, which were empty by 6:30. Prices were pretty good for fish this fresh.

Beginners need not apply, clearly. The menu is this long piece of clothy paper that gets folded up, crumpled up, abused, and passed from person to person. It's actually about 3 feet wide, which makes for fun reading. (Their style of handwriting also makes for fun reading, but that's more a problem to me than the rest of the customers.) The action shots above show the counter (brick shields you from the heat of the grill pit) and the charming pottery they use to serve sake.

Just a parade of small items here...the market theme carries over to vegetables as well, where they had this beautiful display of produce. The himetake (姫竹, 'princess bamboo', there must be a story for that...) was delicious once charred, peeled and eaten; the asparagus a little less so.

The first two were actually otooshi - surplus bits of stewed snapper head for you to pick at, and some mushrooms in mild vinegar. The Kyoto specialty mangan tougarashi, like big, big shishitou, was grilled into softness, but these are always good - green peppers, but a little spicy. I love shishitou, so these are more of a good thing.

They ran out of ankimo right before I ordered it, but as a consolation prize they gave us the end of the roll for free! The fish was super-fresh. Not top-top quality, not immaculate knifework, but super-fresh. Those tiny white shrimp in the middle of the plate (below the dark red bonito) were a highlight, but everything was excellent. The octopus suckers were still a little lively...

Feeling the need for greens...this is mizuna salad (also known as 'the weedy thing' in New Jersey) with more octopus. And a delicious piece of miso-marinated grilled salmon.

Yeah, there's probably a reason why this place gets crowded and stays that way - cheap, fresh delicious?! If only it were around the corner.

I'm not sayin' Monnaka's not ii, I'm just sayin'. 03-3414-6611

[December 2010] In other news, I went back in winter and had a whole taraba crab, split and grilled and easy to eat and delicious.

808 Lounge, Shimo Kitazawa

Ahhh, were we on a roll with this Shimo Kita trip or what? As a means of passing another hour, there was this Hawaiian bar. I like to think this was in honor of McNoonan, who just finished celebrating his layoff with 6 weeks in Hawaii, but in reality I'm a sucker for tiki bars!

Not all that Tiki inside, but a few fun 'islandy' trinkets and a very mellow long-haired bartender.

As Hutter always used to say, 'Corona is pisswater!' But when in a Hawaiian bar, and the heat and humidity are already bearing down despite it being only mid-June, and you've been walking around for hours, and you put it on a Tahitian coaster, it's just bearly bareable. Oh, especially at happy-hour discount prices.

やっぱり, 808 is the Honolulu area code. (03-3414 8960) I knew it had nothing to do with drum machines.

Says on the web site that they have live music - a singer with guitar and sax this Friday. That's gonna be challenging since there are only 4 seats at the bar and 4 more at the table in back, which is gonna have to go to make room for the band. Ahhhh, Japan!

Second House Cake Shop, Shimo Kitazawa

I know, I know, the last thing you need after a bowl of ramen and a plate of gyoza is a piece of cake. But after walking around for an hours, you get tired of standing up and looking at old clothes (which is one of the main activities in SKZ). This being Japan, there's nary a bench to be found, and that means you've gotta pony up to sit down. This place was tucked away in the corner of an un-promising alley, but it turned out to be very nice. If the sign is to be believed, it originates in Kyoto.

The service was a little less friendly than you'd expect from the sign, but no problems. (The blue text is the best part, if you can read that.)

Inside, it's this kind of place - light wood, pleasant. We sat outside, where there are a variety of semi-distressed / antiqued benches and chairs and stuff.

The cake case tells you everything you need to know...
Except for the green tea-chocolate tart (both mousse) with a macaron shell on top and a thick layer of almondy filling at the bottom. Oh, the almond milk tea I had was kinda crappy.

Actually a fair-sized chain, but the regular food looks nice too!