Friday, July 31, 2009

Banyuls, Ginza

My friends, I am genuinely excited to inform both of you that I have found something that shatters two of my previously-held notions:
1. Spain bars have boring, ordinary food (and the food in Spain had better be better by next month, or there'll be hell to pay) and
2. The Aux Amis group tends toward the bland and overpriced, with odd service

Banyuls Ginza is the 'Catalan Bar' of the Aux Amis group, meaning, I guess, that you're supposed to feel like you're in Barcelona. Since I haven't been to Barcelona and won't go for the another, ohhhh, exactly 28 days from this dinner, but who's counting, I'm not sure if that's true or not. I CAN confirm that you can stand around the bar, or at some barrels in the doorway, or some tables outside (or if you're lucky and wait for ages in a standing position, you may inherit an actual table with stools from a departing comrade), you'll be able to drink casual wine and eat casual tapas, all of which is upright, delicious and enjoyable. But a little expensive. It's Ginza! Anyway, if you compare to something like Casa Camaron, in the Velvia building right behind, it comes across as much more relaxed and authentic. And tasty. And affordable.

I pretty much drank rose cava all night. This is Y600 a glass, and is served over the bar in small tumblers - the waitress will grab your glass and refill it from the bottle that the bartender gives her. The other wines are generally served by the waitstaff also, with the whites dispensed at great altitude from a speed pourer to make them froth a bit in the glass. Instant aeration. There are over 10 glass wines, mainly Spanish.

Foods...there's a list of about 25 tapas, all Y500 (this is why things add up - over 2+ hours, you can get through a lot of small plates). Items that I remember positively included:
- Chorizo, cooked and served with chick peas stewed in tomato sauce, excellent
- Meatballs, seemingly humble but again that tomato sauce was outstanding
- Anchovies in oil
- Sanma (Pacific Saury) pieces fried in batter, strong and fishy, but in a good way that was happy with the standing position, damp, hot air, and cold, bubbly drinks
- Fries. Really, really good fries - as thin as I like them, so the otuside is perfectly brown and crisp but the inside still has some mashed-potato core. With a red-pepper puree mayonnaise, I think.
- Shrimps boiled in garlic oil. Fresh. Plump. Juicy. Garliccy.

Service was great - mainly the one waitress who was an absolute ball of energy all night. She was bouncing from one leg to the other, pouring drinks while taking orders, running through the narrow space of the crowd, never still, always cheerful. Wow. She said that everyone except the two kinda clueless servers is actually employed full-time by the company, which kinda makes me feel good (in that 'living wage' sense).

Let's not belabor the point. This is a good way to spend the evening, or part of it, if you have the energy to stand up while eating or the time to get there before it fills up. I'm recommending it, but only in the 'casual' category, which I don't have. There's a restaurant area on the 2nd floor with seating, but the first floor is quite authentic enough, thank you very much.

Ata me!

Bridd, Kanda (ブリッド)

This place was under renovation for a while, and opened several weeks back. It's pretty stylish, winey and Italian-looking (with a healthy side of roasted bird), which marks it as part of a new guard of Kanda places (c.f. Chailly, which, if truth be told, is the only other place I can think of in that category. No, I tell a lie, there's that Mieux Dominus place on the east side.). It also seems to be the I'd like to go for dinner (hint hint) and have been bummed that it's not open for lunch.

Well, it's open for lunch now! 鈴寺サン and I passed the front, deep in conversation. She was ranting, actually, but in a downright fascinating way, and I didn't want to distract, so we just ducked in and sat down. They had genuine food samples outside, none of that plastic stuff, so we could see what kinda grilled chicken, pasta, curry and salad we'd be getting.

I had curry rice with chicken meatballs, a really odd choice considering the three varieties of chicken balls I had last night. The curry was very light and pleasant, and the chicken balls were very good too; obviously not grilled, but soft and flavorful. 鈴寺 just picked at her grilled chicken with pasta, veg and salad (on one plate), with a side of rice and a side soup. It was sad to watch, but she was intent on conveying the full scope and force of her annoyance, and seriously, I enjoyed every minute. The soup does deserve special mention - chicken broth with a few shreds of super-thin soumen, and enough black pepper to stop a horse. It was surprisingly good.

It's looking a bit short today, but we had bigger things to discuss! Remember, next week starts the Kanda Special Feature, and with any luck will be Day 7 - 11 of consecutive Kanda lunch dining.

Kind regards,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tanuki/Ajiwai, Yurakucho (たぬき / 味わい,有楽町)

Party at the moon tower! Or the next best thing - Yurakucho yakitori with McNoonan! I also just read up on the real moontowers in Texas, if you're interested.

McNoonan is back from his Layoff World Tour - Hawaii, Boston, Disneyworld. This is a world tour like the World Series is a world series, but without Canada. Since there's no time like the present, we decided to reprise the successful Yurakucho yakitori expedition of several months ago (can we call this Yurakitori?), with the usual focus on trying new places and achieving mixed results.

Yurakitori Street is a little alley next to the railroad tracks (you'll see Shinkansen go by, at least every 15 minutes but seemingly more) and right by Ginza exit C1 or Hibiya exit A1. Or from Ginza crossing, walk west, away from Mitsukoshi and towards Dutour, towards the park and it'll be on your left after you go under the highway. 'K? This is a fantastic place to take visitors, but fun no matter who you are. It either lets you feel like you're 'really in Asia', sitting outside drinking beer and eating barbecue in shabby surroundings, not a common thing in Japan, or else lets you feel like you're back in Showa. Either way, once in a while, it's recommended. You might want to take a cushion or something though - McNoonan and I agreed that after a fairly short time, the small stools become excruciating. When I stood up to stretch, the staff didn't look askance for even a second. They knew my ass hurt.

On this street, and in the tunnel under the tracks at the end, there are probably 10 yakitori places. This is the story of two of them. Since we got down there early, well before 7, we were rewarded with empty seats all around. We settled in to the first place on the street (Tanuki), because the old guy out front agitating for business was so funny, and got down to business.

Despite all this preamble, McNoonan and I are pretty conservative chicken-eaters. If it crunches, or squelches, or jiggles, we're probably not on that bus. That rules out hearts, livers, gizzards, feet, bones and stones (OK, some of those aren't really options), but leaves us with regular meat, meat with onions, meatballs, wings and butts (more or less, and those really ARE options). I can eat all of it if I really have to (like at a work dinner!), but I notice that even the crusty guys sitting next to us tend to leave the crunchy bits on the plate.

Tanuki is a pretty big place, and the old guy shuffles back and forth out front, trying to leverage his position as first on the street to pull in customers. Sometimes he shuffles down to the other end of the street - turns out one of the other places is the same as Tanuki (last one on the other side), which we found out when we later considered going there and saw that the menu was the same. Grrrr... I should mention that direct comparison on the night proved the sometime-advanced theory that Suntory Premium Malt's is a superior beverage; it sure tasted good here, and when we changed brands later the difference was noticeable and disappointing. We ordered a few normal rounds; the standout was actually the normal chicken-on-a-stick shouniku (正肉), which was juicy and tasty. For some reason their onions, alternated with chicken in the negima, were pretty dry and flavorless. The meatballs were good - lots of sauce, crusty on the outside, and with a low concentration of the cartilage fragments that some places add to 'improve' the texture. There are only so many ways you can order the same few things though, so after a while we decided to continue elsewhere.

The street was pretty full by that time (a lot of tourists too, including some big Germans abusing a waitress), so we struggled to find seats. Down on the left side, a small place with only two guys and a tiny grill had one table for us, so Ajiwai won the business. This street must surely be in the guidebooks - every shop has an English menu, and the staff all try to speak a little English to you.

Differences compared to Tanuki: slightly expanded menu, different type of chicken, less-tasty Sapporo beer instead of Malt's. We were able to have some chicken butts here (bonjiri), which are a fatty, flavorful favorite of McNoonsky and I; they were unfortunately small and not too tasty. Similarly the house-special meatballs were a bit disappointing - they're the long, cylindrical variety, molded onto a pair of disposable chopsticks, and have lots of shiso mixed in, but no crust and strangely bland. Fortunately the regular meatballs were excellent, dark dark brown and very flavorful. I wondered if there was extra flour in the mix or something, because they formed a very distinct and crunchy crust on the grill.

This makes three area places I've been to (with more to come some time, I'm sure). I remember the food most fondly at Tonton, in the tunnel under the tracks, but the seating there is so uncomfortable that it defies belief. Do visit the street before you die, OK?

Try the roasted raccoon-dog too!

Like, aji-WOW, man!

Jirokichi, Kanda (次郎吉)

Ooog. Big bowl of noodles, hot hot day, patient is comatose. Yahoo says it's only 90/32 degrees, but I don't believe it. I was out there.

Same general area of Kanda today. Actually the same street, not the threatened pizza place around the corner. There's always tomorrow. Or Monday. But I thought of a fun project next week that will let EOIKwJ continue the streak (now 5 days) and also bore you well and truly into submission. Stay tuned, or check back, and make sure to tell all your friends, because it's going to be really exciting. Really really. Like in Shrek.

But for now, it's Jirokichi! This place is so cute - a big, natural weave noren that they've slung up over one corner, and just next to the door a small table with four Captain Stag camping chairs arranged around a big ashtray. I can fully imagine sitting out there at night, drinking some mellow Tennessee sippin' sake, a-swattin' at the chiggers and tellin' coon tales.

Back in Tokyo, the inside of this place is dark and cool during the day, which is both good for the many bottles of attractive sake arranged all over the shop and good for the customers who are enjoying steaming noodles on a sweltering day. I got confused by the menu, which I think is night-only and is in any case hand-written using some dastardly kanji. I also missed the blackboard right over my head, and somehow forgot that I don't like curry noodles that much, and after that series of unfortunate coincidentally serendipitous eventualizations I just ordered the "Super spicy curry noodles!" that I saw outside (めっちゃ辛麺, 八五0円). (Rest of the menu is normal - Salt Ramen with Pork Belly and the like).

Funny stuff, that curry. If you've never had curry noodles but have had Japanese curry, you can just imagine what would happen if you thinned down the sauce, filled a bowl with it, and plopped some noodles in it. This sauce was thicker and browner than some other places (notably the famous Konaya chain), though not especially hot, and it tasted just like a regular curry. It was just as good when ladeled over the superfluous bowl of rice that accompanied the massive bowl of noodles, but nowhere near as meccha as claimed. The noodles themselves were very good - first time I can remember having thin ramen-style noodles rather than thick, extra-slippery, even-more dangerous udon (which is why Konaya serves every bowl with a bib), and with a good coating of sauce they went down as smooth as my pappy's ol' white lightning. Sheeee-it!

Back in Kanda, it seems to be traditional to use spinach as a garnish; this bowl had it too. On the other hand, it also replaced roast pork with a slice of roast beef, which was a clever and amusing thing to do. I was amused, but not necessarily clever. That's really in the eye of the beholder.

I got through most of the bowl, but not the rice, and not the huge, rapidly-wilted lettuce leaf that underlay the whole bowl of noodles - another fun touch. Sweating profusely, I stumbled out to stroll around Chuo dori and slowly roll my way back to my bike. Buying an iced can coffee, I rode back to the office with all the speed I could muster, which is to say that of a typical 70 year old grandmother. Ooog.

What's a coon tale?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Muromachi Sunaba, Kanda (室町 砂場)

Kanda continues to delight this hardened area lunch-eater. Today I ventured even farther afield, getting to the limits of where I can walk and return in an hour, to visit this highly-regarded soba restaurant. If you're wondering where I got the picture (and why it's so sunny when that's clearly not today), I yanked it from their web site. Nyah. The street where Sunaba lives also has two eel specialists facing each other (in addition to the two around the corner), plus a cute little pizza bar named Henry (with, yes, an Italian oven with their name in the tile mosaic. It's getting monotonous.), so I'm sure I'll be back soon. Like, errr, tomorrow.

Based on some cursory research, Muromachi refers to an era of Japanese history about 700 years ago (as well as the town where Sunaba is located). So we're in for a traditional sort of vibe here. And a sunaba is certainly a sandbox. I'd like to say that this conjures images of a big bowl of finely-ground buckwheat flour which the chef can play in like a kid pretending to be at the beach, but I'd be making that up (compelling though it may be). Certainly if he WAS playing in such a sandbox, he'd be hell to clean up afterwards. Buckwheat flour is very fine stuff, which is why it gets so gummy when you mix it with water.

Inside is just as peaceful and traditional as outside - a little bit dim and furnished with pale green walls, light wood, flowery pictures and a separate tatami area. It was almost packed, mostly with businessy-looking men talking over noodles, but there was a small two-person table by the window and I took it. Fortunately this window looks out onto the small, sheltered garden, a heavily manicured landscape of rocks, moss and Japanese dwarf maples.

An interesting point emerged right away - there's no separate lunch menu (which is in line with the Japanese custom of 'no quantity discounts' - if one item costs Y100, why on earth would MORE of that item cost LESS per piece?!). You could see this as a good or bad thing; since there was no menu board outside as there is at so many places, I had abandoned thoughts of pricing before I stepped in. That's not to say it's expensive; it's OK for a quality soba restaurant. The positive way to look at it is that you can have whatever you want - the gentleman next to me was snacking on a plate of grilled leeks in anticipation of his main course, while the table opposite ordered a side dish of roast chicken with their noodles. In a town where every place has a pictorially or sampled-based outside menu with limited options at lunch time, this feels very much like 'dinner dining', adding to the relative elegance.

Seemingly at the same time, my neighbor and I raised our hands to order. We both ordered the same thing - ten zaru. This was the best-looking cold noodle option on the menu since summer is a season when the best delicacies are absent (the menu lists the treats from other seasons, just to tease you when they're not there). Sunaba's zaru soba is made from the inner core of buckwheat kernels (polished, I imagine, in much the same was as rice is polished before making higher-grade sake) ground very fine and produced with special techniques. [At this point I should interject that their English menu is truly excellent - it has explanations of soba, its history, proper eating, their specialty products and the menu, all in flawless and elegant English.] The zaru is a pale gold color and is soft and smooth on the way down (Y550 by itself).

We had both gotten the 'ten' version; this adds Y1000 to the price and only a small bowl to the tray but is almost worth it. The tenpura in this case is a classic kakiage, a chunky deep-fried biscuit of shrimp and bay scallops. It's patently obvious that they fry in pure sesame oil, as one is supposed to (and which drives up the cost dramatically), and the quality of the shrimp, scallops and indeed the frying was outstanding. The soup was a real treat, with a deep, complex flavor that was hard to pinpoint.

But it was all a little skimpy, especially for something so enjoyable. I finished the noodles and tempura, then looked around and wondered what to do. Then I really noticed my neighbor for the first time. His woven straw hat sat opposite him on the chair, accompanied by the green and white-striped jacket of his summer seersucker suit. As I continued contemplating my course, he put down his newspaper, burped loudly, called the waitress "Hey, sister!" and ordered another round of noodles. Aha. The done thing.

Sunaba's mori soba (Y500) is more traditional - whole buckwheat, a coarser grind, the usual gray color, and cold dipping sauce. In this case the special onions and sweet wild wasabi that they supply as accompaniments really shone. I almost felt bad about putting the grated wasabi in the sauce; it was easily juicy and mellow enough to eat raw. These noodles had excellent flavor and were cooked to tooth-resistant perfection.

Unfortunately that plate was quickly gone too, as was my lunch hour, and I hurried out the door with a quick bow and a healthy exchange of funds.

Don't worry, I'm not going to start writing like this all the time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kappabashi 4: Buy a Japanese Knife

Or: How to Buy a Japanese Knife In Tokyo's Kappabashi Kitchen-ware Street.

1. Go to Kappabashi.
2. Go to Kama-Asa. It's on the west side of the street, just before the halfway mark at Kappabashi crossing (there's no sign other than the one on the traffic light). If you come the fun way, walking from Sensoji, you want to turn left just before you get to the temple proper, then keep walking, across the big street with all the restaurants, and through the small streets with not much, until you get to Kappbashi. You'll probably be on the street with Union and the other knife stores. Resist. Turn left on the Kappabashi street and start looking for Kama-Asa on the right.
3. Buy a knife. Watch out in particular for the different grades of steel, but mainly whether you want (rustable) carbon or stainless. Nice guys, great service, some English.
4. If you were smart and went on a Sunday, get them to engrave it. They'll pick out fun kanji for you, or you can get katakana. Oh, or if you're Japanese they'll just put your name on it. Bo----ring.

Sacre bleu, I just noticed that they have a branch store in Hiroo. It's three streets west of Gaien-Nishi, about two blocks south of Roppongi dori.

Hongokutei, Kanda (本石亭)

It's always Kanda. This could be a new pattern - have a bit of a stroll up there for lunch, try to go to a different place every day...oh, I'm already in that pattern. Let's keep the streak going.

Today even managed to stretch to accomodate a special request; lunch with Gita and Zone started with a request from Gita for 'spicy', a reference to the fact that he had recently returned from one of the world's great Indian cities, Seattle (Redmond, really). Conveniently, the place I had my eye on from yesterday was a curry restaurant, and though I suspected it of being Japanese curry, turned out to be quite good. I even recommend it, which brings the number of recommended curry places in Kanda to two!

HGT is anomlaous. Tucked into a corner of Kanda that's almost comically decrepit, it's at the back of a U-shaped alley that winds between several other, nicer buildings. It's the kind of alley that has some weeds growing in the back, so no one's getting back there a whole lot. But it has a bunch of really retro-looking places (in the sense that they haven't been painted for 30 years), and HGT stands out due to its wood-framed, gently-peeling white exterior. It's almost like a little Swiss cottage tucked into an alpine meadow. So of course they specialize in curry rice!

Specializing in curry is a funny thing. In the past, I noticed a lot of places whose signage indicated 'curry and coffee'. A theory advanced at the time was that these are both simple things, but ones that reward deep study with increasing quality benefits. (Another theory was that sad male office workers like to stretch their limited allowances as far as possible, so you get more share of wallet by having the traditional lunch and the traditional time waster under one roof.). Certainly HGT gives every impression of being really into their curry. And, oddly, their whisky - there are a good 30 bottles on a shelf. Put this together with two staff wearing black suits, plus the Heidi exterior, and you've got a truly unique little place.

And you know what? The curry seems good! They were out of the most popular choice, keema, so we all had the Indian-style curry (there's also a European style and a dry curry). This was a very thick, very very spicy, oily stew of mainly vegetables with a nugget or two of chicken (in a bowl with rice). I say oily by way of conveying that it was thick but not coconutty; it didn't feel greasy or oppressive, and the massive quantities of spice weren't confined to pepper but spread broadly across the spectrum of brown tastes. The staff were overjoyed when Gita pronounced it very tasty and authentic; I have the feeling they'll be telling their customers and curry-shop buddies "A real Indian loved my curry!" for months, and we were all happy that they were happy.

You're not trying to curry favor, are you?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Kappabashi 3 - good stores

After much pfaffing, finally we get to the real and useful segment of this series of posts.

Most people, I suspect, walk to Kappabashi from Tawaramachi on the Ginza line. This is most efficient, and there are probably even signs in the station like there are in Akiba for 'Electric Town'. [My preferred alternative is to get off at Asakusa, one station farther, walk toward Sensoji, and turn left approximately in the middle of the souvenir street. It's a little far, but start looking once you pass the large street - Kappabashi is a north-south street, so it'll cross your path.] If you walk that way, you'll know you've arrived at the south end of Kappabashi when you look up and see the big chef and the teacups. Although I never noticed the teacups before this last visit, so you might just see chef san. Turn right.

Unfortunately you can't save the best for last, since the store I think is best (for you and me) is right there at the corner. Den Gama has just now dispelled my last illusion about Japan - this quaint, individual store packed full of stunning, unique pottery and glass in all shapes and price part of a larger group that includes other homewares shops, candy manufactures, and a pasta cafe. Oh well. I still love it. They spend more time than the other stores arranging things artfully so consumers will be tempted to buy them, and I'd like to think that they're more careful about selecting items too. I can imagine using just about everything here. Unfortunately I got so excited that I didn't take any pictures inside.

Yabukita always looks great, and has a little more logic and style to its clutter than some other stores. On the other hand, I rarely buy anything here. The prices seem a tiny bit higher than they should be...but they have a lot of great things, and it's well worth seeing if you'll find your dream plates (cups, bowls, chopsticks...) in here. They recently opened a specialty soba store...

Seriously, a whole store devoted to making soba. One side is devoted to the rolling pins, which I now know come in all shapes, sizes and colors (who woulda thought?). The other side, the special cleavers used for cutting soba. And down the middle and in the back, all manner of mixing bowls, pitchers for dipping sauce and hot water, bowls for noodles and condiments, and bamboo strainers. All you'd need after visiting here is some tables and chairs (which you can buy down the street) and you'd be ready to open your own place.

The soba salon (as they call it) is on the same street as Union, a 'mixed goods' emporium. I only went in for the first time recently, because the bit that faces the main street focuses on coffee, and I thought that's all it was (check out the 2-metre percolator or Dutch Drip or whatever the heck that's called!). Behind the machines, bean displays, copper pots, stovetop espressolators and other coffee goodies, there's a whole different store. Like a lot of Kappabashi, it's somewhat utilitarian - actually I prefer to think of it as 'professional' or 'wholesale'. So without much fanfare, you get a whole cabinet full of corkscrews. And another of cocktail shakers. And a whole shelf of ice picks! This is right at the head of the 'knife street', which you'll probably want to check out as well; everyone loves Japanese knives!

I'm pretty sure the last picture is two champagne sabers. I've never seen one before, but considering that they were in the bottle opener they look the part. And the top one is clearly from Claude Dozorme, whose site I can't view because it's realted to 'weapons'. Really. Let's move on.

Komatsuya is my favorite disorganized store. And watch out, because the whole shelf on the right side is wholesale-only - have to buy things from 5 pieces and up (5 being the traditional size of a set in Japan; if you buy nice soup bowls or something, they'll come in a 5 set). This place spills big palettes of crockery out onto the sidewalk every morning and hauls it all back in at night. They have a great selection of soup bowls in the middle along with copious quantities of small plates and dishes on the left. It definitely tends toward the cheaper end as well; you won't find any arty pieces here, just things you'd be happy buying 5 of and using every day.

Tsubaya is one of the knife stores on the knife street (marked by Union, but it's also the main street running from north-ish Asakusa to Kappabashi. The few restaurants in the neighborhood are on it.). For some reason I didn't get a picture of the big wall o' knives, but you can a little idea of it here. Almost every store has a selection of knives, and some knife manufacturers (e.g., Henckels) have now opened slick, modern, black-white-and-red boutiques (there goes the neighborhood), but you'll feel cooler if you shop at one of the old-timey specialty shops.

Kitchen Museum is down around a corner. There's no admission charge, but you'll probably end up buying something, har har!! They have a big wall of fancy knives of all brands, but then much industrial cookery all over. The selection of copper sauce pans, starting at 4 cm (!), was particularly impressive. As were the kitchen robots they had assembled and scattered around outside (look to the right of the door).

A prior post featured the Chinese Restaurant Startup Supply Depot. Above in this post we had the soba supplier. Now it's time to open up...a diner?! Yep, all the neon signs, formica counters, green glass and black-and-white pictures of 50's Hollywood stores that you need to open your very own Americana shop in Japan. The coke machine, crates and bottles are real for all I know; the vintage Wurlitzer (whose picture I forgot to upload) had better be real for the $16,000 price tag!

You can get nifty maps showing all the stores (and I mean ALL the stores), but I think they're Japanese-only. Similarly, this home page for the neighborhood has an English page, but it's not good for much. You might want to check out my map, but for the most

Bistro Taruya, Kanda (樽や)

There is beauty all around us, if we only look for it.

Last night, frustrated by Friday's unsuccessful attempt to by big-person shoes, I went to another branch of the same store. Lo, despite being only a quarter the size and located in a distinctly down-at-the-heels location next to an unused section of Ueno Yamanote sen under-track, this branch had a bunch of stuff for me. So I bought some shoes, and then I have to admit that I had some dinner. To celebrate, or something. Yay. Shoes.

Farther south of there, the east side of the tracks in Kanda is pretty impressive (the place where I always go for lunch is farther south; the good bit starts right at the limits of what's walkable for lunch from the office, but I had ridden my bike from the office up to Ueno and back so...). It's just one tiny, crappy-looking shop after another, and that always fills my head with dreams of finding the perfect one and reveling in the freshness and flavor of their cuisine.

Well, I struck out again. Bistro Taruya turned out to be more izakaya than bistro, especially on the bench-seating second floor. Maintain yesterday's all-veg pattern, I just got a few dishes to comprise a simple dinner out.
  • The waitress cautioned me to be careful since the eggplant-tomato gratin was so hot. It wasn't hot, it was made earlier and insufficiently reheated. And it tasted like ketchup.
  • The grilled skate fins (OK, that's not a vegetable, but it's almost hard to call it a fish) were fine. I love the sweet, mildly fishy flavor of a good grilled skate wing; I have a feeling this means there's sugar involved in the process somewhere. The best way to have these is with a little burner at the table so you can reheat and soften them yourself, but that's comparitively rare.
  • The fried zucchini - long pieces of a whole zucchini cut in eighths, lightly coated in Japanese panko breadcrumbs, fried golden brown so the inside was still firm but softened to perfection at the table from residual heat - the fried zucchini were perfect.

Truly, there are beautiful zucchini all around us, if we only look for them.

This blog has some good illustrative pictures.

Tika, Kanda

As Sato chan says here, 最近神田ばっかりです。今日も神田。Recently it's always Kanda. Today was Kanda too.

It didn't start out that way. I had my bike, so I thought I'd go somewhere farther afield. I headed toward Akiba, didn't see anything I really wanted to eat, got lost, and mysteriously popped out in my current favorite neighborhood on the southeast side of Kanda. Oops. Even then it was hard to pick a place! Still need to try the big yellow eel specialty store. It's summer, and power reserves are low!

Well, I fell into a hole - Tika is best described as a hole in the wall. Probably it used to be a ramen shop, judging by the cramped counter and uncomfortable stools. Somehow they found a tandoor and installed it behind the counter (not a real brick Italian tandoor; this one was metal), and a few vats of curry sat on the counter, waiting for duty in reheating pots.

The standout point of this lunch was that I got to see a guy make a naan for the first time. You ever wonder why it's that shape? I sure did. It's because he starts with a lump of dough (interestingly, this was described on the wall as 'soy milk naan'. I don't know if this is more or less traditional), then stretches it by slapping it back and forth from one hand to the other. If you make no attempt to rotate the dough, that action will cause the top part, moving faster, to stretch out a little on each pass...and hence a whole lot by the time it's done, hence the teardrop shape. I was powerless to observe the process by which he wrapped the dough around a stone and somehow slapped it on the side of the oven, and likewise the way he extracted it by using two long, thin metal rods...but it was all pretty interesting, especially because he looked more like he should be working in a garage than a kitchen.

I had the cheese vegetable curry (you can add finely grated cheese to anything for Y100), which was yellow, mild, flavorful, and had a fair few bits of vegetables (disappointingly, it wasn't dhal, but I guess I should have known that). The naan was genuinely excellent. The set came with a lame-o salad and a small sweet lassi, not bad for Y850.

This place was nice if very small and a bit dirty. The guys seemed kinda confused to have a foreigner come in, and they were very hesitant about speaking to me. I guess they didn't speak English, which is pretty rare for Indian restaurants.

Not a lotta webbage on this one. Anyway, they've only got 6 seats.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Momi & Toy's, Minami Sunamachi

As usual for any mall trip (all three I've had in Japan!), lunch is inevitably followed by dessert. Options are pretty sparse at Sunamo, but crepe-and-bubble-tea place Momi & Toy's had the advantages of being cute and having no line, as opposed to its competitor across the food court, the aptly named "8 Days a Sweet" (not sure how that's apt, but it was nice to write).

The crepe here was decent once you go beyond the overstuffed, over-sweetened top inch or 2 (all cream and no crepe makes Momi a dull Toy). The flavor was also amusingly named Caramel Macchiato - キャラメル巻あと, haha. The bubble tea was an unmitigated disappointment - water, and not even attempting to fill the cup.

This is why there's a line at the other place.

Mia Bocca, Minami Sunamachi

Sometimes it's a hot summer day and you're sitting on the couch and you're sticking to it and all you can think is "Hey, it would be better to be at the mall than being here" and then you go to the mall. Since I finally started riding my bike again, I now know that in the last couple months a mid-size mall complex has opened a mere two stations away from me in Minami Sunamachi. This is a little slice of America, not even to be glancingly compared to LaLaPort in Toyosu, which is a full-size slice of America, or LaLaPort in Minami Funabashi, which is freakin' huge.

Walking around and shopping is bound to make you hungry. This being Japan, even among the 10 or so places on the food floor of this complex (outside the food court) you can find an Italian place with a real Italian oven. I've seen so many of these lately that I'm starting to think the Italians have set up a 'real brick oven' factory in Japan so all their customers can save on the shipping.

Mia Bocca was pleasant, in fact. The pizza special feature a small salad, a good size pie with Hokkaido bacon and broccolis, and a drink of choice. The pizza was quite professionally done for a Y1000 mall place. Additionally, some cheese-filled fried arancini didn't go amiss; how can deep-fried cheese go amiss, even if it's wrapped in a rice ball?

Really, good enough for government work. This was better than I expected.

The company has a variety of different 'Mias' in various configurations. I'm not gonna seek 'em out or nothin', but I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

TY Harbor Brewery, Shinagawa

This review is purely for the benefit of both foreigners in Tokyo who haven't yet been to TY Harbor. Until Saturday night, there were three of us, but I'm sad to say I've now departed. As shown below, getting to TY's huge refitted warehouse from the station is very pleasant and residential if you do something as gauche as endure the train and the 15-minute walk along the canal rather than taking the taxi from Hiroo or Juban. You could also end up on the major streets with a lot of traffic, so do consult your map in advance.

Don't get me wrong, I was happy to be there, had a good time, and even enjoyed the food. It's just that this place (and Cicada, and Roti, and Oak Door, and others) are such cliches for well-heeled foreigners (and, well, foreign heels) that I feel bad not bringing you a more exploratory dining experience. TY is truly a bit of California transplanted to a waterside location in Japan, and it's well-known for good and positive reasons, but that doesn't mean it's not overexposed. It's even worse because the whole purpose was to meet my old friend Blowin', who was visiting Japan from California for a week with his wife and son. But again (ad naseum), it's very pleasant, so a good time was had by all.

Outside was supposably booked when I called (although it didn't pan out that way when we got there) so we had to sit inside and in the smoking section. In fact, I would sorta recommend this as it wasn't smoky at all, and by getting there sharpish at the 5:30 opening we were able to get one of the nice corner booths. The inside nonsmoking area (in the picture) is too crowded and industrial - lots of rows of tables that almost feel like they're joined together even when they're not. The outside area is almost certainly the thing to do as long as it's not too hot; it takes full advantage of being on the wide Shinagawa canal and gives you some views north and east to big Tokyo skylines as well as plenty of glittering night water (which has nothing to do with night soil, I promise).

The menu just makes you go "America!" except that they resolutely refuse to serve burgers for dinner (waddup?). The waiter was polite but firm about it, going so far as to bring back cards for Beacon, another of their properties, and saying we could get burgers there if we trekked to Shibooya. "Hey Kojak, we were at Beacon on July 4th and they bitched about serving us burgers at the tables there too! They only gave in because it was a holiday!" We showed that Maggott. But y'know, he was a nice guy, and attentive to the point that it scared the guests - showing up with spoons exactly when required, and practically taking the forks out of their hands. We got on (other than the what-language-are-we-speaking confusion that comes with the territory at these places, as it also often does in 'Pong).

Food? Is this site about food? We had a disordered assemblage of things; picture quality is weak since it's really dark in there. Chili with a cube of cornbread and a scoop of sour cream was sweet and not too spicy. I neglected to take a picture of the BLT salad, in which the almost-crisp bacon (as opposed to normal Japanese still-fatty and limp bacon) was the best thing, the greens being a bit browned and the dressing being an oppressive barbeque.
Three seafood mains followed. The scallops with couscous were decent; they were huge, sweet and not overcooked, but a bit gummy inside. There was a lot of shaved coconut in the couscous too, which wasn't bad but was unexpected since the prevailing flavor was supposed to be North African. I didn't eat the other dishes, but the mahi mahi with mango (I take back the California comments, that looks like pure Florida to me!) and Atlantic lobster (I take back the California comments, that looks like pure Maine to me!) were both attractive and well-received.

I haven't mentioned the beers, but they're good as well. Should you by some mysterious circumstance not have been here in the past, you should go sometime. Sit outside, maybe have brunch instead (there aren't many good brunch places, and this is surely one of them), drink a beer, look at the water, and feel like you're not in Tokyo for a couple hours. The staff will obligingly speak English if you want.

Cafe Life, Azabu Juban

In Japan, your apartment is probably small. And that means a significant part of your social life takes place outside it. For some people, their personal life may take place outside the home as well - your apartment is so small that you don't feel like being there, and it's hard to cook, so why not go somewhere, eat lunch or dinner, and spend hours after that just reading or staring out the window? No one will bug you, which is a great feature of Japan.

In the more upscale areas of Tokyo, there are not too many places that create the warm, funky, living-room vibe that prevails in some more relaxed neighborhoods (and, I'm told, in other global cities). Cafe Life is one such place. The cramped and darkish downstairs contains a narrow, perilously steep staircase that leads to an airy, earth-toned second-floor salon with vintage chairs and comfy couches. You'll like it, it's very relaxing (aside, perhaps, from the relaxed smoking that other patrons are doing). One feature that I especially enjoyed (while reclining on the couch, staring upward) was the exposed ceiling - slats and nails, 50-year old wiring, and various aged fixtures. This reminds me of the attic in Pitman, as well as lots of other houses I was in while growing up.

The food is simple, home-style, nourishing kinda stuff. All I can really tell you about is a tuna sandwich ('Vietnam style' according to the menu, but really just tuna sandwich style according to me) and a curry. The sando was wetter than I like my tuna sandwiches (and man, do I like my tuna sandwiches) and had little to no condiment in the tuna, but plenty of lettuces and a nice baguette.

The curry was boiled-egg-and-spinach, which is almost distressingly healthy (except when coupled with the two boiled eggs I had for breakfast. It's summer, I like cold boiled eggs, sliced and salted, and I don't care who knows it.) The egg was crumbled up and mounded in the dish along with piles of spinach, and the rice was topped with fresh tomato (as you can see by the picture, duh). Tasty curry, kinda mild, not a Japanese boxed-roux style dish. Nice!

Dessert features here, and the special peach roll cake (with a scoop of ice cream) was better than most roll cakes in my limited experience (it's limited because they're not usually that good!). The cake was firmer and more textured, not just spongy, and the filling was flavored with real peach pieces. Rarities, my friends, rarities.

With hours that extend all the way to 4 AM and a much more extensive dinner and drinks menu, Cafe Life could become your favorite home away from home. I'd also like to take a minute to point out that it's called Cafe Life Cafe, and their slogan is "Fashion and the hood, music, the interior and construction that is the important element in order to send the life style of ideal us you think the prejudice to all matters which it is related to those", which is very moving when you really think about it.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Saudade, Shinjuku

So I went to Shinjuku to look for some shoes. Foreigner? Wear large sizes? Tired of being laughed out regular stores for having big feet, or tired of trying to make do with the one pair of daggy brown shoes they have in your size? Hikari is your place (weirdly, I think this Kutsu no Hikari, with shops in Shinjuku 5, Okachimachi and Kawasaki, is different from the Hikari Shoes in Gotanda (I know it doesn't make sense, but they have separate web sites, and I read a random board post one time where a guy called one and asked about the store in another location and they were very evasive. Some things are destined to remain mysterious, and this is one of them.). Well, big-size places are like clearance places - always a crap shoot, and I quickly ascertained that I had rolled a seven and it was time to pass the dice.

To get to that store you best be gettin' off at Shinjuku 3 (Isetan station, but the other end) and walking through the san-chome scrum of bars and cheap restaurants. I've been there a couple times now, and I have to say I'm getting a little fond of it. In general Shinjuku has a grubbiness that I find much more relaxing than, say, Omotesando or most parts of Roppongi. Right now you're thinking "Grubbier than Roppongi?!", so I should say that it's grubby but priced to match, which is not always the case in 'Pong, and is missing some of the tension as well. On a previous visit, I wined and dined at Marugo (pun intended, I think), and am pleased to report that they've opened a third outlet in the same small block, Marugo Grande. Each succeeding store is thus bigger and nicer than the one that preceded it, and the original place looks small and cramped now (which is very much in keeping with the neighborhood; the other places stand out for their newness and niceity).

So I was already of a mind to stop off somewhere on the way back to the station, but when I came out of the shoe store I looked down a long, narrow street and saw a beckoning lantern at the turned out that once I trekked to the end of the street, there was a cross street with a fair few nice-looking shops. It also turns out that I've been there before now that I look at the map. I thought I was exploring, but Osteria Vincero is about two blocks farther than I walked.

One of the first things I saw was an apparently-normal small neighborhood liquor store, Koikeya (and it's the main store if you believe the sign!). There was just a hint of something odd through the window, so I strolled through and found this incredible collection of miniatures.

The picture doesn't do it justice; there's about 3 times as many as pictured. The odd thing is that they have so much selection in each 'style', including a really significant collection of Scotch and whisky miniatures. Just as I was gearing up to buy some for Hirose san's collection at Fal, I noticed the signs saying the bottles were not for sale. OK, I lie - you can't miss the signs. They appear every three feet along each shelf, in Japanese and English, with red text to emphasize the point. They really don't want to sell those bottles. Fun to look at, and I wish I had had my camera. The rest of the store seemed to be similarly on the museum-not-shop side, with sparse selections of imported stuff (you'll see in the link below that they used to have more imported beer and such, like Orion, which I think is 'imported' from Okinawa. The beer is more normal now, but they still have a fair amount of awamori and wine.). This link might tell you a little more if you can read, or maybe not.

Having seen a Spanish place back in 3-cho, that was sorta on my mind, so when I saw another one I figured it was destiny and stopped in.

Nama Ham (生ハム)
Cruelly tricked, my friends. I've been rooked yet again by a sweet exterior and a clean, friendly, interior. Grrrr.... This faux Spanish place is part of a group of ~10 restaurants that all have a similar happy, modern theme. If you've been to Shimokita recently, you might recognize the big place with the open front and 'boardwalk' protruding into the street, with seating provided by cushions. That place was pleasantly packed, or I would have pleasantly had a seat there!

Well, I didn't know it at the time, so I thought Nama Ham was just a pallid Japanese imitation of a Spanish restaurant. There were some high points - a little mackerel cured in vinegar and topped with a dice of bell pepper was simultaneously sweet, sour and tasty, while the new-release Ebisu Creamy Stout was...Guiness at half the price, and fresher than most Guiness pints one can have in these parts. The titular prosciutto was good quality, and served fatty, warm and greasy (which I always think maximizes flavor, don't you?) but in tiny little squares that made me think they lacked either a good knife or the skill to cut a ham. And with that, I headed back to the previously-spotted Spain Bar.

Curses! Foiled again!

Saudade is trying hard for some type of authenticity. It's dark, woody, and they have a huge selection of sherry. Huge, I tell you. I counted the blackboard, and there were 23 types! Due to an upcoming event that may involve a need to consume sherry, I thought I might as well get try to appreciate sherry,'s been a monotonous story of trying and failing to do so in my past. I'm pleased to say that both the Amontillado and Oloroso that I had were pleasant enough, so at this point I think it's safe to say I can drink the lighter, cleaner Fino sherry quite easily. Tapas awaits!

The staff here was standoffish, but not in a bothersome way. I think it's their thing, just like the one guy has 'jock strips' shaved on the sides of his head, and a little mullet. Forget it Jake, it's Shinjuku. They did one thing I liked, which was to tell me the seat charge in the same breath as saying hello (come to think of it, did they say hello?). The seats at the bar are comfortable, everything really is dark and woody, and the windows along the front open pleasantly to let out the smoke and in the night air. There's a small ledge and more chairs there.

In addition to the sherry extravaganza, they have a decent food menu. Their gazpacho was suitably cold, tangy and refreshing (but I wouldn't mind just making it myself). The chorizo was excellent - like the earlier nama ham, it was thick, dark, and greasy, and served in a quantity and at a price that seemed entirely justified. Well done! The artisan manchego perhaps suffered a bit by juxtaposition with the sausage and sherry; it's a bit delicate as cheeses go even though this one seemed very nice. Finally, the torta (make sure to order it as 'onion quiche' so they know what you want) was so packed full of sweet caramelized onions that it tasted more like a dessert, and indeed I'm happy that I ate it last.

All of this was less food than it sounds like, but I didn't have the heart to order one of the more expensive items (like salt cod in tomato sauce, or various treatments of Japanese beef). I'd say this was a pleasant diversion, and a good way to dip a toe into the somewhat forbidding Shinjuku 3 bar scene. Next up, Bar God?

Franki Valli would have a heart attack here.

Chok Di, Kanda (โชคดี)

With apologies to all fully and partially Thai readers, because I really love the country, did you know that in Thailand it's polite to crap? Ugh, this is in poor taste already. But seriously, it's very polite to say 'crap' after practically every sentence if you're a man (pronounced with an almost vanishing 'r' and of course in a different language, so sometimes it's transliterated 'kap' or 'krub' even 'ครับ').

Otemachi and Kanda don't run to certain types of ethnic food, in my opinion. Chinese? Good, plentiful. Indian? Scarce, mediocre. Southeast Asian? Rare, and often overpriced (Siam Heritage, I'm looking at you. But I ain't eatin'.). Chok Di is a gem in this otherwise parched dessert, and as such I'd have to say it's a pretty sweet find!

Picture east-side Kanda, at the south end, the old blacksmith's town. A little quiet, very oyaji. Pass the park where the sad salarymen sit on swings and smoke between appointments. Turn down a little alley that doesn't look like much from the street. You'll find Chok Di Now that I've been, I know there's also a very nice-looking sushi place (Nemoto), a kappo, and a tempura. It's a frickin' gold mine up there, folks.

At Chok Di, the chef is a woman and the waiters are men. And they are all Thai. If you couldn't tell by their faces, you could tell by their Japanese, which is just a little musical. And you can sure tell by their food, which has a veritable abondanza of genuinosity thrown in and fried around. The small, carefully selected menu changes by the day but always sticks to standards, no crime when the standards are as tasty as those of the Thai palette. Red and green curries are colorful, tom yum looks the business with plenty of fire, and fried noodles come up bursting with fresh shrimp, soft-cooked bean sprouts and dried shrimps (although I like mine with a few splashes of Thai fish sauce, which resides on the table as it should in any reputable establishment).

They seem to be operating under the radar at the moment with respect to the usual food web suspects, perhaps a bit of a guerilla, commando, golden triangle kinda thing. I'd advise getting up there for a few bites before word gets out and they get crowded and lose all the authentic charm! This was a thoroughly enjoyable place, and so I'd like to say to the chef and all the staff, thanks a lot. Really. Crap.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Edokko, Monzennakacho (江戸娘)

Sometimes you just have a hankerin' fer meat. And when that feelin' comes on yuh, it's mighty powerful. That's when the sheep start lookin' nervous, if yuh take mah meanin'. If your meat craving is for chickenz, and you're in Monzennakacho, yer place of choice should be Edoko. It's homey, authentic, and tasty.

It actually looks pretty promising from outside; I don't know why I've walked by it for so many years without going in. The walls are brown and kinda dirty, there's a big red yakitori lantern, and the windows are mostly either frosted or otherwise clouded up with grease from the chickinz. The inside is the same - the counter and tables are surrounded by low benches with dirty striped cushions, the display case looks like it's seen better days, and the grill men are friendly but grizzled in that way that only old guys in t-shirts and headbands can be. When you push out that much chicken, it takes a toll on a man.

They have a 'starter set' - one drink, one snack, three sticks o' bird for Y1000. Why not? The snack turned out to be a bowl of roughly cut tuna pieces that were, what the heck, I'll just say it, awful good considering their provenance. The three sticks were a negima (chicken chunks alternating with cylinders of green onion), a regular chicken (chicken chunks impaled next to each other on a stick), and a hattsu. Hattsu, of course, meaning "chicken hearts". Their chicken has a deep, birdy flavor without needing to be fussy or noisy about what color the bird is and what prefecture it came from. And they have a heavy hand on the grill, which is something I particularly like (you call it caramelized, I call it carbonized).

Their specialities are twofold (in addition to a healthy specials board that features an awful lot of of fish products - buri sashi, tuna steak, squid bits). First is the Edokko (you might translate this as 'Edo gal', where Edo is 'old Tokyo', and Edokko in another spelling means "Tokyo native"). For some reason, Edo gals are all about alternating their white-meat chicken with folded up squares of chicken skin, brutalizing them with a stick, and then grilling the lot. Again, a heavy hand on the grill produces the desired results, because I don't like skin that much unless it's grilled up. Their other specialty is a tsukune or meatball, which is oddly neither meat nor a ball! No, I kid, I kid, it's all meat (because they included blessed little cartilege) but is puck-shaped. I mentioned to the oldest master that I thought the samples sitting on the counter were grilled rice balls because of their toasty brown color; he laughed and said "Everyone thinks that!" Good tsukune, meaty but not too dense, and their tare dipping sauce is also excellent.

One more specialty is the waitress. She may be the Edo gal in question, as she has her blond hair cut into a fascinating bob that forms a rigid, round window about her forehead and face. You can't complain about the effort that she puts in, running around between customers, chatting and serving, but you might complain, or at least listen on in continued wonderment, at her high voice and affected mannerisms. Anyway, mix in the chicken, the smoke, the other noisy customers, and it's all atmosphere!

Never mind the web sites, it's the Sex Pistols!

Kappabashi 2: Fake Food

I noticed on the map that Kappabashi is actually called 合羽橋, not 河童橋. I can't explain this. Moving on...

People often describe Kappabashi as 'the fake food neighborhood'. It's not. There are exactly 3 stores selling fake food. More like exactly two-and-a-half, actually, since one of them is pretty small and sad. But the two main ones, in the south half of the street and on the East (Asakusa) side, are cool. (Again, I'm prepared to be proved wrong about all of this. The neighborhood brochure lists a few more places in the 'samples' category, but I haven't seen them.)

Check out Maizuru - I love the window displays with the life-size lobster (life-size is kinda the point of this fake food though, isn't it?) and decorated layer cake. Inside is more normal, with sushi, steaks, donburi, desserts and drinks.

I think this place is called 'Koi Koi', but I'm not sure why. In any event, I think it's the one to go to for your fake food needs - if you're a tourist, they have lots of good 'bite size' pieces that you can carry home to impress your friends. One thing you'll be unpleasantly impressed by is the cost of these guys - authenticity doesn't come cheap! My favorite things here are the selection of fresh fish, and of course the 'wall of beer'.

Wall o' Beer. Who knew you could need so many samples of fake beer in mugs?

Thanks to superior photography, this place 'Satou' doesn't look as sad as I was saying above. But it really doesn't have that much by comparison with the other places. I also thought it was hilarious that they were having a 10% off sale on Chinese food...samples (2nd picture).

Bonus shop:

There are two of these places. They specialize in everything you'd need to set up a tastelessly-decorated Chinese restaurant! One was even selling a little fake bridge. The section of jade figurines is nice too.

Bonus Godzilla-sized beetle crawling on the outside of a building!