Monday, August 31, 2009

We like Europe, Europe

A lot of food has already passed the above-mentioned lips and gums. Some high points as follows:

- I like it how you can buy a croissant in the touristy heart of Montmarte from a sidewalk place that dispenses coffee from an automatic machine into plastic cups, and said croissant will still be impossibly flaky, light and buttery compared to anything else you've had this year. And I feel better that a lot of the tourists are also French.
- I like Denise Acabo's world-famous chocolate shop l'Etoile d'Or and its selection of otherwise impossible to find chocolates from reclusive manufactures like Lyon's Bernachon and Normandy's Le Roux. And I especially like how the shop girl doesnt speak English, but IS Japanese, so there's no communication barrier.
- I like Le Cinq, the grand restaurant of the George Cinq Hotel, and its life-size portraits, gilded fixtures, extravagant flower arrangements. I'm less enamored of the slightly sloppy execution of the very technical dishes, but it was still a great, great lunch.
- I like how Laduree has elegant boutiques with heaps of mmacarons inside the gate area at Charles de Gaulle.

I like how I was only in Paris for 14 hours too, including immigration, baggage and taxi both ways plus a nap.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sozaiya, Otemachi

This will be a boring post - for some of us.

If I'm not careful, I'll finish going to all the restaurants in the basement of the neighboring Shin Otemachi building. They're somewhat lackluster, but that's Otemachi for you. I hope you've gotten that theme as it recurred over the past 8 months and over 150 dining establishments.

Today's lunch had two excellent features. First, I was able to go out with my good friend Kath, of Kath and Kim. There's nothing like a noice bit of culcha to make the lunch hour fly by. Second, getting through lunch left me one hour closer to departure for The Best Restaurant In The World (TM).

Sozaiya's food was not an element in the preceding list. Kath had a teppanyaki teishoku that was sliced beef served on cabbage in a sizzling skillet. I had the mixed teishoku, which had a medium-sized sukiyaki don and a bigger bowl of reimen, the clear Korean-style noodles, topped with kimchi and an onsen tamago. The noodles were curiously firm, more so than I'm used to, and not in a way that I liked.

Fortunately, none of that matters now!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nishimura, Tokyo

Truly, my friends, you can't roller skate in a buffalo herd. But you can eat okonomiyaki for lunch any time if you try. Nishimura proves it.

This is a rarity, wouldn't you agree? What's even cooler about Nishimura is the food ethic they espouse - it manages to incorporate some elegance in both the space and the food. These aren't things one usually associates with okonomiyaki. I love how the counter looks like an upmarket izakaya, with a thick, rough-edged wooden top and matching light-wood chairs arranged at discrete distances from each other. It's really cool that the masters work in front of the patrons; there are two of them, one manning the teppan to cook okonomiyaki and related items, and another manning the takoyaki cooker. The masters look a little like they used to do this down-market, but are spruced up now with young (though still gray) haircuts, short beards, and tight t-shirts.

The food is also muscular, though thankfully less hairy. My okonomiyaki came with the holy trinity of table-fry junk-food ingredients: spicy mentaiko, chewy mochi, and cheese. The mentai and mochi were both in quantities one doesn't usually get (if one is used to getting these things in monja joints in Tsukiji), but the cheese was what pushed me over the edge - 36-month parmesan. (DOP Parma-Reg requires a minimum 12 months aging in case you were wondering. I was.) This added a new, exciting, and thoroughly awesome taste to the familiar egg, batter, fish flakes, etc. With this, I could eat okonomiyaki significantly more often. I shouldn't go on too long, but it's a really good idea.

After eating, I wandered past Da Cibo's Kitchen Street branch and remembered that I had had a strong craving for pizza earlier in the day. Ironic that I ended up eating Japanese pizza, I think. But a happy accident, and a place I'll be happy to go back to, as soon as I get through this damn restricted-dining period.

King o' the road, ma! Ooohhh, when will I learn to stop mixing these expressions?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kakoiya, Otemachi (かこいや)

It's great to see things through other people's eyes - today's lunch featured some overseas guests, and the most normal things on the plate were suddenly strange and bizarre. And fishy. I got the sense that their overriding sense was a sense of fishiness. They were right, all those things did have fish in them. I just don't notice any more.

Kakoiya is the kind of place that I used to think was really cool but now like to think I've outgrown - it's trying to be cool on purpose. All the seating is in small private rooms that are accessed by very low arched doorways, the lighting is kinda dim and spotlight-y, and things are dark wood or black in a faux country way. They even have a traditional country hearth up by the door. I guess it's cool, it's just that it's pretty overdone and feels too artificial to me now. Gonpachi was cool the first time you went, right?

The food gets some props for trying - lots of variety, in interesting ways. At lunch you can only choose from among 4 or 5 sets, some with picturesque names like 'The Princess's Carriage'. They include a hitsumabushi (the eel-three-ways specialty from Nagoya), various pork-and-rice bowls, sashimi bowl, etc. It's the side dishes that really distinguish the place though.

In addition to a seaweed-heavy clear soup and a usual bowl of rice and a few pickles, most of the lunches came with several side dishes. (Actually the Princess Lunch had even more, but was sold out by the time we got there at 1:10. And come to think of it, they were very aggressive about kicking us out at 2 PM.) There was a cold chawan mushi - you may think a cold steamed egg custard is boring, but if it's your first one I guess not! The texture is evidently weird, the fishiness (the custard is made from eggs and fish stock) is unexpected, and each morsel of meat (exactly one each - pork, shrimp, fish cake) is a little treasure. There was also a plate of mixed nuggets including some horribly greasy deep-fried gobo, a neat slice of terrine-ish meat in the shape of a hyotan gourd, and a third thing that I can't remember.

Pretty good food, decent atmosphere despite the complaints. Just make sure to get out by 2. You might want to go back at night for the strolling magicians who do tricks at your table also...

12 stores in Tokyo, lots more nationwide.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Okada, Monzennakacho

Today's interesting point is this: Japanese culture is different. Thank you for reading.

No, I kid, I kid. But I've read a bunch of things recently talking about 'recession food' and how restaurants are opening or at least restyling in simpler, humbler ways. Japan has had a bit of this too, but with a unique twist.

There's a category of restaurants in Japan where you stand up to eat. It's not even fast food, necessarily, it's just that they want to dispense with the formality and the table service. Sushi is probably the most common, I think because it's already a counter-oriented food and thus lends itself well to a sans stool treatment. But there are other places too, and Okada is one of them.

Funny thing is, it's the 4th standing place in Monnaka now. There's always been the old-fashioned guts-and-whisky on the other side of the crossing (you think I'm kidding, but those really are their specialties) and the standing sushi opened about a year ago. Then 2 or 3 months back someone closed and razed the ramen shop across from Wan Tsu Chi, rebuilding on the site with a standing izakaya that's so declasse as to have the menu printed in 6-inch high letters on the outside of the building (Matsubashi, I think it's called). And just recently, Mr. Okada opened up right around the corner from my apartment, at the farthest extreme of what could be called the Monnaka shopping street.

It's actually very nice inside - tiny but with an actual sense of style. The chopsticks aren't disposable, and each place at the counter or on the tiny standing tables is set with a towel and the aforementioned hashi on a carved wooden rest. There's a menu on every table, and it's small enough that there's no need to call anyone over to order - if you just talk in a normal voice, everyone will hear it.

Being of a mind to get some things done around the apartment before leaving on a trip to eat at The Best Restaurant In The World (TM), I just wanted to eat quick and get home rather than cooking. Okada has been pretty crowded since opening, but it was OK tonight, and here's what I ate:
- Simmered okala with various bits. This was nice since it was warm and savory from being boiled in stock. I should point out that okala is a crumbly paste that's the remains of soy beans that have been boiled and squeezed for their milk, and it's usually mixed with carrot, beans, seaweed (hijiki) and konnyaku, which is...oh, never mind.
- Green papaya and beef tendon saute. Geez, that's weird. It was actually about what you'd expect - boiled beef tendon with thinly-sliced green papaya mixed in (not julienned like a somtam usually is).
- A squid, stuffed with his liver, salted and dried overnight, then warmed up on the grill. Liver was a bit strong, but the chewy, mega-salty squid was nice. MEGA-salty.
- Satsuma-age, in a unique rendition that was mostly tofu and was soft and a bit fall-apart, with a light coating and a deep fry.

This was nice. I can't see why he doesn't open a real izakaya, but maybe he's leading up to that once things work out for a while in this suboptimal location and mediocre format. Or maybe he's just waiting for the economy to turn around.

Keep waiting, cheef...

Zen, Otemachi (然)

Mmmmmmm, natural and healthy. I don't mean that sarcastically, actually. Despite being focused on healthy food (and serving brown rice), this place was quite tasty. That's probably why this visit marked an unheard-of third visit for Shaft (though of course a first for me). It's in the basement of the new JA building, which I mentioned recently in the context of accidentally visiting a completely different restaurant for the second time. Or not.

Here's an interesting point about natural and healthy restaurants - they're popular with a certain, well-defined clientele. As we were leaving I noticed that the counter was populated heavily with Office Ladies of a certain age and style. This is not a bad thing.

The food here is not a bad thing either. There are half a dozen normal lunch sets like mackerel in miso sauce, pork with ginger, and fried chicken. I had the fried chicken, and it was an excellent specimen - good breading, skin-on but fried to crispness, juicy and sweet inside. Mmmmm. One of the schticks is that you can get brown rice with your meal, but their rice emphasized the chewy-nuttiness of genmai to a fault. Either that or it was just undercooked. I noticed that the other two items at the table didn't get heavily eaten, but you know how it is with office ladies, and I'm sure it's nothing to do with the flavah.

Like a Polaroid picture.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Takegami Ittetsu Soba, Tokyo (たけがみ 一徹)

Tokyo Station Kitchen Street is actually starting to look a little slim in terms of unexplored places. This was one of them, and I liked it. The name means something like 'stubborn', which I expect is meant to be a comment on their unwavering commitment to quality.

Tokyo Station has a campaign on for the Summer that illustrates a fun quirk of Japanese English - the frequent breaks in parallel construction. For some reason it's popular to use adjectives and nouns together in phrases that should have two of the same - "Happy and Enjoyment!" and the like. Presumably to fight the heat, the August campaign over there is "Healthy and Beauty" - double-confusing since both words end in 'y', but still not parallel. As it happens, I had the special Healthy and Beauty dish at this soba place.

Takegami seems to be going outside the lines a bit despite their inflexibility; the menu has some oddities. The H&B special was as follows (and brace yourself, because this is really the most interesting thing that's going to happen today): cold soba made from buckwheat and bean flour, artfully arranged in a square bordered with rows of sliced green onion, sesame, and ground pork, sided by a bowl of sesame-based spicy dipping sauce. That's right, it's 'Japanese-style Tan-Tan Soba'! The noodles had a weird translucent look due to the inclusion of the bean flour; this highlighted the brown-ness of the buckwheat in a way that using wheat flour doesn't (soba is normally made from buckwheat flour and wheat flour in a mix. If it's made only from buckwheat it's a big deal and will be labeled as '100% Soba'.).

There was an odd Chinese aspect to the decor (lacquered cabinets covering the walls) that I didn't stop too much to consider - it being already 2 PM when I got there. It's probably a sign that they're a classy establishment despite being located in a train station! They also have very luxurious-looking branches in Akasaka, Nogizaka and Ginza, so this could meet all your high-end soba needs if you have any.

Soba and delicious!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

XEX, Daikanyama

Nothing but drinks passed my lips, but I have to say that sitting outside, near the pool, in the 3rd-floor tropical-resort environment above one of Daikanyama's main streets, is a hell of a good way to spend an hour. Don't be fooled by the relative darkness of the big sliding door that greets you as you walk up the stairs - they're open, they're just being coy about it to keep out the riff-raff.

Either Salvatore Cuomo or the sushi place, sharing the space, will feed you, should that be a concern. It's a sorta New York-meets-Bali-in-Tokyo kinda thing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Yamada Mongol, Kanda

Years ago I read a book by Haruki Murakami that was called 'A Wild Sheep Chase' in English. Aside from the funny bit about the girl's ears, and the overall spaciness and magical quality that it had (first Murakami book I read, so it was especially memorable), I remember being struck by the statement that sheep are rare in Japan. And this is still true - they're mostly confined to Hokkaido, and if you see sheep on a menu it's just as likely to be Australian (not a bad thing). This scarcity leads to sheep being marginalized in restaurants, and when combined with the Japanese penchant for specialist shops (cf sushi, tempura, ramen...), you end up with lamb being consumed mainly in Mongolian-themed restaurants.

These are often titled with some variation of 'Jingis', a pronunciation of the beginning of Genghis Khan, since everyone knows that Mongols love lamb, and Genghis was the king of the Mongols. Also, the common cooking style is to use a domed metal plate placed over an open flame; the grill is said to resemble a Mongol hat as well.

A lot of such places are all-you-can-eat. Yamada Mongol is not, but for the Y3500 course we had, it might as well be - we thought several times that the course was over, but the staff brought more meat and we eventually conceded defeat with bits of lamb remaining on our plates. It started off with a small salad, a plate of sliced lamb tongue, and a big plate of vegetables (mainly bean sprouts and onions; these are thought to be healthy in a way that counteracts the lamb. Incidentally, signs on the wall proclaimed that the lamb is naturally low in cholesterol, in case you were worried about that.). The basic concept is to heat up the grill, put a chunk of lamb fat on top of the dome, set the vegetables around the outside where the fat will run down the dome and fry them a little, and start frying bits of lamb around the dome.

It's unfortunately difficult to keep track of which bit is which, but there are clear differences in flavor and texture. After the tongue (really just an appetizer, with 8 slices, and so much smaller than cow tongue), there were two plates with some shoulder and some other meat. These seemed a little puny to comprise a whole course, and rightly so - there were two more like them afterward. Then another plate with fillet, which was nicely soft and surprisingly marbled. The sprouts and onions are refillable, and the waitresses will drop a new hunk of fat on top of your grill when it gets dry, as well as mopping up excess fat from the trough at the edge of the dome if such is required (incidentally, the waitress seemed a little horrified that we put the veg into too much fat. I guess you're supposed to keep it kinda dry for 'health'. I was thinking of the Thai version of this, where the trough is filled with soup and the objective is to get a lotta fat into it so you can then dip your veg and noodles and fish balls in.).

After you surrender on the meat, the finishing touch is the noodles. They take away the grill and bring back a pot of hot water and two mounds of fresh, yellow ramen. Cook'em up and eat 'em with the dipping sauce that you've been steadily working through (either the darker 'Mongol' sauce or the lighter 'Kanto' sauce). At this point you WILL want to surrender decisively, and they'll politely deliver a small dish of almond tofu and the crazily low bill.

Gurunabi has a coupon.

Edoshigusa, Kanda (江戸しぐさ)

In its luxurious form, the Japanese lunch box is a collection of various forms of protein. And this was a pretty luxurious form. I think I counted 5 types of protein, but let me reflect. I've developed a theory on Healthy Japanese Food over the years, mainly triggered by the fact that it's often difficult to get anything but meat and fish in restaurants. I think you're mainly supposed to eat at home, and focus on vegetables and rice. Then when you DO go out, it's an excuse to go nuts with the animal products. The Japanese restaurant industry isn't set up to cater to people who eat out all the time, but most restaurants aren't I guess.

My friend Volleyball is a good guy and very accomodating to my whims as far as needing to eat in new restaurants. On this day I promised him some exercise and a brand-new experience - we went to a sector of the map that's been conspicuously empty for some time. I maintain that this is a prefectly respectable way to choose places for lunch. If you haven't been there, you don't know what's there, so you may as well have a look.

Now I know why the map was empty - there's no there there. We checked a couple streets and found them mostly empty except for small office buildings (i.e., the non-food-court variety). Volleyball even popped in to a Western-looking law firm fo terrorize the receptionist with a request for a restaurant recommendation (she came up with Champs de Soleil, not a bad effort but of course strictly off-limits) before heading back to this place on the main street that we had noted by its eNORmous white lantern proclaiming the name Edoshigusa.

That name turns out to mean something like 'Edo philosophy' or 'common sense' or 'the ethic of hospitality and customer service of Old Edo', which is odd when you consider that this place is very modern and smooth. We sat on low white leatherette chairs, the kind where one arm is removed so you can get cozy with your neighbor if that's of interest (it wasn't). And the menu features a number of normal-looking sets (fried chicken, grilled fish) plus the Special Bento.

Special it was. At Y1200, this place is a good find albeit really really far from the office. In addition to the neccessaries of rice and soup, this lovely bento included:
- Cold boiled pork slices with sesame sauce and boiled cabbage
- Grilled beef wrapped around boiled burdock root
- Boiled chicken and vegetables
- Grilled miso-marinated salmon
- Fish cake, amusingly cut thin and sandwiching a bit of sour plum paste
- Omelette and various pickles

Lordy, 6 types of protein, all of them nicely-cooked. That was a pleasant lunch, in good company.

Sounds kinda like something something you'd squeeze into a drink, shigusa

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Istanbul, Yurakucho

Ethnic food is a source of continued confusion to me in Japan. In my mind, it doesn't include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French, Italian and American. And it definitely includes Thai, Vietnamese and other, rarer, Southeast Asian foods. Things get fuzzy when we talk about Eurasia, as I think the actual cultures do as well. Istanbul (not Constantinople) being the meeting point of East and West, cultural mishmash, etc., it's perhaps most fair to call Turkish food Ethnic.

But the odd thing about ethnic food is the value implication. This may be a result of growing up in New Jersey, where Greek food is fairly common (cooked by Greeks running faux-Italian restaurants, in my case) and Mexican food at low, low prices has become common. The Japanese have a different perception - it's exotic, and that means you can get away with charging a good bit more for it. I think you see where I'm going with this, so I'll stop (and this was the interesting observation for this post, BTW).

Istanbul is located in the middle of Yurakucho's Corridor Street, which forms the Western border of Ginza. Despite the weak experience I had last time I went to a restaurant in the area, I'm forced to admit that it's a cool, cool street - lots of interesting and reasonable places to eat (the Spanish place and the new bistro look especially promising, as does the budget-priced washoku course place at the north end). But for this evening, it was Turkish.

They have some funny stuff - high-end Turkish wine plus the more expected low-end Turkish liquor arak. With apologies to the Turks (and the Iranians, and anyone else who drinks it in this form), I'd have to say that I prefer my anise-based liquors to be smoother and sweeter, be it in pastis or sambuca. The arak at Istanbul was noticably harsh even when mixed with soda. But hey, what's ethnic food without ethnic drinks?

The food here was very enjoyable. The dolmades aren't called dolmades, because it's a Turkish restaurant, but they're still grape leaves stuffed with flavored rice and soaked in something yummy. The assorted dips were also good, especially with the fresh pitas that you can order up at will. The piece de resistance, as it were, was the Iskender Kebab, which is a whole buncha grilled lamb sliced off the skewer and topped with yogurt and sauce. It's definitely the way to go if you can't get a gyro.

When in Turkey...

Shahi Dawat, Kanda (シャヒ・ダワット)

I reached several resolutions over lunch today, my friends.

The first is that I need to do something more interesting with these posts. Daily mediocre lunches are getting tiring for me, so I shudder to think what they're like for you. I pledge that I will include at least one thing in every post that I judge interesting, or else I'll label the post clearly as 'boring' so you can come back another day. This will not be a boring post (in my judgement).

The second, inspired by this George Orwell essay from 1946, is that I need to make a concerted effort to inject simplicity into my writing, or perhaps to infuse it with brevity. No, scratch that - I need to write simply and clearly.

Today was the first incidence of someone refusing to have lunch with me because of the no-repeats rule. He wanted to repeat a very nice curry place that we went to recently. I offered to find another curry place, or anything else he wanted, but never heard back. Big boo hoo! To make myself feel better, I found the highest-rated curry place in Kanda and I went there. In the process, I found a blog all about curry in Kanda. Their current review is Go-Go Curry. Looking at a Major Curry still makes me feel queasy after the time I got sick on one in Akiba.

Is this simpler? I'm not sure. Well, let me carry on with a quick overview of the food before I get to the interesting part. I had the Special Set, three types of curry plus naan or rice, plus a tiny cabbage salad served in a metal cup with traditional Indian Thousand Island dressing. You can choose your three curries from chicken, lamb, veg, seafood and daily special (spinach, already finished). The naan wasn't enough to finish three cups of curry, so I got a half-plate of rice that they charged an extra Y100 for. By the length and smell, it was actual basmati rice, and I didn't mind paying for that in comparison to the glutinous short-grain rice many people serve with their curries. The flavors were a bit sweet and a bit bland. Vegetable curry in particular seems to be an excuse in Japan for restaurants to put frozen vegetables into generic curry. The seafood was strongly flavored with shrimp and white fish flavors (though without much meat), so I'd recommend that in the future.

Great, here's what I found interesting. The people were noticably different from those in normal restaurants - light skin and almost surly demeanor; definitely disinterested. I thought they looked more northern than most Indian restauranteurs. The decorations of the place also looked northern, like the bright rainbow colors of the tassles hung on the wall. To finish the thought, I finally noticed a small poster for Khukuri Coronation Rum. You may know this as the dagger-shaped bottle that hangs behind the bar at Fal, or else the bottle that Lil' Wolf received as a present from his friend - it's Nepalese rum. Turned out they were Nepalese. I sure don't think the food had anything to do Nepal, but that's a hazard of opening an ethnic restaurant in a foreign country - you need to dip a bit towards the most readily-remembered country and cuisine in your native region.

Khukuri Rum's bottle is shaped like a khukuri, which is the curved, leaf-shaped dagger used by the famous British Gurkha army regiments. Gurkhas are one of the Indian ethnic groups (in this case from the north and Nepal) formed by a loose combination of religion, geography and race (I'm thinking of Sikhs here especially, but you could say similar things about, ohhh, Patels or Jains or Jews. Though different in each case.). The British army designated them as a 'Martial Race', which I imagine is shorthand for 'Blimey, those little brown buggers will fight like the very devil himself in our armies for almost no pay! What ho!', and they served in the British Indian Army and now both the British and independent Indian armies. They were in the news in May as the UK government awarded residency rights to any Gurkhas who served more than 4 years (which they would not otherwise have had, being likely Nepalese, which was pretty cheeky of the UK seeing as they were fighting for Blighty and all that rot). This campaign was amusingly figureheaded by Joanna Lumley (Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, minor Bond Girl part, "You've Got Mail" voice for AOL in the UK) since she was born in Kashmir while her father served in a Gurkha regiment.

Heavens, I could free-associate like this all day. Well, at least one of us finds it interesting. I hope the above has been clear, if not brief.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dandolo Dandolo, Nihonbashi

What's a dandolo? I presume it's something Italian, but I'm not going to look it up, because I find my reimaging funnier. It reminds of the word 'dandle' and a quick google of that yielded not the song I was thinking of, but some results for dolls with 'rump actuated sound generators'. That's a good one!

I strayed pretty far from home today, and found this place on a tiny street that had a high number of restaurants. They had all lined up their sandwich boards cutely in a row near the entrance off of Chuo Dori (near Shin Nihonbashi station, another perlexing twist in the extent of geography that goes by the name Nihonbashi). Dandolo^2 turned out to be a tiny doorway surrounded by flowers leading down some steep steps, and that plus the overall comforting nature of Italian food was enough for me.

This place is distinctly cheap Italian. If I could read the Concept section of the web site, I bet that in addition to 'regional Venetian cooking', it would say 'damn cheap'. The 'E' lunch set I had (Y1250) featured a starter plate with a small salad, a slice of raw fish, and a piece of toast with tuna-heavy potato salad, then a mixed plate with a heaping portion of spaghetti (you can choose from the 3 pastas offered at various price points in sets A through D) Amatriciana, heavy on the bacon and sweet with either cooked tomato or sugar (I liked it but I'm betting on sugar) AND a pan-fried breaded chicken breast topped with basil, mozz and tomato (I should remember the name of this). Did anyone follow that sentence?

The two staff were pleasant and attentive despite the fact that it was almost 2 when I got there, and the room is sorta tiled in a Tuscan way and decorated with lots of pictures of Venice. A very adequate lunch, but a looong way from the office.

When I was a little bitty baby,

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sol Amigo, Kanda

The recently Asia-jet-setting friend formerly known as Preacher, or sometimes Cheese Farmer, is here on a business trip (which we hope will be a frequent event) and we went out to eat. I finally made good on my desire to drag someone up to Kanda at night! It's very bright and busy, but in a distinctly seedy way - lots of hostesses on the streets touting for clubs. A little sad, but at least they're not Nigerian like in 'Pong.

We dithered over a bunch of mediocre-looking izakaya before we saw a place that billed itself as a 'Mexican Izakaya', and Preacher couldn't go past it, and I was happy with it for comedy value since I assumed it would do little to shake my conviction that there is No Mexican Food In Tokyo (and no, I still haven't been to the place in Harajuku). The first of many funny quotes surfaced at that point, a variation on the standard "I'll get back on the diet tomorrow!". We sat on the second floor, which was small but still empty, and enjoyed the MTV Unplugged Greatest Mexican Hits that they were playing in HD Widescreen 5.1 on a massive plasma screen hung on the wall. Diverse, funny stuff. I especially like how Mexican artists are still quite close to roots music, so everyone thinks it's good to stick in a little acoustic flourish with some traditional instruments during their set, even if they're quite rock-y for the rest of it.

Regarding drinks, they have lots of Mexican beers for around Y700. While that's offensive if you consider the quality, you'll feel better when you think about the price of Mexican beers at other establishments, or in fact Belgian beer prices. They also have a healthy cocktail selection, so Preacher ordered up two frozen margaritas and we were off! Actually we weren't, because they couldn't make frozen margaritas, so we just had plan soda instead.

This was funny too - the waiter came back after a minute and told us (in oddly good English) that if we ordered one drink each, all food was half price. [I now see that this is their Gurunavi weeknight coupon offer as well.] Doesn't seem like a great proposition when a drink is the same price as two menu items, but that was their offer. Still, we were too let down by the lack of blender, and stuck with the water. The waiter brought it, and at the same time informed us that they were going to charge us Y350 for the water, but that all the food would then be half price, if that was OK. Errrrr, sure! Let me interject, the staff was extremely friendly and cheerful. It was nice just looking at them.

We ended up getting one of everything that looked palatable on the menu - burrito, tacos, chimichanga, avocado salad, fajitas, queso fundido, chorizo...It was all recognizably Mexican-influenced, some of it was good, and each was Y6-700. I liked the tortillas a lot (fresh and warm with several of the items), especially smeared with the baked cheese, various fajita bits, and a liberal slather of green Tabasco. I ended up using a LOT of that green Tabasco, now that I think about it. Nothing had the faintest hint of cilantro.

This did nothing to shake my conviction that there is No Mexican Food...etc., but I enjoyed it quite a bit, and the bill after discount was just over Y3000 for 4 soda-waters (from the gun, not bottled sparkling) and the 7 dishes above. Could have fed 4 smaller people, but not two huge foreign barbarians like us. Ha!

Sol Brutha numero uno

Hide, Kyobashi (秀)

Nice weather and a ready bike always make me want to venture farther away from the office. I want to stress that it has very little to do with finding new places, which is not a challenge - there are still 3 places right in my building that I haven't been to yet! Today I went over to Yaesu and tried to find something in the south extent of the area. After being turned away from an interesting-looking Kyoto-style sushi place (if it's full at 1:30, it must be pretty good), I settled on this old-fashioned tempura place.

The chef and staff seemed a little surprised to see me come in - maybe it was the lateness of the hour. In fact, the chef had already turned off the burners under the fryers, and as a result had to heat them up again. He also made new batter, which was nice.

The super-special (特上) tempura bowl called my name, mainly because it was late, I was hungry, and everything looked kinda cheap so I figured I'd get one of the larger items. For Y1000, this came with 2 shrimps, a big piece of eel, a small whitefish (kisu, as you'd expect), a piece of eggplant and 3 long greenbeans, all batter and fried. I felt a little guilty about eating so much meat until I realized it was all fish! In short, the fry wasn't crisp, the sauce wasn't flavorful, and the soup was very bland despite having quite a bit of miso. I was pretty surprised at how lackluster it was, actually.

This is the price you pay for trying a different place every day. Some days are good, a lot of days not so much. But there are still plenty of very decent-looking places out there, and I'm not stopping yet (at least not for the next 8 days until I go on holiday).

秀 the salami?
Excellent review here, including pix of the outside and the exact food that I ate

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hibiki, Marunouchi (響)

Monday nights out always get me kinda down, and it sure doesn't help when they're for work. Nevertheless, this turned out pretty well, more for work reasons than food reasons. Hibiki is best described as a chain izakaya gone upscale - it's attractive and well-presented, but there's something pretty soul-less about it that shows through in the freshness and taste of the food.

But hey, it's owned by our important clients over at Suntory Group (though the direct parent is Dynac Corporation; I'll draw you an entity diagram if you want), and so it's a preferred destination. With money comes access to design, and that means you get a lot of glass, faux-natural stonework, polished wood, and attractive flower arrangements. I sound like I'm complaining, but I really shouldn't be. Really, the only tip that this is a corporate place is that it's too big! If they did a series of small places just like it, I'd probably love them all. We had a private room, a big horikotatsu table that could seat 10 or 12 in a pinch, and it had nice rough-fabric walls and a cool dried-flowers-in-a-huge-vase display at the far end. Good stuff.

The food is pretty good, in a tick-the-boxes way. As I sometimes say, this would be a great place to introduce visitors to the diversity of Japanese cuisine in a modern yet 'Japanese' environment. The tofu comes out in a big, fresh-carved lump on a bamboo zaru strainer, with bits of bean still obvious in it and only a plate of roughly chopped scallions and some sea salt as accompaniment (I'm just being poetic. You can put soy sauce on it if you want.). Water eggplant is peeled in strips, sliced, then the slices are cut in half and it's stuffed with chopped myoga. The Kyoto Vegetable Salad was really just greens in a light dressing; when you consider the plethora of wacky yellow carrots, black radishes and giant peppers that abound down there, this seems a shame. Okala, the grainy remnants of soybeans that have been pulverized for their milk to make tofu, was mixed with beans, seaweed and shredded carrot, then coated and fried to make croquettes. A good departure from normal was the ability to order grilled tuna head - not the whole thing, but big, dark, meaty pieces (which smelled awfully fishy, and I skipped them). The sashimi was the biggest letdown - nothing really wrong, just a lack of flavor that didn't match the fresh appearance. Too bad.

The drinks list is pretty broad and not too big; of course they feature Premium Malt's, my new favorite mainstream beer (it's Suntory), and we enjoyed both the free bottle of wine that we got from the Gurunavi coupon (!) and the bottle of California zinfandel that we paid up for afterward.

Yeah, this has been a hopelessly mixed review, hasn't it? It was OK, and some things were fresh and good, but based on the size of the bill, I would never go back. Better to take your chances on two cheap, dirty and promising places somewhere else...

That's a pretty sweet kanji, doncha think?

Kanzan Ramen, Kanda (神山)

This was recommended some time ago, and it’s taken me all the way up to the hottest part of the year to stop in and try it. I'm pleased to say I had the same reaction as Lost Squirrel - it's all about the pork. Now, he lists BBQ as one of his favorite foods, which I forgot until now, and again I thought of nothing much while eating Kanzan's chashu except "this is the best barbeque ever". Then again, it's been a really long time since I had barbeque.

Kanzan is a bit on the modern side (black walls), but it's still a counter ramen place. One cool feature is that the stool, which are generally fixed to the floor in ramen places, tilt back here (unless I just broke mine). That makes it a lot easier to sit down and/or stretch, which is welcome when working through a big bowl of noodles.

Really, please get something with the roast pork. You'll see it after a while - there are big strips of it sitting along the wall, under heaters. They're 3-inch wide pieces of pork belly, evidently seared or something so that a bit of the fat comes out, but most of it is trapped inside a crust of caramelized skin (and I don't use the word 'caramelized' as lightly as people seem to these days) and everything melts together sweetly. I got tsukemen, so the pork wasn't swimming in soup, and I have to think this improved the experience for me by not dilluting the flavor even a little.

The soup was decent too. It's very strong (since it's tsukemen) and porky, to the point that it's a bit cloying and even sweetish towards the end; getting cold (again, tsukemen) doesn't help either, but I thought I was better served on August 17th by having cold noodles to put in the hot soup rather than sweating like a (roast) pig over the lunch hour. The soup also has little bits of pork floating in it, which taste just fine on their own.

The thick, eggy noodles are lackluster. They're mainly a vehicle for the pork, I guess. Oh, since I got the Kanzan Tsukemen, the noodles came with a raw egg broken on top - improved slimy texture, I suppose. The menma were pretty good.

And that, my friends, is that. The barbeque pork was outstanding and worth going back for, the soup pretty good, and the noodles disappointingly generic.

All about da boo.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Le Jardin, Yoga

Setagaya Art Museum is good for a visit. It's a healthy walk away from Yoga, and that healthy walk, if done properly on the smaller streets and not on the 6-lane monsters that cut through the area, will be almost unconscionably pleasant. It will include cobbled streets with architectural details at every corner, water features, and various goblin heads. It will also include a short tour of Kinuta Park, famous as one of the best places to drink under cherry trees in an environment that's at once beautiful and yet more family-oriented and manageable than Ueno Park. The museum is in the northeast corner of the park, and the restaurant is in the northeast corner of the museum.

Actually I don't know if that's true, but it makes for good copy, and I wouldn't want facts to get in the way of a good story. The architecture of the museum reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright in some ways, featuring as it does big concrete trellises partially shading walkways (I remember this as being like Taliesin West, but it's now been just over 15 years since I was there). On other ways, it reminds me of other things - the triangle / square motifs that appear everywhere inside and out seem much like the hastily-assembled signifiers of an alien city in Doctor Who. None of this is going anywhere, but it's fun to reminisce.

The restaurant is of the Japanese museum restaurant variety. This means the tablecloths are plastic-reinforced and stain resistant but heavily used and somehow hinting at faint stains. The food is equally a bit tepid, but when it's burning hot outside and you can (after a short wait) have a table to yourself to look out at the collonades of an alien city and the pale cool green lawns beyond, and the fine bright clean bones of the...oh, you didn't want a Hemmingway review? Here are some pictures.

Roll cake with chestnuts. a bit of icing, two kinds of cake, and two pieces of chestnut, nothing one way or the other (except a welcome burst of sugar). Someone should tell the chef that mango sauce may look nice, but really doesn't go with everything in the kitchen.

Pear tart, a lesser example of the species but again a welcome sugar hit. The crust was pretty good.

What the heck are these berries? The look like something from a bush that I was told never to eat as a kid. It was the prefect roundess and deep color that attracted me then as it did on this day...and these little balls of redness were as noxious as I imagine the others in Glassboro, NJ must have been. I'm afraid that I failed to eat 4 of the pictures berries, which you may know is quite a feat and a departure for me.

Hey, this was great! You probably would need to live in Japan for a while to appreciate how and why it was great, but the opportunity to sit and look at decent scenes and eat OK snacks is not something you get every day here.

In other news, the ostensibly French menu (backed by bottle of Veuve and Krug, no less) had been temporarily expanded. In honor of the 20th-Century Mexican Paintings exhibit, they had no less than 5 Mexican items including the exotic and nutritious 'tacos'.

Ooh, you can see in this picture the 'Prarie Style Alien City' features that I was making such a big deal about. I always find that long, insightful pieces of writing result in severe disappointment when I later encounter the object that they reviewed. And wow, they also temporarily had a Mexican Dinner Show!

Southern Dining, Yoga

After getting off the train in Sakura Shinmachi to look for a place to eat lunch, I have the following observation: the best thing to do is to start walking, and don't stop until you get to Yoga. Yoga is a pleasant and leafy suburb in the (to me) Far West of Tokyo. Other people would say that I live in the Far East, and that the Far West doesn't start for an hour past Yoga, but it's those little differences of opinion that make life so interesting. Sunday was brutally hot on the street, and we walked up and down a bunch of central Yoga byways. We were continually tantalized and cruelly disappointed by the plethora of alternately quaint and stylish places that were both open and had boards outside saying 'Menu' - they're ALL hair salons. It's a pretty safe bet that if you see a place that looks like a cafe with terrific atmosphere and maybe good food in Japan, it's a hair salon.

Southern Dining looked a lot like a hair salon but was blissfully food-purveying, and open, and with free tables. It has a sort of blue-and-yellow theme, and I want to say it's faintly nautical but I don't know why. In addition, the music on the overheads seemed to be Southern All-Stars throughout, so maybe it's a theme place. They have only two other stores.

The weirdest thing was how tasty it was. The 'petite course' lunch started off with a dull salad and a mediocre cup of hot soup, then got pretty good with this (store?) smoked duck. I think they did it themselves because you don't usually get thick fat like this on a commercial smoked duck, but it was soft and tasty in any case, and I liked the light pink color and mustard sauce.

This snapper was excellent, and you can't even see the big piece of snapper due to the fresh shellfish nuggets gettin' all busy on top of it. And the potato. Seriously, the mussels were extremely plump and fresh the clams and shrimp good but less notably so. The snapper was maybe stewed in the oily, rich tomato sauce, and as a result it was flaky, moist and snapp-a-licious. A-rific.

There are only so many adjectives one can use to describe pieces of fish, or in fact dishes, over and over again. The pictures tell the story, as does the overall 'it was good' rating. This was an extremely nice surprise, situated in an otherwise fairly quiet area dining-wise and being of a type that I don't generally expect to deliver a whole lot.

Tastes even better in Downward Dog.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Torisuzu, Ningyocho (とり鈴)

It's probably not a good idea to read too much into names, but in this case I can't help it. What do you make of a restaurant called 'Chicken Bell'? This seemed funnier when I was there, but now that I think about it, this is probably a combination of the tendency to name a majority of chicken places 'Chicken [ ]' and the owners name. He could be Belltree or something. In the same way, a lot of eel places feature names that start with 'U' or 'Una' (the beginning of 'unagi'), even though the names don't make that much sense in total. If I ever open a chicken restaurant, I think I'll call it Chicken Jon.

Torisuzu is this kind of place - a little dark, a little atmospheric, two private rooms, a weird two-level system that makes the master and waitress constantly call into an intercom for drinks and raw materials to be sent from elsewhere, and special deals since it was the Friday during Obon.

It's also this kind of place - some nice pottery including this bent pot all set to receive your used bamboo skewers (from the frid chickins) and this cute carrot plate. I am, it must be said, a sucker for plates with little bright vegetables on them. I've admitted it to myself over time.

The food looks kind like the below - water eggplant in a little sauce (much more forgettable than those I had earlier in the week in Tsukishima), attractively-cut sanma (the brightness and meatiness of the colors are almost unsettling, aren't they?), and chicken tataki (despite the dashi jelly, which tasted for all the world like beef jerky to me, this was kinda gross since it included a lot of tendon bits and muscle casings. Raw chicken should be soft and smooth for optimium enjoyment...).

Getting into cooked food, here's a 'plum grill', piece of chicken tenderloin barely cooked, then topped with sour plum paste, shaved dried fish and green onions. Pretty good. Frid chickin was really juicy (which means melted fat, I know) and the crust had an appealingly crunchy graininess.

This being a chicken place, they had yakitori. Just a few samples. Their version of meatballs are on the left and were interesting because they were light and herby yet strongly flavored. I would almost think there was some liver in the mix, now that I think about it. Other than that, you've got a stick of chicken butts and another of 'head', which in yakitori-speak thankfully means just 'regular chicken meat'.

Nothing wrong here, and pleasant considering that the yakitori was half-price to compensate for the deadness of the evening (for a US comparison, this night was a little like the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving). The intercom and dumbwaiter system didn't work that well, and the waitress was perpetually stressed as a result, but it was an OK place and a nice excuse to put another pin in the map for Ningyocho.

Hey Belltree, nice chicken nuggets ya got there.

Marushige, Kanda (丸重)



Today felt like a vegetable day, then a meat day, and finally, by the time I left the office, I knew it was going to be a Fried Meat day. And since I somewhat disdain lesser fried meats like mince-katsu, that usually means tonkatsu (not that it's that often). After wavering a little between Yaesu and the usual, I went up toward the usual - east-side Kanda.

It was actually not that easy to find a place. I try to avoid the places that have a mishmash of things from tonkatsu to sashimi to chicken; figure it's better if they focus. And at last I noticed this grubby old place that had the special patina only years of deep-frying can give (though I don't recommend it as an aging treatment if you're young and trying to make people believe your ID is real).

Maruju has great atmosphere. When you open the door, there's no one there to greet you, just a sign saying 'Tempura this way, Tonkatsu that way'. It's exactly that - one floor of each in a duplex building. Not sure if it's two restaurants, but it's certainly two different masters, and they both welcome you from their respective counters when you enter.

The food, like the brown walls and vintage posters, is unashamedly retro. I had a nice big katsu ('Pine' size, but nothing to do with the size of eel boxes) that was excellent, sweet, juicy meat, and somehow the fry coating managed to integrate batter and breadcrumbs in a delightful way that gave it a faint (and tantalizing) hint of fried chicken. Yum. A big bowl of soup was tonjiru (i.e. miso soup but with wedges of daikon and carrot and pieces of bacon), the rice was to be topped with an open bowl of furikake on the table, and the tea was green. I like their sauce, which probably means it's sweeter than most. What can I say, I like sugar! The pickles were idiosyncratic - they came in cylindrical metal bowls, on a tray, one per table. In addition to the standard napa cabbage pickles, there was some other white thing pickled in wasabi and sake lees. The waitress will be impressed if you know what this is, and she'll go tell the other waitress and the master, and they'll all peer surreptitiously at you for a while until you growl like the exotic and endangered animal you are (at least in east-side Kanda) and go back to chewing your fresh-killed pork.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

U-miya, Yaesu (う~みや)

Notable today is...the heat. I definitely feel like I'm melting after walking back from lunch. Still, I like the fact that lunch can include 20 or 30 minutes of walking. It's good to burn off some lunch, and excellent practice should one be approaching a period in one's life where one will need to walk a lot around an exotic destination in high heat. Barcelona, say.

Also notable is that I don't think EOITwJ has ever featured Okinawan food. That's all about to change, though not in an exciting way. Just in a weird way, which is what Okinawan food always is to me.

What's famous there? There's the healthy diet, which makes people live longer than anywhere in the world. And that healthy diet consists of a lot of pork, some scrambled eggs, a bit of veg, and a lot of the local distilled spirit, awamori. Famous dishes? chanpuru, which is bitter gourd slices (they're seriously bitter. Don't try this at home or you'll think you've done something wrong.), and scrambled egg, and spam, and tofu and some other vegetables. Pan-fried.

So I don't know if it's famous there, but out of sheer contrariness I ordered the 'taco rice' at U-miya (the menu, like the name, features lots of elongated syllables - the name is like ooooo-me-a, and they describe dishes as oooooomai and such. Again, I don't know if this is dialect or what.). Taco in this case is not octopus, like it was on Sunday night when I bought some fresh octopus and stewed it up in Jon's Own Tomato Sauce (I recommend pounding it first so it comes out with that soft, chicken-y texture that I love). Taco in this case means you're going to take some white rice and top it with stuff that you'd put in a taco. Ground meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese. A little salsa. Don't ask me, but it's fairly common in Japan. It reminds me of the 80's, when Mexican and Italian foods were 'ethnic' instead of just plain old food. Come to think of it, the Shop Rite in Glassboro still has a kinda Italian Specialties aisle, but I support this strongly because it has roasted peppers and big jars of artichokes and stuff, not Prince Spaghetti masquerading as authentic Italian goodness.

I digress. There wasn't much to report on the taco rice here; it was fine and came with a bowl of soup (delicious soup, with weird thick handmade noodles) and a piece of sponge cake. It was good enough that I wasn't too tempted to detour through Daimaru and buy some macarons on the way back.

I told a lie. I went to Urizun in Shin Maru a couple months ago, and I really liked it. That's the only other Okinawan place though, I promise.

A thousand pardons.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Masuya, Tsukishima (ますや)

Yeah, this does indeed mean that I went back to roam around Tsukishima for a second night. I had seen Masuya on the previous evening and liked the seriously down-home look - brown country-style sliding door, extra supplies piled outside, lively sounds from within. And hey, what are Wednesdays for?

Inside was indeed more homey than Sakura - mainly because it was almost full. The L-shaped counter had about 10 people at it, and they filtered in and out over the course of dinner. The menu was a whiteboard that the master and his wife would take down and pass around when someone needed it, and was a pleasantly disorganized collection of normal fish and izakaya stuff, with lots of options for how you could get your fish cooked and a few fried things thrown in.

Mixed sashimi (if you ever eat at an izakaya with me, I guarantee we'll have some mixed sashimi) started things off - suzuki and shime saba (and I don't guarantee, but will give odds, that we'll have shime saba). These were both OK, flirting with being good while not actually doing it. Summer problem? Sourcing issues? Dunno. Sashimi is served with fresh seaweed here (aonori) which is a nice little condiment. Had a small boiled fish later (a kinki, in fact, and I only mention it because I love saying it); boiled is a misnomer since it's simmered in soy sauce and the other standard Japanese cooking liquids. This was a very good fish, smooth and buttery, but I felt like his cooking liquor was a little weak and uninspired.

As with the previous night, vegetables were a high point. In this case it was the eggplant - a whole 'water eggplant' (水ナス) that had been lightly pickled and then broken apart into wedges by hand. Served with hot mustard, it was textural, flavorful, satisfying and summery. Boiled spinach was dull.

This was an OK place, with some good food. The master turned out to be less outgoing, which is too bad, and the other customers weren't of the 'tease and feed the foreigner' variety, which was also too bad. Oh, and when I asked for sake, I asked for 'dry and light' and the master said "We don't have anything like that. What do you want, cold sake? He served a sweet, heavy one that was pretty lousy. And there was one fun surprise at the end - the bill was 30 or 40% higher than I expected.

Well, live and learn. Next time in Tsukishima, Monja!

The Lobby Lounge (Shangri La), Tokyo

A series of difficult or distressing meetings and emails? Too much fish food? Whatever the reason, I set out for a late lunch with a deep desire to eat a burger, and a mild disappointment that I was unable to think of a (new) place to do it. I had resolved to walk to Yaesu and bum around, feeling like I would again fail and end up eating cheap fried food, when it came to me: hotels always have burgers. Truly words to conjure by. And then I realized that I was walking perilously close to the Tokyo Shangri La (tucked away somewhat secretively to the left and behind the Tokyo Station northside bus terminal), and in I went.

The lobby's on the 28th floor, folks, that's the first point to keep in mind. I stood in the elevator for a few seconds while I figured out which button to push. But once I got up there, it was the usual otherworldly expensive hotel experience, and with views to boot. I approached the reception desk, feeling guilty about all the people speaking English to me, and said "I'd like to eat a hamburger." They steered me toward the lobby restaurant.

Second point for you to keep in mind - if you go here, do it with someone else. The tables are predominantly next to the windows, but they're all 4-tops, and the staff will refuse to give them to you if you're alone. Even when they're empty and it's 1:30. It's well worth sitting at the windows - the views are totally groovy. I'm not even sure which direction it was; probably southwest since there were no big buildings or water visible. But all the chairs are big and well-stuffed and covered with something alternately smooth or velvety, and it's all perfect for settling in, watching the well-heeled customers on vacation for Obon (most of them looked Japanese), and waiting for your burger. Even if you had to sit at the bar it could be OK - the chandelier that hangs over most of the bar is a stunning confection made of 890 ginko leaf-shaped pieces of cut crystal (OK, I stole some of that from their decsription, but it really was stunning and kept me staring at it). One of the ridiculously happy waitresses brought me the condiments while the burger cooked - a four-part polished wood tray with ketchup, mayonaise and two kinds of mustard.

As with a lot of luxury burgers, this was a luxury concoction. An excellent, eggy bun was toasted well, and on it a roundish, lumpy patty of beef was topped with onions and lettuce. The menu didn't say that the beef was Kobe, but the juciness and flavor were startling. I'd would have preferred it to be flatter and more solid for easier eating, and more charred to get a grilling fix, but the beef quality was great. The menu said the onions were grilled, but I'm pretty sure they were actually poached in red wine; they were like little pink slivers with a mild onion flavor. Satisfying. Good.

The fries were lame. No other way to put it - thick, square-cut pieces of sweet potato that had been grilled, not fried, and sprinkled with a bit of spice. Just lame. The side salad of baby leaves and sprouts was nice enough.

The whole experience was OK - you can see out the windows from anywhere in the restaurant, which is spectacular, and the internal environment and service are alternately beautiful and comforting. I felt much better when I left - it was somehow easier to walk. Maybe it was the hole in my wallet.

Glad I don't have to go back to this place...
(81 3) 6739 7888

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sakura, Tsukishima (さくら)

Through a weird series of searches on the Google, I came upon this guy Nick's post for a nice-looking restaurant specializing in mass quantities of off-cuts of good fish. And I gotta admit, I was seduced by his approach of posting only a shot of the street outside the restaurant and not its name or address...especially since I immediately recognized the street and figured it couldn't be that hard to find the place.

Well, an hour later, I was still failing (it turned out to be on a completely different street, not the pictured one or its tributaries) but having a terrific time. Walking or rolling, in my case) around Tsukishima at night is a lot of fun - the alleys off Monja Dori are tiny, often crowded with plants that residents are growing in pots outside their houses, and give a great indication of old Tokyo, the early industrial period. These alleys usually have one or two small restaurants each, and though some of those are also monja, some of them are not.

And I already had my monja for the year. So I was more in line for the places that call themselves 'Fish Cuisine', serving things presumably bought just across the bridge in Tsukiji. I eventually settled on Sakura because it seemed a notch or two above some others - no cases of beer sitting outside for storage, a clean front, wooden door, nice noren, etc. Inside was more of the same - light blue, woven cloth wallpaper, some traditional decorations and tacky figurines...all the basics. The master got up from the counter where he was reading a weekly magazine and headed behind the counter to serve me.

I've said recently, summer just isn't the time for fish. He had a good selection of fresh things, and I got a mixed sashi assortment, but there wasn't a lot to recommend it. Fresh, just not that tasty. The aburi shime saba was interesting - it's rare to see someone take a mackerel filet, pickle it and then lightly grill the non-skin side. The nuka zuke (vegetables pickled in fermented rice bran) was very good though, and of course made me feel healthy and happy. I finished things off with a piece of grilled salmon belly (harasu) that was absolutely great - dark red color, seared outside and meltingly fatty inside. It was a little disappointing that the master had no idea where it came from or even if it was farmed or caught, but that's a good reminder to focus on flavor and not provenance as your indicator of deliciocity.

Prices are a touch high here, so I can't really envision a repeat visit - too many Monzen Nakacho places call for my custom! But everyone should see Tsukishima at least once. It's charming, the people are friendly, and whether you eat monja or fish food, a great experience.

More Fish Food.

Gyosai Tozai, Kanda (魚采東西)

After a brief respite, Kanda lunches resumed today with this recommendation from Waka-pon, herself resuming in the office after a short trip to the country. I do love it when people recommend places, especially when they're new to me, and even more when they help to fill in areas on the map that are somewhat lacking in pins.

Incidentally, I'd like to point out to everyone that you can zoom in on the map so that the pins look less dense. Or zoom out. It's set up so you can use the mouse wheel to do that in addition to the little +/- buttons. Or you can roll your mouse over the Internet Hyperlink above the map titled "View the Full Screen Map" and left-click to make your Internet Browser open an embiggened version of the map. It's easy and fun to use!

Was there a lunch amid all this snidity?

Gyosai has a limited number of lunch sets, but the offer good value and variety. The Daily Lunch feature grilled salmon, a small plate of nimono in soup (chicken, carrot, chikuwa, konnyaku), some pickles, soup and rice. The Hamburger set, believe it or not, also included a fried shrimp and a small piece of fried white fish, in addition to cabbage, soup, rice, etc. This is salaryman dining at its finest.

Being underground, poorly lit and cool, with an odd jail-like ambience coming from the black-vertical-slats decor, it's not the most welcoming of destinations. That probably explains one of the best features - lots of empty tables! The food was better than the emptiness would indicate, so this is an OK place to go, especially when you can't venture farther into the exciting delights of Kanda.

Ehh, it's a lunch.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Asaji, Otemachi

haha, if you have to mess something up, do it right! Depending on your definitions, I may have eaten today at a place that I went to before - when it was in a different building and had a different menu and decor entirely. Well, I'll chalk that up to experience.

The basement-dwellers of the grubby old JA building packed up and moved en masse a few months ago to the spanking-and-sparkling clean, snappily-designed new JA building two blocks away. This blog has some neat pre-move-in pictures of the building and food corridor, and I can tell you from experience that the office areas and building in general are very modern and soothing. Scrap-and-build has its advantages.

For some reason I was without direction today (the pounding rain all morning from Typhoon 9 washed away the motivation?), and it came to mind that I would eat yoshoku if I could find it. Well, if you try to find something in Tokyo, it will come to one form or another, and the JA Building basement had a yoshoku place. It turns out that Asaji, the tile-floored, brightly-lit, vaguely Tuscan establishment offering pastas and cutlets, is the same Asaji that used to be dim and dingy, with brown-framed windows and lace curtains facing the smoke-stained JA basement hallway. Who woulda thought? I didn't recognize the chicken cutlet from before either, but the canned peas and carrots shoulda been a clue. To complete the yoshoku irony, I had my chicken cutlet with toast, 1-inch thick Japanese white toast lathered with margarine. Mmmmm, I love Western food!

We've established in the past that branches of the same restaurant are OK and don't count as repeats, so I guess the relevant question is whether it counts as a repeat when the old restaurant moved to the new location. Come to think of it, I don't even know if the old place is gone, and if I don't go back, I can pretend that today was just a branch encounter.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sasahana, Ginza (ささ花)

Sasahana is up in the northeast corner of The Ginza, behind Printemps or Marronier or Velvia (as you like). After seeing the door, I realized that I walked by right around the same time last year, picked up a brochure, and never thought any more of it. Glad I went back!

It's not a particularly interesting street - I back up that statement by saying that my last company party was in an adjoining building. But the door immediately gives you an indication that there's something special inside. Like the late, lamented Monya in Roppongi, when you duck under the noren, you're in a different world. The stairs curve around mysteriously, the lighting is soft and warm, and they've prepared a place for you at the counter.

There are lots of little details - like the master's special knife that he takes down only to carve sashimi for regular customers (normal folks like me get one of the assistants and a knife from the regular rack). Everything is very light but soft, with 8 seats at the counter, a table room and a horikotatsu room. Total capacity is less than 30, but hovered around 10 while I was there, which is amply covered by the 4 chefs and 2 service people. In the kitchen picture, you can see not only the knife rack but also the grill, where they continually replenish the charcoal. The diagonal thing is a tachiuo being turned over (this is seasonal, looks like a sanma, and has similarly confusing kanji - 太刀魚 instead of 秋刀魚); a steady stream of these was cooked and served, but not to me.

There are three kaiseki courses here, although it seems regulars tend to order a la carte, which is perfectly fine. Below is the mid level 'Gin' course (the name of which should be familiar if you're used to seeing 龍吟, Ryu-gin in posts by wealthy food tourists). I'm not sure how I ended up at kaiseki for this dinner; it's so hot at the moment that I didn't feel like eating much of anything, and summer generally isn't that exciting for most fish and meats. The chefs at Sasahana did a great job of turning out interesting things that were seasonal and cool though. And in a bizarre and ironic twist, given that I spent all of the preceding week eating eel for lunch, three of the courses were eel in various forms!

Above are the winter melon (tougan, 冬瓜, why the heck is a summer vegetable called 'winter'?) and roast duck, served cold and drenched in an excellent broth. The melon was barely cooked, so it was soft but the skin was still firm. That contrast really made the dish. The cocktail glass is in fact filled with cold eel, but with a nice and refreshing twist. This type of eel, hamo, is popular only in summer, and is famous for being bony - too bony to de-bone. So famous, in fact, that some makers have a special knife intended just for cutting up the bones so that the fish is edible, tiny bone fragments and all. The normal way to eat hamo is boiled and chilled, with a thick, sour plum sauce. In this case they mixed things up a touch by offering the plum as umeboshi jelly - much lighter and more sophisticated. It's these little touches, and the references contained in them, that make kaiseki a lot more fun. Third picture, sashimi. In an odd twist, the raw squid was terrific, just a great piece of squid. The flounder was also interesting because they served it with thinly sliced seaweed. A common way to eat flounder is to wrap it in seaweed for a day or two. Originally this was for preservation, now it's just because the taste is interesting and the texture firms up. But you get some of the same flavor, without the textural changes, by eating the salted seaweed tangles with it.

Hot dishes were limited in quantity, and limited to eel. The first dish is hamo; I have to say, I never liked hamo that much, but I sure do now. This was delicious - soft and flavorful and no boniness or chewiness at all. One of those moments when you say "I didn't know you could do that with this ingredient!" The soup was a different but equally excellent clear broth (not the same as the tougan), and the accompanying vegetables are simmered onions and new potato stalks (zuiki - I have to put that in because I actually still remember it. My mnemonic is "zoo ni ikimasuka?"). I cringed a little when I saw the next dish - straight up wild-caught eel roasted over charcoal with little sauce and moistened with dashi - but it was likely the best eel I had all week. Without sauce you could really taste the quality of the eels, and for some reason Sasahana had taken the care to crisp up the skin, which is a (thoroughly delicious) rarity. More of this would have been welcome, but I guess you're supposed to want more after every course. It may quite possibly have been the best eel I had all week.

After that it was back to cold things for the most part - a quick interlude of boiled spinach and fried tofu, a very homey sort of vinegar dish, was followed by the house special. This could be described as 'boiled seasonal vegetables with creamed corn', but the individually cooked and balled carrot, pumpkin, potato and eggplant, on a bed of pureed sweet corn, topped with a shrimp and a few beans, was restorative and incredibly delicious. If you get the separate dish and not the course it'll be bigger and come in a hollowed hemisphere of pumpkin, which is even better looking.

Excellent soup, almost tasted like there was consomme in the broth but I didn't ask. I should have, because the master was thoroughly accomodating and eager to answer questions in detail. The rice was good too, and I present the close-up only so you can see the fish heads, eyes and spines up close. Yum.

Dessert was a simple scoop of sesame ice cream - so humble, yet so delicious. A perfect end to a lovely meal! Just kidding. It was nice, but boring and a little icy. I just like making fun of kaiseki dessert courses and the people who claim to love them.

This was a very good restaurant! My main source of confusion was why the prices were pretty low considering the high quality. I think I understand now - the quantities are pretty low. You can eat more rice if you want, but it's a smallish meal. That would explain why the done thing is to order off the menu, as the regulars were doing. 'Regular' status is something to aspire to here; they're friendly and professional, and it would be tough not to enjoy a visit.

Awesome web site too.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Izumoya, Kanda (いづもや)

Is this the eel life?
Is this just fantasy?
- Queen

The strategy here was to save the best for last, and it seems to have worked out. This Izumoya appears to be unrelated to the (pretty good) one on the other side of the station. If you have only one meel to eet eel, (meaning you're already resigned to the prices of the little grilled beasts) this is the place to go.

We went early so we could get back for a vital meeting, which turned out to be a good thing. Some parts of the establishment were certainly full by the time we got there, and we ended up being shepherded to the separate building (they have a main building and a separate building on the same block in this minor dead zone between Kanda and the Bank of Japan) in order to have the table seating that Mitch asked for (and I preferred too!). This is a shame because the main building appears (from the look we got in the door) to be somewhat lavishly decorated in a very traditional fashion. I'd like to go there, even if it meant floor seating (OMG, I can't believe I said that).

I've discussed aspects of eel eeting all week; one that I left out is the grilling. A LOT of places grill their eels over electric coils. Yucky! Even worse, of course, is that they're really reheating the pre-grilled fillets over electric coils.). I think Izumoya uses charcoal - they show the pictures on their web site, and there's an actual roasting smell coming from the exhaust fans outside. Yummerz.

Their eel is how it oughta be. It's light yet firm, the sauce is strong but not overpowering, the fish isn't fishy, and I'll have a hard time going anywhere else after that. 5 places this week, 5 different menu structures - I sprung for the 2nd-cheapest box, but in order they were Flower Y2100, Bamboo Y2310, Chrysanthemum Y2835, and Crane Y3360. Pon, I'm afraid there's no consistency whatsoever (although you could actually argue that in this case they left out a Pine option at Y2550, which would introduce some parallels with at least a few other places). And just once, I want to see what a Crane box looks like. Liver soup is, mercifully, an optional extra at Y420, including the Y20 of tax, so we all skipped it.

I may publish a further roundup later if I get really motivated, but for now I'll ask you to be satisfied that Edo-dori Izuomya is my recommendation for Kanda eel (and in fact eel in general), unless you want something different, in which case you should have the hitsumabushi at Tamai.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, eel you do the Fandango?


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kyusuke, Ningyocho (久助)

We interrupt this interminable series of posts on eel in Kanda to bring you something that is fundamentally different (at least until lunch!) - oden in Nigyocho.

Yesterday feature a few trying times at the office, and I felt a deep need to eat out rather than salad (the verb) at home. Since I was riding my bike, plenty of destinations were open. I took the long way home and wandered through the back streets of Ningyocho. At the south end of the station there seems to be a good concentration of back streets with dining options, centered around 'Sweet Sake Lane' (or something; it really IS called 甘酒横丁). On a still summer night I love the feeling of cruising slowly through places like that on a momma-style bike.

After passing a number of attractive places, I saw on an even smaller street a little tiny-looking place. Sometimes those places are scary, but they had a cloth-wrapped bench outside for sittin', and they had a bright bare light bulb by the door, and I took those for signs that they were friendly. It looked like a converted house.

Thing is, it IS a converted house. And it might be more appropriate just say it's a HOUSE, because they did blissfully little conversion when they opened it 5 years ago. Got visitors and you want to show them what a traditional Japanese city house is like? Or have no idea yourself? This is it. Inside is a regular entryway and hall, with a tatami room on the left (come to think of it, there are only tatami rooms here) and the office / kitchen farther back. Everything is light wood that's been aged to a rich sheen by, well, age, and is lit in a bare-bulb way that makes it look somehow mellow and even older. I took off my shoes and headed upstairs.

The second floor is the main dining area, which is to say there are 4 tables there. Each of these is a big slab of rough-edged wood, and they (thankfully) supply zaisu, the 'legless chairs' that make floor seating almost tolerable (once you manage to somehow fold and squeeze your legs under the table). The room is completely authentic - a worn Chinese chest sits in the corner, the doors between the two halves of the room have been removed but the traditional carved transoms remain, the tokonoma is still there and decorated, and even the spot where one would normally expect to see the Buddhist altar remains - now occupied by the waitress's shamisen collection. Knowing what I know about shamisen, I'm surprised that she's leaving those sitting around the restaurant for patrons to stumble into, but it sure is nice. To complete the atmosphere, they play light jazz on the overhead speakers, mainly a extremely extended version of Round Midnight.

The food is, in theory, oden-based, although they'll run down the street to the main shop (not a lot bigger, but a bit more modern) for yakitori as well. And they have a quirky izakaya menu - quirky because it includes normal things like soy beans and stewed pork but also fried spring rolls and a whole section of Chinese food.

As it's summer, I can't get that excited about oden. They're simmered all day in soup, and are supposed to be hearty and warming for when it's cold outside. I just had a couple things to constitute a dinner - two of the spring rolls, which were filled with an ecclectic mix of bamboo shoots, pork and vegetables and were extraordinarily fresh and light in their frying, a tuna-avocado-mizuna salad in which the avocado was excellent and easily eclipsed the fish, and some chicken meatball oden. To round out the weirdness of the old house, quirky food and smooth jazz, they tasted exactly like gefilte fish.

Murata san the waitress (and probably owner too, if she's leaving thousands of dollars of instruments sitting around the dining room) will take care you. She says they get the odd foreigner in, mostly people from the nearby Royal Park Hotel, or else IBM.

I went home happy, and you would too.

Tamai Anago, Kanda (あなご玉ゐ)

Rikki dont lose that number / Its the only one you own
You might use it if you eel better / When you get home
- Eely Dan

Yet again we break the eel-shop pattern today in several slight, distinct and interesting ways (not the least of which is that the eel was damn good!). I think there's a good chance of this place emerging as the week's winner, although my plan for tomorrow is the eel-ya generally agreed among my colleagues as the area's best. Either way, Tamai is an excellent specialist restaurant and one that's well worth visiting.

Frequent viewers of The Map will pick up the fact that Tamai is on the same street as three other places I've tried in the last week (not all eel). This is a coincidence, I swear it. From the outside, the dominant feature of the restaurant is their large banner proclaiming the existence inside of 'hako meshi', or 'boxed meals', which refers to the fact that their most popular dish is eel served on rice. The inside (at least on the ground floor, where we sat) is quite nondescript - just a few booths, a small and cramped-looking counter, and a small view into the kitchen. This is a far cry from their main store in Nihonbashi, a converted liquor store, which features warm, polished wood, quirky off-square walls, and deep, inviting booths.

But hey, we were there for the eel. The main difference here is that they're serving anago, sea eel, instead of unagi, freshwater eel. As Japanese people tend to say freshwater fish have a 'muddy' taste (especially things like carp and catfish, which are rarities precisely because of this taste), anago is usually described as lighter tasting or less fishy. And so it was - the grilled version was exemplary, light and almost fluffy, but with a tiny touch of grilled crustiness. The sauce was the most delicate, which is not to say flavorless, that I've had...ooh, all week. And all the box sets come with a bit of liver, but not just any liver - it's liver slowly simmered in soy sauce until it reaches salty, sweet perfection.

As you can see from the picture (from their web site), you get a lot more condiments and tomfoolery with your eel here than at other places. The picture is the Y2800 middle size; I had the more-sensible-for-lunch Y1600 small size, which has about 2/3 the amount of eel fillet. The three-spot tray behind the eel contains sesame seeds, wasabi and sliced green onion, while the little 'shovel' is actually a small broom. It's used to whisk shreds of green citrus peel (the waiter said yuzu, but I agree with another blog that it seemed like sudachi) from the perforated metal grater and onto the eel. Other dishes include their store-made onion and cucumber pickles as well as a very thick and rich miso soup.

In the picture, you can also see a tea pot pouring some tea, but it's a little more complicated than that. As mentioned in prior posts, the southern hitsumabushi style of eel eating involves a patented three step enjoyment process - first just eel and rice, then eel and rice and condiments, then eel and rice and condiments and soup. I know what you're thinking - they pour soup over the eel? And the rice?! OMG! And wouldn't it be fanTAStic if the soup was made from roasted, boiled eel bones? Be still my heart!

Well, that'll run you Y200 extra at Tamai, and I'm not sure I recommend it. It comes in a cast iron pot, which I would swear imparts a slight ironic flavor to the otherwise strangely fishy fishbone broth. (Just writing fishbone makes me chuckle, thinking about the band. I saw them live one time, when I was working in Miami.) It's nice to have the soup and feel like you've completed the experience (boiled bones, hitsumabushi, etc) but the flavor is a LOT less exciting than just the eel, by itself, which I could have eaten a lot more of.

At the main store, you can get other stuff - omelettes with soy-boiled eel, their pickles, standalone eel to take home, etc. This could be the start of an in-home eel dining extravaganza (they also deliver nationwide). At any rate, this is a place worth going back to, IF you can stomach the expense. Y2800 for a normal-sized lunch is pretty rich, no? I think back fondly to Provinage, where Y2800 got you three courses of very nice French food, and I wonder about the state of Japan.

Are you eelin' in the years?