Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Denshou, Kayabacho (田昌)

November 18, 2009: Second visit confirms that this place has warm, quirky service and great food - chicken or not. Sashimi was exemplary, I still like the moutain potato tofu, and I believe firmly in electric-grilled chicken. A funny surprise was that the master was working the fish and cooked things - there was a teenage girl doing the grilling, and doing just as good a job of it. She looked to be his daughter, but I'm far too polite to ask.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Another thing I envy about food writers is their ability to develop catchy titles for each post. For example, if they go to an Italian restaurant in New York, the title might be "The Dichotomy of Melancholy", but if the restaurant is Turkish-themed and located in London, the title could be "Champagne and Kisses". My bid for creativity today is to title last night's dinner

Sonnets to Fowl

As close readers may have noticed, McNoonan and I are establishing a pattern of chicken-based dinner meetings. This one wasn't intended to be. We were just meeting in a relatively boring area, Kayabacho, and were going to walk around and find something. There are a few nice-looking places there, a very few, but they're a little expensive-looking also. After a few streets, my radar went off on a descending stairwell that turned out to offer chickenz, and the rest is history.

I admit, I do like to think I have some skill for picking restaurants, whether it be by menu, appearance or web site. The first sign that this place would be good was the interior - it's fairly normal dark 'n' country Japanese drinking establishment chic, but in a way that seemed cleaner and marginally more upscale. For example, the chairs have cloth slipcovers, which is something restaurants do here to look a bit nicer. (It might be new - only one Tabelog review is an oddity for a place as good as this.)

The second sign was the 'blackboard' specials, which was more like a corkboard brought to the table and set up on a small easel. There were a healthy number of specials, some of which were obviously more regular as they were accompanied by nice photos. These focused, as did the photo'ed items in the menu on chickens. I'm not sure if they use fancy chickens (aside from the clearly-labeled Daisan Shamo dish), but we were immediately hooked by the pictures of big pieces of perfectly-browned chicken. Specials that we did not eat included sashimi (sawara or shinko yesterday; shinko are little kohada), a frying pan full of miso-stewed innards, and various types of fancy rice (cooked with fish, cooked with chicken).

We did eat some nice things, we certainly did. I was a little taken aback that the master prefers to grill over electric coils rather than fancy branded charcoal, but after seeing his work I think I understand. Very precise, very even, very beautiful, this was some very tasty chicken. The waitress also said he's very picky about the food, and really prefers grilling things whole and on the bone if possible, so the usual narrow-pit yakitori setup wouldn't work. McNoonan and I turned to each other simultaneously upon biting the first piece with big American "Ooooooh's". If you were Japanese you might say something else. We had mixed sets (a piece each of wing, breast and thigh), a whole thigh steak, several rounds of meatballs (ordered only with salt rather than sauce, but some clever spicing made it highly salted and yet highly delicious). This stuff was all fairly slow to arrive, but sitting by the grill as we were, we could watch the progress of cooking and appreciate the emerging perfection. If the master was a poet, he would be writing sonnets to his fowl. Now that I've tied (weakly) back to the title, I realize I should have said 'haiku' instead.

Determined to burden us with some fish, the starter was a segment of very lightly-battered and fried sanma as well as a bowl of raw cabbage with sweet miso. The only other thing I can remember having was the 'mountain potato tofu', a new one to me. Yamaimo is of course the sticky, gluey-when-grated, careful-it'll-make-your-hands-itch tuber commonly grated into a slimy mess atop various things for health reasons. In this case it was rated a little rougher and then pressed into a tofu-like cake. Nice flavor and texture (if you like the base ingredient), neat idea, and delicious with a soy sauce jelly and green onions on top. We skipped the grilled pork that's also available. The grilled salmon jerky going to another table looked great, but was already too late for us.

Drinks list is also serious - 100 varieties of shochu, which take up most of the menu and teams with the guide books on the tables, plus some sake and some beer. Two kinds of draft beer are a rarity, but I think that in addition to the Ebisu, they also wanted to offer the nice semi-white tasting Shirohonoka from Sapporo.

All in all, this is a place that's serious about the food and also quite prepared to have a good time. Creative touches and high quality abound. I know the location is lame, but the food and prices are good (Y3000 each for two foreign guys) and I think you should try it as a departure from chain yakitori, to which it's decidedly superior.

Because I'm bad, I'm bad, shamo...n

Maisen, Tokyo (まい泉、大丸東京駅)

As a memorialist, I have little value. By this, I mean that I can't remember things worth a damn. It used to be that I was the kind of person who could go from one room to another, then realize an hour later that I'd forgotten the thing I went for. Now, in our hyper-digitalized modern world, with all the attention deficits that implies, I can actually forget what I'm doing in the time it takes to Alt-Tab between windows. I'm not proud of this.

Of course, forgetting about a weekly initiative is nothing too bad when you're prepared to embarass yourself on a scale of seconds. So I feel OK about forgetting yesterday, after a whole week off, that Tuesdays are for tonkatsu. I remembered today and rectified the emission, but Tonkatsu Wednesdays just doesn't have the same mnemonic value or appeal as a hook. Next week, I'll remember.

All of this is by way of avoiding my one-line review of the famous Maisen tonkatsu chain - I didn't like it. I just feel a little bad about it. Here's another object lesson in some things that comprise my view of how tonkatsu should be done, and why Maisen wasn't it (today, in the Daimaru Tokyo 12th-floor store).

The established pattern for my tonkatsuing is to get a normal-sized roast cutlet in the higher-quality grade offered. At Maisen that means 100 grams of Okinawan black-pig pork. I get roast because it has more fat, which means it's more flavorful, but it's also a little tougher than filet. Point the first: the meat is what it is, don't try to tenderize it. I didn't know it until today, but Maisen's slogan seems to be "Tonkatsu so soft you can cut it with chopsticks", and this piece was all that. Disturbingly so.

Point the second: breading should be nice and crackly. I think the inner breading (the non-crumb part) is there as a vehicle for the crumbs. It should add heft, unobtrusively. I found Maisen's to be a little squishy, sort of airy, almost cakelike. Combined with the outer coating, which had soaked up a lot of oil (though it was nicely browned), and the softness, this made the texture a lot like curry pan - kind of a tonkatsu donut.

Exacerbationalizing that situation was the sauce. I actually got three sauces, the standard two on the table (Maisen special and worcerstershire-heavy) plus the one with grated apple and pork fat (I think) that goes with the Okinawan pork. They were all sweet, especially the special one - which really made me feel like I was eating a pork-and-sauce donut. Nuts. Sauce needs to be balanced, with not too much sweetness compared to the salt and sour flavors.

But But But I could overlook all of this for exceptional pork flavor. In this case, there was no discernible pork flavor. It was so odd that I didn't sauce a piece, and took off the breading, and still didn't taste much. I expect more in an expensive tonkatsu than this. Maisen is famous for their tonkatsu sandwiches (fried pork cutlet with worcestershire-based sauce between two thin slices of white bread), and this tasted in total just like one of those. Which is not a strong recommendation.

Please let me know if I'm wrong about this one. I know some people like it. Maybe other stores?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bangkok Express, Otemachi

Raising the Boring Post indicator to Amber Alert.

 If we've ever talked about Thai food, you know how much I like the Tokyo Thai chain Tinun. Oddly, I see that I haven't been to a branch since I started writing this blog, which is a real oversight. If you choose your branch carefully (avoid Yoyogi), Tinun delivers the full ambience and flavor of the Thai street cart experience, which is one of the world's most pleasant. Some great news, I think that Bangkok Express delivers the Tinun experience, which is to say only half a step removed from greatness.

I went with Lin-ji, who also recommends a visit. This is not insignificant, as she lived in Bangkok for more than 5 years and speaks servicable Thai (though not, I'm sorry to say, at lunch!). Situated in the basement of the Otemachi Building (home of everyone's favorite after-work pub, Drunk Bears), it's close to my former area Thai recommendation, Bamboo. However after tasting the difference, I'm reminded that Bamboo is indeed more Japanized (sweeter, more coconutty, less spicy) as I said when I went there (but I was desperate at that point).

For lunch you can get the basics - three kinds of noodles (wet spicy, wet fish-saucy, dry fried), green curry, gaprao, etc. For an exciting Y950, you can get the service lunch like I did, which includes a full chicken gaprao and a small green curry. This was almost an embarassment of riches; I don't feel like I appreciated the curry enough. Especially because I insist on drowning the rice and fried egg with spicy fish sauce, after which point the curry tastes kinda weird with it.

The best thing I can say to sum this up is that it tastes right. With the corrugated metals walls, brightly-colored tables and stools, Thai waitresses and spicy food, you'll feel like you're back in...Tinun, if not Thailand.

This rating is wrong.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ryutan, Tokyo (龍譚, 東京駅B1)

Okinawan food remains a mystery to me, much like the sharp twang and exotic scales of the island's music. The food is a bit better than the music though. The music mostly sounds like it was fun to play since the musicians and audience were all completely pickled on awamori, the fiery local brew.

I like writing things like 'fiery local brew'. It makes me feel like a food writer. Next I'm going to practice using phrases like 'infused', 'a slick of [insert oil here]', 'proteins', 'complexity', 'highest-quality ingredients' and other college words.

Last month I went to the first Okinawan place I've been to in...oh, almost 5 years, I guess. (The last time I can remember was the place south of the main street in Monnaka, on Kiyosumi Dori.) Of course you can get a goya chanpuru anywhere and I often do in lower-end izakaya, but for some reason dedicated Okinawan places...not so much. Anyway, expanding horizons and all that rot, old man, pip pip, what ho. The place last month was kinda lame. Ryutan was kinda good.

This is in the basement of Tokyo Station, under Kitchen Street. You should expect it to be good; all the places there are a little upscale and often full. Not so much at 2 PM; I was happy they're still serving.

Perhaps Okinawa is in some way related to Mexico? Okinawan places always have taco rice among their offerings, for one. For another, the menu revolves around recyclements of the same few ingredients - goya, pork, noodles, tofu. I had a set with goya chanpuru and some noodles in soup on the side. The chanpuru was great - fully cooked rather than crunchy and overly bitter as it can be, with the pork having rendered unto Caesar its fat in full, leaving the whole fried mess full of anaimal-style flavorz. The noodles were of the hand-rolled Okinawan variety (I think), but the soup was a real standout - it tasted exactly like an okonomyiaki. No idea how they do that, but I like it.

If you're in that basement and find this place available, check it out. I think you'll like it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sushi Daizen (大前)

Daizen is a somewhat famous place - it's right under the rail tracks in Yurakucho, meaning you have to push your way through thick clouds of chicken-grilling smoke to get there. It's very small (9 seats?), cheap, and offers great cost performance. This is why you'll need to book well in advance (seriously).

Inside is very normal in a nice way, as in this picture. I felt bad taking too many location shots since the other customers and indeed the master were all about three inches away (as was the door from my back), but you can get some idea from this. The master has mostly-grey hair in a ponytail and looks very much like an aging David Carradine (without the, you know).  I think the happy, industrious assistant is his son - they appear in a picture together on the wall, and I don't think many masters go hiking and pose for smiling portraits with their non-related juniors. As a result of the size, familiarity and other patrons, the atmosphere is very jovial. Another funny thing - they don't serve alcohol. Weird for any restaurant in Japan, double weird for sushi. This means, however, that you can happily stop by Bic Camera (everyone's favorite local liquor store) and pick up a bottle of champagne to go with your fish. Just the thing!

You should more or less omakase here. Since it was a bit later when we got there, supplies were running out. Thus we had more or less one of everything until it was gone. Here's sashimi. Frighteningly, this is a plate for one person. I don't know if this gets to you the way it did to me, but it's a lot of tasty-looking fish. The shrimps were a standout for me; I'm not sure why they were so red, but they were very good. Other things are akagai, torigai, saba and an indeterminate white fish (isaki, maybe?). To illustrate the value, I could imagine a plate like this, not necessarily in this quality, costing enough in a decent izakaya to take up more than half of the fee we eventually paid.

This chu-toro came out the best of the close up shots. And it was yummy. Don't be fooled though; the highlight of the plate was probably the mackerels. I say mackerels because there were actually two types, one from off Tokyo and another from farther north, Miazaki. I liked the extra fat in the Miazaki one better (farther north, colder already, more fat; would be the obvious logic, but with ocean currents I dunno, and Miazaki isn't that far away). The sign outside describes Daizen as "a place with good mackerel", and I concur.

'Silver thing specialist' might be a better description than just mackerel - this katsuo tataki was also very good. A special point was that, for example, the two slices visible at the right were actually one big chunk, partially cut in half and with a slice of garlic tucked in. Eek! Katsuo has to be very fresh or it can get bad; the last time I had a meal in Japan that tasted so bad I couldn't finish it (actually I can't remember more than that time, so that place deserves a special mention), it was katsuo tataki that tasted like garbage. Errrr, and now back to regularly scheduled programming about good food.
Keeping with the silver-things theme, we have here two pieces of silky, fatty, delicious sanma (Pacific Saury, I love writing that), one sardine and one horse mackerel.

Sanma is good in Autumn. As are most fish. I'm glad it's Autumn.

I think there wasn't enough mackerel left at this point to give us nigiri of it, so we got the end pieces in a roll instead.  Also some pickle rolls (kampyo).

I'm actually a little confused about how good the value was, because the master kept giving us stuff and saying it was free. I think those rolls were free. I know this delicious, falling-apart, lightly-grilled salmon nigiri was free.

As was the last piece of eel from the fridge (that's why it's shaped funny).

And finally, a simple piece of egg. So humble, so elegant. What a fitting end to a great meal. No, I kid, I kid. I just love it when people go to kaiseki and that's all they say about the lame-o piece of fruit they get at the end. I like dessert trolleys, boys!

Really, this is a fun and tasty place. It's right next to all the yakitori places, which are also fun, but is generall a cut above in terms of quality. Check it out, but do book in advance. It's so small that it's gotta be a hassle if people poke their heads in and try to get seats unannounced.

Motoishi, Kanda (もといし)

I am not a big fan of tsukemen. The basic point of the dish is that you get cold noodles and hot, extra-thick soup, and you dip the noodles in the soup to heat them up and flavor them. You're not supposed to drink the soup. My main gripe is that the heat of the soup is never enough to overcome the cool of the noodles, especially over the course of the whole bowl. You end up eating lukewarm soup and lukewarm noodles. I guess I like my noodles properly hot. Or, in the case of cold noodles, properly cold. But this place was pretty good.

The name Motoishi, I'm almost sure, is a play on the name of the part of Kanda where the shop lives - Hongoku. For incompetent readers of Japanese like myself, the easiest way to read the name of the neighborhood is 'Motoishi'. As an incompetent, I'm also unsure how to interpret the two names of the restaurant either - by day it's tsukemen, at night they call it 'Shukemen', which sounds like a pun on the tsuke involving liquor. It's a bit more modern than a lot of shops around there.

Right, noodles. These are big, thick, cool, chewy...and they come with a slice of seaweed. You can order your preferred quantity of noodles, but I recommend the normal size; super-size is 1 pound of noodle. I'm not sure if that's cooked or raw weight, but these are fresh noodles and therefore those two aren't as far apart as dry and cooked pastas. Normal size, and about 10 ounces, was more than enough.

Toppings are pretty normal, but I got pork as usual and was pleased with their unique interpretation. Rather than slicing, they've roasted the pork all the way through and then shredded it. Come to think of it, their pork must be shoulder instead of the loin as is used more commonly. It was a tiny bit dry despite being submerged in the soup, but it tasted very good. Oddly, I could have sworn it was chicken at times, and I kept looking at the texture to see if that was the case.  The soup wasn't very soupy - more a pool of oil with the shredded pork, pork flavor, raw onions and a few sad bits of bamboo shoot and fish cake floating. Very oily, the better to coat the noodles with. I thought it would get cloying, but in the end I almost wanted to drink it.

A few condiments also exist. I like the '17 flavor' hot spice - the normal one is only 7, so this must kick azz! I also liked the focus on onions (cf yesterday's post on the health benefits of grated radish with fatty food; spicy vegetables like onions are equally thought to burn fat). There was a strainer of chipped raw onions, and there was a crock of deep-fried onion chips (pic) that had a wonderful smoky onion flavor.

If there's one aspect of life in Japan in which I'm fluent, it's chopstick use (gotta have small goals, y'know?).  ut noodles still defeat me sometimes (as they do everyone). In this case the score was Noodles 1, Pants 0, but I'll take that action to the cleaners tomorrow. Next time I want tsukemen, I'll also be heading back to Motoishi. Picture at left is the street on the east side of Kanda that I'm constantly talking about.Uninspiring, isn't it? On the left, the long white sign is yesterday's Minatoya.

Oh, it's also the top-ranked ramen place in this area. Not top-class, but good.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Minatoya, Kanda (みなと屋)

You knew this week had three holidays in it, right? That's why there haven't been any boring lunches until this one (and presumably Friday's also).

Kanda is really a habit with me. I just like the 10-15 minute walk up there and then the feeling that I'm somewhere else in Japan. It's kinda peaceful and old. You should try it. The funny thing is how many places there are to eat. I haven't even tapped the restaurants under the tracks to an appreciable degree, nor all the places right around the station. Yesterday I realized that there were 4 OK-looking places in a row on the main east-side street, and I went to the first of them to get started on knocking that off.

So, Minatoya. Sounds like a fourth Jackson sister, now that I think of it (it's not commonly known, but Janet and LaToya have a third sister, Rebbie). This Minatoya is even more reticent about being in the spotlight than Rebbie - it's quite basic inside and out. I thought it was interesting to see style cues from better izakaya (wooden counter, prominently displayed plates) but with down-grade touches (covered with thick laquer, displayed on a wire rack instead of a wooden cabinet).

The food was pretty good though. The daily set was a 'karaage combo', which included both fried tofu and fried chicken. As befits a salaryman neighborhood, there was a lot of meat - I think 6 pieces of chicken, each much bigger than two bites. They were fried very dark and set in a pool of dashi, next to the fried tofu, then covered with grated daikon. Grated daikon cuts the fat and makes it all healthy, y'know.

I enjoyed the service as well. Some shops have a call-and-response policy - for example, you're probably familiar with the way a new customer's entry will trigger a flurry of greetings from around a store. The best one recently was that Kanzan Ramen on the west-side shotengai, where they practically did a little dance together every time someone's noodles were cooked. At Minatoya, whenever there was an order or instruction, one person would announce it and the others would say 'Yo!'

Tolerable place. Yo!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rainbow Kitchen, Sendagi

It would be practically impossible to walk past the dingy exterior of the Rainbow Kitchen without giving it a second look. The rusty corrugated metal and rough bleached wood that make up the facade are a carefully designed fashion statement. This funky little spot looks like it's been rusticating for decades, but in fact it's been less than 10 years since Rainbow Kitchen joined the ranks of Japan's meticulously-stylized faux-American burger vendors.

Fortunately, these places often have pretty good food. After working a bit on this holiday morning, I resolved to spend the rest of the day exploring the 'downtown' areas of Nezu, Sendagi and Nippori by bike. Remember that 'downtown' just means 'old-fashioned, lower class', and it'll only take a few minutes in Sendagi for you to see exactly what the term means - small streets, small shops, limited renovation, lots of charm. Rainbow Kitchen is doubly hard to miss because it's a retro-Americana-styled place in a neighborhood like that, and triply so because it's on a minor street with few other stores.

The carefully-curated thematics continue inside - the old Coke sign with press-in plastic letters is a great touch, joining oddities like the 50-gallon drum marked 'corrosive'. I guess they're going for a combined Southwestern/50's Americana theme here, because the tables are all wood (and could be confused for izakaya tables, as in fact the interior could be confused with a renovated izakaya) rather than the more expected chrome and mother-of-toilet-seat. Oddly, I don't remember there being any background music, which is funny when you consider that the wall decorations are mostly:

Album covers, and in fact some odd assemblage of Japanese artists covering or playing with famous jazz and blues performers. I didn't get close enough to discern the theme, because I was fixated on...

...this funny cover. Believe it or not, I realized it was Gatemouth Brown right away, and my main concern was why he was picking up a guitar-playing Cheech Marin by the scruff of the neck. I guess I'm not as familiar with Japanese blues stars like Mitsuyoshi Azuma as I should be. This record doesn't show up in my quick Googling, but it seems to be a compilation of him playing with Gatemouth, Muddy Waters (in the middle of the three guys), and others (maybe John Lee Hooker on the right, maybe Robert Lockwood on the left). Could be fun to hear.

So after all this extravagantly-created Americana (and, to be fair, the other review that I sort of stole the intro from), I was expecting a pretty awesome burger. And boy oh boy was this...not it. It was OK. I don't even feel like writing about it, to tell you the truth.

Everything was nice enough, but I found the patty lacking in flavor, juciness, and char (they're griddled, but you could still get some burn onto the fat). The fries were bland too. Like the turnaround of a repetitive 12-bar blues bashed out on a Supro through a 6" amp, just one thing kept going around in my brain while I was eating:

Sunny Diner.
Sunny Diner.
Sunny Diner.

It may be time for a trip to Kita Senju.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Le Point Ouest, Kamakura

On the way back from Enoshima, we did the touristy thing and took the Enoden, the small, old, electric train that meanders carefully through a series of cute neighborhoods between Fujisaki and Kamakura. (Incidentally, I don't recommend taking it to get to Enoshima. We got off the main train line at Fujisaki, as close as possible to Enoshima and only 3 stops by the Enoden. There were several hundred people waiting in line outside the station, and I have no idea how far the line stretched once inside - because we took a cab. Less scenic, but at least an hour faster and less than $10 more expensive. Consider it.)  On the way back the train was fairly packed with our fellow returning tourists, most of whom got on at Enoshima.
But nowhere near as many as wanted to get on several stops later. These sad-looking people had clearly been waiting a while and had all the best intentions of fighting their way onto the train. They tried valiantly, but in the end the compression characteristics of the incumbent passengers were such that no more then 1/3 of them accomplished transferrence. Since we were in the middle of the car, we could stand in relative comfort and watch the melee.

Back in Kamakura, we took a fortuitous wrong turn in trying to find the 'ginza' street, which parallels the main road. There's a similar street on the other side of the station, where you get off the enoden, but in fact it's more charming as opposed to purely touristy. There's a series of pleasant homewares and clothing shops, a nice bakery, and a few good-looking restaurants. We passed Le Point Ouest early on, then realized 90 minutes later at dinner time that we hadn't seen anything more appealing, and called them to take the last table.

Of course, there are only three tables, so it felt a bit lucky on a holiday weekend like this. This nice counter has 6 seats if pushed. The decor is like this - some Frenchy and bistroific touches, but in a hurried way that feels applied rather than some other adjective. Still, much more interested in the food...Kuroki spent two years cooking in Paris and came back with some good techniques and a small goatee.

The facial hair lets him make bold dishes like this terrine-two-ways - it's nice that you don't have to choose between country terrine and liver mousse. Both were good - the terrine in particular had a lot of liver in it and was nicely-formed. I dislike it when they're dry. His pickles (back left) were a bit to sweet for me, but not offensive.

We made a brief detour in the search for excellent sweetbreads, but this year's quest does not end on this plate. In a mushroom and onion sautee, these were good but still a bit gummy and not as precisely fried as the ones in my dreams. Still, as long as my cholesterol continues to be OK, the quest will continue.

This snapper, though, was excellent. Any fish-related quests would hit a wall after trying it. Decent flavor but perfect preparation, with a crisp skin and very juicy interior. Carrot puree may have been a bit strong texturally for the fish, and the vegetables were perhaps not 'integrated', but one has to fill out the plate in a healthy way. Looking at different web sites, this seems typical of the house style.

As does this. When's the last time I ordered chicken in a restaurant, let alone liked it? I think the last time I had a big piece of roast chicken like this may in fact have been at Quintessence, and I'm here to tell you that I preferred this one. The inside was hot and juicy and dripping with fat, and the skin was prefectly crisped. The real reason I ordered this was because of the grapes - see that sauteed Kyoho in the front? Chicken sauteed with grapes is not a favorite of mine - it's just a rarity, and I wanted to see what the chef was thinking. Clearly, he was thinking "Let's make some excellent roast chicken!"

He was also thinking about poaching some peaches and figs in syrup, which turned out well. Soft, spicy, fruity-flavorful, and worth eating again and again. Sometimes the simple things are best. Not very often, but sometimes. There was also a pistachio creme brulee that had a nice nuggetiness to the custard, but not enough sugar on top for a proper crusting.

I think you can guess what the overall review is here - I really liked it. I would go back any time if it wasn't in Kamakura. I think he could charge 50% more quite happily in Tokyo, but I'm glad he's staying in Kamakura for now. Only downside could be the 8:30 last order, so watch out for that. Still, we're not European or anything, are we? I don't think it's a problem.

Kimura, Enoshima (磯料理 きむら)

With the long weekend well underway, Monday seemed like good timing for a day trip. And Enoshima has been on the list for a long time - a standard place to go, hence a somewhat glaring omission from my catalog of touristy experiences. Getting down there around lunch time, we walked on to the island and immediately realized that, despite any faint hopes to the contrary, 300,000 of our closest friends had had the same idea of visiting the island on this day. I thought that the marina side was meant to be a little less crowded, but even that was incorrect. We walked past all the street food places just to the left of the causeway, through the smaller restaurants, and into the little residential area. There are 3 or 4 small restaurants there, and Kimura looks the best of the lot. In this case, that meant that 30 of our closest friends were already waiting. Ah well, holiday weekend, pleasant weather, make the best of it, name on the list, walk around the neighborhood.

The nicest feature was this lovely temple, which used a natural outcropping of rock as its roof. I've never seen grave sites built into a place like this, and the effect of all the monuments with very fresh memorial flowers was beautiful. If you go, it's on the cobbled street behind Kimura - look for a small gate, stairs, and then some red arches going up the hill.

The neighborhood and the nice temple were insufficient to defeat the waiting list, and we ended up back here, hanging out in front of the restaurant. Fortunately there were chairs and stools for plenty of people. Kimura is a family-oriented, homey kind of place.

I don't know about you, but nothing says 'homey' to me like seaweed salad with squid bits and sour miso dressing! No, not really. But this was nice! It's one of the things that comes when you order one of the teishoku sets.

As are these assorted seaweeds - on the left some sort of I-can't-remember-what, but it had 'kiku' in the title, probably because it looks like chrysanthemums while not actually containing the petals, unlike kakinomoto in Niigata (more on that next weekend, woo hoo!). On the right, much easier to remember, a nice rendition of hijiki, a seaweed often simmered with some soybeans and carrots. One of my favorites!

I also enjoy beer. I think more places are getting into the spirit of local brewing, though obviously these guys have been doing it since at least 1996. The date actually refers to the history of just this beer, which is a very nice porter style that advises you to 'Tap Your Potential'. Dark but light, goes well with...well, anything, really. I don't know if it matches seafood, because it was long gone by the time we got into the serious food.

Celebrity visits seem to happen with some regularity - if you aren't familiar with this guy Sakana kun, consider yourself lucky. I'm pretty sure I heard in the past that he's actually a trained marine biologist, and the CV on his web site seems to support this since he's been on all sorts of government panels and worked for the fisheries association and such. In my mind, he'll always be the guy wearing that yellow and blue fish hat and getting unnaturally excited about eating fish. You can see him sometimes on TV going nuts at seafood-oriented restaurants. The time taht really sticks in my mind was the visit to a squid specialty restaurant that had a tank running between the tables almost like a water feature at a Bali-style resort. You could pick your own squid from there, and they'd slice it and serve it to you still lightly moving. Hmmmm...

Well, with the beer almost gone, some other things from the set lunch arrived. Sazae is evidently popular on the island, as it is in pretty much all seaside places. This is like a big-ass ocean snail, and I still don't much like them since I can't shake the feeling that I'm eating a big intestine. These are genuinely popular in Japan, but please handle with care if you're foreign.

Likewise, I thought hamaguri were a bit please-exercise-caution due to their slightly mealy-yet-slimy texture (no, I'm not going to insert a witty aside about how that's a good thing), but these had good texture and nice taste. Perhaps there's a future relationship between me and hamaguri. Or perhaps I'll just keep eating raw scallops instead, since they're great in every way...

The REAL specialty of the island, however, is this - shirasu. There are signs everywhere, and it seems like practically every restaurant offers them. You might expect to get popsicles or something on the street? In Enoshima, you can get little trays of shirasu. Which are baby fish. Whole and uncooked. To maximize the experience (first time for all eaters), we got the half-bowl - one side raw shirasu, the other side cooked (the white ones). This is good stuff, actually. I would liken the texture to raw shrimp in its mild sliminess, but you definitely notice that there are lots of little bodies in there. The contrast between sides is a good thing, as the richness of the raw ones would get to you after a while.

Another local specialty is octopus - specially recommended on the wall! That either means it's really good or they just caught an excessive amount of it. This was more toward the 'good' side, I think. Freeeeesh, tasty, chewy - you have to expect chewiness if you're not going to cook the octopus. It shouldn't be unpleasant, but it should be chewy.

And then some fishes. I'm not totally sure what the front-left one was, but I'm guessing flounder. Very good, and like all the other bits here, very thick. I won't go on about the quality of the fish, but it was high, as was fat content (e.g. the yellowtail in the back). Clockwise, you have the flounder, yellowtail, tuna and squid. Dig in!


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Flaneur Cafe, Gaienmae

After learning that there IS one decent Mexican restaurant in Japan, it was still early. We elected to find a cafe and/or bar, and started walking in the general direction of Gaienmae. Somewhere along the way we ran across Cafe Flaneur, which is the kind of place that makes city living so nice. Tokyo style.

You'd probably want to call this an art cafe - when we were there, they had an exhibit of photographs spread over the top two floors. To top it off, they were celebrating Saturday night by having the photographers come in and curate a space for the evening, which meant in practice that two guys had a DJ setup on the second floor and were playing their musical selections loudly through a big pair of JVC studio monitors (which, if you're wondering, sounded pretty upper-midrangey and harsh like all JVC monitors are reputed to. Either that or the DJ board they were using.). I though initially that it was a Beatles remaster listening party, because when we walked through the second floor, and the rows of customers in chairs listening intently, the song was 'Your Mother Should Know'. It quickly got into weirder territory though, with a lot of Philip Glass-like stuff on strings.

It's this kind of place. You saw the green velvet stool and climbing plants above - these were just a little alcove at the top of the stairs. The third floor was a mix of roughly-finished walls, leather bench seats, vintage upholstered chairs, and auxilliary speakers gently replicating the music from the middle level. Individual lamps provided a nice, homey feel.

The other main design element at the moment is these dried plant installations, which I think were also done by the photographers. Very reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy (right down to the fact that they used a lot of arch shapes), but a bit less extreme since they had just stuck everything together with wire. Still, it was a bit like drinking in a forest. A very stylish forest.

Oh, and eating. Just a nibble. Bread pudding. Kinda good.

Seems like they don't want you to call them. Just stop by - open until 11:30 with last order at 11. I think they'll have a seat for you.

Fonda de la Madrugada, Harajuku

My friends, I am a changed and converted and (further) humbled man. There is an OK Mexican restaurant in Tokyo. And it's exactly where everyone said it was. In a basement in Harajuku that distorts time and space.

As we went into the basement, my expectations actually increased. It's well-nigh impossible to find decent Mexican in Tokyo, to the extent that I gave up years ago. But this stairwell, in all its cheezy Chi-Chi's glory, got me thinking that someone had really taken the effort - to get the decor right if nothing else. It feels like you go two stories down a spiral staircase, then you get to the reception desk, and then go down another level to the dining rooms.

The decor persists - stucco, rustic wood, colorful serapes, bull heads, Mariachi bands, and significant quantities of Latino service staff (not part of the decor. Please respect them.). Our waitress, who was Argentinian and may have been part Japanese in the bargain, got us margaritas (blue for me, of course. I always drink blue margaritas.) and we got busy with the menu.

Just watch it here, OK? You can easily overload on food. We got this guacamole and fortunately nothing else. But it was totally fresh and significantly tasty, and the chips were made pretty freshly. You couldn't make much better than this at home (which is supposed to be praise). I like the wacky saturation on this picture since it's lightened up a lot - it's dark and atmospheric down there.

In addition to blue margaritas, I do kinda always get this case I felt a bit nostalgic for France, and thus got the Tricolor Enchiladas - red sauce, brown sauce and green sauce. Just kidding; the green one is salsa, the brown one is mole, and the red one is red. The chicken stuffing was a little dry, but on the whole this made me say "Hey, it's mexican food!" Mentioning the downside quickly - these enchiladas are Y1900. I'll leave it at that.

Completing the order, it's roast pork! Less juicy than it looks, like the chicken in the enchiladas, but the beans and (additional) guac were both quite proper. The mariachis came around at this time to play Happy Birthday and some other favorites for a neighboring table, and we took our cue to hoist back up from the table and stagger ponderously up the stairs.

I apologize, but I feel I have to use this line: Olay!