Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rocky Top, Ginza

Japan is a strange and wonderful place. Hidden subcultures about - usually these only peek out for a moment when some intrepid foreign journalist comes to town and writes a story about a colorful character in one of them. You read it, you think it's interesting, and you forget about it.

I started playing music when I was about 10, and my first instrument was the banjo. As a result, the first couple years were spent largely on bluegrass, at least when I wasn't in my friend's attic bashing out crude electric guitar-and-drums recordings of homemade songs to a Radio Shack cassette recorder. My family used to go to bluegrass festivals for vacations sometimes. And since I moved to Japan, my Dad has consistently said I should try to find the hidden Japanese bluegrass scene. Recently he talked to someone who said bluegrass is 'big in Japan'. Aside from the laugh-out-loud cliche of something being BIJ, it got me thinking. And thinking got me wondering, and wondering got me to Rocky Top on Saturday night. They do have food, so I'm at least partly justified in writing this.

For a 25+ nights each month, this one-room Western-style bar around the corner from Ferragamo in Ginza hosts various bands, most of them bluegrass. If you don't know what bluegrass is, perhaps I can best explain it by saying "music that makes you want to say Yee Haw! in an ironic way" and leave it at that. Banjos are featured. Like most types of music, it sounds monotonous unless you understand the genre and can differentiate what's good, bad and different.

On this particular night, I walked in just in time to see a completely typical bluegrass band hard at work on the bandstand - guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and bass (if you don't know these instruments, how about doing a little research, OK?), three-part harmonies, the works. The only things that were different were from the necks up, because of course they were all Japanese. I like to think I'm immune to quirkiness in Japan and have moved on to simple appreciation, but I have to tell you the first few minutes were fully quirky for me.

There being less than a dozen customers, it was pretty easy to get acquainted with the band between sets (and indeed while the other band played - which was a Dawg-style 6-piece with gypsy overtones and an old guy playing bongos like a banshee. Seriously, a strange and wonderful place.). The most striking things were that after 2 minutes of conversation, when I allowed as I liked playing dobro but didn't have on in Japan, the dobro player immediately said "Come back on the 13th, I'll bring one to lend you", and that the banjo player, hearing that that was my main instrument, unceremoniously dropped his 1934 Gibson into my lap and left it there for the better part of 20 minutes. Friendly people, fun times. I look forward to hanging out there more and hopefully doing a little pickin' with them.

The food's not much, but at least you can eat. Here's nama ham with a bunch of softened raw onions; it was oddly refreshing and decent.

And for further sustenance, some croquettes. If you don't know Japanese croquettes, they're basically deep-fried mashed potatoes. There's usually a bit of ground meat mixed into the potatoes, or sometimes it's mainly meat and called a 'mince katsu'. Including a maraschino cherry is a strange and beautiful touch. And I didn't eat it.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Pivoine, Monzennakacho

Friday I took the day off from work to get legalized again - as they say, it's no fun being an illegal alien, and I'm not interested in deportation.  But getting legal doesn't take very long, and the weather and my spirits were both so good that I wanted to do something nice. There are several French places between the city hall and home, some quite highly rated, and I thought I'd try one of them.  This being Japan, they were both fully booked for lunch on a Friday. Then I thought of the two well-regarded Italian places in the neighborhood. And they're both closed at lunch. Emergent pattern? Thus I'm embarrassed to say that I ended up at Pivoine - embarrassed because I liked it a lot, even better than I remembered, and I think it would be worth your while to schlep over here and try it sometime.

The basic gimmick, as far as I'm concerned, is that the chef and waitress used to work at Merveille and struck out on their own (with some intervening spells, but never mind that). This means you get the same service, almost the same food, and a lot of the same atmosphere, but even cosier and a bit cheaper. In the past I wrote that the food wasn't quite up to the level of Merveille's Matsumoto. On this visit, within the confines of the simpler ingredients and techniques I chose (no stuffed quail en croute for lunch, y'know?), I thought it was really good.

I don't take pictures of bread for the most part. This bread is pretty good in a light and Japanese way, but I really wanted to make a point about the service. Tamura san heats up the bread before every service, which makes a tremendous difference. It's a little example of her attention to detail and attitude in service. With her consistent good spirits and lack of height (150cm would be generous, no?), the only word I can really think of is 'pixie'. In a good way.

After the rough Thursday night I had, something restorative was in order. And nothing is easier to digest and more restorative than cooked blood, right?!  This was Chef's individual interpretation - the usually sausage-shaped item was actually a slice of loaf, and was liberally spiked with curry. The assorted mushrooms on top were very seasonal and also well-prepared. This was a nice way to start, perfect for Fall.

Pumpkin soup is also perfect for fall. I won't pretend to be excited about it, but it was fresh, whipped up prettily, well-executed, and tasty. I just think soup is boring, especially when it's a straight broth or puree.

While simple, I like to think this was a masterpiece (I don't mean to be quite this flowery, but it was quite good). The main item is chicken; I'm unclear on the technique, but I think it's a skin-on boneless breast that's been stuffed somehow with mushroom puree, then fried all golden and brown. And delicious! The other items were sparse but exactly proportioned - a quarter of eggplant, living up to the Japanese proverb about it being too good for daughters-in-law, several other perfectly-roasted root vegetables, somehow charred and juicy at the same time, and just enough firm green leaf (top of one of the roots?) to balance things out. And a drizzle of sticky roasting juice. Geez, was this good? And it was chicken. I never like chicken this much.

Dessert was nothing extraordinary, but came together very well and with seasonal themes. The ice cream is milk flavored, the compote in the back is apple, and the pudding is sweet potato - with grainy bits left in, making it texturally much more interesting than a usual pudding. Again, much better than it had a right to be.

What do you think? The above 3.5 courses were Y3k at lunch; dinners start at Y4k for the basic course (same dish-count, but no choices). There aren't too many options because it's such a small neighborhood place that they must not be able to keep inventory and plan turnover, but if even the regular ingredients are going to get cooked this well, I don't much care. Chef really seems to have lifted his game since my last visit, already going on a year ago. I'll be visiting again, much sooner this time.

You were perhaps expecting a Thursday night post?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Aburaya Seimen, Kanda (油屋製麺)

Pon pon.
Pon and I went for an early/late lunch (horribly late for her, a bit early for me) and found ourselves heading toward Kanda, which we evidently do all the time in various other groups as well. With no clear plan, we were seduced by the lure of noodles, and in particular tsukemen, which excited her but which I still struggle to understand.

This shop is on the new & stylish side (opened in September), which for ramen these days seems to mean they use a lot of black in the decor. I think it's an attempt to seem tough, reserved and cool - very manly ramen.  It's welcome as far as I'm concerned - I'm not really into cramped, sweaty and old (unless the food's good enough to justify it...fair point).

I had tsukemen as promised. The noodles were a bit soft and flavorless, and very much on the 'udon' side of the scale - big, white, chewy, machine-cut. The soup has pretty well faded from my memory even at this early remove from the fact, and I also know that I dumped a lot of chili oil on top at various times to liven it up. The pork was sliced into slivers and mediocre, while the egg was cooked just to the wrong side of done but was still decent. Pon had the aburamen, which are a different thing altogether - more or less like dry ramen that are sexed up with a lot of oil and very thick soup in the bottom of the bowl; you stir until it's all mixed together and the noodles are coated.

My summary would have to be that this was OK, but nothing to turn your head. Actually one further point that might interest you is that you can order noodles in extra size for no charge - I had the more-than-enough 200g size, but 300 is available, or 400g for extra charge. That's too much food. Don't do it, even if it's free.

Over and out. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yuasa, Mita (湯浅,芝)

This post innaugurates an exciting new chapter in 'places I've never been before but will have to explore' - Mita. If you're like me, you may well have thought of Mita as a boring subway stop consisting mainly of office towers and huge apartment blocks. If you were like me, you would have been wrong, so hopefully you're a little smarter than all that. West of Mita, north of Tamachi, east of the sun, west of the moon, there's a little square of streets that caters to the grayish men who work in those towers (I assume they don't also live there).

The main components of this area's dining scene are as follows: grilled meat (Korean abounds; guts specialists are also common), grilled chicken, 'picture' izakayas (so called because they have menus out front with copious pictures - to me this is a bad sign for an izakaya because it means they can't change the menu much), sushi (a Japanese delicacy wherein a slice of raw fish is placed atop warm, vinegared rice) and nice izakayas. We went to one of the nice izakayas.

Yuasa is at the end of one of the intersecting brick-paved alleys that make up the heart of the area. Charmingly, it shares a dead end with another place (Manmaya, I think), and the cobbled paving of that particular segment of alley plus the wooden, aged exteriors of the two places give you an instant sense of entering another world. Inside is strinctly shoes-off, busy, smoky, crowded izakaya. The walls are covered with menu items, with individual sheets of paper for different 'themes' - want deep-fried lotus root? The page there has 4 different ways they'll make it for you. Tubular fish cake? Another 4.

It being a casual weeknight, we didn't order more than...wait, I think we ordered a lot. Naturally there was fish to start - good pickled mackerel, excellent errrr...shima-aji (another kind of mackerel, but totally different). Lightly pickled 'water eggplants' are a favorite of mine - they're wetter and more crisp than regular eggplant, so they're nice to eat with a day of pickling in them. As a grilled course (this sounds very official, but really it was all a jumble), we had cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon and stuck on bamboo skewers - hard to go wrong with grilled bacon. I could tell that this wasn't the best bacon ever, and I didn't care. Grilled bacon basically ranges in quality from 'great' to 'awesome' - hard to go wrong.

One fried thing was the aforementioned 'tubular fish cake' (you may know it as chikuwa or even 竹輪 if you're weird) stuffed with spicy cod roe before being tempura-battered and fried - a cool idea, very tasty in practice. You could get away with serving this at a much more elegant place. Another fried thing was baby octopus, fried chicken style (don't knock this until you try it - I actually think a well-stewed octopus tastes a bit like chicken, so the taste also really lends itself to frying). Again, you might call this いい蛸の唐揚, if you were trying to remember more useless party-trick kanji.

Service was bustling and friendly, dispensing mugs of icy domestic brew to wash it all down (not really, but I wanted to include at least one food blogger moment here). The total was pleasantly reasonable, and a return visit would be worthwhile. It might also be a good idea, in weather like this, to sit at one of the two picnic tables outside so you could play with the cat between bites. Remember - the pleasure of a good izakaya isn't in being blown away by every bite - it's more about enjoying your relax time with friends and snacks, and occasionally hitting on something that makes you go mmmmm. 

I'ma kick Yuasa, you don' shut up.

Taikourou, Yaesu (泰興楼)

I'm starting to feel like a Shitamachi dining insider - this very good recommendation from Ricky is a gyoza specialist (with a broad menu) whose branch is Gyoza Bar Fei, in Kayabacho, tidily reversing my own dining trend between last night and today. I don't really remember the gyoza at Fei, but I'll remember the ones at TKR.

The streets of Yaesu, east of the Tokyo Station Daimaru, are a minor warren of restaurants - in fact the same neighborhood that I was looking down on during lunch Monday. One could probaby go months without repeating there, but Ricky knew where we were going, and go we did. TKR subscribes to the 'food hall' style of Chinese decor, which means black and red, with black low and red high. Aces are wild.

No need to open the menu - the gyoza sets are on the front. I followed Ricardo's lead with the 6-gyoza set and after a pleasantly long wait (good to feel they're doing something) dishes filtered over to us. The first thing was dessert (an interesting sort of thin almond tofu) along with some heavily pickled daikon with slivered yuzu peel (these were very good. Should I make them at home?). After that the rice and soup arrived at the same time as the main event, the center-ring contender plate of gyoza.

Good gyoza, good gyoza. These are of the jumbo variety (perhaps 4 inches, not 2-3), but it seems they've adjusted the thickness of the dough to compensate for the increased length and payload. The filling is curiously mild, but still satisfying. If anything, it allows you to eat more of them...I also think their work on the frying was exemplary - too many times the bottom (that part that cooks directly on the metal while the rest of the dumpling steams in the covered pan) isn't crisp. Here, the bottom was crisp, with a papery brown layer or cooked flour that didn't soften much when dipped in sauce. This is exactly how it should be.

Good lord I'm sleepy after that...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beer Bar Talo, Kayabacho

This post is for distant reader and longtime Tokyo dining expert John Wood (hi Woodie) who was kind enough to point out that there are restaurants on The Map that are not featured in posts. This is because The Map features all places that I can remember visiting, while the posts are only for new restaurants I've visited since the beginning of the blog. This post resolves one of those conflicts.

McNoonan and I are becoming Kayabacho regulars, since 2 times means 'regular' to me.  It can't last long; when you take out the other places I've already been to, there are few things left in the area (OK, it's never that bad. I can think of 3 offhand!). But I feel like a regular at Talo even after my second visit since the staff is so friendly - and they were both the same as my first visit, which was at least 3 years ago. If it matters to you, the bartender speaks good English as a result of 9 years in England, although she's a bit shy about it.

Talo is a rarity among Belgian beer places - the food is good (contrast this with somewhere like Houblon, where they deliberately downgraded their menu in the last year, taking out everything that was decent). We had one of the 4 available salads - chicken and sweet peppers, with a lot of sliced celery, in a spicy mayonnaise dressing. We also had the Iwanaka pork rilletes, which were pleasantly not too fatty, not too dry, and came in a generous portion with light, toasted bread that matched them perfectly. After that we continued to go nuts with the 'meat' theme, ordering a half-portion of chicken and mushrooms stewed in beer and tomatoes, and finished ourselves off with a full plate of sausage - 4 different kinds that I have to say were all quite good considering we're in Japan. There was an herby one, two different spicy ones, and a forgettable one.

Beer is pretty well in the normal mold for one of these places; about 15 varieties with nothing too interesting. Hoegaarden is on tap (available in the fun 500ml glasses that are almost impossible to hold in one hand, but not the outlandish litre glasses), and the fridge naturally has Duvel, Chimay and Delirium Tremens as well as Maredsous, Rochefort and Leffe (incidentally, I just learned that there are only 7 abbeys that make beer. That explains a bit of why the variety sometimes seems limited!). There was also a small supply of British bottles as specials; I had a very nice Spitfire from Shepherd Neame, who make Bishop's Finger.

Obviously not many people of my acquaintance will venture to Kayabacho for a simple drink and snack. It's a quiet area, but the closeness of various financial firms plus potentially English-enabled customers from IBM up the river make it unsuitable for secretive meetings. But when you want to drink Belgian beer without the fuss, this is a great way to do it - and I've just realized that I was pleasantly surprised by the price.

Talo? Ah ya theyah?

Yamaichi, Awajicho (やまいち,淡路町)

I really can't imagine a better tonkatsu than this. Should I stop there? This is unfortunately one of those reviews that's in the vein of "This is the best place in the world, but you'll never go there," but it was really good. I wish I could go back every day, but when you consider the size of the katsu and the amount of fat. Soft, tasty fat...

It's no surprise that this is recommended, considering the score it gets on Tabelog (currently #7 in Tokyo out of more than 1,200) and also the expert approval from Seat. It was more surprising to find empty seats when I arrived today (1:00), especially when you consider that it seats 14 at absolute max, with most of those people bumping elbows at the counter or communal table. But the 2-person table was empty and I was permitted to claim it despite the steady stream of 2-person parties entering after me. Thanks auntie! With a small, clean room and very pleasant service, Yamaichi feels very relaxed and secluded despite being...well, on a smaller street in a pretty quiet part of town. Strangely, it was full by the time I left.

Great tonkatsu starts with ingredients; I didn't ask about the breed of pig or where it was from, just ordered a "Special Roast". Very much to his credit, the master cuts each piece to order from a whole roast; I bet if you were a regular and he liked you, he'd...cut it exactly the same, because this is Japan, we don't show favorable treatment, and anyway any thicker or thinner wouldn't taste as good. Right? Amusingly, he stared hard at me for a second when I ordered that cut, almost like "You jerk...", but he started preparing. A few seconds later I thought "Ahhh, I've gotta see what's going on here, so I asked if there was a problem with that choice. He said "Are you OK with the fat?" and I said "It's tasty, innit?" and he nodded and got down with it. I've sat at the counter on subsequent visits and watched how he makes them - the dredging is flour-egg-flour-egg-breadcrumbs, and he presses down hard on the breadcrumbs to make sure they really stick. There's a whole layer of egg under the thick crust, and it's really good in the altogether.

The cabbage was bizarrely good too - you don't often think that at a tonkatsu place - and I noticed that he cuts it fresh, from heads of cabbage on the counter, with a knife. This almost seems perverse in our fast-moving modern times, but bless him for it. It makes a difference.

Pickles are good here, but I love all the other options they give you - they had tonkatsu sauce, a ponzu with oroshi daikon already mixed in, worcester sauce, soy sauce, Japanese hot pepper, yuzu kosho and pink crystallized salt. Plus, of course, mustard with the actual food. The only thing missing was the bowl of sesame that I used to love grinding at Katsukura, but with this much variety you can get through the biggest cutlet without boredom. And this is a big cutlet to get through.

The katsu itself was big, a departure from some other places (it's also $20, be warned). On the other hand, a solid inch of one side was taken up with fat (there's no actual meat in that close-up). On the other other hand, that too was delicious, especially when just out of the fryer and still melty...The meat and fat were both exceptional, while the doubled coating was thick yet light and perfectly done. I like the fact that the chef uses a big, shallow copper pot, much like an upper-grade tempura restaurant.

It's a big buildup to get to this point and not say anything else, but I've learned that I don't much like similies describing tastes. Just trust me that this is a great restaurant, where a serious and committed guy serves great tonkatsu, and you should go out of your way to try it.

Seriously. I'm not kidding around here.

[June 23, 2011: Big Bird and I went back today, finding almost no line. I ventured boldly in a new direction by not getting the teishoku (skip the rice and soup, save Y400 and a bunch of empty calories) and also ordering from the separate items available. The plate at left, plus a free refill of cabbage, was thus Y1250. That's half a menchi katsu, a kushi katsu, an ebi shinjo, and a crab croquette. They were every bit as extraordinary as the pork always is. The prospect of eating here for less than Y1k is there for the taking, and is an great value.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Brasserie Paul Bocuse, Tokyo (大丸12階)

In the past I've said more than once that Les Brasseries Paul Bocuse are not a good thing. This is based on one particular visit I made to the Yurakucho branch; the food consisted of standards prepared in a barely competent way, and the prices were high. Today's lunch was altogether more satisfactory, although in thinking about it the quality may have been much the same as before. It's just that the prices, and my expectations, are lower at lunch.

Daimaru's food floor is actually somewhat frightening! Up there the restaurants are mainly in the over-2k range, which is heavy for daily lunches. Thus by getting the Y1700 one-plate special, I felt like I was saving money or something. It really was a decent value, and factoring in other factors that factor into our thought processes in Tokyo, quite good.

The one-plate lunch today (I should stop that, because it was two plates plus bread) was supreme de volaille, also known as chicken breast. More elaborately, it was a roasted chicken breast with chicken-derived, foamed sauce, a bit of basil puree underneath, sauteed liver and roasted potatoes. It was nice to have so many flavors going on in the plate; it covered for the fact that the chicken was really dry and tough. I found it ironic as well that the chicken breast was covered with foam - Mr. Bocuse, I think, being famous for putting the sauce under the meat, and also for dating from well before the Age of Foam. Served with a healthy 4 pieces of baguette, this was a very satisfying dish. Dessert was a simple creme brulee, not outstanding but also executed much better than the versions I've had at pretty much any other place in Japan - the custard a bit sweet, but smooth and not overly pitched in one direction, and the dish being shallow and wide enough to allow for a generous layer of perfectly-crisped (albeit extremely thin) burnt sugar.

What was really priceless, however, was one of the other Tokyo dimensions - sitting at a window table on the 12th floor of a Yaesu tower, looking East over the tops of other buildings and neon billboards. Factoring that in, this was an excellent value, and even without the view it was nice.

Thanks Paulie B.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tarumatsu/Kanda Daruma, Ueno (たる松,神田達磨)

Considering that we started out for a short walk around the neighborhood, ending up on the train to Ueno was a bit of a surprise. It happened because the Modern Art museum was closed for the month (renovations) and a random walk left us back at the Oedo line in Kiyosumi Shirakawa. These stations often advertise the distance to presumably exciting destinations, and when this one said "9 minutes to Okachimachi!" something went off in our heads and we got on the train.

Okachimachi is of course the place to get off for Ameyokocho - ridiculously crowded home of cheap fish sellers ("Everything $10! Tuna, $10! Crab, $10!" I don't know how it works and am too scared to try.), dried-food stores, ethnic supplies, leather goods, silver jewelry and western apparel. It's a must-visit when in Tokyo, but not for anything fancy. I love the old-city atmosphere, where there are slightly grubby people sitting on stools drinking at any time of day. If you walk the length of Ameyoko, you'll be at Ueno station proper, which is also the gateway to Ueno Park and the national museums.

There are a lot of places to eat, and they're all cheap. Our real reason for being in Ueno was to go to a museum (Western Art this time - interesting slice of the permanent collection focused on religious art, mostly 17th century-ish), so at some point I just picked a place and dived in. It turned out to be Tarumatsu, which turns out to be more a sake distributor than a restaurant - they stock barrels of things from all over Japan. Howver they have three cheap izakaya, 2 in Ueno and 1 in the basement of the Asahi building, conveniently located just across the tracks from the office...

This being an unplanned snack, I tried to keep it light with a tenzaru, which means cold soba on a bamboo strainer plus a few piece of tempura. The soba was pretty good actually, firm and light, although the dipping solution was overly strong (this may be 'downtown' style and not suited to effete eaters like me). The tempura was pretty terrible, with a weird cakey sort of batter, but the shrimp were pretty nice. The real attraction for me was the atmosphere; I'm a sucker for old people sitting around cackling with laughter.

Pick up the tenpo!

After, we had a further snack while walking up to the museum - there's a famous taiyaki shop called Daruma at the north end of the neighborhood. Taiyaki is literally 'snapper fry', but is actually a sweet snack consisting of bean paste cooked inside a soft dough shell in special molds shaped like a fish. And for completeness' sake, let me say that this is a branch operation, where the head store is in Kanda and there's one other on Sakura Dori in Yaesu (again near the office! I'm starting to feel like it's a good neighborhood, at least for downmarket things).

Really a good taiyaki; an opinion was ventured (not by me) that this is better than the famous one in Azabu Juban with the perpetual 1+ hour wait. The signature seems be that it's 'adult' - the shell is very thin and light compared to a usual taiyaki, and this is accentuated by the way they leave a rectangle from the mold around the fish instead of trimming strictly to fish-shape. The filling of ground, sweetened red beans only comes in the 'tsubu' (chunky) variety, and it not particularly sweet. It's really a good taiyaki.


That was an exhaustive post for a very relaxed day with little dining content...

Friday, October 23, 2009

King of Curry, Otemachi (カレーの王様)

What would you think if, say, McCormick had a fast food chicken place? (I grant you this won't resonate unless you're American. McCormick is probably America's biggest manufacturer of spices. At least it's the only one I can name, and that usually means something. Like my memory is going.) And they played only 70's rock?
That's pretty much what's going on at the King of Curry. It's owned by S&B, which I expect is Japan's largest spice company. Like their competitor House, they also make some curry, so it's not that far-fetched that they might serve it up to you also. This outlet is in the dreary basement of the Nihon Building (across from Sapia Tower, north of Tokyo Station), but does at least a little to liven up the atmosphere with some S&B-green walls and woodwork.

One weird thing about it - the service was damn fast. You buy tickets from the machine, give them to the counter guy, and I swear as soon as I picked a seat and parked it, he was calling me. Another weird thing - the katsu curry was quite good! See, I'm not all grumpy all the time. Despite being pre-cooked, the rosu was soft, juicy and flavorful, with a nice crumbly crust. The curry (you can choose sweet or dry) was also decent, as were the tubs of pickles on the table. I was going to have the veg curry (spinach and egg) for my health, but then decided that since I'm doing such a crap job on Tonkatsu Tuesdays I should step up.

Other than the food and atmosphere, what do you want to know? You want to know about the music, don't you? Straight up 70's American rock. I particularly loved the transition from Paul Simon's 'Late In the Evening', wherein he 'blew that room away!!!' to Kiss's 'Rock and Roll All Night'. Every picture tells a story (no, that wasn't played, and it's a damn good thing since that's a 70's British rock classic), and those songs remind me of being in Key West watching two uninspired guys thump it out in a cheezy bar and being in the orchestra pit at the 2000 University of Chicago GSB Follies, respectively. Thought you'd like to know.

U drive us wild, we'll drive you cray-zeeeee
I just noticed that the chipper guy who served me is actually the store manager. There's gotta be a story behind his taste in music.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Manhyo, Monzen Nakacho (万俵)

Look, I'm just guessing on the title on this one, OK? It means something like '10,000 bags' though, which is a funny little name when you think about it. This place is across the street from various other destinations (my cleaner, Mahoroba, Tsurugi, almost Petit Nice, Ogawa...I could go on about this stuff forever) but I had never been in - frankly it looks too convivial to dine alone. There's something about a bright, lively, open environment that just depresses me. When I eat dinner alone, I want to do it in a quiet place where I can talk to the master and relax.

The theme here seems to be 'izakaya', and I mean that as a joke. It's just a bright, lively, open izakaya with a bunch of different foods for cheap. We started with sashimi; sanma was tolerable but didn't live up to the autumn excellence it's known for. Hamachi was on the menu but not available; there was kanpachi instead, and it was outstanding. May I reiterate my philosophy on fish? Keep eating it and you're bound to have some wonderful experiences. It's silly to complain about it not being stellar every time. Just pick a place that's inside your price range and keep trying. It does my heart good to be rewarded for my patience when a cheap piece of fish is delicious.

Other items? The yakitori was OK but not up to the standards of a specialist (negima mediocre, tsukune pretty good, tongue weird but decent). The mixed fry was not up to the standards of a specialist, but it was interesting in that it included one big piece each of chicken and mackerel - odd items to get fried on sticks, and they were pretty good.

So it's not a specialist in anything. We knew that going in. It would be a great place to relax with the guys after work, which is what everyone else was doing!

Ouch, right in the tawaras...

Kitchen Ishigaki

Well, I'm all tired out today and can't work up any concept for today's post. On the other hand, I was really impressed with Kitchen Ishigaki (KI; I like to think it means 'rock oyster', but the kanji doesn't appear anywhere) and would recommend it to you for lunch if it weren't a good 10-minute bike ride away from the office. (I do, however, recommend it to Seat and anyone else who works between Kanda and Akiba, since it's almost right at the Awajicho crossing).

KI is basically Italian...with some French thrown in (thanfully no ersatz Spanish notes like yesterday). This is ordinarily a weak starting point, but the starting point for all the lunch sets at KI is actually pretty good - a small bowl of onion soup. It's not the 'cooked for hours to a mahogany hue and velvety richness' of various reviewers wet dreams, but it was a tolerable stock with some decent onions and a puck of crusty bread rendered pillowy by it's mantling of melted, mahogany-flecked cheese.

Oooh, I think I'm starting to get the hang of this 'creativity' thing!

The soup would be lackluster on its own. Combined with the main I had, it formed part of a very well-priced and executed whole. Confit duck leg (King Rupurt the Hirsut used to call this 'boiled in oil', and he didn't use ducks) was full size, and if the skin wasn't grilled to a perfect crisp, the flesh was certainly moist and deeply colored. With a piece of grilled eggplant and a small gaggle of mashed potatoes, this was a frankly phenomenal dish for, let's say, Y700 out of the Y1000 total (soup and serviceable bread with a smattering drizzle of olive oil).

There are also pastas (Y850 with soup), fish (more expensive, sold out when I arrived), and a chef's course (pasta and meat or fish, soup and dessert). Any way you look at it, the quality, cheap food combined with the lightly French Provincial setting are certainly enough to garner a lunch recommendation from me. Just make sure to bring your bike.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Da Paulo, Marunouchi

Many's the time I've been mistaken, and many times confused. And many's the time I've thought of having lunch at Da Paulo, but all the seats were being used. Today Linji and I were luckier. Being 1:30 had something to do with it. Da Paulo turned out to be pretty good, but less exciting than I had hoped after months of looking at it occasionally.

From the outside it's very promising - some European touches like a wine barrel and a small standing bar near the entrance are surmounted by the kind of pub-style signage over the entry that I always find incongruous when it appears indoors, let alone in a basement.

There's always a blackboard outside with the daily specials. The gratin-of-the-day was sold out when we got there (barely; the woman next to me was eating one), so I got the half-and-half lunch and can thus talk about most of the menu. The pasta was shrimp and [insert vegetable here; I've already forgotten it], which was pleasantly oily and threaded with herbs, and the shrimp were juicy. It was dusted with (pre-grated) cheese, which of course calls the authenticity of the place into doubt instantly - heavens, the put cheese on seafood?! The other half of the plate was their version of hayashi rice - which was white rice delicately napped with a ragu of sliced beef cooked in thickened demiglace sauce. Meh. The included dessert was a small piece of cake teamed with a tiny dollop of whipped cream and an even smaller mint leaf, plus hot tea.

Reviews describe the place as a 'French-Italian bistro-bar', and their own web site adds Spanish to the mix. I think it's safe to sum this up as 'Undistinguished Pan-European'.

That's all I'm trying, to get some rest.

Incidentally, I'm toying with the idea of taking on someone else's style for a while, hence the use of words like 'surmounted', 'threaded', 'napped' and 'teamed'. It's just a lot of effort, and you know how lazy I am.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sagami, Tokyo (さがみ)

The second floor of Tokyo Station has its own personality - a bit flabby, graying at the temples, and somewhat grumpy. However it's also a solid source of big dining hall-style places with big trays of mixed food. Once in a while it's OK. Today was one of those days, and I visited with Zoner and AsSam.

To keep this short, I'll posit that there were two things going for Sagami:
  • The decor is pleasingly bubbly. By which I mean there's a bit of dark wood, a bit of faux-stained glass, and some strip lighting around the edge of various decor features. Unfortunately nothing is in pastel colors, but I think it was designed for a more male clientele, lo those many years ago (as was seemingly every restaurant on that floor). It has the 'not updated very often' patina.
  • The food was not really going for it. My udon was a big, tepid bowl that had a tempura'ed piece of chikuwa in it (a tubular fish cake, I kid you not) and a small sashimi bowl on the side. Zoner had 'chicken balls', which turned out to be pieces of chicken and balls of potato cooked in thick broth. AsSam had a grilled mackerel after a fun interchange with the waitress where she denied existence of said fish, who appeared outside.
  • The best thing about the place, sadly, was undoubtedly the level of hatred that it raised in Zoner. I can't quite explain it for such an average place, but boy did he hate it bitterly. I guess mediocrity is the enemy of greatness, and he's looking for greatness.
Interestingly, AsSam was pretty happy with things. We ascribed this to the fact that he only recently arrived back in Japan, thus hasn't become acclimated to the standards here and started to think that the perfectly serviceable food we ate today was 'boring' or 'below average'.

New Tokyo Group strikes again.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Keisuke Gaiden Ramen, Tokyo (けいすけ外伝)

Ramen fever gripped me as I left the office today, and it was late enough that I figured the lines would be gone down at Tokyo Station's Ramen Street.


Still, with a few minutes of patience I was able to work my way up the pecking order and try another place. I say 'pecking order' because there's a clear difference in length of line. The shop I visited last time had a short line, whereas one of the others had no line (fortunately they used to have a branch in my neighborhood, so I can rationalize that I've already been). Today's venue is the 2nd-longest line; the most popular shop had a forbidding 20 people waiting even at 2:15. Fortunately it's a tsukemen specialist, so I don't mind.

The specialty, nay, the hook, at Keisuke's place is the soup - this is ramen in lobster soup (rock lobster, Ise Ebi). That soup is semi-clear, but thick and really rich with lobster flavor. It's the kind of soup that makes me want to drink the whole bowl even though you should stop when the noodles are gone. The most popular item (大人気#1♪!) is the ramen with egg, so I got that. The egg was excellent; only the second time I can remember having an egg cooked just perfectly like that. Somehow the white is cooked, but the yolk has gently set into a soft, clear, deep-orange gel with gorgeous taste and texture. Yowza. Cholesterol aside, I'm glad I got one. You can convince yourself it's OK because the soup isn't (?) made with pork fat, and instead of roast pork you get a little piece of boiled chicken with it. The noodles are soba-style, kinda thin and rectangular in cross section, and are largely lacking flavor (at least compared to the soup, which is the relevant thing in the world of the bowl). Special mention for the threads of hot pepper and the shreds of yuzu peel.

Serving utensils also bear special mention. To accompany the artsy picture of long-haired, artistic/sensitive Keisuke outside, the bowls are like sliced-off spheres that come on special wooden bases. One side os higher than the other; this is meant to make it easier to get the noodles out on the low side, but I was very pleased to have a bit of extra clearance and turned the 'splash guard' to the shirt side, if you take my meaning. The spoons are the other funny feature - they're more like spoon rests, in that you could fit a big cooking ladle comfortably on them, and you certainly can't fit your mouth comfortably around them. Maybe this is to make you sip, or maybe it's just arty and sensitive. It doesn't matter, because the soup is awesome.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Le Nougat, Ginza

It seems to me like Da Nugget has been open for years. It hasn't though - it's going on two. It's probably something about the classicist bistro decor that makes it hard to determine how long it's been there. There are several floors though, so the bright, somewhat hard aspect of the ground floor may give way to one that's softer and more date-worthy upstairs. Showing French movies on the wall by the bathroom is a funny touch too.

The hostess/bartender here is fantastic - her manner is completely polite and graceful in a way that makes you think she must have retired from a related profession and opened this restaurant (if indeed it's her restaurant). The other staff are on the young and male side, but in a responsive and friendly way. They're open late (2 AM) and are certainly doing a good job of catering to various types of parties through the evening.

The menu is responsive and friendly too - bistro favorites, glasses of wine. I was surprised at first by the expense of some items - like the cassoulet, which is Y3800 for the full order. While were there, a table of 8 got the full order and split it so that everyone got a decent two scoops. The half portion for Y2200 was more normally sized, and was quite sufficient for our purposes. The other major item was a country-style pate, which was excellent - various types of meat, properly ground and mixed with fat, and an intriguing spice blend (if I may say so). I wouldn't be surprised to find that this is one of the standout items on the menu, despite my paltry explorations. A small lentil salad was also approriately 'earthy' and 'beany'.

Glass wines tend toward being fully-priced, but this is Japan and bottled wine is fully-priced too. There seemed to be a number of interesting choices - with two semi-random picks I got a completely dry Alsatian riesling that maintained all the nice flowery smells, and a very complex and interesting red French vin de table. I'm a sucker for vin de table - I figure if someone believes in their product enough that they're not going to be stopped by a little thing like the government raters rejecting their wine, they must be on to something. In this case, yes.

We also had two desserts (since the preceding was split two ways, we had space and excuse, or means and motive, as you like). Both were in the 'requires 30 minutes' category, but were worthwhile. The apple tart was a lattice-domed pastry concoction with just-cooked apples (and just-baked pastry, obviously) and the clafoutis of the day (chestnut) was rich and nutty and buttery. They know how to do a crust there, no arguments.

I can see Da Nugget being a great choice as part of an evening, to wind down after work, or just because you're walking by. It's next to a jazz club (Swing City), so consider that before or after to round out the evening. I know I will be!

That was a cheezy ending, wasn't it?

Murase, Ginza (村瀬)

Ginza is an entertaining area. Really, it's kind of known for being entertaining. I like to think that it's more adult in style though, or even middle-aged. The two main things are brand shops and hostess clubs, so there are plenty of things for affluent 50-year old Japanese couples to do. Just not together.

I've always found the restaurant scene challenging - while there are certainly plenty of very high-end places, even the middle of the market seems pricey and a bit difficult in value terms. Thus I was doubly and pleasantly surprised to find two places on this evening that both delivered very nice food, drinks and service (although I'm not completely sure about the values). And that made the count of appealing bistro places for the day three.

Murase was first. Seeing as it's near Fal, I've walked by a bunch of times on the way home. I'm not totally sure why I hadn't been in, as it looks appealing - the basic premise is that they serve New Zealand wine, and I can't find a flaw in that logic. If anything, I would guess that it looks a bit too 'Ginza', meaning 'remodeled hostess club', even though I don't think it is.

Inside, they looked full but had a small table available for an hour, and we took it with the expectation of rolling on to another place. I'm not sure how to convey the 'remodeled hostess' atmosphere. I think to me it's mainly the use of furnishings that seemed stylish in the late 80's/early 90's. Here, it was the semi-gloss black table tops and the black metal pipe chairs. They would go OK with a Duran Duran poster, as long as it was tasteful. There's nothing wrong with it though, and I like the way they pack things in so that as many people as possible can get in.

The wine list is the thing, obviously. I really admire a place with enough courage in their convictions to focus on soemthing, and Murase is very focused - while I said New Zealand before, it's actually more like a 'Fruity New World' theme - New Zealand forms the majority in both read and white, but Oregon is second, Washington third, and a smidgen of Australia brings up the rear. In a country where restaurants feel their wine list must slavishly match their food (e.g., ONLY Italian wine), this is very cool. I also admire a place that has a serious bottle program, and they have a serious 20+. While this of course dwells on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot, there ae oddities - a 7-year old Barossa semillon, for instance, which found its way into my glass. I grinned a big grin when I ordered it, and Murase san smiled back as if to say "Ahhh, you noticed that."

There wasn't time or inclination to get into too much food. It tends toward the snack variety (roast beef, smoked salmon, small cold dishes) but there are also more substantial hot items (stews, pastas). And there is also cheese. A lot of very nice cheese. Two boards full of mature-looking cheese. We had a touch of calvados brie, semi-hard goat in red wine lees (I should know what this is called considering how much I like it) and some Shropshire blue. Must have been good if I can remember all three varieties 3 days later!

Murase san saw us out with apologies about the table and best wishes for next time. This is definitely worth a return visit for a fuller dinner, however you would do well to book if you're thinking of going. Being Ginza, it fills up, and doesn't empty out as the night goes on.

Oh, they call themselves a cheese and wine salon. That explains ever'ting.

Bistro Marsanne, Kanda

Hey hey, drop what you're doing and go to this place for lunch! I was really impressed. It seems to be worth a 'top 10' mention for area lunch options, although it would be worth another visit to confirm. Maybe next year...

Lunch today was with Ding, who hasn't slept all week (full time job + full time student?), and we wandered around inanely in the beautiful Fall weather for a while before the Marsannes jumped out at us. OK, I saw it on the map earlier too...but it's a fully-deployed bistro theme, staffed by two young chefs and a nervous waitress. It's also right at the outer limits of walking distance from the office - with the 20-minute (brisk) walk up past the west-Kanda shopping street, we were gone for 80. You should go on a day when time is less important so that you can enjoy the 3-course menus and newish, sparse Japan-bistro decor.

Ding is a big spender on food, which I like. We stumped up for the Y2000 full lunch menu; it differs in that you get an assorted appetizer and dessert, whereas the Y1200 lunch plus Y300 dessert allows you to choose the first and 3rd courses. I'm not sure which is better actually.

I AM sure that the food was very good right off the line. The mixed entree included a piece of fluffy, warm quiche with good crust, a big hunk of duck-based country pate, a small rilette slice on toasted baguette, and a nugget of breaded, fried fish in tartar-ish sauce. And a salad. These were all good, seriously. In a rough-and-ready way, but very good - lots of fat is the secret, I think.

We each got one of the mains. I think Ding was the winner with a big slice of pork shoulder, grilled but soft and very juicy. I really liked the fresh tomato sauce that they put on it too - bright red but still somehow tasting very simmered. Mine was the snapper, skin crisp and inside meaty and juicy, and it came with a mustard sauce and assorted vegetables. Two kinds of squash among the veg was impressive - a regular Japanese pumpkin and then a small cube of spaghetti squash. I've never seen that in Japan before.

Dessert sampler included a pistachio creme brulee where the crust was a bit thin and a bit burnt, and a fresh mint ice cream that was tasty but a little icy. The standout was the caramel ice cream, heavily burnt and really delicious. There were a few lightly macerated berries too (if I may use such language).

Now that I think about it, it might be better to go three courses for Y1500 and get to choose your adventures (the pork was an option either way, for instance). This place was near empty at 1:20, which either means it's a good bet and you can feel comfortable going over there, or else you should hurry because they can't sustain the operation. Either way, do try it!

Oh I say, smashing! Pip pip.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rontan, Awajicho (弄堂)

Does this name really mean 'play room'? I was shut out of the famous tonkatsu place I tried to go to (any hole-in-the-wall place that still has a line at 1:45 must be pretty good), found another closed-for-the-day place that looked nice, and ended up throwing in the towel at this gyoza specialist. Which doesn't serve gyoza for lunch. Pretty much a failure all around, I'd say.

The mapo nasu was a slight redeeming factor, as was the amusingly Chinese service. The master cooked the eggplants up fresh in his wok, so they were heavily smoky in taste, and his interpretation of mapo was mainly oil, with a bit of flavor and a bit of ground pork thrown in - a very simple dish, mostly vegetables. It came with salad, soup, pickles and of course rice. Mildly interesting.

I enjoyed his service though - I asked what the daily special was, the waitress somehow didn't know (at 2 PM?) and asked him. He said 'mapo nasu' in that sort of loud-and-maybe-angry way and then, maybe thinking I didn't get it, yelled, also in Japanese, "It's vegetables. With meat!" tee hee.

On the bright side, the tonkatsu place looks like a keeper (although I can't agree with Seat's assessment about the lines), and there was also a nifty Euro place.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Vin Rouge Vin Blanc, Marunouchi

Based on the plastic-impregnated green paper tablecloths and the yoshoku-ish menu, I expected this to be another box ticked on Shin Maru's 5th floor (and that decor is a bit declasse for the location, although the prices aren't). It was a bit better than that, with some nice simulacra of foreign foods falling comfortably under the Yoshoku header.

To wit: Koala had the Famous Dry Curry. This was a thick, meaty, not-exactly dry but spicy in a good way pile of stuff on top of rice and supporting a crown of crisp-fried onion bits (I love it when I get to use words like 'crown'. It's so...obstetric.). It was worthwhile. I had the Milano-fuu Veal Cutlet, which to my mind was fairly Vienna in style (I don't really know the difference; I thought Milanese cutlets were supposed to be breaded and fried on-the-bone.). And was good! It was supported (I love it when I get to use words like 'supported'. It's so...architectural.) by a pile of fried potatoes and onions which were also greasy and good, and napped (I love it when I get to use words like 'napped'. It's so...sleepy.) by a pool of wine-dark demiglace sauce (ooh, ooh, that was so...Homeric!). Not Milanese, not Viennese, but all Japanese! I think I've digressed into preening over my own cleverness, so howzabout we just cut it there, 'k?

Yo MTV shokus.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kassen Ichiba, Otemachi

I know what you're thinking - you already went to a Kassen Ichiba in Otemachi under the tracks, on [ ], with Volleyball. You're so right. But they've closed that branch, and anyway they always had this other one. The food was distressingly similar. They offer two basic things - raw fish or fried goods. Having had the raw fish on the prior visit (cheap, acceptable for the price) I went The Way of the Fry this time. My Mixed Fry set was OK (mackerel, crab croquette, tiny pork cutlet); the frying was decent quality even though the ingredients were a bit mediocre. I thought it was weird in a fry-focused restaurant that I had to ask for Sauce (capital s), and also that the rice was served in a plastic bowl tightly wrapped with plastic film. I'm thinking they cook, portion out, then microwave before serving. I also figured out what the tea is - previously I thought it was dirty water, but now I know that it's cold weak green tea. Ah well. It's cheap.

Well, that was boring - but thankfully short!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Barcelona, Pitman

As you may know, Pitman has never been much of a culinary destination. In fact I don't think it's ever been much of a destination at all, for anything. Nor would I say it's the kind of place where people base themselves for convenient access to other towns (or Philadelphia). I'd characterize it more as a place for people who are quietly confident about the superiority of their town and lifestyle despite the lack of evidence. Here, check out these old postcards. Most of the buildings and views are intact today, which is cool! I digress. My point was that Pitman has never had fine dining, just Italian restaurants and some other bits 'n' bobs. At Barcelona, Your Host Mark Nascimento aims to change all that, and seems to be succeeding, which is terrific.

Mark seems to be a succesful veteran of the South Jersey restaurant scene, and Barcelona is his latest project. He's taken over the building next to the Borough Hall and police station, adjacent to the bakery. You'll remember that this used to be split and have an office supply store, a kindergarten, or some other things on various sides depending on the year, but has been empty and for sale for some time. He actually mentioned that he visited the town for the first time and signed a deal on the property without even realizing what other attractions existed (like the beautifully-renovated Broadway Theater). That's the spirit, isn't it? I interpret this as confidence that the restaurant would attract enough people from the greater South Jersey area, regardless of whether a small town like Pitman could support the concept and price level that Mark wanted to go for. That's great.

I also love the atmosphere in the place (minus the noise level, which Mark is trying to fix). The clean, relaxed, dim setting wouldn't be out of place in a city, although a bit of greenery or some divisions in the big room would help. The other customers also seem to be into it - every table featuring a bottle of wine (or three, in some cases). I even spotted a pair of decanters on a shelf in the back and asked to dust one off and use it.

These spreads (olive on the right, I think butter in the middle, I think tomato on the left) were nice. Lauren warmed up the bread after we asked her to do so.

Being a prisoner of the multi-course world, I got three entrees (UK: mains). The first was Flaming Pig (not its real name), an 8X1-inch chorizo that was lightly flamed tableside in, I kid you not, a pig-shaped ceramic dish (you can least see the flame in the picture!). Drama has come to Pitman, and not just on stage in the theater.

The sausage itself was an interesting take on chorizo, at least to me. It was very chunky, both the meat and fat, which meant that it didn't mix to a sausage consistency and the meat pieces were a little dry. The flavor was strong and good, however, and the inclusion of mustard introduced the 'pan-European' theme. (Barcelona is actually advertised as a European Bistro, not a Spanish Restaurant.)

Have you noticed the odd lighting? It was too dark to take decent pictures, but Dad had his penlight and helpfully provided some overhead fill light. Plus it was his birthday! Yay Dad!

I also had these stuffed peppers, which were quite Spanish to me and probably my favorite thing. The innards were something like 'Marinara mix', just a jumble of seafood. Considering that the version I had in Spain included canned tuna, this could be considered a step up! No extra lighting on this picture, which is why the peppers look like lumps of mud.

I also had this special, sweet potato gnocchi in pumpkin cream sauce. They were about as heavy as the description sounds, and a little sweet.

Dad had this tilapia. I don't know from the sauce, but it included a bunch of mashed potatoes and also some nice julienne vegetables. Very American in aspect, don't you think? I'm kind of enjoying the spotlighting now...

And Mom had this lamb. Good heavens, this was a lot of meat; it wasn't cheap, but the quantity justified the price. 4 double-bone chops with roughly-chopped nut crust, cradling another pile of mashed potatoes. The meat was good, a little underdone for my tastes. This is where I realized that I was in a different type of restaurant, and ordering more than one dish is pretty difficult if you get a main...I couldn't finish all three starters, and I thought beforehand that I was getting right back into American-eating mode.

 Not finishing some of the starters made me feel like it was OK to eat a dessert, and this Key Lime pie was enjoyable. Light, not too tart, not too sweet (some would say 'balanced'), I don't care if it was made or bought, I liked it.

Everyone's real friendly in a homey, American way (including Mark!) - service by Lauren, Lauren and Lisa was good (Mercedes wasn't there, much to everyone's disappointment). If you live in the area, I think you should take a bottle of wine and check it out!

Pitman: South Jersey hotspot?

The Grill Room, New York

When a place describes itself as 'sumptuously understated', you get a good idea what you're in for. And the Grill Room doesn't disappoint. It's expensive, lame, and a little tacky. Still, for a business lunch in World Financial Center, it delivers on the criticial 'location' dimension, and that may be enough. The view of the river is indeed pretty swell; kinda like some of the restaurants in IFC in Hong Kong, but with less HK and more NY outside. I feel a little bad judging it harshly based on one lackluster visit, but poop on that, I'd never tell you to eat here.

As far as food, I had eaten a biggish breakfast not that long before and was somewhat lacking interest (so salt your reading concordantly). We started with a shared platter of calamari where the breading was wierdly dry and crumbly, but on the other hand this helped preserve it against getting soggy since it wasn't hot. Regarding the main dishes, the menu is a classical 'steaks vs. seafood death match' sort of affair, and I honored my American roots by doing my little bit to help eradicate the endangered Patagonian Toothfish. It turned out to be a huge piece of fish, the size of a tuna jaw (does that help your imagery?), that was somehow crusted over with toasted fat and ridiculously rich and buttery inside. I felt a little obscene eating something so fatty even though it was fish. Served only with a few strands of cress, the waiter correctly observed that we should order vegetables separately.

Fine if you have to go, but better not on your own dime.

Izzy and Nat's, New York (Battery Park)

A great deli is one of the world's great pleasures. Izzy and Nate's is a little puzzling to me (the classic-sounding Hebe deli names coupled with the largely Latino staff, but I think that's a NY thing or maybe just a US thing emergent in the 9+ years since I left, and yes I'm licensed to use words like that), but based on one little sammich, it's a pretty good deli. It was very pleasurable. I wish I could eat lunch there every day.

This is within reasonable walking distance south of World Financial Center - it's in one of the buildings that border the river in Battery Park, between Pumphouse Park and Rector Park. There's also a really nice-looking Italian deli tucked in there, but this was breakfast, and nothing says breakfast in New York to me like a bagel. Top it with lox or whitefish, I'm not picky.

What's a whitefish? Semi-reliable sources indicate that that the kind used for the salad I'm fond of is a lake fish from the northern US or southern Canada (although I certainly hope I wasn't served any of that Canadian crap). It's heavily smoked for serving, and I saw something saying it was also brined first (this may explain why it tastes like mackerel to me despite being a freshwater, scaled fish). After smoking, it's chopped and mixed with mayonnaise, then (if you're lucky) glopped heavily on a toasted bagel with some thin vegetal components (lettuce and onion for me. I don't like tomato on sandwiches like this. It's unwieldy.).

It was really a pleasure after my last few deli experiences to be able to front up to the counter and confidently order whitefish salad on a toasted onion bagel. And it seemed really good too!  I don't know that I've ever had a whitefish salad that I didn't like, and certainly absence has made the tongue grow fonder, but this was a fresh, smokey, abundantly tasty whitefish salad. And a good bagel. Other features of I&N's display case included whole smoked fish, latkes, knishes and other prepared foods, all of which looked big and beautiful.

I see in retrospect that the bagels are made there, and the fish and meat are smoked by a small producer called 'Catskills' (oy!), and I imagine there are various other little touches that relate to excellence. I'm forced to concede that I just got very lucky in wandering in there, and if you're lucky enough to live or work nearby, you should become a regular.

I wasn't a regular, but then I ate a lotta prune hamentashen and oy vey!

I went back in February 2011 and had the pastrami-smoked salmon platter. OK, I admit it, this picture doesn't include the 4 bagels-with-whitefish-salad that I ate for breakfast that week. I'm a big fan. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hawaiian Tropic Zone, New York

After the quick solitary dinner at The Modern, it was time to meet Wolf, who was finishing his busy 'work' day (he now lives in New York, in case you remember the name and have noticed his absence for the past couple months). We started at Columbus Circle and walked a lot, finally getting tired of not finding the perfect place and stopping instead in a distinctly imperfect one in Times Square...

The Hawaiian Tropic Zone! It's kinda like Trader Vic's, only less classy. haha. Think faux-Hawaiian decor and waitresses in bikini tops and sarongs. Perhaps 'an upscale Hooters' would be a better description? Anyway, it was certainly a place to sit and talk as opposed to walk and talk.

There was a jazz 3-piece (guitar, bass and drums) that was nice to listen to; they played some minor classics (Lee Morgan) and also some things with a more funky rock feel.

Wolf's face has been obscured to protect his innoscents in this difficult job market.

You can call this a Dark & Stormy if you want since the picture is weak. I can't remember what it was (though definitely not a D&S), but this is really an atmosphere place. The drinks aren't too expensive considering that it's New York and Times Square, it's not too noisy, and it's not crowded. It could be perfect your next low-key, all-male event!

Lemme help you with that lotion!

The Modern, New York

Stood up for dinner and drinks (I now know/have known three people in advertising, and I have to say they're all unreliable about this stuff), I fell back on a place I had been thinking of trying the night before. The Modern is the restaurant and cafe of the Museum of Modern Art, and there was a table available when I called at the last minute. I thought it was on the dining side, where the menu looked really excellent, but it turned out to be The Bar Room, where the menu was more casual, meaty and Alsatian (the chef, in addition to being Alsatian, received a James Beard award as Best Chef: New York this year). Still interesting.

After mildly annoying my helpful and patient waiter, Jordan, over my reservation and menu confusion, I picked three dishes (with his help, thanks!) and settled down to eat. The Bar Room is a bit crowded and noisy; not my favorite kind of place to eat alone, but it afforded me a wonderful opportunity to listen in to the steady stream of inanity from the recently-divorced kid at the next table who was trying to sell his car sales franchise to a much older man. I didn't know agonizing over your divorce was a good sales tactic.

This steak tartare was chopped, not ground. You may be thinking "Of course it wasn't ground. That would be disgusting! It's immoral!" but it happens all too often. It was chopped very finely too. It was good, especially with the craggy, warm, toasted whole-wheat bread. A little more spice wouldn't have gone amiss.

Mentioned in a review that got me excited about The Modern, this 'egg in a jar' was excellent. As they used to say on the voiceovers of Iron Chef (料理の鉄人, not that Iron Chef America BS), "This is a perfected dish." I don't think there's any '63 degree' stuff going on here, I just think they put an egg, cream and a bunch of lobster meat in a sealed jar and simmered it for a while.

Until it was smooth, thick and tasty...sort of like lobster poached in butter, only poached in even more good stuff! Mmmmm, robstah.

I'm always into scallops; these looked terrific on the plate, and the corn-and-bits accompaniments were bright and American. The scallops themselves were enormous (not for the first time in the last month, I would have thought they were pen shell / tailagai if I wasn't told they were scallops) and very good. I found the coating a bit strong on spice, especially salt. I think. Something burned my tongue in an odd way, and if it wasn't salt it was hot pepper. It's weird that I couldn't distinguish, but that's the way it was that night. Meaty scallops vs. puree vs. crunchy vegetables is a good way to go.

There it is! Based on the quality of this stuff, I really wish I had been able to get the 3-course menu in the dining room for only another $20, and if I lived in the area (Mayu) I would certainly go check it out.

Thankfully it's not 'The Dada"

The Little Bigger Place, New York

With no plans for lunch on Thursday, I took the opportunity to freestyle a different neighborhood (a really different neighborhood from Otemachi). Following my nose out of World Financial Center, across the pedestrian bridge, past Ground Zero, all the construction and the pile of gapers, I ended up walking north on West Broadway (which is west of Broadway). There were a few choices, but the southeast Asian place looked full and a little formal, and I saw this Mexican place right after that anyway...can't visit America without eating Mexican, can you?

The Little Bigger Place used to be The Little Place, but moved after 9/11. The new location is bigger. But not that big. It's friendly, it's colorful, and they quickly served up a gallon of iced tea and got about my order. This left me with time to admire the huge, awesome mural of peasants in revolt, armed troops cruelly mowing them down, and a mustachioed general arrogantly taking it all in. I may be misinterpreting it, actually. Maybe the noble peasants are overthrowing the army. In any case, it's some classic Mexican folk art, and livens up the room more than any 10-by-20 foot mural has a right to (interestingly, I saw a review that described this as 'straight-up faux Mexicana'. What if the owners and cooks and waitresses and the painter are all Mexican? Is it still faux just because it's in New York?).

One of the daily specials was the Vera Cruz set - fish tacos. I admit, my expectations for a fish taco were formed in San Diego (where when things get bad, at least you have the ocean). I ate a lot of fish tacos there once upon a time, of which all I can remember is the chain shop Rubio's. The fish in LBP's tacos was more stewed then the expected deep-fried (in fact I wondered a few times if it wasn't canned tuna, but you know how much I love canned tuna), which I guess is a la mode in Vera Cruz. Maybe SoCal fish tacos aren't the real thing? Or at least aren't straight up Vera Cruzerz. Hot sauce was some regional concoction I didn't expect, not hot at all. Good rice and beans.

I'd go back here any time if I worked in NY. Strangely, it was a Mexican lunch that tasted good but didn't leave me painfully full. That too may be a peculiarity of Vera Cruz. Next time, enchiladas...

Used to be a little smaller than it is now.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Daniel, New York

Last time I was in New York for one night, my friend Mayu (thanks for reading!) and I went to Charlie Palmer's Aureole. I know what you're thinking - it's so touristy now, and you're over it. We went when it was still up the East Side in a townhouse, and it was nice sophisticated American food in a very rich, clubby, New York environment. I distinctly remember some sort of meat towers with red berries, and an overall casual refinement. But my reminiscenses digress - Aureole has moved to Midtown and now looks as much bar as cafe as restaurant, and in any case Mayu and I went to the even-more-notable Daniel, the longtime flagship of New York celebrity French chef Daniel Boulud.

Daniel has been a New York Times 4-star restaurant since 2001, and Frank Bruni reconfirmed that assessment early this year when he visited after their mid-2008 refit. It recently received a third Michelin star, putting it quite exclusive company (Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Per Se), and it stands quite alone in the sense that it had a table available for us at 8:30 on Wednesday night. In the Lounge, mind you, but the menu is the same. I ask you, what's the recession coming to when all the restaurants are booked out on Wednesday nights? The facade and door conspire to make you feel grand when you arrive, no matter which part of the restaurant you eat in.

The Lounge is perfectly fine. It's a little tight, space-wise, but this is New York, and it's extremely dark, light-wise, but this is New York, and a lounge by name. Actually I would say that the Lounge conforms very well to my ideas about what a fine dining room should be (minus a bit of lighting) - comfortable, stylish, not too fancy. It put me in mind of the downstairs area where Mayu and I had eaten at Aureole (although that room was of course better-lit. I remember it being warm and orange-tinted, almost like there was a glow around everything.). This is leading up to an apology about how bad the photos are; it was seriously dark, and we had to pretend it was my birthday just to get a candle so I could take pictures! I kid, I kid. But the photos are laughably bad; I did a little recovery so you could get an idea what shape the food was, but that's about it.

The dinner of 3 courses for $105 seems like decent value to me considering everything about the location and luxury of the experience (I paid the same amount for lunch in Paris though, and also found that a good value, so my expectations could be funny). It gives you 8-10 options for each course, only a very few of which have supplements (and those are reasonable). We were determined to have a good time, engaging in a bit of friendly banter about the menu with the captain, Pascal. Eventually he asked if it was my first visit to New York, which said to me that we had perhaps damaged our good names through too much frivolity and ended up looking like we were just in from Ioway. Heavens! We soldiered on enjoying ourselves regardless.

The amuse was a silver tower, very much in keeping with the luxury theme. Interestingly, we both thought that the simplest was best - a parsnip puree at the top. No parsnips in Japan, but I sure wish there were. The second level, smoked salmon had great texture and smoke but the garnish didn't do much for it, and the bottom level has escaped my memory after only a week. We agreed that they were best in order from the top down.  We didn't drink much, partly because we were unamused by the sommelier (and partly because I had just flown in from Tokyo, boy were my arms tired, and we all had to work the next day); he happily recommended the two most expensive glass wines as a good way for us to start things off, and we turned to the joys of tapwater thereafter. Incidentally, I saw another ostensibly cosmopolitan and epicurean reviewer from several years ago complain that the staff were all foreign and impossible to understand. The staff were indeed all foreign, but I don't see that a native speaker should have any problems understanding them, nor should said speaker be horrified to find French people providing service at a top French restaurant. They may have been less comprehensible when that review was written.

Mayu had the sauteed foie to start (this may have been a supplemented item, but if so only at $10). Country bumpkins always go for this sort of thing, while sophisticated New Yorkers are over it and have moved on to less obvious and more healthy choices. Their loss; it was good foie cooked well (but not better on either dimension, I think). The accompanying peaches were rather hard and had an odd flavor, which in retrospect is totally forgivable since they were quince. I didn't think they were sweet/soft enough to go with the foie, nor acidic enough to oppose it.

This scallop preparation was a nice one with a lot of good ideas, and was executed well. I confess that when Pascal told me it was a rosette of sliced scallop discs on a fennel marmalade, all I could think of was the scallop/broccoli/truffle dish at l'Ambroisie that I'd like to eat, and I ordered this out of sympathy. It was very good - the scallops placed on top and barely grilled, while the cooked fennel underneath was interesting and the fresh fennel on top crunchy. Fortunately not overpowering to the scallops either. This picture is terrible; it makes the dish look like half a cut Japanese pumpkin.

Mayu's Duo of Beef is evidently a classic of the house. It consists of a piece of filet (I think) and a few short ribs, plus some black trumpet mushrooms and a mound of something else. Or something. With due apologies to Mayu and the chef, I thought the steak was good but no more, and the short ribs quite nice, but there wasn't anything unexpected in their fatty, gelatinous beefiness. I felt like I'd had equally good food elsewhere.

On my side of the table, things looked better (let me digress for a second. I went to Chicago's Tru in early 2000 and our table of 4 had the tasting menu. At the time that meant that each diner got a different dish for almost every course (minus things like the caviar, which was one presentation for the table). I was the notable loser on most of the courses - e.g., getting monkfish liver when everyone else got a different treatment of foie. Clearly I'm still bitter about this.). I went for the grouse - it's early autumn, time to get started on game meats for the year! (Note: $15 supplement) You do have to be up for something like grouse - this was appropriately hung, meaning it had that savor of well-hung meat. I tend to think that this gives the meat a blue-cheese flavor. If you overthink, that actually means the meat is a little moldy. But yum! Here, the meat was made into a sort of loaf with grouse, mince and dressing (sort of a berry jam?), then cut diagonally in half. The vegetables were somewhat aloof, by which pretentious phrase I mean I didn't see how they related to the bird or sauce, but beets were included, and this was a very good dish. It looks a bit like a dessert, doesn't it, with all the colored nuggets and curly bits?

Earlier I joked about faking a birthday just to get a candle. It was my birthday 4 days earlier, but the real reason for the request was mainly to try a third dessert. Actually this may have been the best of the lot, a sort of 'apples aplenty' theme where the most notable element to me was the apple gummy holding up the candle. I particularly enjoyed (and took advantage of the temporarily superior lighting to take a closeup of) my name as embroidered on the plate.

Spelling it with an 'h' is perfectly understandable, but 'Jhon'? Perhaps that's the currently-fashionable treatment on the Upper East Side. I also like how the squiggle at the end resembles a question mark. It's as if the kitchen is saying "Don't they spell John this way in Ioway?"

Mayu's dessert, wherein he fell prey to ordering the 'molten chocolate cake', in this case a bit more extravagant by having caramel in the center instead of just chocolate.

My dessert, basically chocolate and hazelnuts (I do like how the dessert menu is divided into 'fruit' and 'chocolate' pages. It's easier to avoid all the nice fruity things that you can make at home.). Actually the main reason I got this was the lemon ice cream, which turned out to be a nice, fresh contrast. But the cigar in the pastry curl on the left is a chocolate tube filled with hazelnut pastry, and it was good. As for the ice cream on the right side, I didn't order it medium-rare, it just came that way.

How does the above read? Negatively? I don't mean to be. We had a great time and enjoyed the experience. I think the execution of the food let the side down a little, but the atmosphere and service made up for it (barring the wine service). Possibly we would have felt even better if we had managed to get Dining rather than Lounge seats, but I don't think so. To my limited mind, this seems like a quintessential New York experience; overall between 2 and 3 stars, food unfortunately being the slightly weaker element. The best part is that, if you're used to Tokyo or Paris fine dining, the prices will seem quite normal or even reasonable!

The pipes, the pipes are calling