Monday, November 30, 2009

Chinmaya, Otemachi (陳麻家)

This place seems to specialize in tantanmen (spicy sesame-and-pork noodles) and mapo tofu (tofu and pork in sauce heavily spiced with red pepper and prickly ash). I sense some thematic similarities there. In keeping with my recent capsule reviews of noodles places:
- I like noodles like this in ramen - thin, straight, light. They're like Ippudou's noodles.
- The soup was very good. It was actually sort of light, and the chili came not as a layer of oil on top, but a layer of mostly-emulsified spiciness that was a pleasant bright orange.
- The ground pork was higher-quality than most; I often think the ground pork in tantanmen is a little gross, but this tasted like quality meat.
- There were some vegetables.
- Y680 for normal tantan. They had dry tantan (oil only) on the menu, but the machine wouldn't serve it, and the waitress seemed to think I was strange for asking about it.

So yes, a very nice noodle experience. One could argue that this is more of a Japanese-style tantanmen - I associate the light texture and bright-orange colorway with the Japanese derivative of tantan. If I'm wrong about this and it's actually from a different province of China or something, let me know. Then again, they probably don't eat tantanmen in China.

9 stores in Chiyoda alone. Andale!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Very Berry Cafe, Kyoto

A few curious things here. One is that the neighborhood of Kyoto behind the city hall has an abnormal number of modern, foreign restaurants and cafes mixed in with the old vegetable shops and paper stores. It's quite nice, especially 'Gokomachi street' where we stayed. Another curious thing is the trend toward hyper-American cafes in Japan. Here's one of them.

To be fair, they're usually Hawaiian or at least Californian. This one was heavy on surf paraphenalia and American flags, and we sat next to a biggish, gaudy Christmas tree. Fortunately there was no 'hula Christmas' music playing.

The food is like this - a big display case of cakes up front, or burgers and Spam sandwiches. It being not-too-long after a kaiseki lunch, a shared piece of cake did it up. It was mediocre.

Which left me with nothing to do but put on my scarf, sit under the flag, and contemplate what it means to be an American at this, the most...won-der-ful time...of the year. In Hawaii. Errr, Kyoto.

Don't ask.

Fujita, Kyoto (藤田)

Sure, this was the third day in a row that we visited Pontocho, but what the hey? Fujita is a pleasantly reserved-looking traditional place up near the top of the alley, with a youngish master but a feeling of long history. The food was decent; this would be OK for a lunch, but if I was really planning a food itinerary, I'd find a place to get a luxury bento out of the city grid and among the temples, overlooking a garden and pond.

One fun thing is that the counter was so high - up 4 or 5 steps from the entrance, so you towered above the chefs and brushed the ceiling before sitting down on the floor at eye level with the food.

The basic lunch items were variations on Kyoto food. Over 4 options, you could have the basic bento, the tofu-yuba set (which upgraded some bento items slightly, e.g., sashimi of yellowtail instead of tuna, and added a few dishes like fresh tofu), and then kaiseki lunches that appeared simply to serve everything from the two sets together and in sequence (with some upgrades, I guess).

Starter yuba tofu. Looks sweet, but isn't. Looks boring, but wasn't!

Starter salad - crab and lightly-pickled vegetables. Some would say "This worked well to activate my palate." I am not among them. But it was tasty.

Yuba-tofu set ingredients (in addition to the fresh tofu you'll see below). The usual suspects appear here - kounter-klockwise from back left, there's salmon eggs with grated radish, boiled pumpkin, roasted fu (wheat gluten) with sweet miso sauce, scrambled egg, and minced cooked duck.

Kamogawa bento, basically the same ingredients except the fried tofu skin bits in the basket and the sashimi in the front (sashimi for the above set was a separate plate).

Fresh tofu, still warm, just set. Fresh tofu is really nice. You should try it some time. I wonder what tofu is like in America; certainly I don't remember it with any fondness, but there are some times in Japan when I eat tofu and just think "Wow, that was good." I know - tofu!

The master was pretty chatty and amused by all the picture-taking - you can see him smiling here as I lined up this shot of 6 dishes being served to us at once. It's not that common for the master to be a good conversationalist and work hard at it (i.e., clearly opening conversational lines with the guests while he's slicing radishes), so appreciate it when you can. He helped the older women next to us by finding the phone number of a restaurant they wanted to visit for dinner.

Croquette in thick, starchy sauce, which came with the rice, soup and pickles. Nice work on the frying and everything, buddy.

What, no simple, humble dessert? I kid, I kid. There was some ice cream that I didn't photograph.

With that, we were back on the street. As is realtively common in small places, the master came out with us and stayed outside until we were out of sight. It's pretty embarassing, really.

Daytime in Pontocho is a little weird.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yuubi, Kyoto (遊美)

Really outstanding food from a modern kappou in the deep south of Gion - on the street with all the chayas, if that helps. While the atmosphere was a little cold, this was some of the best Japanese food I've ever had.

But first, stone-paved streets with rickshaws! Quel queint!

No pictures were really possible (master's policy, boo on that, I grabbed this one out of spite), but the course proceeded as follows:

Pickled mackerel and seaweed. Extraordinary balance of sweet, salty and sour; he had made a sort of cake out of mackerel filets and konbu, then cut it into cubes for serving.

Raw snapper with miso, fermented beans and myoga. I tell a lie - 'fermented beans' will make you think it was natto, but it was actually moromi miso (barley fermented into the miso). This was a stir-it-together-until-it's-all-brown-and-sticky sort of dish, but tasted wonderful.

Steamed tai fillet covered with grated lotus root, another white-on-white dish with interesting textural contrasts and gentle, complex flavors.

Boiled turtle and daikon with fried fu and turtle egg. First time for me to have turtle, and as expected it's a little collagen-heavy and gross. Especially the skin and layer of gelatin that comes with it. The fried fu (wheat gluten) was marvelous; you think of fu as something boring that floats in your soup occasionally with a rainbow pattern and maple leaf shape, but this was so perfectly fried... Turtle egg could be confused with fish eyeball in size and shape, but was bright yellow.

Sawara saikyo with pickled gobo in sesame. I thought I had good grilled sawara for the first time at lunch on this day, but this was a whole different level of awesomeness. In keeping with the 'rustic kitchen' theme, the grill was basically a box on the counter into which they put some charcoal that had been heated in a pot on the stove.

Whole shrimp potato. Again with the seasonal ingredients - but high quality in this case, peeled, boiled, and thickly sauced.

Lily-root steamed bun filled with duck mince. Looks like a normal steamed bun, but instead of bread it's grated lily root (yurine. No jokes please.). The flavor and texture of that was awesome, as was the taste of the minced duck. Really masterful. But again basically one white lump in a bowl!

Donabe rice with shirasu and pickled konbu. I don't like shirasu, but I liked this. It's also kinda cute how this was served to us and another couple at the same time from the same pot. I always think rice cooks better in larger quantities.

Really incredible persimmon. If not for the overall rusticity of the approach, I would think there was some molecular foolishness at work here. The inside of this persimmon was jellied in much the same was as the apricot I had at Can Roca, but I think it was just a case of ingredient selection and very, very careful ripening. Neat stuff.

Seriously, boo on the no-photos policy. Then again, most of the establishments on the street barely have names, so I guess he's doing us a favor by letting normal people eat there. When you leave, you'll notice that the street is lined with these lanterns on other houses, and occasionally you can hear the sounds of music or talking from inside. The lanterns certainly mean that entertainment is available within (nothing untoward, mind), but outside there's just a name plate. In fact, if you look at this street on a restaurant map, even a good one, you'll get the impression that it's dead and wonder why Yuubi san would be here. In person, you quickly realize that it is in fact crowded with quiet, secretive places of the type that you're always reading about in articles ("introduction-only") but are never seeing. This is where they are.

Secret-secret...I've got a secret...

Takenaka, Kyoto (竹中)

There's nothing like 8 courses of kaiseki to pep you up from walking around looking at red leaves and tide you over until dinner. I mean, I already felt pretty peppy from walking around this neighborhood (for reference, this is the bit on the mid-east side of Kyoto, north of Kiyomizudera and south of Yasaka jinja - ninenzaka, sannenzaka, etc). Cobbled alleys and surprise views of pagodas always make me happy. You?

There were a lot of places to eat, especially near the Yasaka end of the area, where I started (for example, the famous Kikunoi is there - I stumbled across it but didn't think they'd be that welcoming of unreserved guests). I held out until I saw this place, which said nothing but "We don't always have food, but when we do it's good" in 4 languages, and 'Y5000' in Japanese only.

Inside had a funny dark and damp feel despite being warm and dry, and the waitress told me that lunch was 7 courses. There are some private rooms and then this small counter, which was fairly peopled when I got there.

Fried tofu  starter. This was terrific on accounta the stock. I love it when a place makes good stock.

These hooks were hanging from the ceiling above the kitchen side of the counter. I'd like to think they were originally for whale fishing.

Sometimes I think that Kyoto food is about disguising ordinary ingredients to seem more interesting, or else using extraordinary ingredients in a way that renders them disinteresting. This is raw squid, minced in strips, then carefully formed into a cylinder. Into that, as you can see, goes the yolk of a quail egg. These are very ordinary ingredients (seriously - if you're reading in America, you wouldn't believe how easy it is to get quail eggs in Japan), but put together this way you get to call it "Bird's nest style".

This is a pleasant but difficult boiled course. Pleasant because it tasted good and the ingredients are very healthy - the gray thing is fu (wheat gluten) with black beans, then going clockwise there's dried, re-hydrated tofu skin, spinach, fried tofu, and a piece of fish. The chef criticized my eating style here - after a few bites he told me it's a special Kyoto fish, it's too hard to debone (the spine and main bones were all there in a layer; he had taken off only one filet), and you should eat it by picking up, biting softly, then pulling so the bones stay in one piece and come out of your mouth. At least I think that's what he said. The skin was tough and the bones were many, but years in Japan have innured me to these travails, and I ate the whole thing. Around this time an elderly waitress popped up, seemingly just to say "Wow, you really use chopsticks well!" and then disappear.

Finally, good sawara. Sawara is usually overdone to my tastes, even in very nice restaurants. I think it's stylistic. This was still a touch clear in the middle. The brown nubs on the maple leaf are pickled mountain peaches, to be eaten at the end to clear your palette.

Again, we add excitement to otherwise perfectly normal dishes by serving them covered and saying it's "Umbrella style" (I'm not making this up).

Helloooooo baby. Can't remember what the fish was. I believe it was shrimp potato, since I was in Kyoto and it's evidently the season where that gets included in every meal! Boiled in sweet soy sauce, delicious.

Arrrrr. I don't know why, but this crock, which was cooked as it is on the grill and then adorned with a leaf, made me think of buried treasure on a tropic isle. Avast!

So inside was minced fish and julienne daikon, cooked together and then 'sealed' with egg and topped with prickly ash. Or so I thought. The chef was a little offended - the 'minced fish' was actually hamo, a special type of eel that's famous in Kyoto and hard to serve (you need a special knife to cut the abundant bones, and some practice too) and thus a luxury ingredient. The daikon was actually udo, an odd root vegetable (you would know it best from 'udo sumiso', which you would have experienced as thin rectangles of crunchy raw root vegetable, with a yellow sweet-and-sour sauce, in the Spring). And it was actually Kyoto udo, which is far superior because of its pure white color and lack of 'scum' that needs to be removed by soaking. But y'know, it tasted pretty normal considering how fancy the ingredients were. I didn't ask where the eggs came from.

Lots of seasonal leaves. And a fish tank. Really a funny little room; food that's intended to be grand, delivered in a tiny, dusky, humble setting.

Again I made the ingredient mistake. These grapes look just like the famous late-summer specialty from Yamanashi, kyoho. I asked where he sourced kyoho in late November. I was corrected. These are NOT kyoho. They are another type of grape that comes from farther south, and, being very good, are naturally not distributed to Tokyo.  Similarly, these are not just black beans. They're called 'grape beans' and did have a lovely grapey taste - but I'm not sure if that was because of their DNA or because they were cooked in grape juice (possible). Either way, what a great finish to the lunch - so simple, so humble...I'm just kidding. You know I always say that when I get fruit for dessert. I had to go out and get some ice cream.

I was happy with lunch here, but unless dinner was a big step up in quality, I'd be pretty bummed about tripling the price.

Any kaiseki just outside a temple has to be OK, no?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Karaku, Kyoto (華楽)

Nice place they've got here. I like this whole Kyoto thing more every

Friday night, got up the courage to poke my head into one of the nearly
unmarked kappou on Pontocho. With a number of the places there, it's hard to tell what they do - just a name over the door. They could be people's houses for all I know. One thing that probably clues you in is the bird lanterns they have outside - you see this in other neighborhoods too, but not with birds. It seems to indicate membership in the neighborhood entertainment organization (and I don't mean anything seedy by that.

It turned out to be a 10-seater, staffed by a young master (the waitresses charmingly called him 'chief') who liked fast cars and cooked a range of stuff in his two-burner setup while also serving up awesome pickles and a range of Kyoto style cooked dishes scooped from big bowls on the counter.

This is called 'banzai' food. Not to be confused with tiny sculpted trees, and not to be confused with the 'long life' toast either (it's always written with the ban in hiragana when I see it, and the sai is either hiragana or occasionally yasai no sai). Should you be hygenically squeamish, perhaps Kyoto isn't for you?

Starter: egg tofu

The first of the banzai that we had - yuzu tofu. Disappointingly non-yuzu.

Pumpkin. Very well done - the color was bright orange like melon, and the texture was very nice.

Sardines boiled in soy sauce with ginger. These are a bit confronting for me so we didn't try them.

Excellent wintry sashimi - buri on the left and some kind of tai. They had a selection of fugu dishes, but I wanted to eat it raw and they had run out already (it was 10 PM).

Absolutely phenomenal pickles. I just love pickles. Unnaturally so. One disappointment of the weekend is that I learned there are places near the Eastern temples that serve all-you-can-eat pickles, 25 varieties, but I didn't go. Next time!

Grilled shiitake and manganji togarashi (big green peppers from Kyoto). Like the banzai, these are sitting out on the counter, daring you to order them. Or enticing, more like it. Big shiitakes like this are kinda rare, but when you can get one, the taste and texture are great. The inside of the cap is very pale and smooth - it looks almost like custard.

Deep fried tofu skin filled with fish and vegetables; some of these had shrimp, some had minced fish. All were nice.

The spiced salt was pleasantly swirled. Probably by someone's finger, but hygiene standards are just different here. If this bothers you, you definitely wouldn't want to see his kitchen.

This could be a regular event.

Royal Curry, Nihonbashi

This has turned out to be a digressive and self-indulgent post. Feel free to skip it. The curry and lunch sets here were OK.

Pon and I fell prey to several traps today: one was leaving the office at the height of rush hour (12:15?). The other was trying to go to places that are popular. As a result we ended up at a place that seemed popular, but was probably just crowded because of the timing.

For your reference, the crowded places were Jangara Ramen (our Ponkan is sorta half Kansai-ish, so you could make an argument about liking southern ramen. Anyway, I still like to think of Shizuoka as 'southern' Japan in the same way I like to say I'm from southern New Jersey.) and Taimeiken - both of which are within a stone's throw of our head office in Nihonbashi. And both of which had 15-ish people waiting outside. This is better than the 50-odd people waiting at the ramen place down the street, but I dunno what's up with that. Have to go back late in the afternoon some time and find out.

Royal Curry is right behind Coredo, kinda in the complex. It's next to a bunch of more notable places, which is maybe why it didn't have people waiting. Still the curry was OK. Today's special was butter chicken; add to that a list of about 5 others that you can choose from (keema, veg, dhal, chicken - all the Japanese favorites!). The sets are a pretty straightforward affair - 1 curry, 2 curries, 2 + tandoor, 2 + tandoor + sausage. The butter chicken was buttery and decent; the (yellow) dhal was a bit thin for my tastes but OK. The naan was fresh but not the highest quality; they've got high turnover and fast service, so it was fine.

Perhaps most importantly, most of the customers were women - always a good sign.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Shunsaian, Otemachi (旬采庵)

While this was a truly dull lunch food-wise, I can think of a few positive things to say about this place:
- It's cheap. I mean, $7 lunch sets cheap.
- It's pretty cool that it's mainly private rooms, so you can sit in horikotatsu and mellow out on your lunch hour.
- The rice was very good if a little soft. I think I was lucky to get there right when a fresh batch finished cooking.

All of this doth not add up to an exhortation for you to visit, squire. At least I got to chow with the McNoonans; a real novelty for lunch.

Oooh, this is from NBK, the same geniuses who bring you brands like Ninja (Dom's favorite), Lockup and Arabian Rock!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ciao! Curry, Kanda

This got kinda long and is probably boring. Caution is advised.

Options. LOTS of options. In fact, a confusing number. Have I mentioned my theory about too many options on a menu? I think it indicates lack of focus. On the other hand, this is more in the line of a list of permutations, which I think is equally reprehensible because you could use a 'one from column A...' format and reduce the dimension of the document dramatically. I digress.

You can get a lot of different types of curry at Ciao! (and I don't actually know if it has the exclamation point, but I like it. It's kicky. And Italian.). They boil down (unfortunate pun) to a few things: brown vs green. Chicken vs. seafood vs. vegetables. Spinach, egg, bacon, tomato. I think that's the basic set of options, and you can see that the permutations are significant. The menu is grouped into a bunch of different sections: "Chicken", "Popeye", "Special Moomin", "Seafood" etc., and then permutations appear under that header. I'm belaboring this.

Oh, you can choose your preferred spiciness too. Much to my surprise, I paid extra to get an extra-spicy curry (quel horreur!). This is partly because I was irritated about not getting a spicier curry over the weekend at Ethiopia and partly because their top suggested level (5) was 'only' an extra Y30. I know it's only Y30, but this seems sort of the same to me as charging Y200 for cheese on a burger - taking advantage of a captive audience and/or daring the customer to get the 'normal' item and risk being bored. So I got a Hot 5 Spinach Egg Bacon Curry.

This was served in an amusing fashion. In fact, much of the style and appointments of the place are mildly amusing, being as they're trying to break away from the hard-core old-guy image of curry (in Kanda at least; other places it might be student-oriented) and make a place that appeals to office ladies too. Like yesterday's ramen, it's on the black-and-white stylish side, with female staff. This is only working a bit - the patrons were probably 3/4 men.

Oh, but the way they serve: The rice (again, you can choose how many grams of rice you want. This serving-by-the-gram (now common in noodles too) is a little disturbing to me. Somehow clinical.) comes smooshed into a thin layer on a plate, with a small puddle of curry in the middle, two raisins on the rice outside the puddle, and the rest of the curry in a silver sauceboat on the side.

It was decent though. I liked the fact that there was a lot of spinach and bacon in the mix, I was a little disappointed that the egg was lightly scrambled into the curry rather than being boiled and chopped, and the quantity and spiciness were perfect for me. The spicing was distinctly Indian again (not sweet), and the seafood curry on the other side of our table looked to have the same roux, but I didn't ask.

There you go - a pleasant and gentle introduction to curry, popular with ladies!!!♪ But if you weren't already a hardened Kanda habitue, I'd recommend Budoya or Hongokutei as a starting point.

It may not be as good as Manten, but I wouldn't know, and that's a bit too far for mah lunchez anywhey.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Naruto Ramen, Kanda (七琉門)

I'm not a particularly diligent person. You scoff, but it's true. Only for those brief periods when I'm really interested in something can I really apply myself to it. Right now it's tsukemen. Which I don't even like that much; I just want to understand why other people like them so much (I think they're more popular than ramen for the last couple years, at least in terms of new shop openings and press. Prove me wrong, please.).

With Naruto, we have a provisional winner in the Kanda sweepstakes. This place opened in September but still has a few scraggly orchids hanging around (which they would have received as presents from their bank, friends, etc.). Inside is minimal but clean and bright - new ramen shops are definitely big on black, white and red these days. I bet there's a ramen consulting firm that tells them to do that.

Anyhoo, I had tsukemen again, and it was a mixed experience again. Here's a point-by-point rundown, in bullet form since I feel so...professional.
  • Noodles: Eggy, thick, curly. Came out of a bag, so not made there, and not really the focus. But OK.
  • Soup: Delightful, delicious, a real winner for me. At first I thought it tasted like liquid bacon, and I continued to love it right down to the bottom of the bowl.
  • Chashu: Disappointing. You'll be disappointed too when you hear that it wasn't actually roast pork - it was thin slices of boiled pork (as in 'cold shabu salad'). Pork fail.
  • Price: Low.
  • Special touch 1: The slice of kamaboko on the noodles was black with white detailing, not pink. Cool!
  • Special touch 2: The waitress said "Do you want the noodles hot or cold?" Mentally I screamed "Holy shit, do you mean I could have been asking for them to be hot at the last dozen tsukemen places too, and then I wouldn't have gotten all grumpy about them being too cold, and the soup getting cold, and, and, and..." but out loud I just said "hot". Noodle win!
There you go - great soup and hot noodles are triumphant. I think I liked it a little more than last week's Toki because the soup was more traditional, but just as flavorful.

The old ways are the best. But everything old is new again.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sanri, Sendagi (三里、千駄木)

Have you been to Sendagi? I have. Now I've been twice. I'm not sure if I'll be back, but that's only because it's one of Tokyo's cute, quiet, interesting little neighborhoods - and there are lots more to see. But it would be a pretty livable place - residing in the valley between Tokyo University and the huge Yanaka cemetery, lots of little shops and restaurants and cafes and galleries, a reasonable commute to work...

One of the 'attractions' of Sendagi is 'Snake Street', so named because it turns a lot. Really, that's all it does. And along its 5-minutes-walk length, there are perhaps 4 or 5 businesses (one of which does nothing but sell a few home-made bagels). The most notable of these, and the one I mentally bookmarked on my first visit, is Sanri - like many other attractive restaurants in the area, a soba specialist.

With only 10 seats around a counter, there really isn't room for more than one person to work. Even that is sometimes difficult; the master apologized for his (nonexistent) fatness when he squeezed behind me to serve other customers. It's open at night too, when this selection of liquor and the broader menu can be put to better use.

Cows, on the other hand, are in good taste year-round (at least this year)!

The end of the counter widens out into an odd sort of table, but that means there's room for some decorations, like this tortured little bonsai on a floating island in a ceramic boat. Nice!

Some of the best-cooked soba I can remember. So firm, yet so pliant...the barest flecks of dark color let you know that there really is soba in them.

There are a bunch of menu options, but you can't go wrong with a plain soba. In this case, it's with sesame sauce, which is a (very mild) departure from orthodoxy. And a tasty one.

Other than just dipping them in sauce and eating them cold, the other great way to eat soba (according to me) is kamo seiro, meaning you get cold noodles (I just think hot soba are a waste; save it for udon or ramen or whatever) and a bowl of hot soup derived from duck meat and soy sauce. Sanri's master is generous with his duck - I think I counted 3 slices of duck breast and 4 meatballs, which is something like twice as much duck as I've ever seen in one of these. You'll notice some roasted spring onions floating in there too; they're said to go very well with duck. The shimmer on the surface of the liquid is, of course, duck fat, and that means it tasted, of course, delicious.

There are various ways to walk back to the station afterward, but one pleasant thing is to detour through the cemetery. With apologies to the Kawano family, the light was just too good this afternoon to resist taking an arty shot. Ahhh, the impermanence of life...the autumnal glow, beckoning us into the afterlife. Or something.
Pickin' 'em up, puttin' 'em down.