Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tableaux, Daikanyama

As a public service, I meant to post a comment that plenty of tables were available at all the major hotels for New Year's Eve dinners. Seriously - I decided at the last minute (30th) that I wanted to go somewhere glamorous and started calling. Park Hyatt, Penninsula, Shangri-La and others all had tables for either the early or late seatings (basically 5:30 or 8, with some variations) as long as you were down with the idea of paying $250/person. I laughed the first time I heard the price from one of them, but after that got used to it. I still think it's a joke - especially once you factor in the service charge and the fact that there's no festive countdown included. This, perhaps, is why there were so many tables.

Tableaux, on the other hand, did not have many tables at all, and won a place in my heart by offering their regular menu at regular prices, plus a live band and countdown ceremony (plus being open, in stark contrast to the dozen smaller, more interesting restaurants that I called). If you're a long-time Tokyo foreigner, you probably know Tableaux already - it was described to me (after the fact) as 'the coolest place to go - in the 90's', and while some people say it's a little dated or tired, I for one am not yet fatigued by over-the-top glamour and lightly-gothic flourishes. Something about the atmosphere that was genuinely disconcerting though was the number of foreigners - a good 90%, many of whom were known to the staff by name. I'm just not used to places like that.

The Asian-fusion menu must have been somewhat exciting when they opened. It's true - if they opened in 1994 or 95, I was really excited about fusion food then too! The crab cakes in American sauce (lobster reduction) were actually quite good, with chunky crab surrounded by a smooth shell of breading and fried like a croquette (not a more American-style lightly-crumbed-pan-fried approach). The fish was heavily fusion-ed, coming with a number of Japanese-inspired elements like a miso-topped slice of baked eggplant. It was dry, but not unforgivably so. For meat, we split a duck roast (actually, we split all three dishes, for which they cheekily charged us four $2 splitting fees, but we let it go since it was New Year's and they weren't gouging on the menu anyway) that was one of my favorite recent duck dishes - it was commented as tasting 'not that much like duck', which I guess was a good thing for me on the night. It was sorta like properly-cooked pink slices of steak.
So this is totally fine - wine notwithstanding, the prices are OK, the service is very professional, abundant and concerned for your wellbeing (and very English-speaking, if that's of interest), and the the food is decent. One thing I feel compelled to point out in a jokey way is that it's part of Global Dining (La Boheme, Zest, Monsoon), but on the web site they only link to the other 'Premium' restaurants in the GD group (Stellato, Legato). Scandalous!

Tabloze, Tablokes, any way you want.

Albente Champagne Cafe, Ebisu

Several champagne cafes have opened around Ebisu in recent years (I say this like I know). Now that I have a little more experience of them, I'd say that they're oriented toward luxury consumers - hardly surprising for champagne. Check out this place - they distinguish themselves by being your champagne-drinking home-away-from-home, and also by being members-only ($300/month or $3,000/year, plus $50 per guest). They're still in business, so I guess...

Albente distinguishes itself by offering an interesting selection of bubbles along with a bit of food, and it has attractive opening hours too (open every day in one form or another; it was practically the only thing open in the neighborhood on the 31st for lunch). They have a weekday special where a good variety of champagnes can be ordered by the bottle for a flat rate; several of these were unavailable, but we managed to zero in on a bottle that they had and which looked attractively discounted on the special. Later research showed that the discount, in fact, brought the price back to 2X retail, not the 3X that seems to prevail on the menu. Distinguished!

Pasta with sardines, Y1000-ish. Supposedly good; I didn't try it since I'm such a polite and gentlemanly fellow. Hopefully it went well with champagne? In any case, the focus here is clearly on drinks, and customers drinking them, and not on the food.

Duck confit, Y1500. Distinguished by being the worst duck confit I can remember. The grayness of the meat and shrinkage of the skin should be good clues. The lightly-pickled vegetables were nice though.

This Piollot was a very tidy and interesting bottle of grower champagne (more body, more flavor, just more interesting than the Roderer I had later that night). I would definitely drink it again for the retail price. A side note, the waitress was very friendly and did a great job managing the bottle for us. I suppose it's not that hard when you have only one table, but I still liked her.

Albente is Italian for "There's a sucker born every minute."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Coca Restaurant, Yurakucho

After all that speechifying last week about the last work day of the year and the relative freedom to go anywhere for lunch, the first day of vacation naturally brought with it a trip to a new restaurant. This Coca is a branch of a bigger one right by Bic Camera that specializes in Thai Suki, the donut-shaped hotpot thing that always looks good but never gets my business. Why is that? New New Year's resolution - eat more ethnic food!

Coca is under the 'guard rail' on the west side of Hibiya, a bit south of Bic Camera. They've carved out as much space as possible, letting the ceiling go all the way up to the vaulted arch under the tracks. Pretty much everyone was already on vacation by the 30th, so it was quiet the whole time we were there.

Lunch sets, like this pork gaprao, are Y900. It came with a little soup in addition to what you see pictured. The meat tasted odd, but not in a bad way, and it was sure spicy enough. I liked how the egg had been fried; somehow it was more appetizing than the usual way these are done and left for hours.

This soup was evidently pretty good. It's your normal mild Thai meat-noodles-fish balls-herbs sorta concoction, not anything spicy or sour. It came with a salad. I see on the web that the chef at this branch is Chef Putt, which I wanted to mention. Thank you for your time.

Early one morning, while making the rounds, I took a shot of Coca...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sunny Spot, Ikebukuro

Emboldened by success at Rocky Top, I decided to branch out and explore some of Tokyo's other live country music venues. Sunny Spot is on the west side of Ikebukuro, and turns out to be a smallish, friendly one-room bar in an odd basement that contains at least 3 live-music venues. And a decent sake bar on the 2nd floor! They still have my camera, so I feel compelled to be nice.

Yumi-chan, the sole employee, was pretty surprised when she opened the door and saw me standing there. To be fair, they have two basses set up outside and I was just standing there looking at them when she opened the door, so it was surprising for both of us. I thought the music started from 7, so I was surprised to hear it quiet at 8 and reticent about commiting to an entry fee, but she said they'd start playing shortly and they did.

Here's the format: the master (Kawashiro san, who was unfortunately out with flu that night) and one or two others start the procedings by singing some songs. Then other people join them, or replace them, and apparently anyone who wants to can get a turn. This is like some other places I've heard about, but with less structure and a more country flavor. There were some really cute points, like the old couple who got up and sang Ian and Sylvia songs together, and a good time was had by all - not surprising, considering that everyone but me seemed to be regulars!

There's food, but I wouldn't recommend it. I stuck with some nuts and beer and mainly got stuck in to playing guitar and banjo as much as possible, which was a cool way to finish the year. In fact, due to the absence of timekeeping implements, I barely made it onto the train home. You'll want to leave a bit before 12 to make sure you can complete the longish walk through the station to your platform (if your platform is Marunouchi sen like me).

Hard to predict what this would be like on other nights; certainly the music seems to be of a higher quality at Rocky Top, but you won't get to play as much since they're all established bands.

Now about that camera...

Miharukoma, Ikebukuro (三春駒)

I made some early New Year's resolutions for 2010, and they were as follows:
1. Drink more sake, especially in izakayas that specialize in it
2. Drink more champagne, especially RM or 'grower' champagne (grape to bottle by one firm, as opposed to the NM model adhered to by all the famous names)
3. Drink less and diet more.`

And thus, on the last work day of the year, I went off to Ikebukuro to make good on the first resolution as well as checking out yet another live country music / jam session venue. Miharukoma was a place that I sourced from John Gauntner's list of places to drink sake in Tokyo. It certainly lived up to the billing - plenty of interesting sake, at high prices. Food - meh. I've jumped precipitously to the conclusion that JG's list is indeed focused on places to drink, and the food may or may not match.

Despite a good understanding of the area and a solid map, I walked right by Miharukoma the first time. The sign's a bit out of the way, and the staircase leading up to the door is set back too. Look for the Gyukaku branch, or if you're coming from the West side (unlikely since this is pretty far to the west of Ikebukuro station, almost into the college area) you'll see a big poster showing where their favorite sake comes from. I'd love to show you the picture that I took of that poster, but my camera is still at the place that I visited after MHK.

The inside is strictly country izakaya, by which I mean not an izakaya trying to look rustic/historic/country (greets, Gonpachi), but one that actually is. It's a little dark since so much of the trimming is black-painted wood, the ceiling is a touch low, the non-counter seating is all cushions on black floorboards, and there's a dim air. One high spot for me was the display along the inside wall of various 'treasure' objects like big plates and carvings. Again, I'd love to show you a picture but...

There's just one menu, and it's pretty thick, and sake takes up most of it. It's organized by quality level, which is pleasant, and there are two pages of dai ginjo plus one each of junmai ginjo, junmai, etc. I think something like 60 varieties in total. Feeling extravagant, I stuck with daiginjo (and this is definitely extravagant, as their normal selections are in the Y900 range but the daiginjo is often upwards of Y2000 per go). There were some names I knew (Shimeharitsuru, Uragasumi) and lots more that was fun to try to read and choose. I liked what I drank, and took pictures of the labels, if I could just find that damn camera...

Food is a few pages in the back plus a blackboard of specials (which are not, in fact, all that special. Many of them are on the regular menu, and some of the others were things like 'sashimi' and 'nanohana'.). The food is OK, but is letting down the team when compared to the sake. The top recommendation is actually the basashi, "fresh from Kumamoto", which the waitress highly recommended over the sashimi plate. The restaurant name sounds a little sinister when you think about it, no? But actually a Miharukoma is a toy horse from the town of Miharu in Fukushima. Anyway, the meat was certainly fresh, and they included a few slices of the snowy-white mane fat, which has a disturbing texture but a really delicious taste. My dining capacity was a bit limited, but I had some nanohana (meh), some pickled junsai (OK), and a plate of deep-fried squid legs (OK; greasy but good).

Certainly I think you could check this out one time if you were really into sake and didn't mind the prices, but I'll be trying other venues now that I've made my visit. Coincidentally, there's another place from Gauntner's list on the same block, and several tiny live houses in the basement of this building!

Live and learn.

Momijigawa, Nihonbashi (紅葉川)

For a solid year of workdays, I've visited a different restaurant every day (except two times when I had bentos, and a third time when I didn't eat). And on those nights when I went out after work, I generally managed to get to new places also. Minus vacations and holidays, that means better than 250 new and exciting dining options have graced our collective radar in the Otemachi area alone (I'm including you in the project).  The strangest thing about this is how easy it was - there is still no lack of places to try, and there are even some that I'm excited about. Still, I've grown a little tired of explaining to friends that we really can't go to that place today, sorry, but how about this one instead? That means from next year it's open season, but I'll continue to go to new places whenever possible.

I wish I could write a book about this. Unfortunately both of you have read the reviews already, and any office ladies who might be interested in Kanda bistro options are most certainly well-served by existing Japanese-language publications, both electronic and papular (that's the web 2.0 word for 'junk on paper'). Many people have asked about the first things on my 'revisit list' once the restrictions are lifted; I meant to do that this week, but will get to it eventually as a special feature.

It would have been nice to do something special for the last day of the year, and I even had plans to do so, but work intervened with a lunch meeting scheduled last night. Fortunately I avoided embarassment and also managed to get to a place I've seen a hundred times (on my bike route to work) and always wanted to try. Even better, it's a soba specialist, which is ideal to fit with Japanese year-end customs (eating long noodles = long life. Sure it's a couple days early, but it's never too soon to lengthen your life, is it?).

Even better than soba, Momijigawa is a specialist in kamoseiro, i.e. soba served with a duck-based soup. And now that I've gotten this far into an indulgent review, I'll just say - this was the best kamoseiro I can remember having. The soup was fatty, rich and nuanced, the pieces of duck (both breast slices and meatballs) were numerous and not chewy (the most common problem plaguing this dish for me), and it had enough vegetables and yuzu to stay interesting. The noodles were very cold and firm, so they heated up perfectly in the soup. They were very light color, but I'd like to attribute that to the fineness of the grind and not to an abundance of added wheat flour (they have a stone grinder by the door, whirring slowly away as you walk in). Even better, it was among the cheaper kamoseiro I've had in my life. On the whole, I think they've perfected the formula (including the fast service and high turnover!). Worth a visit.

Yo-yo-良いお年 and all like dat. Daily lunch, signing off.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Misozen, Marunouchi (みそ膳)

My ramen knowledge has expanded a bit recently due to concerted efforts to indulge (ugh), but I'm still pretty ignorant about what makes each regional ramen unique. I DO associate Hokkaido ramen with miso (and as my boss says, Northern people like saltier food. At least he does.), and Misozen, as the name implies, offers it up in the basement of the Mitsubishi Trust building (think Dean & Deluca at street level).

You can get regular ramen, but you can also get light (saikyo) or dark (haccho) miso in it. It's also likely to come with a bunch of bean sprouts and a healthy serving of pickled bamboo shoots. In my case, sliced pork also. Mmmmm...

Contrary to my theory of ramen, I don't think there was any outstanding element here. The soup (haccho, Y750) was seriously dark and thick, and oddly, not as cloudy as you'd expect for a miso-based beverage. It was really salty and strong, but a bit flat. The noodles were probably the closest to a standout; firm, curly, thin, yellow. The pork was pretty good - top-half, maybe upper-quartile stuff, but you don't need to make a visit for it. The bean sprouts and bamboo, meh, I can always take or leave 'em. And it comes with corn. Hokkaido ramen = corn. Don't look for explanations, just learn it as the truth.

Thicker! Saltier!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ouca Japanese Ice, Roppongi (Midtown B1)

This was cool. I think you should check it out when you're next at Midtown. It's an ice cream stand (and this appears to be the only branch of the original east-Ebisu shop), but they specialize in Japanese flavors. And it's good!

That means that instead of bits of cookie dough crumbled into the ice cream, you get bits of karintou (fried dough dipped in sugar syrup and dried, I think). There are the obligatory Japanese ice cream flavors like black sesame, green tea, and pumpkin (which are all good things), but there's also kinako, a dried, ground, soy powder that's usually eaten as a topping on rice balls (with sugar syrup). Another interesting concept that proved to be really good in practice was 'cherry blossom bean', which had the distinctive taste of salty, preserved cherry leaves dissolved into the mix.

Without making too much of a fuss over it, this is a good example of a third way between Japanese and western food that successfully combines the two in innovative ways.

Phew. That sounded like a Metropolis review for a sec.

Friday, December 25, 2009

One's Drive, Marunouchi (新丸B1)

It's marvelously open-ended, isn't it? One's drive to...succeed? the mall? master English? the green?

That plus the incredibly cryptic and referential pop-culture columns I've been reading today leads me to say 'On da gween!!!' in hopes that someone will get it (but hopes are low).

And with burgers, hope still persists. Hope dies last, they say, and my hopes of really liking a burger in Japan are still alive. I know exactly what the problem is - it's the patties. You might say, and rightly, I think, that the patty is pretty much what a burger is about. My problem with burgers in Japan is that they are thin, lacking in texture, and pretty much always gently griddled. Today's was even done with the 'dome on top' method so that the rest of the burger steams while the down side is cooking. I long to try the burgers I read about in America (and as an aside, I have to admit that I've been reading Roboppy's blog all year, but not checking so much on the burger site where she works. I like the occasional Philadelphia reference.) - the ones where they carefully blend five different cuts of meat taken from different colors of cows, then massage it together using only the relatively weaker left hand and an Antipodean Thrust technique, then apply a mix of fire and thermonuclear exhaust steam to roast it into submission.

The burgers in Japan are not like that. While the buns and trimmings are always very good, the patties are typically on the thin, gray, you-could-miss-the-meat-if-you-weren:t-paying-attention side. I'm now used to this, to the extent that when I actually ate a burger that contained no actual meat, I was oblivious until my dining companion pointed it out. This is a sorry state of affairs.

At One's Drive, the whole assemblage at least tasted pretty good, despite the approximate vanishment of the patty. It came with a drink, fries (unfortunately, wedges) and onion rings (unfortunately, 4 of them. Fortunately, freshly-fried and AWESOME). It was Y990, which is pretty good for a burger set, and a lunch in Shin Maru. So I dunno - maybe you want to check it out sometime? I can't promise you'll be thunderstruck, but you could get by.

On da gween!!!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Daizan Ramen, Kanda (大山)

Appearances are deceiving. I went into this place expecting normal ramen in a normal environment. It turns out to be shrimp ramen in a decidedly old-school space. I enjoyed the old posters, and especially liked the full-length one from Tora-san's 1976 year-end feature Tora's Pure Love.

Koala and I both had ordering fails, but mine was more intense - based on the pictures, I wanted to eat the thin noodles in shrimp soup with dried, fried shrimp topping. I ended up with thick noodles, out of soup, with no toppings. Oops. If you go, I think that option is the thing to get, but I can't tell you what it's called; the descriptions on the menu buttons weren't very descriptive.

Coming back to my theory of ramen greatness (most shops have 1 or 2 good to great elements, but very few put them together), this place was all about the soup. A clear broth with a heavy and (dare I say it?) rustic taste of shrimp (as opposed to the very refined Ise-ebi broth at Keisuke Gaiden in Tokyo Station), it was nice. Outside of that, the noodles were lackluster - by getting tsukemen, I evidently put myself in line for udon instead of ramen. The chashu was soft but overly fatty for me. The vegetables were forgettable. The overall effect was filling but not quite satisfying.

I feel like I missed the best choices here, so I'd actually like to try it again. Fortunately, in another 3 working days I'll be released from the prison of daily newness, and then can hit Daizan for a second visit any time.

Oh, don't get the large-size noodles. That's what they mean by 'daizan'.
[That site seems really good, by the way.]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sant Pau, Nihonbashi

You know Sant Pau, right? If you don't know that it's a Spanish 3-star restaurant, and one of the few 3-stars worldwide headed by a female chef, then you probably know it as the fancy place nestled in behind Nihonbashi Coredo. As Volleyball and I confirmed today on our special "Holy Cow We Survived a Whole Year" lunch, these are the only two branches worldwide. They follow the same format (huge exposed kitchen downstairs, dining rooms upstairs) and the chef in Tokyo is a former sous chef from Spain.

The layout is great - they've done a terrific job of arranging things so that you go through 4 distinct areas to reach your table and thus feel far, far away from Nihonbashi. As our server pointed out, the main difference is that in Spain, your table on the second floor would be overlooking the Mediterranean and not Coredo...I also loved the deep red leather detailing on the railings and cabinets and the wide spacing between tables.

And I'd also like to point out that the service by Yasui san was equal to any I've had, anywhere in the world. A truly phenomenal mix of attention, knowledge and atmosphere.  Now, food. Your results will almost certainly vary - they change the menu every 3-5 days depending on what's available.

Having the regular lunch (on weekdays you can also get the quick lunch, which forces a choice between fish or meat; we declined to hurry), we started with the Mini-Menu. This means they brought to the table 4 plates with 1-2 bites each - a starter, a fish course, a meat course and a dessert. I thought the presentation at the table was a little ungainly - like it would be mildly hard to eat around the four plates since they were spread out quite a bit - but they managed to be at our elbows perfectly to shift the plates around so we didn't have to move more than a few inches to hit the next 'course'. Service.

This mushroom-shaped croquette with green onion 'pine needles', a pretty technical preparation now that I think about it, contained a thick mushroom puree. It was fried very well, and the taste and texture were both very good.

This small rice ball contained sardines, vinegar and pine nuts. And was good; izakayas should serve something like this.

An excellent slice of pork sausage, but more interestingly doused with vinegar, some shallots, and a few wedges of tangerine (it's tangerine season in Japan, after all).

For 'dessert', a Catalan specialty consisting of a ball of soft, salty marzipan with a dusting of manchego cheese (I cheated and looked at my menu for this one, otherwise I wouldn't have guessed manchego). This concluded the mini-menu; a fun little tapas-y conceit.

This squid was cooked very very well, and was stuffed with squid ink pasta and other goodies. The texture of the squid was the high point for me; the filling didn't do a lot. The small pool of mayonnaise (you could say aioli if you wanted to be fancy) added a lot to the taste but was too small to persist throughout.

Fresh cod with peas was also perfect texturally; I really thought it was cooked sous-vide, but it's just pan-fried briefly and then steamed at low temperature (so you can sorta understand my confusion). The fish was great, and the 'three textures of peas' were nice too, since I love peas (3x = whole peas, shredded pods, sprout).

I thought this soup was a further moment of cleverness, being as it was cod and potato. Our server made a point of saying several times that the main was 'fresh cod' - only in Spain, I thought, since usually you'd only specify the difference when the cod was dried or salted. The soup seemed like a faux-brandade, which would be the typical thing to do with salt cod and potatoes, except our cod was fresh, so...see my point? The glass was cute too. One problem with the cod dish overall was the diminutive size, boo.

It's a sign of the times when a diner (me) can actually be disappointed to hear that the meat of the day will be Iberico pork. Under normal conditions, this should be the cause of celebration. At this point, I feel like the poor Iberico bootas have been done to death in the last few years, especially at the merciless grills of Italian restaurants who trot them out daily as if grilling up a piece of pork and spritzing it with lemon juice were an excuse to give up on their diners. Well, I was wrong (not for the first time today). Our server described this as our special pork, more like beef', and the taste and texture were indeed awfully special. A bit of the fatty, fall-apart texture of hanger steak, I think. The puffed potato millefuille with gel-pods of pureed Spanish pepper was a nice accompaniment.

Volleyball was stopped dead by this dessert right from the leaf on top (which was a thin twist of chocolate-salty caramel). Under there was a grainy chocolate mousse that grew on me - from "It's kinda grainy" through to "Please sir may I have another" by the end. Plus two kinds of pear (one in the sorbet, one in the gel strips mixed with the chocolate) and a caramel sauce (not a crust) around the outside. A bit in the Japanese mold (composed, textural, formless) but quite good.

Hand-to-hand frozen peach lollipop. This is why I tried to make peach liqueur this summer - because I wanted this extraordinary burst of fresh peach taste in the middle of winter. I failed, but Sant Pau did not.

The petit fours plate was possibly the best thing of the lunch (which is mildly disappointing; all the courses were very competent but never quite extraordinary to me). Let me tell you what I remember...I loved the little Bailey's-soaked cake on the spoon. It made me think "Wow, this is why people eat rum baba!" but of course it was actually Bailey's, so never mind. The matcha-topped chocolate truffle square was also excellent; it made us cough as we inhaled tea powder, then the mix of flavors and the terrific marshmallow-y, fruity chocolate flavor killed us. The small cylinder was 'lemon polvoro' - I thought 'toasted cheesecake', and I also thought "Wow". The nondescript ball of raspberry crumble was also delicious.

The glass of yogurt and confit fruit was also excellent, in a most surprising way. As we were eating it, I consulted the menu card and then announced to Volleyball that I would happily bet him the cost of his lunch that he wouldn't guess what the fruit was. He declined, but still ran through an exhaustive list of options (including quince! I always forget about quince.) before I finished his misery and told him it was eggplant. Eggplant boiled in syrup, who woulda thought?

Sugar-coated strawberries & chocolate truffle finished things off. That's a lot of snacks just to go with coffee, eh?

During lunch, my opinion remained undecided. Now I think I would just about admit it as a two-star restaurant (which it is), in no small part because of the service and petit fours (which shouldn't be criteria). It would be better to go on a day when you had no reason or inclination to go back to work afterward, however! I'd like to go here for wine-bar and tapas purposes some night, but I know I'd regret it afterwards. In short, smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Blammo! Zowie!

Monday, December 21, 2009

RC Tavern, Tokyo

My locational skills are a bit off. I always assumed Tokyo Station was in Tokyo, but this place is practically in the station, and its address is Marunouchi. Ah well. If I say 'Tokyo', I think you know I mean 'really close to the station'. That's why we're friends, right?

The RC stands for Rose and Crown, a Tokyo chain of English-style pubs much like Hub - just a decent, smoky place to have a pint (although I think R&C has more food and a bit more attention to atmosphere, with flocked wallpaper and weekend roasts to woo Englishmen). Why this is a 'tavern' escapes me (as does its location, 1 minute's walk from the Yaesu branch of R&C), but it's a bit more modern and spare than I expect from a chain like this. It was also really smoky at lunch; seemed like it was a popular destination for those activities, and I was the only person not indulging.

The lunch menu is basic and yoshoku-y - 'rice plate' (curry), 'meat plate' (chicken cutlet) and the like. I had the chicken cutlet, which was as big as advertised (a whole breast, butterflied and fried, I think, but it could have been two breasts together if they were small - either way, nearly too much chicken). The sauce was thick and rich, it came with rice to help you fill up (oog), and there was a choice of beverage after. Pleasantly, there was also a 'salad plate' included (they do like using plates, don't they?), and this had some lettuce and a scoop of mixed curried beans. Nice.

Anyhoo, no particular reason to go here, just pleasant (and you should note its presence for an after-work pint if needed).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Brasserie Yoshi, Ginza

Ginza is a hard neighborhood for the casual diner or eager bar hopper who's not on an expense account. It's easy to wander into a place (well, easy if you're not scared to see what's behind Door Number 3) and find that they have a solid seating charge plus healthy drink and service fees. Still, it's fun once in a while.

Yoshi is on one of the top floors of the oddly retro-but-glitzy building right across from Almond (or sort of across from the Kojun building with Yonemura, or just around the corner from Rocky Top, depending on your frame of reference). The sign on the door says it:s been there for a while, and the generally shabby state of the hallway and said door back up that statement. Inside, it's a place that's keeping up appearances despite having seen better days - the bench seats are bare wood, as are the tables, and the ceiling shows some exposed ductwork, but the two bartender / waiters are still sporting formal suits, set hair and perfect manners.

The focus is certainly on the drinks, despite the 'brasserie' title. Should you want to eat, they'll tell you what's on offer that day. For us, there were plates of deep-fried ginkgo nuts as a starter (fresh and springy), tongue stew (large chunks of tongue stewed very soft but retaining their texture, in a thick demiglace with swirls of cream, quite good), crab gratin (individually-sized ramekins of crab mousse with cheese bubbling on top, OK) and two other choices. It may be a little more involved earlier in the night - the kitchen, in a semi-concealed area at the end of the bar, had an awful lot of well-used pots and pans for a place that only serves 4 dishes.

The overall experience was fun, and the bill was high as expected. Consider this review, then, to be not so much a recommendation for or against Yoshi, but more an exhortation to get out there and see the world. Just make sure to do it in good company and enjoy yourself.

Still, Ginza is a harsh mistress.

Gustoso, Ginza

I've always had a fear of the mid-priced places on the main streets of Ginza, the ones with the big, colorful signs at street level. That's why I never went to one until now - I expected them to be adequate but dull and overpriced for the quality level. Now I've been to one, but Gustoso was more in the line of confirming my suspicions. I like the fact that they have cheaper wine options, and all the pasta varieties are store-made. But the affordable wine is from Chile (not a bad thing, just a disappointment since their markup must have been all the healthier), and if you're going to make fresh pasta, why not take the extra time to cook it properly, not leave crunchy bits around the edges?

On the bright side, the prices were pretty good, and the staff were nice.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Koyu, Nezu (呼友)

This being part two of my Nezu Night-time Tour with Woodie, we wandered only a block or two from Jinpachi before seeing this place. He recognized it as appearing in one of his vast library of Tokyo drinking spot-related books (seriously), and I thought it looked very promising, if a bit modern. It seems they've been in business 10 years, but did a little refresh and renewal open (as they say) in April this year.

It shows. The inside is very much in the mold of clean, modern, warm izakaya. I shouldn't be so surprised to find something like this in Nezu, but I was, I was. If you were into the grungy, down-home atmosphere, you could certainly accuse this place of being a touch sterile (the big-screen TV, which I think is positioned so the master can watch TV while prepping in the afternoon, doesn't help matters). That would be shortsighted, because the food and drinks, frankly, kick ass.

The waitress and I had a bit of conversation over how 'spring' items like nanohana and strawberries seem to appear in stores earlier every year. They've already been in for a couple weeks, actually, which is silly and destroys the enjoyment of seasonality. But like Christmas now starting before Halloween, it's unavoidable. What IS avoidable is preparing nanohana in a tasty fashion. I know this because I've eaten (and made) poor versions many times. This was not one of them. I said (I did) as soon as I ate this 'This place is great. I would come back here based only on the quality of his nanohana boiling and his dashi.' Boom.

Being the second place of the night, we didn't want to go for too much. This is slices of snapper that's been wrapped in fresh konbu and preserved for a while. I don't think I ever understood this method before, but as soon as I ate this I thought 'Hmmm, maybe this is what kobujime is supposed to be like?' In addition to having the mild konbu taste, it seemed like the seaweed had sucked the moisture out of the fish, firming it up and concentrating the flavors delightfully. Great.

Fugu karaage, the best way to eat fugu. I thought the breading was a bit odd here - sort of sandy, almost - but the cooking was top-notch, with the grease-absorbent paper being largely irrelevant due to the cleanness of the preparation.

Woodie wanted some rice, and got this crab-shiso fried rice. I should stop saying how great everything was, but this was great. Lots and lots of crab meat and shiso, all fresh and delicious.

Winter spinach, mushrooms and sliced pork belly in soup. Which sounds kinda weak, but the chef recommended it, and I have to concur that it was delicious.

Oysters and Shimonita leeks, cooked and in 'Chinese-style' sauce. I don't love cooked oysters, but I loved these. And when these leeks are in season, you should eat them since they're so sweet - like the Vidalia onions of Japan!

Since I'm in danger of rhapsodizing too much, I'll cut it off there. This izakaya is very much in the mold of 'normal things done perfectly', and as such is a worthy addition to any list of places to check out.

Re-upping my junior membership in the izakaya hunters club...

Nezu no Jinpachi, Nezu (根津のじん八)

Nezu is a veritable wonderland for the intrepid izakaya explorer (a class in which I would like to count myself a junior member; guys like this are longstanding pros). It's not packed with options, but plenty of nice things are spread sparsely over the alleys east of Shinobazu Dori, stretching up into Sendagi and over to Yanaka. The mix is weird too - there are lots of foreign places, which isn't what you'd expect. Or at least what I'd expect. In fact, I didn't really know what to expect, since my two visits to the area have been during weekend daylight hours. On each of those visits, I was left with a sense that I was missing the best part,

and thus when my new friend and recent Japan-returnee Woodie proposed Nezu no Jinpachi as an atmospheric destination, I jumped right on it. From outside, the restaurant boldly proclaims...well, nothing, really. It's a one-story building about which you could be forgiven for wondering why it hasn't been knocked down to make room for a two or three-story concrete-clad modern house. The lantern proclaims that it's still being put to good use...

How's this for atmosphere? Jinpachi is a small counter plus the inner tatami room; the kitchen is just a walled-off piece of that room. There was a big party of realtors forgetting the troubles of the year in that room, which was lots of fun to watch.

Should you be squeamish, I don't recommend vinegared blowfish skin as a starting point for your meal. This was a decent example of the species, actually, being not too tough. They did sort of give us the option of not receiving this, but I'm not sure what else they would have given us...

because they were out of half the menu items! The focus is nabe, which I wanted to avoid as it's a bit big and filling, and sitting at the counter with my back inches from the door was cold, not a way I wanted to spend hours. That left sashimi (they listed whale and octopus 'parts', but were out of the octopus) and half a dozen small items. We received this marinated turnip salad when we tried to order the smoked mackerel, which was out.

We also received two full masu of shochu when we tried to order sake, but that's a longer story. They were nice about it and let us try a couple of different sake before we settled. I'm trying to remember a few more sake brands these days, so I want to make a note of saying that I enjoyed the Ginban (銀盤)、but can't figure out from their web site which one I was drinking!

Fortunately they were not out of the grilled whole dried squid stuffed with its liver. You might not regard it as a problem even if they were out, but I have a predilection for dried squid. Who woulda thunkit?

After fighting to be heard over the crowd in the other room and ordering these salmon belly strips, we were pretty bummed with the quality. This reinforced our desire to get gone, which we did in short order. The older, regular-looking guy who came in after us actually didn't finish his first drink and didn't order any food, so I think we were actually fairly tenacious about it.

Well, according to the guidelines of the site I linked to above, I'd give this place a full 5 points for atmosphere, a decent liquor score, pretty good service, and not a lotta points for food. But it's pretty well worth stopping by for a brief visit as part of a larger Nezu tour just to soak up the atmosphere for a while!

Soak it in, boys...

Nocchi, Kanda

[This place has been closed for a while, but there wasn't any reason to go in the first place. As of Feb '11, the new noodle shop in their space is pretty good.]

The one thing that comes through as a consistent theme to me after nearly 12 months of visiting a different restaurant near the office every weekday is as follows: There are a HELL of a lot of places I haven't tried. I was feeling slightly tapped out last week, then took Monday and Tuesday off and have come back realizing that there are dozens of new places. Shin Maru's 7th floor has interesting options left, and today's walk around Kanda was almost depressing, so many new places were there. Let me quit this line of typing,

and get on to saying that this was a pretty good bowl of noodles. If I read the blurb correctly, it's an offshoot of a Nagoya store that specializes in Taiwan-style noodles. This means that they use a wok to fry up a lot of cabbage, bean sprouts and thin-sliced pork belly, then add that to noodles and cover the whole thing with soup. Nice idea! Never having been to Taiwan, I thought this was a typical Japanese fusion concept until I read that.

The noodles were very good - thin, curly, firm, eggy. The soup was spicy and well rounded. The vegetables were copious (I ordered the negi and mizuna toppings along with an onsen egg, which in fact pushed things into the realms of too-copious. I think there was an entire small negi on my soup. Health!). I was damn full.

This is worth at least one visit if you happen to work, for example, in a law office practically across the street.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ander, Marunouchi (新丸7回)

Have I mentioned how I go to a different place every day for lunch? No? I haven't mentioned it today? Good. Always nice to have an opportunity to show how clever one is.

Today saw a relatively broad chast of charachters heading down to Chin Maru, where my enthusiasm is newly rekindled by the remembrance of things 7th. The 'House' floor has a good set of places to eat, and I've been to almost none of them (other than So Tired and Sobakichi). Seems like the remainder of the year will see quite a few visits. Ander in particular has caught my eye before since it looks modern and nice (it's Italian, by the by), and today we hit it and quit.

I avoided it in the past because it seemed expensive; now they have Y1000 pasta sets in addition to the Y2000 appetizer-and-main or the Y3000 course. The Y1000 pasta (large tubes of pasta with cream sauce and shrimp, baked with some cheese, a little too thick and artificial but not bad; otherwise tagliatelle with nice-looking ragu that I didn't try) is an OK value since it includes a good coffee at the end. The Y2000 course looked distinctly weak in this iteration.

That's about all I feel compelled to say, honestly. But the web site describes it far better than I ever could:
The casual Italian restaurant of boast of the taste. Four young elite of cook offer simple and high-quality dishes at convinced price. Please enjoy with wine everyone's favorite time-tested local specialties and the lively created dishes in a free style.
Oh, they also offer some supplies for take-home including oil, tomato sauce, and most importantly a broad selection of parmesan cheese. Seriously - normal parmesan, special parmesan, 3-year, 4-year, 8-year and 'red cow' parmesan.

That's pretty neat.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Torajiro Soba, Monzennakacho (寅次郎)

Just as another thing to try on the way to TCAT and the airport bus, Jake and I stopped by this newish soba place. It was late in the afternoon, so there was no one there, and in fact the master took some time to arrive at the counter - napping? He was up for it once he got there.

This was a funny place, but I think only because of the cultural associations it had for me. If you're around Japan enough, you'll absorb the stereotypes about things - in this case, the one that soba are associated with clean, cold, mountainous regions. To me, the fact that there was no heat in Torajiro, and some rough-edged wood for the wall menu and counter, and the master wearing a ball cap and sweatshirt like a country farmer, all made me feel a little mountainous. Jake thought I was crazy.

We just put down two trays of mori soba, the cold one served on a strainer. It was good soba, and properly cooked so it was soft through but still very firm to the tooth. And freezing cold! But with the warming effect of sobayu at the end.

Like a little trip to Nagano.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Amenbo, Ogikubo (あ麺ぼ)

Well, the first review on Tabelog pretty much nails this place with the description 'Tons of fish, cheap'. We just stopped in Ogikubo on the way home from Takao san as a way to kill some time before meeting others for dinner. It's not as much fun as Sancha, let alone Shimokita or Kichijoji, so you didn't miss anything.

Normal sorta izakaya inside (which is exactly what you'd expect from the outside, and is why I didn't want to go in, but we got turned down by a cool-looking kappou because it was barely 5 o'clock). Fortunately they gave us the 'reserved' table in the corner, which let us take out shoes off and relax a bit.

Tooshi of bamboo shoots, peppers, shaved fish, etc.

Vinegared crab salad.

Fried squid legs, nowhere near as the ones at Hanabishi.

And ze piece de resistance, a massive fish platter for Y1200. Good lord is that cheap. I had to confirm with the waitress when she brought it - 'Is that really the 2 person size?!' but it was. Decent quality on some things, but the salmon was still a bit frozen, etc.

The fish was fresh, obviously, just not that high-quality for a number of the varieties.
There you go, they call themselves a 'seafood izakaya'. Amen to that!

Omiharashitei, Takaosan (大見晴亭, 高尾山)

First time for me to hike Mt. Takao, the 599-metre beauty spot whose primary claim to fame is that it's still in Tokyo (much like all the parts of East LA that have been annexed for tax reasons, only going west). All the claims are true - you can get there in 45 minutes from Shinjuku if you do it right, the early part of the climb is toughest, many people avoid it by using the chairlift, and it's pretty dull, being a paved road all the way up on the route that we took. It IS pretty steep though, just slogging up that small road. The part after the chairlift and cablecar stations, where you climb through the shrine, is neat.

At the top, there be curry. Arrrr! There are several restaurants, but this one is yer basic low-rent country-style restaurant (which is actually pretty good when you think that it's on top of a mountain). They follow a fun ticket system whereby the cashier gives you food tickets in exchange for your food, and you give those to the kitchen (where the cashier goes over to a different counter to collect them). Unless you're foreign, in which case the cashier puts the tickets on the counter, looks at you for a while, picks them up and takes them into the kitchen. The food actually centers on soba, as you'd expect in a healthy mountain setting.

This was not the best curry I've ever had, but from my perspective, and certainly Jake's, it was a better choice than tsukimi tororo soba, which may be the specialty of the house. Everything tastes better in fresh air and after exercise, but these guys do themselves no favors by being indoors and at the top of a very small mountain.

We took the chairlift down, which I recommend if the weather is nice. This being Japan, you can buy beer at the station to refresh yourself during the trip.


Sushi Ichiban, Tsukiji

I'm really unsure why we didn't just eat inside the market rather than going to this place in the outer market where they pre-slice the fish and one of the chefs chuckled when we ordered inside-out salmon rolls. At least they're open 24 hours and are pretty cheap.

You can do better.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Han Hyang, Shibuya

How come people don't write posts for yakiniku? Maybe because it's always the same thing - plates of meat, cooked on a fire. Still, I liked this place, and also thought there were some interesting things worth mentioning.

First off, it's confusing from outside. The sign is HUGE, and it:s a neon shamrock on the 3rd floor of a building on the edge of Dogenzaka. When you go past the manga cafes and get up there though, it turns out to be small (I think I counted seats for 24 only) and very familial (maybe they're not related, but the staff was certainly all speaking Korean to each other).

Let me just get it out of the way and say that their meat was good and the prices were...well, I dunno. Some of the upper-class stuff they offered seemed expensive to me, but I know at least part of that is because I don't know. The panchan were pretty limited, but the kimchees were quite good (both cabbage and daikon). They had beer.

I thought the burners were pretty interesting - they were combo gas-charcoal burners, with electric starters and flat control panels. It was a first for me to see this level of modernity (Friday night at Hanabishi, all the cooking was done on open burners connected directly to tanks of gas with rubber hoses). A few taps on the panel (still located on the side of the table where the waitress can get to it easily but not the customers) and massive gas-driven flames kick-started the charcoal, which then smoldered away peacefully while we ate.

Atmospheric shot of meat in action.

I can't make a big deal of this place, but you could do worse.

Tacos del Amigo, Harajuku

Ole! Oye como va! I've exhausted my Spanish!

Obviously Eating Out In Tokyo With Jake was a series of loosely-connected visits to strange choices of eating and drinking establishments...Venturing into this Mexican place on the Omotesando side of Harajuku was just the earliest in the succession, before we went down to Shibuya for a look around. Limited food was consumed, but we did enjoy sitting under this festive mural, with its accompanying festive liquor bottles, and drinking beer. The waiter was wearing a T-shirt that said 'Nothing could be finer than to wake up with a shiner!' and enjoyed exchanging broken bits of Spanish with us.

Seemed like they made the chips in the store. The guac was pretty good. The salsa, not so much. We had one or two other food items and they were passable. I'm not sure if this could top Fonda for Japanese Mexican, but it:s also cheaper and more conveniently-located. And no table charge for drinking a little beer and eating some chips.

I liked it!

Misuji Ramen, Monzennakacho

Nights in Shinjuku require mornings of recovery and lunches of ramen...

Misuji  opened recently, more or less right across from the shrine entrance on Eitai Dori, the spiritual heart of Monzennakacho. This is where the lamb specialist used to be; I guess we all know how that worked out.

Normal miso ramen. They do chicken or fish soups; this one is chicken. It was light and fresh-tasting. That doesn't feel like an adequate description, but my ramen vocabulary is quite wanting. Recent efforts have gotten me to the point where I think I kinda understand pork soups, but nothing like this. The noodles were fresh, but a bit big and soft for my tastes. The chashu was a weird cut that was almost all fat, and cooked in a way that left it soft and spongy, almost looking like tripe in places. Weird. Not bad though.

Jake had these yakisoba. Who would have thought that you can get yakisoba at Costco in America? You go home and fry 'em up with whatever you want. He liked the simple, salty taste of these and the fresh vegetables. I found them a little oily, but they're certainly a good-looking option to bowls of meat soup with added meat.

Fresh and nice, at least. And cheap. And I liked the staff.