Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tsugaru, Kashiwa (つがる)

Well, Tsugaru looked great on the web. Maybe it's the photos they used, but I expected a lot from this place. It turned out well in the end.

But first, I was disappointed when I stopped by in the afternoon before opening - the exterior is tiny, plain, and very much in keeping with its location a good 10 minutes from the station (which is to say 'nowhere'). If you know where Kashiwa Shrine is, you want to go down the street just to the left, the one with all the Philippine pubs like Boracai, and just keep going. You'll find it eventually, on the right.

Inside is also tiny and plain! It sounded crowded from the street, but that turned out to be the consequence of one noisily-drunken older couple and a TV showing baseball. It was also more run-down than I expected from the web, and in a way that doesn't give me the opportunity to use pet phrases like 'cheerful clutter' or 'attractively dissheveled'. No, there's no getting around the fact that it was a bit dumpy. And smoky. And the customers and staff weren't so welcoming. I almost wanted to leave.

But I felt bad when the master apologized for the slight dumpiness, and the customers warmed up pretty quickly.

And I felt great when seated in front of the amazing ceramic lion and his friend the internally-lit, laser-carved, rotating glass obelisk! It's funny, I sat in front of one of these at Wakamatsu too (although I had to turn that one on by myself) and took a ton of pictures of it but didn't post any. I think things like this are a good indication of the style you get in the Japanese countryside (any comments about Kashiwa being relatively urban aside). The only thing that would be more indicative would be one of those elaborate, plastic-y clocks that seem to feature in every home and restaurant a certain distance outside the cities

Two starters - cooked snapper mashed up a bit and topped with mentaiko. A nice idea, and setting the tone for the food here - lesser cuts of quality ingredients, not necessarily prepared with all the care in the world. This had a fair few bones.

Ebi shinjo, deep-fried shrimp balls made of shrimp paste and chopped shrimp. These were really good, much better than the time I tried to make them at home.

Ze wine list, monsieur. I confess I was a bit bummed when I saw that this was a repetition of the classics, and that something like Juyondai featured on the list but only at the brewer's lowest level (although I looked one the web yesterday and learned that scarcity means pretty much any level of Juyondai costs $125+ for an isshobin, including the honjouzou). I tried to ask if there was anything off-menu, but misspoke and confused the waiter, who told me they had shochu also. This too worked out for the best eventually.

I got the Azuma-ichi (東一), which I guess I've had before because I knew how to say it...and that was the turning point for the sake master (seems like Dad is in charge, but his son Naoto does the sake). After a few decorous minutes, he said 'Errr, you like sake, right? Usually no one knows how to say that name.'

And up popped this Suganadake, which was absolutely outstanding, and I say that in the full knowledge that it's going to be hard for you to find, and I'm sorry about that. (Incidentally, looking at their list of sakes instantly made me think how bitter I am about not going anywhere snowy this year. That was a major oversight.) You can't buy anything through the web site - it says 'Please visit your favorite liquor store in Niigata. Here's a list.' Only 9 of them even have web sites (which I'm sure is enough to get some grog delivered, but it's cool for its rarity value).

Further, this one isn't even in the list. If I understood the newspaper clipping on the wall and the attendant explanation, this is available only to 'club members' who hike up the mountain and bring back the snow that's used to make the sake. I think that event is pictured in the slideshow on the front page of the site (as well as the full explanation here - any corrections? Evidently you have to hike about an hour, and commit to carrying 20 liters of water!). And again, this was everything I could want in a sake.

Getting back out of the nihonshu reverie, the mixed sashimi for the night was hirame and tuna. Boooooo-ring. And not even so attractive! Right, so this is where we go back into a reverie, because the hirame was very good, but the tuna was offcuts of Oma maguro, which is single-line caught off the north coast of Aomori, sold fresh (not frozen) and is the most famous type of tuna there is. So even messy offcuts are an absolutely great thing, and with this plate costing Y1500, unbelievable.

Hiiiiiiii there. Wanna come home with me?

Really, if there was going to be sustainable tuna fishing, this would be it. It's not industrial at all, it's just guys going out in their boats every day, hoping like hell to haul in one fish which will pay all their expenses for the year, because tuna is that big, and that expensive, and Oma tunas especially so (one sold for $90k a few years ago).

I'm not sure who this was. He was really good though.

I didn't order this (I just drank it), but it's Kame no O, 亀の尾, Turtle's Tail (the name of the rice variety as well as the name of the brewery, I believe). Very nice, but not quite as good as the snow-trekking thing!

I mentioned that I had seen Juyondai on the web site, and they apologized again for not having anything outside Honmaru. The master showed me an empty 720ml bottle and said there's something like a 2-year wait to get them, and they cost $500. Last time they managed to get one in, they judged that it was too expensive to try to serve to customers, so they just drank it're not going to get rich doing that, but you're sure going to get happy.

I didn't order this either, but I certainly ate it. It's fugu, in fact 'redeye fugu', and has the distinction of tasting like fugu while being 1/4 the price (and you can't eat the skin). I guess they figured it wasn't going to stick around much longer, being Saturday night and all, and they carved some up gratis.

It's not that I liked this place because they gave me a bunch of free stuff. It was great because they were so friendly, relaxed and really loved talking about special food and drinks. I'd happily pay for that kind of atmosphere and service, any time. It doesn't even feel like service, more like you're sitting around someone's living room. Actually the group upstairs seemed to consist of 3 or 4 families, complete with kids, and they really sounded 'at home'. Plus they kept bussing their own dishes.

I would be happy to sit around Tsugaru's living room any old time.

Kashiwa is really not that far - as long as you get the express Jouban train, it's 19 minutes from Kita Senju (I know, that's the other end of the world from Hiroo. Yahoo says 54 minutes total.). It really does have a surprising concentration of good places to eat and drink sake, although the shotengai and shopping are pretty dull. Let me know if you're going and need to know about the other restaurants that looked good.

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