Monday, May 31, 2010

Iseju, Kodenmacho (伊勢重)

You might want to skip this post, ok? It's not really food-oriented until the A5 wagyu starts sizzling at the end, which is marked with the big red text.

There's a reason why I like modern art - to me, it's more stimulating. The encumbrances of form and realism, while pretty, tend to distract from impact, and thinking about why (visual) art has a certain impact is a big part of the fun. Then again, the encumbrance of realism tends to distract from form. Thinking about about why a painter like Rabo Karabekian used certain colors and shapes, and the interplay between them, is quite enough without worrying whether the tree is realistic or the Madonna's in danger of a toga malfunction.

This is a preamble to an apology: much to the disgust of women, the only movies I really want to watch these days are westerns. I got into them in 2008 when my marriage and company both went bankrupt a few months apart. Initially I thought I wanted something predictable with a happy ending, lots and lots of happy endings, and I remembered liking Stagecoach and The Searchers when I watched them in film class in college. Of course it only took 119 minutes of The Searchers to learn that despite the mythic American presence of John Wayne, nothing is predictable and Western endings are sometimes far from happy.

Now I like to think of westerns in the same way as modern art.  Despite being filled with hokey cowboy costumes, flamboyant scenery and acres of livestock on the hoof, it's also pared down to the basics, letting you concentrate on how the few elements and symbols are juxtaposed and reimagined by the director and cast. It's almost like a good izakaya or kappou - at the first level of detail, the menu always looks the same: beer, raw fish, grilled, fried, ranch, cattle, six-gun, black hat, shootout. The interest comes once you've internalized those elements and can work with them mentally rather than just saying "Wow, he kicked ass there!"  I wouldn't disagree though if you said that the interest at an izakaya is largely in the internalization itself, if you take my meaning.

And all of this is preamble to saying that I finally got around to watching one of the most famous westerns last night, Shane. I think I watched it years ago, or at least enough to remember being annoyed by child actor Brandon de Wilde's performance as Joey Starrett. Now that I'm more attuned to westerns, I sort of liked the performance because I think a kid his age could really be like that - curious, loving, stupid. But it's clearly a great movie, and very much in the mythic camp due to the simplicity and purity of the characters and themes, all of which were or became standards. The real debate is of course the ambiguity over whether Shane is dead in the final shots of the movie (after being unambiguously shot in the stomach). I was ready for this and was watching for it but had not read any commentary, and here's what I think, in a purely socio-mythological context that questions the imperiority of the tertiary narrative while relying heavily on refragmented codification of the elemental syntax:
  • I'm in the camp that doesn't think he's dead (although being gut-shot is typically a death sentence in westerns, e.g., the pleasant and macabre conversation between Charles Bronson and the gut-shot Jason Robards at the end of Once Upon a Time In the West).
  • That means I rely on the evidence that he's calm and comfortable while talking to Joey, and he's visibly holding the reins while he rides. That marks me as a literalist rather than someone who analyzes the context and themes of the movie.
  • Sure, he symbolically rides through the cemetery, and his other hand is clearly hanging limp. I take your point that those may be clues, ambiguously planted by the director. Someone said Joey's face changes when he's calling to Shane as the latter rides away without turning around. I think this is just because he realizes Shane isn't coming back, not because he somehow intuits that Shane is dead (or that Shane wants to schtup his mom).
  • Why doesn't Shane turn around or respond to Joey? The obvious answer is that he's dead, which I'm obviously not going along with.  I think he's admitting that, despite his desire to stay and lead a normal life, his presence is destructive and he needs to cut himself off before he kills his friend and schtups his widow.
  • And while we're on that, I had a strong sense that Shane and Marian knew each other from somewhere before and were involved, until Shane turned to gunfighting. It's implausible that they fall in love so quickly otherwise (although plausibility need not be of concern in myth, eh?). At least as implausible as the idea that they could accidentally meet after many years. Hell, it's a movie, and a western movie. Suspend your disbelief.
Well, there you go. Great movie, and Shane doesn't die until much later as far as I'm concerned. Or never. Either way, he goes home to be with God. But the Shane-as-avenging-angel analysis will have to wait.

We talk about some beefs now, yes?

This work dinner was the first time I've been to a sukiyaki restaurant. Another hole in the Japanese cuisine pantheon plugged (think of it as a junk shot. For your arteries.).  Holy Cow was that beef good (no pun intended).

Why don't I go to high-end ingredient-focused places like this? I'm always afraid of diminishing returns on the main ingredient, and disappointment on the other dimensions. Iseju was almost exactly how I expected one of these places to be. The entryway doubles as the meat shop - you can stop off and buy their beef any time, at prices ranging from Y1000 to Y3000 for 100 grams (something like $45 - $135 per pound for the Americans).

After that you take off your shoes and go down a set of stairs that's reminiscent of a business hotel, or at least a slightly beaten-up Japanese hotel, and you enter the warren of tatami rooms that they use for dining. The tatami, especially in the walking areas, are also a bit beat. The dining rooms are almost unadorned; I think there was a sort of tokunoma with a flower, and there was definitely a framed paper with handprints and signatures of several sumo (including Konishiki, but we couldn't read any others). There were also definite sauce splatters on pretty much every sliding door. But the waitresses all wear kimono, and have the manners to match - my manners scale starts out casual, moves into formal, and then the best is when the service adjusts to your level of formality. The head waitress in particular was all that, politely keeping the conversation going while doing the cooking for us in courses 4 and 5.

The food went a little bit like this:
  1. Mixed starter plate with boiled pork belly (!), pea shoots wrapped in cheap prosciutto and sesame tofu
  2. Bowl of roast pork chopped and mixed with onions and tomatoes and a lettuce leaf (at this point I was thinking, yeah, I knew it, whatever)
  3. Starter steak, your choice of cooked or raw. Most of us had it raw, 4 slices half-white with fat. Holy cow. Mind? Blown.
  4. Sukiyaki. I say again, Holy Cow. Mind? Blown. They make a big deal out of how their style is 'beef pot (鍋)', not exactly sukiyaki (a shallow pot with a thin layer of sweet soy-based sauce in which you cook the beef and vegetables before dipping them in raw egg and eating. And no, the heat of the meat does not cook the egg even a little.). All I could ascertain is that their style is more wet, the pot is heated with charcoal instead of portable gas burners since they're so traditional. It's all about the beef though, and two big plates of mixed cuts had us all saying wow - softness and flavor. Again, just when I was getting ready to think 'yeah, I knew it, bad value to get only two plates of beef', they brought two more plates. Wouldn't want the meat to sit out and get warm, would you? Holy Cow. If you really need to get into this kind of thing, yes, it was A5 wagyu, and for some reason the waitress said "Today's beef is from Hokkaido," in a way that made me think it isn't always.
  5. Udon, pre-cooked and then fried for a couple minutes in the remaining sauce. Boom.
  6. Strawberries and melon with fruit jelly in one cup, green tea ice cream with beans and mochi in another cup
Am I rushing back? Mmmmm, probably not. That course was Y7900 (and by the way, thank you, Mr. President!). That included the 'specially selected' level of beef (特選), and they have a higher level (first rate, 極上). If I went back, I would get as few extraneous elements as possible and just get the 'special quality' 特上 or  'high quality' 上beef (Y4.6k and Y5.6k respectively, losing a starter and dessert at each level down) - then maybe an extravagant extra plate. When you think about what you're getting at those quality levels, it doesn't seem like a bad deal compared to the fear that steak 'n' sukiyaki places have always inspired in me.

I'll just say it one more time in closing - Holy Cow.
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