Friday, October 22, 2010

Ushitora, Shimo Kitazawa (うしとら)

Heading out to Shimokita to meet Big Bird, I had all sorts of clever quips planned about how Ushitora is Tokyo's second-best beer bar. Living near Popeye, I have a specific view of these things. But y'know, I'd actually have to say this is better. That means you're reading about Tokyo's best beer bar right here. Wow! It's easy to find - South exit, go under the tracks, right at the grocery store, immediate left - bang. It's in two pieces that unassumingly occupy the top floor of this crappy 'apato' in Shimokita - the Asian bar between (not open in this picture) is called 'Lemon Glass', which adds a nice note of Engrish to the festivities.

At the top of the stairs you'll find the standing-bar portion. A nice twist on 'standing bar' is that they actually have seats. Two old kegs with rugs on top. Fortunately I was the first patron of the evening, and Big Bird was almost the second, and the few others seemed to prefer to hang outside, smoking with the bartender and playing with their phones, so we could sit at the one table on the two stools as long as we wanted.

They have beer. (I always say that in beer bar reviews, don't I?) Only in this case, among their many taps, they have 6 varieties of single-hop IPA from Mikkeler in Denmark. They also serve the beer in your choice of normal and small (this, of course, is small). This evidently appeals deeply to the beer geeks in the party (I include only Big Bird in that category. Sorry dude.), but the flavor of these IPAs should appeal to anyone (who doesn't hate IPA). The single-hopping thing is really fun - they made a big batch of beer, and when it was time to put in the hops they split it into smaller batches and just put one kind of hop in each. I wasn't sure how much of the beer flavor comes from hops - I thought it was the bitterness and maybe some topnotes - but now I know that the flavor and even mouthfeel can be significantly different. And I like knowing that.

Remember when I said 'among their many taps'? This is how many taps they have. A few weeks ago, ALL of these taps were being used for nothing but Mikkeller beers. And the 20 taps at the regular bar next door? Yeah, all different beers. I got confused at first because they had some of the same brewers represented, but Big Bird reminded me that the styles were all different.

I was putting in pictures of sake lists for a while there, so here's the beer list.

And here's the food menu. It's fried food. It's ALL fried food. I had a fun little conversation with the bartender that went a little bit like this:
"All fried?"
"All fried."
"Pickled onions?"
"We fry them."
"Chinese soup dumplings?"
"Yep, we fry those too."
"Mochi ice cream?!"
"Maple cake?!?"
"We fry that........................but it's better not to."
OK, it's ALL fried food except for a few things, and one of them is warm sardines with sour plum paste. This sounds nice, but in reality was a bit fatty and heavy.

Being in the mood for silliness and not wanting to eat much, I ordered what sounded weirdest. They were predictably out of some of the weirder things (the ice cream!), but here's a chee-kama (ground fish mixed with processed cheese) and a myoga (a weird spicy vegetable). You can tell by the grease that this isn't top-level tempura, but hey, shut up, OK? It tastes good, and the beer is absolutely top-level. So keep your yapper yamete'd.

Two of those Chinese soup dumplings (fried, you'll note), two sticks of 'kuwai dango', and I don't even know how to get into explaining that, and one mystery item. The mystery item was fried though, I'll tell you that for free.

At about this point, we moved next door. Here, Big Bird is strangely titillated by the waiter hand-pumping for him. I'm sure beer brewers are deadly tired of jokes light that, but I ain't. And who's writing this tripe? Not beer brewers, that's for good 'n' goddam sure.

The glassware is different over here, as is the color of the beer. It really was that red. And I thought the primary color-ness of the beer compared to the rabbitty toothpick holder was a nice contrast. I promised not to mention the beer itself. That Mikkeller sure was good.

I also remembered that we tried the Revelation Cat Dry-Hopped Italian Lambic at the other place. If you're a beer geek, you'll be spluttering over the incongruence of those adjectives. Even I know enough about beer to know that adding dry hops, then letting natural yeast in the air do the fermentation, and doing it all in Italy, is pretty weird. Not bad though.

I'm excited by strange things, and I was strangely excited by the sight of one bartender frying potatoes for my neighbor. She was obviously a regular, but I don't think that explains the care and attention he put into this. You can see that he's individually pulling out pieces of potato when they're done, not leaving it all in a batch. Ahhh, Japan.

Sticking with the 'light snacks' theme (geez, is this all we ate? That explains why I didn't fatten up this weekend.), we got some beef jerky. I know it's not a 'light snack' per se, but if you just get one plate and slowly chew it, that's cool. In color and texture and flavor, I was reminded of South African biltong, at least the one time in Melbourne when someone from the team went back to Sith Africa for a home visit and took orders to bring back this moist, spicy treat.

Moist, spicy treats. Mmmm. Mayonnaise is superfluid at this point.

Ack, the health! It burns! It burns! Did I willing order tofu in a restaurant? At least it was deep-fried tofu, grilled on an open burner so it's soft and poofy and crispy. I think anyone who ate aburage this way without knowing would never believe after the fact that they'd been eating tofu.

By the way, they have sake too. Only one variety, but the variety they had this evening was the well-regarded Gangi, and the next was scheduled to be the even-better Okuharima. And the reason they have only one type at a time is that they get the brewers to put it in kegs, just for them, and the nihonshu is draft. I should have tried that, I really should have. It's too cool for words. (Their huge fridge is pretty cool for words too.)

So there it is, Tokyo's best beer bar (it wins over Popeye because the food's OK even though the beer selection is smaller). Did I convince you?

Do I care? Go ahead, shoot yourself in the foot by not going.

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