Sunday, November 14, 2010

Toutouan, Higashi Akiru (燈々庵,東秋留)

Big day, eh? If you read the preceding posts, you'll realize that Woodrow and I got up early, took the train way out west, did a solid hike, went to an onsen, browsed around, and then took several other trains to end up at this wonderful restaurant of his acquaintance.  It's really nowhere, and they haven't taken great pains to light it up. If you blow up the picture you'll be more suitably impressed (most of these pictures are dark enough to look like blobs, so please click a few). Or if you go at night. If you go at night, I promise you'll say "ooooooo."

Through that gate is a little foresty garden. It's dark too, with lanterns like this one to mark the way. You'll still be saying "ooooooo".

And finally you'll come to the entrance. It's actually not that big - the whole place is just like a normal sort of 'house compound' with some garden, some lawn, and the house in the middle. I guess it's even better when it's dark and you're worn out from walking and bathing. I said "ooooooo".

You'll enter through the gift shop...OK, you'll enter through the gallery. Lovely old-looking country-style lacquer, beautiful modern glass. If you order in the right ways, you'll get to use these; 'right ways' means 'more expensive ways' - once we figured out the drinks pricing system, we could see there was a 30-40% premium for drinking out of lacquer. I loved looking at it, but do we need to go into how I feel about paying extra for drinks in fancy glasses?

They describe themselves as a 'restaurant and gallery for relaxation' or something like that. Okami san stopped by several times, and each time she asked if we were relaxing well (really). Honestly, it would be hard not to when you're here - huge old wooden counter, polished flooring, lanterns, candles, scroll, pottery (off-camera), waitress in socks serving from the other side of the counter...ooooooo

Here's that flower arrangement, closer-up. It adds a lot to the hushed autumnality of the room.

This is the menu for the cheapest course (Y6K+). I suppose it's printed, but it feels hand-written, and it's terrific to look at. Of course a lot of it is unreadable to heathens like us.

Without much more ado, the waitress started the food.

And there it is. Seeing this in a picture is cool, but the platter was probably 30 inches across, rough wood, and the leaves and grasses reached a foot above it. An incredible impact for the first course.

We showed our bad manners by starting to eat directly off the platter - most things are actually in separate serving dishes, so it's easy to take and eat.

But in fact we were supposed to wait for the waitress to serve it for us. Ha! What can we remember from this picture? Back left, spinach with 'farmer's caviar' (I got the name twice but forgot it again) and terrific dashi; clockwise, 'tofu' made from cashews, cream and kudzu starch; hollowed yuzu (it's yuzu season - I bought a bag from someone's porch on the way up the mountain earlier) filled with mushroom 'shigureni', a sweet-soy simmering; combo plate in bamboo stalk with ginko-leaf shaped fried sweet potato (notably weak), two slices of rolled pickled sushi (cool).

The suimono was less clear than you might expect, but hey, you're in the country! And the soup was delicious. The main elements are a slice of grilled mountain potato and a chuck of chicken (pretty sure it was Daisen chicken, if you care) topped with some leek sprouts and yuzu peel. Not much to look at, great to eat. So much course food is like that, outside the spectacular dishes like the first one.

As a tsukuri, or sashimi, or 'raw fish' course, I thought this was a bit overwrought - slices of lightly cooked snapper (like, 2 seconds in hot water), persimmon, raw turnip and apple. It's all good stuff, and it's pretty, but the fish was lost.

Another seriously high-impact dish - these are basically grilled ayu (it had a different name, maybe a seasonal one, but let's you and I just call it sweetfish, OK?) on a bed of cypress boughs in a basket. With something burning underneath, so smoke rose through the branches and made everything smell more autumn. The waitress advised that you could eat the whole thing - "People who like it will clean the whole plate!" but I wasn't game and did the usual extraction of meat. Woodrow was far more valiant than me and got through the whole spine and tail, but could quite masticate the head bones enough to get them down. It was interesting to see technique at work here - I thought the fish were whole, and was being careful about the guts, then I realized that they had made a small slit on the back side, just big enough to get the innards out and a strip of yuzu peel in.

As alluded earlier, we weren't allowed to drink out of the good lacquerware. But by ordering some hot sake, we got a choice of cups, and there was this nice one that were shaped a lot like the pair of terrific salt-glazed dishes I got the day before from Janne Hieck. Having not brought one out with me, this seemed like a good compromise.

No note-taking this evening, so I can't remember everything that was in this. The basic components were certainly village potatoes, deep fried salmon shirako (fried is the best way for shirako, don't you agree?) and ginko nuts. With a bit of ankake for texture. That's a lot of rich, creamy elements now that I write it out, which is interesting for a course that was playing the part of nimono tonight.

You'll remember, no doubt, that there's a vinegar-things course in Tokyo-style dinners. Here's tonight's - lightly-cured trout, potato stalks (let me call these zuiki so I remember it; I used to know that word, and I do so hate to let go of completely useless vocabulary) and turnips, pickled to varying degrees. With vinegar miso. A nice interlude, as it's meant to be.

The mushroom rice and soup were both very, very good. It's not a guarantee that these things will be interesting at all, but these were good ones. A happy way to end a good meal.

Except for dessert, of course. The main item is the pears glazed in maple syrup; I'm here to tell you that maple syrup is not a good idea in kaiseki. I'll wait to be proved wrong on that one, but here it was a bit much for both of us. The peeled grape was cool, as were the two segments of lily bulb (yurine) and the pomegranate nubs for some texture.

We were starting to run out of time, train-wise, but I got really attached to matcha last month in Kyoto and wanted to make sure to drink it here. These chestnut sweets were terrific, some kind of very thick and sweet paste dried into a bar and sliced. You'd love it.

And you'd love it even more if you chased it with three-and-a-half sips of matcha, which is even more strong and bitter with something sweet in front of it. No better end to the night. You could maybe check this place out, if you were a-way out there some time.

They also refer to it as "Two Toes Anne". It's an Indian thing.

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