Saturday, January 30, 2010

Upset the Apple Cart, Shinjuku

Shinjuku 3-chome is an odd little block full of bars, serving as something of a slope to allow the declination of standards as one goes from Isetan's glamorous flagship store east into 2-chome (no offense). This, to me, is what Shinjuku is all about - more adult than Shibuya, where they listen to pop music. More dirty than Ginza, where they listen to enka, or maybe classical, or may jazz. Shinjuku is a rock town. A rock bar town.

We were casting around for a bar after dinner between the bistro and the train. Experience wasn't much help; the only ones I had been to in the area were Saudade, an expensive Spanish bar specializing in sherry that I wasn't about to visit again, and Marugo, which we had, er, gone to before dinner.  One building had rock bars on three levels, including one dedicated to, I kid you not, Steve Marriott (Small Faces, Humble Pie). I chose the third floor on the basis of the name, which made me immediately think of the Rutles 'Ouch' (but I didn't get a chance to ask), and up we went.

Here's the door - it looks about a foot thick, reinforced with concrete and acoustic foam. We could hear gentle music from inside, and hesitantly opened it to find an average-size bar (6 or 8 counter seats and two tables) completely filled with high-pressure rock music pumping out of a big pair of speakers and a home theater-style amp with a 'live concert' reverb enhancer (if that sounds a little punishing, I meant it to). And 3 customers and a master, going deaf with blank facial expressions.

Sitting down, we confirmed the fairly miraculous and heaven-sent language we had seen outside. While the three sweetest words in English may be "I love you", I'm here to tell you that the six sweetest words are not "I love you I love you", but in fact "For Foreigners We Exempt Cover Charge".

Beer - your choice - Heineken or Bud. Everyone else was drinking Heaven Hill from kept bottles (interestingly, I see now that Heaven Hill, which I thought was a real bottom-level brand, is America's largest independent family-run distillery and also owns the Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Christian Brothers brands. None of which has done much to change my opinion about the quality level.). Y'know, I didn't mind drinking Bud at all.

But here's the real point - the song list. Nishikawa san has his whole collection on a Mac running into those speakers. You can just page through the book, write what you want to hear on a slip of paper that he'll collect from you, and sit back in expectation of rocking out. At a rough guess, I'd say this binder has 50 songs per page, each side, and it's full - maybe 300 pages? We're pushing 30,000 songs. (Oddly though, no Rutles.) Much of what you want to hear will be available, both Japanese and foreign.

Here's the mad scientist at work, hunched over his equipment. As one might expect, picking songs in what's more like someone's living room is bound to be a balancing act, or a dialogue. Since there was a soul song playing, I asked first to hear the Box Tops Soul Deep, sung by 18-year old Alex Chilton. Nishikawa san chose to follow that up with Big Star's Back of a Car, sung by Chilton at 23, then The Replacements Alex Chilton (released when Chilton was 36 and probably at the peak of his obscurity, incidentally). I thought this was extremely clever (and so did he, because he posted it on his blog)!  Later, when I requested too many power-pop songs in a row, he retaliated with a blast of Johnny Winter (7 minutes of Highway 61 revisited) and later some actual Bob Dylan. It's like listening to a radio over which you somehow have a degree of control. One thing that I really struggled with was not singing along to songs that I's loud enough that you wouldn't be too audible, but the other patrons would probably mind.

You can see in the above picture the B&W movies that play non-stop, showing city views as filmed from public transportation (both trains and buses). At first I was charmed, thinking these were vintage clips. Later, I was similarly charmed when I learned that they're actually modern, and he spent several months traveling and taping them himself. The only thing we could identify conclusively was Kyoto by bus, but I thought the initial clips were Yamanote train rides.

If I had only a few words to sum up, I'd say "Frustrated DJs and lovers of rock music, get thee hence and blow out your ears. Places like this make Tokyo great."

Ouch! Please don't hurt me.

C'est la Vie Nagano, Shinjuku

After planning to visit the Salon du Chocolate at Shinjuku Isetan, it seemed almost like a requirement to visit one of the many eastside Shinjuku bistros afterward. I cast about with my new favorite tool, Google Maps (seriously - just search for 'bistro' or whatever you want, within the neighborhood that you want, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. It's semi-linked to Tabelog as well.) and came up with this. As soon as I saw the name, I remembered that Dominic had visited recently and liked it, and now I see that Seat has been also. In this case I'm proud to be unoriginal, because it's just a great little place.
Presumably the chef is Nagano san, which would explain the name. I like to think the C'est la vie part fits his personality as well, which is calm and reserved in a kinda grizzled way. We talked to him a little, and he was nice, but with 16 filled seats and only three people to do everything, neither he nor the two women working with him had time to do much but crank out plates. They were cranking out these plates when we sat down, and for some reason photographing their own work. I had to get in on the'll see this again later.

Arrrrrrr, meat. The kitchen is seriously small. This was the main cutting board, and it was probably half the size of the one I use at home - because precious counter space was taken up by the mise en place, mixer, knife rack, dishwasher, and everything else one needs to operate a kitchen. Still, the board is big enough to cut slices off this terrine...

Which showed up in front of us shortly after. This was a damn good terrine, both the mixed-meat parts around the outside and also the substantial block of pure liver in the middle. The little custard on the right is actually stuffed with dried figs, which was a neat twist on serving dried fruit with terrine.

From the bottom up, this is scrambled egg (really, I think so), tartar of scallops, and grapefruit jelly. All fresh and refreshing, but the jelly was a bit too strong for my tastes. Still, no disappointment, especially when considering the cost performance.

Pie of oysters and little shrimp. Nagano san helpfully pointed out that I had ordered two pie-based things in sequence. I respectfully chose to continue on said course to destruction. Cooked oysters are not a favorite of mine, but I loved this, especially the just-torched blue cheese sauce.

I feel somewhat fortunate to have avoided chowing down on these large lobular slices of foie, which graced the steaks of the couple sitting next to us at the counter.  I also feel fortunate to have a camera with a good zoom and anti-shake features, as this was actually 2 meters away.

Snapper with clams and a fish quenelle, all covered with a shrimp-based sauce. And yummy, especially the quenelle. I would have sworn there was lobster in it.

Here's the other pie, the one pictured at the beginning. A substantial chunk of beef, wrapped in prosciutto, wrapped in pie, and roasted up. Just great. Not fancy, but delicious.

Blueberry and brownie pot de creme, with a side of frozen caramel mousse. Pleasantly sweet and creamy, enough so to finish off the meal well.

How much would you pay for this? 2 plates are Y2900, 4 plates are Y4000 (extra entree and dessert). And it's all good. I would pay more, and I told Nagano san that. Get thee hence.

Conveniently located near 2-chome!

Salon du Chocolat, Isetan Shinjuku

Tokyo has nearly limitless capacity to delight, and to disappoint. I thought I was terribly clever for proposing a late-afternoon trip to Shinjuku Isetan and the 2010 Salon du Chocolat. This is a fabulous event - what is ostensibly a trade fair for the chocolate industry in Paris is transplanted and reimagined as a consumer frenzy in Tokyo for a few short weeks. I was very excited, expecting it to be crowded but still looking forward to the chance to try some famous brands that are never seen in Japan.

After negotiating the odd elevators at Isetan (each bank of elevators has one that stops on each floor, one each for odd and even-numbered floors, and one 'express' to the 6th and 7th floors only. When I arrived at the 6th floor, I saw immediately that several other people had had the same idea, as expected.

I pushed on through the crowds, intent on getting to the few brands I really wanted to try - Bernachon, Jacques Genin, Fabrice Gillotte.

Here's the Jacques Genin booth. Loosely translated, the sign says "We're sold out, but here's an example of what you can't buy from us. Dumbass."

Bernachon makes one of the 2 or 3 best chocolates I had last year (the Kalouga salt caramel-filled bar). And no one is under any illusions about that. They didn't even keep a sample bar to taunt latecomers, nor did they have any remaining inventory of lesser products as Genin did with the caramels.

Well, enough bitterness (oh, not quite - Fabrice Gillotte was also sold out of anything priced below about Y4000, which is more than I need to spend on his chocolates).

Here's the one thing I wanted to try that was still available - Guido Gobino, Italian master of hazelnuts and salt. The staff was very solicitous and forced us to try all the different flavors they make, but we settled pretty easily on a whole box of the most famous option, salted chocolate lozenges. Which are terrific. Thanks for the recommendation, Nick.

These entries from Sweden's Emanuel Andren were strikingly beautiful and displayed appropriate language about the care lavished on each piece and its filling and flavoring. Plenty of stock available - someone may want to let ol' Manny know that $10 per piece is not the friendliest pricing strategy.

The Japanese Cagi de Reves brand makes these darling round samplers with key-shaped chocolates pointing at pink chocolate hearts. Cute! The name is also cute - first in the use of a 'c' to spell cagi, second for the mix of Japanese and French, and third for being called 'key of dreams', if I'm interpreting that mix correctly.

Meiji's 100% Chocolate Cafe still has a lovely design concept. I think it's a cinch that anything presented in 100 variations of color will look great. You can get mail-order service and 'box of the month'-type stuff from them, and then you'll get one square per day delivered at monthly intervals with themed tastes (e.g., 'October is spice-flavored'), but it's a little expensive for what is still Meiji chocolate.

Overall - disappointing? Not exactly. We bought a few things to try later at home, but it was just neat to be in a room with so much chocolate and its makers. Considering how often I see the names and pictures of famous chefs and chocolatiers, I thought it was cool to see Philippe Bernachon, Olivier Balaguer, Fabrice Gillotte, Christine Ferber, Henri Le Roux and others, all in person and all in one room. Not that I need to make a steady diet of celebrity chef-spotting, but it's a cool diversion.

A bit tardy, but I've managed to get this up in time to let you know that there are still 6 hours left. It closes at 6 PM on February 1st, so if you're not working today, why not head over? For the love of god, buy me some Bernachon and I'll pay you back with interest.

Hiyoshiya, Morishita (日吉屋)

This place has always been on my radar to some extent, and after 5 years I finally made it in. Great experience, decent food.

Hiyoshiya looks like it's been doing the same thing forever. In fact it's since Showa 5 (1931), although you could easily be mistaken and think it was Taisho 5. Somehow I had always missed the fact that it's a soba specialist - I know, I know, despite the fact that it says 'Soba' big as life on the curtain, and despite the dead-giveaway presence of a soba mill in the window. Oopsie.

Anyway, the paper down the front advertises their special 'Fukagawa don'. I won't launch into an extended discourse on Fukagawa, but suffice to say that's the general area where I live and Hiyoshiya is located, and in the past people used to harvest little clams from the canals that run all through the area, which is why the local-specialty 'Fukagawa bowl' features lots of little clamz. The canals are concrete and gross now, so I hope the clams aren't local any more. Although the clams here weren't very good, so maybe...

This was quite possibly the height of sophistication in Showa 5. I love the high ceilings and stacks of lacquered trays and cheerful clutter, but even more I love the mix of old elements with 'modern' Showa touches like the wiry light fixtures and formica tables. The small, enclosed room straight ahead is where they grind the soba - the posters on the windows advertise not only what sake they recommend you drink, but also where they got the grain that's currently being ground for noodling (Nagano, surprise surprise).

And I really love the raised seating area (actually at least 3 feet off the floor) with a tokunoma and various oddities like a collection of good-luck waving cats and a Mickey Mouse figure.

Here's the damage, then - a small bowl of their house-made country-style soba, bowl of rice, and big hot iron pot full of Fukagawa don fixins. The idea is to put some rice in the bowl and then make your own donburi by ladling the mix on top. I liked the soba, which was indeed country-style in its thickness and brown-ness, if a little soft. The soup seemed to be more about health than any other attribute; I found that the clams tasted too strongly of liver for my tastes.  Should you be smarter than me and just get soba (or tempura, or whatnot), you'll find that the big plates of noodles come with grate-your-own salt and wasabi, which is a cool touch.

Still, worth going once if only for the atmosphere.

In other news, I just noticed this 2009's Best Ramen special feature on Tabelog. Do you think it's significant that #1, 3 and 16 are all within walking distance of my apartment? For the record, I pledge allegiance to #3, much better than #1, and have been thinking of going to #16. And I also recognize that Tabelog doesn't know from ramen.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Vinorio, Ginza

Dinner with the Swans was supposed to be a fairly quick one, followed by live music. Instead it stretched out a bit and became the main event of the evening - partly our inability to order decisively, partly the speed of service. If you were doing nothing of an evening except dining, I would say this is a very nice choice among the throngs of mid-level Italian in Ginza - good cooking at OK prices as opposed to the mediocre cooking at similar prices that prevails in the more obvious locations. I'm also fond of the relatively quieter location on the east side of Ginza 6, near the post office (the building right next to Murase, actually).

The restaurant's logo is orange, and the interior decor is similarly warm and yellowish - which permeates the pictures. It's small, about 20 seats at most, including the counter facing the kitchen. You're looking at half the restaurant in the picture at left; imagine me sitting at a 4-top, with a 2 to my right, taking pictures with my old camera (hence the blurritude), and that's all the tables other than the counter. But pleasant, and the service is quick and bright as well.

Starters and pastas are Y1600-1800 (plus service charge; it's a Tokyo Italian restaurant after all), meaty mains are more expensive (Y3000+) but seem to feature enough volume to justify themselves. And they're very willing to split things too, which is a feature I've only recently started to appreciate. It's fun to order 2 things each but have it presented as a series of 4 small courses. In this case, we got 3 dishes per couple, splitting each. Here's a half-portion of white beans and scallops, which was very good. Soft beans, not-overcooked scallops.

I neglected to take a picture of the mushroom soup with sliced black truffle, but I enjoyed it. The gap between the beans above and the soup was awfully long; the waitress attributed it to our erratic ordering pattern and also to general chaos in the kitchen, which is undermanned to accomodate the restaurant when full (as it was).

At left, a pasta whose name I've forgotten but whose thickness and coverage by wild boar stew I clearly remember. Good flavor, excessive use of the chewy bits of the boar. Still worthwhile.

The wine list starts in reasonable territory and heads predictably north, but it least it starts well. There are a few other novelties, like house-made limoncello. I didn't ask if they imported lemons from Sicily and did this right, but it's Japan and I wouldn't be surprised.

Right then, keep this in mind for a decent night out. I think you'll like it in a 'good treatments of simple things' sort of way, which is after all what we usually want from our Italians.

Also note the 'East' branch, just a few blocks away.

Henry Good Seven, Marunouchi

What does the name mean? It sounds like rhyming slang for something, Fanny Adams and all that. Is it cryptic just for the sake of crypticosity? That reminds me, I saw one of the most fabulous Engrish garments ever on the train this morning, but failed to take a picture. If I had, that would at least be something to liven up this post. Proceed at your own risk.

HG7 is on the 7th floor of Shin Maru, and as such fits in with the comfy cafe lounge theme common up there. Along with So Tired, HG7 inhabits the south side of the floor and uses a multi-level, multi-format space with interesting design touches to make things interesting and atmospheric. Interesting, that is, unless the only open seats are at the benches facing the bar, behind which you will be mightily challenged to fit your legs if you're over 180 cm. You (his name) and I agreed that we felt a bit like we were in a pub, in the Japanese sense, because of all the comings and goings of service staff right in front of us. The coffee machine deserves a special mention - it's of the 3-feet-tall-and-gold-with-an-eagle-on-top variety. I was disappointed to see such a lovely device abused; when they made the espresso for our coffee, water was spurting out of the handle and excess coffee flying from the spout to the floor.

The food is sort of decent-quality standards, but not of any genre. That means You had a hambagu, topped with chopped tomatoes and sided with lettuce, and I had 'breakfast at lunch'. If your school cafeteria was anything like mine, you had those days when lunch would be eggs, bacon, pancakes and such...fortunately I had packed lunches in those days and didn't have to eat them. Now I find I'm not averse to the concept once in a great while (like at the late, lamented Harrod's in Roppongi Hillz), and today the French Toast with bacon and sausage just called me. It was weird but good (like the bacon almost seemed like a pressed bacon product instead of bacon; the edges were sorta round). A further benefit was that it alleviated the idea that had been building in my mind this week "make french toast this weekend jon". Better just to eat some genmai or fruit and go about your business.

HG7 is a fine option for lunch, as are all the other places on SM7, and an even better one if you're up late in Marunouchi and need someplace to go.

JJ Cale and Elmore James got nothing on this.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Umibatake, Ikebukuro (海畑)

Last year when I went to Sunny Spot in Ikebukuro, I left my camera on the bar. In fairness to myself, I was away from my seat for an extended period playing guitar, and during that time other people crowded around the spot where I had been sitting, which helped me forget the camera. But Yumi chan was very nice about it, and promised to keep it for me...a promise I took full advantage of by not going to get it for a month!

Last night was it, and naturally I couldn't resist the prospect of a quick dinner. Sunny Spot is in the 'southwest quadrant' of Ikebukuro, which is pretty trashy and didn't offer anything I wanted to eat, so I went a few blocks north to where I had seen some kappou-style places on the map. They were really kappou-ish, or maybe even ryotei-al, meaning they looked nice but didn't have menus outside. I was scared, and opted for Umibatake (ocean farm!), a very nice modern-style izakaya...

...which just happens to have a list of 15 sakes. Funny that. I'm sure you saw the sugidama hanging by the door, which should indicate that they're pretty serious about sake, and roughly half of this list was 'seasonal', i.e., fresh (nama or shiboritate or whatnot).

Aradama, which was in the middle of the picture above. Putting the cup in a saucer and pouring until the cup overflows is supposed to indicate generosity and abundance, I think...what's it mean when they pour until the saucer overflows on the counter?! Not on purpose, I guess, but funny.

Taking a minute to think about the decor, I'd just classify it as 'modern izakaya' since a lot of new places look like this - warm wood, clean style. You could call it boring or formulaic, and you could also join me in being worried that they just stamped the place out of the same mold that some of the chains use (it's not that different from a Watami or Shoya, I guess) and weren't putting any effort into the food. I was nervous, but trusted the fact that they had nice-looking sake, and also fish displayed at the counter. These are sorta gimmicky touches that are common to places like this, but I could be happy forever with a steady stream of that type of place. If you're tired of really fresh ingredients prepared well and with clever touches...well, you're tired of life.

Toushi - from left, sweet potato with sesame, fish meatball, stewed daikon, halved brussel sprout with mayo. Fresh, good.

I've become very pattern-bound in my izakaya ordering; I always want to start with sashimi, but this is some good looking fish, isn't it? It was really high-quality, as you'd expect from the glistening whole fish they had on ice at the counter. I got the 3-point sampler, asking for pickled mackerel (in front), gindara (right) and chef's choice for the other variety. That turned out to be two slices of very good tuna and 5 of excellent flounder (fluke? Anyway, hirame). You don't see uncooked gindara very often, right? It's usually grilled with miso or something (like the infamous 'black cod with miso', though maybe a little different since gindara is literally 'silver cod'). Eating this, I have no idea why. It was like a lighter buri, with that great wintry smoothness from the fat. The fluke was also terrific, and the bits in front were engawa, which I think is cartilege from under the fins. Crunchy/chewy, but so tasty. The saba was maybe the weakest of the lot; the minimal sear on top made it taste a touch too fishy to me.

Nanohana. This picture isn't bad, but also doesn't quite capture the brilliant emerald green of a nicely-boiled nanohana. The texture and flavor are like a gentler, brighter broccoli, and it's usually mixed with mustard and doused with dashi, as is the case here.

Harugasumi. In this case, the waitress just managed to avoid spilling out of the saucer. I also have a soft spot for places that give you different glasses (or different saucers, in this case) with each order.

Squid, dried overnight and then grilled. It's funny, when I ordered this, the chef said "Well, we only have the ones from yesterday, because today's aren't ready yet". This was in reference to the tray of squid drying next to the fire. I'm puzzled because the name of the product is 'dried for one night'...anyway, this tasted good, like a squid should. I was a little surprised that it wasn't drier; I expected something more fully browned and crusty and possibly filled with liver, but this was still juicy and smooth. I've really come to love the tate of squid over the years. And for some reason this really went well with mayonnaise. While eating it, I watched the chef grill three big skate wings that looked delicious - fresh and still juicy as opposed to the usual ones you get - but I managed to restrain myself and just went home. Ohhh, and I forgot until now about the little deep-fried flounder (in this case I think I mean karei) that went by as I was sitting down. Man did that look good. I was staring at it, and the waiter kinda looked at me with a smile like "Yeah, our food kicks a lil' azz!" only more Japaneze.

I love this kind of place. I hope you do too. It's almost worth a trip, on a weeknight, just to unwind after work. And if I lived here, it would be a go-to destination (although there would likely be weirder issues if I was living in Nishi-Ikebukuro. It's really seedy.). Keep it in mind, OK? They deserve to succeed.

Holy crap, they're open until 8 AM. Last order is at 7 though, so make sure to get there in time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Daiichian, Kanda (更科大一案)

Hmm, somehow I expected this place to be a touch better than it was. It's on the main drag of Kanda's east side, and has just been sitting there for over a year, daring me to come in for lunch. Today I did, along with my colleague Felt from London.

They were out of two of three of the set menus (this at 12:15), so we went with the tendon-soba set rather than exploring the regular menu. This was a decent little tendon, including a good shrimp, and your choice of hot or cold soba. They use only domestic soba flour (and serve Whitehawk sake, and now I've told you all the blurbs on their card), and this produces a decent noodle. The cold one was in a bowl with various toppings and a little tsuyu, not served on a zaru.

Clearly, lacking a certain enthusiasm.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jiyugaoka Grill, Tokyo (新丸7階)

For the usual reasons, I had an inclination toward meat, fat, grease, whatever at lunch today. Not in a bad way, but it seemed like something substantial was indicated. 鈴寺 was fortunately amenable to this, and off we went to a yoshoku place. Out of habit, I steered toward a place that I hadn't tried before; the fact that we got to recline on comfy chairs by the windows on the 7th floor of Shin Maru was a pleasant consequence of said decision.

Does Jiyugaoka Grill originate in Jiyugaoka? I'm thinking it doesn't, but please prove me wrong. The one I know is on the top food floor (7) of Shin Maru, and is probably the most elegant among the variously relaxed and inviting options up there (I'm not being facetious, I really do like the atmosphere). The restaurant is set up a bit like a sidewalk cafe, and in fact the wall of windows opens fully so that the distinction between formal tables with white covers and casual wood tables with purple chairs by the windows is blurred. We sat by the window, and I have to say that the relaxed stance of the chairs makes it a touch hard to eat, but I still preferred it.

Linji had a steak-don, Japanese style, with slivered nori on top and probably ponzu oroshi. I didn't ask, honestly. I had what could be a bit of a signature set - hamburger with demiglace. This is of course just the patty, not a burger on a bun, and the demiglace is suitable rich and sticky. I could swear it said on the menu that they simmer the demiglace for a week, but that sounds ridiculous wait, it really says that! It's on the web site too!

Unfortunately, the demiglace at Bistro Bonne Mares is better for me, as I proved when I visited last Friday (I think that gives BBM the distinction of being the first place I actively chose to go back to after finishing the year of eating dangerously. I'm as surprised as you to learn that the thing I most wanted to eat again was Hayashi Rice.). The JG version was not meaty at all to my tastes; possibly it was all veal when I expected beef? The burger was also interestingly light and not as expected, just very different. I don't regret it. The assemblage was complete with a side plate of snacky-poos like a sauteed eringi mushroom, some mashed potatoes and some ratatatooey.

This clearly fit the bill for yoshoku today, but on the whole I would probably recommend individual other places for specific yoshoku items that you might like to eat. Let me know what you need, other than the hayashi rice, which is clearly indicated at BBM, or possibly at Loup de Mer. Good croquettes, I dunno.

Still need to get to Ogawaken and Taimeiken sometime.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Atami Ramen, Kanda (あたみ)

This is one of the higher-rated places for ramen in Kanda (Tabelog-wise; I accept your criticism that Tabelog is more of an authority on the high end and in particular foreign food). As such, I've been meaning to go there for a while. Every time I wondered by [sic], I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of ehhh and didn't get past the door. Today I went to Kanda specifically to go there, so I just powered in without thinking about it. Sat, ordered, ate, ehhhh.

Notable mainly for its boringosity, this was one of the worst ramens I've had in ages. Not that there was anything actively bad about it, just that every element was passive. It violated my ramen formulation theory, the one that postulates that every ramen shop has at least one great element to its product. The soup was particularly flat and uninteresting, except that for some reason it reminded me of breadcrumbs. The noodles were mild-flavored and overcooked. There was an egg, and it hovered on the edge of good, but the yolk had gone chalky around the edges. The pork was decent - very soft, but strong tasting in a disagreeable way. Perhaps the best thing was the cabbage, which was pre-cooked and added on top in response to my order of vegetable ramen. When cabbage is the best thing about a bowl of noodles, there's a larger problem.

I present the above mainly in the interests of me working out what I thought about the food, and to give you an extended treatment of the simple phrase "Don't bother."


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Brasserie Bec, Yoyogi

There are a couple places I went years ago with my friend Naoko. They were all bistros - he was really good at picking bistros in outer suburbs - and after the visits I remained confused about where they were, ignorant as I was about geography in the year after I moved to Japan. In some cases I forgot about going to them until much later. For example I once met a French chef and he told me he used to work at Brin de Muguet in Ogikubo, which reminded me that I had been there, while he was cooking. I've tracked a number of the others, but there's still one place, somewhere out West, that I've never figured out.

And then there's Brasserie Bec. We walked around Yoyogi Uehara for an afternoon, taking tea and buying organic goods at Gaia, before settling on Bec from among the many cute little options (mostly Italian). We came in and saw the bustling counter and kitchen, then turned right and inched along the narrow space to the dining area...

Whereupon I started thinking "This looks awfully familiar". Must have been close to 5 years ago, but the yellow tablecloths and awkward interior geometry of the dining room were exactly the same. No problem, of course - anything Naoko picked back then that's still around is A-OK with me, and we picked it on this night independently of my prior visit, which is a double recommendation.

You know I don't often take pictures of bread, but I wanted to remind myself of the quality and diversity here. Not totally fresh or excellent, but great value. The sesame bread was great.

The Nice salad was a little boring. I was expecting a Lyon salad, hence my disappointment. Someday I'll have to remember a bit more about world geography. The day I give up my American passport!

The escabeche was a bit better - quite a lot of mackerel, cooked and vinegared and topped with vinegary vegetables.

This horohoro (pintade, I believe) was very very good, much better than the one I had in Takasaki. Probably shouldn't need to say things like that...Mustard sauce was well done, not a certainty these days.

And if this picture looks a little dark and blurry, it's because light had difficulty escaping the twin forces allied in the delightfully winsome, fulsome and bulksome Steak Rossini: the stickiness of the delightful truffled madeira sauce and the gravitational pull of the enormous steak of beefs. I say that Steak Rossini advisedly, because it was not medallions of filet as you might expect in a Rossini; more like a really good bistro steak topped with a huge lump of foie gras and sauced with that sauce. It was eat-the-fat good.

Nougat Glace was a letdown after that. sniff.

As value dining goes, this is the way to go. 2 plates - Y3300. The Rossini was a, errr, small upcharge (which I misread on the menu). Let's not talk about it. It was worth it. A bunch of wines by the glass, plus a willingness to raid the cellar if you want a glass of something else. Certainly you can find better food elsewhere, but if cost is at all on your mind, I think this is worth a short trip. For the steak.

The take-out shop next door must be nice too.

Fireking Cafe, Yoyogi

Arrrrr, the King of Fire. No idea what this has to do with fire and kings, but a comprehensive walk around Yoyogi Uehara has led me to believe that this is the coolest place going. I want to say this is like being in hip parts of Brooklyn, only I've never been there.

Somehow I felt bad just snapping off pictures of the bar, so I took this from outside. Dig the retro storefront - wood framing, paned windows. It's right under the rail tracks, but a lot of things in this neighborhood are close or under the tracks. It's not as intrusive as the comparable places in, say, Yurakucho. The whole back of the bar is taken up by that wall of plates and cups, all in light green glass. Not Vaseline glass, which I'm also fond of, but a milky light green that must surely have a name to those who collect it. They don't seem to use the glassware for the food, but I saw coffee come in the mugs. I wouldn't use my vintage glassware collection for restaurant service either (if I had one). Of course, going somewhere for the glassware reminds me instantly of the B Bar in Roppongi, whose sole attraction is the ability to drink out of Baccarat glasses (and I strongly recommend avoiding it).

Outside the bar area, it's still quite stylish - leather banquettes faced by chrome-framed, overstuffed leather chairs. The connecting doorways are mainly done with arched tops, and when combined with the 2 or three palm trees brightening the corners it gives you a subtle North Africa feel (not that I've been there). The walls are covered with huge photographs, a rotating exhibit that's currently very pleasant long-exposure pictures of Tokyo (e.g., something taken from around the east veranda of Sensoji, looking into the courtyard toward the incense burner and shops, where you could see many ghosty people due to the long exposure.). The waiters were all adjudged to be very good looking - dress shirts, skinny ties, facial hair.

No attempt made to pretty up this picture; that's what the lighting was like, so you can't see the pale green color resulting from the elegant mixing of coconut, pineapple, Midori and rum. A very well-made drink; if the bartenders are this careful, the food must be pretty good too, but I'm not the one to tell you what's wrong or what's right on that score. Interestingly, it appears to be Southeast Asia-themed, with a lot of Indonesian elements (and chicken caesar salad).
Livin' for givin' the devil his due...

Well, I'm a knob - just realized that the dishes are in fact...Fireking. Duh. It's like Pyrex, discontinued in the 70's.

Ciappucino, Yoyogi

A funny little place that looks like a bistro but in fact specializes in...tea and pancakes. Like 20 varieties of tea, which you can get all afternoon as a set with a cupcake, and a large number of pancake varieties, for example the daily special of Caprese - pancakes with mozarella, basil and tomato. Ooooo-kei. Could be good, but we stuck with tea, conversation and reading. Has more food, a cheap wine selection, and well-stocked bar at night (but still never seats more than 20).

Branches in Ginza (3-2-1, for my reference), Shibuya Tokyu Plaza, Osaka and Hiroshima. These small chains sure do get around, don't they?

Cioppino? Chop suey? Chopalottapotamus?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Medusa, Ebisu

'Sparkly' was the order of the day, and that means 'dining bar' to me. This place practically jumped off the map, being almost new and also right behind Ebisu's west exit. The atmosphere was all that, and oddly enough, the food was quite good.

As with most big dining bars, there are quite a few different areas in the place. I liked the 'lounge' area better since it was darker and filled with stuffed chairs, but the dining room wasn't bad either. Nice furniture, interesting chandeliers, not too big....

plus a great view of the, er, jellyfish tank. These little guys are all black and white, and with the blue lights in the tank they're pretty funny to watch, just swimmin' around all the time. I wonder why they spend so much time swimming upside down. Perhaps they're Costa Rican, and are used to gravity pointing the other way on that side of the world? Through the tank you can also see the Fire Chandelier, a major drawing point for the lounge area.

Carpaccio of domestic beef. One comment was that mayonnaise on top is a good sign of a restaurant trying to dress things up to fool customers. Well said; at least this was blue cheese-flavored mayo, and the beef was good.

Very tolerable clams steamed in wine. Actually better than tolerable; we had to get bread to soak up the juice.

Third starter, squid fritters wherein the batter was blackened with squid ink. Kind cute, and very well fried. Very good.

I saw something on the web site that looked like a big swordfish steak, and I was pretty keen to have one. This turned out to be breaded and fried, but was still a really excellent piece of swordfish, and not overcooked as is so easy to do.

Quail for another main, also quite nice.

Good ordering or just good food? I'm still puzzled overall. In any case, this is certainly several cuts above the dreaded gokon dining bar curcuit in both atmosphere and quality - it has the potential to make everyone happy.

Depending on the company, of course.