Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Vin Picoeur, Marunouchi

This is an odd position to be in - needing to recommend a restaurant from the Aux Amis chain. After a series of mediocre experiences at the Maru Biru glamour outlet and the Brasserie outlet, I don't know what I was doing steering this work dinner toward yet another one (in the same building as the Brasserie, no less). But it worked out well - some things were amazingly tasty. I haven't seen the bill yet; I'm a little worried about the wine.

Recent posts have neglected decor a bit, so let's cover that by saying that it's stereotypical French bistro, right down to the dark-red wood and the lace half-curtains. And they have a whole pig in a cooler behind the bar. I'm glad I sat with my back to him. It was busy and noisy, but the service mostly kept up.

As a party of 5, we had to get one of the two courses. These consist of different numbers of things-grilled-on-sticks and we got the shorter one, roughly 6 sticks for Y3000. That sounds a bit steep now that I write it, but I thought it was pretty good value. We started with some normal French stuff: the otoshi, small slices of quiche, was warm and very good, while the firefly squid and nanohana with orange segments (French? what?) was finely fresh. Once the meat started, I was much happier. It was a weird experience, with some things being flat-out awesome, and some inedible (more me than the product, I guess).

So that course...I'd get individual things if you go, not the courses. We started with normal squares of pork roast, but the flavor was incredible (enough that I made the table order another round after the course was over). That was followed by liver; it was edible, and maybe even a little good, but I'll never be a liver lover. Then came 'market fish', which was sea eel, and it was extraordinary. Then came the pig intestine, and for the second time in ten years I chewed something for a while, then excused myself to spit it out in the bathroom. The taste was great - their grill is seriously good - but when you chew and chew something and it just turns into jelly without becoming's not my thing. The last time this happened to me was in roughly 2000 or 2001, a piece of squid sushi somewhere in Darling Harbor, and I can eat squid any which way now. Maybe there's hope for me and pig intestine? Not eager to find out.

Last on the course was foie gras in balsamic sauce; should be terrific, but in fact was a bit disappointing. Crusty on the outside, oddly dry throughout. Too bad. After that we ordered more of the fantastic pork roast sticks, some chicken wings that were heavily herbed and quite good, and a spare rib. If this is on the menu when you go, get it. Get two. It was the best thing of the night, easily. Damn.

As I said, I haven't seen the bill yet (unfortunately I DO have to pay, and a disproportionate share since it was someone's farewell dinner). I think the food was reasonable in price and, if ordered carefully, excellent in taste, and while we may have gone overboard on drinks, the glass wine list looked quite solid (10 varieties). This is an Aux Amis that I can comfortably say you should visit.


UPDATE: Holy shit, this was punishingly expensive including the wine.

Menya Sora, Kanda (めん屋 そら)

This place comes recommended from several sources - I'm pretty sure it was the top in the area on Tabelog sometime, and only a week ago my colleagues came back from a return visit, recommending it. I've been meaning to go for months and months. All of that adds up to a big disappointment since all MS delivered to me was a steaming bowl of meh.

Wasn't even steaming, actually. The soup was just cool enough to drink even when it came, which I don't regard kindly. Come to think of it, it came awfully fast too, which is never a good sign - pre-cooked noodles? The noodles had a bit of flavor and were nicely chewy, but that was the high point. The chashu was very pale and flaccid (I'm not trying to steer the direction of this post, I promise), the sprigs of mizuna on top didn't offer up as much freshness as you might hope, and the egg was...absent. I pointed out that what I got wasn't what I saw in the picture, and they said 'Ahhh, the one in the picture is the version with egg, see?' I found it misleading, and when heaped on the other factors it left me disgruntled.

Enough so that I stopped another customer who was looking at the menu when I left, saying 'The place right over there is a lot better.' I'm pleased to say she took my advice!


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Por Tin Tin, Yoyogi Uehara

We all know the stereotype of Japanese people who do something really well, to excess. If you didn't know, that applies to all classes of endeavor - including smoky jazz bars.

Just up the hill on the north side of Yoyogi Uehara (I think it's 'Uehara Ginza'), you'll see a small street on the right, and on that street you'll find all manner of oddities including two Italian restaurants and two jazz bars. This is the better-looking of the jazz bars, and it's nice.

Inside is dark, woody and smoky (depending who you're sitting next to). The room is dominated by a big U-shaped counter crowded with various bartending implements, and around the back of the counter near the bathroom, a turntable. The vinyl collection is on the walls, and the staff periodically take something down and drop it in a bin above the turntable for later play. I presume this is the French-Japanese equivalent of a jukebox, but I didn't ask to play anything. I also didn't see what the amp and speakers were, so I can't comment; the sound seemed adequate, not outstanding. When we came in the platter that mattered was Dave Brubeck's Time Out; a very ordinary choice, but of course a classic. After that I remember some Tommy Dorsey and Nat King Cole, but nothing else.

Drinks - good. For some reason I was drinking gimlets, and they took a while to come because the bartender had to wash, dry and juice a lime each time. Fresh lime juice is one of the best things in the food world (almost up there with maple syrup for me), and thus gimlets, a manly sort of drink despite being small, straight up and fruit-based, are also a strong choice (amusingly, after writing this I googled 'mens cocktails', and the first list that I saw had gimlets at #1. I also have a fondness for Rose's Lime, don't worry.). Other customers were drinking things like Jack from kept bottles.

Service - good. One of those awkward places where they want to speak to you in English, but the interactions are too brief for you get up enough rapport to settle on one language. I talked to mama at the end, and after a few sentences I diagnosed (as she admitted) that she had lived overseas, but some time ago. I recommend going, spending some time, and having a good ol' chat - she was nice, and I bet would be happy to practice some English.

Not sure what any of this has to do with our Franch friend with the dog.

I'm a little proud of myself for forgetting to mention the bill; I would guess based on what I paid that we're looking at Y500 charge, Y1000 drinks, berry normal stuff.

Okonn, Yoyogi Uehara (おこん)

DAMN, I know how to pick restaurants. This one is a little hard to describe, but let me rattle off some ideas that describe it: secluded, stylish, simple cooking but great ingredients, and a lot of care and concern.

First, the location - it's 7 minutes walk from Yoyogi Uehara, which sounds close but feels like nothing of the kind. It's actually almost due north, midway up to Hatagaya, and if you're walking that way you'll feel like you've left populated areas behind after about 60 seconds. The web site is exemplary in making the journey simple - a very detailed custom map with photographs illustrating each stretch of road and turning (e.g., just when I thought I was going too far down the wrong road, I saw 'the red brick mansion' that I remembered from the picture). As far as care and concern, how about a restaurant that pays your taxi fare from the station if it's raining?

The style is definitely 'Japanese Modern', in that it's a small room with a lot of dark brown and bare stone. There's a small water feature along one wall that's drained and has a coat rack installed at the moment - "It's winter, so everyone's wearing coats, and anyway water makes you feel colder." The counter area is actually in the back and, in an unusual twist, isn't really recommended since the kitchen work isn't done there - "the frying and grilling is too smelly, so we keep it in the back". Actually, that sounds a little precious now that I write it, but I don't mean it that way. The master does all the serving (I think it's his mom helping with the cooking), so he's out front all the time to chat, eliminating the point of the counter for me.

The food is a really odd mix, but I enjoyed it more and more as it went - it's a rare meal that reaches its peak with the rice. You'll have to order a course, starting at Y5000, which is really not troublesome for food like this. First bites are served as you sit down; a multi-celled plate of very normal okazu. I was worried when I saw these on the web site because they look so normal; they were nice, and very normal.

Not taking pictures taxes my memory these days. I'd like to say that the first real course was the chicken meatball in soup. Again, pleasant, homey, nothing more. The tempura course (which could change - just says 'seasonal stuff' online) improved things substantially. Fukinoto, taranome, something cylindrical that I think was udo, and a weird red lotus root. All in a fry of surpassing lightness. Definitely better. The sashimi course (I'm pretty sure it really did come in this order, in case you feel discombobulated) was a silvery bowl whose bottom was lined with dashi jelly, and on top were a just-grilled snapper slice, a scallop slice, some firefly squid, and one other thing that I've forgotten - but anyway, good ingredients in a creative and modern presentation. The grilled fish course was a normal-looking slice of salmon cut from a very large fish and pickled a bit in a soy sauce before grilling; I can only imagine that it was wild fish or something, because it was excellent, and the skin was crisped up well also.

The final course, and the one that put me over the top into loving this place, was the rice (if you get the next-level course, it's the same as this one plus a meat dish, which I think would be too much food). You have a choice of various types of clay-pot rice, and on the day it was either baby fish (like shirasu, but some other name that no one else in the restaurant understood either, so I felt better) or baby shrimp. Baby cherry blossom shrimp. Oooooh, how we love our sakura ebi, during the short Spring season when they're available fresh. The white flowers are far less interesting. This was rice of wonderful texture and sweetness. I think it was from Akita; we overheard the explanation once and forgot it, asked and received it again, and forgot it, and now can't tell you. But it was great; the master offered the opinion that "People say Niigata rice is great, but it really isn't that good. We use various types of rice depending on the day." It was cooked in a clay pot ("You really need to make a reservation to come here, because then we can start soaking the rice in cold water an hour before you arrive."), so it had a bit of burn on the bottom, and was thoroughly mixed with the tiny shrimp and a few sprigs of nanohana. While eating it, I had the oddest feeling that there was a light touch of butter, and in fact the master confirmed after that there was a bit of Calpis butter added at the end for fragrance. He described this as a 'luxury butter' or words to that effect; I don't know how I feel about a luxury butter from a company whose products also include 'ameal peptide' and 'Calsporin, a feed additive', but I guess it's good butter! I hope that if the quality of my writing hasn't convinced you about the quality of the rice, at least the quantity has. And speaking of quantity, they make you 2 go of rice, so I've got a solid leftover dinner waiting for me tonight.

Drinks are a tiny bit limited - based on the menu, I would say their preferred mode is for you to buy a 720ml bottle of sake. If you want single-serve size, they have 4 or 5 brands in little bottles (including Denshu and Kokuryu, so they're not shameful, but they are lower-level sakes). Personally, I'd love to go in there with a bottle of blanc de noirs champagne and have at it. The master was skeptical about this idea, but I know where I'm comin' from.

The master is quite young (37 days younger than me), and really enthusiastic, in a retiring sort of way. If you ask a question, you'll get a long answer, as you can see from the above. Why are they located in such an out-of-the-way place? "Well, we don't really want people coming in here as a second restaurant, or after getting drunk on the way home from work. We just want people who really want to eat our food."

That kinda says it all for me.

Tama, Ginza (球)

For a couple of weeks, I've been mentally turning over the idea of a publishable profile of late-night Ginza. I, of course, have barely scratched the area's surface, but I think that's true for almost everyone except those who own bars there. With my limited surface-scratching, the two words that keep turning over in my mentally are mystery and desperation.

An important skill for searching things out in Ginza, or any urban area of Japan, is to look up. It sounds simple, but so many things, good things, don't have street-level frontage. Especially in Ginza, especially in the deep southwest of Ginza (like the area near Mardi Gras), a look up will quickly smack you in the face with row after row of signs for tiny bars. Most of those bars are hostess bars. You could spend a year or a hundred thousand dollars and not visit all of those bars, let alone get insider status. Nor would you necessarily want insider status, because the cost burden actually increases once you have it. These are all aspects of the mystery for me.

The desperation is everywhere else. The people, even the places. Let's review the system - men avoid going home to their families, instead visiting bars where women are paid very well to pour them drinks, make conversation, flatter them, and listen to them sing. In general, I think the expenses are paid by companies - another example of how the Japanese system favors the employee over the shareholder. It's pleasant on the surface, but the unhappiness and desperation should be obvious for the men. For the women, it's a hard, hard life. They have to drink every night with some customer or another, but stay beautiful, well-informed, witty and charming. It's also high-pressure because of the sales aspects - I'm pretty sure everyone has a revenue target of some type, to be met by tagging customers to themselves and bringing them in regularly, hopefully also by making the customers take them out to dinner first. There's not much future in it; perhaps the best you can hope for is to open your own bar and take on a whole new set of challenges, or else marry a customer. Even if you're pretending to enjoy it every night, it can't be that much fun.

Tama was already closed when we got there (12:30), but the boss banged on the door, and mama was happy to unlock it, and overjoyed when she was it was him. She had sent home whatever hostesses were there, but quickly set us up with a bottle of wine ('free') and plate after plate of junk-food snacks. I mean individually-wrapped sweets, canned tuna on crackers, processed cheese with salami, mixed nutz.

You might get a sense from this picture what I mean if I say that the interiors are also a bit desperate. Pink walls, pink banquettes, blinking lights, cheezy art, knicknacks dominant thought was suspended animation, that a 15-year old had decorated this bar like her bedroom. And added a big liquor cabinet where the regular customers keep their bottles. Don't get the idea that this is a cheap bar - while I'm a peon, it's not an exaggeration to say that my (former) boss is one of the top guys in our industry in Japan. The people that he discussed with mama were more important than him, and one of his many asides to me was that he had to come to Tama because the CEO of a household-name company really liked Tama herself, and had asked my boss to take care of her.

Here he is, taking care, I guess, doing a cat-claw imitation. We stayed for a couple hours, drinking and singing. Did I sing? I did. I like to think I was being mildly subversive by singing Cheap Trick's Surrender, which doesn't make a lot of sense in any language but was certainly big in Japan. No one knew it, which is the problem that always plagues me at karaoke. Once the boss passed out and started drooling on his tie, it was time to go home.

Another night of my life that I'll never get back.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kura Kura, Kanda (蔵くら)

After a dining fail at di Andoh, the work party I was in took a turn towards KK. I've walked by this place, oh, at least a hundred times, and also seen it on maps during my various sake searches. I didn't take it that seriously because I rarely have an opportunity to go to Kanda after work (as opposed to at lunch), but I'm happy we went there, and would go back any time.

They seem to be rocking a 2-floor concept with carefully-curated selections of local sake on the 2nd floor and local beer on the 3rd floor. We went to the beer floor, which I was a touch disappointed about at the time, but in retrospect was good since I've been saying I needed to swear off jizake for a week or three!

The selection is very good. In addition to a 'usual suspects' sort of bottled Belgian beer list, they carry about 15 Japanese microbeers on tap. In addition to some things I would expect to see (Swan Lake, Shiga Kougen), they had Minoo from Osaka, a dark ale that turned out very well, Hida Takayama beer (which I promptly ordered when my boss forced me to choose the first round for the whole table) and even Shonan Imperial Stout, a picture of whose bottle you can find on my trip to Enoshima last summer. All the tap beer was fresh, and they serve it in glass size or pint size, which is pleasant when you want to try a bunch of things. Prices are about what you'd expect for specialty beer in Japan, which is to say "stratospheric".

On the food and service side, we had a few plates of fries with mayo, which were thin-cut but mediocre. We didn't get there until 10, so they immediately said "Last order for food. C'mon, last order!" and after what seemed like 20 minutes they started saying "Last order. C'mon, you need to catch the train."

The sake floor looks promising, with a board outside showing labels from various famous dead soldiers like Jikon, Yuho (funny, because before going to the Italian dinner before this, we were at a farewell party for a colleague named Juho, and his colleagues had gotten him a bottle of the sake after I told him about it), Dassai, and other names you must know.

Worth a visit.

di Andoh, Kanda

Even by the standards of a group dinner for 20 people, this casual Italian place was poor. $40 for food plus all-you-can-drink is cheap, sure, but there's no sense in it if the cost performance is still low. I swear the pizza was premade at someone's apartment, not in the brick oven pictured on the web site. And the pasta was like something you'd whip up at home if you weren't paying attention - oil and garlic? A few clams?

If you own this place and want to bribe me to change my review, let's talk. Until then, my opinion is immutable.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fukahama, Fukagawa (深はま、深川)

You know it's not often that I double-post places - it means I really like them. I really like Fukahama. When readers Kwong and Hachi came to town (and this was not a short trip by any means) and suggested we meet, I quickly thought of Fukahama as a place that does really well at mixing kaiseki forms and elegance with an approachable feel and affordable pricing. I defy anyone to look at the pictures and think this isn't a place worth trying. As you go, see what you think the price should be...

Well, it was raining outside, and for some reason the gloom carries over a little to this picture despite the brightness and warmth. The room is almost unnaturally clean, with light wood, carpeted and cushioned booths, and a normal counter backed by a few art pieces and rows of glasses, some of them in the Edo-kiriko carved style. You can also see Fukahama playing their hand right away with the cherry blossom-themed place mats; the menu is about as seasonal as one can get.

The first time I went, there were three other people. That was the most I've ever seen, although I suppose this time with 3 in our party and these two guys should count as the record. Sometimes there's a private event in their upstairs entertaining room, but it's unclear to me how they stay in business. Still, they've been here as long as I have, and that's quite long enough to establish a successful track record.  Mom is behind the counter (I like to think that she's the chef's mother, but I've never asked), and she adds a lot to the proceedings with her warm but deeply awkward attempts to be polite. She has a hard time believing that I'm speaking Japanese, which led her on this occasion to turn frequently to the two Asian members of the party for confirmation...which didn't help a whole lot, them being Malaysian and all.

There it is, right there. The ingredients change seasonally, but the effect is the same. This is one of the most creative, prettiest zensai plates I've seen anywhere. Since I correctly guessed most of them, I'll run down the list for you...starting upper left with the mozuku and going clockwise, there's a tranche of nikogori jelly with blowfish skin, a low-temperature egg yolk infused with sugar and dashi and wrapped in poached brussels sprout leaves, three firefly squid with vinegar miso sauce, dumplings made from lima beans and lily bulbs, a round piece of sushi of lightly-pickled snapper, and a little ocean snail (boiled). Not pictured is the boiled spinach; not expressible is how good it all was!

This artistic shot gets the dumplings up front, the sushi center-left, the fish jelly under the cherry blossoms, and the egg yolk squeezing out of the frame at the back.

I should mention, all of this is described in loving detail on a very pretty menu that carries over the seasonal themes with a few graphics.

Dark and, not really, just clear soup in a black bowl. The clear soup is usually the second high point of meals at Fukahama for me. Somehow, the way the chef gets his dashi is exemplary. How often do you drink clear broth and just say 'Wow'? I have often gotten that feeling here. Not so much tonight, but it was no loss - the broth was overshadowed by the other ingredients. In front is some nanohana, no surprised, and a shiitake. The little 'leaf' at 12 o'clock is a carved slice of lily bulb (same as the white dumpling in the appetizer plate). The real surprise was under that - a piece of spring Ayu, the fish that you commonly see impaled on skewers and roasting around fires, wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. The whole soup took on the characteristic flavor of the leaf (like sakura mochi, if that helps you). The menu described this as 'sakura ayu' (it seemed a little bigger than your average ayu), and it was prepared in the most interesting fashion - imagine cutting a square chunk out of a normal filet, then repeatedly slicing it vertically, very fine, just down to the skin, and simmering the result. The result was sort of like a 'book', or leaves of fish, that fanned apart when you touched them. A little like hamo preparation, if that helps you, but somehow much more elegant.

I have, in the past, been disappointed by the sashimi course at Fukahama. I was very, very happy with this. The prawn was exemplary (and, I'm happy to say, a first for Kwong and Hachi, who pronounced it 'creamy'), and the other fish (I'm guessing kanpachi and hirame on the left and right, with squares of engawa on top of the hirame, and in back two pieces of chutoro cheekily hiding another piece of akami) were also very good. Really a surprise, since I had been nervous about this.

Just in time to explain it, I remembered how to pronounce 鰆 from the menu. All this study of fish kanji is really paying off, let me tell you! Soon I'll be able to make a living from reading fish kanji! Sawara is usually just written in hiragana on menus, and it's usually grilled after being lightly preserved in sweet miso. This was different, and a nice change, because it was done in an unusual (for me) style, yuzuan yaki - kinda like the fish was glazed with yuzu flavor before grilling. Also not grilled to the point of dryness, which is a problem with cooked fish in kaiseki. The oyster was (pre-)cooked and glazed as well, but not too memorable, partly on accounta it's coldness.

Now that I think about it, I can't help wondering if they gave us some upgrades from the basic course as a bonus for being a repeat customers (Mom was pretty excited when I called). This all seems quite nice...

I don't remember these bowls from before. While I was disappointed not to get anything with makie-style painted pictures and gold dust, this was neat. I wasn't all that tempted to buy a set for the house though!

Here, a freakin' symphony of spring vegetables! And a carrot. And some fish eggs. Yeah, the bamboo shoot in back was excellent, the simmered turnip under it (not potato as I thought; Kwong picked that one correctly on sight!) also good, and the fish eggs much nicer than the last time I had them (Ranman).

Are you starting to wonder when this all stops? I mean, if you know the sequence of dishes then you won't be wondering at all, but if not, this is looking pretty fancy, no?
Fried things on the night included a taranome (front) and some type of long, thin pepper (a shishitou by any other name, but too long). The bits fairly hidden in the back are white fish wrapped around bamboo shoot (right) and I swear a piece of lobster also stuffed with bamboo. It's hard to believe there was lobster in this set, but the redness of the pink bits in the meat, as well as the size, looked a lot more like lobster tail than botan or kuruma ebi.

For shokujis, nothing so banal as rice...this is Inaniwa udon, a relative rarity. They're light, thin, flat, white udon, and these must have been fresh judging by the chewiness. A little soft, perhaps, but a good noodle. I hope people say that about me when I'm gone.

Arrrrgh, and this reminds me that I forgot to upload my clever picture of Inaniwa Castle to fit in here. Seriously, I've actually been to Inaniwa, from where this type of noodle hails. The town is nothing to look at. In fact there isn't even a town there. And I see now that I've already used the clever picture in a post about noodles I ate in the Shonai area, so get thee hence and content thyself with it,

while I eat some fruit. So simple, so humble, so sweet. If these strawberries weren't glazed with sugar, they were the sweetest damn strawberries I've ever eaten. I think they were glazed. The melon was good too, seasonality be damned.

Y5000. OK? Y5000.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Le Caprice, Roppongi

Let's just skip over the convoluted path that led me to be drinking wine by myself in Roppongi on a Wednesday night pissing with rain. It's not that interesting. What you should know is that Le Caprice is a pleasant little wine bar with decent food that's trying hard, and I think they deserve your business.

As is so often the case in Japan, 'they' is a relative, and relatively misleading, term. Kishida san owns and runs the 10-seat counter by himself, every day of the week from 6 PM to 2 AM, and has done that for more than 5 years. He rides his bike from Yotsuya every day, rain, shine or snow, which he says takes only 20 minutes. I was pretty surprised by this because, as he readily agreed, it's a sort of impossible journey by train (neither Roppongi nor Yotsuya are particularly accessible). If you look at the map it makes sense - a quick jaunt down through Aoyama, then Nogizaka, and you're there.

Just another guy who fell in love with French food and wine at some point, trying to make a go of his own business. Once we established that he lived in a place that could be described more accurately as Yotsuya Sanchome, I pointed out that he should have lunch at C'est la Vie Nagano, and he readily agreed that it was great ("The basement place, right?"). After that we passed some time discussing the greatness of Arakicho, which is a place I'd still like to explore a lot more. He likened it to parts of Kyoto (which we also discussed; somehow we managed to talk for almost 2 hours).

Being a wine bar, he has 10-12 wines open at a time, 1 sparkling and 5 or 6 each reds and whites, with everything ranging from Y800 to Y1600. I got through a very pleasant sauvignon blanc from Lorraine (sorry Dad, that's just the name of the region) and a big 'ol red from Cahors (one of the southwestern regions that you may remember being the specialty at La Chasse. Oops, you wouldn't remember that, because I haven't posted it yet.). They were really well-chosen, i.e. approachable yet interesting. While there weren't any other customers the whole time I was there (rained out, I imagine), clearly someone drinks there - the walls are almost completely covered with corks. If you've seen my cork basket at home you'll think you've seen a lot of corks, but I really do mean the walls are almost covered here. There are whole panels made of nothing but champagne corks.

On the food front, I'm not sure why, but we got around to discussing Au Gout du Jour, and it turns out that he used to work with Matsumoto san from my beloved Merveille (again, I'm reminded of some pretty but unposted pictures I took when I went there to drink my special bottle of Henriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs). Being one guy with a tiny kitchen, he can't do much, but I had a chicken-mushroom pate (minced chicken, a little rough, with some herbs and lots of white pepper) on snipped mizuna with the white, and then his special red wine-stewed pork belly with sauteed mushrooms with the red. Both were nice, satisfying things that you'd be proud to make at home and not at all upset to receive in a restaurant, especially at these reasonable prices. He commented that he doesn't cook that well - "Basically everything in red wine!" - but I think that's unfairly modest. I was also interested in trying his "Curry rice that goes well with red wine", but it had to wait for another visit. It was already 10 PM, and I had to walk down to Juban to get the train home.

Happy hour 5-7 every day with Y500 drinks, including the sparkling, red and white wines of the day.

I must say, advertising yourself only on Gyao is probably not the fast track to success...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tokiwayu Spa, Morishita (ときわ湯、森下?常盤?)

After an extraordinarily productive day, I dithered a lot but eventually went for a late dip to round things off and encourage a good night's sleep. Mixed experience at this place. It's on the edge of really great, but I was a touch let down - in ways that are somewhat my fault.

If you blow up this picture you'll be able to see the dramatic old-fashioned roofline much better (or try this equally grainy night shot, or a smaller day shot here). It's a big place, with the obligatory coin laundry and vending machines to the right. For some reason the don't use the lovely original doors - you have to go around the right through a more modern and dull entrance.

Like a hundred other sentos that I've been to. Oh wait, this is only the third. Someone PLEASE stop me before I get to 100. You can tell a sento because it smells like chlorine from the street, and also because of the 'yu' banner that pretty much all of them have outside. It interests me that they don't use the kanji for yu, but there you have it. Behind the banner here you can see the shoe lockers; there's always a two-stage process where you leave your shoes in one of these little things (I have to squeeze my shoes into them because they're so small), and then go inside to pay and access a bigger locker for getting your furnishings off.

They have umbrella lockers here too! These cracked me up. It's like a little jail for umbrellas. Or a stable, where the umbrellas can just peek their little curvy heads out the top to get to their feedbags, except there isn't any feed these days. And there may never be again.

I'll have to content myself with this picture, which is the small painting just inside the lobby. You'll see it as well if you follow the second link above. I'm sure everyone takes a picture of it because it's a little pretty (at least, pretty enough to stand out in the largely run-down bare-wood-and-linoleum environment that sentos run towards. Excuse me, furoyasan.) but also because they go into the actual bath and there's a huge mural painted on the tiles in this style that they can't take pictures of. You're not allowed to take pictures in the changing room and bath, after all.

Right? Right? Yeah, I just turned my camera on, whipped the door open, and here ya go. The setup of the counter was the same as some other places, a raised booth where the master could take money and oversee the proceedings. In this case he was an ancient guy wearing a black beret. He was also really grumpy when I continued my quest to use up spare change. I tried to give him 10-yen and 5-yen coins; he pushed them back at me, saying "I don't need those." I pushed them back, saying "I don't need them either. How about it?" and he just looked confused and kept pushing them at me until I gave up. He told me to start bathing from the left, and went back to his coma.

Yeah, check out that painting! The lights on the right mark the divider between the men's and women's areas, and you can see a smidgen of the Chinese-style mural on the tiles that I was talking about. More importantly, you can see a really grand penkie where Fujisan is centered in the frame and goes half to the men's and half to women's. Does that make the men's side Shizuoka or Yamanashi? This was a grand but decrepit painting; I counted 30 sailboats just on the men's side, but the paint at the bottom of the frame was severely cracked and peeling. I kept expecting it to drop into the bath while I was there.

A couple of thoughts on that. One, I imagine sento paintings were redone pretty frequently in older times (which would explain in part the very rough style that they show). I'd guess that the paint wasn't as good, but also that there was some more competition to keep things looking nice. Now it's probably hard to find someone to repaint your picture, should you need it. It's too bad, because the peeling paint was a touch disturbing!

Another thing that might make the paint peel more in this particular bath though was the heat of the baths themselves.  I quickly found out why I was supposed to bathe from left to right - the left side said "Normal Temperature Bath" above it, and bubbled slightly. The middle bath, the main one, said nothing, but bubbled with a hellacious fury. The right one said "High Temperature Bath", and the stillness of its surface, punctuated only by wisps of steam, was somehow even more menacing.

Seriously, those are some hot-ass baths. I spent a lot of time in the left one, which was 42-43 degrees and quite pleasant. But really only big enough for one person. I would guess that the middle one, which was 4 times the size, was at 45 degrees. You've heard of 65 degree eggs? Let me tell you, at 45 degrees, you'd be worried about coddling your nuggets. And the High Temperature Bath?! Hello sterility! I spent a healthy 60 seconds in the middle bath, no more, and emerged to see the old demon cackling at me from his perch, beret now red and slightly askew from the horns.

I've just remembered - many guys were washing themselves, but I saw no one in the baths other than me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Mother Kurkku, Harajuku

The little Kurkku chain seems to be straddling all sorts of concepts, not in a bad way. There're organic ingredients, hip atmosphere (turntables), cafe food, bar bottles, and a full restaurant, all in two places next to each other in an obscure bit of Jingumae. It was pleasant!

Look at the web site and you'll see the two main places (the 'Mother' cafe and the restaurant across the alley) serve a bunch of organic veg, fancy pudding made with their own eggs, teas, cappucinos with elaborate foam designs... I ate the pudding and drank tea; considering that it was supposed to be made from eggs from chickens owned by the restaurant, and 'super rich' or something, it was pretty normal pudding (although at $6, nothing normal about the price). The tea was fine.

I'd go back here for the food as well. It's a good spot, quality stuff, nice atmosphere, in a quiet neighborhood.


Saturday, March 20, 2010


Have I mentioned before that the outer market at Tsukiji is fun? I mean, the fish parts are cool and all, but the market part is great. It's like an open-air market in southeast Asia, but with higher quality stuff, more variety, and hygiene.

Fresh wasabi, in quantity, at low prices. Can't beat the fresh stuff; if you've never had it, you're missing out. The very smooth, pastelike product that you get from tubes (or at your local sushi place) is mostly made with horseradish. Once you try the real stuff, you'll recognize the difference right away.

Fresh shirataki! Kinda fun even though they look like wacky little jellyfish.

Knives big enough to carve a whale! No, I think these are tuna knives. Sometimes you can see guys in the wholesale area of the market carving up tunas, and they'll be using things like this.

Fresh, seasonal bamboo! Whatever size you want, from tiny to monstrous. I picked up some normal size ones for dinner, smaller than these.

Likewise I bought a bunch of hana wasabi, which I think is the stalks, leaves and flowers of wasabi. The bunch I got (and pickled in soy sauce) didn't taste as strongly of wasabi as the versions I've had before, but I had those in the mountains around Matsumoto right near Japan's biggest wasabi farm.

Go check it out! It was pretty crowded with tourists, mostly Asian, and there were a lot of lines at the sushi and seafood shops, but if you want to shop and sightsee and buy knives or kitchen goods or weird foods, this is your place.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Asahi, Kasai (ろばた旭、葛西)

After leaving Uogokoro, I felt like the night was young. I had neither eaten nor drunk much, and more to the point I hadn't found any funny people to hang out with. The closest was the really rough looking party down the counter who were talking about me until I mentioned that I could understand them. I digress.

Asahi is distinctly uninspiring to look at, but the lit sign at street level in the center-left of the picture says what you need to know. It says "Juyondai. Denshu. Hakkaisan. Kokyryu." etc etc etc. This turned out to be a bait 'n' switch, as they had only one variety each of those, and the lowest in most cases. Still, one can't expect to go to a party place way out in the eastern suburbs and find gold. (I was commenting to someone recently that Tokyo's eastern suburbs are like Sydney's western suburbs, so Kasai is more, shall we say, Parramatta than Woolahra. If that helps.)

But it really IS a party place. Nice country-style atmosphere, big long counter, crowded, noisy, koagari booths to the right, full, fun. You could have a good time here.

Weirdly international too. 

As I was taking time to look at the sake list (and who wouldn't with a list this size?), they seemed to assume I was having trouble reading, and sent a white guy over to deal with me. A white guy!

Actually no, because his name was 'Jeff', except I bet that isn't really his name because someone told me he's Iranian. I didn't talk to him, just reassured him that things were cool, and he went back to work. One of the waitresses was Chinese. In the city, you'd think this was cool. In the suburbs, we know it's all about saving money.

Nice though, right? They tell you everything there is to know about all the sake. I think I won't bore you with a list of everything I drank; the thing I noted liking the most was Kokuryu's Icchorai, and you can get that in lots of places. You can see the Kudokijozu label there too.

You can see here some more of the counter, as well as the, woman next to me who was wasted to start, got worse, slumped on her boyfriend, sat up when he squeezed her breasts, spilled my drink and then fell on me. After that she went to the bathroom and didn't come back until the staff came to tell her companion that she was passed out, and would he please get her out? Considering all that, I think it was quite bold that he kept saying he wanted my phone number so we could go out drinking another time! He hasn't contacted me, so I must have written it wrong.

These bottles are neat, aren't they? Looks like 100+ years of Kirin's varied styles, but I don't really know.

I do know that I ordered sardines, on the left, and abalone, on the right. I can confirm that I don't particularly like the crunchiness of raw abalone, and I still find the taste curiously lacking for something that's so famous and prized.

If you've read my blog before, you can probably guess what this is.

As we say in Texas, Hi Ho Silver! Let's eat!

The chef whose head you can see here was pretty funny. He told one customer that one of the daily-special fish was isaki. She asked "Is that like buri?" and he said "No, it's like isaki." The other main chef was Chinese (and the internationality of it all), and a bit of a hard guy. He wasn't too amused by all the drunken antics, of which there were plenty.

Of course, after the falling-over drunks cleared out, I got this couple as new neighbors, and they were really nice. Hi Jun! What the heck did we talk about, and where did the time go?

And thanks for the picture and a slice of your hamkatsu (half-rounds of processed ham, breaded and fried). Yum!

I'd enjoy going back to this place with friends or family - if it wasn't so far away. Seriously, if you live in Pong or Juban or something you can complain about Monnaka being the other side of the Earth, but try Kasai on for size...

I could never understand people who talked about almost missing the last train, and now I are one...

Uogokoro, Kasai (魚ごころ、葛西)

So, you know, a stressful week at work...made me want to do something quiet and contemplative, by myself. So I looked up some likely sake places in...

and headed along after work.

Let's not beat about the bushes, Kasai is pretty dull. I went out this way once before (it's farther east than my place, so all you West Coast haterz can gitcho hate on) while looking for the purported (and nonexistent) 'Little Bangkok' in Gyotoku. The keen observer will spot pachinko and Watami in this picture and conclude "Meh."

But Uogokoro ("Fish heart"?) was on a list provided by a sake distributor, and the web site looked good enough, so here we are. This is a few blocks from the station, and it's darker. Possibly more atmospheric.

Inside was quite nice, actually. Just a counter and some horikotatsu, but very warm-feeling. Possibly because of the heaters.

This kind of counter. Getting this far out in the suburbs (I think it's 5 stops past Monnaka) almost guarantees a lack of pretense and a living-room feel. In this case, the mail is still on the counter.

I put this bottle first to remind myself that the young waiter wouldn't let me take off my coat and sit down without ordering first. Seriously. We had a little fight where I kept saying "Wait!" and he was saying "Whaddya want?" Eventually he took my coat and I looked at the sake list, which included about a dozen things, mostly unusual (to me). This is Gangi (雁木), as any fool can plainly read. I didn't like it at all - tasted nothing like you'd expect a junmaiginjo to taste, and not the pleasant, light start to the night that I typically prefer.

Oh, I should also comment that he master noticed all of that and apologized. Plus his food was pretty good and he was patient with my dumb questions, so all in I liked him a lot.

As I've said recently, it's Spring, so expect to see these little guys popping up everywhere (though not usually in pictures that make them look so huge and vicious). Supposedly they're called firefly squid because they fluoresce (while in water and still alive). I think it was around Kanazawa or something; I'd love to make that trip.

There was this neat set of playing cards on the counter with artful depictions of Edomae sushi varieties, all done up using illustrations from fabric like this.

And some double-sized bottles of shochu that had been sent to the shop as gifts.

It's Spring, so after confirming that there were decent things in the list, I got a plate of spring vegetable tempura. They were decent, and smelled great while frying, but were a touch on the soft-and-greasy side. Perhaps a problem with the oil temperature, and perhaps a problem with the batter (dare I say it...the bunny batter).

Taranome, one of the bitter tree bud things that usually gets included in spring veggie tempura sets.

And an art shot of a fukinotou, another of the bitter buds. This is the same thing that I picked up a couple months ago and used to make fuki miso at home, which is lasting quite nicely.

Tenmei, again a jungin, medium bodied and a bit spicy (I can't believe I wrote that down. Somebody slap me.)

Since this place wasn't captivating enough to keep me, I didn't order any more food or drinks except this aji tataki, which was excellent. It gave me second thoughts about staying (the chef spiced it up with a bit of miso), but cooler heads prevailed and I wondered out to look for the other place. OK, that's a lie. I walked by the other place on my way to Uogokoro.

On the street, things were weird. I guess this is what they do in Kasai to make a buck?

Home on the range...