Friday, April 30, 2010

Sound Bar Lip, Shibuya

Have you ever noticed how there are all sorts of funky places hiding out in plane sight in the middle of Tokyo? You have? Everyone knows that? OK, never mind.

After leaving Betterave, we flocked around for a bit. This bridal salon was next door, and they were still working on things even at 10:30 or so. I thought the peafowl needed to see Dogenzaka in its Saturday-night glory, and we were just over the back of the hill, so off we went.

Even today I'm not sure if this is Engrish or a joke. It helps if you know there's no distinction between F and H sounds in Japanese, but it's pretty funny either way. And not really likely that it's a deeply self-aware Engrish-at-its-own-expense joke.

For some reason, Sound Bar Lip caught our eyes. There must be a back story, but on the night, only the princess pictured on the left was in attendance. She was mostly just snoozing on a couch by the front door while every girl in the bar took turns petting her. Not a bad life, especially if you don't mind loud music and like watching surfing movies.

Lip is a much better place than I was expecting. Low pleather couches, decent cheapish drinks, friendly guys with wacky hair doing the serving, and a relaxed but energetic vibe.

Unfortunately, there are also demonic presences lurking in the background.  That probably explains why I had us turn the wrong way at Bunkamura when we left, and also why I got us on the train bound out of Shibuya for the hinterlands rather than a sensible inbound version. Seeing "Next: Ikejiri" on the monitor reminded me right away of this time when I took Narita Express and as soon as we left Tokyo the sign flashed "Next: Shibuya". I was on a business trip to meet clients, on a schedule, and I freaked out. Anyway, I was a bad tour guide tonight.

You've gotta see this site. It's cute.

Betterave, Shibuya

I had been meaning to call the Peafowl to go out during Golden Week. Specifically I was thinking of the 30th, but I started thinking I should rest between some of the other engagements and never called. Then Peacock called in the morning of the 30th, and with a smidgen of serendipity, all was set. Peahen was investigating Turkish places...

I had been meaning to go to Betterave for months and months. The web site is really nice in a cheerful, modern, Franco-Italianate way. Not exactly Turkish. My bad.

Inside is smaller and less cheerful than expected. Not bad, and the prices match, but somehow I thought it would be more elegant. Obviously it still got a thumbs-up.

The first inkling that things weren't exactly Franco-Italian was the pickled beets, which were really good. The olives really seemed to have been flavored with vanilla, again, not necessarily in a bad way, but in a vanilla way.

When we started looking at the menu, there were some odd bits - mostly involving beets, which is cool when the name of the restaurant is 'beets', but all of them were 'ukulaina style'. At some point I put the katakana together with this blackboard drawing and realized that we were really in a Ukrainian restaurant. Sort of.  Anyway, you'll see that it says 'Turkey' in the middle of this map, so I felt like I had delivered against a tiny bit of the specifications for the night.

The menu does indeed have a bunch of neat things, including this deer carpaccio with ruccola. It seemed like the deer was smoked a bit or something, because the rim of each slice had some texture and added flavor. Very good deer though. Too much ranch dressing though (Thousand Island?).

Tuna-avocado tartar feature in both Peacock and Peahen's dinners.

While liver mousse made an appearance in mine. Good mousse, with lavender-flavored honey.

At about this point, the waitress brought us a big plate of pre-sliced, packaged prosciutto and announced "This is a gift from the kitchen because the chef's wife just had a baby." We hadn't heard any noises from the back, so she must have been quiet about it, but we still congratulated him heartily, wondering if the quality of the ham was an indication of how he felt about the kid.

I had done my best to order the veal, but the watiress only heard the 'ko' on the beginning of the word, and I ended up with decent lamb chops instead. Herby crust, ample fat, excessive pink peppercorns. (Are they Ukrainian?) Still victorious, evidently.

Peahen had this fish, which was again suffering from a divebombing of pink peppercorns. I don't think I tried it, but it looked pretty good.

Peacock had a dessert (included in the Y5k B-course) but we hadn't been that excited about the food and forewent desserts other than his heart-shaped creme brulee with fresh fruit. (I still can't believe there's a person in the world who would eat the creme but not the brulee, but now I've met him.)  Not necessarily related to the new baby, the chef had baked fresh Madeleines and gave us each 2 to take home...or inhale as soon as we were out the door.

So far I was batting in the low .100's after hijacking the restaurant choice and taking us somewhere non-Turkish, non-Italian, and mediocre. Fortunately things got better later when I put us on a train going the wrong way...

 Great web site though.

Mimasuya, Kanda (みますや)

There's no way you can not love a neighborhood institution, especially when it's been going since Meiji 38 (1906, methinks), and especially when the neighborhood is Kanda? Even the most casual reader should know how fond I am of Kanda as a lunch destination; it's something about the way just enough glimpses of the area's former merchant purpose remain among the 4-5 story buildings that house lower-level companies. Too bad it's a hassle for dinner (or at least I say it is).

But the point here is that you have to love old places like this. Bare concrete floor, tiny woven stools, communal tables, years of careful scrubbing that have given everything a certain semi-dirty glow, a certain dark coolness in the's nice, isn't it? It would be better if this camera didn't suck. You don't find many old places like this in America. And that's funny because the Japanese really do have a mania not just for redecorating but for tearing down whole buildings and starting over. But some of these places, even when they're not so well-built, persist. Stubbornness, probably. In a good way.

The game for lunch is that you can choose a main dish and a side dish from the buffet, then you get your rice, soup and pickles, and it's Y750. You can pay a little more if you want 2 side dishes. I won't rhapsodize about the quality or anything; it's pre-cooked and sitting out on a table, even the fried and grilled stuff.  Despite being pre-cooked, it's not as blurry as it looks here.

And then you take your lunch wherever you want, and you eat it. No problems squeezing in, that's for sure. The majority of seats are zashiki; hard to imagine that people willingly take off their shoes and sit on the floor, but they're all wearing loafers, and it's what they're used to. This guy certainly had no reservations.

I would say this was a fail except that the unohana (the side dish) was really deeply-flavored, and the rice was very fresh. Getting cold fried chicken was a really poor idea. The fact that I thought it was going to be cold fried oysters since that was on the sign outside still doesn't explain why it seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh well.

Some of you will no doubt be wondering about the evening offerings; while I didn't see horse stew presented as a popular menu item, there were a fair few sake brands written on slips of paper on the walls. In addition to very normal stuff like Shirataka and Hakkaisan, I noted Taka and Dassai. Dassai is really making a push this year, aren't they? Just int he last few months, their sake is everywhere in a very noticeable way. Good thing it's a good sake!

Class? We don't need no stinkin' class.

As an afterthought (and my after-lunch activity), you will no doubt be pleased to learn that I am cavity-free after another 8 months, and the hygenist even commented that I brush very competently. I think having a toothbrush in the office has made a lot of the difference, but thanks for the pointers also.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Matsusou, Yurakucho (まつ惣)

When Roofie and I agreed to meet for dinner in Yurakucho, visions of cheerful-cheep-chicken excellence at Tonton danced in my head. Unsurprisingly, they had started dancing in the heads of dozens of others long before we got there. This is why I always reserve these days; it's just not worth the risk.

And that's how we ended up on one of the few empty seats on any of the numerous chicken places along Yurakucho's Chicken Alley (I dunno what it's really called, but it's mostly outdoor-seating yakitori like this). Most places were full, so we let a kindly old guy direct us inside his tent. So to speak.

Inside there was a party goin' on. There must be a party on this street every night of the week. Conditions are rudimentary and cramped, chicken is decent and reasonably-priced, and drinks flow freely.

Tsukune flows freely too. Matsusou is the only place of 4 I've now been to on this street that does not describe their tsukune as their famous item, and I can see why. Too dry, weird texture. Not actively bad, but not good enough to build a reputation on.

Mushrooms and peppers. A bit limp.

Pork belly; Roofie swore he hated this, but lapped it up when it came. 'Lapped' is a relative term; it wasn't that soft.

These fried octopus bit were terrible - expensive, and such small portions! Seriously, the batter was thin and greasy. Hard to accomplish such a bad level of fry.

This is a mackerel, believe it or not. It's awfully big! Wasn't bad; a little dry.

This place is different from the others in that the menu is quite big and includes lots of fish items, salads, etc. Honestly, that's not such a great thing. If you want salads, go somewhere else. In fact, if you want grilled chicken in Yurakucho, you should probably go somewhere else too. Distinctions between these places are fine, but Matsusou was a little less distinguished than the others I've been to.

The highest point for me was probably the staff. This guy, who pulled us in, was seriously nice in a kindly-uncle sort of way (I've sadly realized that I can't keep calling guys this age 'grandpa' any more). One of the young guys was really nice too, making an effort to speak some English, which goes along with their very complete menu - every item pictured and labeled in English! Seemed like some of the drink selections written on paper on the walls weren't translated to the English drinks menu (sake especially), but I think it's a crime to drink anything but beer or cheap shochu mixers at a place like this (yes, lots of Hoppy in effect、and no, I have still never tried it.).


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Okamo's Diner, Monzennakacho

Yo Okamo, whassup?  You've been doing business in my town for years (2), I dunno why I never stopped by. Misguided effort to limit caloric intake on weeknights, I suppose.

Okamo is here, hiding below a much bigger sign for a pub. (Yes, a "pub", if you know what I mean. But not like you're thinking. Monnaka is very clean in that sense.) Okamo's actual place is on the second floor of the building with the old Sushi Zanmai at ground level, which has the darts bar D-Spec on the third floor (not sure why I never wrote a post about D-Spec. Nice bar.)

That picture wasn't so readable, but Okamo sells 'sushi and original dish' (es), and he's doing a good job of it, woudja believe. I don't mean this in a bad way, but between his size and the framed, inscribed sumo schedule on the wall, I'm wondering if his original career wasn't in the wrestling line. He's a big, friendly guy who clearly likes a laugh.

AND a can of Spam. When's the last time you saw this? Sheesh. And the flavors!
Seriusly, I was reminded of my old friend Vic, who used to be pretty fat (I can say this because I used to be pretty fat too, and he and I both lost a lot of weight since the time we worked together).  Someone (quite possibly me) once described him as 'jolly', to which he said "You're just saying that because I'm fat." Since that was true, I've been much more guarded about using 'jolly' in common parlance since then. Okamo is jolly, although I wouldn't want to call him that in a dark alley.

Fortunately, it's just that he loves America, not that he's been there or speaks American or suchlike. His fresh springrolls really reminded me of New York-style sushi, or California-style sushi, or at least some kinda American-style sushi. With tons of sweet chili sauce. And all good.

So yeah, I had to get the Spam Steak. The flavor is pretty good, but the texture is a little disturbing, to be honest (it's a new policy. I thought I would try being honest and speaking my mind on the blog for a change.) This is just too soft to be considered meat. Now Scrapple, it's cool because you know it's full of crap, or rather is made of nothing but crap, and that's expected. I guess it's just been so long since I had Spam that I forgot what it was like, and expected something more meaty. Weird. I don't recommend it.

Check out the wacky little Oreo dippers and the wackier, littler (relative to the actual item) old-fashioned fridge! It's funny, Okamo really loves America, but that only shows in these odd little decorations around the place. It's not like he has burgers on the menu.

He does have sushi on the menu. I was a little skeptical since the case is small and so is the restaurant, and it just didn't seem like it would be that good. But I was sitting in front of Ebisu, and he seemed to be saying "Getcher damn hands of my beer, maaaaaan" while simultaneously offering up a huge (proportionally) tray of sushi, so what the hey.

Okamo (incidentally, I really hope that's his name, otherwise...well, it still wouldn't matter) said it was cool to get sushi from one piece, and I asked if that was really true, and he said it really was, and I took him up on that with a vengeance. I like the fact that he has a lot of prepared stuff on the menu; dunno if he makes the egg himself. The other thing in the back is menegi (chive buds). In front, kohada, shimesaba, hirame kobujime. See? All three of those are prepared items (the first two lightly pickled, the 3rd wrapped in seaweed for a while). I really enjoyed these since they were all so firm and meaty. Good stuff! Oddly, I did find myself wishing there was more vinegar in the rice, which I imagine Auntie N would also have thought.

I was thinking about this Luxeat post while I was eating, because this was pretty damn good sushi considering it was in a place calling itself a 'diner' and charging (average) $2 per nigiri.  (A piece of sushi, is not called 'a sushi', btw, and the plural isn't 'sushis'. If it looks like this you should probably call it a nigiri. OK, that's enough.)

 Bottom line - Okamo is cool. Check it out.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bigote, Nihonbashi

'Bigote', of course, is Italian for 'bigot', so it's no surprise that the ample signage around the door of this otherwise-pleasantly bohemian cafe proudly proclaims "No Lesser Races". Of course in the absence of specificity about which races that would entail, they seem quite happy to admit anyone for a pleasant sit on the mismatched furnishings, a snack, and a decent gulp of espresso.

Careful readers will likely understand intuitively that I mean 'mismatched furnishings' in a good way. You may well be gripped by a feeling of 'Shimokita' while you're here. I didn't get a picture of the back wall, which is formed of large pieces of cardboard covered in artsy purple and gold grafitti. I did get far too many pictures of the small counter, the diner-style stools, the leather banquettes, and the nailed-up 2X4 tables, and this is the best one. Considering that this is pretty much the ass-end of Nihonbashi, and heading into the dead zone along Showa Dori, they have no right being this hip, but god bless 'em. It's relaxing. I hope my tie didn't dampen the spirits of the other patrons, who were variously dressed in all black or bike messenger chic.

The fact that I described the food as 'a snack' without a qualifier in relation to its tastitude can't be a good sign. What really made up my mind that I had to go here was the legend 'calzone' on the chalkboard outside. Lordy me, I do love a good calzone. This was nothing like a good calzone, and let's not even go into it. Also, it's every bit as small as it looks. With the 15+ minute walk back to the office, I was hungry before I got back.

Coffee was pretty good though; I'd say 'second class' if I felt qualified to make judgements about coffee, but I don't. (If I was qualified, however, I'd extend down to fourth-class or so, like the rankings on my new static pages, and second class would be quite good.) This seemed like good beans, good machine, good technique...just a little something missing to push it over the edge.

Lordy me!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Junren Ramen, Takadanobaba (純連)

Really great weather today, and with no particular responsibilities I decided to wander through the Okubo guitar stores (as well as the little street of Halal food stores, did you know that was there? Opposite the station exit, jog to the left.).  The way to Okubo for me involves changing trains in Takadanobaba (or walking one stop from there, as I did). Baba is meant to be a good area for ramen, so I fired up ramendb to find a place to eat on the way. Here it is - #2 in the area, Junren. A score of 73 puts it in the top 200 or so on ramendb (not bad out 26,000 listed), and I straight up didn't like it a bit. Pisser!  This sucks especially since I love miso ramen, and blogs I trust rave about Junren.

This action shot came out well, don't you think? It's just because the weather was so good. Junren does Sapporo-style ramen, as indicated by the 'Sapporo' on the sign. There were 4 or 5 people waiting outside when I got there, and a few more inside. Considering that I had walked pretty far from the station to get there (including passing a branch of Hakata Furyu that had a bunch of people waiting outside; glad to see the masses agree with me on that one), I waited.

This guy was going to a nice-looking Hakata-style ramen next door. Me, I managed to suffer through 50km on the bike in the morning to work up the karma to visit Junren, but I've been where he is and felt a little kinship with him. No further comment.

Inside is a bit drab - not just industrial-ramen-drab, but depressive. A bunch of celebrity endorsements on the left wall give the impression that it really is famous, but no one is talking or excited. The staff really put a damper on things too - no talking, let alone shouting. I've been to plenty of quiet places - either they're serious about the work, or there's a hushed silence... here, it just seemed down.  A weird point - see the guy on the left walking toward the back? That curtain is the exit. There are always people waiting in the entrance, so you're expected to go out the back way.

No, I don't learn my lessons (but where would the blog be if I did?). Miso chashu with egg.

Pretty good egg ('great' would involve uniform consistency across the yolk, but nothing wrong with this one), good noodles (curly, medium-thick, yellow, chewy Hokkaido-style) but really a letdown overall. The soup didn't have that much flavor, and this is the most surprising thing about the whole experience. The thick layer of oil on top, is also part of the package, but a heavy part of it. The pork was cut very thick, and from a loaf that included a lot of cartilege. I wasn't feelin' it.

In fact I was so not feelin' it that this is where I stopped. At least you can see what the noodles looked like. Oh, and Junren is on the expensive side for ramen, if that's of interest.

After lunch I walked down to Okubo, hit the guitar stores, walked around looking at Korean stuff, and gradually walked all the way back over to Waseda to go home. On the way I accidentally wandered through Kabukicho (accidentally! Don't start with me!) and saw

yeah, a 'pig club'. It takes all types, but I thought you'd enjoy the frisson of weirdness here.

Holy cow, only 3 stores nationwide, doing business since 1939. What did I miss?

I'm starting to wonder if the allergies I've had since Saturday morning killed the taste. After reading others' opinions, I feel like a Philistine for not loving this.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Le Mont St Michel, Mejiro

Yves Ringler was a soldier in the Jimmy Cayne mob, running numbers out of Tokyo. They called him "The Wringer" even though that doesn't really sound like his name if you pronounce it properly. He managed to give up the life a few years ago, showing a good deal of prescience. As you may know, I was on the side of Dick in the epic conflict that followed, while Yves was busy opening a tidy creperie in Mejiro that he now presides over as a truly exemplary host.

After the recent redecorations at Le Pre Verre (from: fun modern French to: dull traditional as expected by Japanese people), it's a pleasure to visit a place that feels totally French in its decor (especially the second floor) and cooking. The cooking comes by way of an actual Frenchman, convinced to close his famous creperie in Brittany for the move, presiding over the kitchen with a good deal of savoir faire. The event was a wine tasting (various offerings from bio madman M. Chapoutier) that proved to be absolutely wonderful in both flavor and value; unfortunately the night's special menu seems to include a number of dishes that aren't generally available. I'd still say this is worth your dining dime, and fully intend to find out for myself with a return visit.

Dining at a galetterie, one should expect several rounds of galettes; the standard menu, in fact, doesn't include that many other options. After eating this item, I wouldn't say you'll feel the lack. It's like going to one of those ridiculous pizza places in Japan where the oven is directly imported and the chef has been to Italy to train on it. In this case, the buckwheat flour is indeed imported from France, and the taste is indeed beyond anything I've had before; certainly no other galette in Tokyo matches the depth and darkness of the flour used here, or the cooking methods. Also, points to the chef for managing to serve this chicken-cheeze galette to more than 20 people more or less at once, quite hot. Further points for including truffle oil in a way that wasn't artificial or cloying. Points all around, really.

Salmon cooked in foil with orange and vegetables. A worthy cooking technique that you can and should use at home.

The duck here was nicely roasted (and a pox on those sitting around me who cut the fat off each slice. What's the point of that?), but more to the point the unreadable tangle in the back was strips of pan-fried galette. Boy were they good...sort of like buckwheat tortilla chips, I suppose.

There was wine going on, of course, and here we compare M. Chapoutier's Hermitage to his Crozes Hermitage (let me recollect the specific bottles later). Mostly I just wanted to include a picture with silly blackouts on people's faces. And black fingernails.

Incidentally, you're thinking that I take too many pictures these days, aren't you? I'd like to mention that one of the people pictured herein didn't notice that I was taking pictures until a bit after this point, i.e. none of the first three courses. It's all about being unobtrusive. I don't want to ruin anyone's dinner, least of all my own.

I've read a lot of Stuff Parisians Like, so for me the quote of the night came from the leggy Russian girlfriend sitting next to me, who greeted this plate with a decorously-squealed "Ohhh, j'adore le boeuf bourguingnon." Yves mentioned with great fanfare and a few tears that the chef had wasted a tremendous amount of wine in its preparation, which started two days earlier. Very proper, I say. I'm afraid that the pattern for these tastings may follow other series that I've been to, i.e. the proprietor realizes gradually that he's being too generous and downgrades things over time. I hope not. This was so good! Again, I would never consider leaving aside a piece of beef like this on the grounds that it was 'too fatty'. I might even steal such a morsel from my neighbor's plate.

And to finish (well, almost), a galette mousse cake. I've always suspected that the existence of things like 'mille crepe' in Japan was an invention, but this would seem to indicate that they really do exist in France too...again, the galette-based plates were probably the highlight of the dinner for me, so I enjoyed this and think you should try it when you go.

You should also know that the drinks menu is lovely - in addition to a broad selection of wine at all price points (which I imagine will all be very good, considering the effort Yves seems to put into it), there's lots of cider, plus some calvados and other specialty items. It pained me so much to leave when Yves said "Ohhh, but we're just getting to the Calvados. Won't you stay?" So much. But as it was, I only just squeezed onto the last train. Taxis from Mejiro are prohibitive, I think. Keep that in mind when you go, and I hope you do.

Just one question - Mejiro?