Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Soi Thong Lor, Yaesu

It's always weird when it turns out that a place I've been eyeing for a while is actually a place that someone else has been to. Repeatedly. When we got to this place, Ding said it was a favorite of someone on his team, and thus an occasional destination when they felt like walking.

Welcome to Bangkok indeed. Bright colors, blinking lights, checked tablecloths, and nothing but Thai staff as far as the eye can see.

Unfortunately we were seated in the less appealing back room, where it:s more dark wood instead of bare metal. This also reminds of Bangkok though, because it:s the style that Thai designers use when they want to seem classy.

Classy is when you can get a nicely-sized lunch set with a gaprao and green curry for Y1000. It also helps when the gaprao is spicy and delicious, and the egg is perfectly set, and the rice is...well, it:s just rice.

This was a good curry, and I'd like to eat it again. Or else someone related to it. Overall, a really nice place and one that probably deserves to be your first choice for area Thai dining. I know I say that every time I go to a Thai place, but this time I really mean it. Until next week, at least.

In keeping with my recent habit of throwing in a strange picture at the end of reviews, here's one of a statue outside the Japan Steel building. They recently changed the name plate at the front of the building - it used to say Japan Steel in Japanese, but it was JX Group. Somewhat prosaic, wouldn't you agree? I swear this statue was put up at the same time. I go by here once a day on average, and can't remember seeing it. Does anyone know? As far as the reference, I think the whole bring-fire-to-mankind thing is pretty obvious for a steelmaker.

Well, that was bracingly informative, wasn't it?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hourai, Yaesu (蓬莱)

Cold Noodle Exploration Month (season?) continued today as I wandered through Yaesu looking for a likely candidate among the largish concentration of Chinese places there. Hourai was advertising their construction of cold noodle dishes (it's the white page on the blackboard, so definitely seasonal), and I like the look too.

A very pleasantly family-feeling place, with a lovely Chinese grandmother presiding. And a bemused waiter.  Based on what I saw on other people's plates, I would go back here for the hot food - look tasty, especially the blackened, oily eggplant with ground pork, and good volume as they bring a whole cannister of rice for the table.

But today I had the 俸々鶏冷麺. I was proud that I could read this...but when I pointed without saying anything, grandma rattled it off in that quaint yammer that Chinese people use to communicate. I wish they'd speak Japanese like regular people. Or else go back to their own country, and leave Japan to the rest of us who were...oh, that's not me either. I guess they can stay.

The sesame sauce was delicious, the inclusion of lots of salad was good, and the noodles were pleasantly firm. But the chicken was steamed, and steamed chicken skin just works me the wrong way. Also the lettuce wasn't as fresh as it might have been.
Cooked food, that's the go here.

Did you ever hear rumors of an underground rice paddy in an office in Otemachi? They were true, and it was in the Otemachi Nomura Building on the northeast corner of Otemachi crossing. It was part of the Pasona offices there (a recruiting firm), which they closed last year.

In the random post-lunch walking period today, I realized that the big building Pasona remodeled and moved in to at the Gofukubashi crossing (next one east) now has the same rice paddy, only at ground level. It's a really weird space, in no small part because it's like a big field of rice, only on a raised platform in an office building. There are even bugs and probably snails and stuff, a whole healthy ricey ecosystem. The only thing that's weird is the 'sun', which is 98 massive overhead lights shining yellowish artificial sun on the rice as it grows. Perhaps this is meant to be a 'we can do it' thing, rather than a 'future of farming' thing? The energy consumption can't be justified.

Once again, the cooked food is the thing at Hourai. And the indoor rice is cool and weird.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lunch Trucks, Otemachi

Yet another place to tick off the list, and in this case it's really a 'place', not a restaurant by another name. In front of the Sankei building, which is just diagonal to my office, there's a series of lunch trucks parked every day along with tables for eating their takeout. The number varies by day; when I went today, there were 6 spanning a variety of curries, meats, ethnicities and healthfulities.

Why didn't I have the Hawaiian, the roast meat, or the curry? I dunno, but I went to N's Fuu, the 'healthy Japanese deli' selection. This line is about what you'll find at most of the trucks. It takes a while.

And the deal with N's (fuu in this case is 'style' or 'flavor') is that you get salted, sesamed rice with 2 meats and 2 veg. Starting top right, there's some pickle, then a miso-glazed chicken, sesame paste broccoli, scrambled eggs with chicken, and dashi-boiled eggplant. Japanese readers of a certain persuasion will be thinking this looks homey and comforting. And it was all pretty good, especially the eggplant, which they only gave me one of. Boo.

We took our lunches and went to eat somewhere else; it was easily 30 degrees and sunny and humid all at the same time, so I was thinking it would be nice to eat in a garden or by water. The palace garden is closed Mondays and Fridays, so after reminding ourselves of that the hard way we wandered to this water feature-filled park across the street. It's called Wadagura Fountain Park, and there's actually a tiny bit of seating, rare for Japan. Of course, it's not comfortable seating, because the benches are huge cylinders of polished marble - OK for a short sit, but then you'll want to be moving on. And I imagine part of the purpose of these is indeed 'moving on', as in 'not providing a place for homeless people to sleep', which you can do on the side of a cylinder.

Well, tell me if that's too cynical, but I've gotten accustomed to reading architectural / design 'features' that way in Japanese public parks.

Let's look at another picture to make ourselves feel better, shall we? The interesting building at the back of the park is a restaurant and cafe. And actually the park is bordered n three sides by the palace moat, so there's not much of a better trees 'n' water destination around Otemachi.

Stay cool, OK?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Miracle Fruits Cafe, Ikebukuro

This place is inside Namja Town, an odd little bit of Sunshine City that's described in some more detail here. Keep in mind that you'll have to pay Y300 per person to gain access to the delights of Namja Town, including MFC.

Miracle Fruits have gained popularity in the last couple years, it's fair to say. Most of the time they show up as a gimmicky final course for high end dining, and I had never seen them outside that context. This cafe neatly solves the problem by letting you buy miracle fruits for Y250 each, then conveniently offering cups of lemons and other sour treats to go with them.

The point here is that if you chew on this berry for a couple minutes (instructions vary - I saw one blogger say they were told 30 seconds, while the Japanese version of the instructions at MFC said 1-2 minutes, and the English version said 3 minutes), sour things taste sweet. I won't pretend I understand the science; it's easy to look up if you're interested. Most people say that lemons suddenly taste like lemon candy or something, with all the sourness gone.

Now, I'm happy to suck on limes as they are, so sourness obviously doesn't bother me as much as it does some other people. That may explain the effect here - I didn't find the sourness gone, just greatly reduced, and the sweetness of the fruit strongly emphasized in an almost artificial way. Should you try it, you will certainly crave more fruit after eating a cup or so - it's really good. Interestingly, the sourness of the umeboshi wasn't reduced for me, which made me wonder if that sourness (vinegar) is different from the sourness of citrus, and they're captured by different areas of the tongue.

If you should care to wait a bit and sit inside the cafe, you can get parfaits, things like 'tomato and yogurt', or sour fruits. Should be interesting, but I was really happy that you could just buy a couple fruits and some lemons and sit on the public benches to suck them down. Do be careful - after we finished eating, my stomach had a strong and unsettling sensation that I had just eaten a lot of sour, acidic fruit...

Over in Dessert Hell or whatever it was called, one place was doing this weird promotion with themed ice creams from a bunch of different countries. Look closely - what do Germany, Italy, Japan, Finland and Hungary have in common? That's right, they were all Axis Powers in WWII! What a jolly theme for ice cream! Never mind that they've used the sub-national flag of the Aland Islands for Finland; I think the reference is clear to all educated people.

Oh, OK, I see now that this is related to some kind of anime called 'Axis Powers', so I guess it', I still think it's weird.

Gyoza Stadium, Ikebukuro

Namja? Nanja? This place came to me through several sources, and was the cause of some discord before eventually resulting in a fun visit. A fun and weird visit. And tiring. I felt old (fortunately it wasn't just me that felt tired and confused by the time we left, so maybe it's not age. Yet.).

In Ikebukuro's huge and hugely-confusing Sunshine City complex, game company Namco has built an indoor 'amusement park' with a bunch of weird games, entertainments, and lots and lots of food. You have to pay Y300 to get in, which basically entitles you to wander around, get confused, and buy stuff from the food stalls. If you pay a lot more, you can participate in all the games. This does not look like a good thing to me. If you and your kids, and you must have kids, are fluent in Japanese, it might be fun. Maybe. But I would question it at the price.
I supposed Y300 for access to Gyoza Stadium, Ice Cream Paradise and Dessert Hell is maybe worth it, but none of it is really high-quality food (that's not a comment on junk food. I love high quality junk food.)

Oddly, we had wandered into a Showa-retro shopping area only a day before down in Odaiba. This particular Showa-retro area, however, is crammed with nothing but gyoza stalls. Like other junk food 'stadia' (notably Yokohama's ramen stadium), these gyoza sellers are tiny branches of shops from all over Japan.

and their menus feature wacky things like cheeze gyoza, or gyoza topped with with mentaiko, or miso-butter gyoza (which I kinda wish we had gotten, now that I think about it).

You can actually eat at the counters or else take it back out the dining area, which is crate seating and crate tables. It's also dark - I think they might be trying to simulate an evening atmosphere. I guess night is pretty much associated with darkness, so you could say it was a success. Or else they're just trying to keep you from taking too good a look at the food.

Cuz these cheeze gyoza weren't worth writing about. I was expecting gooey cheddar or processed cheese, and it was actually more like fresh cheeze, or just curds, without much flavor, and not gooey - hell, it said 'gooey' on the sign, so I had a right to expect it.

Whatever these were called, you should think of them as takoyaki gyoza. They really seemed to have octopus bits inside, but the combination of copious fresh green onion, salad dressing, crispy bits like tempura leavings, and gyoza underneath was a winner. More places should have a 'gyoza salad'. Maybe Za Watami already does - this reminds me of their food.

Finally, these steamed guys with chili sauce and oil and a bit of steamed bok choy in the middle were much more dull than you'd think from looking.

This was fun, and I could imagine going back again. It was just a bit much; I know this sounds old, but the space was packed and the approach was confusing. Also, when you factor in the entrance fee, you're looking at a bit over Y2k for the three gyoza dishes above. Not that it breaks the bank, but it's not great value either especially given the quality of the specific stands we hit (of which there are at least 10 more, so you might do better).

I love it when people end up with different views on things, and this person loved the gyoza (and miracle fruit) so much that Namja Town is now on their 'must go every time I visit Japan' list. This guy loved it too (and his review is really good, and I agree with a lot of what he said, and I still didn't like it so much). I think I've just lost the ability to be impressed by Japanese wackiness

Hopefully that's just me.

Rocky Top, Ginza

It's a good thing none of you showed up - Rocky Top was jammed last night. Kataoka san was nice enough to let me rock out on his 30's original 5-string RB-1, and Kojima san stepped up to sing a song for a change. Actual playing starts around 1:15; I'm too lazy to edit the video.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Grape Gumbo, Ginza

Remember last year when I went to Mardi Gras? Always meant to go back, but the pressures of needing to try new places have thus far kept me from their door. Grape Gumbo is the father-restaurant of Mardi Gras, with a similar menu and style, so I feel like I've been back now - new place and repeat visit in one dinner, bonus!  It's got a similarly-secretive location, a little north but on the east side of Chuo Dori, somewhere in Ginza 5.

With 4 people at table, we started with a round of the smaller plates, which form half the menu and are distinct in size, style and price from the other side, which is for the most part big, meaty dishes. This steak tartare was pretty good. I'd like more herb and spice and hand chopping, but if you want that you should probably make your own tartare (I've done it, and I'm still here to tell the tale). If you're American or Canadian, you may not be comfortable with the egg yolk on top. I wonder if most people would just refuse to eat this in America.

These deep-fried brussels sprouts were excellent. They're just the same as the 'pintxos' on the menu Mardi Gras, except that in that dish you get 15 varieties of deep-fried tidbits. These are excellent - it's almost like the outer leaves get crisped into a salty cracker, and then the inner cabbage is soft and sweet. Wonder if you can do it at home...

This fish carpaccio was also very good, and the dressing and salad are nice touches.

Endive salad, grown-up blue cheese, walnuts. This reminds me to mention, there's nothing New Orleans about the menu; I don't really get it, but it's all solid in a pleasantly American way.

Great roast duck; I would have said a little overdone since it was sorta mildly-cooked through, but others thought it was underdone since it oozed a little blood when poked energetically. Great duck.

Sauteed fish of some description, in a buttery sauce of another description. I did not sample this item, barely even taking a picture of it, and thus cannot comment.

But I can sure comment on the cold capellini with tomatoes and seafood. It was awesome. The tomatoes were mixed with vinegar and something creamy in a salad-dressing way (you know how 'Italian' salad dressing is usually sorta white and glistening, probably due to emulsifiers? Like that. But hopefully natural.)  The seafood was terrific too - very plump and perfectly-cooked scallops, squid, octopus, mussels, shrimp. This was a bit big, honestly, and I wanted to take it home, but I persevered and ate enough to feel OK about leaving the rest.

I feel much the same about this as I did about Mardi Gras - the prices aren't low, but the cooking and quality are strong, and you can sorta choose a cheaper meal if you avoid the expensive-meat side of the menu (especially the steak, which at $120 was $30 cheaper than the one at Mardi Gras).  I already want to go back to eat that pasta again.

Really, I'd go back here any time. No official site that I can see; they started a Twitter feed about 2 weeks ago but seem already to have given up.

Veranda, Odaiba

Never quite understood the allure of Odaiba, but I certainly understand the allure of sitting on a terrace, looking at the bay and the bridge and the other scenery (which is frankly pretty industrial, but we take what we can get, scenery-wise, here in Tokyo). The Hotel Nikko has a very civilized afternoon tea thing going on with their terrace restaurant, Veranda, in contrast to the fun-but-gaudy commercialism of most of the rest of Odaiba (I'm not saying it's bad. I'm from New Jersey after all - never going to complain about malls).

Of course, the weather wasn't supportive of our plans to eat outside. That reduced the available number of seats, which led to a wait (conversely, if the weather was better I think you'd expect to wait more since the view would be better). On the bright side, you can wait on comfortable hotel chairs in a little way-station just across from the restaurant, where if you squint to blur out the already-seated patrons, you'll feel like you're outside already.

Seated at a window table, we had a good view of the bridge and various buildings. It doesn't look wet, but I think Hotel Nikko wouldn't risk their customers coiffures and couture by seating anyone if there was a risk of rain. Thus we got to see empty tables, and across them The View.

The food is quite what you'd expect from a high-end Japanese hotel restaurant. At right, a very proper club sandwich, very proper in its ingredients, thin, even, pressed appearance, and lack of taste. The fries were quite good, at least.

Aaaaand the afternoon tea set. With a solid selection of cakes to share (mainly with a mango theme at the moment), plus a little sandwich and some cheese on the bottom, and a pot of tea on the side, you could be happy with this. Roll cake, fruit tart, champagne jelly, sponge cake, mousse loaf...a little of everything. Again, if you want to while away an hour just looking at the view (they also recommend drinking champagne), this is a cool way to do it.

Depending on your price tolerance, of course.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Taihei, Otemachi

In the basement of the new(ish) JA building, this is a tolerable Thai place that I think opened recently - not in the initial batch of places that opened at the same time as the building, at any rate. They have nice lunch sets spanning the usual Thai lunch choices. Red and green curry for Y900 lets you avoid deciding between colors, and has a good volume of food. They were both quite sweet, so of course I liked them. There's also some confusion with nasi goreng and pho on the menu, but even if they're not sure what country they're from, they give you the option to pick up a mini-pho for only Y200 to go with the rest of your set.

That's all there is, there ain't no more.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zoogunzoo, Shibuya

You wanna see what a night-in-the-life is like? In addition to having a long and relaxed night on the turps with Swannie, I took pictures along the way. If I haven't mentioned this before, I think of this blog as something I'll be able to look back on with amusement when I'm in my dotage, so writing about the whole evening rather than just the food is fun. Will be fun. Whatever.

Leaving the office, I headed down into the subterranean depths, where strange species hip-shot photos come out well sometimes. I took the Hanzomon line (purple) out to Omotesando.

If you enlarge the picture and look carefully, you'll see that his shirt and hat both bear the legend 'Slight Slappers'. I thought this was hilarious at the time, but now realize it's a Japanese thrash band. According to this review, they play with the 'lethal skill of a professional assassin', thus proving that in the minds of many westerners, Japanese = ninja.

Mr. Zoogunzoo (called 'Mr.' to differentiate it from their online wine shop, Zoogunzoo Wolf, because you might have gotten confused otherwise. Or contused.) is on a traffic-y, semi-dead stretch of 246 as it heads from Omotesando down to Shibooya. It's very close to El Castellano (since 1977, the first Spanish restaurant in Tokyo owned by a Spaniard; a colleague recommended it to me recently. Here's someone that hates it so much they wrote a couple blog posts about how bad it is.). It's like they were reading my mind - in the heat and humidity, I kept thinking on the way over that I wanted to drink sparkling red, and there's the blackboard, at the top of the stairs, proclaiming their current special on the very thing. We started with it.

Actually I think the full name is 'Mr. Zoogunzoo Underground'. They're all-in on that theme, with a deep, dark Australian Outback thing (to match the all-Aussie wine list, which is quite nice). After that bottle of sparkling red, I really thought these cracked-earth walls were moving by themselves.
Let me just run through the food quickly - I think the focus is more on the wine, by which I don't mean to discourage you from going. Starting top left, they give you a bit of bread with an Australian spice mix. I kept saying it tasted like 'lemon wattle', which amused Swannie; in fact I see now that I was thinking of lemon myrtle and wattle seed, two great tastes that go great together when you're trying to cook with indigenous Australian flora.  Oysters were tremendous and meaty, but very very strong-tasting. Past their use-by date?  Madai carpaccio was pretty good, dominated by dressing. Corn mousse was very nice, one of their particular specialties. More or less a light, sweet whip of canned corn and cream, I think. Pasta was average but included some bits of kangaroo (which were gamey and overcooked). The best dish for me was the goulash (Australian goulash, right?), but I have no memory now of the taste.

Well, that was it. I was pretty tired, and even the buildings seemed to be slouching out of sympathy.

Don't let anyone tell you Tokyo is safe and clean. You run into junkies all the time, like this woman on the train who seemed to have been shooting up in her feet.

Speaking of feet, I was dead on mine, and this long escalator made me feel tired since I always walk on escalators, making it look like a long staircase. Come to think of it, I probably could have just stood there and let it take me up, couldn't I?

Climbing the escalator and stairs and finally finding myself back at the office, I was greeted by my old friend the bike, who I still had to ride home. It's a really nice way to finish the night, even if it was touching midnight at this point, and the next day was a workday. I was genuinely happy to see the bike, and that's why I whipped out my camera and squeezed off a quick shot.

My zoogun's loaded and she's in my sights.

Sakaeya Milk Hole, Kanda (サカエヤ ミルクホール)

If you're following closely, you've read a number of times about a very specific small block of Awajicho that has a bunch of good places for lunch - either quality food or good atmosphere. Sakeya is right in that zone, so I've been wanting to visit. Today's strategic men's lunch was a good opportunity, seeing as we were 5 people and that's hard to fit into a lot of places at 12 o'clock.

Sakaeya is the sort of place I've only recently become comfortable with - until now, I kinda figured the food would be mediocre and the atmosphere wouldn't make up for it. In practice, the food is pretty good (notice that on the sign it says 'light meals and tea' and keep that in mind when you see the pics) and the retro atmosphere doesn't add much to it. Like the experimental music of my youth, the concept is usually better than the execution.

For lack of a better interior shot (and there's not much else to see inside anyway; the bronze exterior and banners are the best design elements), here you have Brothers trying to lean out of the frame, Todd accidentally leaning in, and Mama at the counter picking up an order. Mama is very particular about her makeup, and looks good enough for a night out even though she's serving up...

Curry! Seriously, I'm not sure what 'light meals' means when the specialty of the house seems to be the curry-and-ramen set. I really liked this curry since it was firmly in the Japanese mold - sweet, more spicy than hot. After a while though, I started thinking that this might be the same taste as House or S&B curry if you made it at home, but I can't remember the last time I had one of those.

The ramen is every bit as simple as it looks - medium, straight-ish noodles in a simple soup, with some pork, some onion, some spinach. It was nice, not in a deeply enlightening way like you were tasting 65 years of history, but nice.

That was a nonsequitur, wasn't it? I read that they opened in 1945, hence 65 years. Another funny thing is their dinner hours - from 5 until a bit before 7. So homey!

I was unfortunately there to eat the ramen, and thus couldn't continue with my other project, hiyashi chuka. It'll happen, no problem... in fact, I think I'll have to go back for this one, which looks really good. Seemed like most other people were eating it, and several at our table did. Big and strong, I reckon.

Lots of interior and food shots in this review should help you decide if you want to check it out.

Like yesterday once more. Only with food this time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bistro Lugdunum, Kagurazaka

Probably more than a year has gone by since I started thinking that Bistro Lugdunum looked like the best bistro in Kagurazaka - which any French person in Tokyo will tell you is saying something. Since the French School is nearby, various French things have congregated there for years, and there's a higher concentration of bistros then anywhere else in Tokyo. The Wrecker, despite having kids in that very school, said he was unfamiliar with any area bistros, so I chose this one...which it turned out his wife had also chosen three days earlier for Father's Day. And The Wringer may also have recommended in the past. Oopsie. Well, at least it's popular if not original. And at least the nicknames are original.

In a sentence, this is very good quality bistro food, at reasonable prices for the quality (although I don't understand the course menu pricing system - it seems like if you order from the restricted 3-4 choices for each course, you save a grand Y150). I ignored that, and you should too. There are some significant upcharges if you get the luxury ingredients, but those plates looked terrific when others got them.

Not something you see that often in Japanese bistros, but a real staple in France - herring with potatoes. The herring was really soft and delicious, and the waxy yellow potatoes and onions were very good. Everything was a little warm, which brings out both the oiliness and the flavor of the fish (in a good way).

The other starter, a Lyon-style sausage and meat plate, which I could not sample out of politeness. It certainly looked very fresh and...almost light, I think.  The only criticism I could make, which indeed would carry over to most of the items, is that the portion looked a bit small. Ehh, how much cured meat do you really need?

Sadly I could not try this either, but it's a lovely-looking fish quenelle dish, presumably in a sort of Americaine sauce and topped with a bit of bubbling cheese. I'm not all that sure, but it really looked great, and I'll be angling to try it when I go back.

I got the open-faced, that was lunch. I got the blood sausage, supported by mashed potatoes and topped with roasted apple slices. Soft texture, interesting flavor, good mix of elements, great sauce, a realy winner.

And ehhh, might as well get dessert. I saw someone else receive a slate of macarons and thought I'd try them. Turns out they're cherry-leaf flavored! Imagine sakura mochi, the salty-bitter-cherry thing that you can get in the spring, made into macarons, with a strawberry foam and indeterminate red-fruit sorbet. The macarons were competent, which is a fairly good recommendation in a city that has a LOT of mediocre macarons. You could fault the shells for being a bit moist, not crackly at all, but they were chewy and had a good shell-to-filling ratio.

There you go folks - no reason not to suspect that this isn't the best bistro in Kagurazaka (Y5k for the 3 plates pictured on the left above). Decent selection of glass wines, which seemed good when we drank them, but didn't see the wine list. I'll definitely be back.

And next time, I'll wear a tricorn hat.