Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sumidagawa Fireworks

There's a first time for everything, and this was the first time I've been dragged along to brave the crowds at the Sumida River Fireworks festival, Tokyo's biggest (though pretty limited by the urban setting; some other displays are much bigger).
If you're really up for a big evening, you should pony up for tickets on a boat. The fireworks have been held in more or less the same location since 1733, and the very groovy Edo-era woodblock prints, while being extraordinarily expensive due to their groovy subject matter, show similar lines of boats lined up across the Sumida. In what becomes a recurring theme to anyone's stay in Japan, these boat trips are likely at the high end of the range you'd be willing to spend. On non-fireworks nights, they're about $100 per person, so I can only imagine. One place we investigated (in a building across from the main firing site) changed their dinner course from $50 to $300.

For us reg'lar folk, you'll be walking the streets. Colleagues have said in the past that there are certain streets famous for having good views of the fireworks, and the best thing would be to walk on the broad terraces along the river...except that you need a ticket to get in there, as the omnipresent rent-a-cops delighted in telling us. As you get farther north toward the actual firing sites, there are whole streets that are totally closed off, with real police who have real authority to keep you from walking on them. The view is too good, I think.
So what happens is that people shuffle along the sidewalks hoping for a clear view, or camp out in the streets. This is accepted - the middle of the street is roped off so people can sit there, while two lanes are kept clear on the outside for emergency vehicles.
Let's not go on too much. Eventually we settled into a spot (rather, I started getting grumpy from too much standing and not enough exploding) right by Kuramaebashi and stood around to wait.In fact, there was a decent view between the buildings where we were standing to wait. We moved, but there were people standing 10 rows deep, just 4 across, for this slice of view.
There was no lack of explosion. Here are some high points (at least as far as captured by my camera). These orange shells were cool; I read that it's a newish color.

More orange!

At last a clear shot.

Me and five thousand of my closest friends.

And to give you a better idea, the becoming-ubiquitous cheap video...

 A recent commenter commented on a recent post, and therein did aver that my post about the 35th Annual Chiba Bluegrass Festival had insufficient food-related comment. Rather than vengefully hit this blot, I chose to include some foodities herein: yatai, or the common types of Japanese street food. Pictured here is a girl selling chocolate-covered bananas.

And here a cheerful chap cracking eggs onto large mounds of Hiroshima Yaki, which is more or less like okonomiyaki, or 'Japanese pancakes' or 'Japanese pizza' if you must.

Truly a great of street food, what with the batter loosely holding together cabbage and other fillings, and tons of sweet worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise and shaved dried bonito on top. I was pretty happy to chow down on one of these.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Kinariya Ramen, Jimbocho (きなり屋)

Pretty much hopeless to try to classify ramen in Tokyo, isn't it? Maybe even if you venture out to other famous places the ramen also defines description? Surely in Hakata there's no confusion, and pretty much everyone has Hakata ramen?
Kinariya looks nice from the outside, if by 'nice' you mean 'Gonna have some thick, nasty ramen where the soup immediately sticks to the walls of your blood vessels'. It's right around the corner from a couple of places like Tsujita and Matoi - one of which is famous and both of which are better.  Mama is kinda friendly, and the customers are...well...let's not get into it.
With the heat, and the is-it-raining-or-not humidity, tsukemen seemed like the proper course. Finally their function in the world is clear - they're lukewarm ramen for those days when you can't handle a hot, steaming bowl. This is the miso version of the soup; it was strangely addictive, as are many of the more subtle soups - doesn't hit you in the face, but keeps you wanting to drink more. You had the 'thick soy' version, which did indeed look extra-thick and oily. But not so pork-laden, so you don't have to feel that bad eating it. 
Tsukemen come as a plate of cold noodles with some other toppings, to be added gradually to the soup. This one's a little rare because of the shape of the noodles; usually they're more udon-like, fat and white and slippery, not ramen-y. The toppings are also a bit more extensive here than what you get at most places. Tsukemen in Tokyo seems to have evolved along the Rokurinsha/Tetsu model of 'heavy soup, thick noodles, nothing else' (but of course those places are always too crowded to get into - I tried Rokurinsha yet again last week, and at 3:30 PM there were 15 people in line).  This is a welcome relief from the heaviness, especially in the current hot spell.
You's comment was "If this was in Otemachi, it would be popular and have a line. Since it's next to Tsujita, it's half-full while 15 people wait over there." Well, he was less eloquent than that due to some language restrictions, but it's true. His face in this shot probably means "I know you're putting all these pictures on the interwebz."

This is a decent bowl of noodles that deserves a little better than it's getting. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Penguin Seafood World, Shinjuku

If you were walking down the street in Shinjuku, casting your eyes up so as not to miss any good places that were hiding away on upper floors, and you saw a sign with a pair of penguins happily vacationing far from their native clime, what would you think?
Perhaps not "Hey, this place has a tank up by the door with a couple of African penguins!" Perhaps not that, but you'd be remiss, because they do. On TV they show how the penguins are let out to go for a walk every night around 6 (unfortunately far before we got there).
The drinks can be fun (anything blue is A-OK; unnatural colors are always welcome), and are pleasantly free of alcohol, which is better for your liver anyway. The food is generally pretty distressing, but at least comes with gimmicks to keep you happy.
Sashimi is evidently a famous item here; not so much because of the quality. Remember that theory about serving salmon? Not a good sign. But these were fairly enjoyable, if only because they were so soft and fatty. And seriously, how can you go wrong with a little cake of dry ice in the middle?
Pretty much every segment of the menu comes with some penguin-themed elements. Like the salads, where there's a Mr. Penguin Caprese, with penguin-shaped cheese slices. The penguin shape was probably more authentic than the cheese; what they heck was that made of?
OMG, the totally have penguins!!!
Desserts come on fun penguin plates, and are mainly of the 'keep the girls happy' variety, with lots of ice cream, strawberry jam, green tea, and big volumes.
So of course it's a little sad to see these penguins cooped up ('tanked' up?), none too clean, just mellowing out, trying to get some sleep. You might like to get past that and go and have a good time, or you might not, but at least you'll know what you're getting - PENGUINS!!!!
Here's another random viewpoint from someone in the bowels of the web:

Visitor K
07-08-2008, 08:46 AM
man i went to the penguin izakaya in shinjuku. in my fractured mind i was picturing penguins walking around serving the food off of platter on their heads, but the reality was fucking depressing. the penguins looked sick and were cramped in a small fiberglass cage with a little pool of dirty water.
and the food was overpriced and shitty.

Imaiya Honten, Shinjuku (今井屋本店、三丁目)

'Honten' means 'main store' or 'original store' - if a restaurant spawns a chain, they'll refer to the first one as the honten. Maybe you could call it the 'flagship', but for some chains the original store is smaller and less glamorous, and they preserve it for historical reasons. The funny thing about Imaiya Honten is that Honten seems to be part of the name - every one of their branches is a flagship.
Now, they do have a fancy style going on for a chicken shop. Between the front door with the flowers, and this neat cave-like style (where we didn't get to sit because it was too smoky), it has the hallmarks of a place that's positioning themselves at the higher end of the casual dining segment.
Chicken places usually aren't great drinking place - if anything they serve a lot of distilled liquor (shochu). Imaiya has shochu, but also has a really distinguished selection of sake - enough so that you could go there for the nihonshu alone. There were a good 20 on the main list, including good brands at good levels as well as smaller things (like Akita's Azakura), and then there was a list of 10 specials including a bunch of summer items. The serving style is nice - pretty glasses, and these cool round masu that they fill to overflowing. Really overflowing - both times she tried, the waitress spilled a lot, got a towel to wipe it up, spilled and wiped some more, and finally got everything overflowingly-full. That probably wasn't in the training manual.
The food is unfortunately a bit ordinary considering what's gone before. We had a round each of some of the standard yakitori items; you'll recognize the negima, and bonjiri and tsukune in the pictures. What's a bit less ordinary is the miso-topped kiritanpo (bottom middle); these are a standard item in Akita, where the sticky rice is squeezed onto sticks and grilled before being cut up in stews. Here, the rice was pale, the miso flaccid, and the overall effect, well, sucky. Too bad. The big grilled chicken breast, a specialty of the store, was quite good, especially the skin as is obvious from the picture.
My colleague's first reaction to hearing the name 'Imaiya Honten' was "It's a bit expensive, isn't it?" and this is true. When we left, far from full, to go to another place, we were genuinely surprised at how big the bill was. If you went, you'd want to go in with a plan, then order carefully and mind your stops and limits. But you could certainly have some fun with the drinks (and the hilarious pouring, if you got the right waitress).

Matoi ramen, Jimbocho (まとい)

Do you think a little thing like pouring rain is going to stop lunch from happening? nnnnnnno, it's not.
It will produce some concessions though. If you go underground, you can can get from the office to the subway without seeing sky, and then you can take the train one stop north to Awajicho, which is that same damn neighborhood with all the fun old places, and all the great ramen, and all the great everything. Tokyo's best neighborhood? No, that would be Monzen Nakacho. But good in its own way, and all the better for being the home of Matoi.
This is right around the corner from Tsujita, the main Tsujita, the one that always has people waiting (10, in the rain, today). Do you really need to go there when there's a place mere steps away whose clean exterior and tidy curtain proclaim that inside is going to be a youngish master who works hard to get everything right? nnnnnnno, you don't. 
The interior seems to exemplify serious-ramen chic - not quite as clean and fancy and decorative as Ippudo, not as stylish as Keisuke...not really catering to anyone except serious ramen eaters. Ramen chefs are usually a blur of activity, but perhaps Tsujita sucks up most of the available light in the local universe, leaving this guy with a bit of time on his hands. Or his hands on his hips.
This is the miso chashu, and the most applicable term here is probably AWESOME. The appearance is enough of a tip-off, but the flavor of the soup (always start with the soup) was great. The noodles were straight, chewy, eggy ones from Kaikarou, which is another sign the master is serious even if he's not quite nutty enough to make his own. The chashu seemed to be home-made - at any rate, he took a loaf out of a regular plastic shopping bag to cut off these slices. In short, yes, awesome.  nnnnnnnno? Yes.
The style is confusing - the pork soup, the straight noodles, the layer of oil on top...doesn't seem aligned. Weirder, these condiments are more what you'd expect for Kyushu ramen (garlic, spicy pickled greens...). Maybe the master has just decided to make what he likes? Bless him for it. He also makes his own gyoza.
The best that the dictionary could come up with for the name was 'target shooting', which could be an apt metaphor about trying to perfect a bowl of noodles. But a matoi is actually one of those standing poles with the black and white ribbons on top that Edo fire brigades used to carry. Those seemed like a pointless demonstration of pride - they're really heavy, and why have an able-bodied guy carrying this big ornamental pole when he could be, y'know, carrying water to throw on the fire? Is the master implying that his ramen deserves to be hoisted atop a pole and twirled so that noodles fly out to all sides? Probably not.

You won't be let down by this place. I bet it would be even better if you went to a certain fantastic sake izakaya in the neighborhood first.  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sanshuya, Kanda ( 大衆割烹 三州屋)

Things are so hot in Tokyo at the moment that whole sections of street keep spontaneously combusting, forcing the fire department to work overtime racing to conflagrations for liquid refreshment.

But it's always cool as an uri up in Kanda, where this branch of the Sanshuya chain is dishing out tasty dishes. Hard to say how big the chain is; the original store is in Kamata, and that might give you some idea right there about how delicate and refined it is.

Not at all, is what that means. Inside is a lot of thick, bare wooden counters, plus a big communal horikotatsu, and slips on the wall for the menu, and salarymen drinking beer with their lunch and generally being quiet.

As soon as you sit down, even before you order, they'll bring you a setup like this (I had to send back the first cup of tea because there was a little guy in it, as you can see). That's because for lunch, you can order your main but you're going to get all these sides. Actually, it seems like dinner is the same. This is a hardcore place, set up specifically to feed hungry guys. Not a lot of frills, very homey food. Very old atmosphere, and it's funny because the other branches (including Ginza and Yaesu) look exactly the same.

The main here is a mutsu, done 'arani', which means it's boiled in heavily-sweetened soy-based liquid. It's tough to figure what a 'golden mutsu' is in English, and not that interesting either. Low-technique cooking here - just hacked up the fish, leaving all the bones and a bunch of connective tissue on. Fortunately these guys are really fatty, so they stew up super-soft and tasty, absorbing lots of the cooking liquid.

See? Huh? Do ya?

If you're weird, you could easily come around to the idea of pouring the remaining liquid on your rice. It's delicious. And gets you branded as an alien in Japan for some reason. Thou shalt not put anything on rice, unless the kitchen puts it there for you (cf donburi, or perhaps sushi). Some really odd foreigners eat tonkatsu and put sauce on their rice. Scorn them.

The other thing you can pick is your soup, actually. Tofu is the basic thing and the cheapest, but the other options (slimy nameko mushrooms, tiny asari clams) aren't much more. The tofu must be the best choice though - it's been sitting in the soup for so long that it's actually absorbed the flavor of the soup, and the flavor of the soup was outstanding for a budget teishoku place.

Up in Kanda, even Jack & Betty got game. For real.

Doromitei, Kagurazaka (泥味亭)

Tokyo is sprawling. Tokyo is compact. If you have a meeting in the office at 8 PM, and can sneak out before that, 90 minutes will be enough to run for the train to Kagurazaka (Dad, I told you I was into Kagurazaka before it was cool, didn't I?), enjoy a little mid-Summer dusk air, have a simple dinner at a well-regarded Japanese-style bistro, and walk briskly back to the train to arrive just in time for your meeting. It works.
Tokyo is also jam-packed, crammed to the gills, cupp-runneth-overr with fetish services of every description. You can't get away from it. Even on a simple train ride, you're routinely bombarded with $19 English-model-shoe-sniffing services. Sometimes it can be tiring.
Any place with the balls to call themselves 'Mud-Flavored Restaurant' has gotta have it together, either confidence or ability or both. Although there was some incomprehensible sub-explanation about the Dolomites, the main reason for the choice of name seemed to be "We're serving the flavor of the soil, and of the water, and soil and water make mud, so..."
They've also got the confidence to squat at the back of an apartment block, down a nondescript and unpromising stairwell.
Inside is bare, and a bit cramped...but it would be less cramped if there were fewer customers. Between 6:30 and 7 it went from nearly-empty to nearly-full, with many of the arrivals being on a first-name basis with the staff. Well, a last-name basis, shall we say, but this is Japan.
The chef, his wife, and their first-day-of-training assistant all cram behind the small counter, frequently obscuring the menu from view. There are half a dozen sashimi choices (including the terribly seasonal and tricky-to-make hamo eel), some cold vegetables, grilled fish, tempura, and roasted or stewed meats.
Your $5 entry fee will get you this small dish of vegetables - pickled cucumber and mountain potato, plus crumbled tofu and sesame sauce mixed with...something green that apparently leaves the memory quickly. Oops.
You wouldn't come here just to drink the sake, but if you're a drinker, you wouldn't be disappointed either. The prices may be a bit on the high side. The first item is actually 2 go of Hakkaisan, and that's a pretty good price, so it's not clear if the others are cheap or not. But you wouldn't go here just to drink the sake.
If you want to test the fish, pickled mackerel is always a good choice. This was probably second-class, which isn't an insult, just a statement that there are better fish in the sea. They probably have them on other days. You're more than welcome to get an assorted fish platter for 1 person of more, and if you did that on this day it would have included a little bit of eel with plum sauce, some bonito, some snapper, and some mackerel. Crucially for some people, the wasabi is real, not green horseradish-based chemical paste. The yellow accoutrement is a fun addition - sweet-pickled chrysanthemum petals. You must have seen this before (perhaps if you read some old posts about Niigata), but never as a topping for sushi. And a good one.
About this time time last year, hamo and cold, boiled tougan (winter melon; really more like a mild squash or big, firm cucumber) became the taste of summer for me. Seeing another customer get a bowl of them, along with pickled eggplant and broad beans, was too much to resist. Delicious, even down to the soup. Shavings of green yuzu peel on top of the deep-yellow tougan did nothing to harm the flavor.

Crab gratin, a luxury item on the menu, was supposed to be more of a stomach-filler than it turned out to be (no rice underneath, and a good thing too, because then it would have been fraudulent conveyance to call it gratin instead of doriya). It was also more homey-tasting than one would expect a luxury item to be - the yellow sauce mixed through the crab, and the egg seared on top, gave it a sorta crab-cheese omelette aspect. Tasty, but not as luxurious as you'd like.
Given then time it takes to sautee the crab, mix it with the sauce and vegetables in a scallop shell, top with egg, grill and serve it, you're going to be pretty solidly out of time and have to rush back to the train to make sure you arrive with 3 minutes to spare for the meeting. But it's worth it, just like visiting Doromitei would be worth it if you were in the KGRZ area.