Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mumbai Market, Nihonbashi

First time I've ever been in to the Mitsukoshi honten. The lobby is old fashioned and grand, like Takashimaya, or indeed like the grand old department stores in your city, if they still exist. One thing that's different here is this impressive, incredible sculpture in the main hall. What does it all mean? I was thinking of going to one of the restaurants in here, but the restaurant floor has 3, and they're all super high-end 'chain' places (Nadaman, Mantenboshi...don't tell them I called them chains, OK?)

I left and ended up walking around that neighborhood across the street again. There's a plethora of Japanese places of various description, but...beats me, I saw Indian and that was it. Mumbai Market, it would seem, is not related to Mumbai Bar.

And you wouldn't confuse it from the inside, but it's conceptually similar. Indian restaurants in Japan are too often either dingy or parodies; these places are setting a pleasant path down the middle with modern, light decorations. This wall of chalk is fun, especially the way they weave in some Hindi (I note with interest, by the way that Hindi has some characters and sounds that are only used in loanwords. Reminds me of katakana, except that there are actual additional sounds, not just adaptations of the existing ones.)

Without getting too long-winded or precious, the set was nice. It's especially good that the butter chicken was very sweet; I saved the sauce until the end and called it dessert. It's even nicer that someone downstairs has got this whole tandoor thing down pat, because the naan was perfect. It's so rare to find one as light and fresh as they should be, and this was one of the good ones.


Back on the street, I got a quick picture of a funny phenomenon. It's been so hot this year, with much of August monotonously hovering at 95 degrees during the day. When people are walking on the street, they don't stand on the corners to wait for the lights to change - they stand in the shade, back from the corner. I started doing it this year. Lifesaver.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Edokko sushi, Kanda (江戸っ子寿司)

Edokko is a chain born and bred in Kanda, with a good half-dozen stores all clustered around the west entrance to the JR station. You've probably seen the yellow signs. Oh, unless you never go to Kanda, which I imagine is most of you. Well, here's the glamorous environment that they serve fine fish in. The original store is a block away in an alley, but this is one of the several they have along the street next to the tracks.

The chef was very young and punk, in a disinterested punk sort of way. This didn't get me too excited, but at 3 PM exactly (damn these endless meetings), one's choices are severely limited. And you know, the fish in the case looks OK, and they don't pre-cut it, and that's all pretty good when their signature Edokko Set is all of Y850.

Naturally it comes with tea and soup; being a low-end place, the soup comes at the beginning. One distinguishing feature here - the soup actually tasted like shrimp heads. I know that shouldn't be such a surprise, because any dummy can see the shrimp heads floating in it. It's just that usually the floaters, whatever they are, don't do much for the taste. Here, after some soaking, the soup really did taste like shrimp. Good!

Less than $10 for this? That's a good deal. Going across, the tuna, squid, salmon and snapper were all quite good, especially the very fatty salmon (see how it has the skin on? Weird.). Then the eel, egg and shrimp were more average. The roll was good, with both cucumber and minced tuna segments. And since it was Monday, there was a free 'service' of inari - the brown thing top-right, which is a pouch of fried tofu soaked in sweet syrup and stuffed with a shari of rice. In fewer words, the chef was young, punk and sloppy with his rice, but the fish was good enough that the whole thing was enjoyable.

Especially at 3 PM.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Il Silene, Kamakura

Kamakura has a surprising concentration of Italian restaurants. The best looking ones are surprisingly full, even when the rest of town is fairly empty during the day and leaning toward ghostly at night. Il Silene is up near the big shrine, but seriously hidden in a basement. You could see their sign on the street, walk downstairs, conclude that you were mistaken, and leave without making it to the back of the building, which is where they are.

They've only been open since the beginning of August, which is an interesting time to open. Maybe it's the busiest season in Kamakura. The recent opening accounts for the cleanliness of the interior, which is a bit bright, and certainly casual. The metal chairs look uncomfortable but were pretty good, so don't let that put you off.

They'll start you with some bread that they make themselves, and it's decent. The tomato-rubbed version is probably the best, but there's the other crisp one with lots of salt that's quite addictive and likely o make you ask for more. It's a good thing they give you more bread though, because they were down one person on staff and horribly slow as a result.

Kamakura vegetables are a big thing; I wish this salad had had some non-lettucey Kamakura vegetables in it, but all the leaves were good, and the bagna cauda-styled dressing was really good.

As was this warm starter, the best thing on the night - cubes of fried polenta with spinach, topped with lardo. I like how if you put an 'o' after it, it's easier to forget that it's cured...lard. This was really good.

Fresh ravioli with truffles?! Filled with spinach and ricotta, these needed salt. And oil. Or butter. Basically some kind of flavor other than the hint of nutmeg in the filling. (Did you know nutmeg was common in Italy? I certainly didn't, until I started reading Elizabeth David's Italian Food. Great book, interestingly just a little bit displaced time-wise - like nutmeg has possibly faded for savory food, and she also says 'tunny-fish' all the time for tuna.)

Speaking parenthetically of tuna, the irridescent slices on top of this pasta are cured tuna. It was pretty strong. The fried eggplant was much better, but the grated bottarga / karasumi didn't add anything to the dish. Pretty weak overall, especially with the dried spaghetti. We're getting spoiled in Tokyo, expecting fresh pasta all the time.

Good sliced steak. Mmmm. Just the right portion to finish off the meal and give you energy for the walk back to the station, and the rather long train ride home.

Promising, but really not satisfying. Plus there's a cover charge since they're Italian.

Nakamuraya, Enoshima (中村屋)

You'll have noticed from all the pictures that I think walking around Tokyo and looking down little alleys is one of the funnest things in life, way more funner than, for instance, being beaten with branded leather goods. In the case of Enoshima, as you climb out of the shopping area, you'll see all sorts of odd little bits like this. It's not to say that the island is very big (maybe an hour walk, round-trip) or that the climb is very extreme (though you can pay an exorbitant fee to take three little escalators), but there's a nice feeling of getting to the interior of something. In a bit the same way that going to Enoshima is like a mini-tropical vacation.

There are a lot of stairs though, be ready for that. There's nothing rough about it, and the steps are all very nicely carved. I was actually enjoying the way that the edges were carved just so, with the flat tops ending in a little lip that clearly separated them from the deliberately-rough front faces. Speaking of faces, if you don't like looking at the faces of other tourists, you may be in the wrong blog. We love that kinda stuff around here.

As you come down one set of stairs toward the back of the island there's a little landing, almost, and that mini-neighborhood is dominated by the Nakamuraya empire. They own the shop on the left and the seating area / junk shop / museum on the right. A really funny thing is that this is on an island, and it feels very tropical if you go at the right time, but the atmosphere could be any old-fashioned neighborhood anywhere in Japan. Maybe I was expecting more island culture?

You'll laugh when you see how little actual food we actually consumed here, but it's interesting enough to post about. The green packages at the front of the cute old shop are their specialty - nori youkan. If you've ever eaten Japanese sweets (and are not Japanese) you were probably thinking "Why all the beans?" Youkan is another bean thing - bean paste with some gelatin and lots of sugar - but it's more palatable than some of them. Keep at it, you'll get used to the beans. When you get pretty tough, try the whole beans boiled in sugar syrup - kinda fun since they come in so many colors. But they're still sweet beans. Hmmmm.

Yep, this is all we ate (split between two people). And why? Hell, have YOU ever had white bean-gelatin-seaweed DESSERT? I thought not. I would say the flavors don't integrate particularly well, but it's surprisingly nice. Or is it surprising? The salty-sweet theme appears to be popularized to dreary excess now in America; yesterday a recipe for baked brown sugar and spice bacon popped up in my facebook feed. I don't think my facebook friends are quite ready for the salty sweetness of seaweed and beans, but maybe I'll try it on them during my UPCOMING EXTENDED VACATION. woo hoo. Channeled a little Roboppy right there.

Keep walking through the island (you noticed that this is a tourism post, right?). You can turn right at a little alley somewhere around Nakamuraya if you want to go back by the short way, or you can just keep going - the south side, opposite the causeway, was probably the single best thing on the island for me. On the way, you'll see this temple with a massive dragon sculpture guarding a cave. This gave me a total 'movie' feeling - looking at this dragon, I really thought it was going to move any second. The picture isn't likely to do it justice.

As you get to the rocky plateau on the ocean at the back of the island, you'll see a tiny temple with these lovely prayer flags flapping in the wind. If you read closely, you'll see that each flag is dedicated to a different Japanese god - ラーメン, 焼きイカ, et cetera (aside: who writes out 'et cetera' any more?). This really took me back to the years I spent in the Lapsang Souchon monastery just outside Baldengadhi in Nepal, but they seemed startled when I asked if they had any yak butter tea. Well, social pressures must be constraining them from following the one true path, and I pity them for it.

One person I don't pity is this guy. He was having a great time diving off the rocks into the small sheltered pool in the background. He was insistent that I join him - kept asking where I was from and if I had a bathing suit with me.

But really, his idea of fun was pretty aggressive for me. OK, this wasn't really it. But there's lots of this back there. You should definitely go.

And then you should definitely take the boat back. One of the best Y400 I've ever spent - saving 30 minutes of hilly, repetitive walking, plus get to see different coast and scenery, and let's face it you're ON A BOAT! The guy on the left was wearing a tag on his hat that said "Gilligan".

It's only a 20 minute tour though.

Uohana, Enoshima (魚華)

Enoshima in August isn't a preferred destination as far as I'm concerned - because it's a preferred destination for so many people. Last time I went, there was a line hundreds of people long to get on the Enoden at Fujisawa (no lie - all the way from that station, across the plaza, and into the other station). This time was different - a bit of bustle, a healthy number of people, but nothing unmanageable. The wind was blowing, skies were blue, the heat was also manageable...well, not really, but take it slow, drink water, and keep a towel around your neck, and everything will be fine. The Enoshima-Kamakura day trip is a great once-a-year mini-vacation, and this was a particularly good iteration thereof. Next time though, how about something in the mountains?

You'll end up walking onto the island over the causeway, and immediately you'll see the line of seafood restaurants to the left. Cheerful, rough, and semi-cheap, these must be the places to eat (there are plenty of shops on the shopping street, but who eats in them?). Uohana stands out a bit - it's not just clams on a styrofoam plate to be eaten on public benches (not that there's anything wrong with that). They have a nice display outside of all the seafood you could eat if you stopped in,

including the $15 oysters. Does the size perspective work for you? Depending on your age, gender and ethnicity, these could be bigger than your head. I would be too scared to attempt to eat one, but I did see a pair of women buy one each as lunch.

Thing is, everything is bound to taste good if you can get a table out back with a big green umbrella. Despite a line 30 people long at the famous place down the street, there was ample seating out here.

Tea is self service (if you squint, you can see someone in the background serving themselves). Enoshima Beer costs money, but it's worth it. Good suds. Good brew. Good brewski. Good, strong ale, poured hard and clean from the tall brown bottles. Good cliches.

Lunch falls into the pattern familiar to all the places here - you could pick your seafood out front for grilling, or you could get a rice bowl. You could augment either with some sashimi. Either way, you should be sure to eat shirasu since they're famous here - the tiny white fish, boiled or raw, served in the hard, clean, white bowls, [Have you read Naked Lunch? I don't recommend it, fame or not.] It's a tossup whether you get the raw one, where the fish will be silvery and squishy (because they're raw and whole, after all), or this cooked one. If I was you, I'd get the cooked one. It's pretty good.

If you get the mixed sashimi bowl, you'll still get a healthy pile of cooked shirasu. You'll also get some other fish. They're all pretty good. The atmosphere is the thing though - you'll like sitting out here, I promise.

I cannot tell a lie, this is their homepage.

Now that you're fortified, it's time to start your tour of the island. More on that later, but the first thing you'll need to do is walk up the shopping street. Can anyone tell me what 'Cheat Life' is supposed to mean? The front of the shirt had a big happy face on it, and under that just a big 'CHEAT'.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Kudan, Gakugei Daigaku (件)

There's a first for everything, and a slightly different personality to every neighborhood of Tokyo. This was my first time to visit Gakugei Daigaku, and I'd like to say its personality reflects a bit of its college roots. The few streets that I saw seemed cheaper and funkier than the average suburb, with a bit of Shimokita vibe. There wasn't much time to explore though, as I ran into Woodsworth on the platform and we went directly out the west exit to meat Poshand at Kudan (which she had picked). Should you go, you'll recognize it by the big sake banners outside.

The insides made me feel funny inside, and I've figured out why. In a country that structures things long and narrow for the most part, this place broad and shallow. There's just a row of tables and the counter, and where we sat, facing the counter, we were sort of on display to the staff but not much able to interact with them. Never mind, we were there in our own group and didn't need much input (although we did admire one older woman who came in by herself and sat at the counter to drink sake).

Why do I love picking my own chokko so much? Maybe it's the variety. Or maybe it's because it's the only style of Japanese ceramics that I don't already have too much of?

'Drink sake' is the appropriate thing to do here, but first, let's have a look at what sort of snacks are available. Being foreigners (and with Poshand's complaints evidently still ringing in the staff's ears after her first visit) we received fish (kohada?) cooked in vinegary tomato sauce and onions. Also a bit of boiled takana, which I can confirm was excellent but I'm pretty sure no one else ate; after a certain point, when they hadn't tried it, I resolved to keep it for myself. The heshiko, much as I love it, was too strong for effective consumption. And the chopped mountain potato with seaweed and shibazuke was...slimy. My bad, I got confused by the 'tataki' on the menu and thought it would be seared potato (which is good, I promise); tataki in this case is just chopped, which is what it means anyway.

And the sake...a nice list, but less informative than a lot of places. Am I the only one who's gotten to think that it's normal to have the grade of sake specified on the menu? It's odd to order a brand without knowing whether it's junmai or ginjo or what have you. Drinking tokkuri between a few people, we tore through beverages at a furious rate. This is just a sample of the pictures, starting with the central Manrei, which I ordered because it was from Saga ken, then loved because of the bold label, and finally didn't like that much because of the style (bold junmai).  I definitely liked the top-left Matsumoto a lot, and the bottom-right Yamawa even more. They would be worth seeking out.

The rest of the feed went a bit like this - lovely platter of fish, even more lovely small dish of namerou, salmon belly, hokke, wagyu tataki (see? it's seared!). This was all good stuff. The namerou in particular sticks in my memory because it was pretty, what with the flower-bulb vegetables (someone please remind me what they're called?) and chrysanthemum petals on top.

All too soon it was time for the train home - no small feat considering Gakugei's west-side location, outside the metro, and the presence of my bike at a station near the office, waiting for a near-midnight ride home. I'd say that, when in Gakuegei or points West, this would be a really cool choice.

And, like, groovy also.

Daito ramen, Kanda (大斗)

[Nov 29, 2010 It is with no great sniffling that I alert you to the closure of this establishment. It's now a 'salt ramen' specialist.]

Restaurant politics are interesting in Japan. There's a concept of family trees, and places can proudly advertise the fact that they derived their expertise from a famous parent. Do they pay for that, or do they just apply for the privilege, and is it only granted to star pupils? Daito is pretty up-front about their lineage from the famous tsukemen shop Taishoken, not to be confused with other places of the same name. They even say it on the curtain outside, which is a pretty up-front way of doing it. This should mean the tsukemen are good...

Inside they also have a poster describing the lineage of Taishoken and where they fit into it. But more importantly, they have some big-ass pots. If you've read other ramen posts, you know I love the fact that tasty, tasty food comes from these industrial pots and grease-stained counters. I never get tired of that.

Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to get tired of tsukemen in this style. The soup is fairly thick, and in this case has a good balance of the sweetness that can easily cloy in lesser specimens. The interest level increases even more with the hearty helping of dried fish flakes that go in (it really tastes like katsuo dashi). For me, this is just a good example of an essentially iffy style. As is common at this sort of place, you can get a couple serving sizes of noodle for the same price; this is the middle size. As is common for me, I can't see why you'd want to eat a mountain of noodles like this, unless it was purely for volume. It's impossible for the soup to stay even a little warm down to the bottom of a bowl like this.

You're thinking I should stop trying to eat these, aren't you? I can't disagree. Looks pretty good though, doesn't it? I hope you'll sympathize if I get sucked in again, especially if it's something well-known and tasty looking (Rokurinsha and Tetsu spring to mind).

STILL not really my thing, but this was a good version.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ryuryuken ramen, Ochanomizu (龍龍軒)

Today I introduced Preacher to the delights of both Hakata ramen and taking the train somewhere for lunch, still getting back in 50 minutes. A mere two stops away from the office is Ochanomizu, where a pleasant view of the Kanda river awaits as you cross from the subway station toward JR and the main part of the neighborhood (no video today), toward the Double Dragon Hall.
Please, someone, some kind soul, tell me why Hakata ramen places have maddeningly inconsistent policies. How can it be that this place (which is part of a small chain off-shot from a tiny, grubby-looking place literally outside Hakata Station) gets right a basic thing that a lot of branches in Tokyo don't (free refill) and misses so many other things that are held dear by Hakata eaters? No garlic. No sesame. No ginger. And you have to pay for the spicy pickled greens. That's right, kalashi takana is a chargeable extra. I hope my indignation is both palpable and righteous by this point. Daaaaaaamn.
Actually, it was better than I expected. The bare-bones food-hall interior is pretty much in keeping with other Hakata places like Fu-ryu (recommended) or Tenjin. Since it's on one of the guitar streets at the top of the hill in Ochanu, I'm always there on off days and at strange times; the constant crowd of businesspeople and college students kept the shop right on the edge of full the whole time we were there. The streets outside were disconcertingly full; maybe college, like lower schools, is just back in session so all the students were milling around at once?
Being of sound mind, aging body, and concerned disposition, I forewent any of the extras that make life grand (they being extra pork and boiled eggs; two fried eggs on toast for breakfast was probably enough for today). Herewith I present unto you the basic ramen (there's also a 'black' version with miso, and it looks quite black in the pictures). The noodles were nicely firm, good texture aside from that. The soup was enjoyable - simple and slightly sweet (a haunting whisper of sweetness...), with none of the punch that you might get if you were in a shop that stank like all hell of boiling pork bones. The pork looks bad but was decent, and there were, thankfully, plenty of Hakata onions atop. Oh, and some bean sprouts (another subtraction from the score; I just ate them first so they'd go away quickly).
This, then, depicts the central dilemma of the shop in a single snapshot (which has been worth only 396 words up to the opening parenthesis of this cloture, not much of a central dilemma). The first refill of the pretty good-noodles is free, but you have to order and pay separately for the spicy pickles. And there's no garlic, ginger or sesame in the picture, which is true of the table and indeed the shop. For me, this is almost too much confusion.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ippou, Ebisu (一歩)

Boy do the hits keep on coming. Coming a little too fast, but we have to soldier on in the name of fun, sociability, and education. 

Ippou is in a small street on the east side of Ebisu; depending on your proclivities, you may know it as the street also containing Aotea Rangi, the New Zealand wine-and-mussels restaurant. Alternately, you may find it easier to 'pass Zest and take a left'. Either way, the frontage will be easy to spot now that you've seen this picture. Without the help, you could be troubled - and note especially that it's the door to the left of the sign (with the sugidama hanging overhead). The one to the right is another place altogether, and they're not amused by the confusion.

Inside is a little funny. I would have to say that this is one of the down-homiest, least-reconstructed, shabbiest sake specialist bars I've been to (let's ignore Asashichi because frankly, despite being in my neighborhood and featuring on various lists of 'great places to drink sake', frankly, my friends, honestly, that place sucks). It was smoky and worn, but the young, friendly staff was cool, especially the one guy who I thought looked like Christian Slater (and I'd say a young Jack Nicholson, but if you watch something earlier in his career, I think you'll find he looks less like the classic Jack Nicholson face that you think of. Since we only watch Westerns around here, why not try the nihilistic, revisionist set piece Ride In the Whirlwind?)

CNN would have you believe Ippou is a 'sushi and sake' specialist, which is just not correct. Did I miss the 'sushi' section of the very normal izakaya menu? At least the 'sake' part is correct, with a big list and a lot of interesting items thrown in. Many more of them would have been unknown to me, had they not also featured on the menu the night before; these places seem to share the same sake sensibility (and pricing, which is much less justified for Ippou).

Let the record show that they were, unsurprisingly, out of the Juyondai jungin that featured on the menu, and boo on that. But yay for featuring one of my favorites, Amabuki, also in a jungin mode, and for leaving the bottle with me to finish since there was only half a glass left. Pouring yourself a glass out of an isshobin is always fun, especially when the other staff members, not privy to the deal, look at you like 'errrrrrr?'

In keeping with the atmoshpere, the fish was a bit rough and ready (seriously. We can go back to the Shinbashi place any time you want.) The standout was the lightly-grilled...hmmm, I've forgotten if it was flying fish or scabbard fish. Probably the latter. Either way, the searing makes it taste more complex, and it was chewy in a good way.

Typically I'm not one to order boiled flounder (or fluke, whatever) - the skin is disturbing to me. This was pretty good, and you can't go wrong with copious ginger.

Aaaaand, you know it's becoming autumn because sanma is all over menus as of about 2 weeks ago. It seems extra good this year, or maybe I just forgot what it was like. That's what seasonal eating is all about - when you don't eat something for 9 months, it's exciting to get back to it (I know, you can get sanma in the supermarket any day of the year, but restrain yourself, OK?). One tip - eat carefully. These guys aren't gutted before cooking, and if you dig into the brown stuff through an inadvertent chopstick thrust, I think you'll regret it. Otherwise, you should be happy.

Satsuma age is a specialty here too - described on the menu as 'fluffy', it lived up to that billing and more. Always nice to see a place describe something as their specialty and then find it to be worthy of the praise. Much like the fish - looking back, they did have a nice selection and decent cooking.

There you go. If I lived on the west side, and especially if I was lucky enough to live in Ebisu, I could see this becoming a regular stop. It's the kind of place where patience would be rewarded with occasional brilliance.