Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Toyokichi, Kameido (亀戸 豊吉)

Recently the exploring bug hits every few days, leading to bouts of random bike-riding in medium-close neighborhoods. Last week was Kinshicho (weird, uncomfortable, some good places), tonight was Kameido (quiet, dull, not recommended. And I'm not just saying that to hide the good places.).

Eric Clapton's followup to the awesome 461 Ocean Boulevard (This is great, and I don't even like Clapton. I Shot the Sherrif was a hit, but songs like Mainline Florida and Motherless Children have a weird spaced-out boogie groove...almost like a bunch of world-class players were camped out at a Florida beach house drinking, doing heroin, and jamming once in a while) was There's One In Every Crowd. I read one time that he wanted to call it "The Greatest Guitar Player In the World - There's One In Every Crowd", but thought fans wouldn't understand the self-effacing joke (That tit-bit isn't mentioned on Wiki or AllMusic. Can it really be true?!). I mention this only as support for my theory that there's a pretty good sake bar in every decent-sized neighborhood. In Kameido, I think there might only be one, and it took me a while to find. Here you go.

There's just a little counter and three or four tables, and the decoration isn't particularly warm. There were a surprising number of customers though, for a fairly late Tuesday
The menu has two sides. One is interesting selections at good prices. The other side is the scary one - should you want a glass of Juyondai Ryusen (the funny-shaped bottle one) or vintage Isojiman, your Y5k will purchase said item. Go on, blow this up and have a good look. The normal side is good though - glass or 1-go sizes, about 15 things.

And plenty of opportunity to pick from the fridge. Sure a lot of these are normal, but with Juyondai, Jikon, Kudokijozu and Hiroki on display, you can't go too far wrong. I enjoyed the Fudo, which is from Chiba and could be worth a quick weekend trip.

This is Garyubai (poetic English translations are sorta fun, and I'm going to go ahead and call this "Dragon Sleeping in Plum Orchard") from Shizuoka. I mostly ordered it so I could see if it tasted like Shizuoka sake, and it did. Unfortunately I didn't realize it was an 'extra dry' variety, so that was less pleasant. They vaccuum-seal the bottles every time the open them, and also leave the bottle on the counter for inspection as a matter of policy. The master is young and must be pretty into it.

You know though, I think he's into the food too. I had already had a light dinner, so just got something to go with the sake. The starter was this deep-fried eggplant and shishito and grated radish, and it was so good I had to get another dish.

It's been awhile since you were forced to read that standard line about how horsemeat on the menu means horsemeat on my plate. There it was again. It's also been awhile since a paragraph included as many fun mispellings as this won does.

Horst, get my muffler! A-vay ve go!

Zuien, Kanda (四川厨房 髄苑)

While friendships and taxes may be forever, value is fleeting. Yesterday while walking deeply northward into Kanda to revisit Yamaichi, I passed this place and was impressed by the spread of gaudy crap outside. I resolved to visit. At 35% the price and probably 50% more calories, Zuien is never going to be as exciting as Yamaichi. But it sure is good value.

Chinese decorating will never stop puzzling me. The stairwell here, and the whole interior, were filled with puzzlements, starting with this doubled sign. They got a 2-for-1 deal so they thought they'd tell you twice what kind of place they were? Well, if it's Szechuan, it's good for me.

There were all manner of fake bonsai, jade-y bits, and those atmospheric fountains the spray a little mist, but I was inspired to take a picture of The Great Seal of Szechuan, or whatever these things hanging by the stairs were.

Check out all the bamboo in the cases, and the big carved seals on the walls! This is pretty funny, and I guess it must be authentic because the staff were all Chinese.

The TV was a nice feature - it keeps you busy while you wait. It was showing a dubbed version of Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers. In the context I kept feeling like the staff were making some kind of statement against American imperialism.

Mass quantities of food are very much in line with American imperialism, however (and Chinese capitalism, and probably Uzbeki agrarianism if you get right down to it). This is your basic Y600 lunch set at this place, and I didn't kick when mama charged me Y700 for it. The beef with oyster sauce was an unfortunate touch; it had that texture that says to me "We're Chinese, and we know how to get textures out of a cow that you never thought possible." The egg with chives was really salty. I liked it.

I'd go here any time I wanted a big, cheap Chinese lunch. I could almost recommend it to you. Incidentally, the night offering is 'Order Viking', which is like 'Order Buffet', which means that for Y2900 per person you can just keep ordering until you drop. And it's cheaper on weekends.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tonkou ramen, Kiyosumi Shirakawa (焼き豚ラーメン 東煌)

In retrospect, not the brightest thing, an early lunch of ramen before Thanksgiving dinner. But it was early enough, and I didn't even eat it all. Which is not a good sign, no. Most times when I jog, I'll go through Kiyosumi Shirakawa one way or another. I always see this place, and the wooden sign with "Roast Pork" on it, big as life, calls my name (as does the fishy smell from the soup at that tsukemen place in Ryogoku, but I figured that was way too filling for today). No lunch plans on a Saturday...had to do something.

While instincts can be wrong, I had a bad feeling about this place when I stepped in. Just something quiet and bored about it. Ramen places, you either want to be lively from the energetic young people making the bowls, or else you want them to be quietly intense from the passion of the single ramen-crazed guy devoting his life to his craft. This felt workmanlike. I mostly watched the making-of promotional for the new Battleship Yamato movie. Kuroki Meisa used to be on the cover of Tokyo Calendar sometimes, and is still A-OK.

The soup and noodles were a lot like those at Hope Ramen, up the road a piece, and I didn't eat all of those either. Decent old-fashioned soup, and I see where another blogger said the noodles were from Asakusa's Kaikarou, but they were boiled into oblivion. The egg was hard-boiled. The roast pork of the name was pretty good - basically strips of very soft belly that had been grilled to a slight crust. You can't go wrong with that, but there's no reason to go back here. I'll hit that tsukemen place soon for you; it looks more promising.

And I'm a Promise Keeper, u-huh.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sakura, Shibuya (円山茶家 さくら)

First, a little train-themed digression. What's funny about this photo?
The cloth coat? The sensible shoes? The heavy stockings? No! The $1000 handbag!
I'm being generous - they have $2k and $3k versions also, and this could be one of them. I hope I didn't accidentally and unfairly underestimate this woman's status.

Without meaning to accidentally or unfairly underestimate my own status, I'd have to say I'm easily the most verbose English-language blogger focused on Tokyo's restaurants (thanks Cameron). Not really the 'restaurant scene' though - one time I stumbled into an opening night party in my neighborhood, but other than that there's nothing 'scenic' about it. Anyway, Tokyo is too big to be considered a single environment. I scoff at people who discourse on the 'hot places on the restaurant scene'. HA! and Foo! on them! Crap, I've taken up all the space next to this exterior shot with rambling.

You may be wondering along with me if I'll ever get enough of beat-down old places like this. I don't think so, but pretty much everyone else obviously already has. After 40 years in business, Sakura closed tonight.

Because, according to mama, "The sake business sucks." Awwwwww hell. Just when I'm all proud of myself for walking randomly around a neighborhood for 10 minutes and finding a really cool bar, it's closing within hours. Or at least that's what she told me.

You all knew a picture of a fridge was in the offing. What you couldn't see on the full frontal picture above was the single A4 sheet listing their purported selection of Juyondai. In practice they had 5 or 6 bottles, most of which were close to empty (I'd be running down inventory too if I were closing in mere hours). Other than that, there were plenty of very tidy selections.

One 14-Dai that wasn't as finished was the paper-wrapped Banshu Yamadanishiki Jundai (top shelf, left of the one where you can read the 14-Dai logo).

Mama has a good line going in service, i.e. letting you know you're getting it, and made a big production of pouring me above the line on this flask. That sounds like I'm complaining. I don't mean to. The sake was very different than I expected; I've heard that 14-Dai's dai-levels were less flavorful than the regular gin's; this was actually heavy and almost oily-feeling, though with more alcohol and less umami than I expect from their best selections. [And I saw 14-Dai Jun-dai's a few days later for Y5,000 per glass, so thanks mama!] It was still before dinner at this point, so I left after drinking.

But just like a cat, I came back, after dinner and with company. We sat in the back room, which was a lot like someone's living room, right down to the clutter and the girls eating nabe at the other table. The big white Daruma is a nice touch.

A little selection of snacks always helps the sake go down. We drank Yuki no Bousha (it may have been their organic-rice version; I see now that they only make one like that) and Ryujin (not much of a web site, but you can follow them on this Twitter-equivalent...). Mama had made a huge sesame-scented omelet in the frying pan and was portioning it out, and she slipped us some moro-kyu too. Home-style.

It felt like a farewell party in the other room. I was startled when someone got up from the counter to get our sake from the fridge, and on the next round it was much clearer that she wasn't staff - just a regular pressed into service since mama didn't feel like squeezing under the counter. If we had ordered again, I would have been pouring it myself.

Anyhoo, mama and papa closed this place at the end of the night. They've already opened a standing bar just down the street. I think you'll know where I mean if I say it's the weird-shaped intersection near Shinsen station, just up the hill from Kaikaya or Dame Jeanne or Oden Hide or whatever reference works for you. But maps work wonders, don't they? With decent-looking counter/banzai food and Y500 for quality sake, it sounds like a winner (if you don't mind standing. I do.).

Ahhh, the old web site.

Manuel, Shibuya

Hola. Manuel Towers. Looks like a Portugese cottage in the middle of Shibuya, doesn't it?

First time I've had Portugese food, I think. If you can manage to plan ahead, you'll want to go to the other Portugese restaurant in Shibuya, Bacari da Porta - it's a cheap outpost of Yokohama's fabulously popular Salone 2007. Unsurprisingly, it was full tonight.

This is in deep Shibuya for me - on the north side of Dogenzaka, heading into Shoto, practically the last lit-up thing on the street before it's all mansions. It's not often that I get to Shibuya, but for dinner with a glamorous Shoto native, anything goes.

Once a year is perhaps not often enough to meet your friends, but if said friend has lived in HK for most of the past year it's no crime that the last time we got together was December 31st. That was for a quiet champagne lunch; this was an equally-quiet vinho verde dinner. It was almost empty most of the time, letting us focus on the...eh, on the pictures and postcards of Portugal, plus the empty wine bottles.

They seem to prefer you get a course, but Akko is a regular with her family and thus we went off the reservation, getting what we wanted.

In true Iberian Penninsula fashion, the chorizo is very tasty but you get a tightly-rationed amount. I'd buy a stick of this for the house if I knew where to get it. Come to think of it, it's probably better if I stick with the whole brown rice-tofu-fruit-veg thing at home. Never mind.

Salt cod is the mainstay of Portugese food. I know that even though this is my first attempt at the cuisine. These fritters were really really good. You should get them if you go; the crust is thick and strong, and the inside is soft and softly fishy.

Akko was concerned that I / we couldn't handle two salt cod-based dishes, but I said "It's Portugese. Everything is salt cod!" The waitress liked that. Anyone should like this salt cod gratin, delivered hot and bubbling.

And most people would be happy with the beef and pork cooked in a crock - soft and tasty. I don't think it was really cooked in this crock though. Interesting that the cooking liquid is light and clear.

This girl would definitely not be happy with it - she's angered that someone would dare to combine lovely vegan tofu with gross pork. "Paging China: You Suck.    - Have a nice day, Pamela"

Now that today's random-abuse-of-strangers quotient is filled, I can tell you that the braised whole apple and the coconut pudding are both nice. They're light and not too sweet, which is welcome after fried food, fish-and-cream, and soft-cooked meats. You could probably eat more if you went here; I know I could have, but that just left us with more capacity to go to another place...

They're from Barcelona.

For Miss Pamela, who was so angry about the dastardly recipe magazine combining tofu and pork, I wanted to include an Animal Kill Counter on this post, but it seems Blogger's html facilities are pretty spare. You'll have to 'browse on over' to that page yourself so you can ponder how many donkeys and camelids are slaughtered every year to feed the world's gross meat eaters. To say nothing of how many chickens will die in the time you spend on the page. Unfortunately Miss Pamela doesn't blog any more, which I can only interpret to mean that she no longer cares about the slaughtered creatures.

Line curry, Nihonbashi (らいん)

Fresh fish! Arriving tonight! Caught off the coast of Tokyo! Eat raw kawagahi, with sauce made from its liver!

There are a few puzzling signs like this outside Line, which is famous in my company as 'that curry place where the waitress used to work in our main branch'. I'm guessing the name is Line (or 'Rain' if you want to transliterate it that way, but then you'd say it wrong) because everyone knows the chef's hobby is fishing. The fish they serve is supposedly self-caught. Trying this would be well worth the hassle of arriving at the 5 PM opening. Probably fills up pretty quick. Come to think of it, laying off work at 5 isn't a hassle at all, is it?

No, not a hassle. If you go for lunch, you'll just get curry, and a simple choice - beef or pork? I swear the waitress just said "Which?" as a greeting. She didn't seem to think she had to say anything, more that it was our responsibility to get our order in.

You can tell by the color that this is beef. I think it's the popular choice, but I saw someone eating pork as we were leaving, and it looked good too. The sauce is a little thin, which just means it's not artificially propped up with thickeners (or thicked up with propellers), there's plenty of flavor, the beef is soft, and the pickles are excellent - very natural tasting compared to the chemical crap you so often get next to curry. If you're like me, you get a bit desperate for vegetable matter at these times and eat lots of pickles, so it's helpful if they're quality. And they are here. But the curry is really the good thing. Don't let me distract you by talking about pickles when this is really a curry house.

In fact, don't let me distract you from anything any longer. Go about your business.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Poisson, Kagurazaka (シーフードレストラン ポワソン)

After a series of mediocre Kagurazaka bistro experiences, here's a pretty good one. It's an Organic Seafood Italian though, so maybe not in line with the steak frites you were expecting. Let's get oriented first - it's on the 5th floor of the Rakuzan (Mountain of Fun!!!!) building, on your right as you crest Kagurazaka itself and head gently down toward the crossing with Okubo Dori. Being on the north side of the street, it's on the edge of the cobbled section, and if you look down from the outdoor elevator lobby, the sign that you can barely see at the top of this picture is Menosou. OK?

Really staking their claim to the seafood title, aren't they? The wine, the crab and sea urchin shells, and on the left the pen shells (tairagai), in case you haven't seen them before. This building is a treasure trove to my current state of mind - there's the tea shop on the ground floor (the aforementioned Rakuzan) where, despite their high-end leanings, they were roasting hojicha on the street in an old machine today. What a great smell - same as roasting coffee, the taste of the beverage can't approach the amazingosity of the smell. In the basement is now a decent-looking Italian place that I'll probably get to soon. On the second floor is a new branch of Uobaka's Squid Center - now I don't need to remember to go to Shinjuku to get that live-squid sashimi experience (really, I want to try it once). And in between are a Japanese place and an Italian-looking vegetable specialist. You could spend a week in the building.

You could spend a few hours just in this room. Partly because I was on the phone with Koala and didn't get there until 1:30, partly because I bet it's just not that crowded at lunch, it's very peaceful. They sat me in the 'pergola' area, where curtained pillars form a virtual enclosure; maybe they put the curtains down if you want to use this as private space. Not unusually for Kagurazaka and mid-tier foreign restaurants, the customers were well-heeled and decorous. Except me, I mean. I kept taking pictures of them.

If you didn't know the kanji for 'organic' and 'natural' before visiting this place, you'd sure know 'em after. The menu is positively swimming in that sort of descriptor. I wanted to make more jokes about it, but I can't since the ingredients and cooking were both good. It's too serious to joke about. One thing about going late is that they were out of things. I was denied the smoked walasa (another name for younger buri) and offered the organic salad ("just leaves, really" said the waiter) or these baby sweetfish, escabeche-style. Didn't seem like I had a choice. Good fish, a little big for whole eating; some very crunchy bits.

Making tomato sauce pasta that's not a throwaway is a mark of something good. This is a quality tomato sauce with monkfish bits, zucchini and peppers (the shrimp & broccoli in cream sauce was also sold out...). The fish meat was very tasty; you'd probably join me in wishing that it wasn't crumbled bits but instead was tail meat. Presumably they're saving those to roast for dinner. Maybe with bacon. Mmmmmm.

Perhaps the point of eating here is the grilled fish course - this is a natural sea bass from Mie. It was high-quality and sensitively-cooked. If the fish were still alive, it would be pleased and gratified to have been cooked so sensitively. I couldn't place the flavors that went into the green sauce; it was good too.

For some reason 'dessert assortment' took my fancy, then let it down again when it proved as uninspiring as this. Then the cheesecake proved to be very good, and this from a confirmed bored-with-cheesecake eater, and I was happy again.

You could just have the fried fish and grilled fish above as the 'short course' option - take off Y700. Hardly seems worth it. Bread isn't a throwaway here either, and they serve it with a flavored oil of their own comprization - rosemary, garlic, tasty. Overeating would be a straightforward matter. Service also deserves a mention; a little distant, but noticeably professional (drinks came very quickly throughout). This is a decent place - I'm not ready to say I recommend it, but I would go for dinner in a pinch. An Organic Italian Seafood Pinch (TM).

Never trust a big fish and a smile.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Le Clos Montmartre, Kagurazaka

This Kagurazaka bistro project has me regretting one thing: that Brasserie Gus wasn't last on the list. All of these other lunches would have been much more enjoyable if I didn't know there was better food available at half the price down the street. Le Clos Montmartre is of course named for the only vineyard within Paris, the tiny block on the slopes of the Butte Montmartre across from famous cabaret Au Lapin Agile, planted in 1929 and still producing limited amounts of wine. In Kagurazaka, the setting is picturesque by Japanese standards, but not much on the real thing.

You're perhaps thinking "Aha, I went to this place before Jon!" but in fact I went once for dinner, around 2005, long before blogging was fashionable. A lot of things haven't changed - the environment is still terribly French inside and out (they've even imported a small Frenchman to occupy the corner table!), owner/sommelier Janick Durand still paces about looking white-haired and beardy, and the food is still timeless bistro plates. In the intervening fiver, Durand has perhaps put on a little weight, no great sin for a Frenchman who loves wine, and the food has become perhaps 5 years older, no great sin from a restaurant with little aspiration. Dinner could well be much better, especially with the benefit of expert wine sourcing, but effort was not lavished on this lunch.

In honor of the 1,800 bottles produced annually by the Clos Montmartre vines (I'm not making that up), the lunch set costs Y1,800 plus tax (that's true too, but the correlation is ficticiual). The options for the two courses are positively excellent, with a broader range than other places and a fair representation of everything you'd like to see. I had the 'charcuterie plate'; I'm not clear if that meant 'two terrines' or if there was a delivery fail. The terrines were OK, on the simple and soft and meaty side. My dinging companion was Ding, and the stuffed mussels that he had were possibly the best thing about our whole lunch - garlic and butter and parsley and yummy. And no picture. Oopsie. It's hard to go wrong with garlic butter though. I read something recently about how important it is to open the mussel and stuff it and then tie it with thread before cooking so that the stuffing and meat really get together; this was certainly not that. Call it 'mussels escargot' if you like.

Here's Ding's main. I tried a bite of the beef cheek and also a noodle; I can report that the cheek was good, tasty but not too soft or gelatinous. The noodles may have been fresh, but regardless they were very overcooked by my tastes (have you heard that the French like their noodles soft?). The sauce was less deep than you might hope for something this brown.

My main was the cassoulet. I can't go past a cassoulet. This one I could almost go past since it was so small. On the other hand, with bread, it was totally sufficient. Many of the elements were in place - white beans, reddish sauce, sausage. There was some very soft and very tasty lamb. No duck, I think no breadcrumbs or effort to bake a crust onto it. I get that this is lunch-course food and that's why it's dipped out of a vat and heated to bubbling in the crock, but even that approach oughta have a bit more flavor. If this is the same taste as their dinner cassoulet, I shudder to think what a French quality inspector would make of the place (dinner mains start at the same price as the lunch course, but must be larger quantities).

Ding is a good man, and he didn't hesitate to say we should have dessert. This was unfortunate, because I totally didn't expect that, and had eaten too much bread. We had a piece each of the interesting-looking tarts, this pear one which was heavy on the marzipan-y filling (colored bright pistachio green, but just almondy in taste, and in a decent way) and light on pear flavor,

and this chestnut one, which tasted like the whipped cream on top. That's a damn shame too, because it was beautiful when they showed it to us, all snowy white and fleckled with pistachio nubbins (this was the first piece cut from the whole). We had an enjoyable lunch, but the flavor and value just weren't there, and in writing this I've become bitter. Let's close on that.

I ain't gettin' clos to this place again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

La Lettera, Kagurazaka (ラ レッテラ)

Another Monday, another trip to Kagurazaka. This time it was a place you've all seen before - if you leave Exit 1 and double back to the left, toward Akagi Jinja, it'll be just down the hill to the left when you get to the crossing. Wedged onto the corner like this, it's awkward getting in. There's a big red set of shelves just inside the door, and from outside you'll think the entrance is blocked and probably hesitate to go in. It's not - the shelves are placed so the door will miss them by a centimeter or less.

They've done things with it that are pretty ordinary for Italian restaurants in Tokyo, especially in this middling price range - bare wood floors, Italian post cards, sports banners. I think you've seen it before. It might be warmer than average. For lunch there's pasta or lunch course; I was there to eat the course and was hoping to be impressed since it's expensiver than the nearby places I've tried recently. The waitress seemed flustered that I wanted the course, getting the manager to confirm, but he thought it was fine (it was 30 minutes before their stated last order. C'mon. Oh, by the way, Tabelog says they're closed Mondays, which isn't true.). You can pick from 2 or 3 options for each course, and you could guess most of them.

One thing you wouldn't guess is this neat starter of flattened eggplant 'meatballs', quoted because they were neither meat nor balls. I loved the soft texture and soothing tomato sauce, and the taste was such that I kept wondering if there really was meat somewhere in it, or else how they spiced and fried them. Yum.

The pasta left me irritated - I could do this at home, and I wouldn't undercook the pasta either. The chef asked another customer how the food was when she left, and she went all rapturous (although thinking back she actually said "Ohhh, I really ate a lot!" which is not a sterling recommendation). If he had asked me, I would have said "What are you thinking, serving stupid pastas like this?"

"Especially when your grilled lamb dish is so awesome and makes up for the pasta completely! Where do you get this [Australian] lamb, and how do you cook it so sensitively? Great job, dude!" That's what I would have said, if he had asked me. This redeemed the lunch; many Italian restaurants in a similar mode value a dinner plate like this at about the same price as La Lettera's whole course.

The tiramisu was nice too, coming on the heels of an iffy one I had recently. Very soft, a lot of cocoa powder to make you sneeze. Decent coffee from a smaller brand. Hazelnut biscotto good enough that I feel like you should know about it.

That brings the 'bistros visited' count to 4 in the current round. Focus and dedication, my friends, that's what gets the job done. Unfortunately, Brasserie Gus is still the undisputed champeen. I also want to point out that I ran 17 km yesterday and am pretty unworried about the calories. Fit of pantaloons is more the issue these days.

Ain't got time to take la fast train.