Thursday, December 30, 2010

Merveille, Nihonbashi

If you didn't see if the other times, let me just reiterate: "Merveille is still my favorite restaurant, and I'm glad I spent the last Eating Out In Tokyo meal of the year with them."

Haruno, Omotesando (はるの)

Omotesando dining has always presents problems - everyone feels like there are tons of great restaurants mixed with the fancy shopping, but it's not true. Today in the middle of a walk we wandered into this place; it turned out to be 'healthy dining', but not in a bad way, in a stylish room with a nice bar that would be better at night. You can tell from the standard-ness of the lunch menu that they're really a healthy evening destination. With cocktails.

Yeah, if you were going to have ramen but wanted to be healthy, this is how it would look. Toppings of boiled negi, fresh mizuna, and fried onion, two rashers of mostly-pure-fat pork (which was soft, tasty, and not offensive - but I think mostly there for the collagen value) and a clear, light soup that made you feel healthy just to smell it. The noodles were a letdown - nice color and texture, but a strong taste of flour.

Someone had this fried pork set. OK, I stole some too. It was probably healthier than the usual tonkatsu - the crust was interestingly thick and crunchy, reminding me very much of falafel. The Iberico pork was pretty good, and the topping of grated radish and side of soft egg just increased the 'health' quotient.

Eh, if you have to be healthy, might as well do it in style and comfort.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Abbey Road, Roppongi

Seemed like months ago that Swannie and I planned this; in fact it was 6 weeks, which is a pretty good lead time. He's an important guy though. Anyhoo, Abbey Road is Tokyo's best Beatles live bar. I say this with no knowledge of what the other(s) are like; the only one I know is across the road in Roppongi. It's just impossible to imagine that the music could be any better than this. The house band, The Parrots, is almost certainly better than the actual Beatles as a result of playing the limited Beatles canon 6 nights a week for 10 years.

There's nothing really remarkable about the interior - probably seats 100, with a stage just big enough to give the performers a little room to move. You should know that it's a bit expensive - although not, I think, considering the quality of the performance. Expect to pay at least Y5k for the show plus the compulsory 1 drink, 1 food and service charge. It's kinda worth it - if you squint, can you can see the ceiling in the middle of this photo? That's the light and sound booth. They're doing this every night, and have it absolutely perfect. This is the live sound I've always wanted to hear at a performance - somehow they keep all the voices and instruments distinct and understandable, at a resonable volume level.

This sorta reminded me of my friend Jake's 'unemployment nachos', but I liked the way they explained it. The Japanese description is actually shorter - like English speakers are less likely to know what nachos are.

We had burgers; they were tolerable. We drank wine; it's the most cost-effective.

Well, here you go. The first bit is recorded, then the band kicks in with the first song of the night. If you like the Beatles even a little, this will leave you open-mouthed. If you're a fan, you'll be stunned. Despite doing it every night, these guys play with passion, seem to be enjoying themselves even without deviating much from the recordings, and make the music seem fresh and exciting as hell. Incredible. They're not a 'costume' band per se (there are guys in the US that change costumes, like "Here we are in our Sgt. Pepper outfits, playing Sgt. Pepper), but they do sets. The first is early, the second is mid-period (i.e., the bassist switches to a Rickenbacker and 'John' changes guitars from a Gretsch to various others), and the third is late and solo period. Highlights were Sgt. Pepper (believe it or not - we both allowed as how we don't need the song much, but felt like we were hearing it for the first time), While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jet. Although 'John's voice is eerily lifelike, so things like Jealous Guy were pretty neat too.

One other thing you should know is that they're extremely strict about photos and video. I knew this going in and tried to shield the screen of my camera while videoing. The length of this video is how long it took for a waitress to come over and tell me to shut it off. Another time, I saw an old guy hold up his phone to take a picture. In the time that he was trying to line up his shot, a big shaved-head guy behind the bar saw him, flagged a waitress, she came over, and he was shut down. It was pretty sinister if you saw the whole thing unfold.

Still, don't let the potential mafia connections ruin your enjoyment of seeing the Beatles live, albeit with sometimes funny accents.

Gonroku ramen, Morishita (ごんろく)

Ah, you were expecting...something other than noodles? Well, I expected not to eat 'year end soba', so I made up for it by eating ramen all 5 days leading up to the new year. Here's #3.

It's a tsukemen place that I jog by a lot. Even early in the morning, it smells good out on the street. This is how a lot of these newish tsukemen specialists look - clean, a bit stylish, like an easily-replicated concept. That reminds me, one time in a country izakaya I saw some restaurant design magazines. It's one of those things - as soon as you realize there are magazines showing you how to decorate your new ramen, or soba, or whatever, shop, and that there are almost certainly services to do it for you, the decor is a lot less mysterious. For tsukemen, it's almost like you have to decorate this way. It's weird because it gives every place the look of a chain, whereas this place is just two shops, Ryogoku and Suidobashi. I always wonder how people pick their locations like that. Maybe just because they're connected by train line in this case.

Perhaps due to magazine influence, or maybe just the shared DNA of tsukemen-boilers, the plywood counters are reminiscent of other places I've been to, and I haven't even been to that many - because I don't like tsukemen. But somehow I keep getting sucked into trying it again.

As they go, this was a decent one. Little pork bone in the soup, just heavy, heavy pork flavor and maybe some fishes. As always, it got cold long before the noodles were gone. I don't get it. Good egg, but the pork was very nice and would be the way to go here.

Also, they have a 'soup' system here. Some places will have a thermos of hot water / thin soup on the counter so you can re-heat and dillute your dip for drinking after the noodles are gone. Here you say "Soup!" and they give you a cup to pour in.

Might as well.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Yanakasou ramen, Hirai (やなか草)

Another day off, another long bike ride with noodles in the middle (spoiler alert: the next two days are going to look the same). This time was up to Hirai, a northeastern neighborhood that has a highly-rated French restaurant I wanted to see in person. It's a bit odd to go up there by bike, have a look at the restaurant, and then eat ramen, but considering the price of that place, I wanted to see it before going. Yanakasou is the best-rated ramen in the area, and here we are.

The shop is more reminiscent of a soba restaurant, actually, with the rough wood counter and communal table. They were doing a pretty good trade, which is pretty good for a restaurant out in Hirai a few days before the new year.

And here we are - very nice, straightforward ramen. I got an egg, but it was oddly undistinguished. If you went here, I'd have to say extra pork would be the way to go.

A little noodle porn for you all...

There was something curiously gentle about everything here, but not in a subtle or enticing way. I didn't have any desire to drink the soup, let's put it that way.

Just as I was reflecting on how there's a tradition of eating soba to mark the year end but no comparable tradition for ramen, I looked up and saw this "Year End Ramen" poster. All I could think after that was that if there's 年越しそば and 年の瀬ラーメン, can 年尻チャーハン be far behind?

That's about all I can say about this place. How about some random pictures?

This was quite an appropriate find on the street, what with Poshand having watched the movie recently (and me getting it and needing to watch it, reminder). Can't help wondering though - what are they trying to imply? What would they do to your hair if you went here?

Likewise this car. You'll have to blow up the pic to get the full glory, but evidently down in Nara, the land of wild deer roaming the streets between temples, they're also into driving vintage Caddys with 'DOPE LIFE: King of Street' emblazoned on the windshields.

I freestyled after leaving Hirai. Not unexpectedly, it was dull, so I was thinking I needed to see something else. Being by the river made me want to follow it around northwest to Senju; on the way I passed this little shrine. Frustratingly, I'm unable to locate it on the map; it's a branch of a larger Tenso 天祖 shrine nearby, and doesn't seem to be indicated.

Throughout the day, the Sky Tree was a constant presence. It's getting to be fun, looking up and seeing it at random times, including out my window as I write this. Keep your eyes peeled. I would imagine that before long you'll be able to see it from lots of places in the city, not just the Great Northeast.
Getting home by a circuitous route, I had another WTF moment when seeing this knife store. This is just about on my street - if you go north for a couple kilometers, it's just about at the corner of Asakusa Dori. I've seen the top-quality-looking knives before but never really looked, and thus was surprised that it said "Masamoto Headquarters" (or however you want to translate 総本店). As part of my endless, tiresome (to you) quest to prove what a great neighborhood I live in, I thought "Hell, this famous knife manufacturer has their headquarters on my street?!" It's the real deal, they're nice knives, and I'm pretty sure these are the ones you would get in America if you bought a 'Masamoto hocho'. However, if you start googling, you'll see that there's additional snobbery to be had. In Tsukiji, you'll find a Masamoto shop there, along with the Aritsugu and other brands. And that Masamoto, Tsukiji Masamoto, tells you big as life on their web site that they're the real thing - they split off from the other one years ago, and now they focus on selling direct to save cost and focus on their customers' needs, while the 'Headquarters' brand is for intermediated distribution - department stores and such, they say. If my Japanese was better, I'm pretty sure I'd get a solid whiff of snobbery there.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Tengen ramen, Machiya (天元)

Vacation. Ooooh, how we love it. For some reason it didn't feel like vacation started until today; I think there was just too much excitement in the lead-up to Christmas. So don't laugh, but faced with nothing to do for a day, what did I do? 3+ hours of exploring northeast Tokyo, with a lunch in the middle. It's almost monotonous.

Over the summer I rode my bike next to the Arakawa all the time. When I'd get bored, I'd jump off and freestyle my way home, following the road signs. On one of those trips, I followed the Arakawa tram line and came to Machiya. It looked like a big and maybe interesting town, so I finally managed to get back there today. It was boring - no offense to the tens of thousands of real people who live their lives there, but if you didn't live there I can't see much reason to go.

Possibly the biggest decision on getting there was how to cross the river. This is Komagatabashi, one of the bridges closest to Asakusa. Incidentally, are you wondering why Asakusabashi isn't the closest bridge to Asakusa? It's because Asakusabashi is a place, but not a bridge. Here are all 18 of the bridges and the dates they were originally built.  Equally incidentally, I'd like to point out that neither the shrine on the left nor the light-blue bridge on the right are shaped anything like a horse.

And here we are up in Machiya. There's a disappointing lack of side streets, and the main streets are mostly populated with chain restaurants. This was the only appealing modern-style ramen place, so after another 15 minutes disconsolate rolling about, I went back to it.

Seems like panorama day. This one wasn't meant to be a panorama, so it didn't align well, but still you get the idea. The guy on the right was the master, and extremely genki - welcoming people and asking how many in their parties (the 'ramen dining' concept means they want to seat people at tables, I guess), calling out to the staff by name to do things, generally sounding happy.

And hey, he's making an OK bowl too. In a misguided attempt to increase calorie intake, I got kotteri shoyu. 'Kotteri' in this case means 'with added chunks of fat that you can see floating on the surface there'. They're not onions.

Solid soup, eggy chewy noodles, good pork...your basic all around decent bowl.

And hell, all the other guys had fried rice or something extra, so I got a plate of gyoza too. Either these were good gyoza or it's been too long since I had gyoza.

Not much to say about the place, as you noticed. Let me just pad things out with a quick shot from back by the bathroom - clearly they were not expecting average-height foreigners among their customers when they installed this fan under the air-con unit. I've been thinking of getting a haircut, but not this way.

Tabelog seems a little unfair at 2.9, but that's ramen for you.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ankimo, Monzennakacho

Once in a while I cook something, and some portion of those times it even comes out well. Actually the best things I make are usually raw, which should tell me something.

Uncle N tells me you need a special contact to get raw monkfish liver in America. Honestly, I think you need a special contact here too. Maybe if you asked a fish shop they could get it for you as a special order. Fortunately I've been lucky enough to get a special contact this year, and here is half a kilo of Chinese monkfish liver. (Domestic, like many domestic luxury items, is priced out of all proportion.). What you've gotta do is as follows:

1. Clean them real good. Wash 'em a lot, get busy with your hands, get all the blood and stuff off the outside. Salt liberally, leave for a while to extract more blood, etc., wash again.

2. Cut up in pieces, removing veins and other tough-looking bits. I guess you don't have to cut them up, but it helped me to see where the veins were. I dunno if there's a technique for extraction, but I ended up pulling and scraping and generally doing battle until I couldn't find any more to do battle with. This seems important.

3. Soak in sake. Fortunately I have a bountiful supply of the finest sake available...from 7-11, where 10 of my drunken colleagues bought out the nihonshu supply before invading my apartment on night (they called first, but still). The finest sake at 7-11 is very suitable for cooking. After soaking, drain.

4. Roll into a sausage. This is as big as it looks - close to 3 inches in diameter, 10+ inches long. Two layers of plastic wrap, plus a third counter-wrapped when it started squeezing out. Twist the ends. Tie off with rubber bands. Wrap again in foil, and twist those ends.

5. Cook. You could steam it, I'm not sure it matters. I simmered, a big pot of water with the surface barely moving. Definitely not boiling.

6. Cool. Cut (make sure to wait long enough so it's firm and cut-able).

7. Pause and consider the majesty of the finished product - so orange, so mottled, so greasy, so fishy. I'm just describing it that way so you don't feel too bad about not getting to eat it!
Incidentally, the greens aren't what you think - they're raw turnip stalks. I still maintain that raw is the best way to eat a turnip; stewed and whatnot does very little for me. Destroys the delicate but delicious raw taste.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Yuwaeru, Kuramae (蔵前 結わえる)

As many of you know, December 24th is the most romantic night of the year in Japan. It's the night when all good men should be taking their women to fancy dinners, which are typically lobster, beef and truffles at horrendous prices.

I am against this (cooking dinner is a better demonstration, no?). Braving the winds of public opinion, Woody and I agreed to meet at one of his favorite finds of the year and see out the holidays in style.

Yuwaeru is in Kuramae, only 25 minutes frigid bike ride from Mon-naka. What else is in Kuramae? Not much. I've ridden through on my bike plenty of times on the way to other things, and even within a few meters of the shop, but you'd never find it by accident. I'm also intrigued by the name; since I can't see any relation between their main concept (organic foods) and the name ('tie up'), I'm forced to conclude that the master is into bondage. Makes sense, right?

Let me get this out of the way in case you look at the web site preemptively - it may be organically-focused, but it's not a health food store. It really looks like it from the web though. I was unsure what to expect, but in fact it's just a bio-focused izakaya, with a very 'natural' decor (read 'light wood, natural finishes') and a small selection of natural products off to the side. There are various bio-wines and beers in the cooler.

We focused on the sake - we've independently come to the conclusion that the purer the sake and the less you mix, the better you feel after. That means forgoing even the customary starter beer! How strict.

As you might expect, they go in for the attractive servingware, let you pick your own cup, and generally do a good job of picking sake for you. The pictured Tamura was excellent, we went back to it later, the bottom-left Kinpou was good, and now that I've researched I've learned that they're from the same brewer (just off the Tohoku Shinkansen near Nasu...). Oops. The Shinkame (as atsukan) was best forgotten. I'm not being completist about the pictures; there was one sake with a really pretty label that we tried but didn't order - it was actually cooking sake, but organic junmai cooking sake, and it was indeed good enough to drink. Just that it tasted like a honjouzou, so we skipped it and went with Matsumoto for that round.

You'd be wondering by now if there was any food. I do waffle sometimes, eh? There was a lot of food, and without being so gauche as to tell you the price, let me say that I worry for their business. It's far, far too cheap. With a different atmosphere, they could almost get away with doubling it.

This starter is healthy and fresh and shrimp and spinach and daikon and nameko mushrooms...and the surprise black ingredient is monkfish eggs!

The surprise here is that all the fish was good, and these plates could account for half the price of the course in lesser restaurants. You can probably see the tsubugai, squid (excellent squid), akagai and buri; there was one hidden fish too.

The stuffed crab is a signature item, and deservedly so. In this upskirt shot, I've surgically extracted half the meat so you can see the combination of stuff that's inside. The most interesting twist (not that a big pile of crabmeat needs a twist) was the inclusion of yamaimo, which stayed a bit crunchy and shaki.

Should you be disgusted by shirako, fried is the best way to have it. Actually fried is probably the best way to have it, period. The fry style is very light here; I wonder if there's something extra-natural about the oil or batter, but didn't think to ask at the time.

This seemed to be a surprise addition, but coming where it did it's sort of a sunomono course, kind of palate-cleansing between other things. I think it was flounder meat, with a bit of vinegar in the dressing. Certainly good though.

And good lord, this oyster stew was enough for 4 people. Again, most of the price of the course would have been taken up with this at a lesser establishment. Stewed oysters aren't something I would ordinarily say is my thing, but this was great.

As if that wasn't enough food, there's a very chunky rice and soup dish to finish. The rice here is of course brown, and to make it even healthier and more substantial is mixed with 'red' stuff to make sekihan. If you go at lunch, you'll get more of this, and a frequently-changing bowl selection. Come to think of it, I could probably get up here from the office with enough time...

And it would be worth it.

Fukuchan Ramen, Tsukiji

Fuku-chaaaaaan! Over the summer I started running more seriously again (I think I can now declare that I've stopped again; it's been weeks. My knees almost feel normal.). While doing my Tsukiji route, I would go past Fukuchan, across Harumi Dori from the Tsukiji market. I was running at night, and the huge red neon logo of Fukuchan always made me want to stop off for a bowl. Plus it's Hakata-style.

When I needed to meet Hikuzo to pick up my Christmas fish (thankyouthankyouthankyou), it crossed my mind that I could try this. As expected, it's very much a working-man's place - they have lunch sets, and it's all 'bowl of ramen + bowl of rice with toppings'. They do get it together with the Hakata style though, bringing in other famous things like mentaiko rice for the sides.  I'm stretching here, because I forgot to get a picture of the outside. Oopsie.

I like a Hakata-style place that knows which side its bread is buttered on, and that side is the side that offers free spicy, pickles, and garlic on every table. I've never seen 'bala mentai' before; it's basically spicy paste with some fish eggs in it. Even the pickles had some fish eggs in them.

Aaarrrrrrr. This soup was decent; it's good when they keep it quite light and clean. The chashu was straight up bad though. I ate one piece and regretted getting the extra, but I was hungry.

Noodles don't even deserve much mention. I was a little offended that the waitress didn't ask how I wanted them. Just assumed that was shop policy until the guy who came in behind me ordered and immediately got the 'katasa' question. Harrumph!

This puts me in mind of something from last night (out of chrono order - I mean the 27th since I'm writing on the 28th). This web site is a fantastic resource for finding 'hidden mountain onsen', but you can't avail yourself of the convenient English functionality. I searched some dates and got 1 result in English...but 27 in Japanese! Anyway, not a problem, clearly.

That's the price you pay, eh?

As long as we're down there, how about a random picture or two of the market? I tend to meet Hikuzo here, inside the gate next to Kachidoki Bashi.

The turret trucks are still funny, no matter how many times you see them. I thought this bit of warehouse was the styrofoam compression plant (they go through a LOT of styrofoam coolers in a day, and I think they crush them for recycling), but with the logos and stuff, maybe it's just the home of Number One Water Sellers (第一水産), along with Toto one of the big 7 wholesalers that rule the market.

And this was the reason for the trip (other than seeing my friend, of course!). It's a side of walasa, a young yellowtail, already mostly cleaned and cut. This was delicious, as were some of the other tidbits I'll post later.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

North Side Cafe, Shimo Kitazawa

An afternoon of walking Shimokita. Believe it or not, this was outside a music store. It sounds positively filthy, doesn't it? In a way that's dirty and yet mysterious, like some kink you've never heard of.

Indeed. This is not where we ate dinner, but that's not the subject of this post.

The subject is really the North Side Cafe,which offers your standard mix of Southeast Asian-Italian-Mexican food and large desserts in a busy, bright atmosphere, and thus is apparently popular with its target audience. Incidentally, 'people over 30 who take random neighborhood walks without shopping much' is probably not it.

Here's a funny blog disused about Shimokita that I found while looking for the home page of North Side. What I like the most about this specific post is that the reviewer wandered into a gay bar for lunch and complained that the staff weren't friendly and the service was bad. Of course it's possible, this being Japan, that a place would brand itself with the rainbow flag and not be gay, but...naaaaaah, couldn't be.

There were a few chairs outside, not so much for eating as for waiting, maybe. This old guy was wearing a jacket saying he was part of a town cleanup crew. He ambled by, looked at the chairs, looked around, and plopped down in one. Hey, they were going to waste. No one bugged him. Shimokita is pretty mellow like that, and it's even harder to imagine the young staffers at North Side going outside to say "Hey Grandpa, shove off."

Well, target audience or not, this was a fine place for coffee and cakes. The baked cheesecake on the left was the better of the two; the Oreo (R) one had less flavor, more sugar, and the Oreo (R) was soggy from refrigeration.One should perhaps go the giant-parfait route, or their famous Chili-Lime Tortilla Pasta Sundae.

Coffee was OK, but the real draw was the semi-comfy chairs by the window to watch the Shimokita parade.