Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ajiyoshi, Nakano (酒道場 味吉)

Ahhhh, Japan. People always talk about how quirky it is, but they're only focused on the maids and the Alice in Wonderland bars and the dancing rockabillies and costume kids in Harajuku. Actually, that's more than enough.

But the real quirks are sometimes beneath the surface. Take this place - it would be all too easy to say the dirty, disorganized exterior is a sign of a similar mastermind somewhere in it labrynthine depths. And sometimes the easy path is right, because this is a strange place, run by a weird dude.

We were on safari with the Peafowl - starting in Higashi Nakano with a trip to sake-heaven Machidaya, then a random walk through the outlying reaches of northern Nakano (there's a nice shotengai north of Broadway), and rejection from a packed-and-heaving Okajoki. You know why I steered us in to Ajiyoshi, right? It says "300 types of sake" outside. I'm skeptical of any selection that big, but I also can't resist.

It's like a cave in there, with the counter obscured by slips advertizing their various types of sake.

The master briefly left his lair behind the counter to ask what we wanted to drink. The females in our party allowed as how they'd like water, which prompted some consternation. "This is a drinking place. You have to get a drink." "Oh, we'll eat, but we just want water." "No, it's a drinking place. Japan is like that." He shuffled off unhappily with only an order for a solitary Pea-beer under his belt.

Because I was too overcome to penetrate the details of the sake list. Hard to imagine all of this being fresh, isn't it? It's too big to fit even into the 'wide-screen' setting on my camera. I think it was organized by prefecture, but was strangely repelled by it (and after the whole Thou Shalt Drink thing, I wasn't focused either. In fairness, he did bring two waters.).

So hey, I says, "Give me something from Shiga prefecture!" Maybe I was secretly hoping he'd have a spare bottle of Furosen in the fridge, but I thought that was a good way to avoid the list. "Shiga, huh? Not a lot of sake from Shiga." Well, the 43 brewers in the Shiga Brewers Association would differ, but it's true that it's not exactly a common place to see on menus. More's the pity, because I've liked what I've had (everybody likes Biwa no Choju, but remember that Ususakura from last time at Zen in Kyoto? Or how about, ohhh, I dunno, Nami no Oto? And Matsu no Tsukasa is currently on my list to try more of.)

To make a long story endless, he turned up with this glass from Kitami Brewing, their 'just squeezed' version, and it was sweet, simple, and good. But he didn't bring the bottle. When I asked to see it, he grudgingly put it on the top of the display case, and admonished me not to take off the plastic bag around it. Thanks, guy. And by the way, serving sake in champagne glasses is still twee. Quit it.
Hey, the quirky doesn't stop there! We were more than ready to order, so he said "OK, counter service. Write it down and bring it to me at the counter." Ahhh, this must be why there's a "No unaccompanied foreigners" sign on the door (really. But it's not written in Foreign, it's written in Japanese.). We thought the order would be rejected on a technicality or something, but it sailed through.

Tip for restauranteurs: Upgrade your attitude and your customers will want to spend enough money to justify you hiring a waitress.

Upgrading your food is probably a good way to get bigger checks and repeat business too (I think you can tell by now that a repeat visit won't be in the offing). Going around the horn, we have moro-Q (cucumber miso) with a lemon slice, cooked komatsuna greens with a lemon slice, miso-pickled garlic with 2 lemon slices, and tuna salad with a lemon slice. I detect a theme here - low-quality ingredients, mediocre to bad cooking, and lemon slices. Yes, it was fairly cheap (so was the sake).

Yes, I thought the whole thing was pretty hilarious. No, I won't be going back.

This guy didn't seem to mind it too much, but thought it was quirky and a little expensive.


  1. This reminds me of Sushi nazis in the U.S.. We wandered into one of these places in San Francisco. But at least they served decent (but not great) sushi and sashimi. It was not worth enduring the abuse even for me. (after all I am Japanese, am I not? Maybe not for the Sushi nazis). BTW, good penmanship.

  2. Yeah, that's a good article. I have mixed feelings about the issue now. Some of those guys sound like they're just not adjusting to the culture and their general frustration with being in America is coming through in their service. On the other hand, I can barely understand why someone would 'dismantle' a nigiri, ask for soup at the beginning of the meal, use too much soy sauce, etc. And in the middle, there's definitely a segment of the situations that arise from busy chefs with limited English meeting Americans who think they're culturally broad because they'll eat raw fish.

    Reminds me of a funny situation a few weeks ago - I was at a counter (bargain Showa izakaya), eating cheap tuna, and the guy next to me insisted on asking questions. The classic one was "Can you eat...rare fish?" A lot of people think 'nama' should be translated as 'rare' (cf rare cheesecake). This was an especially funny question because I was sitting there eating 'rare' fish, and he was watching me do it. Then he asked...

    "How do you feel after you eat rare fish?" I was really confused by this and eventually answered "uhhhhhh, full?"

    It turned out he was going to use rare fish as a signifier of Japanese culture, and by eating it I was somehow tasting the beautiful history of Japan (where the tuna I was eating is not historically a popular fish anyway).