Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kawachiya, Shibamata (川千家, 柴又)

You've heard of Shibamata, right? Even the most hardened pretend-we-still-live-in-America sort of expat has been told of the "It's Hard to be a Man" movie series, wherein the main character Tora san hails from a quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood of Tokyo called Shibamata. Then again, they probably don't discuss such things at TAC.

It IS indeed picturesque, at least the 300 meters of preserved / restored street that comprises the tourist attraction. It is NOT a neighborhood of Tokyo, being so far out in the northeast that it took us close to 90 minutes to cycle there (the health, the health). Most of the shops just sell one form of souvenir food or another; the restaurants focus on tempura and river fish. We went to the best-looking of the river fish specialists.

It has about the atmosphere you'd expect - pebbled floor, koagari with tatami, small formica-topped tables with insufficient room for foreign legs, plenty of staff rushing around.

But the view out the window is nice - with all the old buildings, it's easy to feel you've 'time slipped'. And all the modern-dressed families are just invading your fantasy.

This helps too. Did you know what 'river fish' meant above? It's two things - eel and carp. I like to say I've eaten carp before, but in truth it was a loooong time ago, like so long that I was barely on top of the whole raw fish thing. Here it is, a whole plate of sliced raw carp (the live fish, by the way, are in a pond outside at the base of the building).

Hard to imagine anyone loving this; it's chewy but not in a great way as some fish are, and bony, but there's no good way to be bony (well, they do sell deep-fried eel spines as snacks by the register). The taste is OK, not 'muddy' as conventional wisdom would have it, and if you drown it in the supplied vinegar miso you won't taste anything. OK, I can definitively say I've eaten carp. And like whale, I find it perfectly edible but will not be going out of my way to eat it again.

Eel, on the other hand, I will definitely be eating again (and again). Especially if it's this. We were seriously taken aback that the set on others' tables, the Nagoya-style hitsumabushi, was a $37 option. It makes more sense if you look at the volume of eel there (domestic eel is never cheap, and this is a lot). And it would make, like, a ton more sense if you tried this stuff. There may be better versions of barbeque sauce or cooking technique, but the quality of the fish here was outstanding. I've never had an eel filet that was so plump and fish-like without being overly fatty.

It's so outstanding that when I tried to compliment the waitress on how good it was, she just said "yeah." She said they get it 'from Mikawa', which is evidently something you're just supposed to know is a great place to get it, because that's all she said.

Let's have a bit closer view of the best unagi in Japan, OK? Mikawa unagi is described that way in various places.) I'm pretty sure it's from this town in Aichi called Isshiki. If you look at the retail prices, this set doesn't seem like such a bad deal anymore.

But anyway, there's no such thing as a deal in Japan. Just lower-quality stuff for lower prices.

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