Thursday, March 31, 2011

Komeraku, Otemachi (ひとくち茶漬け 八十八楽 こめらく)

The green-ness here is quite striking, isn't it? As are the low ceilings. These old-fashioned buildings in central Tokyo were not built with claustrophobics in mind. Or people were smaller back then. My favorite example of that style was the old JA building, which was dark and dirty and half-shuttered as well as claustrophobic. Now it's two blocks away and open, airy, and excrutiatingly modern. In fact it's the type of building that I look at and think "I bet that's going to look really weird in 30 years. I can't imagine how, but I bet."

This place is in the basement of Shin-Otemachi ("the long building across the street"), and I've avoided going to it for years now because...well, rice in soup? for lunch? That's it? It turned out to be more entertaining than expected. It also turned out to be a sister shop to the very first place I ate near the office. Maybe I can die happy now. [They have 15 shops, with slightly different themes, mainly in southeast Tokyo. This one does fried food, kushiage, at night.]

They're also open very late. I was there after 3, and there were 5 staff. I couldn't even tell if they were closing at any point.

Here, check it out: for...$10 or $12, you get a 'three course' lunch. I know it's only soup on rice, with a little topping, but it was pleasant, and surprisingly they made and served them in sequence, not together. The first bowl is spicy fish roe, and they said they were getting it from down south in Fukuoka where it's famous. The second is chicken and burdock root. The third is Chinese pickles (I forgot how to say these or I wouldn't have ordered them), and conveniently illustrates the fact that for each bowl you can choose fish soup or pork-bone soup. There's more rice in there than you can see from the camera angle.

And more rice make you full-up.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raffiné, Hongo (ラフィネ)

The Hongo explorations continue. I like it up here because it's so quiet, especially if you cross the intersection going north toward Tokyo U, and even more so if you take the soft left onto this little half-shuttered shopping street. I found it months ago, coming from a different direction, totally lost, and was pretty startled when I started going to Hongo and realized that was it. Raffiné was the place I earmarked on my first accidental trip, so the Hongo project has sorta come full-circle.

Mixed signals inside - it's bright and clean, the kitchen looks very serious, as does the blackboard, but the vinylized tablecloths are usually a negative signal in this price range. Let me just cut to the chase and say it was OK, but I thought the value equation was poor.

How to put it? I think the chef here is in the upper quartile of a mediocre group. He's doing a good job, but in a bland style. The highlight of this plate was certainly the seafood mousse at the bottom, but it was curiously weak, and you know pink peppercorns are an attempt to cover up. Like huge pepper shakers.

This is Kagoshima pork, and again it was tasty albeit tough. The vegetables were fresh and still-green. Maybe I'm complaining too much. It wasn't bad.

The hazelnut mousse on the left was very nice. I would have liked to get a look in at the cheese mentioned on the dinner menu and shown on the web.

Hmmm, I guess the cooking is simple but OK. Compared to all the exploration in Kagurazaka though, I think the course is several hundred yen overpriced.

And if you need to eat a 3 course lunch and also save a couple hundred yen, that's where you should go.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lautrec, Nihonbashi (ロートレック)

From somewhere I conceived the idea that this vaguely French-bistro themed restaurant would be vaguely European and perhaps good. The windows are filled with various Francophile trinkets, and even the interior gives you some idea that they're trying to be Euro.

Incidentally, note the almost-open cherry blossoms artfully included in the shot.

Perhaps it's more of a bar? The shelf under the mirror to your back in this shot is lined with bottles, and the rack of speed pourers above the waitress's head is ample. Additionally, the bartender won the Japanese national cocktail competition (I'm not making this up, unless they are too). In 1958.

The waitress was something else. You only meet Japanese people with this much personality once in a while, but her volume, abrasiveness and bustle would have been right at home in a New York diner (except she's not Russian, of course).

So yeah, lunch turned out to be a sort of junk-food bento. The inclusion of a fried eggroll really gives it away. Let's not dwell on it.

Let's dwell instead on the soup in the back. I took a sip, noted that it tasted like dishwater, and put the bowl down. When the waitress came to clear the tray, she said "Well, you can't eat miso soup, huh!" I smiled politely and didn't say anything, but I gritted my teeth because I hate that 'foreigners can't eat...' theme. Then she went back and told the cook "He can't eat miso soup!"

Well, I suspected she wouldn't mind much, but I thought it over and decided I might as well defend the honor of foreigners everywhere. While paying, I said "I didn't drink the soup because it was terrible." Not unexpectedly, she came back with the equivalent of 'Well excuuuuuuuse me!' and we left it at that.

Until I saw the old couple outside looking at the menu and shaking their heads like they were nearly decided on going in. I had to lean in to their conversation and say "It kinda sucks." They broke out laughing, thanking me and slapping me on the back, and we all went off down the street together.

Felt like my good deed for the day, it did.

Monday, March 28, 2011

San Mari Tearoom, Otemachi

A laaate lunch put me in mind of these places in the basement of the building across the street that stay open all hours. They're 'tea rooms', or kissa, as you like, and this looked like the most likely contender - at least on the smokey atmosphere dimension.

Don't get me wrong, I don't smoke and I don't want to smell like smoke. I don't even think anyone here was smoking, but after less than 30 minutes inside, I managed to come out smelling like I had been.

I wish I knew what it is about these places that appeals so much to the Japanese character. There were plenty of customers (this is after 3 PM), and a steady stream of leavers and comers. All ages, business people, civilians.

You know the weirdest thing about this place? The thoroughness with which I enjoyed my lunch. That's a 'hamburg sand', meaning two tiny, oddly-flavored beef patties (hmmm, maybe not all beef in retrospect) with various sauces, on white bread. The a bowl of mixed salads, tuna and egg. And canned fruit. Geez, this is all childhood comfort food for me (minus the white bread, which I didn't eat then and still think is weird now). No wonder I liked it.

Decent value too. Weird.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Matsukaze ramen, Akihabara (松風)

When I first came to Japan and started at my new company, the most surprising thing was this: no laptop. After almost 10 years in consulting-related jobs, not having a laptop from work was like losing an arm. A not very useful, kinda heavy arm that you had to carry around all the time. It was pretty sweet not having one, actually. But I needed a computer. And thus I learned to geek out and build my own. In Akihabara.

It's getting time for a new computer, and I went to Akiba to poot around and look at parts, get some ideas for what was possible. You can't go to Akiba without having a junkfood lunch; I was thinking of the famous tonkatsu place, and noticed that Menya Musashi has a new branch too. Both of those had lines by the time I wanted to eat, and after far too much dithering (you know how I get when faced by an unfamiliar neighborhood and lots of tasty-looking choices). I went back to Matsukaze after abandoning it earlier, and was pleasantly surprised.

Turns out this is part of a small but respectable group - it includes Kibi in Kanda, for example (currently a final-4 competitor in the ramen championships, maybe decided by the time you read this). The inside also has the hallmarks of a place that's pretty serious about what they do.It's sort of industrial chic, that gives it away. The chef didn't seem too into it, but he was also there by himself, so there wasn't the usual opportunity to feed off group energy.

What they do, believe it or not, is veggie ramen - not really an Akiba thing, right, with all the junk food and otaku? Yet again I fell prey to thoughtless ordering and realized too late that the 'punch' ramen was a veggie-based Jiro style bowl.

This was a real surprise though. The soup is fish based, but then includes lots of vegetables, heavily reduced to get a strong flavor, and potatoes, which give it a comparable heaviness to tonkotsu. It's also damn tasty; obviously not from fat, but just from vegetable essence. That slice of pork was actually a disappointment and would have been better left the heck out. This is, as they say, 'Recommendable'.

Ya hear me? Right the heck out!

Well, not that it's any surprise, but another blogger was here before me, and it's Duckston.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Taishoken, Nihonbashi (大勝軒)

Hey hey, it's magnolia season. I wasn't even aware there was a magnolia season until this year; this tree is on the way that I usually walk to the office, and it's getting into full bloom here in the space between plum and cherry blossom seasons. Nice.

Less nice is Taishoken, which I of course visited primarily for ironic-nostalgic value. It turned out to be a cut above other places like this, which is a pleasant change from the places that turn out to be on par or a cut below expectations. Especially since my expectations for them aren't very high.

The atmosphere here was fun. I'm pretty sure the older and younger women were family, and maybe the younger and the cook were married. In any case, the woman's kids came down from upstairs midway through my lunch to have their own. They were super-cute, getting into 'customer service' by shouting irrasshhaii whenever someone came in and asking mom if they could relay orders to the kitchen.

This guy was less cute, but not by much, and distinctly deserving of a photo. Smoke 'em if you got 'em, I always say.

Meanwhile, I got the C lunch and smoked it proper. The gyoza were of the small, well-cooked variety that I often like better (gyoza filling is never as strongly-flavored as I'd like, so less filling and more crisped skin to absorb sauce is ideal). The ramen was less overcooked than this type of place often does, and the soup was quite drinkable. (Although if you want to know how this soup could taste, there's still nothing better than Bigakuya. Incredible.) The oldest of the kids practically exploded with pride when I looked directly at her on the way out and said 'gososama'. She's got a bright future.

Nice when a nostalgia exercise plays out OK. Or at least not too badly.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Muroichi ramen, Nihonbashi (室壱羅麺)

Today was really late. I didn't get out of the office for lunch until after 2:30, so places over in the Muromachi area of Nihonbashi were putting out the 'Close' signs while I walked past (on normal days they just hurry out to say they're closed when they see me walk past).

Muroichi was open until 3, so I could sneak in. Not hiding away there, are they, sign-wise. I think 4 panels out front should be enough to get people in.

And they might need the help, because the ramen is kinda confusing. Their special ramen is 'a little of everything', with weak pork-bone soup, very fatty roast pork, half an egg, threads of shredded chili pepper, and a scoop of meat miso. The strangest thing was the noodles, which were sized and shaped and appearanced almost like soba - square and flecked with grain hull. The overall package was OK, but every element was 2nd-class, and that's no recipe for greatness.

Hell, it's just lunch.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Grill Gonnosuke, Kanda (権の助)

I'd like to hit you with a counterintuitive and valuable lesson about picking restaurants in Japan - 'grill' doesn't mean what you think.

While Gonnosuke has some neat ambience (murals, surfboards), it is firmly in the 'grill' category (I mean, the name really gives it away, right?). That means it's going to be serving what? Not grilled meat, and almost certainly not steak.

No, 'grills' serve 'western food', or yoshoku, and that means Japanified comfort food like omelettes. The meals customarily start with a cup of weak soup, over which you can watch heartbreaking programs about Tohoku.

And then a 'special hamburg', which is a roundish patty with cheese and sauce. It's hard to understand how they get a ground beef patty to be so uninspiring; something about the fineness of the mince really influences the texture for me, I think.

Well, you can tell how boring this was, so let's cut things off there.

At dinner, you can get steak.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Edoichi, Otsuka ( 江戸一)

After mixed feelings at Konakara, Woodchips and I were keen to try another venue. I attracted a lot of laughter for my preparedness (when I went to Otsuka before by myself, I made a map showing the 5 likeliest places, and I had it with me tonight too), but I also knew exactly how to navigate to Edoichi. When we arrived, we let out a collective "Buggah!" because I think you'll agree this looks like a shop that's not open. However it must be just power savings. Even my local vegetable shop is doing it - they close at 6 PM now, instead of 7:30. That's weird, and Edoichi is much more picturesque with the lights on and noren out.

Come to think of it, maybe the lack of noren means they were trying not to let people in. Especially people rude enough to take pictures. I swear to you that it wasn't until the end of our stay that I saw the 'no pictures' sign. So Edoichi is famous for its charming atmosphere, and many people have blogged about its ages-old appeal, but none of them have cheeky pictures of the customers like I do.

When you sit, you'll be set up with a tray and glass like this, as well as a view across the service area bounded by the big U-counter. The faces on the other side will probably be different. Although in this atmosphere, I wouldn't be surprised if you saw one of them again.

This cheerful-cheap sashimi was more to our liking than the stuff at the previous venue (and frankly anything better would have been wasted, seeing as we were too).

This is really a 'drinks and snacks' place; the drinks run to hot sake, about 20 types, nothing fancy - and nothing expensive, much of it stocked on the floor under the counter. This was the winter I got into hot sake, so it was no problem (I mean, 2010 was the year I got into sake, so it's all kinda compressed, timeline-wise).

Geez, I look at tabelog and I think "There are 20 reviews and 5 photos. How did I get away with this?!" I guess because no one is looking, including Woodrow, whose cheeky hand intrudes on the frame. Sitting back in the corner is mama, who has most certainly been occupying that seat for roughly 'yonks' or 'a donkey's age', depending on your proclivities. She claimed to remember Woodsworth from his last visit - 10 years ago. That's too charming to dispute, don't you think?

Drinking eat while you're drinking. Hot sake. Nothing woosie or weak-flavored here; we've got baby sardine cracker (it's a thin layer of baby fish dried until kinda crisp), grilled spicy fish egg sacks, and on the bottom a grilled pike and a grilled mackerel (fish are snacky food too, because if you eat with chopsticks you can just snag a little bit to alternate with drinks). Nothing to write home about...but you knew that, like we knew it going in, and it wouldn't stop you from stopping by some time, would it?

They must have known I was taking pictures but liked us anyway - I got right up on the abacus and took this, and they laughed about it. I said "This is our receipt", I did, and we all had a good chuckle.

Seriously, when's the last time someone totaled up your bill on an abacus and presented it to you as proof of their correct calculation? That's what I thought. That sums up the charm here - cheap, old-fahsioned, not terrible. It's worth pointing out that it seems like people are mostly in integral groups and don't interact with others or the staff, i.e., it's not a great place to go alone.

As usual, cheeky to take this picture...but there's something about it that contrasted beautifully with Edoichi. The sign visible through the window is a love hotel, if you couldn't tell.

OK, OK, I know you knew.

Incidentally, if I were standing outside Otsuka in the future, I would take 10 steps to the right and proceed down the alley to Kitayama. Better food, much better drinks, similar atmosphere, friendlier staff.

Konakara, Otsuka (こなから)

Well well, we check another off the list of 'Tokyo's greatest sake pubs'. This was decent, just uninspiring and a bit expensive. Having been to a good sampling now, I can safely say that the 'Gauntner list' was written around 10 years ago, and that the 10 recommended drinking outlets on there no longer apply in any way. I'd be happy to update the list, but the izakayas page has everything I'd say...Let's get into the package.

This was Tuesday night after the long weekend, pissing rain, still aftershocks, nucular scarez...not the time most people would pick to go out. So the atmosphere was a bit empty and quiet. But it didn't help that the master and waitress didn't want to talk to us. That left us to focus on drinks and food, but it threw an oppressive blanket over the proceedings.

In a daring move, the starter was actually hot - a dish of boiled chicken and vegetables. Well done, even if I get confused by hot starters. So dogmatic I am...

The confusion went away with a selection of cold snacks. Back is scallops 'iso-zuke', which I bet is an original creation and was excellent - good scallops, and the combination of fresh seaweed and sesame oil was delicious. This would be worth making at home if you could get good scallops. Left is shrimp in a sauce made of guts (presumably shrimp), while right is my favorite it's-spring thing, wasabi stalks and leaves.

And no izakaya visit is complete with sashimi, for me. This is one of the real problems with Konakara; the sashimi is almost $20 per variety, and I suspect this mixed plate for 1 was more like $40. You never see an itemized bill, after all. The snapper on the left was good, one of the two varieties of sea urchin roe was reference class (although if you asked me and Woodbine, you'd get a different view on which one that was), and the pen shell was as it's supposed to be. The price though...nope.

Well, you're here to drink after all...or at least I hope you are. It's a funny list - I could almost characterize it as 'ticking boxes' of famous sake that's supposed to be on lists. But you can see on the left the first thing I got, and it's not just normal Kudokijozu, it's a 33% Dewasansan jundai. That's pretty special. The next thing is Toyobijin, a 50% Omachi jungin, and I maintain that any menu with Toyobijin is special. [Actually the menu has the famous '3 beautiful women' on it - Toyo-, Nambu-, and Yuki-Bijin, and the master laughed when I asked if he liked women. He's heard that one before. And I made up the thing about the 3 together being famous.] You'll recognize Isojiman next; had to try this because it was the honjozo, which you don't see often (actually you don't see Isojiman often period; I think it's just too popular). The pretty yellow label is actually a Tedorigawa junmai, but a nifty lightly-cloudy, semi-sparkling one that was delicious. Finally, ordered on the strength of its Yamagata source, Kiraboshi no Gotoku. The menu will blow up ril big if you click 'er, so why not decide for yourself about the rest? We'll get some more food while we wait.

Fish nanban...I cannot tell a lie, it's been a while and I can't remember what kind of fish this was. Might even have been sea eel, which would be a nice touch. It's good cooking; the gobo was a bit firm for my tastes (and yes, I remember that).

Grilled salted salmon was a fine way to end things here. Very good quality fish, plenty of crispy skin. You should get one of these if you go. Should you go? That's a tough one.

All that's separating this place from greatness is the prices and the atmosphere.

Karaku sushi, Ginza (鮨 からく)

It was raining this morning, which is an appropriately depressing way to come back to work after a great weekend in Kyoto, and it popped into my head that rainy days are good to pop down to Ginza for lunch. This isn't strictly true, and it wasn't even raining by the time I got there, and then I just pottered around for a while before deciding on sushi. This place was pretty good, leaving out the mildly disturbing huge Japanese flag by the door and the shaved heads and fierce faces of the staff. It was like a black-van sushi place, if you see what I mean.

The atmosphere was a little tired too, but they do some neat things to keep it up. I like the block of ice on the counter; that shows up on their web page, so it must be one of their trademarks.

Massive lunch bowls are also a trademark; this is the namesake Karaku bowl. This was very good quality; I enjoyed watching the junior chef stand over a pile of tuna scraps and scrape the paste out from between the tendons, while the salmon roe and eel were both very good. The dark-red gel-looking stuff is soy-soaked tuna, FYI.

Don't tell them I wrote this, OK? I don't want the vans coming to my house.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Douze Gout, Kyoto

Have you had this happen? You go somewhere a bit old-fashioned and traditional, like Kyoto, and spend a long weekend being old-fashioned and eating traditional food. By the end of it, you feel like you could murder a burger. It leads you to think things like "European food for lunch."

Silly me, I was a bit bummed about getting turned away from the bistro-style place we poked our heads into earlier - fully booked. They also seemed irritated that we even asked such an impertinent question. Luckily and conversely, the much classier Douze Gout seemed embarassed that all they could offer us was the table by the door.

Did you see the picture above? And this one, which is what you see after passing through the brown curtain? I'll sit by the door. Apology accepted. I'd sit outside. How cool is this?

Cool enough to have a semi-open kitchen. I suppose this is the garde manger, where they do the plating and cold stuff? I don't really know. I just know that that guy was making these beautiful salads, and you'll probably skip down a bit now to see what I mean.

This starter bite was wacky - the white is white asparagus and cream (I think), while the red is beetroot and red cabbabe (I think) and the stick is parmesan toast. The stick didn't go with the soups all that well, but the whole sure was technical and creative and interesting. And tasty.

And here's that beautiful salad. The chef was a finalist in the Japanese qualifying round for the Bocuse d'Or competition, which I like to think explains a bit of his very fancy plating stylez. The rim is festooned with fresh, steamed and pickled leaves and veg. The center is the dreaded 'bagna cauda', although with the creaminess and all the odd spices (cumin) wedged in here, I think it rises above the mediocrity the name has come to imply.

Speaking of rising above, that toast is getting right up there, isn't it? I love it! I also loved the little rings of carrot that they laboriously pasted to the inside of the glass, and more than that I loved the light, cold, cream-of-carrot soup and mousse. Can't remember if it was peas or cabbage. Spring. Fresh. Cold.

Nice job on the fish; good crisp on the skin, interesting mix of sauces (I could have sworn the brown one was veal), little pile of fresh mushrooms and leaves for contrast.

For the meat course (and feel free to ignore this digression in favor of appreciating the artful plating), they made much fanfare of bringing us a knife and fork from Laguiole, the French village of artisanal cutlery makers. This was completely irrelevant, because you could have eaten this course with a spoon (a Laguiole spoon). It's very pretty, isn't it?

The meat is chicken, roasted and shredded, but the theme is 'bees', with honey figuring into the mix somewhere and the dark sauce being dripped in a trail meant to put you in mind of a bumblebee's flight.

At least one person at the table said this was a top-5 dish in their life so far (and at least one said "eh, this is nice but too obviously meant to appeal to women"). I do love lightly technical things like this though, with the spinach wrapping a puck of meat, and softness and sweetness of the chicken was lovely.

More lovely than this Japanese-style fruit-and-jelly dessert, even though it hid ice cream underneath and was topped with incongruous chocolate sails. This was OK.

But this was beautiful, and reasonably tasty. It's basically creme brulee. So cute!

Even the coffee cups are cute here. Oh, and you know, this wasn't coffee, it was chicory coffee, which was presented as a healthier, more natural alternative to coffee rather than a pale coffee substitute for poor people. That's how I think of it, but maybe I've read too much John Steinbeck and Wright Morris.

Should have saved the cute lines, because even the bill is cute here. Coming and going in a big lacquered box is a sure way for me to be less grumpy about dealing with it. And to tell you the truth, for the amount of enjoyment this place offered, the fixed-price lunch above was a great deal.

Dinner, you might want to be careful.