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.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Emmado, Kanda (炎麻堂)

Another lunch, another chain store. Only this was the last day before Golden Week, and I felt festive. Really wanted ramen, but didn't find anything, and when I saw a mapo tofu specialty store, I was hooked. Spicy is almost as good as ramen, and sort of healthier if you neglect to mention the pork and oil.

I want to point out that this is not the same as the temple Emmado 閻魔堂, although the fierce countenance of the god enshrined at those could be related to spiciness in some way.

It's appealing black and somber inside. Makes you think they're serious about what they do. But it's also cramped and not especially clean (which again tends to give me a warm feeling when it comes to Chinese-derived foods).

Lots of exercise recently, so the short-stack of 3 gyoza seemed like an acceptable concession. These were excellent, seriously. I like gyoza but often feel they're not flavorful enough; in this case the chef advised that they were already flavored and shouldn't be dipped in anything. He didn't lie. He lied by omission about the little dice of lotus root in the filling, a simple touch that really adds interest to the texture.

One of the gimmicks here is that you can pick your level of spicy. Unlike the comical and meaningless 70-point system at Ethiopia, these guys really are serious in their 1-5 options. See what's in that strainer? It's all chili. Gives me the shivers just looking at it.

And the chef didn't blink at all when I asked for the top level of spicee. This was a very, very good mapo, flavorful and spicy in a complex way, thick enough to stick to the rice, good pork and beans. As expected, the Level 5 spicy was just about right, not at all overdone.

Two other stores in Akasaka and Sancha, if that helps ya.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Morihachi, Kanda (森八 室町店)

It's always tempting to think you've tried something great and unique; I was pretty happy that I finally went in to Morihachi, but it was pretty apparent that it wasn't a family-run operation.

Not that this is a terrible thing. There's little difference between this place and a family shop - the old woman at the counter, the old guy who seemed to be the chef, the display case, the sweets.And Morihachi is from Kanazawa, which I always think of as a haven for sweets after I took a wagashi-making class there one time.

My idea was really to buy yokan, the block-of-beans that qualifies as dessert in some circles. After eating what is quite possible-like the best yokan in the world, doing a little comparison testing seemed to be indicated (and the other yokan was still in the fridge at home). If you're keeping score at home, the yokan here at Morihachi was like a normal yokan. The difference between it and the real thing from the above Echigoya Wakasa was laughable. Still, it's a subtle taste, so don't go there expecting to be wowed.

In other news, the green-yellow-purple color scheme on their nama-gashi is pretty, isn't it?

I have this dietary problem - when I eat a salty lunch, I inevitably want to eat something sweet afterward. The preceding curry meal had given me the usual craving, and I picked up these two snacks, shown here on the table in my office conference room. One was sakura flavored, the other plum. Purty good.

Well, at least they only have two stores in Tokyo, if you don't count the department store branches.

Crown Ace Curry, Kanda

Very indecisive today. That can tend to happen, either because I'm genuinely indecisive on the day or because I feel like going somewhere new and end up going to an area with few unexplored options left. In this case I rounded a corner after 20 minutes aimless wander, saw 'curry' and thought 'bing!'

Plus, 'Crown Ace' is a helluva name, isn't it? It makes you think the staff should have pompadours and poodle skirts and walk around saying "Solid, daddy-o," instead of looking at the ground and shuffling between menial tasks.

But cheap curry can be its own reward. The expensive stuff often misses the impact that makes cheap Japanese curry great (which is probably a combination of sugar and processed hydrogenated fats). And the classy places never have enough pickles on the tables. Personally I always load up on this stuff - you can't get vegetables at curry, and I tend to counteract the de-vegetal nature of the experience by eating half a jar of pickled onions and a similar quantity of radish, if they're on offer. They were. I did.

Hey, this is why you're fat. [No, I kid, you're not fat. And I think a lot of the fun has gone out of that site. Stuff like 'oooh, I chocolate-coated a Twinkie!' isn't daring. You have to sift through a bunch of weak stuff to find the 5-pound grilled cheese sandwich and the other genuinely horrifying creations that made the site great in the past.]

But seriously, this is fried chicken curry, and it was a great curry even if the chicken wasn't much to write home about. Good thing I'm not specifically writing home right here. Hi Mom and Dad.

Well, it's 'ace', as they say in the provinces. Crown gets my personal recommendation as the king of curry.

At least today.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tsukesoba Aduchi, Kanda (つけ蕎麦安土)

Walking to work this morning I was reflecting on the near-miss of almost living in Kayabacho Tower when I moved to Japan 7 years ago. Never a big fan of moving, I've been in the same apartment in Mon-naka since I got here. And I still think Kayabacho would be a lousy place to live, every day when I walk by on the way to work. I suppose it would be closer to work, but who wants to base their lifestyle on work?

And who wants to base their foodstyle on chicken? Perhaps in America lots of people do. I decided to have ramen, and with good weather it was fine to do a longer walk around Kanda until I found something appealing. Little did I know that it would be chicken, and weird.

They call this 'tsukesoba', which at most ramen places is an affectation (like old fashioned ramen being called shina soba or chuka soba, it connotes some imaginary Chinese authenticity). Tsukesoba or mazesoba tend to be thick, chewy noodles, more like udon.

Well, here's their special thickened chicken soup. It's good, and actually spicy enough to make me cough a little at first. I respect that. Pieces of chicken in it, enough vegetables to be interesting.

And then the waitress brought the soba, and it really was soba. This is a first for me, because I think everyone would agree the delicate taste of good soba would be lost on a hearty dipping sauce like the above. It's more textural at that point (and again, people would tend to think the bigger noodles were better for sucking up soup).

Still, one can't argue with this for being both a touch innovative and also a tiny bit more healthy. They were well-boiled soba, and I liked how they piled it up with kizami nori.

Although I fear I'll never get used to 'chicken and seaweed' as a flavor combination.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mus-mus, Marunouchi

As you may have heard, I tend to go to a new restaurant for lunch every day. Working in the greater Otemachi area allows an incredible range of choice - for example the Shin Marunouchi Building is 5 minutes walk but has 45 dining options. I haven't exhausted them all, especially the ones up on the late-night-oriented 7th floor. This is one of the ones I was putting off - doesn't it just look too cute and healthy?

Of course, eating out every day means you need to think about your health a bit - like how it's declining. So a healthy, organic cafe focused on steamed food ('mus' is like 'to steam') is a good choice. They have a minimal 'salad bar' with just three items on it - including fresh pickles (left) and boiled konnyaku (right). These are indisputably healthy and were good. I probably ate an unseemly amount of them, but it as very late and the shop was almost empty.

It's nice that 'healthy' need not mean 'vegan', so the main dishes here are quite meaty. I skipped the steamed bacon in favor of chicken and burdock root, sliced over rice and steamed in the wooden tray. Homey and filling. The soup is also in that vein, including a healthy portion of pork to bulk it out.

However I still wouldn't say eating here will bulk you out.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tsuki Maru Umi, Koenji (旬の魚と炙り焼 月○海)

We were on the hike now, walking between Nakano and Koenji. The original plan was to start while it was light and get to Asagaya around dark, but there was the crap weather, with the wind and the rain and the darkness. Once we spent an hour in another izakaya, the whole walking-outside thing wasn't very appealing.

Michael Jackson is always appealing though. This mural was too wide to fit the frame, but if you can parse the stylized script, it says 'Love ya Foorever!'

We walked around Koenji a lot when we got there. There are several very nice full-length shopping streets, and I do mean full-length. If you know what I mean. But we were indecisive and on the edge of grumpiness, and it took a long time to pick a place. Finally we ended up seeing this sight, and it seemed like the answer to some prayers.

Had any of us been a black Snoopy we would have grinned and danced too.

I'm always nervous in Kyushu places - when the centerpiece of the cuisine is intestinal, you can never rest easy that you're going to get edible items. The top left boiled chicken in particular had the look of something that used to be closer to the heart of a bird but was really just normal meat (and tasty). Next up, miso-marinated grilled pork belly. So fatty. To the right, a bottle of Man Rei - I give the shop an extra point (metaphorically) for having interesting local nihonshu; Man Rei is from Karatsu and is probably the least popular of the sakes I know from Saga (which you know I love). Bottom row outsides are fried fish and fried chicken, both competent. In the middle was a foil packet with mushrooms and meat and lots of cheese, and on a cold, rainy night, this hit the spot even more than all the other hot, meaty items. Yay for meat.

They were really nice here; I just want to let you know their schedule according to the gurunabi page:
OPEN: A day, the moon 17:30-24:00; fire - tree 17:30-03:00; Fridays and Saturdays 17:30-04:00 [aside: not gold and dirt?]
CLOSE: I am without holiday

 By the way, I'm not a Rush fan, but I liked that video a lot. Did you notice how Alex seems to be holding the acoustic in a funny way in the beginning? He's playing it on a stand so he can wear the electric guitar for the majority of the song. Kinda beats the Jimmy Page approach (not on attitude though). Also nice to see him playing a Tele for a change, and cool that he's actually using the blue-glowing H&K amps that he endorses.
I still had to chuckle when Geddy started singing.
Anyhoo, not bad, but they'll always be Canadian to me.

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.

Kyokin soba, Morishita (手打そば 京金)

Years it's been that I've been jogging by this soba place on Kiyosumi Dori thinking it looked good. I mean, it was there long before me - over 100 already, while I've only put in 7 - but it still looks good. Somehow I neglected a picture of the outside, which is much the best part of the decor. A fairly recent refit has left it a bit dull inside.

And you know, the reason I don't eat soba more often is because I think of it as dull. But I saw the 'sesame sauce' version on the menu, and I thought "That's the guy for me." The freshly-made soba were interesting, wider than usual and sort to my tastes. The sesame sauce was predictably delicious. I wish more people would put it on menus, or in fact that neat walnut sauce I had last year.

Someone had negi-soba, notable for the lovely yuzu smell when the bowl came as well as the 'onion forest' appearance of the whole thing.

The taste, not so much to say.

Echigoya Wakasa, Morishita (越後屋若狭)

Some time ago, I was idly perusing the tabelogz as I like to do on many a quiet afternoon. Looking at the top 20-rated restaurants in Tokyo, I spotted an oddity. It was on my side of the river. One of Tokyo's best 20 restaurants out of 160,000 listings? An easy walk from home? And it turned out to be this place, far from any station but standing out in its post-industrial neighborhood under the highway, near the river. I rode or ran by it a dozen times before that time, always figuring it must be something good but never able to tell from the exterior signage what went on inside.

The interior, such as it is, defines 'shibui'. It's hushed, it could be described as reverential, and it feels very much like a converted entranceway to a private home. All it contains is an alcove with a scroll and a display case showing the two rotating items available for sale this month. Shortly after you walk in, the door next to the case will slide open and a woman will greet you.

Now, someone had called to make our reservation. That's right, it's reservations only. The ordering process was evidently a bit fraught, with the clear tonal implication being that the caller was receiving a great service in being permitted to sample these peerless products (in Japanese it's possible to convey this even while saying "Whaddya want?"). I wonder what would happen if I called.

The products this month were as follows: the two balls on the left (I think these are semi-regular), one yomogi (a weed) and one possibly nikki (sort of cinnamon), but both having gentle, impossible to describe, and really fascinating tastes and textures. The pink thing in the middle was strands of wagashi dough (rice paste) over a daifuku center (bean paste wrapped in a different rice dough) with a layer of gel somehow slid in between. The rectangle was a softly-pressed assemblage of (naturally) rice-based dough. For what it's worth, these were obviously different and better than any wagashi I've ever had. It's one of those situations where you have to have had a few, and be open to looking for the difference, but if you are it's clear. They're about Y350 each.

The non-rotating product is the yokan, a brick of red-bean paste. This too is different from any other yokan I've ever had. It's dense, tastes very natural, and is definitely 'not too sweet'. I'm told this is a tremendous compliment for sweets, which is why I've heard it so many times. The implication is that the natural sweetness of the products is sufficiently fine that it doesn't need to be masked or augmented with added sugar. This is the regular Ogura Yokan; there's an option to get Yomogi Yokan that I wouldn't ordinarily be too excited about, but after tasting the little green ball above, I've love to have a brick of it (even at Y2.9k).

Just call in advance, and don't tell them I sent you.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mameya, Shintomicho (小料理 まめや)

Shintomi is a funny little neighborhood, and I like it. It's not obviously charming - the main thing is small office buildings, but there are some nondescript modern apartments mixed in. And here and there, a shop or restaurant scratching out a living. Mameya's building, an old townhouse built sometime early in Showa, reminds me of the Little House. It's totally screened off from the street, so let's check it out, shall we?

Great job with the sensitive refit they did 6 years ago when they opened. It's really like they put in the raised floor for seats, the counter, and the new kitchen, and left everything else untouched. There's a bigger tatami-floored area upstairs that we didn't see, because Woody, Peter, Maypole (howzat for some nicknames?) and I all sat at the corner of the counter.

Sake selection isn't extravagant...but the pricing is. Funny that a place offering wholesome food at affordable prices tries so hard to make up the difference so aggressively on drinks. You can see a couple good things in the pictures - top left Kujiranami and then two varieties of Gassan that came as half-glasses of each, great idea. Then Sawahime, which I liked, but not as much as something from Azuma Rikishi (not pictured), my new favorite brewer (joining Senkin and Furosen, if you're keeping score, and I'm also currently partial to the more obvious 14-Dai, Kudokijozu, and Jikon. Who isn't?). Bottom left is a glass of god-knows-what that the master gifted us at the end. It looks like, and tastes fairly like, a really old sake, but it's only 5-6 years old and the alcohol content was 38 percent. When I asked what the heck it was, he just shook his head and grinned.

Let's touch on the food. This is homey, satisfying stuff - and for Y3.5k, great value. The starter is sake lees and cream cheese, then carrots and seaweed, then pre-sliced sazae (I think). Nice to have the snail out of the shell, with the nasty, gritty liver removed, but it still looks disturbing. Then eggplant and pepper, plus the eponymous beans. Sashimi was frankly not terrific, but the hobo was the standout for me. The crusty potatoes and fish were delicious if not exactly what you expect at a place like this (too bad, I say - crusty is tasty), then fried fish and finally sesame sauce on rice. I'll skip a pic of the dull dessert plate; it was too simple and humble.

People seemed to be dropping by for a short dinner, either after work or on the way home, so there was turnover but it stayed full. I could easily go back here for dinner - it's pleasant and welcoming, the food is tasty and healthy and well-priced. Not that the drinks are so extravagant, but I might do my drinking at home, or on an alternate night, just to show my displeasure with the pricing.

This isn't their site, but it's a nice review and has good pictures.

Pizzeria Il Tamburello, Kodenmacho (日本橋堀留町)

DISCLOSURE: I was comped Y300 on the bill for this meal.
ANOTHER DISCLOSURE: I wish people would give me free meals. What am I doing wrong? Willing to write for food, OK?

While I took this picture on a different day, it's something I've been seeing a lot lately on the way over to Nihonbashi Muromachi. The Bank of Japan and the Mandarin Oriental tower are bordered by flowering shrubs (which are above eye level). Today's weather was kinda crap; at least it hasn't started raining yet.

Because I came up with a craving for pizza, and it turned out that Tabelog's #6 recommendation in Tokyo (out of 808) was within biking distance (for your reference, da Ise is #13 today. Baggio is #21, yay Baggio! and Seirinkan is #37.). Off I went, to Muromachi and then beyond, to find a short line and a CLOSED sign on the door of Il Tamburello (ahhhh, I just realized why they have miniature tambourines on the counters). They're open until 2 with a last order at 1:30...but after they sell out the 45 or so crusts they make in the morning, thassit. I musta got lucky, because two of those crusts went down me gullet, and I was the last person outta the shop.

Lunch is basically Y1000 unless you do something bad. It starts with some kinda salad, and today the salad was soup. There was just enough in here to make it a little interesting - a touch of bacon, a grate of cheese, a sprinkle of oil. As far as throwaway starters in pizza places, this was good. Except the moody lighting.

Otsubo san (not pictued) is just the kind of ultra-serious pizza maker you would expect to find in a top pizza place. He studied in Naples, and his oven is burning wood orangely. I didn't see him smile once until the end of my lunch, when we started talking a little. The intensity came right through the smile as he asked me rapid-fire questions about country, family, and radiation, diagnosed my Japanese ability, and gave up trying to talk to me. But he smiled a little, and anyway, it's the pizza I'm interested in. Four varities at lunch; I stopped listening when I heard the daily special had corn on it. When in Napoli, might as well start with the basics.

Margherita explosion! No, not that exciting. In fact, there wasn't an offer of buffalo mozz on the menu today (sporadically available? at Y400), but the cheese was fine, the sauce was spanking fresh, and the crust was momentous. Epic? Seriously, I hope you've had crust like this. I don't love thin pizza, but this is why you eat it - the crust is like really delicious bread, chewy, savory, burned in places - and the toppings are a bonus.

As hinted above, I did a bad bad thing that increased the cost of lunch. It seems like only last night that I was lamenting my recent inability to lose weight. Now all I'm lamenting is that I didn't realize until too late that these jars of pine, corn, and hazel nuts were actually packed in honey. As soon as I picked one up, I almost cried, because I knew they were meant to go on

my bad thing, the second pizza, the 4-cheese (whose Y300 upcharge was comped, and whose lighting is really sub-par). Good heavens, this was a tasty pizza. Great ricotta, great gorgonzola, the same great crust, pure greatness. Lacking in honey. Regrets...

This vanilla panna cotta with an alcoholic berry syrup looks like a throwaway and was awesome. I don't like panna cotta either. But I do like restaurants that do their one thing to perfection, and that's all that's going on here.

Otsubo said I should come back to eat the honey and nuts on the cheese pizza, and for once I'm inclined to agree with a self-serving statement.

Also, no smoking.