Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ant & Bee, Roppongi (アントンビー)

Years of my life, I spent here, years. Seeing Mori Tower gives me a peculiar feeling; not like the dread I used to get when I would catch a glimpse of Chifley Tower across Sydney Harbor on a Sunday, but a little twinge. Fortunately it's been years in arrears since I felt the certain intensity of working up there.

Roppongi has perhaps changed in that time. Or perhaps not. Certainly there are some new stores, but they look much like the old ones. The faces must have changed, but I never saw them before, and they must look the same too.

One thing that hasn't changed is the freakshow nature of Roppongi at dusk - do those people really think they're stylin', they're lookin' good? Are there people that think they do? Do they think I look that bad?

I just sat here outside Ant and Bee waiting for Big Bird, watching the river flow. For a while I talked to my new friend Cherry. She was here from China, for work, and said her broken English was less broken than her Japanese. I still don't know exactly what kind of work she was doing, but she gradually got the point that I was just killing time and didn't need any work done, and she drifted off to meet her friend.

The newish A+B forms the keystone in the triumvirate of Tokyo's Best Beer Bars, they being Popeye, Ushitora, and Craftheads. Alert readers, the ones that don't go to A+B every night, will note that that's four establishments. They'll also note the excellent geographic dispersion of those places along the axis from Ryogoku through Roppongi and Shibuya and on to Shimo Kita.
You now have no excuse for not drinking the world's best beers, unless you're put off by the extraordinary prices that get charged for them in Tokyo. Or don't like beer. Whatever.

You may be less impressed to see 'only' 12 Japanese micro-brews on here. It may help if you know that this is just Side 1 of the menu. Would it also help if I mentioned that I had barely heard of any of the brewers therein? Or the small keg sizes they order, which produces daily turnover? Or the convenient small and medium glass sizes at Y700 and Y900?

If all that doesn't help, then god help you, because I can't.

The last thing I can maybe offer to get you over the hump is that the food is pretty good. Better than it needs to be, considering how great the beer is. You can tell by the way the chef sprinkles his salt that he's a chef, not just a guy making sausages in a beer bar.

Hell, I'm not complaining about sausages in a beer bar. That would be un-American as well as untrue to my German heritage. The great thing about the menu here is that I actually wanted to order stuff from it. This puts it way above the menus at Tokyo's other three best bars. Let's just go through what we ate (over 3 hours): meat-stuffed, polenta-coated, fried olives; pickled sausages; corned beef; blue-cheese sauce eggplant; whole chicken that we didn't order, but it looked nice, pan-frying on the stove before roasting; fried octopus; fish and chips; (in fish shape). We over-ordered fried food, didn't we? I say 'we' like anyone other than me was involved in the ordering.

There must be a healthier menu there. After the third beer it was tough to look at it. Fortunately those glasses really are small enough to let you try a fair few things before calling it a night.

Also keep in mind they're open, for real, until 7 AM. Perfect for those blisteringly-hot, already-headachey Saturday mornings in Roppongi.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mitakaya Sakaba, Morishita (みたかや酒場)

I almost feel bad writing about Mitakaya. Let me count the ways. Just two, actually.
1. It's on my street, and I like to support local business, but it took me approximately 2,500 nights to go for the first time.
2. The Mitakas, and their customers, are the nicest people, and I would hate for anyone to get the idea that I mean anything other than sincere appreciation here.

How does the entrance look to you? Usually I see it early in the morning while jogging. At night there's nothing around it, so it's a bit like a beacon of hospitality. They open early, and earlier on Sundays.

You can stop by any time. I'm sure the charge is cheap.

Actually you can't stop by any time - it gets crowded, and full, pretty much every night. There seems to be a good turnover of people coming in for dinner and leaving though.

You could probably say it's a bastion of the neighborhood. Mitaka san (I'm assuming that's his name) putters around placidly in the kitchen. I don't think he ever gets upset. However regular customers know that if it takes too long to get their food, a reminder is in order. He forgot someone's potatoes in the microwave.

Drinks are cooling in the fridge behind him. And cucumbers. What should we have?

Yessss, a delightful glass of automatic-hangover 'white liquor' and a cheerful bottle of Hoppy Dark to mix with it. This really does taste a bit like dark beer. It's not a bad thing.

There's also beer. And chu-hai. And some sake, but it was Takashimizu, and Mitaka san laughed, unoffended, when I ordered Hoppy after seeing the bottle.

And the tuna, the 'signature item' here, the one that's mentioned in the increasingly-frequent magazine articles, is extremely good for Y600. I know it looks a little funny, and it certainly has its fair share of tendon, but it's a tasty piece of tuna. Or this one was.

I rounded out my dinner with a dish of cooked spinach, in dashi, topped with fish flakes. And I liked it.

This is where the magic happens.

No, I just like saying that. It's been a while since the kitchen was tidied up. But hey, I hope I look as good when I'm this age.

Actually I AM this age. They opened in January 1975, which means that Mitakaya Sakaba and I are the same age (though I get the edge by a few months).

Mrs. Mitaka is certainly the energy of the operation, but between them they have the balance just right. Of course, with her sitting at the counter and entertaining customers, relaying their orders to him without standing up, some might question the balance. I confess I ordered a drink from her just to watch as she immediately called it out to him. I smiled, and the other customers laughed because they saw what was up.

We were all friends anyway.

Kajima Liquors, Ningyocho (加島酒店)

As foreigners, and especially as foreigners with an interest in 'deep' Japanese culture, we get cut a lotta slack. We get to go to some of the weirdest, localest little places you can imagine, and people are by and large nice. Or better. Now that I mention it, they're usually welcoming, interested, and friendly. It's sometimes hard to shut them up and get out the door.

That makes it all the more surprising and painful when they're not. Kajima is a liquor shop that slaps boards on top of beer crates and converts to a standing bar at 6 PM. I've wanted to go here for months, but you have to arrive in a slippery 10-minute window. Otherwise it's still closed or already full.

I was stoked (dude) that I hit the sweet spot tonight. Then the little master there looked at me like an alien and stammered..."Uhhhh, drink?" Why yes, bartender. "Hmmm, it's a little full...[other than these 4 tables]."

But I assumed people would warm up and say hi. They look like folks. So I just stood there while he pottered around and set up a new table, away from the big boys who get their own can-chuhai from the fridge on the way in.

They didn't warm up. One guy looked at me for a second, once.

I got to stand by myself and look out the window until I finished my beer and left without looking at anyone.

Needless to say, I'll be back.

Shun-poo ramen, Akihabara (麺 旬風)

Another day, another ramen. I was braving the heat again to ride about on my bike, this time up by Akiba. On the east side of the highway, in that weird strip of tall buildings under and next to the tracks, I popped out of a random alley and faced this happy site. I try to listen to the quiet rumblings of destiny, or "the universe's farts", and thus would never say no to this circumstance.

That was even before I realized this place was called 'Syunpoo', or 'seasonal crap'. I love a place that keeps up with the seasons, and it's terrific that they're so simple and humble about the quality of their food. False modesty, though, because it's quite good.

There was another customer at the same time as me (2 PM), so I don't know why they seemed so depressed. Those papers above the counter list the merits of their product; I always think having signs in the store that say how good everything is smacks of desperation.

Especially confusing because I'd be pleased as a parakeet if I could turn out ramen like this - two types of pork; an almost-perfect egg; wheaty, tough noodles handmade in the shop; and a really good pork-bone soup. It's a mystery. This place should be a regular stop on the ramen tour of the central north.

The ramen tour of the northeast is on indefinite hold.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Juhachiban, Kanda (十八番)

Have you seen this picture before? I have a feeling I've taken it before, like the taxi driver with the red hair who squats and smokes (that picture is Nihonbashi, but I saw him outside my house one time).

The lion seems to be saying "Suckazzzz! I've got it made in the shade!" but the sun will soon catch him crying.

Getting a random thought: It's so hot, only hiyashi chuka will do. Left me walking for ages. I would have been crying too, but that's like, you know, giving water to the dead. Instead I just held out for block after block until I saw a place advertising cold Chinese noodles.

They didn't advertise the delightfully downtown ambience; not quite Taishoken-caliber (if you don't have shop-kids scampering about without shoes, it's a 5-point deduction), but very suitable.

Ohhh, excellent. Very droll. Very suitable. What you have here is your basic ramen noodle, cooked and chilled, sauced with a sweet-soy-vinegar sorta broth, and smothered with these traditional toppings. Actually I lie, because they've embellished it with the pure-white shirataki tangle on the left - which is nice because it's an interesting texture and has zero calories.

Speaking of texture, why are these noodles always slimy when I make them at home? You can buy fresh ramen in the stores, but they don't come out store-style even when I wash and chill them real good.

Ahhh, the mysteries of the universe.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ogura, Jinbocho (割烹 おぐら)

What's uuuuuuup! I was trying to take a random picture on the street while Volleyball and I waited for the light to change, just something to say "Jimbocho is the sports-store neighborhood." These women were pretty in-the-spirit, so I took another one with them posing better. And then got lost for 5 minutes looking for Ogura.

It's funny, I walked by this place a bunch of times without really connecting that it was the one getting the good scores on Tabelog. Those high scores are an interesting point (if you're mildly obessed with the success of crowdsourcing) - the COB used to say that Tabelog was unfair to places that appealed to older customers, because the youngsters who post there wouldn't like the older atmospheres. Well, Ogura must be the exception that proves the rule - those high scores somehow cover the fact that it's a mediocre kappo geared toward salarymen on entertainment outings. Damn.

They had the assortment plate waiting for us when we sat down; I can't help thinking that's kinda lame. It illustrates my point - they're doing this so you won't have any awkward pause while waiting for snacks to come so you can start drinking. Clients might not like that.

Anyhoo, OK sesame tofu, OK 'edamami beans', nice abalone (I do like abalone. Looks gross, tastes good.), soy-pickled firefly squid (a bit much).

I made a new rule for myself after this - I'm going to start saying I don't like torigai when people ask if there's anything that should be left out of a course. It's not that I hate it, but I've had it enough times, in enough contexts, to know that I just don't like the texture. The tuna akami and snapper here were good, and it looks pretty, at least.

However this was a very good chawan mushi. Considering the other food, you might think they just got lucky here. The texture was firmer than the usual, without the extra-soup-running-out-the-bottom that you often (always) get. This was terrific, and the little sliver of kabosu peel on top hit you in the nose with limey fragrance as soon as you got the lid off. Good job, Ogura.

The eel was pretty good too, but it sure doesn't look like anything special. It was just sauced-and-steamed; not sure if there's any southern theme at Ogura or if they just don't like grilling stuff, but no crispitude at all (which is more Tokyo-style). Tasty. And hey, at an eel specialist, the price of this would be about 1/3 of the whole course here.

Actually the describe themselves as a sorta eel specialist (and fugu in winter), so I was really expecting to have hamo. Not getting it was a letdown.

Meanwhile, between a pumpkin, a potato, an eggplant, and some fuki shoots, not a hint of interest.

Thankfully this tofu croquette was delicious, with good spicing and a crumbly texture inside the thick crust. An interesting version of a common dish.

Likewise these tea soba - really tasting like tea, and extremely chewy. Watch out for these if you see them - it's unlikely they'll be in the same style, but it's worth trying. This was a satisfying way to end even though the seaweed torn up on top was large and damp.

And for once, you know, I actually enjoyed the fruit that came at the end. This melon was so sweet and so ripe that it kinda hurt my tongue. Sugar burn, I like to call it. I'll leave out the 'simple, humble' joke, just this once, and say that this really was a good way to finish. It's a rare course that improves into the last 2-3 courses, and while I couldn't tell you to go to Ogura...really under any circumstance, we left pretty happy.

One day, I want to be able to ask for a company receipt at the end of dinner, just like everyone else always does.

Katsugiya ramen, Kanda (かつぎや)

It's tempting to give up sometimes. These guys went to Katsugiya just after it opened and did a much more complete job of writing it up than I ever would.

On the other hand, I bet most of you can't read that crap. I sure can't! Anyway, I had a different dish. So here goes.

This was the last place I wanted to hit on the street a bit south of Yasukuni in Awajicho / Jinbocho. For your reference, Shi was still the best. (har-de-har)
Katsugiya, on the other hand, is in the 'quirky' camp. They specialize in tantanmen, the spicy sesame noodles that I love love love. I'm glad I learned recently that curry-rice is a popular summer food because the spiciness is supposed to help cool you off. Until then I thought I was just a completist fool, eating hot noodles in the middle of summer.

Japanese people might think I was a fool for calling this summer since the official announcement hasn't been pronounced yet, but if it's over 90 degrees, I'm making an executive call there.

So hey, I made a concession to the heat by having the soupless version. I keep ruining the careful symmetry of these bowls by pulling out a little noodle for you to inspect, but I know you wanna see them. The stuff on top is planks of deep-fried spare rib. It's good. The noodles and saucing weren't so memorable, unfortunately, even though I ordered the top-level spiciness.

Maybe it was just the weather.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hantoco Cafe, Shintomi (ハントコcafe)

Wooden and I just wandered around a bit on the way to the station from Rusai. That was a pretty unsatisfying meal, and this little place looked awfulllly inviting as we strolled past.

I'd seen it before, of course, but never noticed that it had a 'sake ball' outside, and we were doubly sold. We sat at the little chairs and table by the door and let the cheerful service wash over us.

Likewise the heavy flow of mid-evening traffic to and from the highway entrance nearby. Tokyo has so much potential for outdoor dining, and wastes every bit of it. This qualifies as a pleasant terrace if you're in Shitamachi.

And look, this qualifies as a pleasant restaurant in any part of town. Everyone's got their quirk (at least, I don't think there's much point on going to places that don't have their own quirk), and the one here is that everything is from Aichi prefecture's Cheetah Penninsula. That's the east side of Ise Bay, opposite Ise, in case you were wondering (and we were discussing).

I have no idea what the food is like; I just saw them preparing a nice-looking natto pizza (to the extent that such things can be nice-looking). The sake selection was very cool - who would think there were 6 or 8 sake brewers down there? Even better, who would think you could ask a pleasant, young waitress for a sake recommendation "Something with a lot of umami, like it's been cold-aged," and have her come up trumps?

Not me, obviously. But I'd go back here.

Rusai Doshin, Shintomi (潤菜 どうしん)

Years ago I used to read Tokyo Calendar all the time. I was really looking for the little places that were reasonably-priced but still lived up to the standards that I like to think Tokyo Calendar sets for all the restaurants that they allow to buy space in their pages (just guessing here). Rusai Doshin, in the 'where-the-heck-is-that' neighborhood of Shintomi, was a place that seemed awfully appealing. It was actually the weird name that put me off. Now I've been. You can see what you think, but I've got some other ideas that you might prefer.

Downstairs, incidentally, is a nice looking wine bar called 11 Plats.

Upstairs is a tiny place with a lot of tea-ceremony sorts of decorations. It was disturbing to get here while it was still bright and hot, but I think that about any fine dining destination. Cheap places with cold beer and terraces, bring it on.

If you go, watch out for the urn at left. It really is water for the tea ceremony, which means there's charcoal in the bottom and the whole thing is just below boiling.

Starting with a cold eggplant, already boiled or perhaps roasted. Or maybe steamed. My main concern at the moment is my inability to find water eggplants in stores, so I could take or leave this. But the roasted sesame sauce was pleasant.

This clear soup was better - really terrific croquettes of tofu in a good soup with a few segments of potato shoot. Have you had potato shoot before? It's sorta like fuki, which is sorta like celery. Soft-boiled celery, OK? But the tofu thingers, ganmo if you like, were delicious.

This assortment of vinegary things was more assorted than delicious, I'm afraid. All normal items - mozuku seaweed, a little shishamo or baby ayu fish, pumpkin, lotus root, firefly squid, mackerel, some other fish - none particularly notable except the tasty lotus root and the yucky squid. A plate that had a nice impact on arrival, but didn't fill us with joy, nor does it look great in the picture.

Here's an interesting one, also very summery. It's clam jelly, but they've left the jelly soft enough so that didn't set, and thus it's like a cold, very thick, sour soup with lots of clams in the bottom. Kinda cool idea.

Speaking of 'cool ideas', I'm reminded of a number of places that I love where they stock a good variety of Japanese rice wine, or 'sakay', and serve it at reasonable prices. I'm reminded that this is not one of those places. The sakay list is reasonable, perhaps 8 or 10 types, but the prices are twice what you might pay in a 'cool idea' salon. I abstained out of protest.

I can't remember if these dumplings with mustard on top were meat or tofu. My bad.

However I'm sure that these boiled new onions with raw okra (really digging deep to say "healthy food" were not topped with meat, but with heshiko. You should add heshiko to your vocabulary. It's a weird one, mackerel preserved in fermented rice husks, but it's tasty and it also impresses the average Japanese person. They'll either be stunned that you know what it is because they know and love it, or they'll be stunned that you know while they're wondering what the hell it is.

It's a weird twist, but this was definitely the high point of the meal. It's not often that you get a piece of grilled 'scabbard-fish', and it's certainly not often that you think 'gee skippy, that's one of the best grilled fish-pieces I've ever had'. But you never know with fish, and that's the beauty of it. The grilling of this was also a beauty.

This is also why photography never captures the best elements of places like this, don't you think? The picture looks very brown and ordinary.

So does this one, with the exception that the eggplant in this shot was brown and ordinary. I think it may have been a special red eggplant though, so perhaps I lie and/or bullshit you. The yuba ankake around it was nice though.

With that, we were pretty much done. Here are the rice, pickles and soup to fill in the cracks. Special mention to the pickles for being dislikable, which is a serious rarity with me. I guess they were house-made, and in some sort of extra-natural style that didn't agree with my tongue?

The dessert course was agreeable, at least, but red-pepper mousse is almost always thuslike. We've gotten to the point in Tokyo where we're not impressed by vegetable desserts any more, especially when they're red (bell) pepper. Too bad that we're all jaded. We need to shake things up a bit.

The people at the next table exclaimed that this was a bit like a 'zunda', and I agree. It's a slice of thick jelly made from fava beans or broad beans or something, and was nice - again you have to like sweetened-vegetable objects, but this was a good one.

And the tea was a solid finish, although I noted, haha, that they were serving us in cheap tea bowls. After asking a potter, I know a bare one or three things to look for in these (have you seen the $3,000 ones in the stores and thought "My kid coulda made that!"?), and this wasn't it. Still, who cares?

I mean, I mentioned it, so I guess that's one person, but who else cares?