Friday, May 2, 2014

Bistro Isomaru, Machida (ビストロ isomaru)

It's perhaps intentional that SFP Dining, the group that runs Bistro Isomaru, describes their various store formats as 'blands'. I'm not familiar with them - the Isomaru Suisan chain, a fried chicken wing place, and Kizuna Sushi seem to be the biggest ones. 'Bland' joking aside, it would be nice if there were more of this in America, because even as I complain that Isomaru is undifferentiated and dull, it's still pretty exciting compared to American sports bar formats. And I say this not as a person who hates his country and thinks other places are inherently more fascinating, I just say it as a realist.

Because this is pretty cool looking, innit? I mean, you can see why we would wander in here to kill time while waiting for the counter to open up at Ibuki, at least. 'Isomaru' sounds like a boat name, and the main Isomaru format looks indeed like a 'fresh off the boat, rough 'n' ready' kinda place. This is trying to be more refined - 'bistro' - but that also means the menu diverges from seafood and seemingly into 'Spain bar' territory.

We were the oldest guys by a fair few years. I would describe this as 'student' oriented, but I have a feeling I really mean it's mid-20's oriented, and I would never find myself in a student-oriented place even by accident. We drank some beers, and the seating charge just comes with a glass of grissini. They seem to have a thing about Heineken, which I have a thing against.

In the interests of keeping space open for Ibuki, we didn't eat much. The olives were poor, except the black ones, which were horrible. I guess including caper berries is a bit of a redeeming feature. The sardines had crushed garlic in the olive oil, and were reasonably OK as a result. What can you really ask for?

We were here for about 30 minutes before getting a call that our seats were ready, so I'd have to say 'Mission Accomplished'.

Bistro Agathe, Monzen Nakacho (ビストロ アギャット)

Great idea! Take a place with an awesome exterior but a terrible manager and business model, re-purpose it into a casual bistro - something Monnaka always needs but doesn't always have. I see where the place a block south of Exit 2 that went through several iterations of declining-quality French places is now a low-quality Italian place. Although I did hear recently that changing your theme from French to Italian can double your business overnight.

This is most of the interior, which has gotta make it hard to stay in business. The ghost to the left was a local and didn't mind sitting next to a baby. There's a private room with a 4-top, not pictured. There's a wine fridge.

And there's a set lunch for Y1000 (plus tax. Everyone wants to add the tax these days). I got the larger bowl of this pork-and-veg soup because "men get more soup, women get dessert" is their motto. Bread was OK and slightly refillable.
Your choice of main dish - pork with balsamic sauce or salmon with shiso pesto. Both really good, actually. A few vegetables on top, a salad on the side, you can't ask for a much better lunch than this. Especially for $10, right? Where is this culture in America?
Dessert for women turned out to be this - strawberry ice cream, a blueberry, and half a strawberry.

Actual size.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Butcher Brothers, Kanda (ブッチャーブラザーズ)

I wandered over to UrbaneNet, that most civilized of buildings, after finishing my meetings in Yaesu today. Down in the lobby I met the Preacher, who I guess never goes out for lunch, because he's a shadow of his former self and had no idea how to walk the 5 minutes up to East-side Kanda. We freestyled a bit - there are a bunch of new places since I was last there - before settling back at Butcher Brothers. I see I'm not doing any service to world vis a vis discovering this place - every other foreign food writer and blogger has been in since it opened to say how meaty, friendly, winey and cheap it is. I have nothing to add to that.
Where are those naughty brothers? There they are! We chuckled on the way out when we saw staff downstairs trimming a large cut of meat on a table that was going to be someone's dining table later. I guess space is limited. Reminds me of the terrible izakaya downstairs from my old apartment where they used to wash and cook a huge pot of rice in the street every morning.

This kinda atmosphere. Wine bottle on the walls must be the menu. It's all cheap. Sure, that's a good concept - lots of cheap meat and wine, convivial atmosphere.

and LIBERAL lashings of salt. Good heavens. This was pretty tasty as a little soup starter considering it looked like dirty water with green beans in it.
Boom, a big salty steak with some decent fries and a roasted? fried? chicken drumstick and salad. You put that all together and offer coffee and charge Y900 for it and people are bound to come back for more.
We didn't avail ourselves of the Y50 curry adder - they'll put it next to the otherwise-useless rice, so it's worthwhile - nor the free takeout coffee (I've been caffeine and alcohol free for health reasons for several months.)

The latter half of which has gone right out the window.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ibuki, Machida (風土旬彩 伊吹)

This is the story of a long and random walk around a large and boring town. If you want to cut to the chase, my 'key takeaway' is "There is only one good izakaya in Machida. I found it for you. If you're out there at dinner time, don't waste time on any other place."

But first, 'seen on the train'. My French isn't what it once was, and it wasn't what it ever needed to be, but I'm pretty sure both parts of this are wrong. Is this a new trend - 'Frapanese'?

Mmmmmmachida! I was here because I love exploring Japan so much, so despite the repeated protestations of everyone I know ("Machida sucks", "I hate Machida", and "There's nothing good there. It's just department stores and chain restaurants.") I set out to find what there was to find. There are more quirks than many towns will offer - a little warren of tiny shops like Harmonica Yokocho in Kichijoji, tons of vintage clothing, and a lot of foreign massage workers near the station after hours. And all the elevated walkways around the station, probably there just to create construction jobs at some point in the past. I was surprisingly optimistic, seeing the place after dark like this.

I had done some web-based scoping and found only one place that seemed like it had a chance of being decent. After walking for 90 minutes and not finding anything else, I gave up and tried it. The entrance wasn't promising, nor was the menu they had left at street level.
In fact, I had the distinct feeling that they were making part of their money by waylaying potential customers on the stairs.
Then I said "Ohhhhhh, why didn't you say so?" This whole "100 varieties of sake" thing only appears on their basement door. Puzzling.
But hey, they've got a whole menu of sake, and a Spring special menu, and some other books I didn't get into.

I didn't have any trouble getting into the restaurant, for obvious reasons. This is a bit of the ol' "great in the 80's" decorating style. Which always give me pause.

I liked the posters illustrating various steps in the traditional sake-making process.
But as I got more into the menu, I was more and more suspicious. There were a LOT of things on it, and I would be impressed if they actually had half of them. The prices were kinda extraordinary too - many things over Y1k per glass, quite a few in the Y2k range, and a bunch with 'secret' marks so you'd have to ask how much they were. When I started looking at the food menu and found the prices similarly unappetizing, I got the uncomfortable feeling that it was time to make a change. So shibori and glass of water be damned, I grabbed my jacket and phone and hightailed it for the stairs.

That was kinda depressing, but you've gotta save your liver and wasteline for the times that count. I figured I'd maybe just go home, or have a ramen and go home (there's a LOT of ramen in Machida, and many of them look good). Then I saw another places advertising jizake and tasty foods or words to that effect. The poster looked a little tired, but after making the trip, why not check it out?
The stairs were just as unappealing as at the first place.
But they had nice banners outside, and room at the counter.
And a big, serious-looking master with an extremely serious knife. Torching a huge wedge of kuromutsu.

As soon as I sat down, the old fellow to my right introduced himself in halting English. He turned out to be a PhD professor of dental implantology and had studied in Michigan for three years. Then the waitress introduced herself in English. She studied in Boston for 9 months. This was all very perplexing, especially since it turned out I was the first foreigner ever to cross their threshold in 6 years of operation.

The couple to the left was friendly, but the guy was annoying. Come to think of it, I'm not sure why I liked the woman - she gave me an extended speech about she once went to America and the food was all terrible except for one thing, and it took her 5 minutes to remember that that thing was 'brownies'. The other couple seemed nice but didn't say a word in my direction. Mostly I talked to the master and the waitress about sake, and life in Japan, and life in America.

And kuromutsu. I ordered this even before getting the starter since I was so hungry from all the walking. This was a big fish, and a beautiful presentation, and a solid serving. It wasn't the tastiest fish, which was nobody's fault but the fish.
The starter turned out to be a scoop of potato salad, which was good too. At this point I was starting to think this was a quality establishment.
Which thought I confirmed with a nuta of red clams and negi. Delicious.
And a mixed vegetable appetizer. Snap peas, deep-fried mountain potatoes, kinpira of spring udo.
At some point I had to get into the sake menu. I'm not sure what their thing is, because they crossed out a few of the options on here, and clearly had many more bottles in the fridge. You can see that prices aren't low, but quality is high and the pour is reasonable. The Ibu was a standout - first time for me. I also revisited what I thought I had had at Tsuchi to Ao last week - Shoryu Hourai, but now that I look, that seems to have been a different Hourai. This one was a 12% alcohol genshu. Anyone in the audience heard of that? A first for me, Soft and delicious.
This glass could fairly be described as soft and delicious too. So nice just for water.
Here, browse some of the menu if you want. A lot of nice things that you'd want to order.
I was feeling pretty happy at this point.
And thinking about getting some hot foods, couldn't resist order hot sake in the super-awesome individual warmers lined up on the far side of the counter. The master gave me some lines about heating to the proper temperature, and was properly horrified when I confessed to using the microwave at home. For the record, he gave me a little room-temperature pour of some aged sake, but the thing in the warmer is a Gunma Izumi yamahai that was very dry but otherwise very fitting.
Shazbots, this is grated mountain potato and sea urchin wrapped in seaweed and deep-fried, and good heavens was it tasty.
Although no more than the few stalks of green bean wrapped in Japanese beef and sweetly sauced.
I was the only customer at this point, although a regular guy called ahead to say he would be arriving just as I was leaving. Since we were hanging out together with no other customers to tip off, the master opened this oddity - Aramasa made a run of 92%-polished junmai. Which means this doesn't even qualify as quality sake, right? They're just doing it to see what happens, I guess. What you can read in English says that the outer part of the rice is all 'fat and protein', and you need the pure, starchy core if you want to make good sake. So what happens when you leave that impure-sounding stuff on the grains is that it tastes sweet and fruity and very light. Not at all impure or what you would have been led to believe. Very drinkable. Picnic sake, almost. The bottle on the left is cedar-barrel aged, but I didn't get to try it.

In this case, despite the Machida location, there might really be a next time.

OK, I liked it enough that I went back with other people. They were full on a Friday night, so we had to wait for about 40 minutes to get in. 

Whole fried fish as a starter - eat the bones and everything. Flounder and squid sashimi, both excellent. Master preparing the kuromutsu that shows up in the next picture. Best when eaten warmer - the flavor seems to be limited by cold. Spring vegetable tempura including udo and urui (which I include to remind myself of the name, since I've had it a couple times before but had forgotten). Fried snapper, with the lovely crispy scales left on. The other whole fried fish starter to round out the set.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Trattoria RYUDO, Roppongi (トラットリア リュウド)

My opinion of Roppongi dining isn't great. You say 'Roppongi', I think 'bad cost performance'. This place is the exception that proves the rule, as I like to say. Straight-up great cooking at great prices, only a few minutes from Nogizaka station or Roppongi crossing, at the end of a quiet street. Perfect.

The maitre d' used to be the chef, so he's probably the owner, or at least the manager. He changed jobs when he fired everyone else, redecorated, and changed the menu a few months ago. The funny thing about all that is, it worked. The place was full on a Monday night (albeit the night before a holiday) with groups of 20-somethings as well as our little table of older folks. Nice atmosphere, right? If you look at the web site, you'll get the feeling it's one of those fusty, mid-quality places. The redecor includes artful B&W photos of Italy and jazz background music, so you know it's supposed to be a clean and stylish update.

The menu has a bunch of courses at very accessible prices as well as ample small plates for sharing. I'd really recommend getting a mixed appetizer. Just looking at this is making me grateful I got to eat it - house-cured salmon, delicious fresh cheese that tasted awfully like it was buffalo-derived, great olives, delicious salami...this is what Italian food and fresh ingredients are supposed to be all about.
Bringing your own wine for Y2k a bottle is also what it's all about. Champagne and Burgundy. Good stuff, thanks!
Being a casual meal, I just had some casual ravioli. They do a ravioli of the day, which might often be this long-form thinger stuffed with cheese and pork, topped with creamy sauce, a little tomato, and a fried sage leaf. There was also a meat tagliatelle on the table that looked good.
But nothing looked as good as the black veal! Carbonized morsels? Chunks coated in squid-ink breadcrumbs and pan-fried. This was wonderful, and I confirm the calves didn't die in vain.
Although it IS confronting, isn't it?
Things filled up pretty quickly after we got there, and if it wasn't heaving when we left, it was decidedly full and buzzy. Good for all ages.
Especially good for 44 year olds at home as a nightcap, thanks again! Must be nice to live right around the corner.
As I suspect is true of many nights in Roppongi for kids of all ages, time went by quickly, and I was late to get back on the train before I knew it. One note for kids of various ages, you should get your nails redone once they've grown out this much. It impedes Candy Crush play.

Hard to impress your neighbors that way. 
050-5872-3036 is the reservation number.