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.

Hiroshou Hakata Tempura, Yokohama Center Minami (ひろしょう)

Hey, you're special to me, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Just by appearing in this uncredited picture (or reading this otherwise pedestrian blog entry), you've done a service to humanity. So don't think you don't count. Everyone is special.

Hiroshou is pretty special too. Who even knew there was such a thing as Hakata tempura? Now someone and I do. This place may be new, because the branch doesn't feature on Hiroshou's web site. If you're in the otherwise godforsaken Center Minami station neighborhood (notable in my mind now only for the big baby goods stores there), this is a great choice for lunch or dinner.
Because they hook you up, OK? The table set comes with the tempura trays, bowls of dip with extra gratings of radish, a cup of pickles, and a cup of their signature mentaiko/seaweed blend.

Did I say 'a bottomless cup'? Cuz that's what it is.
That's because they're trying to sell stuff too. Maybe the few stores they have are an ad for their mail order business? They have these yuzukosho sauces on every table (thinner than what you and I are used to, or in fact the genuine Fukuoka products I've had, but shakeable), and for sale at the desk along with various forms of mentaiko.

We only had two cups each of pickles and mentai. Sensible eating, wot.
Nice tables with a view over the huge square that defines the area. Decent counter. Sort of an attempt to make it feel gritty and Fukuoka even though it's in the middle of a brand-new, totally sterile town. We walked around for 15 minutes looking for ramen, didn't see a single one, and gave up. But ending up at this place was a definite win.
Because the Y1k lunch set includes super-sized rice, soup, the aforementioned pickles and mentai, and all this. A big slice of squid (because deep fried food with a side of fish eggs doesn't have enough cholesterol), a shrimp, an eggplant slice.

The style of frying is odd - it's very light in color and texture, and they didn't have the oil quite hot enough for it to stay clean.
Green pepper and pumpkin. Not surprisingly, the pumpkin was tasty. It always is, expecially when battered and fried.
White fish (in the back) and a thin slice of pork. I guess this is the other thing that's 'Hakata' about the food? You'd never get meats like this in Edomae tempura, just lots of fish. Their separate-item menu on the wall had this pork cutlet, chicken tenders, and chicken thighs as meat options. The pork is a decent idea, although I had to drain some oil off it first to feel wholesome. Although the oil was very clean, so who cares.
For American readers, this is super-sized rice. And it usually costs Y50 extra, but they do it as a special deal at lunch. Everyone around us was getting it. That's a bargain in Japan, where almost nothing is free, and if it is it comes with fanfare.

Putting as much mentai on your rice is close to priceless though. That's the biggest deal of all as far as I'm concerned.

Recommended if you're in the area, although I don't know why you would be. We looked at each other after the first bite to say "OMFG" and by the end of lunch we were stuffed and very happy. Perhaps not this happy, but happy.

Two links for you since I can't find a web page or phone # for this shop.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Coulis, Shintomi

After several lunches, I finally managed to make good on a dinner at Coulis. It turns out they really do serve you 10 courses for Y5.5k, and the vegetables are still great. I recommend setting aside a solid 3 hours for the kitchen to push out those dishes, and getting in quick since I still think bankruptcy is the likely outcome at these prices. As an aside, they just celebrated 5 years in business.

Here's what they're going for - artistic plates with a lot of vegetables and a little fish or meat, prepared simply. It mostly succeeds, and again, see also, in regards to, the price.

Fried baby fish. Bread crumbs. Blue cheese sauce.
Oyster, delivered from Mie this morning. Salad. White wine jelly. Fabulous oyster.

On the 'wine' front, they have a decent little list and fridge, and good selections by the glass, but if I was going here more seriously I'd be exercising the Y2k BYO policy vigorously.
Smoked duck several ways. Actually 'kamo negi', which is both an expression something like "setting yourself up for failure" and a reference to duck and Japanese leeks going well together (as they do in soba restaurants).

So a duck and leek meatball on top, with a fried leek sliver serving as a 'stem' to make the whole thing cherry-like. Delicious.
Underneath, a cloud of smoke with a piece of smoked duck and chips of fried duck bacon. There were two smoky courses in the dinner, and there was always a little smoke in the air as different tables got those courses at different times.
Little white fish, cooked, with a cauliflower mousse and stalks of green things. Delicious, especially with the fish, of which there was not quite enough. The cake is fukinotou-flavored, which continues a series of vegetable-flavored cakes that they've done (none of which I've had, but I've heard from Samwise that he's had radicchio and even moreheya-flavored cakes). The turnip slice is present.
It's a rare bagna cauda that doesn't make you think the kitchen is lazy. Here's one of them. Vegetables included some sort of mutant 4-inch bean sprouts with a strong, distinctive taste; fiddlehead fern sprouts; purple asparagus shavings; and deep-fried udo. The crumbs around the plate aren't pepper, which would be lazy; they're spiced bread crumbs, and cheese. The single shrimp is wrapped in kataifi and fried. The orange sauce was delicious. This dish was a highlight of sorts.
There's a salad in every meal at Coulis - the '15 vegetable' kind. They also come with a little surprise of rice and meat at the bottom. In this case, they also come with cheese, I think, that's been frozen in liquid nitrogen and smokes all over when it's spooned onto the salad. Not sure why it needs to be this way.
This awful-looking plate is some delicious firefly squid, nanohana, and a leaf that's either dehydrated (I thought) or fried (someone thought). Good stuff.
Another multi-layer dish - snapper in lemongrass broth on top, scallop underneath.

The fried mushrooms were the best part of this, really good. The fish was a little fishy to me, and the lemongrass broth wasn't sufficiently Thai or anything else distinctive - an unformed thought.
The spaghetti technique is maybe also lifted from these guys - halfway down the page you'll see hazelnut spaghetti. In this case it's scallop noodle on a piece of shiitake.
Delicious pork, terrific meat jelly, smoking hay underneath...inappropriate strawberry-vinegar sauce. But delicious pork.
Tomato and strawberry cake. Everything wrapped around the cake to make a tight little ball. Someone thought (correctly) that this would have been better with the tomatoes peeled so it was easier to cut and smoother to eat. Kind of a weak ending, honestly. I was expecting more multi-flavored, multi-layer, ice cream-laden goodness like I've seen in other reviews.

That, then, is Coulis for dinner. I think you'd enjoy it, and it's certainly interesting and good value for Y5.5k. I can't help thinking though, that you get a lot of the benefit for way less money if you go for lunch. The crazy vegetables are the highlight, and a big lunch salad plus some snacks is an agreeable way to proceed.

Choose your own adventure.