Friday, February 27, 2015

Seikaiha, Tamagawagakuenmae (青海波, 玉川学園前)

The finest dining establishment in all of Tamagawagakuenmae. It's a bold claim considering it's the only place I've been to, but this is a pretty sweet izakaya, and TGGEM is a smallish, sleepy station. It's nearly as good as Ibuki, which is at the next station, the relatively enormous Machida. So if you're in TGGEM, this is the place to go. If you're at another of the little local stops along Odakyu, this is also a decent idea. If you're in the city, there are a few other places I could recommend.
How did I get to be here? The Woodsman has a theory that non-smoking izakayas are the place to go, being indicative of a certain focus on the part of the owner on food and his health rather than keeping their target market open to people that smoke. So if you look for nihonshu-focused, non-smoking izakayas, you won't go far wrong. I have not yet known this theory to be incorrect. Seikaiha announces their non-smokingness about 5 steps up from the street.
10 seats at the counter, one low table, and a row of bottles announcing, nay commemorating, those who have come and gone. It comes to me as I write that the row of bottles is also a metaphoric fence between the master and his customers. He's not a talkative fellow. In fact I didn't exchange a word with him all night, and only heard him talk at the tail end of my stay when a regular asked him a direct question. His wife does all the order taking and serving and interacting, though still not in as warm a style as you might like. All of which is funny when I know from their blog that they got back the previous day from a week in Okinawa, and one of the regulars told me the master is also a ukulele enthusiast.

He keeps his instrument well out of sight. Mostly he just stays behind the fence of bottles and cuts fish, under his hand-written banner announcing the day's fish and their provenance. Interesting in this list is the trout, you never see that.
Keeping things simple, the sake list is also on the wall. There are the 9 here and one 'monthly', although I would think that the posters change whenever a bottle is empty. The list leans relatively heavy, and to try to counter that I had the Kujiranami, Sharaku, and Kinko (warm) to finish.
Before we can finish, we have to start. The master seemed to announce how serious he is about the food by topping a good bowl of greens and nameko mushrooms in dashi with chrysanthemum leaves, and plating those leaves with the special super-sharp metal chopsticks that chefs sometimes use for fine plating.

Oh, and the bowl. Is this Arita pottery? It looks like some plates I got at Dengama.
The sake serving style is cute too. Smallish glass, on a saucer with the traditional blue and white rings for color evaluation. And the glass is overpoured, and the saucer filled, and it's about two glasses total.
This is also about two things in total, and they're both traditional drinking snaxxx. You recognize cream cheese that's been preserved in sake lees (but not for long enough in this case) and you may not recognize heshiko, mackerel preserved in salt and rice bran and salt. And also salt. First time I've had heshiko in slices with the skin and bones, which is a pain in the tush. Usually they pick the meet for you.
The meat's fully picked on this plate. The highlights were the trout in the middle and the painfully small pile of white shrimp at bottom right. I love all the little spring shrimps.
Just like I love nuta, which is always some combination of greens and seafood mixed with vinegar miso. This might have been firefly squid; it certainly looks like it. Or I may be getting confused with other nutas I ate this week.
I'm not getting confused with other wagyu tatakis topped with wasabi greens that I ate this week. Delicious bowl right here.
My neighbor to the left (not pictured, peeing) was talkative. He works in Otemachi, as a manager in the ambulance department of the fire department, and was a cool guy. This guy also seems to be a regular, and he sums up the contemplative mood of the place. Not a lot of talking, just quiet consideration of delicious food and sake. My ambulance-chasing friend told me the master not only hates smoking, he'll refuse entry to people who seem drunk.
Which seems like a shame, because they could use some fried food to soak up their drunkenness. This was some kind of seafood satsumaage, whose provenance I've otherwise forgotten.
And these seaweed-wrapped, tempura-fried long potatoes were reasonable, if not as good as the ones at Ibuki. But as my neighbor pointed out, that's not a real fair comparison when Ibuki puts sea urchin in his and charges a bunch more.
In retrospect, the master is pretty well into pottery too. This is the serving style for atsukan.

In retrospect, I bet the master wouldn't be very happy to know that I was publishing a bunch of pictures and encouraging people to visit him. He's got a lot of work to do and is perfectly content to be turning out great stuff in his home town.

Which is noble, and I think him for it, and I'm going back to Tokyo now.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Manaita, Takadanobaba (真菜板, 高田馬場)

After not really having much fun at Shimomiya, and not even being able to drown our sorrows due to the ordering difficulties and overall stylistic incompatibility, Bird and I were desperate to go somewhere else. Since we were up for whatever, the conversation went like this:
"Hey, there was another place I attached my eye to, I think I sent you the link, in Shimo Ochiai or Takadanobaba."
"I might remember that. But I can't look it up on my dumb phone."
"Maybe we can just try to find it."
"Did you look at the map?"
"I think it's somewhere between here and Baba. Let's just go northeast, keep our peepers peeled, and hope for the best."
"Well, I didn't look at the map, but I'm up for whatever."
And minus one brief bit of confusion at the Otakibashi intersection where Bird saved our bacon by pointing out which way the subway line runs, that and 15 minutes of walking was all it took to get us in front of this place. There was some definite consternation on the part of the master when I peeled back the noren, but there were also two open seats nearest the door, and the other customers insisted we take them. Which is indicative of several aspects of this place, in retrospect

I can just imagine the conversation that led to this couple opening this place.
"Hey, I like to sit around and drink, and you cook pretty well, so howzabout it?"
"Sure, I'm up for whatever."

Actually that's all the conversation I can imagine, but that's how it went down. The master doesn't master a whole lot, he mostly sits in front of the fridge while his wife cooks her own stuff at her own pace. It's a LOT like your mom cooking whatever you want, and the regulars were encouraging us to just ask for stuff even if we didn't see it.

The regulars made this place. We sat next to a watch repairman and a soba maker. Everyone knew each other, and they were there to have a good time. With a vengeance. It was contagious. And memorable.

There was buri sashimi on the menu, winter buri, and our order caused mama to pull out a big hunk of fish wrapped in the green paper I associate with Tsukiji and start sawing on it. This was exemplary fish, and I felt silly for being mildly concerned about the Y1200 price on the menu once I saw the volume of the rough chunks. Just saying that reminds me of this time in high school when I got a bottle of amaretto, which I've never drunk since.
With the buri, we needed some drinks. You know why I attached my eye to this place, right? It's the nihonshu, as usual. Here's the menu.

More properly, here's the list of kura. I can't remember what I tried to order, but since we had ordered the buri, the master said "That doesn't go with buri." Strangely, I was unfazed by this and told him we were Up for Whatever. Whatever turned out to be a nice, fruity Sougen. There were at least three Sougens in the fridge, and likewise a couple options from each of the other excellent kura listed there.
It's a relationship thing. It must be, and the big-format bottle is another indicator. I would love to tell you what this bottle is called, but it's 9 liters, half a tobin, and I have no idea. Okuharima is a decent brewer too.

What did we drink? I'm pretty sure the brewers that we drank something from included Sougen, Yorokobi Gaijin, Kaze no Mori, Juji Asahi, Furousen, and the one all the way on the left that's called Chou-something. By that point I was having waaaaay too much fun to quibble over niceties like breweries and rice milling percentages. Being Up for Whatever does that to you.
You're just supposed to get food that goes with the sake, it's that kind of place. And we were set to drink the Gaijin and the Furousen, both hot, and master recommended a stuffed cabbage. The thing was, I liked it a lot! Perhaps you should see also the point about having too much fun to quibble. Watching the regulars fight with mama over whether or not to cut it for us, and into how many pieces, was also a special treat.
There was a lot of wreckage. You have to order food to go with the drinks, or vice versa, but the sake comes right away, and the food takes forever, and then the order is off and you need another sake, and the level of enjoyment down the counter just keeps going up.

Did I say counter? There are only 10 seats at one counter, and it's hard to squeeze behind your new friends to get to the bathroom. It keeps things collegial. You need to be up for whatever.
Oh, fried food. Everyone else was eating something fried by the time we got there, and once we caught up in the order, mama made us some croquettes and salad. It's the thing to do here, especially when you're going to drink more hot sake.
I can't for the life of me remember what was in these spring rolls. I want to say it was fungus and seafood, but that's the spring rolls I had on Tuesday night, and this is Thursday. Who cares? This was well past the point of being an evening to remember, and nothing as little as a spring roll could influence that. For the first time in a long time, I was looking at the clock and wondering if we could squeeze in another 30 minutes without missing the last train. Eventually everyone had the same idea ''Oh shit" and we all left at the same time.
It was close, I'll tell you that, because we had to walk down to Baba, and there are some terrific ramen places along Waseda Dori, and then that building under the tracks has a branch of Fuu Ryu as well as Takatora, and I didn't want to go home anyway but missing the train would be really really bad this time. I got the second-last train out of Shinjuku, a bit after midnight, and passed out until magically waking up 30 seconds before missing my station.

I'm always taking pictures of those bums that pass out on the train.

Shimomiya, Higashi Nakano (しもみや 東中野)

It's been a while since I've seen this, and maybe you too. JR platforms can get completely jammed, especially when it's the combined Yamanote-Sobu platform at Shinjuku. I was bound for the metropolitan hotspot of Higashi Nakano.

[I jest, but Higashi Nakano also houses Tokyo's single best sake bar, so it's not exactly a joke.]
I was also bound for a date with a big Bird, and I was girding my liver against ill effects. I'm not sure if it was the miraculous power of junmai nihonshu or this bottle of Hepalize Hyper, but I slept for 5 hours and woke up perfectly happy, and with the way this evening went, that's a major miracle.
In Tokyo, running a restaurant for a long time can also qualify as a miracle. The places that have been open for a long time have been open forever, with families owning the land and doing the labor. So it's pretty impressive that Shimomiya has been doing this since 1978, if my reading of their card and calculations concerning Showa years are correct.
Dude's putting down his own style, that's for sure. His wife runs the drinks and most of the service. I had called to reserve, which I think is always nice, but they still looked at us funny when we walked in, and he asked if we could read Japanese. We can read the hell out of a sake list and a food menu, so that's not a big deal, but the joke's on me, because there isn't a sake menu, so what do we need to be able to read for? So we can pick by label from the fridges (two like this one)? We can't see the three rows of bottles behind the front, so that's probably not it. In fact, I believe you're just supposed to let them pick your drinks, which is fine with me if they listen to what I want.
I wanted food at this point, for sure, and this was a pretty good starter. Although I'm not sure what I paid for it. The fried tofu was really sweet, which I like, and the pickled daikon slices were a bit different, quality stuff.
There must be a ton of quality stuff in the fridge. Mama asked what we wanted to drink, and after I figured out that there was no menu, I said we wanted something light and fresh. All the labels I could see and recognize were heavy, either in brewer or style. Mama dived into the fridge and recommended to us two bottles, each of which had no more than 1 go left in the bottom. Mmmmmm hmmmmmmm. I know I'm foreign, but I didn't start drinking yesterday, and I resent the hell out of being offered the end of the bottle. The only way this is acceptable is if they give you the end of the bottle free and a full glass from a new bottle, which is exactly what the regular customer next to us got. Maybe we would have gotten that too, and my outrage is misplaced. Maybe not. I told mama later that I never like the taste of the end of the bottle, and she claimed that some people prefer it. I don't know what these were, and I didn't like them enough to figure it out for you, even out of completeness. I should mention that everything is served in a glass of 90ml or so, and the prices are toppy for that.

Here's the fridge in a shot you can embiggen and examine. There are a lot of labels I don't know, which is generally nice if there's a menu and/or the staff can be relied on to pick for you.
I have mixed feelings about this place (you can tell I was grumpy by now) because this plate of fish was worth every yen of the three thousand it set us back. Everything was delightful, especially the tacos and ainame, not stuff I expect to love.
I just gave up on the ordering at this point. Mama poured out the end of that bottle and opened a new one, so I said we'd have that too. She gave us a splash of the old bottle for comparison...
and when I ordered the Wakakoma 'Crazy Horse' (isn't it funny how more and more brewers are giving sakes names these days?), she gave us a taster of a different rice variety. The taster (which was Omachi-derived) would have been a perfectly good response to my request for something lighter at the beginning. I told Mama we preferred that one and she said "Oh, could you tell the difference?" Again, I could be wrong in my interpretation of these things.
The other food was excellent too. This is a nuta (vinegar miso sauce) of squid legs and urui, a spring leafy, stalky vegetable.
These gobo pickles were an absolute standout too. It's not every day that gobo is terrific. I like it and all, but it's rare that it's exciting. This was exciting.
This was pretty exciting too, although mostly for academic reasons. The Amabuki on the right is a yamahai, brewed with their 'marigold' yeast (I think). It was interesting for its lack of body - a hint of cold and smooth on the tongue at the beginning, then no flavor to speak of until a broad yamahai essence came in. The other bottle is Kotobuki, and I'm not sure if I've had it, but I'll look for it again. This bottle in particular was cool because it was obviously cold-aged (there was mold on the label), and tasted like it was on its way to koshu status, but not yet to an annoying degree. I love that flavor.
Spring vegetable tempura. I get this every time it's on the menu. Really I just want to eat the fukinotou and taranome, and maybe some kogomi ferns, so that's all I ordered for us.

And with that, my frustration overtook me, and we resolved to do the ol' nijikai. I had attached my eye to another place a few stations over, and despite not knowing where it was, anything was better than throwing more money in the hole after what we spent here.

I think everyone was relieved when we left. 

l'Auberge de L'Ill, Nishi Azabu (オーベルジュ・ド・リル トーキョー)

You can't go wrong with this as an introduction. You're walking down a perfectly normal, maybe even a little grubby, street in Nishi Azabu after getting off the train at the quiet end of Nogizaka and walking through the tunnel by the museum, and suddenly you see something that looks a British aristocrat's house. This was built in 1995 and originally housed the Georgian Club; I don't know the details of the transition.
I do know that the dining room is as grand as ever, even if the drapes show a little wear in places. It feels for all the world like they're going to clear out the tables and host a ball at night. Everyone gets to make a grand entrance down the central staircase, but this being Tokyo most people aren't watching. The crowd for weekday lunch is women. I was the only man until a couple came in at the end. There were birthday lunches, mother-daughter-treat lunches, tables that looked like hostesses, and people on their big trip to the city. Other than someone and I, everyone was still firmly seated at 2 PM, 2 hours+ after arriving. This is all about the superlative atmosphere, and soaking it up at leisure.

We got the mid-level lunch course, which differs in quality but not length. Your minimum option here is about Y5k per person, including tax and service, so be warned. We thought the upgrade was worthwhile because of the duck and dessert.

The financiers may have had anchovy in them; definitely a hit of something salty. The little flatbreads were onion and bacon, I think, which would be a nod to the mothership l'Auberge in Alsace, which is one of the longest-running three-star restaurants in the world.
Hard to see what's going on here, so let me fill you in. It's a cocktail glass with a white balsamic mousse at the bottom, and another mousse of skybeans on top. With little 'ears' of skybean halves and a drizzle of olive oil. Eat from the bottom, get some of each mousse, delicious. Put me in mind of something at Quintessence, although I see that was totally different.
It being that season, there were white asparagus spears with hollandaise. Delicious sauce. Even better was the ballotine of rabbit and bits, a lot of flavor from liver and some pistachio chunks. Puzzling were the salad bits in the middle, which looked like nothing so much as ribs cut from wilted lettuce, complete with brown edges. I think that was my only complaint of the meal, which is not so bad.
Especially when this was SO GOOD. Have you ever had confit duck breast? I feel like I may only have had legs. Absolutely delicious, with that square of perfectly-crisped skin on top. Excellent sauce and vegetables. Well worth the upgrade from the swordfish that all our neighbors got in the entry level course.
This upgrade was also excellent compared to the cookie and custard sort of plate that others got. I'm often annoyed by chefs getting too into the Japanese experimentation as opposed to sticking with their European concept. In this case it's a twist on sakura mochi, which is cool. Cherry mousse topped with sakura essence cream, and highlighted by little crisps of salted cherry leaf. With a rapidly-melting quenelle of green tea ice cream on the side. This was very good, and completely acceptable as a mild departure from the path.
Coffee is nice in the sense that it's served from a pot, tastes good, and is refilled by the staff. This is why people spend an hour on their coffee, which is certainly baked into the price.
Mignardises were fine. The lavender macaron was the only standout. Oh, the little marshmallow was strawberry flavored and very sweet.

Just like the whole experience of dining here (minus the strawberry part). The service is great, and from the moment you step in, it's like you're in a dream.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fuusan, Machida (風燦 原町田店)

Tuesday night saw the team back in Machida for an away game. Woody recommended the Big Fuu to me last year after I checked in at Ibuki, but as soon as I walked up to it I realized that I had seen it last year on that Ibuki trip and decided not to go. Which would be unfair to a better place, but Ibuki is really top class, and there's no shame in not being that good.
A master that's wearing an Ocean Pacific shirt and sharpening his knife when you come in should be a decent sign. The reason Woody came across this place was that it's non-smoking, and he's always cruising for non-smokey izakayas on Kinen Style. Which is a pretty neat idea for a site until the government starts outlawing smoking like we had happen in America. Which seems like a smart comment until you think that Japan takes forever to do anything.

The picture on the right is the master, drawn by his daughter. The shop is non-smoking for her benefit, which I didn't entirely understand but didn't ask about. Maybe she was under the counter.
10 choices is fine for a sake list. The waitress acted as the sommelier, although I didn't exactly think she knew what was what, and it's odd that the master doesn't care that much about it. All 10 are good choices, names you should know and are likely to enjoy. We had some Gassan, and some Sharaku, Tamagawa, and Gasanryu. Interestingly, the Gasanryu was 'Ura', the new approach they're taking by using non-Yamagata rice. I don't know if they brewed it differently too, but it was very different than their usual style, dryer and cleaner to my untrained eye.

I'll spare you the rest of the food menu - the master's handwriting is heavily stylized and nearly impossible to read for an amateur like me.
Actually the menu overall was heavily stylized. I couldn't craft an order from it, and my enjoyment suffered from that all night.

My enjoyment of this plate of fish didn't suffer at all. Every item was delicious. The octopus was exemplary. I ordered a whole separate plate but didn't receive it.
My enjoyment of this glass of Gassan wasn't limited either, nor bounded by space and time. Pretty sure the first time I had Gassan was at the dearly departed Nekoya in Tsukiji. That was a cool place, or at least I remember it that way. Sometimes it's hard to say when you've been going to sake izakaya this aggressively for this long and your tastes have changed this much whether your memories are accurate. I feel old.
ahahaha, I wasn't even trying to segue, but this is perfect. I feel old, but not as old as this oil...If I understood correctly, Fuu has been open for 2 years and is just topping up the fry oil every night. Certainly the outside of the pot was black and caked with sludge in a way I haven't seen since Woody and I ate at Otafuku. The fried food was good here too. Not a coincidence, I tell you.
oooh, this was a highlight. Gobo chips, tofu, and fish bits, all tatsuta-fried (cornstarch batter, I now remember). Delicious, and the thickened broth on all of it was also excellent. You have to get this if you go here. I know how likely that is, but it's still an important point of order.
Not totally sure what this was. I mean, it's definitely eggplants, and they were stuffed with something that may have been ground chicken, and the sauce was a tomato-chili confection, but beyond that I'm lost. Like, why is the sauce so dark? And why was it so tasty? And why didn't they have white rice so I pour the remnants all over a bowl of it?
Nice piece of grilled sawara, like the stuff that was on the dish on the counter in the early picture. Grilled fish can be so dry in Japanese restaurants; this was good. Maybe he used a splash of oil from the historic fryer for essence.
These were sitting on the counter in raw form, and I was inclined to get them, but the waitress would not stop saying I should order them, so I waited until the end. They're fried spring rolls with a lot of wood ear fungus (kikurage, if you like) and then seafood bits mixed in. Sure, they were good. I just knew she was trying to get rid of them.
Which is understandable, because there were only 2 or 4 patrons other than us the whole night. We were first in at 6:30 (the time I had reserved for...) and were chatting pleasantly right up until the waitress announced last order at 9:30. Where does the time go?

Down the evil Machida goat-hole, no doubt. 

It bears saying, this place is nice but isn't a patch on Ibuki. If you're in Machida for some crazy reason, that's your go-to.