Friday, March 6, 2015

Bikkuri Sushi, Shin Yurigaoka (びっくり寿司 新百合ケ丘店)

I'll just get this joke out of the way up front: "This place is surprisingly good!"

Did you get that? Didja? Huh?

This particular branch in Shinyuri is a funny one of the 12 in the chain because it closes earliest (10:30, not 4 AM like many of them) and it offers delivery. It also has a magnificent sign outside, which is not only 40 feet high and lit up like a landing beacon, but also rotates.
Good heavens, look at those tasty treats.

Oh, there's ample parking as well, either on the parking deck under the sign or else in the lot across the street. This, my friends, is country living.
And this entry is like you're going to be whisked into another time and place. It's a bit humble-grand, considering what's inside.
And what's inside is a big crab. And a big eel on the floor of the tank (is that an anago?). Mr. Crab, as Peanut would call him, was very genki, climbing all around in search of escape from his cruel, glassy prison. He knows what's coming for him.
What's coming for me is the menu. This is a big place, which probably helps them to have a bigger menu, and it's also on the edge of where the city becomes the country, which makes it more of a destination. There was families partying together on the Saturday night when I snuck out for a meditative snack and flask.
What's a flask, you ask? Eh, you know what I mean. One of the most surprising (!) aspects of this place is the drink menu. They have more than a dozen decent labels of saki on offer, and another 6 as rotating specials. The master who served me had 'saki' listed on his nametag, so we had a chat about it, and he allowed as how they had some farther-off-menu stuff too. He showed me a fancy bottle of Hassen that he had in the fridge under the counter. Funny, a 4-go bottle with a different label, and he wasn't offering it to me, he was just bragging that they had it.

They put a cup in a plastic masu on a saucer, and pour until the overflow just hits the saucer. It's probably no more quantity, but it's a nice effect.

A really funny thing, fancy bottles of saki. Regular folks are really impressed by 'rare' saki, even though it's both cheap and easy to get if you look in the right places.

Pictured at left is my particular chef, looking in the wrong place.
And pictured at right is the starter, a nikogori of I don't know what and I only had one bite because sometimes you just don't have to eat things you don't like that much. Although those sometimeses are awfully rare in my case.
Like many other things, I have been Japanesified over the years into thinking there's a right way to do things. I don't hold with eating tuna first, for example. And you know all my theories on structuring your ordering so that the food comes in a nice sequence. Kaiseki flows that way for a reason, and I'm never amused when someone order fried food in the first round. It's a trap for young players.

So here you have what looks like a piece of snapper of some description (there are so many, who can tell?) or sea bass, but it's rare to see bass on a sushi menu (sea what I did their?). And a scallop and a red clam. I always order these things.

Early-season spring bonito. Late-season buri. The latter was so nice I ordered it twice. Which illustrates another of my philosophies - you can find accidental greatness anywhere. Recognizing it, enjoying it, and continuing to look for it are what makes life worth living.
I always get shiny / blue fish later in the day. And I always get mackerel. Kohada, not so much, but yes tonight.
I always get medium tuna too. Big fatty is too fatty for me, while middling fatty has the fish and the flavor and the fat, and is excellent when you get it on a good day.

That's it. A quick set of sushis and a jug of rice wine, with a good walk before and after, and plenty of time alone to meditate on life.
Like these apartments. So many stories, most of them sad.

Izumi, Shin Otani (いずみ)

Recently I've all about the stepz. 10,000 per day is supposed to be the way to continued health, if not weight loss, and while in Japan it was pretty easy to 'meet or exceed expectations' on that, as we say in this crazy world of 'business'. There's not a lot near the house, but what there is by god I'll sniff out, and some mad genius recently opened a really nice little Japanese sweets shop. With a great name!
Only recently have I learned what an uguisu is. This after years of riding or running through Uguisudani (some of this post is near there if not right there) and knowing it was bird-related from the kanji but being too lazy to look it up. I'm not that interested in the natural world, I suppose.

I like the unnatural world. So when I see a little steamed bread treat called 'uguisu', I have to get it. I asked first, and it turns out to be filled with green paste instead of red or white like you'd expect. If you hear 'green paste' in a steamed bread, I bet you're think it's edamame and wondering why it's not called zunda. It's not, it's green beans, and we had a good laugh because I couldn't remember 'zunda' to save my life and just asked the master about the green stuff from Sendai. He's the expert in the field, so of course he knew.

I got the wagashis because I fel bad for him and because I kinda like them now. The green thing was nondescript, but the pink thing had a lovely texture with the smooth, smooth rice on the outside, and I think some nikki in the dough or filling.

An acquired taste, these. But it's a nice shop if you live within 5 minutes walk.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ichie, Sangenjaya (イチエ, 三軒茶屋)

This was a great experience. And it restored my faith in humanity. Or at least my interest in finding great new places. I had a run of great luck recently and didn't go to a bum place. Some that were maybe just OK, but nothing bad and some wonderful surprises. So it was more than wonderful to have a totally mediocre experience here! I loved it! It really refreshed me and got me excited for further exploration in the future...including the tiny place right around the corner from here.

Big Bird and I resolved to freestyle after leaving Kan, which we had reserved and not wanted to stay at for long. On the other hand, it was late, so we didn't have that much time. We started walking down from Ikejiri to Sancha, and at some point I cast eyes left and saw two fridges full of bottles, as well as a sign on the sidewalk saying "We have tasty saki!" SOLD! said the little man in the blue fedora.

No pictures of the fridges. No pictures of the interior. No pictures of Keiko, the really-quite-attractive woman of middling years who owns and runs the place. I would guess she's a retired hostess, and I couldn't guess what the relationship is between her, the cook, and the guy doing odd jobs.

But they have a lot of nice glassware. Actually you get to choose your own glassware. Or ceramicware. I correctly guessed which of the ceramic chokkos was one that Keiko had made herself (not that it looked that bad; just a lucky guess).
They have some foods too. You know I always order iburigakko.

But they only have some foods. It was hard for me to order (partly because this was a second dinner, partly because it was an unexpected menu. Who else thinks sake specialists shouldn't also be oden specialists?).
And they have some sake too. A bunch of it is in 4-go and smaller bottles. Most of it seems to be on the heavier side - that goes with oden and home cooking, and it also aligns with Keiko's philosophy that the light stuff isn't real sake. Or at least I think that was her philosophy. We were in an awkward mode throughout our visit since we were the only customers after another table left, she clearly wanted us to eat and drink a lot more, and she let on that she understood more English than I would have liked. There's isn't really a sake menu either; you have to rely on her to suggest things. I've learned that I don't much like that. I really want to know the stats of what's in a bottle, and I'll pick myself from that. Or if the master is really trustworthy, like when I say 'summer sake', he says "Here are 5".

'Futaributai' is 'couple dancing on a hill', and is a private label made for a wedding facility. That's neat and I like the modern label style. The sake, I could take or leave. My theme for this trip was 'fresh and fruity', because it's impossible to get that stuff in America. Why I kept running into places that stocked and recommended heavy, old-fashioned sake, I dunno.

I also dunno why I ordered a grilled mackerel slice. Maybe just to break up the awkwardness. I do know that it was very tasty and I wish we could have eaten more food here. But with the atmosphere deteriorating due to our discomfort with further ordering, and everyone else's discomfort with our lack of ordering, it was time to hit the trains.

In fairness to myself, I DID have to take three trains and walk 30 minutes to get home from here. It's awkward to do lateral line changes outside the city. So it's for the best that we made a move when we did, because I think I got to the station at midnight again.
And walked home through the housing projects. It's peaceful. And I found that 30 minutes of walking in the cold after a night of drinking does wonders for the constitution. There wasn't a night when I didn't feel refreshed and sober by the time I got home. Maybe it's the bracing effect of considering what's going on in these buildings.

So many lights, every one a story, every story sad.

Kan, Ikejiri Ohashi (カン 池尻大橋)

Ehhhhhh, Big Bird and I were all set to lovelovelove this place. Somehow it seemed too easy, too predictable, not good enough, and ultimately boring. Oh, and expensive. I may have grown to prefer the thrill of discovery, with my ridiculous run of good-to-amazing places over the last two weeks setting way too high a bar for Mr. Kan.

Or I may always have preferred the thrill of discovery. I bet that's what you were thinking. Anyhoo, that's why we didn't get through a full meal here before leaving in search of greener pastures.
This is a sweet menu. Props. And points. And I'm really inclined to like a place where the chef working the counter in front of us, and taking our food orders, was a woman. That may be a first for me (but only because Woody and Bird waited until I was out of the country to try the female-owned-and-operated place I recommended). I don't know why I had a hard time ordering from the menu. I didn't feel it.
I felt the (firm yet softly yielding) octopus. And I felt spring in the air with the prickly ash leaves on top of the octopus.
So much so that I ordered off menu. Who does that in Japan?! So again, props to the chef for saying "Yes, I'll make you some bamboo shoots with white miso and prickly ash leaves." That just says spring to me, ever since I got the perfect version of it in Kyoto after the earthquake.
I'm not sure anymore what this is. It looks like a nuta. I was ordering nuta every time I saw it this week. I got sick of it.
I was ordering tacos too. The sashimi platters at more than one recent meal had tacos that were the high point, so I wanted a whole plate. This wasn't worth a whole plate. Or even a whole slice.
What was this whole plate? Other than asparagus and cheese baked together? And tasty! But I'm a DieHard saki drinker, and this doesn't go with saki (I know, "So why did you order it?") and combined with a lack of saki on the menu that I wanted to drink, it just pushed me over the edge and out the door. I bet the staff were puzzled.

As were we.

Anis, Hatsudai (アニス)

We have to pick our lunch spots carefully these days - where can we run out to for a glamorous lunch and be back before Peanut wakes up from his nap? I kid, I kid, but we do have to pick, because he can't stay home for that long. I thought Anis was near Yoyogi, which is pretty convenient, but it turns out to be pretty far from Sangubashi, which was a first-time station for both someone and I, and a transfer that involved us getting on a train going the wrong way. Ugh.

But the walk went well, and the sun was shining, and if it's a minor station, you still get nice views of the West Shinjuku skyscrapers along the way. Crossing that big road was a slight challenge, but we mastered it. And eventually found a tiny storefront in an alley that was Anis. There's a big counter and only a few tables; they also appropriate the tiled sidewalk outside with an awning and canvas wall so you can eat there in the winter. Me, I want to be front and center at the counter. With the pomelo that was going to feature in the dessert.

Turns out they're into roasting. Behind the chef in the picture above is a special rotisserie oven. More tellingly about their meat preferences, the red badge on the chalkboard is from Hugo Desnoyer, who even I as a never visitor to France know is the premier butcher in Paris.
There were 4 chefs at lunch, working like the dickens to turn out plates. We and some others had the Menu Anis (Y3.8k, and if it's not spoiling the surprise too much, let me just say WORTH EVERY YEN AND THEN SOME), while the more office-lunch-y people had the one-plate steak special. I don't know how this covers their costs, honestly. Look at the pictures.
Delicious bread, and the crock is a mixture of sour cream and cream cheese and butter or some combination of substancs along those lines, with herb for good measure.
Sitting at the counter, you have some idea what's coming. Which doesn't really reduce the impact of getting this. Ostensibly, it's a starter of turban shell (which is my half-assed attempt at translating sazae. Can we stick with the original names?). In practice, it's a ton of fresh and lightly worked vegetables in artful preparations. With raspberry sauce, and cashew cream sauce. And a canelé. And a little anise powder on the side of the plate as a reference. 
Pulling the sazae out of the shell doesn't help me think it's less gross. I was really disappointed that the 'meat' of the starter was this. But it was only one huge sazae.
And everything else was sooo, sooo nice. From whatever angle.
This doesn't look like much, does it? As usual with these things, it's all fancy ingredients and was delicious. The itoyori was barely grilled (I mean griddled, they do a lot of work on the teppan that makes up one side of the chef's counter). The cabbage was a special sweet spring type (honey cabbage, I think they called it), at least one of the sauces featured wasabi, and the stick is cheese. A strange combination overall, but with delightful bits, and mercifully brief.
Oh good lord, willya getta loada that? It's wild boar leg, obviously surrounded by a wide variety of separately-prepared and delicious vegetables. The boar was getting sliced off the bone and then griddled a liddle to make steaks. Standout vegetables? White asparagus for the second time on this trip. Purple cauliflower. Sweet potato and pumpkin. And some mysterious thing that may have been roasted negi but made someone and I sit up and say wow, separately.
Unannounced, there's an intermezzo salad. It's a shame that we didn't get completely surprised by this; we saw the prep happening for the couple next to us. It's amazing how they take out all the boxes of fixin's for this, which was three or four, and assemble the salads individually before putting the boxes away until the next one (10 minutes later). Salad dressing came in pressurized spray bottles so you could direct a quick squirt of flavor wherever you wanted. Just-pulled micro-carrots, flowers, and hazelnuts were my favorite elements here. It was a lot like taking a bite out of a garden, without washing too fully first.
I didn't see this until after our boar steaks had come, but when you see the chef yanking on a hoof and cutting steaks and bits out of a mostly-roasted wild pig leg, I think you should take a picture.
It doesn't matter much how weird the pomelo slices with hay ice cream and rice syrup were, because it's wonderful to push the envelope here and there. Or everywhere. You just need to make sure your diners aren't expecting the most perfect and traditional meal of their lives.
Nice espresso. Anything would be nice at this point.

Clearly Anis is on the 'ladies love it' side of the spectrum due to the vegetation and portioning. Someone and I discussed this and feel bad that we're so Americanized in our tastes now as to say anything like that. No idea what a place this good is doing in a tiny station like this, toiling away and doing awesome work. But I would go again in a flash, especially for dinner when there would be some roasty meat on the spit.
We were close enough to spit on these, so we finished up with a walk up the Hatsudai shopping street and a trip to the top of the Met to see the view.

That's a nice day right there.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

R-Fritters, Shimokitazawa (アール フリッターズ)

Eating Out In Tokyo is a little more complex these days, especially on these days when both someone and peanut are along, which necessitates a bunch of baggage and a handcrafted luxury stroller. But walking around is still our favorite thing to do, and while there's not much 'street food' culture in Japan, there are plenty of things you can do to pop in to a store and create your own street-y experience. This place had just opened a week before, so maybe I'm the first to bring it to the interwebs.
Though it won't be long before there's a line, judging by the TV shoot that was going down while we were in line to buy their wares. Having seen so many lovingly-lit, capaciously-panned sequences of very ordinary food, it was fun to see a food stylist doing some magic on the product and a camera person panning slowly across it.
Did I say 'very ordinary food'? That's what this turned out to be. I can't in good faith recommend you to visit a shop that sells these  blocks of (I think) fried french toast, chocolate flavor with raspberry preserves, for Y500. They're sorta tasty and all, but it's french toast, and I've grown accustomed to an America where you'd get 6 times this quantity for $9. Also, the trend toward making things 'not too sweet' seems to have swung its bulbous pendulum all the way toward 'no sugar added', which does not connote 'dessert' to me.
This is the 'cheese' version. Seemed closer to 'plain' than anything else, which is to say 'a slice of toast with some flavor'. It's also the 'street' version since I had to put it down on the 'curb' next to a 'vending machine' to take a picture while someone wrangled the peanut into temporary submission.
I was all set to be gleeful about trying a new place with a nifty twist on a food genre, but this didn't work for me. I guess it's on-trend, because there's a lot of french toast in Shimo Kita these days, and their web site is fully stylish in design and modern in execution. I must be old, because this trend toward long, scrolling sites is odd to me.

Brunch in Tokyo would be a welcome addition, but this is a little ridiculous. Or little and ridiculous. Your choice. 

Cafe Normale, Shimo Kitazawa (カフェ ノルマーレ)

I am hungry, and yes, yes, it is called love. It is called love in the world.
Continuing on with amusing uses of foreign language, we have Cafe Normale. Amusing in this case because cafe should be masculine and get a manly adjective form, but I'm not hung up on that, because the two women who may be running this place are doing an ace job. In a weird twist of what appeals to me at lunchtime, this is family friendly, stroller-sensitive, and they offer baby mugs, utensils, and toys without being asked. And the food and prices were both reasonable. Win! Obviously Eating Out in Tokyo with Jon is different these days; Someone is often along for support, and the aforementioned stroller-sensitivity came in handy because Peanut was riding shotgun - making his first appearance here, I believe.

Cheerful interior, check. Some retro-y cloth benches in the front, a bunch of tables in the back. And beyond the glass-paneled back wall, a garden (not theirs) that I'll show you later. Doubles as a bar at night, or at least offers a bunch of wine and beer, often in sets with the food.
The lunch comes in sets too. Someone and I both opted for the beef stew set. She got the french toast pictured here, which was really tasty, and should have been served later for optimal effect (like, for dessert).
I got the panini side. These are a cornerstone of the menu, and nice. The margherita panini was so good we ordered a second one. Partly because Peanut thought it was good, and what he likes, he gets, and then he's quiet for a while.
Beef stew in individual ramekins, so cuuuuute! I feel like a little girl again. The portions make me feel like a little girl too.
The stew was too thin, and didn't have enough beef for me, but you cant expect too much stick-to-your-ribs-ness in a girls' cafe in Shimokita, can you?
OK, I'm all messed up now. Remember the retro benches and nice tables? This place is owned by a furniture company. And it's nice furniture and affordable too. If you've ever shopped for furnishings in Japan, you'll be shaking your head in agreement about how rare that is.

Oh, here's that garden. They don't seem to own it, but at least they had the sense to make their wall glass so they could benefit from proximity.

Geez, is it a chain store? Was I suckered? Should I keep worrying about authenticity in this way?

Especially while pushing a stroller?