Tokyo Culinary Adventures
Even without a foray into fugu or aburi toro-basashi, Tokyo still offers a cornucopia of culinary adventure.
Blowfish and seared horsemeat sushi, respectively, are not worth attempting to sell to a 17-year-old daughter who, to her credit, did acquire a taste for fried octopus during her 10-day stay with a family in Fukuoka before our rendezvous in the capital city.
That said, deep-fried cardboard would probably taste divine smothered in tartar sauce.
Fish is the fulcrum around which the Japanese diet turns. One visit to the vast warehouse that is the Tsukiji fish market with its army of vendors and ocean of Styrofoam boxes showcasing the sea’s bounty is proof enough.
Around 7:30 a.m., after the day’s catch is auctioned and the buyers transport their take to the army of delivery trucks stationed outside, it’s time for a sushi breakfast.
Most of the sushi joints nearby offer a touristy tame, prix fixe combo for around 2000 yen, eaten by hand and heated with only the wasabi the chef deigns to put on the pieces. It’s washed down, like nearly every meal, with a complimentary cup of green tea.
At Sushi World Headquarters this pedestrian fare is unacceptable and Breakfast #2 begins at Tsukiji Sushi Sen, which offers geso – octopus-chewy cuttlefish tentacles and aji, jack mackerel jazzed up by a dab of ginger and a sprig of spring onions. Iwashi – sardine – has “little scissors,” the chef warns of the bones. Another winner is the nam hamu maguro, tuna with prosciutto and the jaunty spring onions. Hamu, as a noun, is ham.
The wasabi dissolves more efficiently in the soy sauce than here
It’s weird experiencing a gnarly sushi belch at 10 a.m.
At a grocery store, we marvel at two peaches for $12. Nearby is an $8 cantaloupe. A small watermelon is on sale for $6. The Suntory Whiskey is a bargain at $11 a fifth. The gaijin scotches are dear.
Initially, the temptation to tip is strong. It’s alien to not reward good food or exceptional service, both of which we receive a goodly number of times. But tipping is simply not part of the culture.
Neither is paying at the table. The bill is left and the transaction carried out with a cashier on the way out.
While we did not enjoy the aesthetic artistry of kaiseki – multi-course formal meals whose composition changes with the seasons, a lot of culinary bases were tagged: teppanyaki, tempura, shabu-shabu, okonomiyaki and a tatami fusion place on the ninth floor of an office building that creatively transmogrified the traditional fare.
We delighted in tempura at Sansado in Asakusa, a place run by kindly, kimono-ed grandmothers. Kakiage – small shrimp, diced cuttlefish and scallop vale muscles – tastes significantly better than it sounds.
Next to the Asakusa subway station, the steepness of Sansado’s stairs to the second floor is worthy of the Netherlands. When one of the grannies brings a large Sapporo she brings two glasses. Katie pushes hers to my side of the table.
Her tempura over rice gets two thumbs up because the rice tastes significantly better awash in tempura sauce. The pickled cucumbers brought as an appetizer are sweeter than most restaurants and, therefore, better.
A simple pot sticker – gyoza — joint at the end of an alley in Harajuku was also a major hit. The fare was pretty basic: six pot stickers, steamed or fried, with garlic or without. As a side dish we order bean sprouts with a mound of what we believe to be meat, creating the taste equivalent of bean sprouts Bolognese.
One evening, Katie suggests we visit a greasy spoon ramen joint near the Meguro subway/train station. We sit at long wooden tables with a bowl of garlic chunks and a press next to the soy and chili sauce. The service is fast. The employees – all male – wear yellow headbands, blue t-shirts and white rain boots. They shout a greeting as we enter, not unlike sushi bar employees.
The most expensive item at 1200 yen, around $12, is noodles with all the toppings. Seaweed – nori — fried bean sprout, fried scallion, roast pork, boiled pork, spicy fried scallion, and soft or hardboiled eggs are the toppings.
A diner can specify how much fat they want “so heavy, heavy, normal, light, without.” Going light seems pointless since the toppings include two fist-sized cubes of seriously fatty pork.
Also at Katie’s request, we negotiate steep stairs with an – ouch – low ceiling down to Pescaderia, an ostensibly Italian restaurant in the boutique-heavy Ginza district. Observing the other diners, most of which smoke, it appears to be a popular Japanese date place. Mirrors on two walls make the space feel larger.
Very big night for mackerel – it’s showcased in carpaccio, cappellini and gnocchi. The olive oil doused carpaccio is littered with cherry tomato halves and toothpick sized zucchini sticks. The caesar would be harshly condemned here at home for its unclear-on-the-concept composition: mixed greens, tomatoes and bacon.
A handwritten sign on the wall touts raw oysters with Guinness, an atypical Italian offering. Who could resist that combination? Options abound: Australia, Ireland, U.S.A., Hokkaido or Hiroshima oysters? Hokkaido and Hiroshima are meaty and fantastically fresh.
No bread is offered to mop up the remaining pool of runny gorgonzola sauce after Katie dispatches the penne on her plate.
Saltshaker banging, steaming onion-ring volcano burlesque does not sully Tokyo teppanyaki. These are serious chefs creating serious food. At a six-seat counter in a small bright white second-floor restaurant, the courses keep coming. The salad stars kidney bean, olive, cherry tomato, bamboo and bell peppers. Then dashimaki – “egg filled with stock soup,” the menu says – basically an omelet laid out in a rectangle on the grill and meticulously rolled.
For the sautéed vegetable course, there are 10 from which to choose two. Among them: manganji, a sweet pepper, eringi mushrooms and lotus root.
Next comes fish. Gindara – butterfish — salmon or swordfish. The butterfish is tender, flaky. Then sirloin or tenderloin with a dipping dish of soy, a spot of wasabi and daikon sauce. The standout is noodles, cabbage, dried shrimp and green onions wearing a fried egg chapeau, emboldened by a generous splash of what tastes like Worchester sauce.
Yakisoba is the name of the dish, which is a riff on Chinese chow mien. Most recipes say Worchester can be substituted for yakisoba sauce.
Without knowing it, I order yakisoba at Yukari on the third floor of the UDX building in Akihabara at a lunch capping a morning of anime. Yukari specializes in okonomiyaki, a type of Japanese cuisine not common in the states although findable in cities like San Francisco and New York. It originated in Osaka after World War II.
Here, okonomiyaki is a mix of eggs, enoki mushrooms, small shrimp, red bell peppers and sprouts, cooked as a half-inch thick pancake on a grill in the center of the table.
Generally, the locals cook it themselves, which seems like it would be a fun group sport. We get it cooked for us.
After flipping the circular omelet a few times, the Japanese flavor it with a tempura-like dipping sauce but our waiter suggests us gaijins might prefer BBQ sauce or mayo. Katie does. Sprinkling dried octopus on the pieces is eerie as the shreds sway and curl from the heat.
In Roppongi, which appears to be the traveling businessman’s pleasure neighborhood based on the number of touts handing cards encouraging us to visit various male-oriented nightclubs, we try a so-called fusion restaurant where the chef is known for his skilled grilling.
It was called Hisio’s, now its Side Door. Adding to the hunch that this is the foreign businessman playground, the waiter speaks flawless English and the bus woman nearly so. Every employee is miked, an impressive communications network.
The evening’s prix fixe is lightly seared skipjack tuna – “tatiki” style – with a ginger and orange caper sauce. There’s a choice of hot cream of green asparagus soup or cold onion soup with Sakura shrimp jelly and grilled pork or chicken for 3,800 yen. Beef sirloin boosts the price another 1,800 yen.
Marinated eggplant, deep-fried, curried zucchini and some dark thing with pine nuts are brought as appetizers. The bus woman displays the bottle of Pellegrino as though it were a vintage wine. We allow her to unscrew the lid.
The salad is very similar to caprese: cherry tomatoes, mixed greens. The onion soup is in a small bowl with the side furthest from me swooping upwards. Its onion, its cold and the blob of jelly doesn’t bring a lot to the ball-game.
Style points are earned for okra being part of the mélange of mixed grilled vegetables accompanying the pork.
The plaudits the chef has earned for his grilling expertise are well deserved. The chicken, although a small portion, is moist, tender and uniquely flavored. At first, there’s some question it actually is chicken. Small containers of three designer salts are brought to the table as recommendations by the chef to enhance the meat: soy, curry and red.
We’re unburdened of the better part of $150 and agree the teppanyaki at $137 was a way better meal.
Our final night is another fusion place, daidaiya in downtown Tokyo near the Imperial Palace. It’s terrifically easy to find since the Akasaka-mitsuke subway station exits into the Bellevie Akasaka building on whose ninth floor the restaurant is located.
The entrance is dark – black walls with a rectangular projection of what looks like water drops on the floor. Upon that pallet the restaurant’s name is spelled letter by letter. There’s disco-esque lighting. All that’s missing is pounding techno-pop for it to be a nightclub.
We’re escorted to a row of curtained dining areas and remove our shoes before stepping through the sliding screen opened for us by the kneeling waitress.
Katie, after 10 days of tatami dining, tucks her legs under herself before realizing we’re in a faux tatami room in which not only chair backs are affixed for our gaijin comfort but a well is located underneath the round table where we can stretch our feet and legs.
Business dinners happen here. We can hear one winding down next door. The participants speak Japanese but as with most foreign languages, fluency is not required to be able distinguish business from pleasure.
The menu is exhaustive and begins with the following pledge:
“We can grill your favorite fish. We can simmer you favorite fish. We can deep-fry your favorite fish.”
Eel holds prominent spot on the appetizer list: Eel served in pot style with eggs is 1,800 yen. Charcoal grilled eel is 2,500.
Katie skips the whale tatsuta-age at 1,480 yen, opting instead for deep-fried chicken thigh for 1,380 yen. My choice is grilled kirishima pork loin and ribs with “lettus” and original sauce.
The kneeling waitress offers a large bowl containing small dishes of varying appetizers, most she tells us in broken English involve squid. We can each pick one. Katie wants none of them so I snag two squid-licious samplings.
Salad is cabbage, radishes, cucumber, purple daikon, diced ginger with a mushroom rolled into a pseudo-flower at the center.
Katie’s crab dumplings are dim sum on steroids with yellow mustard that draws an immediate runny nose. Her corn and shredded vegetable tempura is more corn than shredded vegetable.
She makes short work of the deep-friend chicken.
The pork is spread neatly on a plate. In a row above it are shredded onion, cucumber, garlic chunks and, to its right, a bowl of a spicy hoison-esque sauce. A bowl of large lettuce leaves is placed nearby. Roll the pork in the lettuce, the waitress pantomimes.
Creative, non-traditional and delicious — a fitting last meal for Tokyo.
Filed under: Trip to Tokyo
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