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February 17, 2012

Tokyo - Day IV

A Shrine Dominic Armato

Day four got off to a start that would have been comical if it weren't so sad. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to save the two places I most wanted to visit for the morning we left. It wasn't entirely irrational. Neither kept especially late hours, and priority one was work... hitting them during the day would have taken us well out of our way. Still, in retrospect, I probably should have made the effort.

My first planned stop for the day was a cutlery shop on Kappabashi Dori, Tokyo's restaurant supply district, where I intended to seek out a fine Japanese knife while resisting the urge to tell the proprietor I was in search of Hattori Hanzo's steel (this clearly would have been funny only to me). And for some reason I can't possibly explain -- perhaps the sleep deprivation -- I thought it entirely reasonable to assume they'd be open at 9:00 AM. The prior evening, it was pointed out to me, in more polite language, that this assumption was stupid. So much for Hattori Hanzo's steel.

Rokurinsha's CounterDominic Armato

My second boneheaded assumption of the morning involved number one on my ramen hit list. Rokurinsha, now with a satellite location in Tokyo Station, houses the rock stars of Tokyo's tsukemen scene. Tsukemen isn't a ramen style so much as it is a format, one that puts a sharper focus on the noodles. It works like this. Dedicated ramen chefs work hard to produce fabulous noodles with texture and bite. Then, after putting in all of this work and carefully cooking them to the proper consistency, they dump them in a bowl of hot soup. What this means is that your first few bites are perfect. But as the noodles sit in the hot broth, they continue to cook, so that by the time you're midway through the bowl, they're no longer at their peak. Tsukemen involves cooking and then shocking the noodles so that the cooking process stops. The noodles are then served side by side with the soup, presented instead as a dipping sauce, thicker and stickier than your typical ramen broth. You dip the noodles as you eat them, thereby ensuring that they're at their peak from first bite to last.

The problem is that Rokurinsha is popular. Wildly popular. And it isn't unusual for the wait to top an hour. So when I discovered that they were open for breakfast, it seemed obvious that the thing to do was go early in the morning, right when they opened. Surely, there won't be so much of a line at eight in the morning, I thought to myself. And on this count, I was right. When I arrived, there were only four or five people ahead of me in line and I waited no more than ten minutes. The problem presented itself when I arrived at the vending machine to purchase my ramen ticket. The button with the ramen... the ramen... Rokurinsha's famous ramen... was darkened and inoperable. No, in its place was a different type of ramen, a breakfast-specific ramen, and by the time their normal ramen was available, I'd be on a bus riding to the airport. What the precise differences were, I can't say. I have no point of reference. But at the very least, I could see that the magical powder of incredible seafood intensity about which I'd read so much was absent. For somebody with a dedication to maximizing every experience, this was (and continues to be) more than a little torturous.

TsukemenDominic Armato

Still, I did my best not to let this snafu ruin my enjoyment of what turned out to be, even in this less potent state, one kick ass grade A bowl of ramen. I mean, wow. Starting with the noodles, because that's where it starts for these fellows, they're thick, bordering on udon thickness. And the chew, though not as aggressive as those I had at Gogyo, was incredibly satisfying, with a little give but only just so. They were almost cool, having been shocked to halt the cooking, and when I married them to the broth, the result was... formidable? Robust? Abusive? I mean these all in the most positive interpretation possible. That's one helluva soup, there. It wasn't as thick as I expected (Breakfast variation? Who knows?!), but the flavor was a tonkotsu base with some serious seafood swagger, like they captured the essence of a few large fish and crammed them in there. Those who haven't made their peace with Japanese fishy intensity probably aren't going to get along with this too well. Shaved bonito dreams of being this intense. But for me, it was gobsmackingly delicious. And though there's a vat of broth for you to water down your sauce to a soupy consistency once you're done dipping, I say screw the broth. I'm drinking this stuff in its full dippy consistency. You say dipping sauce, I say rich soup. I was simultaneously elated to have tasted such an incredible concoction, and tortured by the lunchtime broth I didn't get to sample. Still, to complain would seem ungrateful in the face of such a fabulous foodstuff. Should I return, I'll gladly wait that hour plus. This is some killer, killer stuff. I don't know that I'm sold on tsukemen. I'm considering the possibility that I would have preferred this ramen assembled in traditional fashion. The temperature contrast between cool noodles and hot soup means that when they come together, they meet somewhere in the neighborhood of lukewarm, and I do love a steaming bowl of ramen. But I'm not making any grand proclamations after just one bowl, and truth be told, they can serve this stuff to me however they like. I'll take it.

Kit Kats. Lots. Dominic Armato

With time running short, I had to make a beeline for the hotel, but not without first stopping at a candy store across from Rokurinsha. What you see here are Kit Kats. Lots and lots of Kit Kats. In all kinds of flavors. Kit Kats are incredibly popular in Japan, and in their typical "Yeah, we're taking this to eleven" fashion, they've developed scads of different flavors for the Japanese market (Wikipedia's incomplete list names over 100), many of them available only as regionally distributed special editions. You thought green tea Kit Kat was a kick? *pfft* Pedestrian. Sakura Macha, Pickled Plum, Miso, Yubari Melon, Ginger Ale, Blueberry Cheesecake, Beet... the list goes on. I grabbed a few boxes and ran, and it was only later that I discovered I should have simply bought ten boxes of one of them.

Hotcakes Kit KatEden Politte

What you see on the right is a box of hotcake flavored Kit Kat, brought to you by Rilakkuma, which basically translates to "relaxing bear." I like this guy already. What I like more is what's within. Opening the wrapper releases the overpowering smell of butter, followed shortly thereafter by maple syrup. It's a slightly yellow-tinged white chocolate coating, but taking a bite reveals... well... hotcakes. Toasty griddled cakes, butter and syrup and all. I can't imagine that this much flavor was packed in by natural means. Surely, there's some hardcore confectionery chemistry at work here. And yet, it doesn't play like a fakey, cloying artificial flavor. It plays like hotcakes, sweetened and distilled down into three little wafers enrobed in a white chocolate coating. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, and when I do exercise it I almost never do so with a packaged candy bar. And yet I can state with great confidence that this is one of the greatest confections I've ever tasted, commercial or otherwise. Had I tasted them before leaving the shop, I might very well have walked out with ten boxes. Dear reader, should you ever encounter this sweet breakfast-themed ambrosia, do yourself the kindness of purchasing as many as you can carry, and then do the further kindness of sending two boxes to me.

And then, just like that, it was time to leave. But by god, I'd go kicking and screaming. Airports have restaurants, don't they? I can cram in a little more Japanese food while waiting to board the plane, right? There's nothing desperate about that, is there? Is there?!??

TempuraDominic Armato

My mind was reeling with things I'd wanted to sample but hadn't had the chance. Tempura! That's one! The tempura place I'd tried to visit in Tsukiji was closed, but surely there's a tempura place in the airport, right? As it would turn out, there is. Located on the Japan side of immigration in Terminal 2 is Tentei, with more tempura combinations than you can shake a stick at. I hurriedly picked one -- not too big, since I hoped to make another stop -- and shortly thereafter received a plate with tempura shrimp, squash, shishito pepper and a long slab of eel. And it was a crushing disappointment, because it was pretty damn mediocre, neither particularly crisp nor particularly flavorful, with an eel fillet that sure didn't taste all that fresh. This wouldn't do. This wouldn't do at all. I couldn't go out like that, could I?

TonkatsuDominic Armato

Absolutely not, because right next door there's Tonkatsu! Tonkatsu Inaba Wako is a sizable chain with locations throughout Japan. But Japanese chains have a tendency to focus and do something really well, and thankfully that would prove to be the case here. I can't say I haven't had better tonkatsu, but Inaba Wako's is a mighty fine breed of fried pork cutlet. The meat's tender, hot and juicy. The breading is fried to a deep golden brown, and exceptionally crisp and flaky, perhaps moreso than any breaded and fried item I can recall. Even something as simple as the accompanying cabbage, plain as can be but shredded into an ultrafine palate pleasing texture, is done with a level of precision that makes it more enjoyable than it seems like it should be. I poured out some tonkatsu sauce, added a little spicy mustard, and crunched my way through a pretty fabulous cutlet. Chain or no, this is some good stuff.

Last GlimpseDominic Armato

And then... and then... and... ah, crap, is it time to board? Trip's over, that's it. Homeward bound. No planning or finagling or sacrificing of sleep would allow me to squeeze in another bite, even though there was so, so much more I wanted to try. I look back at these five posts and feel like I shouldn't be disappointed. I should feel like I made good use of the time I had. But I can't help but think I could have tried more, gotten deeper into the list, shaved a couple of half hours here or there and squeezed in a couple more bowls of ramen, a do-it-yourself okonomiyaki joint, some sand pit robata, a trayful of takoyaki, a Wagyu steakhouse... yosenabe, chankonabe, ankounabe, ANY kind of nabe. The truth is simply that I wasn't even close to being ready to leave. I was certainly ready to be with my family, but I wished it was them coming to me rather than the other way around. It isn't evident from this blog because I stopped shortly after launching Skillet Doux, but for five or six years straight I was blessed with the opportunity to travel overseas every other month on average, and stops in Japan were an almost yearly occurrence. My first international trip since 2006 that wasn’t a surgical strike to Mexico brought into focus just how badly I miss it. The last time I looked out of an airplane window at the Narita tarmac like this, I never would have guessed that it would be six years before I'd return. Leaving is a very different thing when there isn't the assumption that you'll be back before long. I know, I know... cry me a river. Most folks dream of having just one chance at a trip like this. I'm so far beyond fortunate in this regard that I'm in zero position to complain. I don’t mean to suggest that I ever took it for granted, I guess I'm just trying to say that I feel the preciousness of these opportunities far more acutely than I used to. And I hope... I hope I did this one justice.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku
Marunochi 1-9-1
Mon - Sun7:30 AM - 10 AM
 11 AM - 10:30 PM
Narita Airport
Terminal 2, Main Building
Mon - Sun7:30 AM - 9 PM
Tonkatsu Inaba Wako
Narita Airport
Terminal 2, Main Building
Mon - Sun8 AM - 9 PM

February 16, 2012

Tokyo - Day III

The Menu Dominic Armato

I'm unsure whether it was harder to get up the first or the second time that morning. Getting up at four in the morning when you crashed at two speaks for itself. Doing it again after walking four or five miles around Tsukiji and napping for two more hours has a certain Groundhog Day quality to it, but with more sushi and less suicide. Still, duty called, this time in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is huge. And dense. And when your goal is to cover ground looking in shops, it's a little intimidating to realize that you could spend a week there and not cover everything within a half mile radius of the train station. Though it's considerably less ritzy, like Ginza, Shinjuku is anchored by massive department stores, and first on our hit list was Isetan, which turned out to have what might have been the most impressive food department of the trip.

CanelésDominic Armato

Of course, they all start to run together after a while. But in terms of both size and quality, it was really something to behold. While perusing the fish department, my father was a little taken aback by one of our discoveries. He's has had his fair share of odd foodstuffs. Perhaps even more than me (exotic game restaurants in China can throw some serious curveballs). But upon encountering an orange-sized squishy grey mass that looked almost like a brain, he asked if I knew what it was. "Cod sperm," I replied, "Highly regarded delicacy. It's in season right now." He didn't reply, but the "oooooookay" look said it all, I think. On the less challenging end of the spectrum, one thing that's frequently overlooked by food writers, I think, is the availability of astounding pastry in Japan. The cultural obsession with quality and perfection extends to foreign cuisines as well, and though cakes and chocolates and pastries are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively recent imports to Japan, these food departments are filled with scores and scores of counters selling some of the most amazing cakes, cookies and candies you've ever seen. I'm not a big sweet tooth. But I know a good canelé is tough to come by. And by god, these were dynamite, with a thin but crisp crust, tender custard inside, and fabulous flavor. A cultural commitment to precision was never put to better use.

After a few hours of wandering the area, checking out a wide variety of stores (Shinjuku's offerings are rather more diverse than Ginza's), it came time for lunch, and here's where I realized that I'd completely fallen down and didn't have a restaurant scouted in the immediate vicinity. The closest spot on my hit list was a mile away, and we didn't want to lose too much time. Then, in serendipitous fashion, I realized that we were standing directly across the street from one of my target ramen chains that I hadn't even realized was there.

The BoothDominic Armato

Ichiran is one of the ramen stalwarts that has name recognition in the States. Part of this is, no doubt, due to the running gag that has become the New York outpost, on the verge of opening for more than four years. But while Ichiran's soup is widely praised, what seems to generate ink is the way it embodies cultural quirks, and leads people to smile, shake their heads and think "Only in Japan." The experience starts out front, where a coin and bill op vending machine pictures the menu in full color buttons. You select what you'd like, insert some coins or bills, and receive a small paper ticket. You then proceed inside, where a diagram of the restaurant lit with color-coded light bulbs indicates which seats are taken, which are vacant, and which are in the process of being cleaned. The reason for this is that every seat at Ichiran is a private booth of sorts, separated from its neighbors by wooden partitions, and hidden from the kitchen by a small curtain, save for a few inches at the bottom where food can be passed through. When you sit down, waiting for you is a plastic cup and personal water dispenser, chopsticks, some assorted Ichiran literature, and most importantly a ballot whereon you can customize your bowl -- firmer or softer noodles, richer or lighter broth, heavier or lighter garlic -- before pushing the red button that will summon an attendant to take your ballot and ticket. Of course, you never see more than this attendant's hands and hear his disembodied voice. Other accounts I'd read led me to believe that Ichiran was silent as a tomb, save for the slurping of others in the room. But a synthesized shamisen plinking out Top 40 tunes makes for an even more surreal atmosphere, and the attendants, though never fully seen, are quite vocal and not shy about their volume. A few minutes later, two disembodied hands set your bowl in front of you, the voice says something very earnest and gracious, the attendant slides down a shutter, and it's just you and your ramen.

RamenDominic Armato

And I've got to say, this is some damn fine ramen. The experience may be one of the reasons Americans love to write about the place, but what's inside the bowl is the reason there are 31 locations and legions of devoted fans. The broth is an unusually clean and sweet tonkotsu, made by boiling pork bones for an extended period of time (perhaps a day or two), but relatively free of some of the impurities and funkier characteristics that often result. In its non-customized state, it's plenty rich for my tastes, and though the garlic is present I'm barely getting any seafood if it's there... this is all about the pork. The noodles are a very thin Hakata-style, approaching a vermicelli thickness, and though they possess an impressive bite for so thin a noodle, I find myself pining for the aggressive chew of Gogyo's, two days prior. Of course, a little customization might fix that, I don't know. The lone toppings are a couple slices of pork, a smattering of sliced scallions, and a dollop of house chili sauce in the center of the bowl. The chili sauce, though wet, has a very pronounced dry chili flavor, and as it mixes into the soup it brings a nice warm burn to the back of the throat. The first couple of spoonfuls strike me as very good, but it's one of those soups where the deeper you get into the bowl, the more the flavor builds. By the end, I'm loving it, and though extra noodles are readily available by marking your chopstick sleeve and pressing the red button again, I'm as into the soup as I am the starch. I finish it off sated and happy. It's not a religious experience. But for somebody who's had precious little ramen in Tokyo, it's one of the best bowls I've tasted. Something I'd kill for back home.

The Map Dominic Armato

By the time dinner rolled around, I'd decided it was time to embark on a quest. My friend Josh, of Posh Restaurant, worked for a few years in Japan. So before my departure, over whiskey one evening, he grabbed a table check, flipped it over and began to map out the location of his favorite sushi bar in Tokyo while excitedly describing the directions.

"When you're in Meguro station, you can exit on two sides. On one side, there's a busy street with a canyon of huge buildings. It looks like Inception. Don't go that way. On the other side, there's a circular taxi drive, and a huge pachinko parlor..." In the end, he captured it remarkably well, and a good thing too, because Hanami Sushi completely eluded my Google-fu, and as we arrived at Meguro Station I didn't even know if it was still in existence.

SahimiDominic Armato

But there it was, precisely as described, a small, modern sushi bar that put out some very refined fish while still maintaining a neighborhood vibe. Hanami doesn't seat much more than a dozen people at a time, and on this night the crowd had a decidedly executive vibe, relaxing and having some sake and good food after work. The room's overseen by Mogi-san, an itamae with a warm disposition, permanent smile and talented hands. Through his staff, we managed to communicate that Chef Joshua had sent us, showing an iPhone photograph to jog his memory (it had been a number of years since Josh left), and a lengthy round of awkward but enthusiastic bowing and handshaking ensued. Sadly, the bar was full. But we parked at one of the tables, and put ourselves in Mogi-san's hands.

SushiDominic Armato

What followed was fish, of fabulous quality, skillfully prepared and impeccably presented. I did an extremely poor job of taking notes, and I'm left more with impressions than specifics, but I can state that yes, it tasted as wonderful as it looks. I do recall some deep and complex mackerel, fabulously light and sweet shrimp, and chutoro with a flavor far more robust than it looked like it should have had. This was followed by a round of sushi of similar excellence, including more dynamite mackerel, sweet magurozuke, and rich toro. A small roll made an appearance -- negi hamachi, I believe? -- sharp scallions accenting smooth yellowtail. And a man after my own heart, Mogi-san included both uni and hotate, both so fresh that they sang with natural sweetness. The two plates constituted a stunning array of raw fish, and all the more impressive was that it was coming from what could have been just another neighborhood joint. Either Josh found himself a gem, or this is just how it is in Japan.

Shirako ChawanmushiDominic Armato

When our server came over to ask if we'd like some chawanmushi, my heart leapt. I love chawanmushi, and was excited to see what it could be in such capable hands. Chawanmushi is a steamed egg custard, usually seasoned with dashi and perhaps soy and mirin, and it exceptionally delicate in both flavor and texture when done well. This was more than done well, bordering on ethereal, a perfect texture and subtle dashi flavor yielding a special surprise below. Our morning's discussion proved to be serendipitous, as this was shirako chawanmushi. I'd get my first taste of cod sperm. Had I known I'd be tasting it later in the evening, I would have gotten a good photo of the raw ingredient in the morning, but there's a good image here (even though I hate to indirectly endorse the "Oooooooo, these foods are bizarre!" approach). While I realize it's a shudder-inducing thought to many (hey, the older generation of Japanese feel the same way about us eating cheese), it's rather innocuous on the other side of the mental leap. Delicate is the operative word, with an ever so slightly briny flavor and soft texture that couldn't be more perfectly suited to chawanmushi. I really, really enjoyed this.

Beech Mushroom Miso SoupDominic Armato

We closed with a dish I usually think of as an opener, but particularly in the wintertime, a hot cup of miso soup is a delightful finish and I wonder why we don't see it on the tail end more often. This cup was enhanced by some wonderfully delicate beech mushrooms, their soft, spongy texture absorbing the soup and adding a delightful little squish -- can one say that in a positive context? -- to a comforting finish. I was really impressed by Hanami, mostly by Mogi-san's sensitivity in dealing with delicate ingredients. So much of this meal dealt with subtleties that would have been completely lost in the shuffle when handled by most chefs. But these preparations were just restrained enough to let the more delicate ingredients take center stage, and that's something that takes a lot of culinary wisdom and an experienced hand. We expressed our gratitude to Mogi-san, who expressed his gratitude to us for coming. Business cards were traded. Promises to say hello to old friends were extended. And we left to make our way back to the hotel. It had been one heck of a day for sushi and sashimi, though I feel compelled to note that it also drove home just how exceptional a restaurant ShinBay is, and how lucky we are to have it in Phoenix.

But there was no way I was going to let the day go at that. With roughly twelve hours until we'd be leaving for the airport, I wasn't going to let a minute go to waste. I'd been enjoying the ramen so much, I resolved to squeeze in two more bowls... one for the next morning, and one for a nightcap. I was craving miso ramen, of the non-burnt variety, and I'd read of a particularly intense bowl in Shinjuku. Though it was a weeknight, Shinjuku seemed like an area that might also yield some good street eats, so I committed to the cab fare home and hopped on the Metro just as it was getting ready to shut down for the evening.

Piss Alley Dominic Armato

My target was a ramen shop called Kotatsu, and since they were open until 5:00 AM, I decided to leave them for last and see if I could grab some street eats on the way. I couldn't even remember the last time I'd had good yakitori, and Shinjuku station is directly adjacent to one of the most famous yakitori stops in the world. The colorfully nicknamed Piss Alley is tucked away against the tracks on the northern end of the station, a narrow stretch of pavement a couple hundred yards long, lined with late night yakitori eateries and drinking establishments. I had visions of another Ebisu Yokocho, but focused solely on chicken parts, though if I'd known what I was in for I probably would have just gone back to Ebisu instead. I was disappointed to discover that even shortly after midnight -- what I'd hardly consider a late hour for a part of town known for its nightlife -- Piss Alley was mostly shuttered. I counted five joints open, and a couple of them weren't even yakitori joints. Of the yakitori stands, one was giving me a bad vibe. The second was open to the street, but all of the streets were taken and it looked like they were shutting down. But one joint on the far south end seemed to be going strong, and a crowd of six or seven businessmen were loudly carousing within. This seemed like a good bet.

YakitoriDominic Armato

It was tiny and dark, and though I suppose some might call it dingy, it struck me more as full of character, like a good dive bar. Translated menus are always helpful, but some let off an especially touristy vibe, and this was one of them. I started to get a little worried, but foraged ahead anyway, ordering their basic yakitori assortment. It was only after 5-10 minutes of waiting that I noticed the tableful of businessmen -- still loudly laughing and joking -- wasn't actually eating any food. This was about the time I started to think I'd made a mistake. And when the food finally arrived, half an hour after I ordered, that notion was confirmed. Oh, it looks nice enough in the photo... skewers of chicken thigh, tsukune, liver, gizzard and more. But what it lacked was flavor, texture and sizzle. The meats were dull, underseasoned, and lent the impression that they'd been slowly warmed over the end of the evening's dying embers rather than a hot, smoky fire. Oh, there was some char. I don't think they were re-warmed or anything like that. But this was lackluster at best. Strike one for late night dining.

Completely bummed, I revised my plan. The area seemed a whole lot deader than I expected, and fearing a bust of an evening, I decided to head straight to Kotatsu to make sure I had a good stop under my belt. Apparently, being a single male tourist walking through this part of Shinjuku late at night makes you a target for the night club point men, who will do everything short of tossing a sack over your head and dragging you back with them to get you in the door. They're persistent. And annoying. And I can't believe they're successful enough to merit their continued operation. But after fending off no fewer than a dozen, I arrived at... where Kotatsu was supposed to be. One of the fellows who'd been following me for a block and a half thought he saw an opening.

"What are you looking for, man?"
"A restaurant."
"Maybe you're looking for mine!
"I doubt it."
"Well, what's it called, maybe I can help you."
"Ah, sorry, man, Kotatsu closed in December."

I wouldn't have taken his word for it. I've no doubt he would have flat-out lied to get me into his bar/club/restaurant/whatever. But there was no denying that I was standing right in front of where Kotatsu was supposed to be, and there was no Kotatsu. Not only was this strike two, but the yakitori place had taken so long that I'd never make it to my backup ramen shop before closing.

OkonomiyakiDominic Armato

Frustrated by a string of bad luck that was rapidly turning my last late night in Tokyo into a total bust, I realized I was just a couple of blocks away from Golden Gai, a section of Shinjuku known for its quirky vibe and late night sensibilities. I resolved to give it one last shot before throwing in the towel. Golden Gai is quirky, all right, a patch of land about the size of a football field packed with tiny, ramshackle two-story buildings and narrow alleys. Music clubs and dive bars were abundant, some shuttered for the evening, others filled with late night patrons having a beer and listening to music, both recorded and live. I weaved my way through the deserted aisles, peeking into a club or two, not seeing anything in the way of eats. And when I was nearing the point of surrender, I caught a whiff of something and my head whipped around. When in doubt, follow your nose. And my nose led me to a tiny, tiny little eatery, eight or ten feet square on the ground floor of what amounted to little more than a hovel. But the fellow manning the open kitchen moved with economy and purpose, an obviously seasoned hand, and the smells coming from his griddle were intoxicating. A tiny counter seated five, and on the corner was one open seat. Clearly, it was waiting for me.

There's a feeling captured so well by the film Lost In Translation, of being dazed, out of time, surrounded by people yet completely disconnected from them on every level, and that's the feeling I had while sipping a beer and fighting fatigue in this dive of an okonomiyaki joint. On my right, a couple that had obviously been carousing all night were getting progressively drunker and drunker and closer and closer. On my left, two tiny young women in formal kimonos(!), hair artfully sculptured and faces carefully painted, were putting away enough food to feed four teenage football players and energetically chatting about something that was obviously very, very exciting. It was a surreal scene, but a surreal scene with okonomiyaki, which thankfully didn't require a whole lot of cultural knowledge to order. I love okonomiyaki, and there's no better time for it than 2:30 in the morning. An egg and batter pancake, in this case packed with vegetables and a shocking amount of bacon, griddled up hot, served alongside a golf ball-sized dollop of Kewpie mayonnaise and topped with sweet okonomiyaki sauce and a pile of bonito flakes dancing and waving in the rising heat. This is booze food, late night fare, big and greasy and sweet and salty and so completely fabulous. I've had better, but this was pretty darn good, and if I had even the slightest idea of the name of the place, I'd note it here for posterity. But it will forever remain a mystery, a place out of time, and I've no doubt that when I return I'll walk the alleys of Golden Gai saying to myself, "Man, I could have sworn it was rigt here." Though disappointing, the evening wasn't a total loss after all. As I stumbled out, I could barely stand and I figured I was unlikely to find a better nightcap than that. I wanted to get a little bit of sleep, anyway. Just one morning left.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku
Shinjuku 3-34-11
Mon - Sun9:30 AM - 6:00 AM
Hanami Sushi
Tokyo-to, Shinagawa-ku
Kamiosaki 2-16-2
Mon - Sat12 PM - 1:30 PM5 PM - 12 AM

February 15, 2012

Tokyo - Day IIS

Who Doesn't? Dominic Armato


Crap. Ohhhhhhhh, crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrap. Okay. Hoo, boy. Okay. Does it really make a difference if I get there at 4:40 instead of 4:50? Ten more minutes. Yes. Ten more minutes.



Ahhhhhh, crap. Already? Okay. Sushi. Kick ass sushi. Get up. You can sleep in a couple of days. Get up. Get up. Okay. Getting up. Here we go. Getting up. Crap. Okay. UP!

And thus started day two and a half.

Even if I'd been in the mood to drop $400 on one of Tokyo's legendary sushi bars, this particular trip came together rather quickly and getting into, say, Jiro on short notice wasn't happening. Plus, y'know... $400. But legendary doesn't always carry so hefty a price tag, and as much as I usually try to make a habit of avoiding places that have been overhyped to the point that getting in means fighting a huge crowd (except Hot Doug's... the lines came after I started going, damnit), Sushi Dai sounded about right. Plus, it's not like I have any real sleep patterns to speak of even when I'm home, much less on the other side of the planet. Why not drag myself out of bed at four in the morning after having crashed just two hours earlier? Plus, I figured I'd have a leg up on the competition. We stayed a ten minute walk from Tsukiji and the metro doesn't start rolling until about 5:00 AM, which is when the doors at Sushi Dai open, so how many people could possibly be in line if I got there are quarter 'til?

Cheery FellasDominic Armato

Twenty-one is the answer, at least on this particular dark, frigid morning in the world's largest fish market. And with only twelve seats crammed into a restaurant the size of an Escalade, that means I'll have to wait until the second turn. Bummer. Still, there are worse places to stand around killing time. Tsukiji's just hitting its stride at this hour, and even the outskirts of the market are bustling. Shopkeepers set up for the day across the narrow aisle, grizzled truckers grab some breakfast. a cup of coffee and a smoke at the shop next door while their rigs are being loaded, carts of fish come rolling through as wholesalers take their purchases back to small processing houses to prep them for sale. One of the proprietors of Sushi Dai comes walking through, checking to see whether we'll be selecting the smaller set menu or larger omakase, while handing out scalding hot cups of green tea to the shivering folks standing in line. I can't possibly agree more with the cup's sentiment, nor with its contents. Though I'm the only foreigner in line (now pushing 40 deep), it seems that there's some kind of student group in front of me. Domestic tourists from another city, perhaps? I understand Sushi Dai attracts quite a bit of them. Mercifully, Sushi Dai is a no-frills establishment that does little more than feed you, and half an hour after the doors open, folks from the first seating start filtering out. It can't have been more than an hour when I'm finally beckoned inside.

OtoroDominic Armato

Suddenly, everything is bright, warm and above all, cozy. I've been in elevators that could accommodate a dozen people more comfortably, but it's a good kind of crowded, a bit of a jovial buzz amongst those seated at the counter, shoulder to shoulder, overlapping elbows, tended to by three incredibly cheery itamae, slicing and chatting, both amongst themselves and with the patrons. I survey the case in front of me and am immediately confronted with some shocking otoro, ribbons of fat passing through the flesh in thick, pale pink layers. Now the wait gets torturous. Green tea makes a reappearance, as does miso soup, served here with miniscule button-sized clams lurking in the bottom of the bowl. It's an appropriately briny variation that helps everyone to shake off the cold. Just a few minutes after being seated, the first piece appears, a long, thick slab of otoro that's meltingly rich and tender, served atop rice with just a hint of sour and sweet, still warm from the itamae's hands. It's an unimpeachable piece of fish, and it's almost surprising to see them unload the big guns right out of the gate. It's a confident move. "What, you think it can only go downhill from here? Think again." And after I've savored this piece as much as I can, lingering over it and extracting every last mote of flavor, it's off to the races.

Wow Dominic Armato

There's a thin slice of tai, red snapper, that manages to be both far more tender and far more flavorful than what I've come to expect. There's a slab of delicate and sweet kinmedai, a bit of its skin left behind, like an iridescent racing stripe. I adore uni, but there's uni and there's uni, and this is the latter. Next is sawara, a luscious sort of Spanish mackerel, with a hint of fishy character that stops short of plunging into funk. Before the hokkigai hits the counter, the itamae winds up and applies a sharp *SMACK* to its surface, which causes its feathered edges to undulate like a little wave, its freshness duly demonstrated. Aji, horse mackerel, is usually enough to put one off mackerel for life back home, but here that fishy funk is, instead, a complex depth, its deep flavor set off by the sharp sting of shredded scallion. At the opposite end of the spectrum is tamago, a block of dense, sweet omelet, warm and almost creamy. Looking almost comically like a small brain, an entire school of tiny shiro ebi, white shrimp, are packed together, riding the rice, and they go down sweet and sticky. Magurozuke dodges lean tuna's plainness by taking a bath in a soy-based marinade, adding sweetness, depth and interest to what is usually an unremarkable piece of fish. Growing up, anago was the chewy eel choice, but here it's creamy bordering on milky, a level of freshness that I've not previously encountered. Though it could be considered pedestrian next to the rest, there's something comforting about a small roll, nori on the outside, tuna and cool, crisp cucumber within. When it comes time to select my bonus piece, I don't care that hotate is one of the cheapest on the menu. I can't get enough of raw scallop, and if it were all this good, I'd be that much more insatiable.

At this point, I resist the urge to keep adding more, and weeks later, I'm regretting it. There are no surprises, but it's like the ultimate benchmark experience, providing the tastes against which everything else you taste for years to come will be (unfairly) judged. I'm not a breakfast guy, but if I had regular access to breakfast like this, I'd do it far more often, even if it meant hauling myself out of bed at four in the morning (heck, half the time I'm still up at that hour). Sushi Dai is completely no-frills, as classic as they come, and a spectacularly good value for the quality, the omakase coming in at about $50-$60 depending on where the exchange rate sits at the moment. By the time I pay that relatively modest tab and step back out into the cold, morning is breaking and the line is now around the corner. Apparently getting up in the middle of the night was the right call. But so long as I'm up and out, I see no sense in heading back already. So I go back to hit a favorite shop from previous trips.

AmaebiDominic Armato

Sushizanmai is Sushi Dai's opposite, a local chain in the shopping area just outside the market proper, where all manner of foodstuffs that might conceivably be paired with fish are sold. It's a large restaurant, kind of flashy, with a hawker out front pulling people in off the street (something that probably would have kept me away on previous visits). There's a large bar, but the rest of the room looks like it could seat close to a hundred, mostly empty at this early hour. In contrast to the boisterous late night crowd I remember from visits past, at this hour the counter seats a few grizzled workmen, tended to by a small cadre of equally grizzled itamae, most of whom look like they've been doing this four decades or more. I'm not looking for much, but there are a couple of choice pieces I need to have before calling the morning done.

Aburi ToroDominic Armato

I'm a sucker for amaebi, sweet shrimp, and it's so dependent on freshness (as if the rest isn't) that I want to have a couple of pieces before heading back. That raw spot prawn flavor, sweet and... almost starchy tasting?... it's difficult to describe. But it satisfies. What I'm really after, however, is the aburi toro, a piece of fish that I've been anticipating for a long, long time. The concept is simple enough. A slice of fatty tuna is set atop the rice, dusted with salt and then torched before, in this case, being topped with fresh chives and a spot of ginger. But this belies its genius when it's on, the fat from the toro quickly melting and sizzling, creating a kind of salty slick glaze that coats the fish as well as your tongue when you bite. I think I ate twenty pieces of this stuff across three visits on my last trip, it made my Deliciousness of 2006 and has haunted me for every year since. To say that I'm vibrating with anticipation would be a gross understatement. And yet when it's set in front of me and I finally get the taste I'd been craving for years, I'm... extremely disappointed. I'm not sure why. The richness isn't there. The sizzle isn't there. The salt isn't there. I mean, all of those components are present, but the magic is gone, perhaps illustrating how a subtle touch can make such an enormous difference in a dish that seems dead simple. Though it's been a long time, I'm certain it isn't me. It's the fish. Deflated, I pay the tab and head back out to the market.

Bonito Dominic Armato

On previous visits, I've always spent my time in the market proper, wandering the narrow aisles, gawking in total amazement at what seems like an infinite variety of seafood, both fresh and live, that goes on for miles. But there's a surrounding neighborhood packed with vendors that sell all sorts of other foodstuffs, and on my last visit, I resolved that when I returned, I'd spend my time in the outer market for once. So that's what I do. I encounter vendors selling thirty different varieties of beans. Others have giant vats of miso, from which they'll unceremoniously scoop some into a plastic bag for you to take home. Produce vendors have stunning greens, perfect mushrooms and piles of fresh wasabi root that make me wish I were bold enough to challenge customs on the way back. One of the stands ends up being highly educational, displaying grades of shaved bonito lined up in order of quality. On one end, it's haphazardly shredded and dull grey in color. On the other, huge, light flakes are a vibrant, bright pink and let off an intense, lightly smoky fragrance. Every time the vendor shuffles some of his product around, the air becomes momentarily laden with the scent of fresh bonito flakes, and I end up lingering long enough to earn me some looks. So I move on, stopping at a produce vendor to buy a whole yuzu and tearing it open to slurp out a bit of the tart flesh. I hate that a week ago, I could barely remember what fresh yuzu tastes like, and I want to hold onto it for a moment, trying to sear the flavor into my brain for what will probably be a long drought ahead.

Seafood PancakeDominic Armato

I resolve to nab a little street food before returning to the hotel. Giant blocks of tamago filled with all manner of ingredients seem to be popular, but I'm not quite feeling that. Another stand sells two dozen varieties of onigiri, the fillings within the triangular packages of rice identified by colorful stickers on the plastic wrap encasing them. Another one of the recs from my enormously helpful reader is a tempura place just a couple of blocks away. I don't have high hopes at this early hour, but so many businesses in the area cater to people whose workday is just ending that I decide to check it out anyway. Sadly, it's closed. But across the way there's another street food vendor selling some manner of seafood pancake. I've seen this before, but I don't know what it's named, and I figure it's time to try one. It's a mix of seafood, primarily shrimp, blended into a thick paste, mixed with sliced scallions and some other seasonings, and fried into a dense, chewy, kind of oily puck, the crudeness of which belies its deliciousness. After a morning packed with delicate, raw seafood, it seems kind of brutish to end my visit to Tsukiji with this. But I don't care, because it's completely fabulous. I munch contentedly while walking back to the hotel. Streets that were completely deserted a few hours ago are now packed with people heading to work. The city's waking up. But I'm going to go grab a couple hours of sleep.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Sushi Dai
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Tsukiji 5-2-1
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Tsukiji 11-9-4

February 14, 2012

Tokyo - Day II

Tokyo Tower Dominic Armato

After a solid night's sleep (by which I mean five hours or so... hey, that's a good night!), it was back out bright and early to cover the portions of Ginza we hadn't gotten to on day one. We arrived at the subterranean entrance to the Matsuzakaya department store just a few minutes before opening, and the sight when we walked in the door is something I wish I'd photographed. The moment the doors opened, the entire staff of the food department -- no fewer than thirty of them immediately visible, though there were far, far more -- were at their stations, standing at attention, hands behind their backs, staring straight ahead and waiting for the customers to enter. It was downright military in its precision. Selling stuff this good is serious work.

Old SchoolDominic Armato

And when it came time for us to take a break from work and get some lunch, we decided to go old school. Seriously old school. Manpuku, just off the main drag in the heart of Ginza, has been around since the 1920s, and it serves up a bowl of shoyu ramen that's as close to ramen's Chinese origins as you're going to find in Japan. In fact, it isn't even a ramen shop so much as it is a small Chinese restaurant, serving all manner of stir fry dishes in addition to the ramen for which it's known. The place has character. It's old and spartan, white walls and wooden counters, with vintage replica posters and a even a few relics from the old days, including antique address plates and charred signage that no doubt survived some historic disaster. It's no mystery what we were getting here. I wanted one opportunity to get at the roots of ramen.

Older SchoolDominic Armato

That's Manpuku's bowl all over. This is classic Tokyo ramen, a clear chicken base accented with soy sauce. Some mix in a little dashi, but if such was the case here, I wasn't getting it. The noodles were thin and lightly kinked, and sitting on top were chopped greens (spinach?), fish cake, menma (fermented bamboo), a flat piece of scrambled egg omelet trimmed into a triangle, and a single thin slice of lean pork. Lean was really the operative word here, as classic Tokyo ramen is especially clean, refreshing and light, particularly when contrasted with the hordes of tonkotsu variations that dominate the scene today. And while I appreciate the history involved, if this is as exemplary a bowl of classic Tokyo ramen as Manpuku's reputation would suggest, I can't say that I count it among my favorites. The noodles struck me as weak, and not just because those at Gogyo the night before were so muscular. And the broth, though ably prepared, was skinny for my tastes. But not as skinny as the pork, which was in dire need of some fat. I guess what I'm saying is that while I appreciate Manpuku's ramen, it's easy to see why this style has fallen out of favor with the younger generation.

More shopping and researching and another 10-15 miles on the pedometer was followed by a little break before heading out to satisfy another obsession: Japanese curry. I've always loved the stuff, simply made from a dry powder, sweetened with onions and apples, thickened with a roux, smooth and mellow when compared to its fiery cousins from other nations. Japanese curry isn't challenging. It's comforting. And I'd read about a place in the base of Tokyo Tower called Tokyo Curry Lab that specializes in curry and operates under the theory (or at least the conceit) that they're a working "lab," constantly turning out new curry variations. Truthfully, I couldn't have cared less about the variations. I was after some old school thick, sweet Japanese curry. Off to Tokyo Tower.

No Argument Here Dominic Armato

Tokyo Tower is a broadcast tower built in the '50s that's as much a tourist destination for its observation decks as it is a communications outfit. Think the Eiffel Tower, but taller and dayglo orange. Underneath the tower is FootTown, a kind of goofy little shopping and eating destination that I'm guessing is a little busier during the day than it is at 7:00 at night when we strolled up. Tokyo Curry Lab is tucked away into one corner of the mall, evoking a kind of 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe lightened up with corny humor. The counter and seats may be stark and geometric, but the placemats are covered with tongue-in-cheek graphics like this, and each seat has a small personal television showing... oy... Fever Pitch. Anyway, the curry was the goal, and while my father branched off and tried a couple of the more unusual concoctions (I must admit, the loco moco curry was mighty tempting), I stuck to the basics.

Salad with TomatoDominic Armato

The basics started with my oasis. You're not allowed to call it a glass of water, see? It's an oasis. Or so my placemat instructed me. Did I mention the place is a little goofy? In any case, I ordered a small salad with tomato. I'm a sucker for salads in Japan -- crisp greens and sweet dressings -- and I figured it'd be a nice start. This was a loooooooong way from Zakuro the day before, however (and to be fair, it was a miniscule fraction of the price). The salad consisted of a cup of mixed greens topped with chopped canned tomatoes. Now, I'm on record as a fan of canned tomatoes. Great canned tomatoes can be stupendous, and as an institution they've been unduly stigmatized. But who wants a fresh green salad with canned tomatoes? Could they not be bothered to stock fresh ones and had resorted to curry ingredients instead?

Beef CurryDominic Armato

My father dug into an eggplant tomato curry -- yup, that's what I thought -- with which he was quite smitten, and I opted to stick with the basic beef curry. The plate arrived, stylishly branded, and I wish I could say I was enthused with what it bore. Though I've had better, the curry itself was lovely. They'd made it with a nice, deep roux, a good balance of spice and sweetness, and the sauce, though it really needed to be warmer, struck a solid, harmonious balance. The problem was that it wasn't a beef curry. It was curry poured over some beef. Limp, wet beef at that. A place that specialized in curry had managed to exemplify one of my biggest curry pet peeves. If you're going to cook a meat curry, cook the meat in the curry. The meat is enhanced by the curry. The curry is enhanced by the meat. With time to simmer, they marry to become a happy whole, one unified dish. But when done like this -- especially with beef this insipid -- it's a mess. Were they primarily a lunch spot that phoned it in after 3:00? Were they having financial troubles and cutting corners? Whatever the reason, it's a shame because there was a lot of potential in that recipe. Ironically, the hard part was done. They'd done a nice job of balancing the curry elements. It was lazy assembly that turned what could have been a really nice dish into a big disappointment.

Curry CroquetteDominic Armato

Thankfully, dinner number one (we'll, uh, get to that) wasn't a total loss. As a little lagniappe, I also ordered a curry croquette, and it pretty much saved the meal. Roughly the size and shape of a hockey puck, the croquette was coated with panko and fried to a deep golden brown. It had a really delicate, airy crispness, and the filling was an extra-thick curry sauce with an almost pudding-like consistency, that gently oozed out as I ate. It's certainly not something I'd make a point of returning for, but I found it delightful, and it kept the meal from being a total bust. And when visiting foreign locales for just a few days, few things are worse than meals that are a total bust. Leaving a now completely deserted Tokyo Tower, my father and I parted ways. He returned to the hotel, while I set out for Ebisu and dinner number two, with an old friend.

Dave's an old collegiate friend, though we didn't actually meet until the year after I left the college where he remained. I love to tell the story of how he taught himself Japanese by setting up CD players with phrasebooks on endless loop in every room of his apartment. Learning through osmosis, I guess. But far be it from me to question his methods, as he's now quite fluent, having spent the past five years living and working in Tokyo, and he's even married and settled into life there. At least as much as it's possible to settle into a place like Tokyo when your brain never gets a break from translation duties.

Potato Salad, Tsukemono Dominic Armato

No translation was necessary at our dinner destination, a fish-centered izakaya recommended by a Skillet Doux reader (thanks, Allison!) named Ippo, where the proprietor was a supremely friendly chap with excellent English skills. Though I always feel guilty forcing somebody to speak my language rather than the other way around, it was nice not to have to resort to point and stammer for a while. Not that it would have mattered where we ended up, given that I was in Dave's company. In some ways, I feel as though I should have dragged him to someplace more challenging to somebody who doesn't speak the language. But in any case, by the time I'd arrived (late... still learning the Tokyo subway system), Dave was nearing the end of his first shochu and happily bantering with the fellow behind the bar.

SashimiDominic Armato

Ippo's a second floor dive, and I use that term lovingly as it's a spartan, well-managed dive with some really good food, but it's humbly assembled and its charm is in the energy of its boisterous patrons, not the paint on the walls or the finish of the floor. I confess, the details of our meal at Ippo are a little hazy, not because of the shochu (though I partook a little), but because I was far more intent on catching up with a fine fellow whom I hadn't seen in far too long. But we sampled some fine fish while I learned all about his time in Japan. We started with some simple tsukemono, the random house pickles that precede so many meals in Japan, and a bowl of sweet and creamy potato salad. One thing I love, even if I've never understood it, is the Japanese love for mayonnaise. It's everywhere. And when they use it, they don't do so sparingly. I'm a mayo fiend myself, I have a special love for Kewpie, and it's yet another source of the kinship I feel with Japan. I realize that as cultural connections go this one's rather tenuous, but I'll take what I can get... don't take this one away from me.

Miso Marinated... FishDominic Armato

I don't remember who ordered what, but when food started arriving it kicked off with a delicious plate of sashimi, the specific varieties of which have all long escaped my memory, all cool and pristine and served atop shiso leaves with freshly grated wasabi. When we went hot, we moved onto a dish that will no doubt look familiar to fans of Nobu. Though he's made a name for himself with a dish that, admittedly, strikes a kind of magical balance, the roots of his version are in simple Japanese izakaya fare, where fillets of all stripes get the miso treatment before being slapped on the grill. I don't recall what manner of fish this was, but it was sparingly accented by the miso, simpler and far less sweet than the Nobu clones that now dot the landscape in the states, in no small part because the fish was dynamite and didn't need much.

Tempura EelDominic Armato

I love eel. I've loved eel since the first time I tasted it. And it's possible this was the first time I'd had tempura fried eel. I think there might've been a vegetable or two mixed in there -- focusing on the conversation, remember -- but mostly eel, and it was really delicious. I can't say there was anything terribly revolutionary about the tempura. It was light, crisp and delicious, not too oily... everything you look for in a good tempura. What set it apart was simply the quality of the eel within. This wasn't the bad eel back home that's tough and dry. This wasn't even the good eel back home that's light and moist. This was eel of a freshness that would seem completely unattainable at home, almost creamy in places. And it wasn't even the best eel I'd end up having on this trip.

OchazukeDominic Armato

There's something really beautiful about ochazuke. Food doesn't get much more humble than this. It's a kind of soulful, satisfying dish, little more than steamed rice swimming in dashi. Ippo's version goes so far as to add a tangle of fresh sashimi -- snapper, perhaps? -- and a few cilantro leaves. It was a great finish, and put a thematic cap on dinner at Ippo. Like Nakamenoteppen, this was very simple food, served in a comfortable and boisterous room, and its quality was almost completely derived from the quality of the ingredients that went into it. Good food, good drink, good people... this is why izakayas seem to be catching on back home. Of course, the refined end of the spectrum is what's cemented Japanese cuisine's place as one of the world's most compelling, but as long as we're in the midst of a comfort food boom, why not the comfort foods of other nations?

Ebisu YokochoDominic Armato

As we wound up our meal at Ippo, Dave suggested that he'd be willing to take me for an even more typical post-work hangout experience, and you know I certainly wasn't going to say no to dinner number three. We descended the stairs, took to the street, and strolled along at a brisk clip, making our way through the neighborhood, which was still hopping, even at 11:00 PM on a school night. We were still chatting away, him telling me all about living in Japan, me being insanely jealous and trying to plot my family's exodus to the Far East, when Dave suddenly stopped dead in his tracks like a pointer who'd picked up the scent. He turned around a few times, as though getting his bearings, before spinning to face a narrow, unmarked doorway that had been right next to us the whole time. I'm still unsure whether he was having trouble locating the place he'd visited many times before, or if this whole ritual was for show, but when we squeezed through the doorway what I found on the other side was a kind of Blade Runner scene, like a narrow alley filled with street food, except that it wasn't a street. We'd arrived at Ebisu Yokocho, a score of small food stalls lining the walls of an indoor "alley," stools and milk crates and makeshift tables spilling into the narrow aisle.

Bekohira Dominic Armato

The place was jammed with people eating and drinking and generally having what seemed to be an excellent time, and after slowly squeezing our way through the mayhem, Dave finally led me to an eight seat counter with a small grill, and we settled in, ordered a couple of beers, and took in the energy of the place. Clearly, Dave hasn't been reading the blog.

"Um... are you okay with beef tongue?"
"Dave, if you're trying to scare me, you're going to have to do a lot better than that."

At first, I thought he was referring to a specific dish he wanted to get. But I'd soon learn that we'd landed at Bekohira, a stand that deals almost exclusively in beef tongue. I almost feel like I should repeat that, it makes me downright giddy. Do less, do it better, indeed, limiting yourself to a single cut.

Ponzu Beef TongueDominic Armato

It wasn't long before our first taste of tongue hit the counter. It was a cold dish, chilled, sliced beef tongue bathed in ponzu and topped with slivered onions, chopped chives and toasted sesame. This certainly isn't the first culture to lend a tart, pickled flavor to beef tongue, but what a crisp, clean variant this was. The tongue was sliced thin enough that it came apart readily, while still maintaining some significant chew. We're not hiding the meat's provenance, here... we're embracing it. Tart, citrusy ponzu, spicy raw onion and a little hint of sweetness, everything served ice cold in a small stainless steel bowl, it was like a chewy, meaty pickle and I was already loving this place.

Beef Tongue TsukuneDominic Armato

I'm not sure who spied the beef tongue tsukune first, me or Dave, but you know I jumped all over that one. How often do you have the chance to sample chicken and beef tongue tsukune on consecutive nights? It was composed much the same way as chicken tsukune, and similarly served with an egg yolk. But this was like tsukune on steroids, and I use the turn of phrase in a more literal fashion than it's usually intended. This was a truly muscular tsukune, big and beefy with serious chew, but ground finely enough that it yielded and avoided getting too tough. These were like robust, chewy meatballs, an unusually intense flavor coming from a grossly underused cut with big flavor. In retrospect, it seems so obvious. Why have I never seen this before?

Grilled Beef TongueDominic Armato

Our last dish brought some serious sweetness as well as a healthy dose of char to the counter. It was more tongue, this time marinated in some sort of sweet glaze, trimmed in an unusual manner that was almost feathered, leaving all sorts of nooks and crannies in the thick batons of meat. This had the effect of creating a wackyload or edges for the flame to attack, and this tongue was heavily charred on the edges before being dressed with a sweet soy-based sauce that I could probably describe with more eloquence if this weren't now dish three of dinner number three. I don't know what it was. I just know that it made me wish I could get tongue like this back home. At this point, it was well past midnight -- a school night for Dave, no less -- so we reluctantly resolved to call it a night and go our separate ways, until one of us should cross the Pacific again. Indeed, the only thing better than catching up with good people is when it's over good food. I wish we'd had more time.

Words to the wise: Why they operate this way in such a huge city where so many are dependent on public transportation, I have no idea. But staying out past 12:30 or so means a very expensive cab ride, as the Tokyo Metro shuts down for the 4-5 hours when late night revelers are most likely to be stumbling home. Perhaps it's an effort to curb hooliganism (because, you know, that's rampant in Japan </sarcasm>). More likely, I suspect, the taxi drivers are a strong lobby. In any case, it probably wasn't such a bad thing that I was forced to call it a night. It may have saved me from dinner number four.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Ginza 2-13-13
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 10:30 PM
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku
Ebisu 1-22-10
Mon - Sun6 PM - 1 AM

Tokyo Curry Lab
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku
Shibakoen 4-2-8
Mon - Sat11 AM - 9:20 PM
Ebisu Yokocho
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku
Ebisu 1-7-4
Mon - Sat5 PM - 5 AM

February 13, 2012

Tokyo - Day I

Oedo Line Dominic Armato

I was thrilled to return to China. I love the food. I love the chaos. I love the gritty edge of Hong Kong and the cities in Guangdong. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the part of the trip that ate up the bulk of my planning and anticipation was the three days we'd spend in Japan before returning home... two full days with half days on either end. If I love China (and I do), I LOVE Japan. From the love affair with electronics, to the clean and minimal design sensibilities, to the obsession with perfecting food at every level, this is a culture that pushes all of my buttons, and no matter how much time I spend there it's never enough.

So we opted to maximize it. Rather than a Sunday morning departure from Hong Kong, we took a Saturday night red eye, arriving early in the morning, ready to hit the ground running and earn ourselves another half day. Thankfully, work in Japan involves packaging research, and cruising department stores and shopping areas is a whole lot more conducive to squeezing in good eats than twelve hour days visiting factories. What's more, Sunday morning Tokyo traffic is, mercifully, a whole lot more conducive to one's continued sanity than the weekday version.

SandwichesDominic Armato

After a bus to the station, taxi to the hotel, quick stop check in and drop off bags, it was time for a quick cup of coffee before hitting the stores. Coffee accomplished, but I also can't escape a trip to Japan without indulging an old obsession. It's one that I can't explain or justify, but these little sandwiches are everywhere in Japan, and I love them. Egg salad, potato salad, tuna salad, some tomato and cucumber, maybe a bit of ham and cheese, all layered between the softest, squishiest crustless sandwich bread you've ever encountered. What's the appeal? No idea. On my early trips to Japan, these fellows constituted breakfast and snacks while riding the shinkansen on numerous occasions. Nostalgia, perhaps? In any case, these usually cellophane-clad fellows are an inexplicably indispensable part of any trip to Japan for me. Coffee and sandwiches consumed, it was off to Ginza.

Ginza is Tokyo's upscale shopping nexus, where small boutiques sell items for insane prices, premium brands occupy entire lowrise buildings, and huge department stores cater to the well-heeled. It's the latter that's our target, both for work and pleasure, where the basements are packed with amazing eats. Take your average supermarket, triple the size, then fill it with stands selling premium foodstuffs of every kind. Culturally speaking, the Japanese have a special love of quality. Culinary delights from all over the world, the best of the best, are all packed into one place. Or, in the case of the Ginza strip, three or four of them in a five block stretch.

Dominic Armato

Jamon Iberico de Bellota, anyone? A mere $4200 per leg. And you have your choice of eight. Strawberries, stunningly perfect, unblemished, each better than the most perfect strawberry you've ever tasted, packaged in a wooden box and sold for $50/dozen. Japan's famed beef, currently illegal in the United States (a retaliatory embargo after Japan cut of U.S. beef due to BSE concerns), marbled such that it seems more fat than meat, this particular specimen a good bit off the pace at $130/lb (I'd later find some at $500/lb). Of course, these are the shocking outliers. But what's clear is that there's an appreciation for food quality in Japan that you just don't see in the United States. Most of what you'll find in basements of the department stores is affordable, if somewhat expensive. But even run of the mill produce is stunning in appearance and freshness, meats trimmed with the utmost care, confections stunningly presented, as with the cake above, each slice carefully packaged, each flavor artfully topped with a different assortment of nuts, berries and sugared herbs. And these are but a few examples out of thousands and thousands. I could fill two dozen posts with similar finds. At first it's awe-inspiring to see so many of the most incredible foods you've ever seen all collected in one space. Then it's frustrating, as you start to ask yourself why we can't have just a tenth of this back home. Then it's depressing, when you accept that on the whole, we just don't have the cultural appreciation for quality necessary to support places like these. When it comes to food in the United States, on the project triangle of cheap, fast and good, it's no mystery which one is usually sacrificed. I try not to dwell on it lest every blog post devolve into an angry rant.

Tomato SaladDominic Armato

And what better way than taking a lunch break to avail ourselves of some of these amazing ingredients? Zakuro is another old favorite, in the heart of the Ginza strip, specializing in shabu shabu. It's tucked away in the basement of an office building, old-school in appearance with paper screens and a kimono-clad waitstaff, and an air of propriety that's reflected in the food. We started off with a tomato salad, topped with a scant amount of finely chopped onion, heavily dressed with a vinaigrette and arriving in a small bowl encased in ice. The color, though vibrant, was off-putting at first, something I'd associate more with underripe tomatoes -- which I'd never experienced at this restaurant. And this would be no exception. It was ice cold, sweet and fabulous. A clean, fresh start.

Goma SuDominic Armato

Shabu shabu is a particular breed of nabemono -- Japanese pot food -- that's on the blissfully simple end of the spectrum. You boil some water along with a slice of kombu for a touch of umami depth, and do a little cooking at the table. Though it's been expanded to include a substantial variety of ingredients in some parts, its simplest, most traditional form involves little more than very thinly sliced raw beef accompanied by a variety of fresh greens, mushrooms, tofu and perhaps noodles. In go the vegetables, you take a slice of beef and swish it around for a few moments, and on their way out both are dipped in either a ponzu or goma-su (sesame sauce), and maybe a small bowl of steamed rice joins the party. That's it. There's not a whole lot to it. Which means the only thing separating the good from the bad from the stellar is the quality of the dipping ingredients, and the preparation of the sauces. And here's where they start to tease you.

VegetablesBeefDominic Armato

First come the sauces, and it's all I can do to keep from drinking the goma-su right there. This sweet and nutty dip made with ground sesame, soy, sugar and vinegar (and perhaps punched up with an aromatic or two) is good even when it's bad, as in many cheap places when you're getting what's most likely a bottled product. But when it's painstakingly made from deeply roasted and freshly ground sesame as it no doubt is at Zakuro -- heightened with a hint of garlic, a few floating globules of chile oil, and freshly minced chives -- we're entering "I could drink a quart of that condiment" territory. The ponzu's no slouch either, and sneaking a sip before the rest of the setup arrived, I was reminded of what fresh yuzu tastes like, as opposed to the bottled juice used at all but the most ultrapremium restaurants in the States. Then they taunt you a little more, laying out a platter of pristine vegetables, perfectly sliced and arranged and ready for a magazine photo shoot. And then, there's the beef. I think they used to offer lower grades at Zakuro, but now the bidding starts at A5 Wagyu and goes up from there, and it shows. I almost -- *almost* -- cringe at the thought of tossing this beautiful beef into boiling water, but this isn't the stuff of Chef Hicks' nightmares. They have far too much reverence for ingredients like this to screw them up.

The PotDominic Armato

Finally... *finally*... the pot arrives, and rather than the simple stainless job on an induction burner that typify the quick lunch spots, here it's an elaborate contraption of hammered copper, a raised donut-shaped bowl surrounding a chimney nearly three feet tall, a charcoal fire within the base providing the heat. It's needlessly ornate. I can't imagine anything a charcoal heat source brings to the table that an induction burner doesn't, other than various levels of complication in maintaining your heat. But as with so many Japanese traditions, it's as much about the process as it is about the results, and even if they're short on practicality they're usually long on beauty, which is certainly the case here. Finally, we dive in, and while the first round of vegetables cooks, I gently peel off that first paper-thin slice of beef, give it a few quick swishes through the water so that there's a little pink where my chopsticks are holding it, pause for a moment to dip it in the goma-su, and then enjoy a melting mouthful of what's as much beef fat as it is meat, silky smooth, tender and juicy, and completely unlike any slice of cow attainable back home. I savor it -- I'd better, since the stuff probably costs about $15 per slice -- before moving on to some fresh greens, scallions and mushrooms, giving them a splash of citrusy ponzu as they escape the pot. Wait... what's missing... rice! "Gohan, onegaishimasu," I say, exhausting close to 5% of my Japanese vocabulary in one loquacious burst (Kiguchi Sensei's class back in high school was big on kana, not so much on conversation), and moments later I'm reintroduced to the beauty of a bowl of perfectly steamed rice, remembering that it isn't just an accompanying starch, but can be a fabulous dish all its own. So we dip and slurp and moan and don't talk much until each has but one slice of beef left -- naturally, you have to save one slice of that beef for the last taste -- and that last taste is as bitter as it is sweet, because I could eat a week's salary worth of this beef in one sitting and it still wouldn't be enough.

BrothDominic Armato

Of course, the meal isn't quite yet over. Large mugs and a small copper ladle appear, and after filling the mugs with some of the cooking water left in the pot, we add a dash of salt from a tiny carved wooden box using a tiny carved wooden spoon, and a large spoonful of minced chives, and spend a few minutes sipping the scalding hot broth while longing for another plate of the beef that enriched it. This is why we keep coming back, despite the questionable price performance. Lunch was over $100 each, the most expensive meal we'd have on this trip. And though it's easy to do so, you don't need to spend big money to eat like a king in Tokyo. But the ritual, the tradition, the simplicity and the pure reverence for perfect premium ingredients is such an ideal way to kick off a trip to Japan that we get sucked in every time. It'd be a damn fine meal without all of the cultural subtext. But with it, it's irresistible. It's as much habit as anything at this point, but I have a hard time imagining a trip to Tokyo without a stop at Zakuro.

The DoorDominic Armato

Now more than 32 separated from our last crack at a pillow, we did a little more wandering for work and then headed back to the hotel for a much-needed break before dinner. One breed of restaurant that I'd barely experienced on previous trips, much as it pains me to admit it, are the izakayas; the cozy, casual neighborhood joints that kind of fly under the radar, where unpretentious food meets generous amounts of beer and shochu (and, to a lesser extent, sake). So I resolved to hit a couple on this trip, and one name that popped up a few times during my searching was Nakamenoteppen. Navigating Tokyo is a challenge. The addressing system is based on blocks as opposed to streets, so a detailed map is an absolute necessity, and even finding the right block might only be half the battle. Particularly in the higher-density neighborhoods (and I stress highER), Tokyo is the only city I've visited that requires you to navigate in three dimensions. If you're trying to get to a store or restaurant in most cities, knowing the North, South, East and West of things will put you close enough that you can spot it. But in Tokyo, being at the exact coordinates means that you could be facing a line of narrow buildings, not numbered in sequence, each with stores and restaurants going up five or six stories, and perhaps two or three floors down. On previous trips, there have been occasions where I've spent half an hour looking for a place, never walking more than 50 yards away from it. And I generally consider myself a strong navigator, even in three dimensions. But one of the lessons of this trip was that smartphones and Google maps were made for navigating Tokyo, and after easily locating the front door to Nakamenoteppen (thanks in no small part to some earlier Streetview scouting), we were faced with our second navigational challenge... the door itself. I lament the fact that there's nothing for scale in this photo, but the top of this door frame from which those pillow-looking things are hanging is about chest high. The wooden placard is somewhere around your belly, and the top of the actual door -- below the roll of fabric -- is about belt high. Whether the owners are students of some ancient Japanese tradition or merely possessed of an odd sense of humor, I have no idea. But I confess that practically crawling through the front door does give the sense that one is journeying rather than merely stepping across the threshold, and only heightens the illusion that you've entered a little self-contained world as you emerge on the other side.

The View Dominic Armato

You're first hit by the warmth, as a huge charcoal grill is situated directly in front of the door, right in the middle of what can rightly be described as a cave of a restaurant. As your head crosses the threshold, the shouted greetings hit your ears, welcoming you in traditional fashion. As you start to stand up, sweet, intoxicating smoke hits your nose, and once you've regained your balance you finally see the source, an abundance of fresh vegetables and seafood proudly displayed in front of the massive grill, and the bald, friendly, solidly built fellow manning it. Half of the room is jammed with small tables, the other half comprised of the open kitchen and long bar curving around it, with low seating that may be a stool and may be a milk crate with a piece of carpet lashed to the top of it, depending on where you're parked. Low ceilings, acoustic tiles, the heat emanating from the grill and the complete lack of windows somehow manage to lend a vibe that's cozy more than claustrophobic (Here's a shot that gives a better sense of the space), like a hobbit hole of the Eastern tradition where you could nestle in and warm yourself with good food and spirits and company all night. So that's what we did.

Welcome NoteDominic Armato

Our hotel had called ahead to hold us a couple of seats, and waiting for us at the counter was a charming little missive, addressed to me, that I wish I could read. I got my name as well as the thank you in red in the background, and that's about it. Conversing with our hosts proved to be no less challenging, though they were warm and boisterous and couldn't have been more welcoming, even if the awkward moments of failed communication were abundant (I blame only myself). The fact that so much of their product was laid out on the counter was a godsend, and before long we were pointing and nodding our way to a lengthy order of items -- fish, flora and a few helpings of shochu -- and before long a beautiful parade of dishes, sent at a lazy, booze-friendly pace, started to arrive.

NasubiDominic Armato

Displayed directly in front of us were nasubi (Japanese eggplant), deep purple, narrow and two feet long, so that was a gimme. After starting it on the grill, the chef at one point lifted it up and buried the nasubi directly in the coals, leaving it there for a while to char and soften. When he removed it, after giving it a chance to cool, he rinsed it and skinned it like an eel, plating the inner flesh -- with just a little outer char left behind -- and serving it to us along with a bowl of shaved bonito and a small bottle of soy sauce. Humble doesn't begin to describe it. But more does delicious eggplant need than some fire and a little bonito and soy? It was silky smooth, the pulp having been cooked down to an almost mushy soft texture, and the little bonito and soy accent was all it needed. This was a great, simple start that completely set the tone.

HotateDominic Armato

I'm a total sucker for scallops, and hotate is within the scope of my Japanese food vocabulary, so these fellows were next, served atop a searing hot shell that acted as its vessel through the entire cooking process. I'm not sure if the flesh of the scallop ever actually touched the grill, but if it did, it was only very briefly. It spent most of its time protected from direct fire by the shell, cooking and bubbling away in its own natural juices while absorbing the smoke that swirled around it. This received, I believe, no more than a splash of soy, and it probably didn't even need that. This was fresh seafood and smoke, tender and sweet, a little color and char where it had rested against a bare portion of the shell for a while, the muscle served along with just about ever other edible part of the beast. At this point, we were starting to wonder if the entire meal would be this minimal, mostly because we were hoping it would be.

TsubodaiDominic Armato

I have no idea what tsubodai is. Some kind of whitefish? The varieties of fish available in Japan outnumber those readily available at home by two orders of magnitude. The set of fish that I could only describe as "some type of [blank]" might cover dozens of uniquely named varieties, ages and cuts of fish to an educated Japanese palate. But in any case, the tsubodai -- whatever it is -- seemed to be a special for the evening, and special was the right word. This one bore the full brunt of the grill, the skin side turning charred, blackened and flaky while the flesh side took on a robust golden color. Yet the flesh remained flaky and moist inside, the perfect marriage of fish and fire, with nothing more than some shredded daikon and soy to accompany. I ask myself why we can't have such brilliant, simple fish dishes at home, and then I remember that it's because the fish has to be this fresh and amazing to begin with. We aren't blessed with Tsukiji a short drive away, so it requires an appreciation for the best and a willingness to pay for it, and it's frustrating that those who understand this are so few and far between. But I digress.

Makomo DakeTamanegiDominic Armato

We piled on the vegetables. A bulbous onion of some sort was also parked directly in front of us. "Kore wa nan desuka?" (There goes another eight percent.) I'm still unsure whether tamanegi is a specific type or a catchall term, but yeah, I suppose this particular variety did kind of resemble Chop Chop Master Onion. It was trimmed, wrapped in foil and buried in the coals for 10-15 minutes, emerging as a sweet, tender and lightly caramelized roasted onion that practically melted at the touch. Through a convoluted flurry of stammering and pointing (I was into my third shochu at this point, which probably wasn't helping matters), we ended up with a chef's recommendation of makomo dake, young bamboo that was charred and served with salt and yuzu. It was absolutely delectable, surprisingly tender and sweet.

TsukuneDominic Armato

Somewhere along the line, I spied a plate of tsukune heading out to another diner and practically fell over myself trying to catch our hosts' attention. This is Japanese comfort food right here, ground seasoned chicken slapped on the grill and basted with a thick, sweet soy sauce. Essentially, what we're talking about here is Japanese meatballs, and it's easy to see how a shochu-fueled appetite would find them irresistible. I certainly did. They had a great texture, were aggressively seasoned but coated with a lighter glaze (my preference when it comes to tsukune), and served alongside a deep, vibrant orange egg yolk, just in case they weren't already rich enough. The only bad thing about these was that there weren't enough of them. I was ready for a dozen. We received two. Tempting as it was to try for more, we moved on.

Bacon and... Something GreenDominic Armato

I'm still not sure what the center of this little package was, but the exterior was bacon, and that was enough of a selling point right there. From across the counter, I'd initially thought it was asparagus, but was told no, it was... something else. I didn't catch the name. They were long, thin green shoots, but upon closer inspection it was clear that the buds at the end were of a very different shape, and the stalks appeared to be hollow as well. The bacon was thick, much subtler than American bacon, not nearly so salty or smoky, but possessed of the requisite amount of cured pork fat that sizzled and melted on the grill, making for a crisp and juicy package once fully cooked. They do pigs about as well as they do cows in Japan, which is to say it was fabulous.

Hamachi CollarDominic Armato

We couldn't bear to leave without one more piece of fish, so we rounded out the evening with a simple grilled yellowtail collar, and all propriety went out the window as I gnawed and sucked every last little sweet and charred bit from the bone. It was a fabulous meal, and the tsukune aside, not a single plate contained more than three ingredients, most no more than two. It was purely a function of fresh fish, fresh vegetables, a bunch of charcoal and a little knowhow. But as I've said too many times already just in this first post, they appreciate good ingredients. The punchline of our visit to Nakamenoteppen came when we tried to exit. As my father started to stoop at the front door, the staff started yelling something and frantically waving him off. One of the servers showed us around the corner, quite literally not three feet from where we entered, where a second secret full-sized door opened into the same entrance vestibule. We hadn't had that much shochu, but apparently they took pity on us nonetheless.

After accompanying my father back to the hotel, I resolved, fortified by liquid courage and a determination to make the most of every free moment, to go in search of some ramen before calling it a night. I'd mapped out a couple dozen that sounded particularly promising, giving special emphasis to those open late at night, and decided that my first bowl for the trip would come from Gogyo, which I'd read serves a killer bowl of ramen with a contemporary spin -- burnt miso.

The Kitchen Dominic Armato

Though Gogyo has a few locations strewn throughout the city, the one I'd scouted is in Nishiazabu, in a very quiet (at this late hour, anyway) residential neighborhood off the main drag a short walk west of Roppongi station. It's a casual late night joint, though it isn't lacking for high design, hewn from black stone, the tables and counters made of thick slabs of wood with a deep, reddish lacquer, the walls covered with red tile and a gleaming hammered copper backsplash lining the entire rear wall of the open kitchen. It's a room that evokes fire and brimstone, and I smirked as I considered that the kitchen seemed more suited to a hunchbacked Oliver Reed with Uma Thurman on his arm than the fellow who actually manned it on this particular evening. As it turned out, however, this slight, smiley fellow was no less a master of fire. Though I missed the shot, upon ordering a bowl of the house special ramen, he'd start heating a large wok, and shortly thereafter a huge blast of six foot flames would jump out of it. When they died down he'd add the contents to the dish he was carefully constructing, and moments later a black bowl of soup would come out of the kitchen.

Burnt Miso RamenDominic Armato

By black I don't mean the bowl (though it was also black), but rather the soup itself. Gogyo slings a tonkotsu broth, but you wouldn't know to look at it, since it's mixed with some kind of miso that been charred to a deep black color in the wok before being mixed into the broth. Though the bowl was full of noodles, I could only see them barely peeking out where they came within a few millimeters of the surface, because the depths of the bowl were completely impenetrable to the eye. A slice of pork, piece of fish cake, barely set egg and a small sheet of nori... it looked normal enough on the surface, though the flavor was anything but. I slurped a bit of broth and was astounded. It had that tonkotsu depth and richness, but it was charred, leaving what looked like flecks of carbon on my spoon after every slurp, like they'd figured out how to blacken a liquid, lending it that smoky, bitter complexity that was beautifully balanced by the inherent sweetness of the pork and miso. Vulcan and Venus was an even better metaphor than I'd realized. Add to this a thin slick of hot oil on the surface, and I can say without the slightest reservation that this was the biggest, boldest, most intense bowl of ramen I've ever tasted. But its fabulousness didn't end there. The noodles, kinkless and cut like thick spaghetti, had a bite that went beyond formidable. They weren't just firm. They weren't just chewy. They fought back, and it was an incredible pleasure to fight them. The pork was silky and tender and laden with fat, the egg would have been liquid if it had been cooked just a degree less, and the entire concoction was completely unlike anything I've ever tasted before. I know I'm a sucker for big flavor, but this was huge flavor paired with fabulous depth and balance. I didn't know it at the time, but this would turn out to be my favorite dish of the entire trip to Japan.

I stumbled out, completely dazed. I'd burned the hell out of my tongue on that hot slick of oil, but completely didn't care. I'd walked fifteen miles that day, I hadn't slept in a bed in almost 48 hours and I could barely feel my extremities anyway. I needed a few hours to digest and recharge, but I had a belly full of fire and I was just getting started.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Ginza 4-6-1
Tokyo-to, Meguro-ku
Kamimeguro 3-9-5
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku
Nishiazabu 1-4-36

February 03, 2012

San Xi Lou

Ma Po Dofu Dominic Armato

It wasn't my intention to save the best for last, but I'm pretty much okay with it working out that way.

With work out of the way, we had a half a day free before taking off for Japan. Most of that day was spent chasing down an ingredient that I'm starting to think is a cruel hoax on obsessive food nerds. But there was time to get in one more restaurant visit, and the tricky part was deciding which. A little weekend dim sum? A trip to Lei Yue Mun for piles of shrimp and clams? Something particularly difficult to locate back home, like Chiuchow? In the end, despite my guilt over eschewing Cantonese on our last day in Hong Kong, one of my favorites food niches won out. I love Sichuan. I've only grown to love it more since the last time I was in China. Being many years separated from my old Chicago favorite had put me badly in need of a good fix, my last Sichuan meal in Hong Kong had been such a wonderful experience, and by god, I would have some facing heaven chiles. Decision made. Off to San Xi Lou.

Cold Chicken with PeanutsDominic Armato

I'd read about San Xi Lou in a few places, and it's routinely praised as perhaps the best Sichuan restaurant in Hong Kong. It's tough to ignore praise like that, and the fact that it was just a few minutes' cab ride from the hotel made it an easy call. As with many restaurants in Hong Kong, it's located in what looks like an office building. A dozen stories, small footprint... it seems odd to find a restaurant in a place like this. You hop off the elevator on the seventh floor, and all but step directly into the restaurant, stylishly and comfortably appointed in warm tones and dark, carved wood. This is as approachable as dining overseas comes, with helpful staff and a lengthy, detailed English menu heavy on pictures. Hotpot is a specialty, and while the huge sauce bar (are you taking notes, Tien Wong?) was tempting, I was on a mission. I ordered way too much food. And I'm really, really glad I did.

Cold Sliced Pork with Garlic SauceDominic Armato

A couple of cold appetizers were an absolute necessity, and we started with a chicken with peanuts, and oh, what a fabulous start. No surprised here, with chilled meat swimming in a bath of chile oil fortified with sesame oil, balanced with vinegar and spiked with Sichuan pepper. Cold and spicy is always such a wonderful combination, and this one was mostly about the fire, with the sesame coming in second. But with these Sichuan dishes, the beauty is in the balance, and this was exceptional. Next, the chilled pork arrived, pale white, tender as can be, sliced almost paper thin with as much fat as meat, it was dressed with a splash of a sort of spicy soy and a dollop of garlic sauce that -- in a weird bit of cross-cultural similarity -- reminded me an awful lot of skordalia. It had a whipped texture, almost creamy, and though it had a very strong garlic flavor, its acrid edge had been tamed just enough that it yielded to the clean, simple flavor of the meat. Another fabulous dish. Two for two.

Chongqing ChickenDominic Armato

Can I give three points for this next one? Wow. Just wow. The Chongqing Chicken, listed on the menu as sautéed chicken with spicy red chile, is a familiar presentation, fried bits of chicken buried in a mound of toasted whole chiles, mixed with copious amounts of Sichuan pepper and cashews. This is the kind of dish that makes me reconsider my overuse of the word explosive, because you could combine the firepower of five other dishes I've described that way and it wouldn't match this dish. I mean, there's ma la and there's MA LA. The chicken was dry, dusted with salt and Sichuan pepper -- a LOT of it -- and upon contacting my tongue, my mouth was set ablaze, first with the fire of the chiles, and then with the electric, numbing zing of the Sichuan pepper. This isn't just burn, it's something else altogether. It's like an intensely powerful full mouth convulsion that just builds and builds, more fire, more zing, as you eat another piece and more of the oil coats your tongue. At first we thought the dual vessel, a woven basket placed atop a plate, was little more than a stylish presentation, to convey abundance. But as we worked our way through the dish, sifting through chiles in search of little bits of chicken, we noticed that the whole Sichuan pepper was dropping through and leaving the rest behind. Was this by design? In any case, this contributed to a surprising twist. Once it had cooled, it was like a completely different dish. That shocking electric sensation had been dialed down from 14 (waaaaaay beyond eleven) to a more reasonable and typical eight, and the underlying aromatics came out. It wasn't better or worse, just different, and we effectively got to enjoy this dish twice.

Sauteed Prawn with Chili & PeanutsDominic Armato

A little seafood was up next, a perfect example of how the same core ingredients can be re-balanced and adjusted to create a dish with a completely different character -- one of the things that's always amazed me about expertly prepared Sichuan. Here, sweet and sour came to the fore, though not at all in the manner those words might suggest to some. The predominant flavor was the deep, smoky tartness of chinkiang vinegar, balanced with a fair amount of sugar and accented with chiles and onions. The shrimp themselves had a lovely, velvety texture, and they were brimming with natural sweetness. Again, the balance on this was just impeccable, and even though this dish was quite fiery in its own right, on the tail of the chicken, it played like a cooling, soothing refresher of a dish... perhaps the only context in which a dish loaded with so many chiles could.

EggplantDominic Armato

I had a tough time settling on a vegetable, but man, am I glad we ended up with the eggplant. The flavor was spectacular, but it was as much about the texture, shooting the gap between firm and tender, resisting a touch at first before yielding and dissolving in your mouth, having fully absorbed the vinegar, chile oil -- oh, geez, I have no idea what the litany of ingredients were, but the flavor was amazing. And then before calling it quits, we moved on to the ma po dofu, which played as remarkably mellow in comparison to the rest of the menu. Silky tofu studded with ground pork, it had a deep, round, earthy quality brought on by an abundance of fermented black beans. I always love getting a kitchen's spin on ma po dofu, and San Xi Lou's was the perfect distillation of their style -- flavors coming from every direction, all expertly balanced.

Yes, please.Dominic Armato

It's perhaps an unorthodox addition to the tabletop, but a bamboo box filled with tissues is, I have to admit, a thoughtful touch. Almost indispensable, really. We kind of sat in awe for a while. I can't say enough about this meal. I really can't. It's the kind of meal that I worry is going to completely ruin me for Sichuan for years to come. It's set an impossible standard that I have no way of matching. We had some fabulous meals on this trip to China, but even though we were in the heart of Cantonese territory, this is the one I just can't get out of my head. And knowing that I have no place to go for Sichuan of this caliber is driving me insane. I we were to stay for another week, I might have hit the place two more times, and gotten as much of the massive menu as I could. As we waddled out of San Xi Lou, we actually had time to take a little break, chill for a bit, and squeeze in one more stop before heading to the airport. I had tentatively planned a sojourn to Lei Yue Mun to round out the trip. But I don't care if it isn't thematically congruent... we opted to rest on our laurels. You don't mess with an ending like this. It was an absolutely killer finish to our time in China.

And there was more to come...

San Xi Lou
7/F Coda Plaza
51 Garden Road
Central, Hong Kong
Mon - Sun11 AM - 11 PM

February 01, 2012

Haiba Restaurant

Salt Baked Chicken Dominic Armato

There's one business lunch left in the lineup (and one more China post before moving on to Japan), and I wanted to break it out on its own because as far as Cantonese meals go, it was definitely the standout of the trip.

In my experience, there's often a kind of backwards logic in China when it comes to restaurant size versus quality. We always think of our finest restaurants as small, intimate affairs, where an auteur of a chef can carefully oversee and control every plate that goes out to the dining room. Restaurants in China often take a very different approach, opening enormous spaces that seat multiple hundreds of people, and then hiring an army of chefs that are highly specialized, some of whom may only make one or two dishes. Some of the most amazing meals I've had have been in these restaurant stadia, as it were, and while I'm not sure it's a system that would be effective for Western cuisine, I find myself forced to throw out the conventional wisdom that a place that seats 200 is basically catering.

Beef BrothDominic Armato

Haiba Restaurant (Harbor Restaurant?) is not one of these monsters, but it's a breed of hotel restaurant that seems to be based on the same bigger, more, better philosophy, and pulls it off. This was not the legendary downtown Shenzhen feasts of visits past. In general, this trip was a little more low key. But this felt like one of them in spirit -- cleanly executed classics and slightly contemporary riffs thrown together with killer results. We started off with another broth. Lord, I'll never tire of these broths. Though this was a dark poultry stock, which I've seen a lot less often. Beautiful, rich flavor. We also got started with a very typical BBQ plate, char siu on the left, tender belly with a hard crust in the center, and roast duck on the right. When you get this very dish over and over again, it's easy to stop appreciating how good it is, each offering simple and juicy with just enough of an accent on the surface to highlight the meat.

Roast Pork and DuckDominic Armato

Another very typical traditional dish, again done very well here, was the salt baked chicken. Salt baking had a bit of a coming out party in the States perhaps five or six years ago, but for those who aren't familiar with the technique, the meat in question is essentially buried and packed in moistened salt, sometimes mixed with egg white (I believe simply to facilitate its removal), before being roasted. It's one of those magical techniques that yields absurdly intense, natural flavors, all of the essence of the beast locked in and held close as it cooks. For years, we wondered how they could get such an intense flavor in a simple roasted chicken. Once somebody explained the process, it all made sense. Succulent, tender chicken, tasting of nothing but itself, sitting in a shallow bath of a sort of salty chicken stock... when it's done well like this, it's one of my favorite ways to eat a chicken.

Salt Roasted ShrimpDominic Armato

And then we got something we'd never, ever seen before. Salt baked chicken, sure. But salt baked shrimp? This was a new one. A couple dozen shrimp had been skewered and wrapped in parchment along with a little slivered onion and a splash of soy sauce. It appeared that this package had then been buried in salt and roasted. And these little fellows were dynamite. You pulled a skewer out of the quiver and ate the shrimp whole, right off the stick. The flavor was intense, the interior meat moist, the shell crisp enough to eat, and the head retained all of its briny juice. It would seem there must have been another step to the process, since the shells were crisp but still wet with soy. Had the soy been squirted into the packet after the fact? I'm not sure, but I'd love to know. These shrimp were one of the best preparations I can remember, so simple and so full of flavor. This was one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip.

Clay Pot LambCurry BeefDominic Armato

Which isn't to say the meats were slacking. When ordering, our host asked if we were okay with lamb, and seemed surprised when we responded, yes, anything. "Frog?" he asked, mildly incredulous. "Definitely." "Snake?!" "Absolutely." He seemed surprised, but satisfied. No doubt other visitors have been less open to all the menu has to offer. In any case, he would skip the frog and snake on this particular day (too bad), but the lamb arrived in a clay pot, brimming with mushrooms, and stewed in a thick almost gravy-like sauce that was barely sweet, but tasted mostly of lamb. The meat was tender and rich and really, really exceptional. We also received a plate of beef short ribs, flanken cut and then further diced into bite-sized pieces, swimming in another thick, meaty sauce that was heavy with black pepper and lightly scented with curry. This was meat you had to work for, gnawing it off the bone and then working it for a while, and I will never understand why so many people back home seem to abhor the natural pleasure of actually chewing, particularly when cuts like this provide so much more flavor.

Beef with MushroomsDominic Armato

We still hadn't hit the end of the meaty parade, and the next beef dish was a kind you never see back home. I couldn't even begin to identify the cut. It was a plate full of massive, bony chunks, as though they'd been sawed off the end of an appendage, or were part of a joint. More surprising was that the meat was tender, yet dry, almost like spent stock meat, so much so, in fact, that I wonder if that's precisely what it was. If so, it had been artfully repurposed, cooked with a breed of mushroom I don't recall encountering before, long (some as many as 8-10") almost stringy stalks, a texture like overcooked asparagus, with small caps, but with a gentle mushroom flavor. It was served with a small bowl of soy sauce for dipping. This is a piece of meat that we'd ordinarily consider finished. But it has its own charms, brought out by a little care and a cultural habit of letting nothing go to waste. I can't call it my favorite of the afternoon, but it was undeniably delicious, and enlightening to boot.

Teriyaki FishDominic Armato

Having already consumed three or four steamed fish that week (much as I adore them), it was a pleasure to try a new preparation, and this one struck me as very unusual for the region. The fish had been battered, fried and then cooked with a sauce. Though contrary to our habit of leaving battered and fried items naked for dipping, it's common practice there, sacrificing much of the crispness but adding a sort of full texture to the fish. The sauce, however, was what threw me off. It was soy based, thick and extremely sweet, almost like a teriyaki. Really, it played more Japanese than Chinese, and I have to wonder if that was the inspiration. Of course, soy sauce is used all of the time in Cantonese cooking, but most often, it seems, as an accent, or to deepen a sauce, or to add salt. Rare are the dishes that put it in a featured role, much less as prominently as this. And yet that's all this was -- soy and sugar -- plus some aromatics. It's been a while, but I can't recall ever encountering a dish like this in China. And yes, it was delicious.

Fried RiceDominic Armato

A plate of fried rice is often, if not usually, an indication that the meal has come to a close. And again, it's so enlightening to experience a dish like this that you had so many times growing up -- the same ingredients, the same flavors -- but executed and balanced in such a manner that it's like a completely different dish. In capable hands, this isn't filler, it isn't a pile of greasy carbs, but a light and nuanced dish that's completely irresistible. I certainly can't think of a better way to complete a great meal. And it was a great meal... not the mindblowing experiences that I've had in years past at more prestigious restaurants in the city centers, but unusually delicious, unusually refined and unusually creative for a hotel restaurant on the outskirts of Dongguan. It was undoubtedly my favorite business lunch of the week, and an excellent way to close out the week, if not quite our stay in China... but there's one more post about that.

Haiba Restaurant
Haiba Hotel
Shipai, Dongguan, China