Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Konomi, Ningyocho (日本酒と肴の味見バー 嗜)

What do you like? Would you describe that as your 嗜? No, you wouldn't because no one knows that kanji. I hope I forget it. It would only be the latest in a series of eating- and drinking-related kanji that I learned when I should have been learning...I dunno, kanji that every 3rd grader would know.

So after getting rejected from two places (only one of which seemed like they rejected me for being white) on my early-evening stroll around the Ningyochos, I ended up on Amazake Yokocho. Near that semi-famous but questionable-quality 'Wasabi' place, I saw a cedar ball and thought "Come to papa."

Having a sugidama is kind of enough evidence of your intentions, but the master here goes a step further with the board outside "We only have sake and drinking snacks!" This is pretty much my 嗜 anyway, but I had dinner plans in 90 minutes and was just looking for a place to compare some pure-rice sake and read the new issue of Tokyo Calendar. Perfect. In we go.

The master was reading a magazine himself and had to get up to help me. The first thing he said was "We only have sake!" to which I said "Why yes, good fellow, sake and sakana. That's why I'm here."

But herein lies the problem - the master has probably created a drinks-and-snacks menu based on his 嗜, and no one else can read the kanji or understand what he's thinking...which is why I was the only customer. I admire him for being idiosyncratic - look, there are sections on the menu for raw squid, raw horse, and raw tiny whole fishes, and that's before you get to the 'make your own drinking snack set'. He's just maybe pushing the envelope a bit.

Is it also pushing the envelope to have all sake that no one has heard of? On the left is Kid, which is one of the 2 or 3 out of 20 that I knew (Daina, Hanatomoe), and is certainly a good thing to see on a menu. I'm not going to try to describe the flavors to you; I've given up on that sort of thing. Kid is always good. The Eiko Fuji in the middle was absolutely awesome, drink-the-whole-bottle stuff. Hama Musume on the right was the master's attempt to serve something heavier in response to my request for that - no yamahai options, so this was his best guess. It came with a long story about how this is a new brewery, and the young master has been borrowing other people's facilities until he can get his own. [As an aside, which also serves as as commentary on my linguistic skills, here's the real story about Hamamusume.]

I made my own set of drinking snacks. You knew I would. Left to right, 'sake gokoro', which is something like a paste of dried salmon and soy sauce, then tiny shrimp boiled in sweet soy sauce, and finally some thick and crunchy slices of smoked turmeric-pickled Japanese radish. The last of which was outstanding, very natural tasting, and I'd like to say came from a small producer up in Akita. I've often thought it would be great to open an izakaya like this, ever since I went to the king of tiny, idiosyncratic, sake-focused shops, Suiko. I just think you should pick your snack-style a little more carefully than this.

And keep a little more mystery, or add a little more to the proceedings. It was really clear that all the snacks are coming out of packs purchased somewhere else. The shimesaba too. It's almost like the master invited you to his tastefully-furnished apartment and is seeing what he has in the fridge that would go well with a nice drink.
And that, I think, is why the below picture probably shows all the customers he had besides me today. It bears mention that he's nerdy, and not in a likable way. I don't think he should be running a sake bar. He's put together many of the right elements, but there's some heart and or soul missing. 

For which I shed a little tear. A ginjo tear.

Debailleul Chocolates, Marunouchi

How did this excape notice? I mean, it certainly didn't excape my notice as a chocolate destination. I used to stop in of an afternoon when I was bored at work in the UrbanNet building around the corner, or after a rousing lunch under the railroad tracks. But somehow it excaped blogular detailment.

Debailleul occupies a standalone space in the huge hall on the main floor of Oazo, and today as I was sitting on these free seats outside it, enjoying the free wifi (good lord, Japan has changed), I though "old time's sake" and bought some chocolates for the old lady.
They have what you might call a limited selection, but I've always found them to be very good. The black pepper stands out in my mind from past attempts. You can see here in the jewel case that they also have candied fruit peel and macarons and everything the well-heeled chocolatier needs to sell the masses.
I have no idea what these flavors are, for two reasons. One, all the names are poetic and in katakana, and standing at the counter, feeling pressured to order, I just picked some nice looking ones. Two, we haven't eaten them yet.

Give me a couple minutes, I'll report back.

Hara Donuts, Shin Yurigaoka

Keep it obsessive, that's what I always say. I wasn't sure where my lunch was coming from today, and I was a bit peckish after getting up at 5 as usual, so I picked up a donut in the station complex.

Not just any donut, a Hara donut. It's a funny by-and-for-girls sort of concept, and so Japanese. Girls in uniforms frying donuts...it works on your mind, doesn't it?
The level of packaging in Japan works on you too. It gets you spoiled. You expect not only to have your donut wrapped in an attractive paper-and-plastic bag, but you think it should have a nice label hand-applied to keep it closed, and you think that whole thing should go in a plastic bag just so you can carry it downstairs to eat while you wait for the train. (Which is not at all the done thing in Japan; it's only OK for foreigners.) It's a meditation on packaging.
And this is a meditation on the donut, contemplating the whole before stuffing it in your pie-hole. I suppose it's more accurate to say I was contemplating the hole, since the donut was no longer whole at this point.

These are light, a little crisp on the outside, fluffy inside, and more oily than I'd like. The flavors are all made to appeal to girls, and this Earl Gray donut would fit that bill. I liked how it was packed with tea flavor; nothing subtle here. The American in me needs that.

And the American in me has expanded almost to the perimeter of me.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Machidaya, Shin Yurigaoka

So I broke my glasses. Not completely, but enough to make you think they could break any time, and I've got stuff coming up where I really need to be wearing glasses. Like my life. So I walked up to the station and ordered some new ones, walked around and did some errands, and then it came upon me that it was time for lunch.

I kid. I was just killing time until I could go back to the ramen place I passed on the way to the station. You wouldn't see it if you stayed on the street, but if you cut through the movie college, you can't help but pass it.
This kinda threw me since they have a funny system. After you buy your plastic ordering tags (and as an aside, I respect these guys for being able to tell right away what your order is. Every item has a different color, and I don't know how they tell, for example, the pale lavender boiled egg tag from the lavender aji-tsuki egg tag.) (Cynics will say "one is paler than the other", but they can suck it.) they'll ask you how you want your ramen. You can see the options on the yellow sign behind this fellow, but I was all confused by the way they were written - looks vertical, but is horizontal. So you can choose your noodle firmness, level of soy sauce, and level of chicken fat. Chicken fat? What kinda ramen is this?
From the name, maybe it's Machida ramen. I've only been to Machida once - coincidentally I went to have ramen, but it was nothing like this. If I had to describe, and I do in order to amuse you, I'd say this is Yokohama ramen with a twist, but I don't know what the twist is.

I ordered the noodles firm, and they were, but you don't usually get an option with this type of noodle. Likewise the condiments in the back - are they normal? Actually I think they are, and I just forgot - here's the other verifiable Yokohama place I know I've been to, and they had condiments too. Today, I was afraid to offend with garlic, so I stuck with some hot sauce halfway through, and that livened it up. The pork had that 'canned ham' taste, the egg was overdone (although they might not have had any intention to keep the yolk jellied), and the soup was tolerable.

Or was it? By the time I got down to this point and was reminded that the noodles are made from the bones of ultra pigs, I was enjoying it. I had a few spoons of soup after the noodles were gone, then managed to stop. It's strangely thin for an ultra pig soup; maybe you need more fat from actual meat to make it as thick and lip-smacky like a really awesome place.
Or maybe they're making the soup from something else...
+81 44-952-3303

Ehhh, I was supposed to finish with that, but I'm all amused that TripAdvisor has a page for this ramen shop, but the main picture it shows is of the standout liquor store Machidaya, which is half a world away.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Smokey Pig BBQ, Bowling Green, KY

Not, as it turns out, the prettiest town I've ever seen, Bowling Green. Nor did I meet my old friend Bob. But I was passing through with my colleague Buxxx, and when we travel together, we eat barbecue. He's even from Kaintuck, so it was a nice chance for him to fill me in on some local culturez (eg the mutton barbecue that we didn't eat) and try a local establishment.

I did my usual scouting and found Smokey Pig to be the standout. Shows you again, like you needed reminding, that you can't trust Yelp or its colleagues. If this is the best barbecue Bowling Green has to offer, I am plumb sorry for Bowling Green.
I didn't much care for the ordering, which was done at a window, nor the service, which was to pass the food back through said window. Don't accuse me of highfalutin airs; that kinda thing goes just fine sometimes, but this time I didn't like it hardly none. We ate in the back dining room, which was unimpressive even in panorama. Not that it needs to be, right? The food should be all you care about in a place like this. 

Which is why this all was so disappointing. The ribs were really crap - no smoke flavor, tough, and (by association) with lots of unappetizing unrendered fat. I'll say this, the sauce was pretty good, and that's coming from a guy that doesn't usually like molasses-based sauces.

The pulled was tolerable, especially with the dipping sauce. It seems like the thing to get here might be pulled, 'dipped'. I read about that, saw it on the menu, and heard other people order it. The sauce is pretty spicy and oily, and it's a good thing.

The coleslaws were both good! High point! Although we were unsure if they weren't bought in. I like that they have both kinds so you can enjoy the junky sweetness and oiliness of mayo slaw, then feel more virtuous with vinegar.
Aaaaaaand, I made good on another thing I've never eaten before. I was asking Buxxx about chess pie while we were driving (our red mustang...Avis is funny sometimes), and then we got here and beheld the menu whereupon was listed Derby Pie. I capitalize that because it's sort of a proper noun. This was the real thing, bearing the trademark of Kern's, who have registered the concept of Derby Pie. It's sort of a chocolatey, nutty mess, with a crust that's too even to be anything but machined. Buxxx says y'all can get 'em at the Piggly Wiggly too.

I hasten to point out, I got all this food just out of scholarly interest (and company credit card) and ate about half of it before admitting the juice wasn't worth the squeeze, calorie-wise.

By the way, the bathrooms were dirty enough to bother me, expecially in light of the food.
(270) 781-1712

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Due South, Christiansburg VA

The sun dawned orange, especially with the help of Instagram. I was in the greater Roanoke, VA area for a terribly important and completely unproductive business meeting. Actually I had been there the night before too, and I made the team go out for barbecue. That's what I do.
But BBQ in Roanoke doesn't look very good. So I made everyone drive half an hour south-west, to the in-aptly named Due South BBQ. They got the nod for all their mentions of 'pit cooking', lack of extraneous food options (barbecue places shouldn't have salads), and pervasive pig theme.

Sumbitches that they are though, they didn't have half the menu that night, and they strongly recommended that we all get the all-you-can-eat pulled pork special. You start with a sandwich and two sides, then when you eat those down you can get another sandwich and one more side. And another. The slaw and fried okra were nice, the meat was soft and juicy even without sauce, and the variety of sauces were all pretty good.
The ribs were totally good though. They were soft inside, crusty outside (or barky, if you prefer), the pork was tasty, and the slathered sauce wasn't excessive. I wish they had more options on the menu that night so we could have run the gamut like I like doing at every other barbeque place.

Sometimes it feels the gamut done ran me

Man, I almost forgot - they had two guys playing guitar that were totally good. One guy was playing sort of 20's-30's standards, Tin Pan Alley stuff with medium advanced early-jazz chord progressions, and the other guy was playing a crazy cool style of bottleneck swing guitar. None of the usual bottleneck BS, just hitting notes that I'd be pleased to hit with my fingers, let along a metal tube.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Whole Hog Cafe, Bentonville AR

Here we are in backwater Arkansas...I'll let you figure out why. Certainly it was a neat experience, and one I hope to repeat as necessary (like a lather-rinse cycle, only this experience leaves you feeling a little dirty afterward).

I was there with Solly and Earle, and since Earle is down with barbecue, and I don't mind subjecting Solly to my whims (it's good to give your boss some discipline, right?), I mandated that we were having barbecue.

In point of fact, Whole Hog was an easy walk from our hotel - and that's saying something, because our hotel was in the middle of a faceless hotelz-n-chainz strip outside of town. I've forgotten how it went down, but I'm pretty sure I picked the hotel just so's we could walk to the Hog and have barbecue and beerz.
They had a bucket of Shiners, but only one bucket left. Which was OK because those guys weren't into it. Me, I wanna have a good time, all the time, and that mos def includes meet and beerz. Even if it's Texas beer in Arkansas.

We were at the Hog because it was the recommendation of Hoor,  who lived in these parts for a while and does appear to like his food. We also confirmed it with the guys at the 5 & 10. The Hog also confirmed it with all the trophies piled up in the window. I guess there's something in it. But I see now that it's a small chain, and the main office is Little Rock. I feel less kindly toward them now. Next time I'm picking another place.

The ribs were big and soft and meaty, really nice. The brisket was sort of a highlight for me and Solly - it seemed to have been pickled a little before smoking. A bit of a smoked-corned-beef thing going on. And the pulled didn't seem optimal at first, but I found myself continuing to stick forks back into it. Sides were decent, with the exception of the potato salad - almost seemed like it was whitened up with whipped heavy cream, and when you combine that thick 'n' creamy approach with the sliced red potatoes they used for it, it was a real winner. Of course I knew what was coming, because Hoor and the 5 & 10 guys had both suggested that it was a highlight of the Whole Hog experience.

Which was pretty muted, now that I think about it. They close up early, and there weren't even that many people there. It was a Monday. We closed the place down at 8.

No evidence that this isn't the best place in town. It was more real good than great though.
(479) 271-6566

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Karakiya, Sangenjaya (酒の唐木屋)

So I was just out for a random stroll through the nether Western regions of Sancha, ...

No I wasn't. Woody told me about this place. I don't get out so much any more, so I rely on advice.

And I like Liquor and Foods, and I like nothing better than drinking away the afternoon with no obligations. Your level of interest is probably similar to that of this fine fellow strolling by and enlivening my picture. What the heck are we doing outside a neighborhood liquor store?

Ohhh, that's why. It's not a Foods store at all any more. Presumably the mad genius son of the founders was behind this conversion from neighborhood grocery to high-end sake shop? What do they need all these folding chairs for?

And why do the bottles all have these funny labels? Oh good heavens, it's because you can get 60 cc of pretty much anything on the shelf for a low-low price. The Y245 for this guy is actually one of the higher prices for a dram.
This guy is awesome looking, isn't he? It's 'The Black Mask' from Hyakujurou 

(百十郎 黒面 if you're keeping score at home). And you saw above that it's 

all nama, and gen, and jun and dai and all the rest. You couldn't get more adjectives on the label, couldja?
You also couldn't have more fun for $5 if you tried. This is a cool store. Where else could you just line up a few shots of value-priced yamahai sake? This isn't the whole selection by any means either. You could probably drink 60ml shots of different warm yamahai until you passed out.

And there's the problem - all those open bottles of yamahai are sitting around at room temperature. The room's dark and cool compared to outside, but it's not a big fridge - it's still comfortable for extended sittin and drinkin. So most of the bottles have that not so fresh feeling.
I gotta tell ya, it was a struggle to get through those three little glasses of warm yamahai. And I was running out of time for the afternoon (those weren't all the bottle that went before), so I just wanted something refreshing. And there are 12 or 15 fridges against the other walls - you can see some of them above. And they have some good brewery relationships - cf several bottles of Kagiya that I tried. And they have a selection of craft beer. And the have a selection of...what's that thing called, the one the Koreans call makkori? There's a Japanese variant on it, and the styrofoam growlers in the panorama up top were for carrying home a liter or two of it.

There's no food here. I mean, maybe there were some snacks and meat sticks or sumthin. But you mostly need to (and I hear are encouraged to) bring in your own foods from the outside world. And it really seemed like the outside world by the time I staggered out of this rabbit hole and back into the street.

Not that nether Sancha doesn't seem like another world all on its own or nothin. 

Baker Bounce, Sangenjaya (ベーカーバウンス)

So I was just roaming around Sancha, waiting for a liquor store/bar to open at 12 so I could have a few drinks on my way to another appointment (this is what people do in Tokyo. Liquid lunches, all that.), and as I roamed a curious sight hove into view down an extremely typical and very quiet side street.
Heavens, I know that name! I cried. Inwardly, I mean. One doesn't cry out in the streets in Tokyo. It would be a dead giveaway that one doesn't fit in. I figure if I don't engage in open outcry, I can pass for a native and upstanding citizen.

Well, why not? One must sometimes sacrifice novelty for fame. And as the list of posts to the right of the page attests, I am nothing if not a completist about this. Here's what the inside of the original shop looks like (I remember now that they have a branch in Midtown, or did, or something. I'm less of a completist about this stuff than I used to be, you know?) - recreated shabby American diner. How great is that? You'll never be able to go back to a sorta late-40's, early-50's diner in America ever again - no one's going to go back to making the shelves and trim out of wood. The tables were sourced, vintage, in a set, and they all match.

Speaking of 'match', nothing goes better than a set-drink cola, a lunch beer, and some water. Don't you agree? It just seemed like the thing to do, although of course you wouldn't want to alternate between the beer and soda, and I wasn't sure what to drink first. I persevered.
You know right away that you're in Japan by the twee-ness of the presentation. Before I walk about the burger, let me say that the coleslaw was bad. Whatever they're trying to achieve there, they're not managing...no, they might be managing it. But if they ARE achieving it, I disagree prima facie with their goals.

The ketchup was weird. And by weird, I mean homemade. They make their own ketchup! And by homemade, I mean "sweetened, smoothed tomato paste". It's awesome that they care enough to make their own ketchup, but ketchup is supposed to have some weird seasonings in it (really, look up a recipe) and just isn't ketchup without vinegar, which this was absent of. Perhaps I should be saying they make their own catsup, and all of this would make sense.

Another thing that doesn't make sense - the chef is constantly firing up and turning off a torch that he uses to melt the cheese and crisp up the bacon. The bacon that they make themselves. I asked one of the guys as I was leaving (since it says 'homemade bacon' on the staff shirts) and he proudly allowed as how they cure and smoke it themselves. That's almost too much, guys.
This is almost too much too. It's a little gross, but burgers aren't supposed to be pretty. Now that you've gotten all the way to this point, let's cut to the chase - I've been eating a lot more burgers recently than I used to, and I would say this can stand up proudly with most of them. By the time you get to the great-burger level, there are enough stylistic differences that you really can't compare, and this has got its own thing going, going well.

Going, going, gonnerino.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Menya Musashi Kosho, Roppongi (麺屋武蔵 虎嘯)

The original concept of this blog was of course 'lunch in Roppongi'. I moved on pretty quickly from that due to the whole 'implosion of my employer and my subsequent relocation to Otemachi', I still have a soft spot for Roppongi lunches.

Actually I don't; I don't have a soft spot for anything about Roppongi. I needed to go to the bank, and after 2 hours of waiting, negotiation and processing, my sherpa Harry and I were pretty well ready for lunch. Bizarrely, I've never blogged the nearby Ippudo branch, and I steered clear of that today too, in favor of the Menya Musashi branch that opened sometime in the last year or two. I don't get to Roppongi much these days.

I was pleased that we could walk in and only wait for 5 minutes; I distinctly remember the Akiba branch of Menya Musashi having reliable lines.

Nice looking store, right? Somehow I thought I had been to more of these guys, each of which I think has a different theme, but in looking back the only one I've been to is Takatora in Baba. The team here is surprisingly mellow for one of these black-paint-and-metal, ikemen places. They're not that ike either, come to think of it. Just guys working hard without any clever synchronized shouting and whatnot. Relaxing, I thought.

Well hey boy, let's get into it. The standard 'ramen' pictured here is a very good bowl; a little bit unique (which is like a little bit pregnant).

The soup is medium-weight, without any over-the-top fat or bone or fish flavor; they also have a shrimp version. They also do a big line in tsukemen, which most people seemed to be having, but I still don't understand the point of those, and I steered us in the normal direction.

The noodles are neat; more like Inaniwa udon than anything else in their wide flattitude. They're also pretty soft and slippery, with a high 'fear quotient', ie feeling that they're going to jump off the chopsticks and onto your lap at any time. I escaped with only minor damage.

Pork may be a highlight at Menya Musashis; it is at Takatora, and the style here was (different and) interesting too - it tasted a lot like canned ham, which I don't mean to sound as bad as it does. I saw a staffer dealing with several huge pans of whole cuts, and they were all vacuum-packed. Are the roasted and then wrapped for transport, or is it possible they could be cooked sous vide to get this texture and flavor?

Based on this egg, they clearly know how to control them a little water temperature, so it seems possible. Boy do I like a nice jellied yolk like this. America has no idea what it's missing with these things.

That's about it. Do you mind if I stop? Roppongi not being a real ramen destination, this is definitely the place you should go if you need noodles.
So I went for a walk afterwards to reminisce, and whaddya know, I was wrong. Turns out there IS a place where smorking is OK.

But only one.