Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hachi Ramen, Takadanobaba (はち ラーメン)

I was out on a mission this afternoon – go to guitar stores, have ramen, urban-hike Tokyo, find an early-opener izakaya with Sunday hours, and get drunk. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, BY GUM. The guitar stores were in Shin Okubo today (Korea town, also interestingly invaded these days by people whose provenance causes them to open spice shops and buy halal products). The ramen turned out to be in Baba.

Actually it didn’t ‘turn out’ that way, I knew I was having ramen in Baba. In fact, I thought I was going to a place that had smelled heavenly when Big Bird and I stumbled past it the other night. I remembered the big white sign, but once I was in front of it I noted it was Sapporo ramen, and then immediately realized that I had been there, probably circa 2005 when I didn’t know I didn’t like Sapporo ramen much and also thought Baba was a long trip from Monnaka. (My apologies, Uncle N, I know there are different styles of ramen in Hokkaido; this is the kind with the pork and the hot oil on top. And probably corn. And butter.) So down the street I saw Hachi, and my theory is that any ramen place this new and clean is going to pretty sweet, although it may be in a strange way. 

Not sure what’s going on here – chain restaurant? Probably, but it always amazes me that chain places in Japan can trust the whole shop to one guy who churns out bowls while also starting prep for the next batch of soup. His pot would only handle 4 portions of noodles at once, which could be a problem at busy times. There were only a few other customers (all couples, interestingly – this must be ‘date ramen’), and he couldn’t deliver expediently. 

But here’s what he eventually delivered. It’s a chicken-based soup, and if you’ve been to Tenka Ippin, you know that a chicken soup is not the pale-yellow, clear, soothing concoction you might expect as a foreigner – it’s dreadfully thick and even grainy from boiling a bunch of chicken bones. In this case they mention adding 18 vegetables, and I saw the staff peeling potatoes, so I have to think some of the thickness and grain comes from that. How much, we’ll never know. 
The bowl was very good overall. The soup is compulsively drinkable (although I’m compulsive about all this stuff). The noodles were firm and chewy. The bits of pork were roasted belly, intensely salty and not very rendered at all but weirdly great. You can choose the amount of grated onion that’s added to the bowl, for health you understand, but I didn’t know that until too late, so this is probably normal. Most shops allow you to pick what you want, but they don’t ask foreigners their opinion on these things.

I don’t blame ‘em either. 

Hyper Guitars, Shin Okubo (ハイパーギターズ)

Posting this somehow escaped me in the past, so let me just quickly say that this place is truly bizarre. They have a no-photo policy, which could only inspire me to stand artfully next to a display cabinet and take a panorama of the most important parts of the shop. This is the best vintage guitar store I've been to in Japan, and realistically also in the world. There's that Strat-o-crazy place in Kanda that I've never been to, you might want to hit that as well on your tour of vintage American guitars prices in multiples of $10,000.

The Mosrites on the far left are half real ones (including one signed by Nokie!) and half new-production fake ones, made in Japan but still sadly expensive. Panning right (as I did while taking this forbidden picture), you have a whole case of Les Pauls, mostly 50’s-60’s gold tops, and 335’s, nicely divided into red and sunburst. I don’t play these, even though I should, so I can’t comment. The first half of the case after that is the Tele’s. There were 10 Tele’s of provenance, by which I mean “from the 50’s”, including a Broadcaster (the name of which inspired the lawsuit which changed the name to Telecaster, but Fender eventually got their revenge by buying lawsuit winner Gretsch 50 years later and moving their production to Japan and then China). I played a ’53 Tele, I think is was, a little beaten on, distractingly so in case of the now-completely-unfinished neck, but reasonably priced at only 200 Hummings, or $20,000.

After that we go into the Strat section. Only half a dozen pre-CBS custom color strats, what a disappointment, but then a full 10 50’s sunburst strats so you can decide if you’re more of a 56, 57 or 59 guy. After that some Gretsches, but no one cares that much about them. There are other parts of the shop. I guess you can see the Rick basses on the floor. Who cares? There were a couple nice acoustics – I played a 1939 OOO-28 that said “ask for price”. It turned out to be a refin; without that detail I figured it would be 300 Hummings, which is why I asked to play it without asking the price. They have a little room that you go into to try stuff. Stuffed with old Marshall heads and their big inventory of original tweed Fenders. It’s pretty soundproof, so both times the clerk came in to bug me to stop playing the guitar I was on, I was lost in a reverie and he scared the bejesus out of me.

Worth it for the experience, although not for the friendliness or the prices.  

Friday, February 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Manaita, Takadanobaba (真菜板, 高田馬場)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shimomiya, Higashi Nakano (しもみや 東中野)

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

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

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

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

I think everyone was relieved when we left. 

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

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

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

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

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