Thursday, November 18, 2010

Uemura, Arakicho (四谷 うえ村)

This became a really long post, so I'll spare lazy readers and say up front "Excellent. Good value if you're an enthusiast for this style. Book 3-7 days ahead."

Arakicho is a neat place, tucked in between Shinjuku and Yotsuya, full of back streets and dark stairs and clubs and Japanese and French and everything else. It looms in my memory due to a night I spent walking the alleys a few years ago, but I haven't been back because I didn't think there were that many interesting places despite the great setting. In fact, one of my well-versed office colleagues didn't even know the neighborhood, which should indicate there isn't much to be done there. I arrived a little early to walk around, and am here to tell you that I don't know what I was thinking in 2008 (and he's a doofus). It's terrific, with a mix of narrow alleys, little signs, stylish doors and tattered noren. And all very quiet. Only 15 minutes from work; I could go any time you want.

Uemura gets a highish score on the Tabelogz, but without pictures. If I ran down the description for you, you'd probably end up with the same set of expectations I had: counter only. 6 seats. chef's course only. no photos allowed. no web site. It sounds like it's going to be quiet and kinda rigid, doesn't it? And hopefully the food will be pretty good, some kind of Tokyo kaiseki format? Pretty wrong on all counts. And hard to find too. It's in the back corner of this crummy building hallway, with no sign on the street except a small unlit panel mixed in with the hostess places that also live in the building. Took me three walks by to find it.

Uemura san (let's assume that's his name) seemed positively jovial - enough that when my new friend Common (who has added 'being Japanese American' to his list of talents) tentatively asked "Can we take some pictures?" he said "Sure! Are you writing a blog?" For a guy this publicity-averse (again: no web, stated no-pictures policy, and a store at the back of a style-free multi-use building), he almost seemed to want us posting about dinner. We never discussed food; just ordered beer and sat there until the course started. Actually the beer glass was the first sign that something was up - it was one of those eggshell-thin models that weigh nothing and feel like they'll crack if you breathe too heavily. A beer glass like that has to be taken as a statement by the master that he's aspiring to great things.

As do two pieces of octopus leg, boiled until dark from soy sauce and soft as a baby's bottom. God damn, we said, there's some technique in that. And the plate's nice too.

This plate was stylish too. Following the beer glass and the taco plate, it was now clear that he's got a thing for the serving ware. He said it's not exactly his hobby, but he does get all the dishes from Kyoto. This food though...phew. It's celery and a white fish, nanbanzuke (fried and vinegared). It was loaded with secret spice, because it tasted a whole lot like American barbeque sauce, and you know what a committed fan of Herrs BBQ chips I am. This was just as good as the octopus, which is to say, great.

We're still in the 'nibbles' phase, and it's interesting how he's putting everything on different plates instead of a more Tokyo-style assortment (on the other hand, there's no larger single dish as is common in Kyoto). Here, you're meant to be excited by the fact that these are fresh cherry-blossom shrimp. And I was. The big season is in the spring, at which point they dry a lot of them. I didn't remember this at the time, so didn't get a chance to ask about the controversial choice of serving them now. But they did come from Yui, the port on Suruga Bay that's most famous for them.

Phew, you can't complain about the sake flask and bottle either, can you? You might need to blow this up to get the full effect...or you might need to change your tastes to match mine. But Common and I loved these (there were, of course, other options in the cups). Sake was limited to a jundai from somewhere in Hiroshima that I've forgotten, and the jungin from Rashomon in Wakayama. But really, if you were going to limit yourself to two sakes, a light one and a heavier one from small, high-quality brewers would be the way to do it.

Similarly, if you're trying to keep things simple with the fish, some very good akami and a big piece of squid isn't a bad way to go. This bowl was beautiful; so thin and graceful.

You needed to see the inside of the lid here, and you didn't need to see the soup, which looks pretty messy. That toasted chunk in the back in indeed mochi, but that gelatinous piece at left? 'Gelatinous' is appropriate, because it's pure turtle fat. Or cartilege. Or whatever. At this point the parallels to last year's dinner (almost exactly 1 year ago, so the same seasonality) at Kyoto's Yuubi got a bit overwhelming. (I still highly recommend that place based on my one visit, but I know of no one that's taken me up on the recommendation.) Uemura san worked at several places in Kyoto, but he wouldn't tell us where because he said they're picky about introductions. By the way, I liked the turtle better on my second attempt.
This has shown up in every Uemura meal I've seen on the web (it looks like some people got there soon after he opened and took pictures, then he implemented the no-photo policy). I guess this is one of those things where the chef worked something out and thinks it's just right, so he always does it. Take a thick slice of eggplant, almost a cube, and fry it so it's brown on both sides and cooked all the way through (I tried this at home; I think you have to roast it or steam it first). Cover it with sea urchin. And sauce. Add a dollop of good wasabi. Enjoy.

I like to say 'This is where the magic happens," and in this case it's not far off. By some standards you could accuse him of being precious, having a professional stove and lids and everything instead of using portable burners and scraps of tinfoil. I'll let him slide.

Especially if he produces things like this grilled 'willow flounder' (I've never heard of it either, but it was clearly 柳鰈. Since then I keep seeing 舌平目 in the supermarket too, which looks similar.). As with so many other courses, there was something incredible about this. Common and I both thought it tasted like there was careful spicing or marinadation going on, but the master said "Well, it's salted and dried a little..."

He roasted the bones for us. They were delicious. You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

It took all the way up to this boiled-things course for me to realize that he's actively trying to serve Kyoto food. The thick, sweet miso soup was very reminiscent of this recent one, while the 'ethereally light' duck meatballs were also like something from Yuubi, and the shrimp potatoes are an obvious Kyoto ingredient, especially this time of year. It's monotonous to write, but boy was this good. Boy.

They weren't 'ethereally light' by the way. But a lot of people seem to think that's a good phrase to use about food.

Only one fault for me in this dinner - the rice was kinda soft and wet despite being of fancy provenance  (Yamaguchi Koshihikari, I think, and as I work at home on my second kilogram of Tsuyahime genmai, a delicious new strain of said species, I'm very much a convert.). But there was plenty of koge in the bottom of the donabe from the stove in the above picture, and we got a little of it to go with the pickles and plum-flavored boiled sardine (which is also a Kyoto counter-food staple). The soup was awesome (and the onion sprouts!), and the cup of tororo, well, I didn't need that, but I ate a lot of it for health. This is one of those meals where you can be stuffed and drunk and yet feel so clean afterward.

Ohhh, I heartily approve of this - an ethereally light creme brulee instead of a simple, humble fruit course. It really was very light, and you saw the waitress bruleeing it to order in the picture above. Maybe it's the contrast to all the washoku before, maybe I wouldn't have been impressed by this in a bistro, but in context it was a great ending.

You might not like this place. This isn't meant to sound elitist, really it's not, but if you haven't eaten this style of food you might not be wowed by the flavors. I wouldn't blame you, because it's not an obvious thing to be into. For me, there were 5 plates that were outstanding, and that's a good hit rate regardless of price. Around the meatballs-and-potatoes course I caught myself thinking "Man, this is really good value," and remembered how I had scoffed earlier in the day at the high Tabelog cost performance score.

If you don't want to go by now, nothing's going to change your mind.

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