Saturday, December 18, 2010

That Old Chestnut

Candied chestnuts! 
Winter is always the humble chestnut's moment. You can get them hot in a paper bag on a corner in New York or outside the kabuki theater in Ginza. There are cones of marrons glacee in sweet shops, along with the standard montblanc dessert topped with chestnut puree. The Japanese and the French share a serious appreciation for the chestnut, along with, come to think about it, quality handbags and Jean Reno. The yummy marrons above were so creamy and sweet all the way through, but without the slightest stickiness. Table sugar! It makes these dun-colored little morsels sparkle like sugarplums in a storybook, without messing with the richness.

Yaki-kuri wagashi 
This is Japan's spin on things--a wagashi sweet made from roasted chestnut puree. Like its wagashi brethren, it's really down to the pure essence of the nut. You can see how the shape was made by pinching it in fabric to make the creases. Half the fun of these things for me is squinting at them and figuring out how they were formed. The top of this one was torched just a little to give it that charred flavor. Amazing contrast to the sweetness. Plus, I love those little mini-butane torches--it's like you're pulling a teeny-tiny bank job.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pretty Pop-Tops

Sake to go!
If John Galliano can't make homelessness fabulous, how can the rest of us even hope to look good drinking from a paper bag? And after a certain age, those red plastic cups just make you look like the house mother at the kegger. What to do? Once, on a Metro North train, my mother saw Spalding Gray open up up a briefcase, take out a cut crystal tumbler, and pour himself a scotch. A bit too far into dandy/lush territory, perhaps, but he had the right idea. Prettier cups, folks. They take outdoor drinking from the curb in front of the OTB to the rolling lawns of Tanglewood. Especially in Japan, a country where you can buy a One Cup pop-top sake on a train platform--should we drink so close to the train tracks?--an attractive container may be all that stands between you and the guy with the pull-cart covered in dirty stuffed animals.

Commemorative sake from Yoshitomo Nara's "A to Z" exhibition

Look at the sweet-as-hell Yoshitomo Nara cups above. Granted, it's a little creepy to package booze with cartoon children and puppies, but creepy is kind of his thing, right? Cute/threatening,  pre-adolescent rebellion, etc.--it takes me back. Plus, I am biased since some of his images bear eerie resemblance to Mini Z...

Even ama-zake, a sweet, thick sake that's lovely in the winter, comes in the microwaveable glass pop-top! If you like hard cider, then this may be your sake. I once had it on a stroll through a plum orchard--there you are, enjoying seasonal blossoms, your cup steaming--I am about an inch away from joining the throngs of retired Japanese people who seem to be forever traveling to this or that garden in beige bucket hats.

These two from Hokkaido are killing me with their cuddly arctic labels. I especially like that the penguins are followed by a horde of tourists--because that would be me, captured for posterity in my bulky parka.. Why should beer and wine bottles have all the fun with cute labels? No need to be so serious, sake enthusiasts! After all, it is the traditional booze of the land that posts all those adorable cat videos on YouTube..

Monday, November 8, 2010

Truck Chicken

The siren call of fried chicken!
We were in the Roppongi Hills shopping complex, minding our own business, actually planning a modest picnic of our own (rice balls, edamame, no big). I saw some food trucks, so I did the stroll-by, just sort of sniffing the air. It turned out the om-rice truck (omelet filled with rice--I know!) was doing a brisk business in boneless fried chicken thighs sprinkled with Japanese sea salt, you know, the fancy sea salt that looks a bit like dirty beach sand but tastes extra briny.

Check out the hip daddy-o waiting on his chicken and om-rice.

The thigh meat is sort of flattened out, which solves the centuries old conundrum of the uneven crispy coating to juicy meat ratio.  Science, people. Science. It was piping hot, and the crust was somewhere between the lightness of tempura and the crunch of southern fried chicken which eludes me in my own kitchen.

I only regret that I don't know where this truck is at all times. Though maybe that's best.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Autumn Delights

Matsutake mushrooms
Today is the anniversary of my dear pals, the Mysterious Dr. and Mrs. V. Unfortunately, they may not be able to spend the day together, due to family craziness. And since the lady of the house is all about autumnal fare, I send her a special foodie shout-out.

Matsutake mushrooms are the truffle of Japan, except when truffles are the truffles of Japan. These seriously earthy fungi show up in the fall and cause a big fuss. The package above is not the most expensive on the market, but yes, the price tag says 8,000 yen, or about $100 US. I know. It's a lot of cash for a mushroom that won't get you high. But they are truly delicious--rich and aromatic. Mostly they are grilled over a fire or cooked with rice, which is how I had mine this year--a bargain at about 700 yen. So tender and meaty, these little guys. And the sticky rice just absorbs all that beautiful flavor.

Matsutake-gohan with golden ginko nuts
The mushroom madness doesn't stop there. Enoki, eringi, maitake, shitake, shimeji, tameko, the list goes on! With this kind of variety, one can skip those sketchy mushroom picking jaunts into the woods, which, let's face it, is basically mushroom roulette. You have to consider whether or not you are okay with the phrase "mushroom picking mishap" in your obituary. Why not leave it to the experts? A friend of mine actually just went to a restaurant that does an all-mushroom hot-pot, which, it turns out, is fantastic.

Mushroom bonanza at the supermarket
Shimeji mushrooms and spinach sauteed with white sesame

This truck was parked outside a train station, and the sign called to me. A squirrel with a doughnut. Of course. And what kind did they reel me in with? Dark-roasted sesame. Yeah. It actually won out over the sweet potato and pumpkin varieties.

This is the road-trip vehicle we have been searching for.

Damn you, doughnut squirrel.

It's like someone is reading the Mysterious Dr. and Mrs. V's minds. And then making little baked doughnuts that are both pound-cakey and springy. And the cuteness. The cuteness is draining my life force.

Ichiro likes them in the off-season.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mad Ramen

Jyugaoka is a lovely, chic little area in Tokyo with lots of little boutiques and cafes. And yet, sometimes when you are flitting between shelves of handmade notebooks and adorable tea sets, you still want a big bowl of ramen. How to reconcile the urge to be all stylish with the ramen itch?

Enter Jiyugaoka Ichibanya, just down a little staircase. The interior is all 50's modern, like Dan Draper is going to slurp down some thin noodles, stain a shirt, and slip on a crisp new one back at the office. The soup is nice and dark, with a little smokiness, but not so heavy. And that peppery slice of meat beside the roast pork turns out to be maguro (tuna) all grilled up and very like pork, actually.

So yummy, so chic, and so much more comfortable without the cinched waist and bullet bra.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Round and Round

Kaiten zushi, or conveyor belt sushi, is a little gimmicky, yes, but also ridiculously fun. It appeals to the dim sum lover in me--all those carts going by full of dumplings, and you just look, smell, and choose. And, like those clangy tins in Chinatown, the color coded plates coming down the teeny luggage carousel are full of surprises.

Oh, don't look at me like that. Sushi does not have to be an austere exercise to be good. True, not every shop is going to be high quality, but this one, Midori in the Meguro Atre 2 building, is fantastic and a deal. Forty senior citizens standing in line when the place opens at eleven can't be wrong. Seriously, the elderly don't screw around here when it comes to food.

Fatty tuna, come on down!
 It can seem high pressure waiting there to pounce on what you want, but it also takes the pressure off you if you are a little nervous about flagging down the chef at a sushi counter. And who could blame you? They work for years to achieve that intimidating mask of focus. (I had a similar look that kept people from sitting next to me on the bus in grade school. Not kidding--even when it was packed and rainy.) And no worries about the tab, since the plates are color/pattern coded according to price. You just glance at the key in front of you to see how much the piece you're looking at costs.

Tender little squids dotted with yuzu
You can still order pieces and sides, like miso soup and fried chicken, from the chefs, but the standards always come around, like salmon, fatty tuna, squid, and yellowtail. The guy next to us, tall and lanky with glasses, ordered soup, fried chicken, fried oysters, and some potato croquettes, on top of racking up a leaning tower of empty plates. Respect.

Big, fat, sweet oysters
This was my mom's first time, and she loved it. Normally, she only goes for the traditional stuff, but when a piece of something new is going past, who can resist? We ended up trying some of what Donald Rumsfeld would call "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." I am almost positive that our unknowns were tastier.

Shake a little matcha powder into your cup, push a button for hot water, and hey! Green tea! Very Jetsons--you know, no fundamental changes in the way we live in the future, just more gee-whiz conveniences, like a robot in an frilly apron. Because seriously, even a thousand years from now, with flying cars and space colonies, you can't have a male robot cooking and cleaning.

Back to sushi. It just keeps coming!

Sea urchin in their spiny shells
Crab legs without all the effort and messy newspaper!
Fried smelt--salted and full of roe
Fresh scallops, conger eel
Sea snails! Cooked with soy sauce
Salmon, grilled a little to bring out the fat, and drizzled with citrusy sauce
This was the pile of plates we amassed. Not nearly as impressive as Lanky Guy next door. But let me remind you that my mother has the stomach capacity of a mosquito. Earlier that morning we had each taken a thumb-sized sample of brioche from a bakery. When we sat down at the sushi counter, she frowned at a plate of scallops going by and whispered, "I wish I hadn't eaten that bread." So we did our best, okay?

To tally up, a staff member scans the plates and gives you a little curl of a receipt that shoots out of the scanner. Jetsons!

There are booths along the counter, too, which is great if you have kids in tow. Kaiten zushi is actually very family friendly, and there are plenty of parents and kids on the weekends. Get there early, and make it a weekday if you don't want a long wait.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ippu-do Ramen in Gotanda

Tonkotsu creaminess
Another stop for Mom and I during her trip was Ippu-do, home of milky white pork broth and angel hair-esque noodles. We ordered the tonkotsu ramen with a pool of black fried leek oil and a handful of cloud ear mushrooms. You can taste every hour those pork bones boiled. The pork was so tender it was difficult to lift with chopsticks without it falling apart. Dreamy. Their version of tan-tan men, a sesame and chili ramen with ground pork, was similarly rich and silky. The red chili sauteed in oil is a nice contrast to all those bright scallions.

Tan-tan men with the accompanying sheen of chili oil
I should stop and apologize to my dear friend, Monster Nidra, she of the tan-tan obsession and the guts/lack of judgment to clean the bowl. Every time I eat it without her, I chip away at our bond a little bit. And as my mom and I traded the bowls back and forth, humming with noodle-joy, I felt Nidra's presence. Her angry, angry presence.

Addictive sprouts, pickled greens, ginger, and raw garlic
 While the noodles are unbelievable, I find myself most frenzied over the red chili and sesame bean sprouts in the little clay pots on the table. Leaving them out with tiny self-serve tongs is just irresponsible. I could sit there all day with a hot bowl of rice and just crunch away at them. Except they apparently need the table for other customers.

Vanishing gyoza
We got a side of hito-guchi gyoza (bite-size pork dumplings) on a whim, not expecting anything special. So crispy, so delicate! So tiny! It's always nice when my lilliputian mom can find something sized for her. (Nothing sadder than watching her struggle with a NY deli sandwich.) Anyway, we were ambushed by their tastiness and gobbled them up before I could snap a photo.  My shame is their victory.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


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Summertime means matsuri (festivals) in Japan. The biggest one in Tokyo is the Azabu-Juban Matsuri, which is in a very upscale and international neighborhood. My mom was in town, so she and I took Mini Z and Son of Z out for a walk with the mob. Japanese festival food is its own thing--Japanese, but nothing like the refined flavors and presentations you would find on a Japanese menu in the US. Things are sweeter, saltier, greasier, and smokier. The SAT analogy might go, "matsuri food is to Nobu as a Brooklyn street fair sausage and pepper grinder is to Babbo."
Okonomiyaki--saucy little savory pancakes from Western Japan
Hot potatoes! They steam in that stack of boxes. Help yourself to toppings.
Swirly sausage lollipops! All my dreams are coming true!
The ladies and some gents roll out in their best yukata (cotton summer kimono), which is admirable given the heat and potential for irreversible food staining.
Commemorative fan--why did I not get one?
Fly yukata and shaved ice on the corner.
I am a huge sucker for a street fair and all the attending goodies, especially takoyaki, which is a sort of grilled ball of batter with octopus inside. Slather it with Kewpie mayo and dark, glossy, worcestershire-y sauce, sprinkle on some bonita flakes, and it's the most wonderfully satisfying thing you ever struggled to eat with two over-sized toothpicks. Beware: they retain heat in a crazy way and you end up kind of nodding with joy while you suck in air trying to eat this little ball of magma.

At long last--baby octopus takoyaki.
Watching them being made is nuts--the cast iron pan has these golf-ball sized indentations that they fill with batter. Then the octopus goes in, and once the ball starts to firm up, they rotate it with a toothpick so it forms a sphere. Years ago I had some with entire baby octopi in them, and I finally found them again. Victory!

Turning these out in perfect little spheres takes practice, speed, and confidence. The pros make it look like plucking a harp.
The kids went old school: chocolate dipped bananas, candied apples, tiny doughnuts, and the inevitable blood sugar crash and burn on the couch at home. Those little sugar gliders came down hard. And they weren't alone--there was a kaki-gori (shaved ice) stand doing a brisk business letting the kiddies apply their own syrup.  Wise? Perhaps not, but very popular.
Choco-banana is a compound word Mini Z is mastering.
Two grapes candy-welded to a tiny apple. Just the color makes my teeth hurt.
Hot soy doughnuts
Old-fashioned ice shaver
Self-serve syrup--dig her psychedelic snow cone.
My only regret is that I didn't have the guts/gut to try all of it. My mother is cursed with the Salieri-like desire to eat, but a tiny coin purse of a stomach. She managed a nice little okonomiyaki, but little else. We left with her looking wistfully over her shoulder at some potsticker-like stuffed pancakes hissing on a grill. There were lots of things on sticks calling to us (is it me, or do things just seem tastier on a stick?), as well as the festival standards, like yakisoba (fried noodles) and some heavenly-smelling seafood. Really, we didn't even make it down the whole street. It's the stands that we didn't see that will haunt my dreams.

The dumpling pancakes that got away...
Grilled fish and shellfish on sticks
Grilled mochi brushed with miso and soy sauce--on a stick!
Whole river fish cooked with salt over coals--eat them tip to tail!
Plump scallops (skirts and all) and clams