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