Friday, June 24, 2011

Little Baum Tree: Cake on a Stick

First, apologies for this blurry photo--my hands tremble in the presence of portable cake. It's not a cake pop, which, while a great idea, is a little to little for me. No, this corndog-esque delight is actually baumkuchen, a German goodie that has made it big in Japan. Usually, it's a big cylindrical thing baked on a kind of turning spit on which layer upon layer of batter is poured. The result is a pound cakey tube that, when sliced, shows its rings like the stump of a felled tree. A delicious, tender and rich stump that you want to have with a cup of tea.

Factory fun!
The miniature baumkuchen are baked in this crazy oven. They turn and rotate up and down, which is mesmerizing when you are standing on line in a cloud of buttery aroma. The chocolate ones are great, too. If you're like me, you'll peel and eat the layers as you go--every one has that brown-edge-of-the-pound-cake flavor.

The shop is actually located inside Shinagawa Station. This is how you get people to take mass transportation and leave the car at home. Wait, can cake save the planet? And then there's the package, which I know is speaking directly to me: "Little Baum Tree. A little Baumkuchen made especially for you."

Yes. Yes it is.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

From the Block

Grill a chicken thigh with salt and pepper till its skin turns a crispy amber, and I WILL SHOW UP.
If you are worried that Japan has forgotten how to have a good time, it hasn't. Shortly after our return, we went to a Children's Day festival in Takanawa. Lots of stalls with food and toys. This meant all kinds of begging from the kids. And me. The Professor gave in, needless to say. First came the ridiculously juicy and crusty chicken.

There is no way to do this at home--it has to be a big, sketchy grill.
Then the toys. Son of Z. talked his way into a ray-gun that lights up and makes a very loud noise that is the precise sound of parental buyer's remorse. Mini Z. went for the traditional mask.

It's a mask of Hello Kitty wearing a mask of Ultra Man. Very meta.
 Then more chicken. This time from the lovely little Portuguese place down the street. Several restaurants from the neighborhood set up stalls with all kinds of goodies. The Portuguese chicken was more garlicky and charred--very nice. The same restaurant had a guy carving prosciutto from one of those stands. In my dream home, there is a similar set-up on the coffee table, right next to the remote.

Delicious chicken--but what to do with the one skewer?
Street prosciutto! I can't believe we beat New York to this.
Baby octopi on a stick!
Big 'ol tub of margarine--not butter--at the hot potato stand.
 Then I saw the cake van. CAKE VAN. Why can't I be abducted in one of these?

Tragically, they were out of cake. Really. I was forced to look longingly at photos of their usual selections. So now I have to get all stalker and track them down at their next venue, when the whole point of the cake van is that the cake comes to you. Damn you, cake van.

Pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate torte, baked cheesecake, and what, some kind of custardy thing? Curses!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


A few months ago, before the quake, I had an amazing meal at Robata over by Yurakucho station (1-3-8 Yuraku-cho). Jane Hirshfield, poet, essayist, translator, and foodie, was in town for a reading, and the infinitely connected Leza Lowitz suggested this place, which has been host to Allen Ginsberg and Octavio Paz, among others. I've actually passed it for years, wondering how a crooked, blackened little building like that managed to survive. Who knew?

Inside, the place is an absolute warren, with tables tucked into nooks, and a counter covered in gorgeous plates of food, from which your meal is chosen for you. The proprietor, Inoue-san, is beyond old-school in his kimono and round glasses, and he speaks so softly I had to ask him about the dishes over and over. And yet he is no strict traditionalist--the cuisine is a mix of Japanese and European flavors, but without the showiness of the usual fusion. The plates are a carefully curated collection, some of which are made by the master craftsman Morioka-san, who Leza tells us is something of a wild mountaineer. I still can't believe I didn't break anything.

The first platter was like a Japanese antipasto, with grilled asparagus, tofu and goya (bitter melon), smoked salmon, cured mackerel, kabocha salad, and something like an eggplant caponata with sweet caramelized onions. We grazed until there was nothing left but a streak of tofu cream.

 Asari clams, potato, and shimeji mushrooms cooked with garlic and wine.
The dishes kept coming. Jane said it was the Chez Panisse of Japan, which was not crazy talk. The clams and shimeji mushrooms had something French going on with the wine and brine, and the oyster risotto had a little Venetian vibe, but everything retained a Japanese character with the local ingredients, like sweet, melt-in-your-mouth daikon radish.
A creamy risotto of oysters and mushrooms--just a little sweetness

Bonita sashimi with daikon, shiso sprouts, and little yellow pods that evidently grow into trees if they aren't tossed in a light ponzu dressing and gobbled up.
A crispy fried fish covered in a sweet and sour sauce, sauteed vegetables, and raw apple slivers.
The fruit over the fish was amazing, and the sauce was made with black vinegar. We picked the bones down to Smithsonian cleanliness.
Wagashi sweets to end the meal
More wagashi studded with pistachio
The dense little sweets were a perfect ending. We were full and swooning already when we heard that a very statuesque woman at the next table was William S. Burroughs' daughter. Is that possible? I think I misheard, but I like imagining how that might have been possible. Upstairs, we took a little tour of the salon where there are sometimes readings, special meals, and such. You know, like with artsy types. Every corner was crammed with books, paintings, and drawings--even a little sketch by Juliette Binoche. What? She's artsy.
The third floor salon
Inoue-san and Jane upstairs
It was a marvelous evening of lingering over each dish. We thanked Inoue-san for taking such good care of us, and stumbled back into the street, happy and amazed.