Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kappabashi Dori

We just received the package from Japan containing the bowls and plates we purchased in the Kappabashi neighborhood of Tokyo. We were as excited as children on Christmas Day when opening it to see what we had actually bought three weeks prior. Kappabashi-dori is known as the "kitchen street," where more than 170 restaurant and kitchen supply shops line an 800 meter stretch between Ueno and Asakusa. Anything you can think of (and much more) relating to the kitchen and food is found there in an almost infinite variety of sizes, colors, fabrications, etc. Looking for those plastic examples of food for your restaurant window? You can find them here. Chef uniforms, knives, pots and pans, plates, signs and banners, kitchen equipment of every imaginable type.. it's all found in Kappabashi!

We were looking for plates and bowls...something attractive, but not too expensive. Ideally speaking, we wanted different plates for different types of dishes. Unfortunately, the reality that we have to deal with is that like many other New Yorkers, we are "space challenged" i.e. where to store so many different kids of dishes?
Our first stop in Kappaboshi was Dengama, a discount yakimono shop for Japanese pottery like Arita-yaki, Kutani-yaki, Masiko-yaki, Mino-yaki, and Shigaraki-yaki. After brousing for about an hour, we settled on some noodle bowls, small plates, and large platter...all for one-half their original price. Fortunately, shipping came via the generosity of Hiroko's father!
We've enjoyed a number of ramen lunches in the bowls (which can also be used for serving), served hors d'oeurves to guests on the platter, and have found the small plates to be perfect for....well..."small plates."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sushi at Araki

Since we rarely eat it at home, we wanted to indulge ourselves with a special sushi experience in Tokyo. We asked our friends living in Tokyo for their recommendation and without hesitation they replied, "Araki." Araki is not in Tsukiji or Ginza where there are a great number of sushi restaurants which open their doors to customers from all over the world. Rather, it is off the beaten track in the residential town of Kaminoge, about 20 mintues west of Shibuya station by train, where its devotees must travel to prove their desire to eat the very best . Our friends warned us that Araki would not be easy to get to via public transportation. But, from our dining experience, that's usually a good sign. The more remote, the more interesting the place tends to be.

After getting off the train from Shibuya, we left Kaminoge station at 5:45PM with map in hand. Our reservation was promptly at 6PM, so we had little margin for error. We walked for about 10 minutes, winding our way through a network of dark, quiet residential streets. At about 5:55PM, we arrived at the location where the restaurant was SUPPOSED to be. We looked around, but saw no sign of Araki. Hiroko asked a couple who appeared to be waiting for a bus, if they knew where Araki was, and they pointed to the door directly behind us!

At 6PM, the door opened. By that time, the 10 people who had congregated outside practically stampeded through the door and quickly claimed their seats at the counter. We took the two remaining seats at the end and we all sat and waited for our chef to emerge from behind a curtain....After our drink orders were taken, he took his place behind the simple wooden counter. A serious, stern-faced man in his late 30's, he was assisted by an equally stoic, extremely adept young woman in her 20's.

The atmosphere was somewhat solemn, and we felt a bit like we were in a karate dojo where the sensei demonstrates his moves and the pupils observe in silence. Noticing a few exchanges of familiarity between the other customers and chef, it became obvious that they were all regulars. We were the outsiders, and though the staff was cordial (and spoke English to Rick), it was clear that this was to a certain extent, a club. The master chef would allow himself a slight smile now and then, but he never laughed. When he spoke (infrequently) it was curt phrases uttered in a soft voice. He was a man of a few words who was completely focused on his craft.

After painstakingly careful preparation, each offering was individually presented. We started with a variety of sashimi including hamachi, abalone, uni and iIkura, and aji (horse mackerel). The hamachi was so fatty and tender that Hiroko couldn't contain herself and after putting it in her mouth, broke the reverential silence with an exclaimatory "oishii!" The uni was sweet like panna cotta or custard, and it was the perfect compliment to the slightly salty ikura that it was paired with.

Following the sashimi we were served a succession of sushi; three different grades of tuna (maguro, chutoro, and otoro), river fish, shirako (everyone's favorite, codsperm), shrimp, squid, and at last anago. Everything that we put into our mouths was sublimely delicious, perfectly prepared and proportioned. And the shari (sushi rice) was the best we've ever tasted!

Alas, at precisely 7:50PM our "shift" was over. And, as the 8PM reservation group arrived and we prepared to retrace our path back to the station, all we could do was agree that Araki was without question, the perfect sushi experience we had sought.

Kaminoge Little Town 102

4-27-1 Nakamachi Setagaya-ku Tokyo



東京都世田谷区中町4-27-1 上野毛リトルタウン102

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ramen in Ebisu

Unfortunately, we have yet to find a ramen place in NYC that meets Hiroko's standards. So, of course we were determined to eat ramen while we were in Tokyo. While exploring the Ebisu area, we headed for one of its most famous ramen-ya's, a place called Chorori. Spartan in its decor (or lack thereof), Chorori is extremely small with just a couple of communal tables. With its reputation, as you might expect, it was packed with hungry lunch patrons! We found two seats next to two young women who were clearly savoring their ramen. On our other side, a young man was waiting for his order, while across from him an older man was smoking his post-ramen cigarette. The atmosphere only exacerbated our anticipation of what lay ahead for our noodle-craving stomachs.

We ordered a shoyu and a shio ramen (which we were advised to be the standards) from the manager, a 40ish man was busily running around taking orders and clearing tables. Within 5 minutes, our ramen arrived, and before the noodles could soften (horrors!) , we joyfully dug our chopsticks into the bowl to capture and slurp the first few strands of noodle. The noodles were medium thin, a little curly and white, with a perfect chewy, al dente texture. The shoyu ramen soup delivered a deep, rich mouthfilling flavor. In contrast, the shio ramen soup was light, yet also flavorful and loaded with "umami." Toppings were simple; a slice of roast pork, crunchy fresh bean sprouts, and snowpeas. The belly-soothingly hot ramen made our noses run and caused us to break a light sweat as we happily slurped away until sadly, we caught sight of he bottom of the bowl.

4-22-11 Ebisu Shibuya-ku


Yuba Udon Noodles

As we were walking around the Shirokane area of Tokyo, we found an old house just off a main street that had been turned into a restaurant named Sakura Sakura. The restaurant specializes in Kyoto-style dishes serving "yuba udon noodle" during lunch hours and kaiseki for dinner. It was just after 1pm on Sunday, and since both of us love and cannot get enough of yuba in any form, we immediately jumped at the opportunity.

We sat at a corner table with a space heater conveniently situated at our feet to keep our seat warm. The menu was a "build-your-own" style with a choice of noodles served either hot or cold, in soup or with dipping sauce. Plus, it also offered their special dish of noodles in sesame soup. There was also a long list of toppings to choose from, about 15 or so, ranging from scallion to tempura to slices of duck. Each order was accompanied by a bowl of mushroom rice and Japanese pickles.

Hiroko ordered the noodle in soup with scallions. Rick ordered the special noodles in sesame soup with scallion. Made from a mixture of yuba and flour, the noodles were thinner and not as springy as sanuki udon. They were delicate and soft and the soup broth was rich and aromatic...ub a word (Hiroko's) "beautiful." With hints of bonito and kelp flavors, the soup was light on salt and shoyu but delivered an abundance of dashi flavor. This "light flavored" soup is what Hiroko calls "Kansai style" (versus Tokyo or Kanto style which relies more heavily on shoyu).

Not to be overlooked, their rice was delicate and tasty as well. We devoured our lunch and then sat and savored it for a while longer over a nice cup of green tea. Through our visual sense, we had discovered a beautiful old house which yielded an equally beautiful sensory experience for our tastebuds, a bowl of yuba udon.

Sakura Sakura

5-15-10 Shirokanedai Minato-ku Tokyo





Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Soba for Breakfast?

When you were a child, did your parents always tell you that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" If you want to see what people on the go eat first thing in the morning, the best place to in Japan is the train station. In NYC, it will most likely be coffee and bagels or muffins. In Japan...well, let's just say that we would never have guessed that what we found would far and away be the most popular breakfast...

At about 6:30AM at Shinagawa station in Tokyo, we searched for a bakery to buy our breakfast. Bakeries are as ubiquitous in Japanese rail stations as hot dog vendors on NY street corners. But at this hour, no kissaten (coffee shops) or bakeries were found to be open at such an early hour. At first our sole choice seemed to be a convenience store selling onigiri, sandwiches, and juices. Not thrilled with the prospect, we decided to take one more look around. It was then that we spied a soba stand that was not only open for business, it was packed with early riser salarymen. Well, nothing beats a bowl of steaming hot soba noodles in cold morning! Sleepy eyed salarymen were busy slurping the soba, their concentration focused inside of their closely held bowl. We bought the coupons at the door, and waited at the table to be served. Service was quick, we wordlessly and happily slurped our order, and we were out the door on our way to our train in 5 minutes.

We had learned the salaryman's secret for starting the day...soba is the "breakfast of champions."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hida Beef

Last year, thanks to our friend Yoshiko, we had the opportunity to enjoy our first Kobe beef (check previous post) "experience" in Osaka. On our most recent trip to Japan, we had the opportunity to taste Hida's variety in Takayama, Gifu prefecture, which is also famous for its beef. There, steers are raised in the meadows of the Hida plateau for more than 14 months. As with the product from Kobe, Hida beef is known for its fatty tissue and rich flavor (although from our limited experience, it isn't quite as rich or buttery as its Kobe counterpart).

In Takayama, we went to a small izakaya, and ordered Hida beef sashimi. The ultra-thin slices of fat-marbled raw beef were served with both salt and soy sauce for dipping. Tender and very fatty, the taste was not unlike chu toro, medium fatty tuna.

The following day, just before leaving Takayama, we came upon a shop selling Hida beef sushi. How could we not try it?! Each piece consisted of a slice of beef cooked briefy with a blowtorch and carefully placed onto sushi rice. It was a simple yet unbelievably delicious treat..the buttery fat perfectly mingling with the vinegar flavored sushi rice.

Needless to say (but we will anyway), Takayama left a great taste in our mouths!