Monday, September 24, 2007

...and we're back! Part 1: A Gastronomic Survey

Wow, what a whirlwind. We got home Sunday morning at around 9:00am, and since we'd been tying one on while enduring the 10 hour flight, we saw fit to keep drinking until we fell asleep (oh, don't look at me like that - it was midnight our time). We slept off and on all day, periodically taking breaks from napping to order a pepperoni pizza and hot wings from Rovente's, and then to wander over to the Stone for some Maker's and Diet Cokes with a plate of nachos the size of a toddler. Norman Rockwell's America, it was.

Not that we had been desperately missing western food - I mean, the food in Japan was fucking amazing. Sure, we had a coupla duds (fast food and some bar food failed us - why am I not surprised?), but one place was so great that we even went back a second time on our last night.

Honjin looked like a little hole-in-the-wall from the outside (it was in an alley), but was our first exposure to sitting on the floor, shoes-off dining and to motsunabe - a hotpot of cabbage, scallions, tofu and some grisly nasty bits of chicken. The first night we went (our second night in Tokyo) we were undaunted by the katakana-only menu and simply said, "omakase shimasu" ("we're in your hands").

The guy ended up bringing us 6 different things:

Clockwise from the top:
nankotsu sumibiyaki - charcoal-grilled chicken breast and crunchy cartilage, smoky and delicious.
hakata hitokuti gyoza - we ate this the second time too, but I still don't know what was in that gyoza (anyone translate for me?). The crust on it was incredible.
jidorino tataki - seared rare chicken, in a lime juice and shoyu dressing with red onions, chives, and what I think I identified as shaved fennel. We thought it was duck at first because it was so rare, but no signs of salmonella yet!
"Honjin salad" - not very Japanese-sounding, but it was a salad of julienned daikon, red and yellow bell pepper, and a shoyu-rice vinegar dressing, with a little mizuni greens. Very refreshing.
motsunabe (obscured in photo, but you can see it in the first pic above) - we chose ours with miso broth, and the second time there we realized we could order noodles for slurping up the last of the unctuous broth. I will definitely make this at home.
karashi mentaiko - spicy, pickled, salted cod roe. Very intense. "Maa maa" - not my fave, but Scott liked it (I'd wished I'd had some rice to chase it!).

(apologies for poorly-exposed and attempt-at-fixing photo)

The amuses bouche were a beautiful ceviche baby squid with seaweed and glass noodles in a slightly acidic, sweet and salty dressing, and a little dish of octopus tentacles with masago. The second time we were treated to a simple egg salad with excellent remoulade.

Our second favorite meal was not so much about the food (which consisted of excellent yakitori of duck meatballs and pankoed and fried soft-boiled quail eggs, but bland shabu-shabu) as the atmosphere. It was located in Shibuya, and served as our respite from the harrowing heat and frenetic pace of Tokyo rush hour. We wanted to kill some time before attempting the train ride back to Shimbashi Station, and ducked down into a small place whose name was sadly never established for lack of any Romaji signage.

When we entered, the front counter was occupied by one elderly man in an expensive suit, surrounded by an entourage of middle-aged men in similarly expensive suits, all standing around protectively. As soon as the older man finished his food and stood, they all turned and followed him downstairs. Scott and I of course assumed that they were Yakuza (it was likelier just a boss and his employees, but that's no fun, is it?). The subsequent clientele were all senior citizens who went directly downstairs, where we assumed the non-smoking section must've been located. The old timer behind the grill complimented my Japanese, which was very gratifying.

Another place worth mention is also tragically nameless due our illiteracy in Kanji and Katakana. We had just befriended a Korean traveler over mediocre sushi who reluctantly agreed to come drinking with us, and we found another gorgeous little basement joint where no English but ours' was spoken.

Karam spoke better English than he did Japanese; in fact, I think my Japanese was actually better than his, which I find sort of amusing.

We had only been looking for a place to drink reishu and maybe peck a little, and instead stumbled into a place perhaps a bit out of our league. Never fearing a challenge, we settled in for what ended up being a flight of premium cold sake presented by an apparent sake sommelier. He was an uncanny Japanese doppelganger of Stephen from Top Chef Season 1, which put me and Scott into peals of giggles. The chef and apprentices were prepping for dinner, and our seats at the bar gave us a perfect view of my favorite form of entertainment - the kitchen's ballet.

The clatter of a dropped pan instigated a knee-jerk "otto!" ("oops!") to come rushing out of my mouth, and appalled at what I feared had been glaring disrespect, I looked up in time to see the chef smiling and shaking his head. Phew! Disaster averted. He wasn't offended at all, and in fact treated us to a free sample of the kobe beef he was gracious enough to allow me photograph.

I'm sorry, but the marbling on that masterpiece makes my panties wet. A quick sear was all it took, and slivers of beef that can only come from cows that are massaged daily and fed sake melted on our tongues.

Other foods were photographed but dashed what were perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Okonomiyaki was tasty enough at the time, but looking at the photo now kinda turns my stomach.

Pork and noodles were probably the better choice over seafood, but the cloying barbecue sauce left an icky aftertaste. Many glasses of reishu were required.

Worse, takoyaki wasn't even tasty at the time, and the mere thought of it now makes me puke a little in my mouth.
I was expecting crispy little hush puppy-type dumplings with tender nuggets of octopus, but was instead met with a mushy exterior and an interior of raw batter and tough hunks of cephalopod, all topped with the ubiquitous barbecue sauce, kupie mayo, and bonito shavings that writhed and squirmed as they melted in the steam. We couldn't drink our beers fast enough to overwrite the experience.

These were the notables (and unmentionables) of our culinary adventures in Tokyo. Your mileage may vary.

1 comment:

Laurel said...

Hi there - great blog! In case you still haven't found out, gyoza are essentially Japanese pot stickers, as you discovered, and usually contain ground pork, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Yum yum.