Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 5
After a long and stressful week and a heavy night out I finally got to sleep in on Saturday. Until 11, anyway. I called Sara for our weekly base-touch phone call and did some laundry. I sent out a message to the guys, Damian and Tyo, of where to meet at 3pm. We had reservations at restaurant omae XEX, formerly Morimoto XEX, in the Roppongi area. I was unaware there was a difference, that Morimoto had sold off the building, for whatever reason. These things happen. If you Google “Morimoto Tokyo” this place is at the top of the list still. Only after a little digging once I got home, after a few things not feeling quite right if this was a Morimoto run establishment, did I stumble upon that truth. The last course they gave us was a holdover from when the Iron Chef ran the joint, only adding to the confusion. Oh, well. It was all still a wonderful experience and damn tasty, all the same.We made our way to Roppongi early for our 5:30 dinner reservations. Having a couple hours to kill I noticed that I marked the location of the Brew Dog Pub’s Tokyo branch on my map the last time we were out in this area. Brew Dog is a craft brewer out of Scotland that makes some tasty beverages with an unconventional approach and unique branding. I really like their products and was interested to see what they had available. The inside of the pub was very industrial and clean. A diagram made to look like a chalk drawing of the brewing process on one wall, stiff metal chairs with wood seats, wood tables, painted and unpainted brick walls, stainless steel high-top tables around the standing only bar area, and a wall of taps. They had more than just what they made back in the land of kilts, and their menu featured the usual beer flights as well as “Guest Beers” from other noteworthy breweries. Everything in their flight was solid, and then I opted for a cider in the “Guest” category that was watery and bland. Zeffer Red Apple Cider out of New Zealand kind of made me dislike the Kiwi’s a little. Stella Artois Cidre is even better. Maybe it’s the Michigander in me that is so offended that an apple beverage could suck so much or that any company would think that was good enough to sell. Taste being subjective, and all, and I having very specific expectations from a cider; the more likely culprits behind my vitriol. The beer they imported from Scotland did not suck, but the service they imported with it did. There was a group of about 10 and a group of 2 to go along with our group of 3 and we had to chase down a server once we needed to leave to get to our seats at the restaurant on time. Once at XEX, our server greeted us at the door, and I said that I had reservations at 5:30, he already knew the name and how many. He led us to the back, passed the stairs going up to the private dining rooms, passed the tatami room, and passed the stairs going down to the teppanyaki seating, and to the all wood, 10 seat sushi bar. They were just finishing their setup when we arrived and placed our order for 3 beers and 3 omakase. The chef was an older dude who spoke a little bit of English. Enough to crack a few jokes, anyway. As soon as he heard us say “omakase” he lopped 3 nigiri sized bits of tuna off of a loin and dropped them in a marinade, to be served at the appropriate moment. The procession of courses was pretty fantastic. All 19 of them! The first thing they hit us with was a cold soup of edamame puree and crab leg pieces with diced red bell pepper. Next was yaki-shimo (flame scorched skin) sashimi of kinmedai. Following that was shime sanma sashimi topped with negi, grated and pickled ginger. Then a tempura course. Scallops, 2 skewered ginko nuts, haricot vert, matsutake mushroom, king crab leg, eggplant, and anago in the lightest batter known to man, served with grated daikon and ginger. Course 5 was miso marinated and broiled black cod. 6th course began the sushi courses with otoro that dissolved on the tongue. 7th in line was shime saba that was tender and fishy and marinated in vinegar JUST long enough to cut the fat and not long enough to alter the texture of the raw flesh. 8th up was hirame. 9th was otoro again, but this time the chef took it in back and charred one side over intense heat so that one side was scorched and looked like it was grilled, but the underside was still essentially raw. Fucking amazing levels of flavor and texture. The 10th thing he threw at us was uni nigiri, sans nori band. Just rice, wasabi, and urchin roe. Most uni I’ve had benefitted from the nori usually associated with how it’s served because the nori cancels out to a degree the funkiness of uni that isn’t harvested within hours or minutes of consumption. This stuff was the most pristine uni I’ve ever tasted. I did not miss the strip of nori. Moving right along, 11th in line was the marinated maguro. At this point it had been in the marinade for 35 minutes or so. It was deep, and rich, and powerfully flavorful. Eyes rolling into the back of your head good. No joke, I did that. It was completely involuntary. I prefer that to the otoro, actually. Knowing he wasn’t going to top that with more nigiri the chef served us our next course of rolls, 2 pieces each of 3 different hosomaki. One kanpyo, one anago, and one negi-toro. The final course in his omakase script was rice bran pickled daikon, but first he grated the zest of half a fresh yuzu and swiped half of one side of each of the daikon rounds at it. A beautiful finish, but we weren’t ready to be done yet… By this time the sushi counter had nearly filled up with other guests, so the chef was starting to get a little busy. We were patient. All three of us are chefs, too, so we wouldn’t dream of rushing him. The server quite early on pegged us for industry and we told him why we were in Tokyo. He told the chef who had heard parts of the conversation but I’m not sure he fully understood until the server translated, and even then he looked completely unimpressed. As he should have been. But at this point in the meal, when he was starting to get backed up and the three of us were still staring at him, clearly not ready to go anywhere, he asked for our patience and with a straight face (he had a straight face the whole night, even while cracking jokes) he motioned for us to come over to the other side and help. We respectfully declined, using the excuse that none of us had our knives with us. He soldiered on. The chef asked us if we had any requests at this point and Damian was quick on the draw with ebi. When the chef asked “boiled or raw” our unanimous and nearly simultaneous response was “both”. So, without missing a beat, he spun on his heels and pulled six, very much still alive and not at all happy to out of water shrimp from a polystyrene cooler that had been sitting on the floor at his feet the entire time that none of us could see from our seated position. He began skewering 3 of them and ran them to the back, where they were blanched and cooled. While they were cooking he came back and proceeded to take apart the other 3, pulling the meat out of the tails and pulling the tail fins off (not something that is usually done, as they are normally left on for presentation). He then pulled the carapace shell off the heads of those shrimp, exposing the entrails but leaving them in place on the frame. He then served us the raw tails as nigiri, so fresh they were still twitching from the sodium in the soy sauce he lightly brushed over them. He then scooped up the heads and tails left on his cutting board and went into the back again. He emerged with the boiled shrimp, cleaned up the tails and served us nigiri of the tail. Before we could look down and back up again he went back and retrieved the heads he removed the carapace from and tails from the back kitchen. They had been coated with potato starch and fried so that the remaining shells were crispy and with the thickest shell parts removed the whole thing was edible. That’s what you call “product utilization”. Next up 3 oysters materialized on his cutting board. He shucked them and made gunkanmaki with chopped spring onion. The oysters were a little on the muddy side, not as briney as I expected. My only experience with Japanese oyster varieties are the ones grown in the Pacific Northwest, though, and terroir is EVERYTHING with oysters. While we sat and chatted, contemplating asking for the bill and watching him prepare 4 bowls of a dish that was pretty much straight out of the Morimoto cookbook (tartare of toro and ebi smeared into a shallow wooden box that resembles a picture frame with boxed garnishes at the side arranged in neat rows in the same type of box) and it turned out one of those 4 were for us. He handed it to us and said, “sample”. Delighted by this, we thanked him with an ecstatic “arigatou gozaimasu!” after utterly destroying it and requesting the bill. Impressive showmanship, impressive spread, and a stunningly gorgeous space, omae XEX is one hell of a meal. A recommended Roppongi destination. Better and cheaper than another Roppongi spot I’ll get to in the next installment… The rest of the week was sunny and beautiful, finally, and we did nothing with it. It was a pretty boring week. Some of the things we did in class, however, were lessons I had been looking forward to since I booked the class. Sunday’s washoku class covered a variety of veg sushi, a couple rolls, and simmered whole fish. Monday we got to take apart akagai, red ark shell clams. These little bastards are full of blood. Way more than seems logically possible. I’ve never seen a bivalve that bleeds but these things are out of control. Our cutting boards all looked like a crime scene when we were done with the lesson. They were pretty tasty, though. I’m not sure if the amount of work required to clean them (blood fountain aspect aside) is worth the payoff at the end of it, but it was a good lesson none-the-less. That was also our first day playing with tai, also known as sea bream or red snapper (though not at all the same as the Caribbean fish by that name). This is a very popular fish in Japanese cooking as a whole and sushi is no exception. None of the international students like this fish. The meat is rubbery, hard to work with, difficult to cut, and nearly flavorless. Not at all worth the effort. Fuck that fish. There. I said it. The only reason the Japanese are in love with this fish is that it’s bright red, and they love any food that’s bright red. It’s also looked at as an ingredient that tests the skill of the chef. I still say fuck that fish. The end of that days lessons was bamboo leaf cutting. The next day was anago! Salt water eel! Something a lot of us were looking forward to. Nail the head of the slippery little bastards to the cutting board and bone ‘em out. There are very specific guidelines one must follow and the method of cleaning this fish is completely different from any other fish we’ve touched so far. It’s a specialized skill that people train specifically for and we all quickly learned that the hard way. Azuma sensei led the first lesson and he made it look extremely easy. It’s not. The best of us were struggling with this fish. The most common error, one that everyone made at least once, was having the knife slip up and cut through the skin before we had gotten to the end of the long and tapered tail. Azuma sensei was happy about this. That even the bests students were sucking out loud at this. He even said in his limited English “I like!” while laughing at the student that has already landed a job teaching at the Singapore branch because he wasn’t doing well on this lesson. He also pointed and laughed directly at me when I made the same mistake as everyone else and nicked my finger in the process. Azuma sensei is kind of a dick. I like him, though. Perhaps almost because he’s a dick. He’s tough and doesn’t let us get away with anything but he’s also extremely generous with his time and suggestions and he has a sense of humor. It’s clear that he wants us all to succeed. When I was done with the 3 eels that I was given, Azuma sensei came by to inspect. The first one I filleted was nearly perfect. Beginners luck. The other 2 were in a pretty bad way. Azuma looked at them, then looked at me and reminded me of their use for today’s lesson. We were going to be tempura frying them, so they’d be covered in batter and any imperfections would be hidden. We also kept and cleaned the spines so that when we were done frying the eel meat and the softshell crabs (for the afternoon lesson) we fried the spines at a low temperature until the bubbles nearly ceased entirely. Salted and cooled, the spines were light and crispy, with a texture not unlike a thin pirouette cookie and only slightly fish flavored. Makes a pretty nifty garnish. With the tempura we made anagodon for lunch, tempura rolls and spider rolls with the softshells for afternoon class. Later that night I got a message from Damian over the group chat that he was heading over to a ramen shop that was recommended by Ivan Orkin, a chef from New York that moved to Tokyo, fell in love with ramen, and opened a shop here. He now has 3 more locations State-side as well as his Tokyo shop. So this is a dude that knows what he’s talking about. His recommendation carries weight. It was also a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I was in! Nobody else came though. Just me and Damian. Jiraigen is a hip little noodle shop in Nakano-ku, with American house music (in which the discreet vocalist was talking about being from Detroit) thumping through the place and a chef sporting a yellow frosted 3 inch wide Mohawk this place was a little different. The whole place had a swagger and attitude. It was pretty cool. It helped that the noodles kicked a fair amount of ass. We both got tickets for the loaded tsukemen ramen and a beer from the ticket machine just inside the door. Very shortly a bowl of cold noodles landed in front of us with loads of chashu, a slightly undercooked egg, and a few sheets of nori alongside a bowl of hot broth with even more julienne chashu, chopped negi, and other goodies floating in it. The broth was a mixture of pork and fish, heavy on both. Strongly fishy but with the dense smoothness of a well-made and robustly gelatinous pork stock behind the fish. Powerfully good, but not for the faint of heart. The next day in class was more anago. I thought this would be my chance to redeem my poor showing from the day before. No such luck. That very first eel I cleaned on the first day of doing it remained my best effort. Those little guys are kind of a pain in the ass. Luckily there won’t be a test on them. There was a different sensei leading that days lesson, and he started it by saying (through the translator), “I’m not as good at this as Azuma sensei. He used to fillet 300 of these a day. But I will show you another technique.” And the reason for Azuma senseis dickishness on the subject came to the surface as everyone breathed a slight and knowing sigh upon hearing this. The guy is literally a fucking expert at this shit. Anyway, on this day we simmered the eels and made nigiri with them, and for a second day in a row I did not go out for lunch. Afternoon class was more “Western style rolls”, or uramaki. Rolls with the rice on the outside that are almost entirely absent from menus in Japan. All of the senseis that have led lessons like this have had to consult recipe cards to know what to put in them because nobody orders these in Japan. The last day of the week we covered kazari-maki, or the cute decorative rolls you see in bento boxes for kids. The rolls with patterns and characters in them that are all over Instagram and other housewife driven sites. They have a special team of women to teach this part of the curriculum and the regular senseis vacate the class room. We all kind of understood without it having to be said that they wanted to be nowhere near this foolishment. Most of us didn’t really want any part of this either. Otani sensei was our translator that day, and as diplomatic and even tempered as he is he pretty much agreed with Nelsons bemoaning of how this is for children and those of us who are professionals will NEVER use this. Meh. It was an easy day. Whatever. It was a little interesting to see how these are constructed, anyway. The presiding sensei tried to say “kazari-maki isn’t easy”, and we humored her. It was the easiest day of class since the first day where we did next to nothing accept introductions and the opening ceremony. That night no one wanted to come out and play. I decided I didn’t want to spend the whole night locked up in my apartment so I wandered Nakano and explored some areas I had yet to poke my nose through. And that’s about it. Nothing noteworthy happened, nothing noteworthy was eaten, nothing interesting to report. An anti-climactic end to a week of little activity. The following night we had reservations at Nobu’s Tokyo branch, so there was something exciting to look forward to, at least. Nobu is one of my favorite chefs. His style is well defined and seamlessly integrates Peruvian and Japanese influences into something interesting and refined. I went home and went to bed in anticipation of the experience to come.