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Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 2

Under way.
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Not even rocking hard could break those clouds, so it wasn't for a lack of trying.

After an eventful first week our little merry band of pirates went our separate ways for the most of the weekend. Damian, Tyo, and I doing our own things, while Nelson went to a “jazz festival” that he said wasn’t very jazzy (apparently they don’t really know what that means in these parts). Three of us did get on a train on Sunday and make it down Roppongi, though, an area where I have several dinner reservations and the area contains a few places that were on my personal to-do list. After disembarking from the train we wandered for a bit before I started to steer the group to the Hard Rock Café. Smaller than its counterparts in other places, the Tokyo Hard Rock has a gift shop that’s in a separate building you pass on the way to the main bar further down the same drive way. There was a small selection of gifts right inside the entrance to the café, enough selection for me to grab what I wanted to. The walls were lined with all the things you’d expect at one of these. A couple guitars from notable musicians (Eric Clapton, Prince, Cheap Trick, Nikki Six) along with articles of clothing worn by musicians as well as signed drum heads, portraits, and album sleeves. Having done what we came to do in short order, we left and wandered some more. We passed a place called the Pizzakaya that was of interest to Sara, but when we passed by they
A rather impressive Prince display.

A rather impressive Prince display.

were closed (it was 3:30 and they opened at 5). Requiring sustenance more immediately than an hour and a half, we made our way to the sublevel of a high rise looking for the advertised restaurant section. After much searching and even more turning up of noses we found a suitable place for lunch; I was NOT going to eat at a faux American diner while in Tokyo, regardless of how hungry or how close the proximity. One thing this trip has taught me about dining in Tokyo is never settle. There’s always another option just around the corner. And so there was. Not even 20 more minutes of wandering yielded results. A top notch
Exceptional pusher of fine pork products. Ask for them by name.

Exceptional pusher of fine pork products. Ask for them by name.

tonkatsu purveyor offering 3 different cuts of pork in as many different levels of quality. Damian and I went right for the throat, going for their top-of-the-line Berkshire hog loin, while Nelson went for the tenderloin. We got what we paid for. The loin chops were an inch thick and the 2 pieces of tenderloin on Nelsons plate were essentially the whole tenderloin cut in half. Served with all the usual suspects, but even those were well above average. The miso soup was wonderful with nameko mushrooms, the plate of pickled napa cabbage was outstanding, and the dressing for the shredded cabbage was vibrant and well balanced. We had a couple appetizers before that, and they too were exceptional. The service was also worth mentioning. With some command of English, the female service staff were all decked out in the same chef’s whites as the cooks and cut a striking visual as well as being a nice thematic touch. Butagumi was well worth the wait to find it and was still being talked about the next
The full spread at Butagumi

The full spread at Butagumi

day, and into the next week. Bill paid, out the door, wandering some more. I was hoping to walk off lunch and be hungry enough to hit the Pizzakaya before we headed back to Shinjuku-ku, but no such luck. Those were some thick-ass pork chops, and a lot of food all together. With reservations at Nobu, omae XEX (the Morimoto restaurant in Tokyo), and Sushi Bar Yasuda all in Roppongi as well I’ll have my chance to return. Yasuda only offers 2 different tasting menus so that might be our opportunity if that falls short or we get out early and decide to hit one of the local bars. After the tonkatsu we quickly ran out of steam and headed back to our respective hovels. Monday morning class was fun and brought a new experience in butchering, cleaning, and making nigiri of a whole cuttlefish that was about 18 inches long from tip of the head to the tip of the longest tentacles with a good 4-5 inch diameter body. I’ve cleaned whole squid before, the kind we use for calamari in the States, but this was much more difficult. More peeling, and cleaning, and trimming involved to get the desired outcome. I’m also starting to see improvement in my nigiri technique. A couple points that were vexing me have been figured out. We continued with our hosomaki practice, and I’m doing quite well in that arena. After class no one wanted to come out and play so we all went home once again to rest up for the week to come. I did laundry. Yay.
Here comes the rain again.

Here comes the rain again.

Something was brought up in Roppongi that we all agreed would be a great idea but we needed to figure out the logistics. Nelson wanted to go to Osaka, the street food capital of Japan, for the weekend. The problem was, this coming Sunday we have class, as well as the following 3 Sundays. Our 8 week class schedule is 4 weeks of 5 days, and 4 weeks of 6 days. The added Sundays being for “Japanese Cuisine Lessons”, intended to add more value to the curriculum and break the monotony of rice and fish. With all the other reservations I already had it looked like it was going to be difficult to make that a reality. But once I got home and looked at my calendar and shuffled some things around I came up with a solid plan that might actually work. So on the weekend of October 9-11 we will hopefully be in Osaka. I was thinking even before I made it out here that I would want to go out there too, so hell-fuckin-yeah! There’s tons of yakitori here in Tokyo but not much okonomiyaki, takoyaki, or yakisoba. Osaka is the place to go for those, and I love all of them, so I’m all in. Tuesday was yet another rain day, and so was Wednesday, but I wasn’t about to let it keep me in by that then. I
Fortuitous refuge from the deluge.

Fortuitous refuge from the deluge.

pretty much got drenched to the bone (umbrellas only help so much) but it was worth it. I wandered Shinjuku solo that day after class. Damian was going to head back in to join me but the rain started coming down harder after he got back to his pad so he thought better of it. While I was wandering from covered area to covered area the intensity of the downpour fluctuated wildly. It would lighten up every few minutes and I would seize that opportunity to run to the next covered or semi-covered area. It was during one of these upticks that I just happened to duck into an alcove with several advertisements for dining establishments. In particular were 2 different yakitori spots. One on level 2 and one on B1 level (Basement). Kushi No Kura on B1 looked the most promising so I headed down. The young man at the host stand spoke VERY limited and broken English but he was eager to provide great service so we found ways to communicate using a combination of my limited and broken Japanese, his almost equally bad English, pointing, and gestures. I got a variety platter of sashimi, a variety platter of yakitori, and a grilled atka mackerel. I had never heard of that particular fish before, but it was a variety of mackerel, chances were pretty good it wasn’t going to suck. It did not. The standard blue Japanese mackerel is
An impressive display by any standards.

An impressive display by any standards.

much richer, but the atka was pretty tasty. The sashimi platter was beautifully put together and had some very unique elements. Hotate scallop sliced and presented with thin slices of lemon between each piece, a pile of scallion in the center, pristine buri belly slices, skinned octopus tentacle disks with the suckers lined up at the bottom, Suzuki slices, and salmon with garnishes that included sakura cut shaved carrot, the usual suspects of shredded carrot, obah and shredded daikon, and an inch and a half long chunk of fresh wasabi root leaning up against a mini grater at one side
Yakitori. Again. This is becoming a habit.

Yakitori. Again. This is becoming a habit.

of the plate. An ingenious touch that made the experience interactive as well as attractive and tasty. The yakitori spread was pretty good, but lacked the wow factor of the sashimi. Tsukune, thigh, heart, skin, and wing served with as many different miso based condiments for dipping as well as a large chunk of cabbage with its own dipping sauce. All told it was a good experience and I am extremely happy I did not just hunker down in my apartment and wait for the rain to pass. Speaking of mackerel, in class this week one of our main focuses was silver-skinned fish. Namely saba mackerel,
Saba, saba tataki, and aji all with yuzu-kosho.

Lunch. Saba, saba tataki, and aji all with yuzu-kosho.

kohada, salmon, and more aji mackerel. Starting from whole fish on all of them and making nigiri with them at the end of the process. We also touched on cuttlefish again and sweet shrimp, or amaebi. My lunches this week have been awesome, as the classes are set up to get butchery done early, in 1st and second period, so you can make your lunch out of the choice cuts and use the rest for nigiri practice in 3rd period. I learned a few new tricks and presentation methods. We started playing with the brûlée torch too, as these types of fatty fish are good for giving them another layer of flavor and texture in this way, applying the flame to the finished nigiri or roll. Dinner on Thursday consisted of a couple stops. Damian and I wandered Shinjuku yet again searching for something
Boucherie. French for "not trying hard enough", or "hoping fusion alone will be a solid concept without trying too hard".

Boucherie. French for "not trying hard enough", or "hoping fusion alone will be a solid concept without trying too hard".

interesting and new grottoes to explore. We hit an udon place as a starter. They had a novel way of ordering that utilized a list of the dishes they offer just outside the front door and on the wall next to the door is a vending machine-style ticket delivery system. You figure out what you want and how much that comes to, drop the money in the machine, punch in the corresponding buttons, and the device spits out your order in ticket form that you then take into the establishment and hand to the person behind the counter right by the front door. It’s a speedy system (so long as there are no gaijin who can’t read the menu, requiring assistance and mucking up the gears) and I imagine it’s pretty economical for the outlet as they don’t really need servers, as much as
An exceptional charcuterie platter. If you discount those baguette slices. They were bullshit. The rest was great, though.

An exceptional charcuterie platter. If you discount those baguette slices. They were bullshit. The rest was great, though.

just a runner. They seat a total of 12 people, so at peak hours like lunch time turning tables quickly is priority both for the guests with limited time for lunch break and for the business that wants to get as many heads through the door as possible. Unfortunately, the food was lack-luster. The broth was a bit flaccid and the toppings were languishing in it for an indeterminate amount of time. The noodles were good though, so at least they got that part right. For part 2 of dinner we decided to see what was in the main Shinjuku train station, a small city within a city. Levels 7 and 8 are the dining levels, and there are quite a few options to choose from ranging from traditional Japanese, family dining, sushi, noodles, yakiniku, Italian, an oyster bar and the place we selected. Boucherie touts itself as “French Yakiniku” specializing in wagyu beef. With a grill in the center of every table, a partially bilingual menu of Japanese and a little English that contains mostly French food, and a service staff that speaks next to no English, it felt a little disjointed from the onset, but we soldiered through it hoping for a payoff. We both ordered a variety platter of meats, each coming with several different cuts of fatty bovine goodness from various parts of the animal, as well as a plate of veggies to roll across the grill and a house made charcuterie platter. The charcuterie was surprisingly good, with smoked beef tongue, large chunks of bacon, duck breast, genoa salami, pate, rillettes, pickles and whole grain mustard. The only disappointing part of that plate were
An impressive array of sauces does not a good dining experience make. Multiple slices of multiple cuts of wagyu beef help, but even that failed to make a cohesive meal.

An impressive array of sauces does not a good dining experience make. Multiple slices of multiple cuts of wagyu beef help, but even that failed to make a cohesive meal.

the baguette croutons the rillettes were served on. They had a texture like they were 3 days old, stale and flabby. The grill was WAY too cold to effectively sear the thin slices of meat we got on our variety platters before they were cooked through, so we had to try to get some color on the meat while not letting it overcook. A daunting challenge with a shitty grill. With some high points and a few glaring low points, it was an interesting meal, at least. At the end of it we admired their spirit of trying to marry French bistro cuisine with Japanese yakiniku, but if you can’t pull it together in such a way as to make sure the seams aren’t showing the two should probably remain mutually exclusive. Then came Friday night, crashing in like a wrecking ball. I had a ton of crap to haul back to the apartment after school so I did that as well as getting a load of school uniforms and whites washed before heading back out to meet up with Nelson, Tyo, Damian, and 2 of the Japanese students from class. It was a memorable night. We all met at a 24 hour fish joint that grills and fries anything you might want and there is a gas grill on each table as well for an interactive touch. A few of the things we ate were maguro kama (tuna collar), karaage (boneless batter fried chicken bits), and tsukune (skewered chicken meatballs). By the time I arrived, after some searching due to a miscommunication between the maps in our chosen messenger and Google maps, the rest of the crew were under way and starting to get red-faced already. After I got a couple beers in me to catch up, we headed out in search of whatever the night might bring. Nelson was looking for women, but he always is. At 22 it’s not surprising. After a bit of wandering Damian cut out at this point, saying he wanted to drop his backpack off at home and that he would catch up later.
Kohada with diffferent decorative skin cuts and more saba mackerel. I fucking love mackerel.

Another shot of one of my lunches. You wish you could eat like a chef. Kohada with diffferent decorative skin cuts and more saba mackerel. I fucking love mackerel.

One of our Japanese friends acted like he knew where to go to quell Nelson’s nearly incessant yammering about meeting some girls, but we wandered in circles for nearly an hour it seemed, back-tracking and circumnavigating Shinjuku until we found ourselves in the “entertainment district”. Most other cities would call this the “red light district”. After giving up he asked a guy on a street corner wearing an expensive suit where we should go. Suit guy then made a couple calls and escorted us to a bar. I had no idea what was in store next, but I had a strong feeling that I knew where this was headed. We were led to a hostess bar. It felt very much like a high-end strip club, but there was no stage and the girls were not dancing. Rather, they serve you drinks, mostly bottle service, and the girls sit with you and just chat, rotating new girls in every 15 minutes or so. The girls all have the same feel and personality types you would expect of strippers in the States, but they serve you drinks, keeping your glass full for you the whole time, and watering down your liquor the whole time to keep you from getting too plastered as to keep you there as long as possible. All for an hourly fee on top of the inflated cost of the bottles. As soon as we figured out that little detail we paid and left. Screw that noise. We were getting hungry again anyway. As we poured back out into the street and started once again searching for the next destination our hapless navigator
I think the name means "cramped and uncomfortable, but we'll feed you and get you drunk". My Japanese is not the best, so I could be mistaken.

I think the name means "cramped and uncomfortable, but we'll feed you and get you drunk". My Japanese is not the best, so I could be mistaken.

announced that he had to retire for the evening. I was a bit relieved by this. His bumbling and cluelessness where wearing very thin with me. We landed in a super cramped, nearly claustrophobic yakitori place where the seating is so tightly packed there is no room for the servers to maneuver and the guests are inches away from being back to back with each other. There was a stunningly beautiful Japanese woman sitting alone at the end of the counter that sat 5, and there were 4 of us left, so Nelson naturally made a bee-line for the seat next to her. While he chatted her up and our remaining native Japanese classmate helped translate for them as far as he could, Tyo and I enjoyed some conversation about food, sake, and the culinary business. After we had our fill and Nelson wasn’t getting anywhere beyond pleasant chatter with the woman at the end of the counter we once again hit the streets.
Karaoke without the completely public humiliation of just being associated with the activity? Well, if I must. When in Rome, and all.

Karaoke without the completely public humiliation of just being associated with the activity? Well, if I must. When in Rome, and all.

On top of Nelson’s blathering about finding girls he also mentioned finding a karaoke bar more than once. So that was the next destination. Now that our cross-eyed guide was out of the picture our pathways to what we were looking for were much less aimless and far more direct. On the way we were accosted at every turn by guys trying to attract our attention to whatever they had to sell. Nelson fell for more than a few of them. Myself coming from an area where a not insignificant portion of the population prides themselves on their “hustling” skills, I know a bullshit peddler when I see one, so I just stood back and let him learn, while being sure to keep an eye on the situation so he didn’t get taken. I found the situation amusing, it was amazing to me how many times he got sucked into a conversation with one of them. He is a wide-eyed 22 year old and not a jaded 40 year-old, though. No matter how well traveled he is that fact still remains. We finally got to our destination, a karaoke joint with a unique approach. You bring a group of people and rent a
This is Nelson trying to sing Queen, and failing. In the interest of full disclosure and public shaming for dragging me into one of these dens of discomfort.

This is Nelson trying to sing Queen, and failing. In the interest of full disclosure and public shaming for dragging me into one of these dens of discomfort.

room by the hour with a TV screen and an impressive list of songs to choose from and everyone takes turns. The rooms are pretty private and you figure out the order yourself. No waiting for a DJ to get to your song and call your name. There was a call button to get the servers to bring more drinks, and you were left to your own devices. Our Japanese ambassador set it all up for us, renting the room for 2 hours. It was… interesting. By the end of that 2 hours it was getting very late and we all started parting ways. First our guide, then Tyo, Nelson and I walked a ways together until it was at the point where Tyo had to break off, and then Nelson and I parted ways on the walk back to our beds. It was 4am by the time I got back. I locked up, put my phone on its charger, and passed the fuck out. We had plans for Kappabashi the following day, with a meet-up time at 1pm at a bridge that the four of us have to pass on our way to school each day. The convergence point on all of our routes. Nelson didn’t make it. He sent us a message saying so. After I sent out a group message to see who was still in and getting an affirmative reply from Damian, Nelson replied with: “No chance for me sorry guys” “I’m fucked” To which Damian replied, “Ha! Useless” And I replied also with, “You’re way too young to let a hangover do you in.” So it was just Damian and myself headed to the “kitchen town” section of Tokyo, and all the promise it held for shiny and sharp things. And that’s where I will pick up next time.
Salmon belly, salmon belly tataki, and various presentations of amaebi and cuttlefish.

Another lunch plate. Salmon belly, salmon belly tataki, and various presentations of amaebi and cuttlefish.

Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 1

The 23 wards of Tokyo.

The 23 wards of Tokyo.

Getting Started.
Guardian of Tokyo, this Godzilla bust looms out over central Shinjuku from the balcony of the Gracery Hotel.

Guardian of Tokyo, this Godzilla bust looms out over central Shinjuku from the balcony of the Gracery Hotel.

After landing at Narita International I caught a taxi over to the main office of the company that I’m renting an apartment from. From there I took an Uber (yes, they have Uber in Tokyo and I’m still not sure how I feel about that) over to the new digs. It’s the size of a large closet, but I was expecting that. The garbage disposal procedures needed lengthy instructions and I still don’t fully understand it. I got the impression nobody really does. It needs to be separated into 5 different categories: burnable, non-burnable, recyclable glass, paper, and plastic, and they each have a different pick-up day. And there are grey areas… By this time it was 7:00 pm and I had been awake for 24 hours straight with very little sleep in the 2 days leading up the flight. So the only logical step from here was to start exploring the neighborhood. The Nakano ward of Tokyo borders on the ward of Shinjuku (where my school is at), which is the Northeast quadrant of the central hub of downtown Tokyo. Nakano-ku (each wards name is given the suffix of “-ku”) has a train track running straight East-West through the center of the ward, curving South into Shinjuku-ku. This means that Nakano-ku is split almost evenly North/South of the tracks. The South side of the tracks is mostly residential. Small houses packed in tightly with micro-apartments, narrow and winding streets running through in a completely illogical manner. There is no rhyme or reason to the street layouts. A tangled mess of pavement that in Chicago or Detroit would be considered more of an alley than an actual road. They are very well kept, however. I have seen no potholes or cracks large enough for drivers to notice. Nor have I seen the piles of rubbish and random detritus that accumulates on any American road.
Yakiniku spread. There's a stove-pipe vent over each table that they place the grill under.

Yakiniku spread. There's a stove-pipe vent over each table that they place the grill under.

The North side of the tracks is packed with tiny restaurants and shops, and towering over this multitude of food stalls is one of Tokyo’s many malls. A giant, 4 story structure with a basement level included called Nakano Broadway. Leading up to the main entrance is a 240 meter long covered causeway called Nakano Sun Mall. Boasting over 100 shops on its own, it’s a glass roofed, open air lane of variously themed stores and food stalls. The lower level of Broadway is dominated by yet more food stalls, coffee shops, and food retailers including a fish monger, a butcher shop, and a fresh produce stand as well as a full service super market. The main level is a lot of electronics and high-end jewelry and watch specialty stores. The second level contains even more food stalls and a vast array of anime, kaiju, and manga focused booths as well as a couple booths dedicated solely to coin operated vending machines of the variety that spit out key-chains and mini figurines encased in a plastic capsule. There is a retailer called Mandarake that has 6 completely separate stores throughout the mall and each one has a different theme. Anime reigns supreme among its themes and flows through all of them to varying degrees, but each has a specialized focus on a different type of pop culture. One specializes in pro wrestling dolls, another on models and actions figures of sci-fi and comic books, yet another is a kind of arcade. If visiting Nakano Broadway I would suggest you avoid eating there, unless you hit the Standing Sushi bar in the Sun Mall or the fresh fish market in the basement. The surrounding area is so rich in food stalls it’s hard to justify dining in the mall. Just wander aimlessly down the alleys around it until you find something that grabs you. It won’t take long.
Standing Sushi bar. The name denoted the posture. There are no chairs. You belly up. you order, you GTFO.

Standing Sushi bar. The name denoted the posture. There are no chairs. You belly up. you order, you GTFO.

I spent the first few days exploring the area and eating my way around Nakano. The night I landed I was so stuffed to the gills from the 2 meals on the flight that I just settled in and passed out. The next morning I started searching for a lunch destination as soon as I woke up. I settled on a yakiniku joint around Broadway. For dinner, after wandering through the Nakano Broadway and Sun Mall for a couple hours, I started approaching my daily meals differently. With so many options why stuff yourself on just one? So I hit that Standing Sushi bar in the Sun Mall and then I found, in an alley off an alley between the Sun Mall and Broadway, a tiny yakitori stall, glowing invitingly and in solitude a short
If the question involves yakitori, the answer is always "yes".

If the question involves yakitori, the answer is always "yes".

distance down the dark alleyway. The staff didn’t speak much English but I got the point across. 2 skewers each of the 3 most promising looking items. I was not disappointed. The chicken thigh was great, the chicken breast (usually boring to me) was seasoned with sancho pepper, drizzled with yuzu kosho and nori shreds, and served medium rare. Chicken. Served medium rare. Unthinkable in the States, but for good reason. Satisfied with a day well spent, I retired to my apartment and bedded down for the night. The next day was a somewhat lazy one. Sunday by this point and my first real obligation, a tour of the school. I walked the 30 minutes to the school (it would be 20 minutes by train and I have to pay for that; walking is free) and met with the principal and some of her staff. The facilities are fairly open and self-explanatory so that meeting didn’t take much time. I hoofed it back to my apartment and stopped at a grocery store along the way. Getting back around 3 pm and tooling aimless around the apartment for a couple hours until I was hungry enough to venture back out. I found a noodle place online that looked promising, so I went for it. Ko Sumi, on the Eastern edge of Nakano, specializes in udon, and it was fantastic! A starter of half of a broiled mackerel and then right into the main event. The thick, chewy noodles were swimming in a red miso broth so dense it could almost be called a gravy. All the usual suspects were there with the curve ball addition of tempura crumbs to add crunch and soak up some of the broth. Best meal so far, but it was only 3 days in. There’s still 2 months to go. Get home, get to bed, class starts tomorrow, and it starts half an hour early. I wake before the alarm. First by an hour. Next by 7 minutes. I get up anyway and get out the door to start the real meaning of this whole adventure. Day 1 at the Tokyo Sushi Academy. It was a light day of introductions, opening ceremonies, everyone getting up in front of the other students introduce
2 skewers medium rare chicken breast yakitori with yuzu-kosho and nori shreds, 2 of thigh meat, and 2 of unripe tomato wrapped in pork belly and glazed with tare sauce. Super simple, amazingly good.

2 skewers medium rare chicken breast yakitori with yuzu-kosho and nori shreds, 2 of thigh meat, and 2 of unripe tomato wrapped in pork belly and glazed with tare sauce. Super simple, amazingly good.

themselves and give a little information about ourselves. Any students who were bi-lingual (there are 8 international students and 20 Japanese) were encouraged to make their introductions in both Japanese and English. A few of the instructors and most of the staff speak extremely good English. Of the 8 international students there’s myself, a large wall of an Aussie named Damian, Nelson from Portugal, Tyo from Indonesia, Jeremy from Singapore, Danny from Louisiana, Majeed from South Africa by way of Canada, and Grazyna from France. For the hour lunch break 5 of us headed out together to scour the area and found a passable ramen joint. After the rest of the day in class that consisted of uniform fittings, law of the land, and an outline of what will be expected for us to graduate, we were loosed upon Tokyo to congregate once again the next morning. Of the 5 of us that were together at lunch, 4 of that group gravitated again and decided to wander the streets of Shinjuku purposefully aimless. Most of the international students are already in the cooking profession, and a few of us have sushi experience already, so we all have kitchen culture in common. The Aussie and myself being the elders of the clique, Nelson and Tyo in their early 20’s. With this configuration we explored the high-end malls and dingy, winding alleys of central Shinjuku-ku for the best it had to offer. We were foreign chefs in Tokyo, and we were fucking hungry!
New to me as people tend to be squeemish about this back in the States. Horse sashimi. Big meaty flavor, absolutely no gameiness, very lean and very tender. Ask for it by name!

New to me as people tend to be squeemish about this back in the States. Horse sashimi. Big meaty flavor, absolutely no gameiness, very lean and very tender. Ask for it by name!

20150903_191632

Shochu seminar tasting notes.

We grazed our way through the alleys after scanning the food offerings in a mall whose entrance was a Dior store. The 4 grungy chef scumbags wandering through Dior looking for food must have made for an interesting sight, and one old woman commented on how “big” Damian was. Standing a girthy 6’6” or so, he is an anomaly of sorts in this country. Sensei Otami-san even said he thinks Damian is the tallest student they’ve ever had. To our surprise, unlike high-end super-malls in the West, there was a gourmet market in the sublevels that sprawled half of the level. Including specialty produce, a massive fish selection, pre-prepared obento and sashimi trays, a butcher counter with several grades of wagyu beef (the most expensive was a nearly solid white slab roughly shaped like a rib lion with specks of pink throughout), and a hand-made noodle demo stall in the middle of the action. The chef rolling the dough in his glass cube and employing a self-advancing noodle knife to cut all of the noodles to a uniform thickness, boiling them, and shocking them in ice water on the spot. He’d then pass those off to the people at the counter outside the plexi-glass fishbowl and they’d cover them with a sauce or dole them out to eat chilled. They were handing out small samples and I couldn’t resist. They were very non-descript, with light sauce that tasted vaguely of dashi, and heavy on sesame oil and yuzu juice. The second half of this week’s lessons at the academy were devoted to learning the basics, and I quickly learned how wrong I’ve been doing everything. The central tenant here is “keep-break-progress”, as they put it. What this means is, they want you to learn how the senseis want you to do things. Be able to emulate them infallibly and with speed. Once you’ve learned the proper way to do something and committed it to muscle memory, only then should you “break”, and forge your own path. Once you’ve discovered a way to make the techniques your own without sacrificing your teachings or the quality of the final product, then you have reached “progress”. I need to start back at square one with few things. Primarily nigiri. My form is bad on each of the 7 steps they teach. I’ve been doing it wrong for so long I have to wipe away all of it and try to relearn it from the ground up. I’ve developed a rhythm over the years that has become almost instinctual so breaking out of that is going to take a little work. But I’m dedicated and stubborn, if what I’ve been doing all this time is the wrong way I will reprogram my brain on how to do it no matter how hard it is. I’ve got 2 months to get it done. The next few days were much of the same, wandering the downtown streets in search of whatever they had to offer. On Thursday evening we were privy to a formal dress shochu tasting event that was held in the more Southern area of Harajuku Tokyo. The Aussie wasn’t able to attend as he knocked himself silly not ducking far enough to come out of the bathroom that morning and wasn’t able to attend class because of it, so it was myself, Nelson, and Tyo. Shochu is the indigenous Japanese distilled spirit made from a variety of ingredients. Rice, barley, sweet potato, brown sugar, even buckwheat is used. What makes these distilled beverages different from their Western counterparts of whiskey, rum, and the like is the use of koji in the fermentation process, just like traditional sake. However, we were not told it was a formal dress event and showed up in t-shirts, hoodies, and cargo shorts collectively. No one seemed to care that much and no one looked at us like scum bags. At least not to our faces. Not that we cared much either, to be honest. We may have gotten stares, we just didn’t give a single aggregate fuck so it fell beneath our notice. There was a short and sweet 30 minute seminar with a tasting set for each attendee that the presenter guided us through. Very interesting stuff with slides of maps explaining history and regional variations, tasting notes and broad common flavor profiles for the individual base ingredients, serving suggestions, and recommended service-ware. The reception after the seminar had some food and about 50 different styles and brands of shochu to try. We were given free reign to have as much food and drink as we wanted. Word spread through some of the staff that we were there from the Tokyo Sushi Academy, though, and a couple of them excitedly pinned us down on our way out to confirm our identities as the sushi guys. They seemed genuinely thrilled to meet a group of student sushi chefs who weren’t behind a counter.
Wigged out stair/escalator well leading into one of the may expensive stores in the Harajuku area.

Wigged out stair/escalator well leading into one of the may expensive stores in the Harajuku area.

We met another American while we were there. Ed was in the Navy and stationed to the South of Tokyo. Once we had enough of the crowded tasting party we all headed out to explore the streets of Harajuku with Ed tagging along. There are a lot of high-end stores in Harajuku, even more than in Shinjuku-ku, but the locals seem to roll up the sidewalks at dusk so by the time we were out of the tasting there were few options open for service that weren’t completely packed. We wandered for nearly an hour before we found an izakaya in a basement that nearly slipped past our notice. Descending the stairs, we were faced with a small room of seats fueled by an even smaller open kitchen. The only two visible staff members were a female chef and a female server. There were 4 other guests, 2 groups of 2, who immediately started making comments about us that we couldn’t make out. Not the first time, and won’t be the last, I’m sure. Good thing none of us really give a shit. The server had adorably broken Engrish, but command enough of the language combined with her enthusiasm to understand us made ordering a simple matter. Further aided by the fact that Ed and I were able to put both of our limited understandings of written Japanese together to read enough of the black dry-erase board that functioned as their menu to suss out what they had on offer. Our first round was seared needle fish, karage, crispy chicken, and yakisoba. The seared, bite sized bits of needle fish were outstanding and the chicken thigh karage was fried to a juicy medium-well. The yakisoba was good but I’m partial to my own recipe for it. Informed we were at the last call time for food we made a second pass, this time a double portion of fried squid and 2 more portions of that needle fish. Once those were finished, we paid our bill and we all headed back to our respective dwellings. Ed to his home, and the rest of us back to Nakano-ku by way of the train to Shinjuku station. I got back late and did not delay in getting to bed. Friday morning class was an interesting one. Our assignments were to break down 3 whole aji (horse mackerel), a side of Hamachi, and nigiri practice. These would last until lunch time, in which we were encouraged to eat the spoils of the fish we had just butchered. Especially the aji, as this was our first time (mine as well) dealing with this fish and the preparation procedure is a lengthy and important one so we needed to understand what the final result tasted like. After lunch it was on to start learning how to make hosomaki, the thin rolls with a single ingredient inside and the nori on the exterior. Since we needed to practice as much as possible the nori was replaced by a damp kitchen cloth. Like a paper towel but much more durable, the 3 color coded varieties we use for general cleanliness at the academy work well as a practice substitute for nori. The sheets allow the rice to stick to them but when dampened the rice peels away easily and it’s possible to break up the rice and reuse it. Weights are a big deal in all matters. Weight of the rice for nigiri, weight of the rice for rolls, weight of the neta (nigiri topping), everything must be within very narrow margins and we have to learn to grab and go to execute with speed and accuracy without having to weigh it out to order. We are working on that accuracy right now. Speed always come later, after mastery of technique. After school we all dispersed to do our own things. It has been a long week and we are all a little exhausted from it. Except Nelson, it seems. He has a jazz fest to attend here in Tokyo with one of his flat-mates that he says will last a couple days. We’ll see how long that holds his attention. I have some plans for the weekend that include going to check out the Roppongi area and a few destinations therein, including the Hard Rock Café and a place called the Pizzakaya my girlfriend, Sara, found out about. Being a Chicago native she insisted I go there and take lots of pictures. If I have my way that will be the only non-Japanese food I eat while I’m here. Who knows, though? The Japanese are nothing if not obsessive, so they may have a new perspective to offer on something traditionally Western that I had never considered before. Already this trip is forcing me to recall one of Master Yoda’s lessons, “You must unlearn what you have learned”, so I’m open to anything.  
The heart of Shinjuku-ku.

The heart of Shinjuku-ku.

 
A variety of grilled pork offal including liver, uterus, heart, tongue, and brain. The uterus and heart were the big winners. The 2 lonely skewers top left are "pork meatloaf".

A variety of grilled pork offal including liver, uterus, heart, tongue, and brain. The uterus and heart were the big winners. The 2 lonely skewers top left are "pork meatloaf".

Bacon’s More Sophisticated Cousin

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The cast of characters. See also: The Usual Suspects.

Braised meats aren’t usually thought of when pondering Asian cuisine. Braising is generally associated with the French in dishes such as Boeuf Bourguignon, or American Pot Roasts. This is a fool-hardy assumption, however. Enter the Japanese preparation and staple of any ramen-ya worth its weight in rice, braised pork belly, or Chashu. Yet another adaptation of a Chinese dish, char siu, chashu has become something else entirely. While char siu usually refers to a roasted meat glazed with honey and soy (and added red food coloring in some cases) the Japanese took most of the same ingredients, turned it into a braise, and added their own flair with the addition of mirin and sake. Also, the Chinese use the term “char siu” to refer to any number of meats roasted in the same manner, for the Japanese however, chashu is made with pork belly. Nothing else. We can get behind that. The recipe that follows is a cross-reference between two other recipes I found and my own added spin here and there. The process is fairly long, as with most braises, but the ingredients are pretty cheap and simple. The differences in my recipe and the ones I referenced are these: One recipe called for rolling the belly, which is traditional, and the other did not. I went with the flat preparation. While rolling the belly takes longer to cook it comes out juicier, or so I hear, but that can be solved by simply cutting down on the oven time and keeping vigilant watch. There was, however, the issue of the skin. It likes to be cooked for a LONG time, which would make the rolled method more logical. I soldiered on with my plan though. The rolled recipe also called for skin on (or rind on) pork belly, while the other called for skin off. This suggestion I did follow. The flat prep recipe said to sear all sides and blanch the meat before braising while the other said to roll it and go. I seared, only the meat side, and did not blanch. I left the skin un-seared, and blanching after searing would inevitably wash away some of the brown color the sear provided. Color = flavor, a fundamental philosophy in all of cooking, so blanching after searing just seemed like a bad idea to me. That recipe was from a very highly respected chef, though, so what the hell do I know. One recipe also called for the addition of typically Chinese or South-East Asian spices like cinnamon, star anise and black peppercorns. This, too, I followed, predictably. Perhaps just as predictably the fish sauce was my addition. Had to be done. There was no way around it. It was for the benefit of science and all mankind, you see. I expected the skin to be tough and un-chewable but I was wrong. Very wrong! It was gooey and sticky and gelatinous, and provided a very interesting contrast in texture to the supple fat and the chewy yet melting to the tooth meat. Next time I try this I’m going to try one of the suggestions I shied away from this run just to see the difference. But for now, I’m satisfied with these results. It was good. It was really good. It was really fucking good! This is going to be a picture heavy post, so those of you who are easily offended by unadulterated and unapologetic food porn may wish to close this window now or just fuck off from the room. It’s about to get real up in this bitch. Chashu, Japanese braised pork belly. The ingredients:    
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Fuck you, Malbon! Any blood spilled because of this addiction is on YOUR hands!

2-2.5 pounds raw Pork Belly – uncured, not smoked, rind on 1 cup Mirin 1 bottle (300 ml) Hakutsuru Draft sake ½ cup of Honey 1 ½ cups Soy Sauce (Yamasa brand is my preference) 3” knob of fresh Ginger – peeled and crushed 1 Star Anise 1 stick of Cinnamon 1 tsp. Black Peppercorns 5 cloves of Garlic 6 cleaned and chopped Scallions 3 Tbsp. Red Boat Fish Sauce Kadoya Sesame oil Light Vegetable or Olive oil (No extra virgin!)        
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Yeah, yeah, I already know what your gonna say about overcrowding the pan... The meat is thick enough and is going to be cooked long enough to render that point moot.

Procedure: Preheat oven to 275 degrees, 250 if it wil go that low. Oil a pan with the light veggie oil and heat until just starting to smoke. Sear the meat side of the pork belly until golden brown. Set aside. Add a little bit of sesame oil and toast the dry spices (anise, cinnamon and black pepper) until aromatic, about 90 seconds. Add the crushed ginger and sauté for a few seconds, then add the garlic whole and stir fry for a few more seconds. When the garlic is just starting to take on a bit of color deglaze with the sake and mirin. Reduce by about half, we're really just looking to burn off the alcohol.  Once reduced add the soy sauce, honey, scallions and fish sauce and bring back to a simmer.        
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Most of the flavor in dry spices is locked in their oils. Toasting in a little oil brings them out more than if just pitched right in and gives them a little more complexity

    Place your pork belly skin side down in a deep and tight fitting oven-proof container and cover with the hot liquid. Cover loosely and place in the oven for 2 hours. Check on it at this point, the point of a paring knife should sink through to the bottom of the pan with little resistance.             Once it’s finished, pull it out of the oven and place it in the refrigerator, still covered in its braising liquid, until fully chilled. What will emerge is a slightly gelatinous liquid and pork belly that is much easier to slice into serving sized portions. If one were to slice it hot one would end up with a mess of basically pulled pork belly. Decidedly NOT what we are looking for here.        
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Ready to cover and lounge in the oven for a couple hours

Slice into 3 or 4 blocks through the narrower width (if it was whole this would be the length of the belly) and then into ½ to ¼ inch slices against the grain of the meat at the time of service. To reheat there are a few methods you could take. You could thicken the liquid with cornstarch and use it to glaze the slices in the oven or in a steamer until heated through. Or you could simply drop the slices in some simmering soup and pour that over some ramen. If you own a brulee torch you could char it slightly, which is certainly the most dramatic approach. Or you could do what I did. I placed the slices on a broiler plate, covered it with its braising liquid and put it in the broiler until it started to audibly pop. The popping is from the skin that was left on. At this point I pulled it from the boiler, basted the slices with the liquid in the pan, and put them back under the broiler, repeating this a few times until the slices were nicely browned.    
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Ready for it's semi-final destination. The Broiler!

Serving suggestions for this are myriad. As already stated, this is a classic topping for ramen, but Chef Takashi out here in Chicago serves it with steamed buns. Hell, you could just shove it in your slavering maw straight outa the broiler! By this point it’s been long enough in the making that any delivery method would be simply that. Just a means to get that unctuous pig belly into your impatiently awaiting face! The braising liquid in and of itself is a thing of beauty! Use it to season soup broth, as a pig infused marinade, as a fucking beverage! Seriously, its used to marinade the soft boiled, runny yolk but firm white eggs that are also a staple ramen topping!    
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Finally ready for a vicious tongue lashing! You dirty little pork belly...

I REALLY hope you guys try this, time investment be damned! Just like most braises, this one just gets better if left in the fridge for a couple days before serving. Which means you can make it well in advance and be the fucking hero of any dinner party! All the work having been done the day before, and being better for the aging, leaves you to focus on other things that might need to be done at the last minute. The pork belly will wait. It’s patient like that. This is a seriously good accompaniment to just about any vaguely Asian inspired menu. You will be in love. You will want to pour the liquid in your eyes.You will want to rub the meat all over your body to attract a mate. And if they are repulsed by it, fuck them! They aren’t good enough for you anyway if they don’t like perfume of pork fat, ginger and soy sauce!    
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Kadoya. Ask for it by name!

Live well and COOK PORK! -Jack        
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Serving suggestion! This or dive at it like a savage that hasn't seen pork belly in years. Either would be completely appropriate.

Great Plates: Cookie Dough Brownie

BEHOLD: The chocolate chip cookie dough double fudge brownie from Treat Dreams in Ferndale, MI.
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.

Great (future) Plates: Michigan’s Summer Bounty

A little something-something from the regional Farmer's Markets, destined for great plates near you!
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.