Other People’s Cooking

now browsing by category

Occasionally someone in a restaurant cooks something worth eating.

 

Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 6

Eastern Roppongi skyline.

Eastern Roppongi skyline.

Saturday morning started off quietly. Out of bed, into the shower, call Sara. We talked for a good long while. I detailed the previous week for her, she caught me up on some of the happenings back home, it was time well spent. I could hear the weariness in her voice by 2pm my time, or midnight in Chicago, though she wouldn’t admit to it. I wrapped it up to let her get some sleep before she passed out with the phone in her hand and sent a message to my restaurant companion for the evening, Damian. We were going to check out the Tokyo outlet of the Nobu Empire in Eastern Roppongi. Meeting time and place set, we made our way out there. Situated in a hotel in an area with a lot of government buildings we didn’t get many pictures in that neighborhood, but we made it
Branded sake barrels out front.

Branded sake barrels out front.

there with time to spare so we found an Irish bar close by and took up residence to kill the hour and a half before show time at Nobu. We watched the news they had on the TV, CNN in English (!). There was a group of about ten guys that trickled in starting the same time we got there that was a fantasy sports “league” that took up the entire back room of the second floor Mad Mulligan’s space. The lone bar tender struggled to keep up with that group and our service was a little lax because of it, but if we’d had any more to drink before Nobu we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it as much. The time drew near and we paid our bill and headed to the restaurant. Once inside, they led us to our table and the cooks all yelled the traditional
Sleek, modern interior that pays homage to tradition. Supreme elegance.

Sleek, modern interior that pays homage to tradition. Supreme elegance.

“irrashaimase!” in the same loud and energetic tone one would hear at just about any other restaurant in Tokyo. But this wasn’t just any other restaurant. The spacious dining area was breezy and well spaced out. Not tightly packed in, they gave you elbow room. The lighting was dim and cozy, the aesthetic was sleek and modern but firmly rooted in the traditional. Natural colored wood from floor to ceiling and soft, earthy tones in everything made the interior extremely comfortable and relaxing. Our server spoke English, but somewhat broken and in such a soft tone and low volume that I struggled to make out what she was saying, at times asking Damian if he’d caught what she said once she was out of earshot. I have a difficult time hearing with background noise sometimes, and I hate to keep asking people to repeat themselves, so sometimes even when I did not catch what was said to me I will let the moment pass. I probably come off like a dick at times because of this, but it annoys the shit out of me to repeat myself 3-4 times in a row so I just spare others the frustration. At least that’s how it works in my head. Anyway, my tangent ends here. We were presented with drink and food menus and there were 3 different omakase options. We both went for the longest course
Place setting letting us know we are in the right place in time and space at his particular moment.

Place setting letting us know we are in the right place in time and space at his particular moment.

spread, with Damian asking if they could make sure to include otoro in there somewhere. No problem at all, was the approximate response. We can eat, and Japan has yet to overfill us. They started us off with a bowl of edamame that was tossed in togarashi chili pepper and yuzu zest. We nursed that bowl and it lasted us through the entire meal, giving us something to munch on between courses. The first course that arrived after that was a 4 part plate of various seafood preparations. Monkfish liver in passionfruit sauce with caviar, a raw oyster topped with one of Nobu’s signature salsas, Hamachi tartare with wasabi flavored soy sauce and more caviar, and a ceviche of shrimp, octopus, onion, tomato, cilantro, lime and garlic. The exact types of flavors Nobu is so well known for, and a great start.
Spicy edamame.

Spicy edamame.

From there they gave us the sushi course. 4 individual nigiri on the same plate. The otoro Damian requested, seared tai (seared to make that fish easier to chew), bonito, amaebi. With chunks, not slices, of house pickled ginger on the plate and a divot on the right side for soy sauce that the server poured for us. Next was an impressive salad course of buri sashimi, awabi (abalone), thin slices of multi colored beets, dual colored carrot coins, watercress, and a sudachi dressing. The awabi was tender and the Buri was rich and sliced large, the sudachi dressing cut through the richness of the fish very well. Next plate in front of us was half each of a grilled lobster, basted in butter, garnished with a grilled green chili pepper. The tail had been cut in its shell to make it easier to eat and the claws had the sides of the shells removed for effortless extraction of the meat. Following that was a seared wagyu steak topped with seared foie gras and in a pool of a reduction sauce that included balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. There were a few bits of steamed veg on the plate that were completely extraneous and added no real value or contrast. They weren’t distracting, either, so it was commented on by both of us but we also didn’t really care at this point. Next was a bowl of cold soba noodles in a pool of the traditional dipping sauce and garnished with wasabi and shredded negi onion. The noodles had a great texture and were cut a little thinner than is normal, with a perfectly square cross section. The sharp angles were noticeable on the tongue and the sauce was well balanced.
Quintessential Nobu course platter. Clockwise from top left; monkfish liver with passion fruit sauce, caviar and ohba flowers, local oyster with Nobu salsa, Hamachi tartare with wasabi soy and more caviar, ceviche of onion, tomato, cucumber, octo and shrimp with lime and cilantro. Red seasonal maple leaf center garnish.

Quintessential Nobu course platter. Clockwise from top left; monkfish liver with passion fruit sauce, caviar and ohba flowers, local oyster with Nobu salsa, Hamachi tartare with wasabi soy and more caviar, ceviche of onion, tomato, cucumber, octo and shrimp with lime and cilantro. Red seasonal maple leaf center garnish.

Nobu nigiri course, left to right: otoro, seared tai, bonito, amaebi, chunks of house pickled ginger.

Nobu nigiri course, left to right: otoro, seared tai, bonito, amaebi, chunks of house pickled ginger.

                Our beverages for the evening were understated but well suited to the food on the table. Starting with nigori sake, moving to Champagne, and ending with green tea (being on the verge of too much alcohol at this point). The tea was on the table at the same time as the soba noodles, so that was a fortuitous call on my part, as I asked for tea before the noodles arrived and I had no idea what the next plate would be holding.
Nobu soba.

Nobu soba.

Half of a grilled lobster.

Half of a grilled lobster.

Grilled wagyu steak with foie gras, reduction sauce, and extraneous garnishes.

Grilled wagyu steak with foie gras, reduction sauce, and extraneous garnishes.

From here we were given the option of another course or straight to dessert. There was a communication error, though, as we asked for more but she understood it as bring us dessert. We both received different plates at this point. Mine was a merengue coin tower with a passionfruit custard and macerated fruit in mango sauce to the side of that. Damian received a molten lava cake, to his dismay. I let him sample my dessert out of pity. Overall everything was well executed, with the flavor profiles I would have expected, but the unnecessary steamed veg, short course list, the inclusion of a somewhat antiquated dessert and the highest price tag attached to a meal so far, we were satisfied with the experience but agreed that XEX was superior. Maybe if we’d sat at the counter and not at a table it would have made a difference. I swore I made counter reservations, but oh well. We made our ways home.
Dobin mushi at presentation.

Dobin mushi at presentation.

Sunday was the last day for washoku class, and it was a good one. We are in just the right time of year now for a few famed and highly sought after ingredients in Japanese cooking, and Kobayashi sensei had some of them. Matsutake mushrooms, raw, shell-on ginko nuts, and what became the star of the show for me, a whole, big-eyed, bright red skinned kinmedai. Sensei broke the fish down and the whole class shared the one fish, as they are expensive and more than that would have been a waste anyway, as each dish that day only required a few slices each. Largely covering steamed dishes, we started with dobinmushi. A small earthenware teapot filled with mushrooms, bits of fish, and whatever else is in season. Seasonal is very important here, as this is traditionally an autumn dish. Covered with dashi broth, lidded, and placed in a steamer for 10 minutes, what came out was eye opening. A matching teacup made to fit snugly over the lid of the pot is placed on it after a mitsuba leaf with the long stem tied in a
The inside of the dobin mushi tea pot. Loved this dish.

The inside of the dobin mushi tea pot. Loved this dish.

knot was dropped in right before serving for aromatics and the base of the cup is used to hold the sudachi citrus that is the traditional garnish. Once served, the guest removes the teacup and citrus, opens the lid of the pot slightly to appreciate the aroma, then samples the broth by pouring out like tea into the cup. The citrus is added to the cup for a second tasting of the broth if desired, but the first sip is without anything to appreciate the unaltered broth. The steamed contents of the pot are then enjoyed. It’s a marvelously refined and delicate way to utilize light ingredients by letting them shine on their own merit and it also has the added benefit of being easy to setup and reserve for restaurant service. Spectacular. We had yaki-shimo sashimi of kinmedai at XEX as our starter and we used that fish here in this class extensively, so in the last week or
Ebishijo with namafu, mushroom sauce, and sudachi bow.

Ebishijo with namafu, mushroom sauce, and sudachi bow.

so I’ve been exposed to several different preparations of this fish and unholy shit is it good. Every way, every method, I was very impressed. Screw tai right in its chewy little asshole, kinmedai will be my fish of choice moving forward when looking for something with that bright red hue. The only drawback is it’s highly seasonal, but the reverse side of that coin is that it’s an extremely special ingredient when it is in season. I was holding onto a 4oz. bit of the last loin when we were at the last dish calling for it. I asked Kobayashi sensei where he wanted me to put it (not sure at this point in the lesson if we would need it again) and he motioned to me to go ahead and eat it. I obliged without hesitation or restraint. This is a tasty fish.
Steamed savory custard made from soy milk with maitake, shimeji, and kinmedai, yuzu peel shaved over top.

Steamed savory custard made from soy milk with maitake, shimeji, and kinmedai, yuzu peel shaved over top.

We also made use of a wheat gluten cake I had never seen before that was cut into a log shape that had the cross-section of a leaf and was colored in the autumn palette. Namafu is in the same family as seitan but has a vastly different texture. Where seiten is dense and bread-like, namafu is as soft as silken tofu and sensei actually recommended we freeze it to cut it if we ever used it, otherwise the leaf cross-section would be crushed. It had a slightly slippery and chewy mouthfeel, like a steamed bread. I don’t imagine it would be offensive at all to Western palates. The next dish we made was ebishinjo. Balls of minced shrimp with an equal part of peeled mountain yam and a little usukuchi soy sauce to add salt and umami without adding too much extra liquid. This mixture was then quenelle style spoon-molded into balls and dropped into a deep fryer to brown. The yam gave a great texture and wasn’t gooey or slimey. They were served 3, slightly smaller than a piing-pong ball size, to a bowl and covered in a sauce called “an”. Maitake mushrooms simmered in seasoned dashi and bound with just a tiny touch of potato starch. Fresh yuzu zest and a slice of namafu on top, and it made a very attractive and tasty dish. The real highlight, for me anyway, was that sensei took the remainder of the mixture that hadn’t gotten fried, mounded it up in a bowl, and pooped it in the steamer. What emerged, with the same sauce and garnishes spooned over, was a light and fluffy version that would be quite at home on a kaiseki menu. Extremely delicate and pillow-like, another impressive course down. Next up was lunch of takikomi gohan, rice steamed with seasonal veg (in this case 3 of the 4 varieties of mushrooms present and some carrot for that orange color) and a soup made from the kinmedai scraps and bones with daikon, carrot, maitake, and chopped mitsuba on top. Light and warming. Last we did 2 different custard variations. A savory custard with shimeji, maitake, kinmedai, egg, and soy milk that was steamed again and quite tasty. Another very versatile dish. Followed by kabocha squash crème brûlée. Nothing mind blowing or new to me on that front. They translate kabocha as “pumpkin” most of the time here, and that would be a suitable substitute if kabocha was for some reason unattainable. It was a great lesson that I will be taking much away from. Back in sushi class this week we tackled a few new aquatic animals, some new to me. On Monday we were each given a hirame, or
Hirame nigiri and usuzukuri with a couple different engawa presentations and a fish "flower".

Hirame nigiri and usuzukuri with a couple different engawa presentations and a fish "flower".

flounder. The structure of these fish is completely different than any other fish we’ve tangled with thus far but they are also identical to Dover Sole, a fish I have extensive experience with. These lessons were a breeze but it was fun to see some new techniques used to deal with them. Like the sukibiki scaling technique where you shave the scales off in strips with a knife starting at the tail and working your way to the head. This sounds MUCH more intimidating than it is. It’s easy and it’s fun to experience just how much easier it is than you thought it logically should be. A sharp knife will easily slide under the scales and not take off any skin. Going too deep and removing skin and flesh accidentally happens and it’s always a hazard, but it’s way less common that intuition would suggest, even in the hands of a novice of fish butchery. We’ve used this technique with inada (young yellowtail) and hirame, but it is also commonly employed when dealing with
Demo plate from Kurimoto sensei. I've seen thicker tissue paper than this.

Demo plate from Kurimoto sensei. I've seen thicker tissue paper than this.

salmon and some other scaled finfish. It’s more time consuming than the well-known techniques of scraping off scales with a special tool or with the blade of a knife, but for fish like hirame that have tiny scales it’s recommended. There’s a tiny strip of muscle at the edges of the fish that the Japanese call the “engawa”. It’s a bit chewy, but that is easily dealt with by shallow scoring diagonally on both sides and it’s the fattiest part of this particular fish so if you deal with it right it’s also the tastiest bit. We covered the usuzukuri slicing technique again as well as making those little flowers you see on sashimi plates made of fish slices. Kobujime, or lightly curing a fish by gently salting and sandwiching the meat between 2 slices of konbu was also addressed, for both curing individual slices and for whole fillets. We played with that fish for 2 consecutive days, filling the rest of the time with nigiri practice (I’m making good progress there), tamagoyaki (finally made an omelet that wasn’t a disaster), and morikomi practice (a variety of different types of sushi arranged on a take-out platter, another test that we will be timed on). Wednesday we did tamagoyaki for the last time and made futomaki with them, the large rolls with multiple cooked ingredients that are often seen in bento boxes and picnic style packed meals. Filling the gaps if you finish an assignment early is always katsuramuki and we did a mock test for that this week.
Tamago that isn't brown! Victory is mine!

Tamago that isn't brown! Victory is mine!

Katsuramuki I have made little progress with. I fear for my ability with that one. My biggest problem has been getting a sheet long enough. It has to be at least 40cm long to even qualify to get graded. Anything less is not even looked at. If the weight is over, they just cut the length down and deduct points on a scale based on how much needs to be trimmed to hit the target weight, and points are also deducted for any tears in the edges of the sheets. A tear more than 5cm in the 10cm wide strip is considered a break and not counted as continuous. As long as you have one uninterrupted sheet that’s 40cm long you get some points, at least. As I’ve mentioned previously, the calculations have already been made concerning what scores I need to get on all the other tests if I totally choke and bomb that one. In the 2 timed, 10 minute test runs we did combined I got 1 sheet over 40cm. The sensei counted the tears, trimmed it down to the 40g target weight (I’m actually not far off on that front, so I only lost a couple centimeters) and he told me that it would count as a 55 point score. At this point I’m not sure if I can duplicate or top that. Damian, standing right across the table from me now in the second half of the course, got and astonishing (even to him) 80 on one run. He now takes every opportunity to rub that in. Even manufacturing opportunities to rub it in.
Various ika nigiri preparations with hokkigai nigiri and sashimi. Hokkigai is not an attractive nigiri ingredient when fresh but it is REALLY good!

Various ika nigiri preparations with hokkigai nigiri and sashimi. Hokkigai is not an attractive nigiri ingredient when fresh but it is REALLY good!

Along with futomaki and tamagoyaki we were guided through a recipe for ponzu shoyu that’s a bit different than what I’ve seen in the past. Then on Thursday we learned how to clean another bi-valve, the hokkigai, or arctic surf clam. As with all cold water shellfish, it seems, this is one of my favorites. It’s exceptionally difficult to find fresh in the States, at least in the areas I’ve lived in, and it’s not very popular but probably only because it’s rare. The best you will find at any place that carries it will be the cleaned and frozen variety. I’m not a fan, but it’s not that bad. Way chewier than fresh and freezing alters texture. Knowing this, and knowing how it alters texture I had a strong feeling that the fresh clams would have vastly superior flavor and texture, and I was on the mark with that prediction. They take some work to clean out, but at least they don’t bleed all over the place like the akagai did. They have a tube that’s generally full of dirt and sand, but that’s easily washed out with a little diligence. Their flavor is as sweet as scallops but distinctively clammy and the texture is soft and slightly chewy. Not as chewy as squid or octo, or even the akagai, much more supple than that. Really tasty and worth the trouble to clean them. The lip of tissue around the edges we used to wrap around a skewer, stopping it at either end with the adductor muscles which are large enough to shell out and actually use, and then scorched them with the brûlée torch. That could easily be accomplished with charcoal, too. In fact, I bet it’s preferable.
Another stunning demo from Kurimoto sensei. Various squid sashimi presentations.

Another stunning demo from Kurimoto sensei. Various squid sashimi presentations.

That same day was more sashimi practice and one of the fish for that always rotates according to season. We covered cleaning whole squid and cutting frozen tuna early in the day. For the test next week (!) we will be using salmon, tuna, and sumi ika. The first few times we covered this we used cuttlefish instead of the smaller sumi ika and tai (fuck that fish) in place of the salmon. These two changes are welcome ones. We were also shown a technique to use for the squid that creates a pattern of curls that lift up from the surface and looks especially good on nigiri. By scoring the top on an extreme enough bias vertically, almost as if butterflying the already thin piece of squid, at intervals about 1cm apart along with opposing scoring straight down the center and then making the nigiri with that side facing up. Once you’ve gotten that far, take the torch and lightly burn the tops. The bias scoring will cause those little bits to curl straight up into little waves across the top of the nigiri. A fun and visually interesting presentation. We covered squid 2 days in a row as well, something I’ve worked with extensively just not whole and guts in. I’ve cleaned out smaller varieties, but the ones we were using were larger and required more cleaning and skinning than the squid that’s more commonly used in America. We were also shown a technique for making a base for irregularly shaped shellfish to be presented on. Clams, oysters, and scallop shells can be scrubbed out and used for a serving vessel, but they aren’t stable on a plate or table. If you mix egg white and salt in the right concentrations they form a play-dough-like paste that is easily molded into whatever shape you need it to be in. Extracurricular activities were fruitful this week, as well. Damian and I met up on Tuesday to explore the area around Higashi-Nakano
The menu at Tokidoki Ten Ten Ten.

The menu at Tokidoki Ten Ten Ten.

station, as my wanderings of the area turned up a few interesting prospects. We explored out passed where I had been, into what appeared to be turning into a culinary dead zone. But Tokyo will surprise you at almost every turn. We found a little place called Hare Tokidoki Ten Ten Ten that specializes in skewered bits of pork and pork offal. It looked very inviting so we ducked inside. It was an extremely clean, warm, and hip looking space with natural wood, lightly painted plywood, and metal frames, brightly lit and ignorable, inoffensive, gentle jazzy music piped in at a low volume. For such a small place their food and beverage selections were truly outstanding. Astonishing, even. Most places this size in Tokyo carry a couple sakes, a couple shitty draught beers, and some shochu. Maybe some whiskey if you’re lucky. This place had Japanese craft beers on tap, hard to
They might have understood the English significance of placing skewers of tongue and cheek on the same plate, but I doubt it. Happy coincidence.

They might have understood the English significance of placing skewers of tongue and cheek on the same plate, but I doubt it. Happy coincidence.

find wines from France, bottled beer from all over, well presented plates, well executed food, a staff that didn’t speak English well but REALLY fucking tried to do the best they could to serve us, all with a deep sense of give-a-fuck that permeated every aspect of the experience. We were both extremely excited about this place and extremely saddened that we and one other patron were all that populated the 15 seat space. In any other city, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Sydney, Melbourne, name it, this place would have a line out the door and around the corner. Literally not having a single fuck to give between us regarding what they wanted to feed us, we asked for omakase. They started us with a plate of warm tofu in a soy based sauce and simmered with negi, and topped with shredded negi, spring onion, and myoga. Light and flavorful. The first grilled course hit the table after that. Approximately 0 fucking around in this place. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain, this first course was not meant to be the word play that it was, but part of me
Diaphragm and hanger steak.

Diaphragm and hanger steak.

wouldn’t doubt it. They served us grilled skewers of pork tongue and cheek. We giggled. The following skewers that made their way to us were all from adjacent parts of the animal. Diaphragm and hanger steak, belly and stomach, heart and intestine. The chef asked us where we wanted to go from here, and we decided it would be a good time to break up the parade of pork with some veggies. Shishitou peppers, eringi mushrooms with shaved bonito, grilled eggplant with shaved bonito, all making their way to our table, every last bite was exceptional. We chatted, I ordered another beer, we contemplated the bottle of sparkling rosé Damian ordered. He recognized it from the time he spent in France. Le Canon Primeur, with its pink, sakura flower emblazoned label, is a sparkling wine made by a Japanese dude that moved to France to produce wines that are completely organic, unfiltered, unfined, and completely sulfur-free. A bit of a maverick in the wine making world, but it pays off. His bubbly rosé has more character and backbone than any other pink liquid I have ever quaffed. Great stuff.
Intestinal muscle and heart.

Intestinal muscle and heart.

After a little while we decided one more course was in order and the chef recommended the meatball. With a hint of middle-eastern spices, the pork meatball, slightly smaller than the size of baseball, was a great way to end this experience. Damage done, bill paid, off to home and bed to prepare for the next day of class. But not before vowing to return to this spectacular little place with reinforcements.      
Le Canon. Ask for it by name. No, seriously. You need to pour this stuff into your face-hole at some point in your existence.

Le Canon. Ask for it by name. No, seriously. You need to pour this stuff into your face-hole at some point in your existence.

Eringi with shaved bonito.

Eringi with shaved bonito.

Pork meatball.

Pork meatball.

    Friday night started with Damian and I wandering the streets of Shinjuku once again. Purposefully searching in an area that was previously unexplored. Scouring the streets for a bar that was open, though this is a rough proposition at 4:30 in the afternoon when most places don’t open until 6. There are a few outliers, though, and just about every street has at least one. We found our way to what appeared to be a quaint little bar/restaurant/produce market (?) in a sublevel with a girl that couldn’t have been more than 12 hawking to any of the pedestrians who would listen to her spiel, dressed in a Halloween costume consisting of a witch’s hat and a black robe. They were running some sort of Jack Daniels Halloween themed promotion. We initially passed her by, but we decided we did not want to search any further. This place was open and we just wanted to sit down. So we turned back and as we passed the little girl and she noticed we were heading down to the place she was promoting she almost literally exploded with enthusiasm and joy, immediately running in front of us to open the door for us, find a table for us, and get a server over, all while vibrating with excitement and thanking us repeatedly. She must have fired ”arigato gozaimasu!” emphatically at us around 15 times between the street level and us taking our seats. We both had big lunches but we eyeballed the menu, since this place was more than just a bar and we were seated right by the small but well stocked “produce market” area that consisted of one counter full of pristine-looking iced produce, we ordered something to snack on while we killed our first beers of the evening. Grilled Caesar salad and fried garlic shrimp served with thinly cut fried potatoes and fried shrimp shells. The shells were a little too thick for my liking. The grilled Caesar was not what I was expecting, but it got eaten. We both ordered one of the JD cocktails on special and received scratch cards with them. The server apparently wasn’t sure how this promotion worked, and had to go ask what we were supposed to do with these cards as the scratch off area was not clearly defined and was just white block against the black background where it looked like something should have been printed, but wasn’t. Scratching this white field with the edge of a coin revealed a number that corresponded to a prize. Every JD cocktail ordered came with one. The prizes were little things like sticker sets and refrigerator magnets. We had a few rounds, finished the plates in front of us, and made our way out to find our next location. We quickly found our next destination. A little bar that opened up to the street with no front wall or doors, just barrels out front at the thresh hold and about 10 seats inside. The all wooden interior and bar top stretched back in one narrow passage and there was a sot right up front behind the barrels for a standing area when all the interior seats were full. They were. We stood with our backs to the street and ordered another round. Damian ordered a small pizza for about $5. It was the saddest little pizza I think I’ve ever seen. It was about this time I decided to see if anyone else was interested in joining us and suggested we move the party to a place I came upon a few days before. Tyo responded that he was free, Damian said my choice of next destination was a good idea, and so I told Tyo to just make his way to Shinjuku and we’d shoot him our location once we arrived. He agreed, and off we went. The momentum of the whole evening spun on a dime and changed direction, quite fluidly.
Uokushi from up close. It's not very visible from the street.

Uokushi from up close. It's not very visible from the street.

Early in the week I was strolling Shinjuku by myself because everyone had other things to take care of, and I stumbled on another hidden gem. There was a menu in an alley I’ve walked by a dozen times at least, but it sits in front of an offshoot alley that doesn’t look like it contains much. I took a closer look at the menu and it was bilingual. Kind of. Enough, anyway. So I made my way down that alley a short distance and there, almost completely tucked out of sight from the main alley, was Uokushi. Specializing in grilled and fried bits of fish on skewers, this place had character and the food was fucking amazing. We did some major damage to that place. Soon after we sat down (Tyo showed up later) and I was narrating the menu as far as my previous experience to Damian, he half-jokingly made the suggestion of trying to eat the whole menu. Well, that’s very nearly what we ended up doing that night… We started with the variety plate, 1 skewer eack of tuna cheek with negi onion, dried atka mackerel, skewered whelks, salmon with
Variety platter. Tuna cheek and negi, dried atka mackerel, mirin mackerel, salmon with aioli, whole sccallops, tuna loin, served with yuzu kosho and wasabi.

Variety platter. Tuna cheek and negi, dried atka mackerel, mirin mackerel, salmon with aioli, whole sccallops, tuna loin, served with yuzu kosho and wasabi.

“tartar” sauce (seasoned mayonnaise is all it really was), whole skewered scallops and tuna loin all grilled over charcoal and served with yuzu kosho and wasabi. Next we moved on to the rest of the menu. Skewers of baby octopus, sardines rolled around umeboshi paste and ohba leaf, mirin marinated saba mackerel, pork wrapped scallops, fried cream cheese on a stick, 5 tiny little silver skinned fish threaded onto one skewer, 2 sandfish to a skewer, served whole, assorted veg skewers of shishitou, shiitake, eringi, asparagus, fried kabocha squash, and fried renkon (lotus root). We didn’t hit the rice bowls on the back side of the menu, but about 85% of his skewered items were sampled by our group of 3. Everything was ordered in 3’s. We weren’t getting one skewer of each thing and sharing. With the required amount of beer to wash it all down. Full and satisfied with the carnage left in our wake, we paid the bill and waddled out. Parting ways for the evening, though it was still an early night.
Left to right; grilled baby octo, pork wrapped scallop, whelk, sardine rolled around umeboshi paste and ohba leaf.

Left to right; grilled baby octo, pork wrapped scallop, whelk, sardine rolled around umeboshi paste and ohba leaf.

Our plans for the next day included getting out of Tokyo and going south to Yokohama to see the various sights there. Originally scheduled for Sunday, but it was supposed to rain that day and there were quite a few of us slated to go so we moved our plans up a day. Two of our group received the message late and were unable to tag along. The week ahead is mostly our finals. Except the 2 most dreaded, nigiri and katsuramuki. Those are going to be on the final week, giving us all more time to practice. I know I could use it. My speed is there but my form still needs work for nigiri. Katsuramuki is another matter. As long as I get some points in that I’ll be happy. Crunch time is drawing nigh.  
Shishitou peppers with salted dry seaweed, shiitake, eringi, asparagus, fried kobocha, fried renkon (lotus root).

Shishitou peppers with salted dry seaweed, shiitake, eringi, asparagus, fried kobocha, fried renkon (lotus root).

Uokushi finishing course that every guest gets. Clear soup with sesame and those super tiny clams.

Uokushi finishing course that every guest gets. Clear soup with sesame and those super tiny clams.

             
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!!!

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!!!

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

Under way.
20150906_134609

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".

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

This is going to be long-winded and self-indulgent, but please bear with me. It’s going somewhere, I promise.
In Fight Snacks

All Nippon Airways in-flight snack.

Coming up in the food industry in the late 90's every cook and chef I worked with was in love with sushi. Once I got past the initial aversion to raw fish I also contracted this fascination. They all looked at it with great reverence for the art-form, and there was a mystique surrounding it. An ethereal glow that seemed impenetrable to western cooks. It was too involved, too disciplined, too steeped in indecipherable and occult-like tradition to ever be mastered by someone not brought up deeply entrenched in the culture. It was the untouchable talent. The realm of true mastery. The Holy Grail of culinary skill-sets that no one even knew how to approach. I mean, apprentices in Japan spend their first 3 years doing nothing but WASHING THE DAMN RICE! That's all they are allowed to touch! For 3 years! Your only job is washing rice! When you've mastered that, then, and only then, will they let you move on to more complicated tasks. Like toasting nori! To learn the art and skills needed to make sushi was to devote your life to that one thing. Not unlike a monk. Constantly meditating on rice, vinegar, fish, and knife skills. This was the only way to achieve any competence. That sounded like it was too daunting and too challenging for mere mortals to undertake. Especially if you weren't Japanese. We were forced to be content watching with awe and admiration from the other side of the counter. This was, of course, almost entirely bullshit. The part about apprentices is not, though. Not entirely, anyway. If you spent 3 years washing rice, then you probably needed that amount of time to master it. Regardless of that my fascination for the subject never waned, never decreased, and I researched it extensively. I would frequently throw dinner parties and invite all of my friends throughout my 20’s, and sushi was one of the themes in the rotation. With this hunger for learning more about it I jumped at the chance to work next to a veteran sushi chef. Picking his brain of every little morsel of knowledge I could glean out of the language barrier. And then the opportunity arose for me to join his ranks. Not without a little plotting and scheming, but I was determined. This gaijin was going to do the un-fucking-thinkable! I was going to make the leap and be able to call myself a sushi chef, and I saw just how to make it happen. It went down at a casino in Detroit, of all places. A few months after opening the permanent facility for MGM Grand it was International Auto Show season in the D', and there was a request from Ford Motor Co. to have sushi available for them for the duration. The tapas bar/club we worked at, Ignite, was set up like a sushi bar already so it was a perfect fit. They brought in a guy from a local sushi bar, Jay (his Korean name is No-Houn), to run the show completely solo. I studied his every move. How he washed the rice, how his hands moved when he was making rolls, nigiri, temaki, slicing fish. How he treated every ingredient was scrutinized from a distance that allowed him to work unhindered. His presence there was so well received we kept him on and ran a menu that was split down the middle. A sushi side and an “American Tapas” side. I eventually got comfortable enough with him to start trying to ask questions and assist him, though his English was very broken and my Korean non-existent. We quickly came to a report, though, and communication was slow at times but we both had the patience and passion to make it work. Eventually the powers that were decided to shift the menu and make the whole thing a sushi menu. That meant they would need new cooks that were experienced in sushi and a position that did not exist before needed to be created because this was a specialized skill that needed to be compensated at a higher rate than even the fine-dining crew of 4 cooks that were in there at the time (that I was one of those 4). There was only going to be 2 full-time sushi cook positions available. None of the cooks in there that ran the hot menu knew how to make sushi with any kind of consistency or speed. Well, none of them but me, of course.
Flight Path

Flight path from O'Hare to Narita.

From jumping in and helping him when he needed it and picking his brain when he had the time to answer questions I was getting very good at sushi. My visual art and sculpture background really paid off here, giving me the basic manual dexterity to catch on very fast. Combined with my growing passion for the subject, my 16 years in kitchens already, and my eye for plate composition, I was coming along quickly. The day came to do a sushi menu tasting for all of the executives that had a say in this deal. I knew that Jay had a tendency to lag behind and run a little late with these sorts of things. He always did when there was a banquet event or a tasting. I was not asked by anyone, not even Jay, to assist him, but I knew he was going to fall behind, and I had a plan. His tasting was early in the shift, right before we opened, so I was in the back prepping for the hot menu service that night. I wrapped up what I needed to do and showed up out front (it was an open service kitchen that was out in the actual dining room) 20 minutes before Jay needed to have everything ready. He was behind, just as I predicted. I jumped in and helped him finish up making the rolls he needed and getting everything plated to present to the waiting audience of executives. They were there watching us from the other side of the counter. Just like I knew they would be. My plan was working perfectly. The General Manager of the whole property, the Vice President of Food and Beverage, the Executive Chef, the Executive Sous Chef, and the Banquet Chef were all watching me assist Jay in rolling sushi for the menu tasting to determine what would be included in this new menu roll-out. I never had to apply for the new position. I didn't even need to say I wanted it. It was just kind of universally understood that I was the guy they needed for the job. I communicated and worked well with Jay, I had the skill and the drive and the experience and they wouldn't have to go through any kind of lengthy search or hiring process. It was a no-brainer. With that new role I also had near complete autonomy. Jay and I were given control of the menu, save for a few things they wouldn't let me get rid of because of their popularity, regardless of the fact that sliders are completely out of place on a Japanese menu. But I digress... I started the new position in July of 2009 and the following 2 and a half years were some of the most challenging and rewarding years of my career. I buried my head even further in the study of Japanese cuisine. As I started outgrowing/getting weary of the position and its corporate politics and inefficiencies my eye wandered to Chicago. I could make a name for myself there in a way I didn't think Detroit was ready for at the time. I still hold that it wasn't ready then, but it might be now. Regardless, I moved out to the Chicago area and took a job I was a shoe-in for at a casino in the North-West 'burbs. The F&B department was going to be run by a few of the guys I worked under in Detroit so little was needed with regards to interviews and vetting. But as I quickly learned, Chicago is not the culinary dream-scape it might seem to be. At least not for a white, mid-western chef approaching 40 that had goals of making waves in the Japanese culinary world there. After staging a few times, getting woefully low offers, and botching one interview entirely, I didn’t feel like I was being taken very seriously. I was also starting to realize that if I wanted to find a home for myself I was going to have to create one. I was able to make a small kitchen no one seemed to care much about into the talk of the building back in Detroit, a town and location that at the time was culinarily unadventurous, and do something unique that attracted a following of regulars. I knew I could make that happen anywhere, if given the right opportunity. But that right opportunity wasn’t coming, despite throwing resumes at all of the top Japanese restaurants in Chicago. The problem, I felt, was that I didn’t have the background, an experience I could put on my resume that was more than a sushi bar at a casino. Casino kitchens don’t tend to be taken very seriously outside of casino kitchens. I needed a big name under my belt, I thought. I needed to be able to say I worked for a Nobu or a Morimoto, regardless of whether or not that experience was going to offer me anything in the way of growth. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m 40 now. That’s a little too old to start at the bottom of the totem pole at a new place, which is what I was facing, regardless of stunningly good performance at a stage. My girlfriend Sara suggested I do an internship in Japan. That’s an experience no one could be dismissive of and would carry a lot of weight, even if I stammered at the interview. Why the fuck not, I thought? After a lengthy search and contacting people and sorting through testimonials I was narrowing down my search. There was a place in California that offered a 6 week course, the option of doing 3 weeks interning at a restaurant in Japan. They also offered several extensions and advanced classes that would turn 2 months into 4 if all options were on order. Then there was a school with an 8 week program, the Tokyo Sushi Academy, located right in the heart of downtown Tokyo. The Shinjuku district, to be exact. Both programs cost roughly the same. The biggest difference was one was based out of California, with 3 weeks spent in Japan, and the other was 8 weeks right in the center Tokyo. The decision was not very hard. Fuck those dirty hippies and whiny socialites in Cali. That was close to 2 years ago. Planning for and saving for the trip went very well. So, as I write the end of this introduction on my laptop 6 hours into the 13 hour flight to Tokyo, I’m brimming with excitement at what is to come in the next 2 months. I already have day classes booked at another cooking school near the Tsukiji market and reservations at several of Tokyo’s top restaurants. I don’t have the coveted reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro yet, but I have a lead on it (they only take reservations by phone and they only speak Japanese, and mine is horrible). My class schedule is pretty intense, at 6 days a week, 6 hours a day, but I’m determined to make the most of it and squeeze everything I can out of Tokyo while I’m there. At the request of many, many people I will be keeping a journal/travelogue here to document this (most likely) once in a lifetime experience. Highlight photos will be included here, but to keep this from becoming almost entirely a photo album more complete photo albums will be maintained on my Facebook page. Hope you all enjoy the ride, vicarious as it is.
In Flight Meal

All Nippon Airways in-flight meal. Veggies and mackerel simmered in miso with steamed rice, fruit, pickled eggplant with edamame and sweet omelette, spinach in sesame sauce with chilled soba noodles and dipping sauce for them top center.

O jikan o itadaki, arigatogozaimasu, bitchez! I look forward to your feedback! What do you want to see? Let me know and if it's not already on my itinerary it might get added. I've got 2 months, after all! Live well and eat better. -Jack

Great Plates: The Brunch Underground

On Sunday Ian, Deb and Bob were fortunate enough to score reservations at a local "pop up" brunch club in Metro Detroit called "The Brunch Underground". The locally sourced (and well executed) menu:

--Bloody Mary bar featuring McClure's Mix & Pickles -- An open-faced duck eggs benedict entree, one with crispy pork belly, another with house-made tempeh and sauteed greens with a lightly dressed sprout salad and house made vegetarian kimchi. -- A petite scoop of house-made, locally grown, organic raspberry-ginger sorbet. -- Chazzano coffee

-///
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.