Donpa: Cold water Dutch drip coffee in Ginza

May 7th, 2014

Donpa exterior

Tokyo is awash with delicious hot coffee brewed drip by drip through paper filters, “neru” flannel filters, vacuum-powered drip filters, and even pressed through those French contraptions. But precious little coffee is produced by the time-consuming, cold water “drop-by-drop” technique known as the “Dutch” method here in Japan.

Donpa glass containersFor seven hours, cold water moves from the topmost bowling ball-sized glass globe, held secure in its four-post wooden frame and held aloft by a woven rope net, down into a smaller beer can-sized cylindrical vessel, then lower down into the bottommost baseball-sized chamber, which empties abruptly horizontally right and left through some metal plumbing and then vertically earthward again through two needle valves each regulated by a control knob to allow a certain number of drops per minute.

This cold fusion of water and ground coffee produces a soft brew free of aku, the scum or foam that forms when cooking a nabe pot, declares the explanation posted below the apparatus.

Unlike the short aggressive chemical reactions produced by scalding water and bean, the cool lengthy commingling of still water and bean produces a milder, less bitter, and less acid brew.

Donpa coffeeOf course, this concentrated coffee essence must be diluted and reheated before serving. And this year, Donpa celebrates 40 years of serving such mizu kohi, or water coffee, in Tokyo.

Besides the unusual Dutch drip method, Donpa adds another touch to their coffee experience: natural cinnamon essence which marries very successfully with their soft mellow brew.

The place is a comfortable oasis from crowds of the Ginza. The flooring is with well-worn black hardwood. The dark tables and chairs are chipped and smoothed by decades of use.

Customers of all persuasions and generations stop by Donpa. The menu offers uncinnamoned coffees as well in all styles, plus tea, milk, and juices. Cinnamon toast or cheese toast or jam toasts of various seasonal fruits are served, as are house-made cakes and cookies.

Unfortunately, smoking is allowed in the large open room. Nevertheless, the room is well ventilated and keeping your lungs and taste buds relatively smoke free is not an issue.

donpa customer sleeping

Napping seems to be allowed. Just order a coffee, put your head on the table, and catch forty winks.

Donpa also sells beans, ground coffee, and the cold-brewed coffee essence if you want to make some at home.

Donpa: 3-4-16 Ginza, Chuo Ward. Tel: 03.3567.3189.

Open daily 10am to 10:30pm. Saturdays 11am to 10:30 pm. Sundays and holidays 11am to 10pm.

You can fine Donpa two backstreets behind the Apple Store and Chanel.

http://www5a.biglobe.ne.jp/~donpa/index.html

A coffee tour of Tokyo: my favorite kissaten

March 27th, 2014

Dante siphons

Tokyo beats any other city in the world for variety and depth of the coffee drinking experience. Of course, the street corners are rife with slick Seattle-based coffee-drink emporiums. And the city boasts world-class baristas who can decorate a café creme with a Pikachu character, a rose, or a Valentine heart.

Caf´de L'Ambre brewingBut if you want to taste a demitasse brew of 30-year aged Cuban beans, plumb the day-to-day depths of Brazil Santos #2, or compare a Sumatra Mandheling bean prepared through a cotton flannel filter, a paper filter, or a glass siphon contraption while listening to Coltrane or Shubert on vintage vinyl records, then check out Tokyo’s kissaten.

The thing is, kissaten—the old-school Japanese name for coffee shop—are not easy to find. They don’t advertise. They close early, and are often closed on weekends. You’ve got to seek them out as on a pilgrimage.

If you’ve never tried neru-drippu (cotton-flannel filter) coffee, then you are in for a pleasant surprise. Cognoscenti claim the flannel filter renders the brew maruyaka, or “rounded and soft” with no “paper filter” taste.

The best place to start would be Café de L’Ambre, Tokyo’s mecca for coffee connoisseurs for 60 years. On a quiet side street in Ginza, this laid-back shop roasts its beans everyday 300 grams at a time. Small batches, they say, ensure freshness.

Over 30 types of fragrant beans fill the glass jars on the shelves behind the polished wood counter. Coffee beans, if properly warehoused, will age over decades like fine wine developing nuances of fuller, rounder flavor and aroma. The demitasse is the cup to try.

Tsuta masterTsuta, another neru temple can be found in Minami Aoyama. This ivy-covered kissaten, with its large bay window overlooking a Japanese garden, was started over 20 years ago by Koyama-san who learned the basics of roasting and brewing at Café de L’Ambre.

Koyama uses only Brazil Santos #2. One bean is enough for him, he says, because the taste of the coffee changes according to the humidity, the season, the time of day, and even the mood of the customer.

One more neru kissaten worth finding is Café Bechet in Ginza. Named after Sidney Bechet, the jazz clarinetist whose vinyl album covers and b/w photos grace the walls, this kissaten offers a respite from the crowds and prices of Ginza with old school jazz and old school coffee quality.

Uniquely at Bechet, after selecting the bean you prefer, say Mandheling, you can also choose a roasting style, lighter to darker: city roast, full city roast, or French roast.

With the neru drip, the coffee brew first dribbles into a small handled pot in which the coffee cools slightly. The brew must then be reheated slightly to bring it up to sipping temperature.

Dante entranceThe siphon method, the two-part contraption with its glass globe and detachable upper glass chamber, also produces an impeccable cup—and the coffee doesn’t need to be reheated.

The water in the lower glass bulb is heated. Steam then forces the hot water upwards into upper glass chamber where it infuses with the ground coffee. And when the heat source is removed from the glass bulb, the resulting vacuum draws the brewed coffee down through a flat flannel filter and back into the lower bulb.

Coffee Lodge Dante in Nishi Ogikubo is a fine example of this fading, yet still delicious, brewing technique. Dante is also one of the many rustic, old brick and dark wood decorated kissaten from the 1960s and ’70s which still survive across the city. Request a tune from the hundreds of vintage jazz albums crowded into old bookcases.

Holding out for nearly ninety years, Meikyoku Kissa Lion at the top of Dogenzaka in Shibuya, serves paper-filtered coffee.Lion front speaker area

But it is also a bastion for the musically pious and a refuge from the sordid world of love hotels outside.

Inside Lion it’s as quiet as a church.

Pale milky sunlight seeps in through glazed windows. Dark wood Doric columns support Moorish arches above very faded red plush chairs neatly arranged into rows like pews facing the soaring altar of the massive “3D Sound System” speakers mounted high in a tabernacle and illuminated by electric candelabra and a scintillating crystal chandelier. Order a coffee here and worship Bach, Beethoven, or Shostakovich.

The paper filter method offers several advantages over other types of brewing. First, one need not continually wash, mend and care for flannel filters. Plus, you don’t need to empty and wash out glass chambers filled with spent coffee grounds.

And the filter cognoscenti state that a superior, clean, brightly flavored brew is produced.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURENear Shibuya station, Café Satei Hatou has lifted the paper filter brew to an art form. The water is treated and filtered with an ion-alkaline process until it is as pure and tasty as mountain air. The beans are carefully weighed and ground fresh for each cup. Hatou prefers the Kalita brand filter holder with its three drip holes at the bottom for a faster drain. Other brands have only one drain hole, explained the master, resulting in a more leisurely drain. Such details are essential for coffee cognoscenti.

The cups at Hatou are of the finest porcelain and hundreds of different designs are on colorful display on shelves behind the counter which is twelve meters of dark hinoki. Seasonal flower arrangements, as large as the crown of a tree, dominate one corner table. Oil paintings in ornate frames hang on the wall alongside modern lithographs. A grandfather clock tick tocks soothingly beside an armoire displaying antique vases. Hatou is intimate enough for lovers and spacious enough for large thoughts and grand ideas.

At first glance the prices seem exorbitant—800 yen for a cup of coffee, 900 yen for a glass of juice. But if you order a second cup or glass—of anything on the menu—it will cost only 500 yen. A modest price to pay for perfection.

Café de L’Ambre: 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo Ward. 03.3571.1551.

Tsuta: 5-11-20 Minami Aoyama, Minato Ward. 03.3498.6888.

Café Bechet: 2-2-19 Ginza, Chuo Ward. 03.3564.3176.

Coffee Lodge Dante: 3-10-2 Nishiogi Minami, Suginami Ward. 03.3333.2889.

Meikyoku Kissa Lion: 2-19-12 Dogenzaka, Shibuya Ward. 03.3461.6858.

Café Satei Hatou: 1-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya Ward. 03.3400.9088.

 

 

Torikatsu CHICKEN

January 7th, 2014

chicken katsu teishoku

But back in the 1970s, when the Rolling Stones were yet unwrinkled, the master of CHICKEN decided to be different. He choose to sell chicken cutlets breaded and fried in the same manner as the ubiquitous pork tonkatsu joints all over the city.  He’s been toiling behind his small counter in his cramped kitchen off a narrow alleyway at the top of Shibuya’s Dogenzaka every since.

chicken menu 1Torikatsu CHICKEN is a workingman’s joint. And I know of no other place like it in Tokyo.

The customers are mostly students or salarymen with limited budgets and big appetites. The “dai-ninki” big seller is the “3-selection set menu” of chicken cutlet, ham cutlet, and croquette for 650 yen.

If you prefer more variety, opt for the regular set menu which allows a choice of any fried selection in combinations of two (650 yen), three (800 yen), or four (1000 yen). Peruse from the selections on the hand-painted butcher paper menu thumb-tacked to the wall: deep-fried slices of onion, eggplant, or beef; minced pork and beef; whitefish; cuttlefish; or ham, chicken, or pork.

As is the custom with teishoku set menus, your order comes with a mound of freshly shredded cabbage, a big bowl of rice, and a bowl of miso soup.

chicken entranceRegulars busy themselves, while waiting for their order to be prepared, by reading old manga, magazines, or newspapers stacked on a small bookshelf near the entrance.

The food is simple, tasty and filling. The vegetables are fresh. The meat tender. And the deep-fried chicken cutlets are a nice change from pork. Refills on rice or cabbage are available.

The joint is open for lunch Monday thru Friday 11am to 3pm. And for dinner from 5pm to 9pm. The master prefers to take his weekends off.

CHICKEN is located at the top of Dogenzaka, the underbelly of Shibuya.

Walk up the slope on the left side of 109 until you get to red archway of Hyakkendana and the garishly yellow-lit tonkotsu ramen shop.

chicken sign outside alleyTurn left into Hyakkendana, and just past the Adult Shop “Joyful” on the left, you’ll spot a sign in front of the narrow lane on the left leading up to CHICKEN.

Torikatsu CHICKEN: 2-16-19 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03.461.0298. Open M-F Lunch 11am-3pm. Dinner 5pm-9pm. Closed weekends.

 

 

 

 

Tokyo Tonkatsu Restaurants: My Favorite Five

November 13th, 2013

Sugita interior

A perfectly prepared tonkatsu—a thick, juicy pork cutlet enrobed in a golden crust of crisp breadcrumbs—is a thing of beauty. Achieving such perfection, though, is not easy. The cutlet must be properly sourced and sized. The oil must be fresh and kept at the exact scalding temperature. And the flake size of the crumb must be carefully considered.

The dredging in flour, beaten egg, and bread crumb must be done quickly and expertly. The chef must keep a wary eye and ear on the frying process watching the changing hue of the coating, the size and rate and sound of the rising steam-filled bubbles, and the buoyancy of the frying katsu.

Yamaichi picklesA tonkatsu meal will always include a small mound of finely shredded cabbage, and some type of tangy Worcestershire-based sauce handy on the table. If you order a teishoku set menu, you’ll get a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso or tonjiru (pork broth) soup, and a small dish of pickles.

In the restaurants that take pride in their work, the cabbage filaments are cut by hand, the pickles are house-made, and the soup is too.

If you’re looking for pork heaven, never mind that former bathhouse place that’s in all the guidebooks. Search out one or all of these establishments chosen from my favorite tonkatsu places across the city.

Yamaichi tonkatsuBairin in Ginza started serving tonkatsu in 1927. And their 200-gram kurobuta (Berkshire pig) cutlet is two centimeters of tender luscious goodness. This rosu cut includes a thin strip of tasty melt-in-your-mouth fat beneath the crisp breading. Unusually, and aesthetically pleasing, the mound of sweet cabbage includes dark green filaments from the outer leaves.

The handiwork at Bairin runs as smooth as a fine pocket watch. In a row behind the long counter stand four white uniformed cooks each precisely doing his appointed task: frying, cutting, preparing side orders, and ladling out soup and rice. Another cook in the kitchen provides a constant staccato of hocho knife chopping fresh cabbage.

Though a bit pricey, the 2,700-yen rosu katsu teishoku is very well worth it. The house-made sauce at Bairin is especially toothsome.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE A few minutes from JR Omori station, Maru-ichi is a tiny place with only a 7-seat counter and two tables each seating four. The menu is small too. All orders are teishoku sets. You can choose either the lean hire or the succulent rosu each at several weights: 170 grams (1300 yen), 250 grams (1700 yen), or for the genuine trencherman, the 300-gram plate.

All the ingredients at Maru-ichi are carefully sourced. The pearly pink cutlets come from Iwate. The red-orange carrots are grown in Chiba, and the surprisingly sweet cabbages are harvested in the Miura peninsula.

Compared to other tonkatsu joints, their rice is softer and more delicious; the carrots and cabbage sweeter; the meat more tender and flavorful. This is due to the great care that goes into everything at Maru-ichi. They go to the trouble, for example, of boiling the carrots, burdock, and onions separately to make sure they are evenly tender before adding them to pork-based miso soup to make their tonjiru.

Don’t mind the drab exterior of Maru-ichi. The interior is spotlessly clean and all efforts at beauty are focused on the plate.

 

marugo tonkatsuA few minutes walk from Akihabara station, Marugo is another tonkatsu connoisseur destination.

They feature sangenton pork from Yamagata prefecture. This crossbreed animal is a mix of Yorkshire, Landrace, and Duroc hogs which results in a fine balance of flavor and lacy marbling in the flesh.

The rosu is three centimeters thick, terrifically juicy and tender (1750 yen). They also boast a special dressing for the cabbage.

Sugita tonkatsuWorth a trip to Kuramae, one stop from Asakusa, is Sugita (pictured above). This nicely designed restaurant with its second-generation chef and gleaming copper pots serves a tonkatsu (2000 yen) with a bread crumb as fine as sand which makes an especially crispy crust. Of course, they also have their own specially blended sauce.

The folks at Yamaichi in Kanda Sudacho serve a tonkatsu that is thicker than at most other tonkatsu joints. It is expertly trimmed, weighed, and coated with a larger size of bread crumb too. The teishoku sets feature a reasonably-priced hire (1600 yen) or the rosu (1500 yen) with its strip of delicious fat nestled in unctuousness under the crust.

Yamaichi tonkatsuYamaichi believes in condiments. On the table are a panoply of 11 various additions to choose from such as Andes salt, yuzu kosho, shichimi, two kinds of shoyu, pickled scallions, mustard, two kinds of salad dressing, sesame, ponzu sauce, umeboshi, and bull-dog sauce.

Yamaichi is decorated with some style. The tables are dark, gleaming grainy wood. Framed modern lithographs hang on the wall. Don’t worry about the line that usually forms outside the restaurant. It moves quickly and you’ll soon be inside. Be sure to spot the little Shinto shrine tucked into corner near the ceiling.

 

 

Ginza Bairin: 7-8-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3571-0350. Open 7 days a week (except January 1.) 11:30 am – 8:45 pm. Cash only. www.ginzabairin.com.

Maru-ichi: 1-7-2 Omori Kita, Ota-ku. Tel: 03-3762-2601. Lunch 11:30 to 1 pm. Dinner 5 pm to 7 pm. Closed Wednesdays, Sundays, and National Holidays. Maru-ichi is about a 2-minute walk from the East exit of Omori Station.

Yamaichi: 1-8-4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3253-3335. Open Monday to Friday 11am to 2:30pm. Dinner: 5pm to 8:30pm. Saturdays: 11am to 2pm (L.O. 1:30pm). Closed Sundays and holidays.

Marugo: 1-8-14 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3255-6595. Lunch 11:30am to 2:50pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:20pm. Closed Mondays and third Tuesdays. About 4 minute walk from Akihabara station.

Sugita: 3-8-3 Kotobuki, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3844-5529. Lunch 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:30pm. Closed Thursdays. About one-minute walk from subway exit A5 of Kuramae station.

Ten-yo-ne tempura: Under the tracks in Yurakucho

October 8th, 2013

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

 

I have a soft spot for these hard places under the tracks in Tokyo. They scratch out an unglamorous life in the shadows of this gargantuan city.

Tenyone close up tendonTen-yo-ne is a minute or two from Yurakucho station and a world away, in a few hundred meters, from the glamorous Ginza.

For decades, Ten-yo-ne tempura has been serving up Edo-style tempura, dark and savory, cheap and delicious.

It’s a tiny place, of course, with a pale blond counter of smooth hinoki seating six.

On the other side of the narrow kitchen are a few small tables filling an unadorned dining space illuminated with the thin timeless wash of fluorescence. Every once in awhile, you can make out the rumble of trains passing overhead.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREA rack of newspapers and manga are available for free reading while you wait for your tempura to fry.

The jo-tendon (¥1450) is the dish of choice here. Glistening in their burnished gold batter, atop a bowl of freshly prepared rice, are two large prawns, a kisu white fish, some mushrooms, a shishito green pepper, a shiso leaf, and a small kakiage “dumpling” of sliced, mixed veggies and tiny shrimp.

The teishoku set menu includes a small dish of well-made pickled vegetables, a bowl of miso soup, and a tiny dish of seasonal vegetables sprinkled with sesame seeds.

A counter seat over on the right side is the most interesting place to sit.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREPositioned there, you can see the crowd of fresh vegetables waiting in the wings for their turn on the tempura stage.

Plus you can observe the master while he cuts, batter-dips, fries and assembles your tendon bowl.

The lunch for about ¥1000 is a great deal at Ten-yo-ne.

You can sit elbow to elbow with salarymen, office women, and sales staff from the nearby department stores and shops.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIf you are up for an adventure, stroll down the underground passageway to the left of Ten-yo-ne. This narrow, tunnel-like alley is perhaps a kilometer or so long, filled with tiny restaurants, bicycles, and the ghosts of Tokyo past.

Ten-yo-ne

2-1-10 Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ward. Tel: 03.3591.0926. Open Monday to Saturday 11am to 9pm.

 

 

 

Yamaichi: Another tonkatsu joint worth knowing

July 19th, 2013

Yamaichi tonkatsu

Jack Sprat could eat no fat, and his wife could eat no lean. The couple, though, would both eat heartily at Yamaichi.

The folks here treat their pork with respect. Jack would be able to savor Yamaichi’s lean and luscious pork filet (1600 yen) carefully deep-fried in a crisp tonkatsu crust. His wife could order the Yamaichi “ros” (1500 yen) with its strip of delicious pork fat nestled in unctuousness under the crust.

Yamaichi condimentsYamaichi believes in condiments.

On the table are a panoply of 11 various additions to choose from such as Andes salt, yuzu kosho, shichimi, two kinds of shoyu, pickled scallions, mustard, two kinds of salad dressing, sesame, ponzu sauce, umeboshi, and bull-dog sauce.

The pork at Yamaichi is thicker that at most tonkatsu joints. It is expertly trimmed, weighed, and coated with a larger size of bread crumb.

Tonkatsu chefs sometimes use two kettles each of which heats the oil to a hotter or cooler temperatures depending on the thickness of the meat. Yamaichi uses a hotter oil resulting in a darker, golden brown crust.

Yamaichi counterThe small restaurant is decorated with some style. The tables are dark, gleaming grainy wood. Framed modern lithographs hang on the wall. One brush-stroke calligraphic print asks the question: “What is a voyage?

Only about a dozen or so lucky customers can dine at one time. A short counter seats four. A large 7-seat table fills the room with space for only one small 2- seat table.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to share the large table with other happy customers.

With the teishoku set-menu you’ll get a small dish of the house-made pickles, which besides being arranged in a picture-perfect cluster,  are lightly vinegared to add a bright counterpoint to the pork. A small wooden bowl of tonkotsu pork-flavored broth and a bowl of rice will round out the meal.

Yamaichi picklesDon’t worry about the line that usually forms outside the restaurant. It moves quickly and you’ll soon be inside.

Be sure to spot the little Shinto shrine tucked into corner near the ceiling.

Yamaichi: 1-8-4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3253-3335. Open Monday to Friday 11am to 2:30pm. Dinner: 5pm to 8:30pm. Saturdays: 11am to 2pm (L.O. 1:30pm). Closed Sundays and holidays.

The restaurant is about a one-minute walk from the A1 exit of the subway station which serves both the Ogawamachi stop of the Maronouchi Line, or the Awajicho stop of the Shinjuku Line.

 

 

 

 

Meikyoku Kissa Lion: coffee and classical music since 1926

April 3rd, 2013

Lion interior beethoven

Half a century ago, the hilltop at the summit of Dogenzaka in Shibuya was a family-oriented neighborhood with green grocers, a bowling alley, and restaurants. Several decades before that, the classical music coffee house, Lion, staked its claim as king of that hill.

Lion exteriorNowadays, surrounded by an array of love hotels and sex clubs, Lion is still there as solid as a cathedral with its grey plaster and stonework impervious to the indignities of time.

Inside the Lion it’s as quiet as a church. The pale milky sunlight seeps in through glazed windows. The dark wood Doric columns support Moorish arches in what must have been an architectural delight during the roaring twenties.

The wooden chairs have seat cushions of very faded red plush. The chair backs are protected by pressed white coverlets. These chairs are neatly arranged into rows like church pews facing the front, the soaring altar of  the massive “3D Sound System” speakers mounted high in the tabernacle and illuminated by electric candelabra and a scintillating crystal chandelier.Lion interior 2

Holding out 87 years so far, Lion has become a metaphor realized, a bastion for the religion of music and a refuge from the sordid world outside.

Patrons enter Lion with reverence, respect, and hope for solace and salvation. Their saviors are Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninov.

At least they were for the March series of LP concerts held everyday at 3pm and 7pm. April will feature a new line up of musical messiahs.

Anytime in between those two concerts, worshipers can make musical requests to the staff. These requests, and the concert line up as well, are announced in soft whispered tones by an acolyte as he fits the needle into the groove. If one whispers too loudly, you are kindly asked by the staff to speak more quietly.

Lion coffee closeupCoffee, of course, is the sacrament here—blend kohi (500 yen), or milk (500 yen), or milk coffee (520 yen) or milk egg (670 yen), whatever that is.

No food is served, and no food is allowed. A Bach fugue, a Mozart concerto, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin nocturne or a Fauré requiem are the nourishment here.

Meikyoku kissa translates to “great song” coffee shop. And with the thousands of vinyl LPs and CDs organized on sturdy shelves, any great song request can most likely be granted. No one seems to mind the scratches and hiss that accompany the vinyl selections.

Lion interior backdoorOn the monthly LP concert program, Lion proudly proclaims that it is air-conditioned—a certain draw back in the day. It also states that the American music magazine “Audio” wrote up the 3D Sound System in 1959.

Any music lover, or lover of Tokyo, ought to make the pilgrimage to the top of the hill on the Dogenzaka slope. Be sure to check out the second floor gallery seating. Notice the framed icons hanging on the dark walls—paintings of Bach or Beethoven and other composers shadowed with the patina of decades.

Check out the restroom. And as you make your way there in the dim light, pause for a timeless moment at the foyer of the back entrance.

Lion:  2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03.3461.6858. Open daily 11a.m. to 10:30p.m. http://lion.main.jp/info/infomation.htm

Violon: Café et Musique. Classic kissaten on Asagaya backstreet

March 15th, 2013

Violon interior 1

Violon is a classic. Customers come here for classical music and coffee. That’s all Violon provides and that’s all the customers need.

Violon interior tubesAll seats face the massive array of speakers and horns that are built into a special pit that extends down below the floor. The ceiling behind the speakers gently arches forward for a better acoustic.

Music lovers come to Violon mostly solo to read, to sleep, or to make a request and listen to a vinyl LP. But the small tables also accommodate duos, trios, or even a quartet.

The place serves coffee, tea, milk, hot chocolate, orange juice or cola. All are the same price—350 yen.

But when the coffee arrives, you are offered the option of brandy in your brew. Should you accept, the young lady deftly shakes a small vial about six times over your cup sending in perhaps a teaspoon of the distilled grape into your coffee. It‘s not enough alcohol to give you a buzz, but if the music doesn’t mellow your mood, the brandy will.

Customers are known to nod off, head against the wall in slumber, while their coffee slowly cools.

Violon coffee 1Others sit, head in hands, staring at the speakers lost in reverie. Some have carved messages into the worn wooden tabletops.

The six tiny tables in the center are in a sort of orchestra pit planked with wood and one gets the feeling of sitting in the hold of an old sailing ship.

Thousands of vinyl LPs are stacked into shelfs. You can write up a request on the chalkboard near the miniscule kitchen should you prefer to listen to anything from Mussorgsky, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, or any other composer, including of course, the master, J. S. Bach.

When I arrived, a symphony that I couldn’t place was playing. A few moments later a trio of young people entered and ordered tea with one young man remarking, “Ah, Schumann’s ‘Spring Symphony’.” I climbed the three steps up to the register to check. He was right.

Violon loveThe sound system runs on vacuum tubes—RCA UY-227 Radiotron Amplifier Tubes—seemingly from the 1950s. The owner has laid in a large stock of these irreplaceable components.

Violon seems to host a live classical music concert almost every night, including solo pianists, string quartets, and even a theremin performer. Details are provided on the website.

Violon: Asagaya Kita 2-9-5. Tel: 03-3336-6414, Open 12pm to 11pm. LP Record Time is until 6pm on days with musical events. Closed on Tuesdays. A map on how to get there is on Violon’s website http://meikyoku-kissa-violon.com.

 

 

Retro Kanda kissaten with “nori toast”: Ace

February 26th, 2013

Ace exterior new

The area around Kanda station is a hive of activity—crowded, jumbled, and thoroughly “shitamachi.” And Kanda’s Coffee shop Ace is my new favorite Tokyo kissaten. About 42 years ago, two brothers took over their father’s role as Ace master. And over the years, they’ve kept things pretty much the same. Coffee is crafted here using the siphon method, once a technique common in many kissa, but now as rare as an honest banker.

Ace interior1The brothers have put together a menu of over 40 straight bean coffees and “coffee variations,” some of which you’ll find nowhere else.

These are not Starbuck’s-like milk confections, but sturdy coffee-grounded originals. Consider: Mexican Butter Coffee with a dab of real butter afloat in the cup. Pontier Beruga Coffee with real whipped cream and meringue (550 yen). Café Alexsandra with thick cream, cocoa liqueur and brandy (550 yen).

Or my favorite Pontier de Café con Leche with whipped cream, sherry, and walnuts (550 yen).

The brothers also carefully brew a wide selection of teas, if you are so inclined. Ace coffee menu

The prices here haven’t changed much either over the decades. A cup of straight Blue Mountain bean coffee is 570 yen and Kilimanjaro is only 480 yen. These prices are almost half of comparable cups elsewhere. And if you’re an early bird, you can have a bottomless cup of “blendo” if you order between 7a.m. and noon.

Ace is probably most renowned for its innovative “Nori Toast.” They take a slice of white sandwich bread, split it down the middle into two very thin half-slices, butter them, slip in a large wafer of nori, dried seaweed, then toast the whole thing to perfection. At 140 yen, it’s a classic. And if you get lost, as I’ve done a few times trying to find Ace, ask a local where the “nori toast” place is.Ace nori toast

If seaweed on bread is not your style, try the “choco toast,” a whipped cream, chocolate sauce concoction that will satisfy any sweet tooth.

A small library of coffee-related books and magazines is on a shelf for browsing. Above that little library, hanging on the wall, is a portrait of the two brothers done entirely in glued coffee grounds.

The clientele at Ace have been regulars for decades. Salarymen and office ladies, old couples and youngish couples.

It is not unusual to lean one’s weary head back against the wall and sneak 4o winks.

Ace is open 7a.m. to 7p.m Monday to Friday. Saturdays the are open until only 2p.m. Ace: 3-10-6 Uchi-kanda, Chiyoda ward. Tel: 03.3256.3941. Ace can be found, if you are lucky, in a 2-minute walk from the west exit of Kanda JR station, or in a 3-minute stroll from the Kanda Ginza line subway station.

Tokyo horse flesh: Sakura nabe at two classic restaurants

February 20th, 2013

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A recent poll conducted on myself revealed that the vast majority of me had no objection to hippophagy, horse-eating, something we carnivores have been sinking our teeth into since we first started banging two stones together and hurling spears.

If horseflesh was good enough for my Paleolithic ancestors, and still is for many modern Paleos following their primal diet, and is consumed with gusto by the Chinese, French, Italians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentinians, Mongolians, and by many other-ians, it ought to be good enough for me.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIn fact, it’s better than good enough. Despite pangs of Black Beauty-induced guilt from the minority of myself, the lean nutritious meat is deeply delicious.

So what’s up with those “shocked” customers of the British supermarket chain Tesco who learned that dabs of equine DNA were present in their so-called “beefburgers”? Just exactly what do they think was in those economy meat units selling 8 for £1?

Tesco’s own regulations state that such value pack patties need only contain 47% “meat.” Aren’t those customers put off by the “drind,” the dehydrated rind or skin that is boiled then used to bulk up cheap “meat” products? Maybe not, because it can be labeled as “seasoning.”

Photos of the “tainted” patties show them to be miserable pinkish slabs seemingly extruded from an industrial pipe, then guillotined into disks by a dull blade. The small percentage of horse DNA found in those meat units was probably the most nutritious part of the whole processed concoction.

Japan, though, has a long and respected history of equine cuisine. Two of my favorite horseflesh establishments, Nakae in Taito ward and Minowa in Koto ward, have both been serving sakura niku, (cherry meat) for over a century.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe sakura moniker comes from the bright red color of the flesh which has a fine, close texture and a faint underlying sweetness. It also has more protein, less fat, less sodium, less cholesterol, and fewer calories than beef or pork. The meat is usually sourced from horses, two to six years old, free ranged and grass fed in Kyushu.

One of the best ways to jumpstart your Paleo genes is with an order of niku sashi, thin slices of raw horsemeat sashimi from the senaka, or lower back of the beast, served with a dab of freshly-grated ginger and a shoyu dipping sauce. Another popular dish is the pale pink abura sashi, slices of sashimi from back of the neck. The tender flesh is also served as basashi zushi, (horsemeat sushi) or as steak tartare.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe main attraction, however, at both establishments is sakura nabe, a sukiyaki-style dish you cook yourself in a shallow iron pot at your table. The pot holds a rich warishita broth made of dashi, shoyu and mirin. Into this broth you place a mound of shirataki, thin noodles made from devil’s tongue root; a few slices of negi, welsh onion; a couple slices of fu, wheat gluten dumplings; and thin slices of bright red momo niku, from the thigh, moistened with a spoonful of sweet brown miso.

Once the stew starts bubbling, you remove each tidbit one by one, then dip it—just as in sukiyaki—into a cup of stirred raw egg as a sauce. Be sure to keep your eye on the meat, advised the kimono-clad waitress, for it quickly colors in the simmering sauce. Eat it when it still has a few pink blushes.

In both restaurants, sitting side by side up on a kamidana, the god’s shelf, are a seemingly discordant pair of dieties: Daikoku-sama, the god of business prosperity and Batou-sama, the god and protector of horses. Apparently, they’ve worked out an agreement.

Nakae:  1-9-2 Nihonzutsumi, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3872-5389. Monday to Friday: 5pm to 11pm. Saturday/Sundays/Holidays: 11:30am to 10pm (Last order one hour before closing).  http://www.sakuranabe.com/

Minowa: 2-19-9 Morishita, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-3631-8298. Lunch 12 noon to 2 pm. Dinner 4 pm to 9:30 pm (L.O. 9pm). Closed Thursdays. May thru October also closed on the 3rd Wednesday of the month. http://www.e-minoya.jp/