Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Torikatsu CHICKEN

Tuesday, 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.





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

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013



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.


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




Tokyo horse flesh: Sakura nabe at two classic restaurants

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013


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).

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.

Murugi: Old school curry joint on a Shibuya hilltop

Monday, November 5th, 2012

When the master of Murugi opened his curry shop in Showa 26 (1951) the surrounding neighborhood on the hilltop of Dogenzaka in Shibuya was alive with movies theaters, coffee shops, and bowling alleys—a center of family entertainment. Another type of entertainment now prevails—love hotels and sex clubs, but Murugi carries on preserving the feel of the old neighborhood, as does the iconic Lion coffeeshop just around the corner.

The master’s daughter now runs Murugi preparing the 62-year-old vintage menu of chicken curry, hayashi curry, saté, and the gado gado salad. Her father loved mountain climbing, says the daughter. And he created the mountain-shaped mound of rice towering above the dark, glistening curry to represent Mt. Everest. The curry is chicken-based, simmered until mahogany brown and redolent of its secret mix of spice. The signature dish is the tamago-iri curry (1050 yen) with the rice mountain girdled by slices of hard-boiled egg ribboned with a red line of ketchup.

The dish comes with a dollop of house-made chutney and two jars of condiments: bright red batons of tangy ginger and pale orange bits of pickled daikon radish.

For an extra 50 yen, you can modulate the standard spiciness of the curry sauce: milder, hotter, or super-hot. You can also add a mozzarella/gouda cheese topping for an extra 100 yen.

The Gado Gado salad (850 yen) is a large bowl of lettuce, tomato wedges, slices of hard-boiled egg, cucumber, and bean sprouts annointed with a house-made dressing. The Saté (1200 yen) are spicy bits of grilled chicken.

The brick exterior continues inside with a red brick fireplace. The dark wood tables are wide with plenty of space for elbow room. Last time I was there, the music was Motown from the 60s—the Four Tops, the Temptations, Wilson Pickett. But sometimes jazz is on the radio. A steady stream of customers come and go.

Nothing’s flashy here at Murugi. Just a few dishes that have over the decades proven themselves to be winners. The staff too are such.

Stop by for lunch should you be climbing the Dogenzaka slope.

Murugi, 2-19-2 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, 03.3461.8809. Open for lunch only: 11:30am to 3pm. Closed Fridays.




Chic, cheap Italian eatery in Ogikubo

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012


The stylish Italian eatery, La Gallina, is situated on a slightly seamy sidestreet in Ogikubo next to a cos-play joint called AquaDoll. The touts trying to entice passersby to descend to the club, however, don’t seem to care. Such juxtapositions are common along the Chuo Line.

The customers at La Gallina don’t mind either. They’ve come for the simple, yet delicious food, expertly prepared and served with flair. They are also here for the very reasonable prices.

Chef Miyamoto worked in Puglia, Piemonte and Parma for four years and brought back to Japan considerable skills and an educated palate. His white bean soup (600 yen), a deeply satisfying Puglia favorite, is made with pureed cannellini beans moistened with chicken broth, blessed with a hint of sage, then drizzled with a swirl of olive oil and topped with a garlic-infused bruschetta and parsley. Fantastico.

Another excellent starter is his aji mariné with vegetable vinaigrette (1500 yen). This dish, easily shared by two, combines thick slices of tasty horse mackerel with a baby leaf salad and a fine dice of celery, daikon, carrot, whole capers, and slivers of green onion, all bathed a light tasty dressing. The careful, uniform dice of the veggies subtly shows the impressive knife skills and attention to detail that Chef Miyamoto brings to his cooking.

A variety of pasta dishes are offered, including a few daily menu choices chalked up on the black slate board. The gnocchi with taleggio cheese (1800 yen), again easily shared, were cloud-like pillows of potato pasta in a creamy, yet tangy sauce. Miyamoto finishes this dish with a line across the plate of chopped Italian parsley and another line of freshly ground black pepper. Unpretentious and delicioso.

The main dishes too are consistently fine. The grilled pork chop with rosemary (1800 yen) was a generous cut of pork nicely caramelized in spots but still juicy and faintly blushed with pink. The accompanying vegetables—broccoli, carrot, turnip, and sugar snap beans—were also nicely grilled and flavored with a rosemary-infused olive oil.

Another winning dish was the roast chicken with red wine sauce (1600 yen). The portion of thigh was perfectly crisped on the outside, yet tender on the inside. The red wine sauce was richly flavored with balsamic vinegar and a few grains of sea salt.

The separate dessert menu offers six or seven choices. The fruit madedonia with gelato (500 yen) is a refreshing melange of apple, orange, grapefruit, and kiwi (both yellow and green), crowned with a dollop of honey gelato. An unusual and tasty end to a meal is Miyamoto’s limoncello bruleé (500 yen).

The wine list is well-chosen with a broad selection of Italian whites and reds. Most bottles are priced at less than 5000 yen. One of the best is the young “Super-Tuscan” Dogajolo, an elegant, fruity red (4200 yen) or, among the whites, the Monteoro Vermentino Gallura 2009 from Sardinia (3900 yen).

The decor, at first, seems simple to the point of austerity. But after a glass or two of spumante (800 yen), the off-white plaster walls textured with trowel marks take on the potential of unfinished canvases. And the plain, dark wood tables frame and focus all attention to the food on the plate.

I’ve got only one quibble with La Gallina. I like the heroic tone and polished timbre of the Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli, just as much as the next guy, but hearing him belt out his best-selling song Con te partiro, four times during dinner would strain even the patience of a saint.

5-24-7 Ogikubo, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3392-9855. Lunch 11:30 am to 2 pm (L.O.) Dinner 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm (L.O.). Closed Mondays. For the complete review, and other of my reviews, please check out



Nagoya-style Miso Tonkatsu at Yabaton in Ginza

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Tonkatsu, a slice of deep-fried breaded pork, is one of Japan’s most loved dishes. The arch-type dish features a crisply fried, mahogany-brown cutlet—either the luscious “ros” (loin) or the leaner “hi-re” (filet)—nestled against an airy mound of raw cabbage filaments, freshly shredded. A small pot of Worchester-style usuta sauce is always on the table to ladle over the cutlet and cabbage. And a dab of hot yellow mustard is usually swiped onto the edge of the plate for those who want a bit of fire to flavor their juicy morsel.

Some sixty years ago in Nagoya, the tonkatsu shop Yabaton started serving its cutlets enrobed in a slightly sweet, red soybean miso sauce. It was a huge success. Yabaton’s lone church of the miso katsu gospel is in the Ginza, a few streets away from the glitz and crowds of the high street.

The most popular order is the Teppan Tonkatsu (1365 yen). The deep-fried cutlet comes on a bed of freshly shredded cabbage sizzling and steaming on an iron plate. Some of the cabbage is softened, slightly sauteéd by the iron plate, but the cabbage under the tonkatsu remain crisp—providing both a textural and taste contrast.

Of course, extra red miso sauce is in the pot, and if you order the set menu (1765 yen), you’ll also get a bowl of miso soup, rice, and some small pink pickles.

For neophytes, Yabaton provides a tiny placard on the table with a set of instructions on how to proceed eating this novel dish:

•First, take a bite of the tonkatsu just as it has been served.

•If you feel the red miso sauce is a bit sweet, add a dab of mustard.

•For those who want to change the taste a little, add some freshly-ground sesame seed from the grinder.

Togarashi, red chili pepper flakes, goes very well with this miso katsu, try some if you like.

•Finally, there are many ways to enjoy eating miso katsu, enjoy them all.

How can you go wrong with instructions like that?

Yabaton: 4-10-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03.3546.8810. Open 11am to 10pm. Closed on Mondays.




The Spice of Life and Rocking Chair coffee in Shitamachi

Friday, August 26th, 2011

The spice of life is not a leaf, or a seed, or a powder. I think it is satisfying work. Here are two spots in Shitamachi where you can experience such satisfaction.

The Miyagawa family has been selling shichimi spice for more than 70 years. The peppery “7-taste” mixture includes red pepper (roasted or dried) and at least six other ingredients such as sansho pepper, black sesame, poppy seed, dried mikan peel, nori, hemp seeds, and mustard seeds. Mr. Miyagawa passed away some years ago, but Mrs. Miyagawa will still deftly mix you a bag of shichimi spice from the various canisters on her worn wooden work table. Less spicy? Hotter spicy? Just let her know.

While she’s working, her cat will watch you from its corner on the raised tatami under the one “naked” incandescent light bulb which hangs in her shop. You may also want to get one of the lovely wooden gourd-shaped shichimi dispensers that she sells.

Shichimi spice is excellent on soba, udon, or in some nabe dishes. Some people even sprinkle it on ice cream.

Such homey establishments are quickly disappearing in this shitamachi neighborhood near Ryogoku station. To find the Miyagawa shop, turn right out of the Oedo subway line exit and walk along Kiyosumi Dori toward Morishita. The shop is a 7 or 8 minute walk from the exit.


Kameido station is just two stops away from Ryogoku station on the Sobu line. A few steps from the east exit of Kameido Station is one of Tokyo’s most interesting kissaten: Kohi Dojo Samurai, the rocking chair coffee shop.

Evidently, some thirty years ago, the master of the Samurai shop was taking a cigarette break while rocking back and forth on a swing in a playground when he was struck with the idea that his customers might also like to rock back and forth while drinking coffee. So he then purchased a dozen rocking chairs to line his long wooden counter.

The coffee at Samurai is excellent, brewed usually using the paper drip method, but you can also order a cup made with the cold water drip method, which is made over seven hours drip by cold drip. You can choose your own cup from the many arrayed along the long wooden shelves behind the counter.

A separate menu lists seven “flavored” coffees: blueberry, green apple, caramel, banana, hibiscus, almond, and cinnamon. The natural flavor has been added to the ground beans themselves, and is not added with a syrup. You can try a trio of these coffees for 750 yen.

The service is brisk and friendly with the male staff smartly dressed in powder blue short-sleeved shirts, black slacks and black neckties, a retro Showa-period look that makes them seem like airline pilots.

Simple lunches can be had here, including beef stew for 800 yen, potato pizza for 600 yen, a Texas Burger for 750 yen, or a Hamburg Doria for 700 yen. The chocolate tart was served with a fresh shiso leaf, a surprising, but tasty combination.

In the evening, the Samurai starts serving booze and cocktails, all priced at 550 yen.

Why “Samurai”? The master happens to be an aikido master, thus the “dojo” in the name. A full set of samurai armor is prominently displayed at on end of the narrow shop, spotlighted and framed by flowers.

The master must be quite a character. In order to attract customers to an early morning set of toast and coffee, he lists the opening time as 7:60 am. He believes it sounds earlier than 8:00am.


Miyagawa Spice Shop: 3-6 Chitose, Koto ward.

Kohi Dojo Samurai: 6-57-22 Kameido, Koto Ward. Tel: 03.3638.4003. Open 7:60 am to 25:00 am. Closed Sundays. Check out their video on the shop website.


Fuji Kitchen & “Coffee Western” Kitayama in Shitamachi

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Just a short walk from the red-lantern entrance to Sensoji Shrine in Asakusa, Fuji Kitchen is a trip. Two women of a certain age, dressed stylishly in black with pearl necklaces and gold chains, have been running this tiny establishment for over 40 years. The pint-size interior has a nautical feel with pinewood wall planking held in place with rows of iron nails. For some reason, an old flintlock rifle is prominently displayed on a rack. From the small speakers mounted on the ceiling comes a soundtrack from the 1970s when the ladies wore jeans: The Who, The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, Janis Joplin, The Band. The grey-haired chef in his white T-shirt and jeans can be seen in his very narrow kitchen from the six-seat counter. Three other tables fill up the few remaining square meters.

Fuji Kitchen serves the beefiest beef stew I’ve ever tasted. The menu boasts that the demi-glace sauce simmers for a week in preparation. The two fist-sized hunks of beef are lusciously tender with each bite almost melting in your mouth. They are served with four unadorned penne pasta pieces, two green beans, two thick rounds of glazed carrots, a spoonful of Gratin Dauphinois potatoes, and that dark, chocolate brown demi-glace sauce over which one pearl-necklaced lady pours a small vial of cream just before serving.

The stew costs 2700 yen. Rice or bread is extra for 300 yen.

The clientele here is of a sort you won’t find elsewhere in Tokyo: no youngsters, mostly regulars who have been coming here for decades. The two matrons exhibited a slight shyness at having a foreigner take a seat at the counter. But once I demonstrated that I could speak Japanese and commented favorably on the 1970s background music, they smiled.

To find Fuji Kitchen, instead of entering the shrine under the red lantern, take the left-hand lane that parallels the entrance. You’ll spot the orange and brown awning about 60 or 70 meters down the lane.

They are open for lunch from 11:30am to 2:30pm and dinner 5:30pm to 7:30pm. Closed on Tuesday and Wednesdays.

Fuji Kitchen: 1-20-2 Asakusa, Taito Ward. Tel: 03.3841.6531

After this beef stew, a walk and a cup of coffee would be in order. A short subway ride away in Ueno (four stops on the Ginza Line) is on of Tokyo’s most unusual kissaten, Coffee Western Kitayama.

When I first discovered this kissaten, a couple of weeks ago, I entered the shop and was immediately told by the proprietor, a portly, dapper gentleman in a crisp white shirt and black bow tie, that I couldn’t enter and would have to leave. He ushered me outside, saying that only “kawatta okyaku-san” or “strange customers” could enter. He pointed to a notice taped to the front entrance and read it to me. “No photographs, no talking about business, no laptop computers, no reading.” He explained further that sometimes customers would get angry and arguments would ensue because they didn’t know or didn’t agree with these rules. “Besides,” he said, “we are not open now. We are on a break.”

When I explained that I had come from far away Mitaka to sample his coffee, he relented and let me in.

This kissaten began in the mid 1960s, a few years earlier than the Fuji Kitchen, and nothing much inside has changed since. Every available space is filled with large burlap bags of coffee beans stacked five or six high. They crowd the few tables and threaten to topple over onto the counter or the upright piano. Near the entrance is a venerable roasting machine which is fired up several times a week.

On the top of the piano sits a bronze bust of a famous jazz pianist. I knew the face but couldn’t remember the name. When I asked who it was, the owner said it was his father, Count Basie. From then on I called the owner, “Basie-san.”

His wife and son fill out the staff. She recommended the A Set or B Set. The A Set (1500 yen) was a cup brewed with “old beans” fifteen years old and included the “Shizuku,” a chilled concoction that followed the coffee. The old bean brew was served after several long minutes of preparation. When I asked “Basie-san” what the Shizuku was, he said it was difficult to explain and it was a secret. Meanwhile, several other customers entered the shop unaccosted by the owner.

The brew was excellent. It was served in an elegant bone-china cup along with two kinds of sugar—large crystals and granulated. The little milk pitcher was served in a tiny dish with a chunk of freshly chiseled ice leaning against it to keep it cool.

Several notices were taped along the counter stating “No Photographs” so I could not take a picture of the coffee or the interior. After I had finished the coffee, I was served a small “kuchinaosu,” a palate cleanser sip of hoji cha, I believe. Then came the chilled Shizuku in a tiny stemmed shot glass. It was dark, like a coffee liqueur, with a white foam top. When I asked what this was, perhaps a cold-brewed Dutch drip concoction, the proprietor answered in English, “My original. Only me in the world.” Then he immediately asked in Japanese, “Did you understand my English?”

I assured him that I did, and that the Shizuku, whatever type of coffee drink it was, was perfectly delicious. The proprietor beamed.

The rules at Coffee Western, I later found out, are in place so that customers focus on drinking and enjoying the coffee. The philosophy here is if you want to work on your computer or read and ignore the coffee, then you should take your trade elsewhere.

When I had finished, we exchanged meishi and I found out the owner’s real name was Kitayama. I asked him if it would be okay if I came back again to be a customer. “Of course,” he said with a big smile. He followed me out the door, waited for the light to change so I could cross the street, and bowed to me as I made my way to the other side of the street.

Coffee Western Kitayama: 1-5-1 Kamiya, Taito Ward. Tel: 03.3844.2822. Closed Mondays. From Ueno Station take the Iriya exit and the kissa is about a 5-minute walk.


















Feeding the few in Rikuzentakata: Elio Orsara gives back

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Estimates vary on how many perished in the city of Rikuzentakata on March 11th when the tsunami obliterated that small coastal town in Iwate Prefecture. In the early afternoon, some 23,000 residents were going about their daily lives: working in small businesses, shopping on the shotengai, studying in school.

By late afternoon, the city had vanished, crushed by a 13-meter wall of black water as immeasurable tons of Pacific Ocean advanced with inexorable force more than ten kilometers inland. Some accounts mention 10,000 deaths. Other accounts guess maybe 5,000. No one really knows. So much was swept back out to sea.

This last weekend, June 5th, Elio Orsara and his crew of 15, kitchen staff and volunteers, drove up to what remains of Rikuzentakata to serve a five-course lunch to some of the residents.

Elio is the owner of a very successful Italian restaurant in Tokyo, Elio Locanda Italiana. Japan and the Japanese have been very good to him, he says, and he wants to give back. This was his fourth visit to the town.

We gathered outside Elio’s Locanda at 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and waited on the street until others from the “Italians For Tohoku” organization showed up.

“I’m proud of how fast the Italians got together to help the people of Tohoku,” said Elio. Though within that group, Elio doesn’t want to promote himself or his restaurant with his charity, so he’s created his own loosely knit group, Calabresi nel Mondo. 

We, in Elio’s crew, will be going to Hirota Elementary School, he explained, while the other group of Italians in the caravan will serve lunch at a nearby community shelter.

A television crew shows up from a website. They start filming. Elio has no idea who the film crew was or why they were there.

When everyone finally arrives, he claps his hands together to gather us around. “OK,” he says, “we are going to Rikuzentakata to feed the people. We are not tourists. Don’t take photos like a tourist. These people have their pride and don’t take photos. We go there to work.”

At about 12:15am we set off. After a ramen stop at 4:00 a.m., we arrive around 7 a.m. at the location of the Rikuzentakata train station. Now completely gone. Nothing remains.

“When I came here the first time in March,” says Elio, “there was so much more debris. They’ve cleaned up two thirds of it already.”

Still, immense piles of steel, or wood, or rows of destroyed cars, trucks, and vans, or piles of dead trees or brown shrubbery stretch to the faraway hills.

In the distance, we see excavators and backhoes working with debris. At one spot near the cratered ruins of the town’s sports stadium, a vast expanse of seawater stretched to the horizon. “That is not the sea,” says Elio as we drive slowly past. “That is seawater that remains. The sea is a kilometer or two beyond.”

Since this was the crew’s fourth trip, the setting up of the portable kitchen and buffet goes amazingly fast. Three large tents are unpacked, unfolded, and snapped into shape in about five minutes.

Meanwhile in those few minutes, the truck is unloaded, tables set up and duct taped together, gas burners connected to portable gas containers, 30-liter red and blue plastic water containers unloaded.

Vacuum-packed bags of bolognese sauce, caponata, roasted potatoes, and chicken with rosemary are heated in cauldrons. Two large plastic boxes of al dente pasta are set out ready to add to the sauce.

Hours and hours of preparation had already taken place earlier that evening—making the minestrone, the meat sauce, the side dishes and main dishes, and kilograms and kilograms of al dente penne noodles.

Crisp white linen table clothes are then taped to the tables, as Elio checks the drape of each cloth so it hangs evenly. Fresh fruit is cut into wedges: oranges, watermelon, musk melon, red grapes snipped into small handfuls, then artfully arranged on plastic platters.

Large boxes of artisanal bread—large life-preserver shaped loaves, square loaves, focaccia and baguettes—all baked at Elio’s catering shop, are sliced and arranged in woven baskets under Elio’s watchful eyes.

Elio tastes the minestrone and the bubbling bolognese sauce, “Good, but add a little salt,” he says. “The sauce is still a little thin, add some Parmigiano cheese.”

Paper bowls and plates, plastic spoons and forks are sorted and placed for an easy flow along the buffet tables. Plastic bags are taped to the school building wall and labeled: burnable trash, plastic, raw garbage.

Under a separate tent, tens of boxes of donated items: shoes, blankets, blouses, scarves, sunglasses, space heaters, toys, a small red bicycle, umbrellas, jumpers, are set out. Elio had sent out a message via his Facebook site to all his customers asking them to donate whatever they could. He had it all boxed up and loaded into his truck.

Just before 11 a.m. Elio claps his hands together, “Come here, everybody! Okay, at 11 a.m. we start serving. Get ready.”

The five-course buffet line is set out beautifully: minestrone, penne with bolognese sauce, caponata, potatoes with herbs, and roast chicken with rosemary. Trays of colorful cut fresh fruit, and baskets of bread. And at the very end, boxes of Chupa Chups lollipops.

Then Elio bellows, “Irashaimase! Welcome! Lunch is served!” The oba-sans and oji-sans who had been sifting through the boxes of clothes start to move toward the cups of minestrone. The line lengthens.

I start scooping out a ladleful of penne onto each paper plate—in the amount Elio had decided for he needs to make the food last.

Elio starts smoozing with the oba-sans. Some wear plastic slippers, thick socks, cotton training wear. Some with aprons, wind breakers, and cotton hats. Some have faces as wrinkled as prunes, with thick sturdy fingers and bright undefeated eyes. I see pairs of hands after pairs of hands—moving past, holding plates and sometimes trying to balance the cup of soup.

Some of the donation boxes of shoes, or blouses are empty and stacked nearby. Someone realizes that carrying the abundance of food would be easier with a tray. A cardboard flap is torn off the box and used as a makeshift tray. Now plates and bowls enough for two or three are easier to carry. Suddenly, everyone has a torn piece of cardboard for a tray. The line of hungry people shuffle slowly past my pasta tray. It’s empty. Again and again, it’s empty. Each time, the cook behind me quickly replaces the empty tub of pasta with a full one.

Once people have settled down to eat on the concrete school steps, or makeshift tables under a tent set up by the elementary school, someone brings their torn cardboard “trays” back to the head of the line so that the next person can use one.

Some people come back for seconds or thirds. Elio, or other members of his crew, sometimes help out carrying the torn cardboard trays of food.

At noon, basketball practice ends and young students in blue sports uniforms start to line up too for lunch. Elio comes over to one woman who must be in her seventies. He says in Italian-accented Japanese, “Hello, my new girlfriend! How are you? Let me carry your food.” For ninety minutes we dish out food. One by one, the courses run out. At 12:30 p.m., all that is left is penne with bolognese sauce and bread. New people show up for lunch. We dish out hearty portions of the pasta into paper bowls topped with spoonfuls of grated parmigiano cheese.

The focaccia sandwiches which had been prepared for our lunches are set out for the Rikuzentakata citizens. Soon those sandwiches are gone as well.

Throughout the whole meal no one pushes. No one shoves. No one tries to take more than they think they can eat.

At 1 p.m., Elio claps his hands together again. “Ok! Let’s shut this down and pack it up!”

Within ten minutes, everything is packed up and loaded into the truck which is only half full now that the food and donated goods are gone. Large trays of the remaining pasta are left for the residents. All the donated boxes of clothing and toys are left too.

One boy plays with a toy dinosaur and a boxed race car set which is too big for him to carry. One woman looks at a silk scarve perhaps a Celine. “I can’t use that,” she says with a laugh. A few minutes later, I see another woman with a handful of those scarves and other goods stuffed into a plastic sack.

The cooks pour out the remaining water onto the red tiles of the landing and scrub them down, just as they do at the end of the day in Elio’s kitchen. The garbage bags are collected.

Before we get into the cars for the 7-hour drive back home, Elio gathers us all together again. Some residents ask for photos to be taken with Elio. Hand shakes. Then Elio asks us to form a circle for the Japanese tradition of “ippon jimei” which is done at the conclusion of a communal job well done.

“We served about 300 people,” he says. “Thank you for all your efforts.”

Elio’s right-hand man, Mikata-san yells out  the cue of “Yo!” Then we all try to clap our hands together in one loud clap. We mess up. Our timing is off. “Let’s do it again,” says Elio. This time it’s perfect.

Elio had originally planned to go to Hong Kong this weekend, but when he heard he could go to an elementary school this time, he cancelled his trip.

“I do this for the kids,” he says. “I like to see their smiles.”

The Rikuzentakata elementary school children have eaten and are sitting together on the red-tiled steps of the landing near the classrooms singing songs along with an oba-san strumming on a ukelele. The kids are laughing and clapping with white Chupa Chups sticks poking out from their smiles.



Ten Asa: Hidden tempura spot in Ginza

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Much of Ginza’s nightlife is on side streets such as the ultra-expensive Namiki dori with its hostess clubs and exclusive expense account-only restaurants. But one block over on Suzuran dori are a myriad of cheaper drinking holes and eateries clustering toward Shimbashi. Many of these spots are hard to find, but none more hidden than Ten Asa, one of my favorite tempura restaurants, and a quintessential Ginza experience.

You approach Ten Asa down a dark cleft, barely shoulder wide, between two multi-story buildings. Walk past blue plastic garbage cans, strumming air conditioning units, ragged mops, perhaps an alley cat or two, and eventually you’ll spot the glow of a lighted sign at a noren-curtained entrance. Slide open the door and you’ll find a lovely, traditionally appointed restaurant with an L-shaped counter seating nine.

Ten Asa serves a great lunch, the tempura teishoku set (2700 yen) or the less expensive tendon box lunch set (1600 yen), but to appreciate the full tempura experience, you need to try a dinner course such as the Yumei (6800 yen) with its eight tempura tidbits.

Arriving at 5pm on a recent evening, I had my choice of seats, but soon other customers drifted in: A grey-haired gent in an elegant brown kimono, then a pair of businessmen in shirts still brilliantly white and crisply starched.

The course features seasonal vegetables, fish and other delicacies, lightly battered and crisply fried, interspersed with several other dishes, including a starter, a small salad, then rice, miso soup, pickles, and finally a dessert.

Tempura marries well with a cool glass of Chardonnay (1000 yen) or a flask of chilled saké, such as the rich and mellow junmaishu, Daishichi (2800 yen), but most customers order a cold bottle of lager (850 yen). With your drink, you’ll get a few deep-fried hone sembei, “bone crackers,” including the cord-like backbone of an anago eel, salted and crunchy, tied into a pretzel; a crisp ribbon of kisu fish backbone, and two sets of delicate shrimp legs from the crustaceans you’ll soon be eating.

At a leisurely pace, each item is placed on the folded sheet of pristine white paper in front of you: Baby corn, complete with silk, cooked to a popcorn-like nuttiness. A shiitake mushroom as thick as a ribeye steak and just as meaty. Megochi, flathead fish, with firm tasty flesh. A tiny eggplant. A golden onion, the size of a ping pong ball, sliced in half.

Just add a touch of the Okinawan sea salt, says the chef.

A woman in a deep blue kimono glides in and sits next to the grey-haired gent. She is of a certain age too—her coiffed raven black hair shines. Her crimson nails click on the beer bottle as she pours him a fresh glass. Soon they are engaged in lilting conversation.

Next to me another businessman enjoys his tempura while reading a book on Buddhist statues. Dessert comes—a scoop of deep pink plum sherbet, flecked with ume flesh, and a cup of jade green sen cha.

The kimono couple laugh. A lover’s tryst? Who knows? Who cares? It’s the Ginza after all.

8-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5568-6200. Open Monday to Saturday. Lunch 11:30am to 1pm. (L.O. 2pm). Dinner 5pm to 10pm. (L.O. 9:30pm). Closed Sundays and Holidays.