Archive for January, 2009

Mardi Gras in the Ginza

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

 

wild-boar-chestnuts-2

I reviewed Mardi Gras some months ago, but then they declined to give Metropolis, the magazine I write for, photos for the review. The restaurant, I guess, believes it’s appreciated enough already. But this is a place that you ought to know. So I decided to put this review up here with my own photo. Some of the dishes mentioned below are sure to have changed with the season. Get a reservation for later in the evening, so that when you finish you’ll be able to marvel at the night-life water trade business that spills out onto limousine-lined Namiki Dori.

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Walk down Ginza’s Namiki dori past the luxe boutiques showcasing exclusive French and Italian couture and coruscating jewelry from guys named Fred and Harry, and you’ll come to another sort of exclusive luxury — hostess bars and clubs with a nonstop sidewalk dance of young women in kimono or low-cut gowns greeting or bidding affectionate farewells to businessmen with expensively cut suits and expense accounts. In the midst of this water trade extravaganza, there’s another party going on — downstairs in Mardi Gras. Not the raucous Fat Tuesday-type of party, but a celebration of good tastes.

 Chef Toru Wachi is a man with far-ranging ideas. He cooked in France and Italy, then travelled extensively around the Mediterranean taking culinary notes. At Mardi Gras, his intimate little bistro, Wachi creates his own cuisine, rooted solidly in the French traditions of preparation and presentation, but with riffs from Spain, Italy, Provence, Morocco and Cuba.

 Wachi blends influences as easily as Crescent City musicians blend rhythms. To bluesy background licks by Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, or other N’awlins musicians, Chef Wachi lays down some of the tastiest grooves in town.

 Leading the antipasto roster, his tapas-like “pinchos“ are perfect with a glass of wine. This platter is a mix of a dozen hot and cold, bite-sized tidbits such as deep-fried brussel sprouts, marinated mushrooms, roasted cherry tomatoes with olive oil, pork bits with aspic and fresh herbs, or grilled sweet green peppers.

 Another hit on the antipasto chart is the burrata mozzarella with nouveau olive oil. This luscious, creamy cheese from Puglia is drizzled with new olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. It couldn’t be simpler — or better.

 Wachi likes bold, strong flavors, with a backbeat of subtle complexities like the Wild Boar and Chestnuts pictured above. He offers updated French bistro standards like boudin noir, andouilettes, blanquette de veau, and lapin ala provencale, plus Italian specialties like roasted pork loin with Sicilian salt. One of his classic numbers is the Moroccan-influenced “tagine d’agneau” — a slow-cooked, savory and sweet combination of lamb, vegetables, spices, and dried fruits.

 Wachi is continually inventive, creating new dishes that surprise. His Tuscany Hamburg Steak is seared ball of tender, chopped meat with hints of garlic and rosemary. It stands, centered on a snowy white plate, like a mountain coated in a bright red sauce of tomato and red pepper with a green summit of scissor-cut slivers of flat-leaf Italian parsley.

 Wachi offers a handful of desserts, such as fresh kiwi and mango sherbet, creme caramel, and the tart of the day. And something called Viva! Chocolata! — fresh white peach with chocolate sauce.

 The wine list is excellent with some 20 whites and the same number of reds to choose from. A few bottles are in the 5000-yen range but most are more than 6000 yen. A selection of wines are available by the glass.

 If you’re looking for adventure, order the tagine and a bottle of Morocco Casablanca Lager, “The Original Beer from Casablanca,”with the palm trees on the label.

 Here’s looking at you, kid. Play it again, Toru.

 8-6-19 Ginza B1, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03.5568.0222. Open Monday to Saturday. Dinner 6pm to midnight. (L.O. midnight). Closed Sundays. The narrow stairway leading down to Mardi Gras is next to the Otakou oden shop. Look for the small MG sign.


Pit Viper Steak at Bunkyudo

Monday, January 26th, 2009

snake-man

The Kojima family has been in the snake and Chinese medicine business for 140 years. At 67, Kazuo Kojima, the 4th generation owner of Bunkyudo, looks fit and trim in his white lab coat, gold-rimmed glasses and carefully combed hair — a testament to the benefits of drinking viper blood.

 Japan has just two species of venomous snakes — the mamushi pit viper and the habu. Both are available live at Bunkyodo, just a short walk from Okachimachi station. “We use about 300 snakes a month,” says Kojima. And only wild snakes, he adds, caught in Gifu, Mie, Shiga, and Fukui prefectures by special snake hunters. The habu are from Amami-Oshima and Kagoshima.

 The mamushi viper is a narrow fellow — shy and retiring. The average adult is 30 to 40 centimeters long with a girth, at its midriff, of a slim sausage. “Most customers just drink the blood” explains Kojima. “Not as many order the whole snake course as they once did.”

 The full course starts off with the presentation of the healthy animal.  Wielding a pair of long iron tongs, Kojima extracts a coiled mamushi from a lidded wooden box on the floor. With the business end securely gripped by the tongs, Kojima carefully washes the animal under cold tap water. He then clips the tail to the tap, quickly cuts off the head, and drains the blood into a small red cup. The belly is slit open and the guts removed.

 blood-and-lemon-water1A jigger of red wine and a garnish of gall bladder are added to the blood and the concoction is served as an apertif. A glass of ice water freshened with a lemon slice stands by as a chaser. The blood and gall bladder are the most potent part of the mamushi and the most expensive, but their medicinal qualities are said to cure whatever ails you. The beverage will also lighten your wallet by 4,800 yen.

 

 Just how to cook the meat is a matter of family tradition. Kojima uses his father’s secret recipe.

 The bones of the snake are too numerous and too small to remove conveniently, so after the skin is removed, the carcass is coiled atop a steel brick and carefully pounded with a meat hammer. Constant turning of the meat ensures that all the bones are pulverized into the flesh. “This is best done by hand,” says Kojima. “We once tried mincing the snake meat in a machine, but it didn’t grind up the bones properly.”

mamushi-plate2After two or three minutes of hammering, Kojima is satisfied with the texture of the flesh. It is flattened into a thin pancake, given a coating of starch, cut into strips, and sauteed in a sauce of shoyu, mirin, snake liver, and green peppers. Fried to a pale gold, the snake strips are served with a mixed salad of bib lettuce, shredded cabbage, celery, and red onion. The meat has the pleasant, chewy texture of squid, and definitely doesn’t taste like chicken. It’s bland — tasting mostly of the savory sauce — with a few crunchy surprises of bone remnants.

In addition to the encouragement of general health and well being, the blood and gall bladder of the viper are purported to have other, Viagra-like effects on the imbiber.

 When asked about this alleged benefit, Kojima turns serious. “Indeed,” he says, “mamushi blood and meat are more than just an aphrodisiac. They promote total health. And if you have that, your vigor will appear naturally from your center.”

 Before opening Bunkyudo in 1950, the Kojima family ran a shop which specialized in “kuroyaki,” a process of baking snakes or monkey heads or other creatures, plants and herbs in earthenware pots until carbonized. But no one buys such medicines anymore says Kojima.

 The shelves of Bunkyudo display a panoply of pills, tablets, concentrates, remedies, elixirs and extracts made from the mamushi,  the lamprey eel, from ginseng and a cornucopia of medicinal herbs. Kojima also sells house-made “mamushi zake,” a rum-based bottle of tonic with a full-grown serpent curled inside. But he sells no snakebite serum. In the 40 years he’s been behind the counter, Kojima has been bitten only once when the severed head of a frisky mamushi opened its jaw and clamped down on his forefinger. He couldn’t work for a month, he says, stroking the finger.

 Bunkyudo’s customers come from far and wide. Mostly older people.

 A cheerful, silver-haired matron wearing a baggy knit sweater and a matching knit beret enters and sits at the narrow four-stool counter. She orders a turtle blood cocktail.

 Kojima selects a large “supon,“ a soft-shelled snapping turtle, and with practiced precision and a pair of ikebana shears, he makes five quick snips. The head and four legs are history. He then cuts the shell away from the body and drains the blood into a squat, cut-glass tumbler. With a dash of apple juice, the cocktail is ready in about 3 minutes. This refreshment will cost 10,000 yen.

 “Ah, great!” says the woman with a wide grin. The toothless gap in her smile doesn’t diminish its warmth. She says she comes to Bunkyudo every once in awhile — whenever she feels the need of a quick pick-me-up. She raises the glass, tips back her head, and drinks it down. The effect is immediate. “Mo, genki ni natta!” she exclaims, “I feel better already.“  

4-4-1 Ueno, Bunkyo-ku. 03.3831.2770. The shop is a one-minute walk from Okachimachi station and is closed Wednesdays and holidays. 

Ume time with Pinky

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

pinky-1

The other night, the January moon hung low over the city, and if you happened to be standing under a plum tree as I was, (my head in the branches) the mix of moonlight and early plum blossom fragrance was intoxicating.

 Prunus mume is what the textbooks call this tree—a type of plum sometimes misnamed “apricot.” Some of the Japanese names, though, are more picturesque: Kenkyou, Shiratakishidare, Ooshuku, Oimoinomama, Benichidori, Kokinran, Aojiku, Osakabeni, Tamagakishidare, Shinonome, and Kagoshimabeni. These translate as See the Surprise, White Waterfall Falling Down, Nightingale Inn, Just as I am Thinking, Red Plover, Old Gold Brocade, Green Stem, Osaka Cup, Shrine Fence Falling Down, Eastern Cloud, and Kagoshima Red.

 Opening after the camellia, the last flower of winter, the plum blossom beats the crocus as a harbinger of spring. Tokyo has thousands of plum trees—any temple or shrine worth its salt has at least one. From just about St. Valentines’ Day until the ides of March, plum festivals are celebrated throughout Tokyo and everywhere else in Japan. Yushima Tenjin Shrine hosts the most famous “Ume Matsuri” in town, celebrated each spring since 1355.

 This is also the jukenjigoku “examination hell” season. Recently the candy manufacturer, Pinky, released a plum mint candy to cheer up the millions of kindergarten, elementary, junior high, high school, junior college, and university entrance-test takers. The kanji impressed on one side of each mint is katsu, “victory,”—a small lozenge of hope.  

 Pinky is not the only company to get behind the test-takers. Some neighborhood bakeries sell katsu roll cakes, and the sales of the chocolate-covered wafer snack, Kit Kat, have increased across the country because “kit kat” sounds, as every nervous test-taker knows, like kitto katsu  which in Japanese means “surely win!”

 Many people consider the plum to be the plainer sister to the more “beautiful” cherry tree. The cherry blossom has its charms and its famous life-is-brief sadness. But to my mind, the plum beats its sister hands down. Cherry petals fall too quickly. The flowers are ostentatious and scentless. Give me plum blossoms bright in sunshine against a cold blue spring sky or mixed with a touch of moonlight. The tree also, of course, provides the “ume” in “ume shu,” plum liquor, which tastes as fine as the blossoms smell. And is just as intoxicating.


Dominique Bouchet and saké at Isetan

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

bouchet-sake

Chef Dominique Bouchet knows saké.  He knows how to cook with it, how to pair it with food, and how to serve it. He also knows that saké is misunderstood. The French don’t like it much because they think it’s distilled and as strong as Chinese baijiu. And the Japanese are surprised by how well their ancient beverage complements foie gras, salmon, scallops, beef, cheese, or anything else you’d like to pair it with. 

Bouchet is internationally renowned as the chef of Le Jamin, Hotel de Crillon, La Tour d’Argent, and Moulin de Marcouze. But he has left that star-encrusted cuisine behind (though his Paris restaurant is still graced with one Michelin star) to focus on simplicity and elegance. 

He has a decades-long association with Japan and Japanese cuisine and it has affected him deeply. Two years ago he opened the Wa-Bi Salon in Paris as a showcase  for the beauty and passion of French and Japanese products and cooking.

Bouchet believes that saké should be accorded more respect. Last year he collaborated with the venerable saké maker Fukumitsuya to market three sakés especially suited to French cuisine. These “vin de riz” have been packaged in smart Riesling-like bottles and should only be served in stemmed wine glasses.

Through January 20th, you can sample all three “wines” paired with an amuse bouche specially prepared by Bouchet. The light, fruity “Sachi” is paired with salmon, goat cheese, and chives (¥1470). The smooth, crisp, well-balanced “Yuri,” my favorite, is paired with a small selection of cheeses—Crottin de chevre, Cantal doux, Roquefort, and Morbier—and a luscious pear cumin jam (¥1890). The full, rich “Fuku” is wonderfully matched with foie gras de canard and a balsamic gelee (¥1680).

These tastings, in the saké corner of Isetan’s basement food court, run from 2pm to 8pm. Last order is 7pm. Bouchet will be on hand to answer any questions.

French barbecue at Vin Picoeur

Friday, January 16th, 2009

      pig-with-cigar

 “French Barbecue” Vin Picoeur has taken two traditional styles of cooking, a rustic grilling technique from the French vineyards and a time-honored one-pot dish from every French grandmother’s kitchen, and brought them together in a charming little place just a few minutes from the Ginza’s most famous intersection.

 The “French Barbecue” touted on the menu comes from the dried grapevine stems added to the charcoals of the grill to lend their unique, appealing smokiness to whatever’s grilled. And grandmother’s one-pot dish, pot au feu, is meat boiled in water —simple, but surprisingly delicious.

 Vin Picoeur packs a lot of atmosphere into its narrow second floor space. The first thing you notice is the surreal fact of a gleaming white half-a-pig enshrined in glass case behind the counter. The second thing you notice is the pig’s head—with jaunty cigar stuck in its jaws—gazing up at its body suspended from meathooks.

 A 14-seat counter takes up most of the space. And one small table wedged into a corner provides the last 4 seats. The restaurant is always crowded and getting a reservation for one of these 18 seats requires a call at least a week in advance.

 The appeal, of course, is the grilled pork—the freshest in the city—the good wine, and the feeling that you are no longer in the world’s most expensive neighborhood, but unwinding somewhere in the southwest of France. Vin Picoeur encourages this mood by not taking itself too seriously. The menu urges you to imagine yourself eating in the French countryside—even if you don’t feel like imaging it. Porcine memorabilia is everywhere: pig paintings on the wall, pig postcards, piggy banks and pig toys line the shelves. And the service is relaxed and friendly.

 The restaurant, though, is totally serious in its approach to food and value. There are two courses on the extensive menu—2800 yen for six grilled items including pork, chicken, vegetables, and a small dish of pot au feu; and a 4000-yen menu with ten items that will have you loosening your belt. You can also pick and choose from the a la carte menu which includes daily specials such as fava beans grilled in the pod; white asparagus with truffle sauce; foie gras sausages, and duck confit with orange sauce.

 Pork, of course, is the star. And the pig with the gleaming white fat, chilling in the refrigerated case, is provided by a certain Mr. Yoshida from Saitama, who, according to the menu, raises his pigs with no stress. Every Tuesday, a new half hog is hauled up the narrow stairway, and the current resident is unhooked and sectioned up for the week’s grilling.

 The “bara” pork belly-on-a-skewer is described having a “Knock You Dead” taste, and it nearly lives up to its billing. It is very, very good. But pork is not the only thing expertly grilled. Tender spears of green asparagus, wrapped with ham, are lightly cooked until the ham is crispy. Sea bass on a skewer is perfectly done then moistened with a few drops of sudachi citrus. And juicy, full-flavored Tokyo “shamo“ (bantam chicken) from Hachioji puts that chicken from Kentucky to shame. They will even grill an egg, in the shell, until it is soft-cooked.

 The literal translation of “pot au feu“ as “pot on a fire“ does not do the boiled meat justice. On this evening, it was veal tongue—exquisitely tender and very deeply flavored, paired with a lovely chunk of sweet carrot and a ladleful of heavenly broth.

 The wines are well chosen—mostly small, vin de pays wines from the southwest of France such as Cotes de Rhone, Madiran, or Cahors. Bottles start from less than 4000 yen and come from the cellars of the sister restaurant, Aux Amis du Vin, around the corner. But if you want a Romanee Conti Grand Cru, it’s yours for 285,000 yen. This is the Ginza, after all.

 4-3-4 Ginza,Chuo-ku. 03.3567.4122. Open 6pm to midnight. Closed Sundays.


Chanko nabe at Kawasaki

Friday, January 9th, 2009

chanko-nabe-close-up 

Chanko nabe, the stew famed to fatten up sumo wrestlers, brings to mind steaming cauldrons filled with fish, vegetables, and all manner of ingredients. Such a concoction is more properly called yosenabe, a flavored soup into which you dump whatever’s handy. But authentic chanko nabe is based solely on chicken. Perhaps the only place in Tokyo still serving the genuine article, Kawasaki’s chanko is a delicately flavored chicken broth enriched with carrots, burdock, tofu, welsh onion, daikon, cabbage, abura-age tofu, and cellophane noodles. And the master, Tadashi Kawasaki, knows the special significance of each ingredient for the sumo wrestler, because his father, who started this restaurant some 60 years ago, was a renowned rikishi.

 The wooden, weather-worn structure is a lovely holdover from the Taisho era, but rebuilt after “1945” as Kawasaki-san tactfully put it. There are several charming tatami rooms for groups of 4 or more, but I find the plain wooden counter best, just in front of Kawasaki-san’s tiny kitchen. Most everyone orders the 4700-yen chanko course including yakitori and a salad, which is enough for two to share. But you could also just have the chanko for 2800 yen.

 The earthenware nabe with the kombu-flavored broth will be set on the portable burner in front of you. Kawasaki-san will explain what to do (in English, if necessary)—that the chicken goes in first, followed by the fresh cut vegetables, noodles, etc. The lid is put on and while it simmers, he will grill several sticks of yakitori for you. The free-range chicken from Kyushu is nothing like supermarket chicken. The flesh is firm and delicious—excellent grilled and raw. Kawasaki’s toriwasa salad—several generous hunks of chicken sashimi dressed in a sharp wasabi sauce and topped with shredded nori and chopped seri—a celery-flavored Japanese herb—is as popular as his chanko.

 Sake is tapped from the voluminous taru keg sitting near the door and served with a small dish of salt. A pinch of which you can place on the corner of your wooden masu cup to sweeten the sake.

 When the steam starts to blow from the nabe lid, Kawasaki-san will ask his wife or son to check your pot. They will let you know when it’s ready to eat. Spoon out the vegetables and meat; add, if you like, shichimi from the small red can or sansho from the green one, a bit of fresh seri, and enjoy. Once the vegetables and the last of the chicken has been eaten, you can ask for rice and egg which will be stirred into the remaining broth to make zosui, a delicious gruel. A small dish of their home-made pickles is the perfect note to finish with.

 The service here is as if from your favorite aunt—caring, congenial, and prompt. The slow, friendly Shitamachi nature of Ryogoku lives on nightly at Kawasaki. And because the chanko here is mostly vegetables, you won’t leave with a larger waistline, but you will leave as part of the extended Kawasaki family.

2-13-1 Ryogoku, Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, 03.3631.2529


Takara soba at Houka

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

takara-soba-at-houka

Ramen is a passionate subject. Movies have been made about it; museums devoted to it; and it’s the most popular food in the country. Strange, then, that so few people know about “abura soba.” If you directly translate it as “oil noodles,” you wouldn’t want to know about it, but a 650-yen bowl of Houka’s “Takara” abura soba should be required for any student of the ramen way.

 The origins of this dish are lost somewhere between legend and lies. Legend says it was invented some years ago down the tracks in the next town, but Houka and the four other joints around Higashi Koganei station claim bragging rights. Not really a variation on ramen, abura soba is a new take on hot noodles in a bowl. The dish uses the same “men,” noodles, as ramen but instead of a broth about a cupful of rich savory sauce moistens the noodles. The recipe for this sauce mixture is closely guarded by each establishment.

 After repeated research at the Houka counter, this is what I can tell you: first, two shot-glass-sized ladlefuls of a dark meaty liquid (secret) are poured into the ramen bowl. Next come two shots of soup stock (secret) and a shot of oil (secret). Then the hot noodles are introduced and turned to coat them thoroughly. An assistant adds some menma, a bit of kamaboko, a slice of chashu pork, a handful of daikon sprouts, and a dollop of closely diced green onions to top it off. This assembly takes about fifteen seconds from start to finish, then the steaming bowl is set before you. Adding a dash or two of vinegar from the table gives it, I think, the final bit of zing.

 There is no décor at Houka to speak of— red scuffed linoleum flooring. A long crowded counter. Six tables always full. Flaming black iron woks. As much chilled hoji-cha as you can drink and six guys in white, working at full speed, with their constant chorus of roughly shouted orders, “Rashai!” and “Arigashta!”

 A friend back from Osaka recently saw a sign in a local ramen shop proudly announcing Koganei-style abura soba. It seems some pilgrims have already made their way to Higashi Koganei.

 You’ll find Houka, which is closed on Mondays, at the south exit of Higashi Koganei station (20 minutes from Shinjuku on Chuo line).