Archive for June, 2009

Southside Asagaya: Club Pollen

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Club Pollen vertical

A fire broke out the other day in southside Asagaya. Southside Asagaya is an “entertainment” area—a warren of narrow alleys and streets with bars, restaurants, snack pubs, dry cleaners, ramen shops, a chanko restaurant, green grocers, several joints serving French, and a funky little blues club called Chicago, where Naomi-san, the master, worships at the altar of Guitar Slim and serves Red Eye beer, tomato juice and beer, for 500 yen the glass.

Club Pollen Snack&wiresSirens wailed and a small fire truck made especially for such narrow streets rounded the corner quickly followed by another. They moved through the crowded streets about as fast as I could walk, so I followed—past the snazzy Snack Yuu, past the Sen Sen Record emporium, until Snack Kurumi, where from the other direction, two more engines had pulled up and parked along with an ambulance.Club Pollen Sen Sen Records

Several policemen had already arrived on their bicycles. The man from the dry cleaners stepped out of his tiny shop to take a look. Curious pedestrians started to mill about. The firemen started to congregate in front of a snack bar called “Pub Pollen.” A small wire-strengthened kitchen window of the snack bar had been shattered and thin wisps of smoke were leaking out.

Club Pollen neighbor KurumiNow over two dozen firemen in full gear—helmets, hoods, and oxygen tanks—had crowded into the narrow alley in front of the shop. A large flat hose was unrolled. Coils of rope were made ready. One fireman with a megaphone started speaking to another fireman a meter away, realized the loudspeaker was not necessary, and put it back into the truck. Another fireman stood with a long pick ax. The police tried to keep the onlookers back.

Nothing much seemed to be happening. The firemen spoke excitedly to each other. More wispy smoke, as from a cigarette, slipped out the jagged hole in the window. After a few minutes of walkie-talkie chatter, the hose was rolled back up and stowed. The firemen began loading up their trucks.

At that moment the elderly mama-san, a bent-backed woman wearing athletic pants, a flower print blouse, and a brown knit sweater vest came out, bowed and apologized to the police and the fire department. Evidently, it was literally a flash in the pan that had flared up while heating some oil for fried rice. The window was broken to let out the smoke. The woman apologized several times then hurriedly went upstairs to apologize to those neighbors.

The efficiency of the Tokyo Fire Department was noteworthy. They had arrived within minutes of the emergency call. Fire has always been Tokyo’s number one enemy, followed closely by real estate agents.

Soon the fire trucks left, southside Asagaya went back to minding its own business. The next day a new window glass had been fitted and snack bar Pub Pollen was back in operation.

A Japanese gem in Yotsuya: Yoneyama

Friday, June 26th, 2009


You’ll find Yoneyama on a nondescript backstreet of Yotsuya san-chome. This is good. Non-trendy neighborhoods mean low rents. And low rents keep menu prices down. This is the benevolent logic of Mitsuo Yoneyama, owner and master of this very choice Japanese restaurant.Yoneyama-suinasu

Chef Yoneyama likes to keep things simple. He serves only two courses: 10,000 yen and 15,000 yen. There wouldn’t be much point, he said, in offering courses at in-between prices. The quality would not differ much. For your 10,000 yen note, Yoneyama journeys every day to Tsukiji market to gather absolutely the best fish, meat, and vegetables which he then prepares in a progression of eight seasonal dishes that you would pay twice or thrice for in Aoyama or the Ginza.

His craft is rather like kaiseki with its series of exquisite food served in equally beautiful dishes, but Yoneyama claims he only serves simple foods with simple tastes. This is like Tiger Woods saying he only knocks golf balls around.

A recent course started off with an appetizer of fried ayu, and slices of duck breast. This was followed by small dishes of eggplant and sushi. Then came a bowl of chawan mushi glazed with a katsuobushi gelèe over a delicious chunk of sea bass as white as angel’s teeth.

Yoneyama-sakeYour meal unfolds slowly. Yoneyama times the progression to your pace. Essential for slowing down time is a chilled flask of Dassai “50”, a charming junmai ginjo sake from Yamaguchi prefecture, fruity but dry and very drinkable.

The dinner continued with grilled baracuda, then another type of eggplant in a luscious broth blanketed with minced, chive-like Kyoto negi. Superb knifework.  The meal ended with a surprise, ebi dashi hiyakake somen, delicately thin wheat noodles in a richly-flavored broth with a sorbet-like slush of ice crysals floating briefly on the surface.Yoneyama-baracuda

Yoneyama is in constant motion behind the 5-seat counter, getting every detail right while behind a linen noren his two assistants do the prep work in his miniscule kitchen. On a back counter he keeps three etched glass bowls filled with ice to chill each colorful dish as necessary. Other dishes are warmed as required.

Chef Yoneyama is 42, but looks much younger. He said it’s because he has no worries, and because he only thinks about cooking.

Yoneyama-chilled somen“This is the kind of place I’ve always wanted to make,” he said as he started washing up. “A place where you can sit for two or three hours, relax, and enjoy and then look at the bill and think ‘Hey, this is great, I want to come back here again.’ “

His counter and two tables are occupied every night.

For the complete Yoneyama review, and more of my reviews, follow this link to Metropolis Magazine:

15 Arakicho, Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3341-3117. Open daily 6pm to 9:30am. (L.O.). Closed Sundays. Reservations recommended.

Tamai Anago in Nihonbashi

Monday, June 8th, 2009


Back behind Takashimaya Department Store in Nihonbashi, in a lovely old wooden structure built back when Elvis graduated from high school, is a shop serving one of Tokyo’s best box lunches (or dinners).

tamai-anago-bako-closeupTamai serves anago, sea eel. You’re probably familiar with unagi, freshwater eel, the dish traditionally eaten on the hottest day of summer, but anago is an altogether different animal.

If you believe the eel bio-sketch at the back of the English menu, anago is lighter than unagi, less sweet, has 50 percent less fat, improves brain function and eyesight, lowers cholesterol and is chock-full of DHA, Vitamin A and E.

Those virtues aside, it’s just damn good. The thing to order here is the chu (middle-sized) hako meshi, a lacquered box containing a bed of rice flavored with snippets of nori and bits of shiso leaf (2800 yen). Arranged on top are anago fillets: one yaki-age, grilled to smoky perfection, and one ni-age, boiled to a plump softness. Both have been moistened with Tamai’s special anago sauce.

In addition to a cup of miso soup and a saucer of Japanese pickles, you’ll have four condiments on your tray: toasted sesame, slivers of scallion, freshly-grated wasabi, and a tin-plated rasp flecked with green sudachi zest. On the table is another, a tiny pot of powerful sansho, Japanese pepper. Use it with care. With five toppings and two styles of anago, you can flavor ten different bites. If you combine condiments, the possible taste combinations are… well, a lot.tamai-anago-lunch

In case you forget, the English menu has step-by-step instructions on exactly how to proceed. It also suggests one should feel free to use the handy wooden spoon when digging in.

When you order, the wait staff will recommended a cup of eel broth (200 yen). Go for it. That’s why there’s an empty soup bowl on your tray. Near the end of the meal, you’ll receive a teapot full of this deeply flavored broth made from dried anago bones. Put a last spoonful or two of rice and eel into the bowl, pour in the broth, add sudachi zest and scallions, and enjoy the savory soup.

tamai-anago-eel-bone1From June to mid-September Tamai’s sea eels are sourced from Tokyo Bay. As the season progresses, they’re caught offshore Ibaraki prefecture, then north off the Miyagi coast, and in the winter they’re caught in Kyushu, where they reach their largest size.

After several spoonfuls of grilled anago, the DHA began to kick in. I felt myself getting smarter, and I started planning my next visit.

For the complete Tamai Anago review, and more of my reviews, follow this link to Metropolis Magazine:

Tamai Anago: 2-9-9 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03.3272.3227. Open Daily. Lunch 11:00am to 2:00pm, Dinner 5:00pm to 9:30pm. Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays 11:30am to 3pm/4:30pm to 8:30pm.

Calm tension: Green tea at Cha-no-ha in Matsuya Ginza

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009


Why do we enjoy bitterness? As children we reject it, but as adults we seek it out. Does bitterness remind us that life is not always sweet? The pleasant bitterness of coffee perks us up. And bitter chocolate (or any chocolate, for that matter) causes the brain to release the same endorphins as it does when we fall in love.

chanoha-branches2For hundreds of years, the Japanese tea ceremony has been centered around a frothy bowl of one of the bitterest teas you can imagine—matcha. As a new student to the art of sado, I’ve discovered the calm tension, and beauty, of a carefully prepared bowl of tea. The bitter tannins and caffeine of the emerald liquid energize me, yet the lovely motions of the tea making, and the care and concern for the comfort and well being of the guest relax me.

Over the last several years, green tea shops have been opening all over Tokyo. One of the oldest, and best, Cha-no-ha, is in the basement of Matsuya Ginza Department store.

Hidden behind a linen noren, this tiny shop looks as if it’s been chiseled out of living limestone. The lighting is dim, cave-like, and a soothing gurgle of running water comes from a stone basin containing forest-sized branches of a seasonal ikebana arrangement.chanoha-wagashi1

Now is shincha season, the first flush of new leaves, and you can relax with a cup of freshly-made sencha tea, the lighter, everyday brew, prepared in a kyusu, the tiny Japanese stoneware teapot. You’ll make the tea yourself, after a short explanation by the attentive staff.

One pot of tea, which can be refilled with newly heated water, and a seasonal wagashi bean paste sweet costs 735 yen. Another more extensive set including three kinds of tea—the exquisite gyokuro, Japan’s finest green tea; a frothy bowl of matcha; and a pot sencha—plus three matching wagashi, will run you 1575 yen.

If you need a respite from the crowds of Ginza, seek out this refuge. Stoneware teapots and other utensils, as well as a fine selection of green teas, are for sale outside the shop.

Cha-no-ha B1 Matsuya Ginza Dept. Store. Tel: 03.3567.2635. Open everyday.