Los Barbados: African/Turkish/Moroccan/French joint in Shibuya

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013


Joints like Los Barbados make living in Tokyo a privilege. Down an unattractive Shibuya side street and wedged into a nondescript building with six other tiny establishements, this African/Turkish/Moroccan/French eatery is run by one free-spirited Japanese dude in a T-shirt and jeans who back when reggae hit the Japanese shore decided to go to Jamaica, but instead ended up in the Congo.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHe’s been back to the Congo multiple times for additional cooking lessons.

But he’s also hung out in Paris with the African crowd picking up a French approach to cooking. And when the mood strikes, he says he might whip up a prune and olive chicken tagine.

His haven is hung with French vinyl LP covers such as “Franco L’Afrique Danse No. 6” or “Dynamite Verckys et l’Orchestre Veve” or “Docteur Nico” or “Johnny Bokelo et Son Orchestre L’Afrique Danse No. 1.”

The joint is basically just a cramped kitchen surrounded by a narrow counter, seating seven or eight, with the space above filled with bottles of rhum, African masks and colorful paintings of a zebra, giraffe, and hippo. Easing from the corner speakers is a constant Congolese groove of intricate guitar and infectious  drum work.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe 15–20 item menu varies from the Assorted Vegetable Starter (500 yen) featuring tabouleh, hummus with rose pepper, pickled red cabbage, and French carrot salad; to African Grilled Chicken with fufu cassava (1000 yen) or Turkish “springrolls” deep-fried tidbits filled with lamb and dabbed with hot sauce (650 yen).

The chef also serves up a tasty Senegalese Whitefish Stew with peanuts, tomatoes and okra (950 yen) or a Chickpea and Vegetable Couscous dish (950 yen).

Hot sauce is served with each dish, but for the brave, or the addled, a few bottles of habanero-based sauces are available for incendiary heat.

The chef has also selected several well-priced French rosé, white, and red wines by the glass.

And if you want to explore French Caribbean rhum, you’re in luck.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHe’s got nearly 20 types of rhum from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and a superb specimen from the Isle de Marie-Galante—the 50% strong La Guildive honoring Jean-Baptiste Labat, the Dominican monk and inventor of the distillation of sugar cane in the 17th century (900 yen the glass).

You can’t go wrong at Los Barbados. You’ll be well fed, and your wallet won’t be much lighter than when you went in. Reservations are usually not necessary, but call ahead if you like.

Los Barbados: 41-46 Udagawacho, Papier Biru 104, Shibuya-ku. Open Monday to Saturday 12 noon to midnight. Tel: 03.3496.7157. If you get lost trying to find the place, call. The chef will explain how to get there.

For a map, check out this link:




Sembei in Sendagi: Kikumi Honten

Monday, May 4th, 2009


Kikumi has been making rice crackers for 133 years. Over the years here in Tokyo, I’ve sampled sembei from all over the city, but these are my favorites. The big square crackers pack a hearty crunch with a full “ricey” savor balanced with a delicate shoyu glaze. The togarashi, red pepper-flavored crackers will start a slow satisfying burn in your mouth that begs for a cool beer extinguisher.kikumi-sembei-counter

For the sweet tooth, Kikumi makes a green matcha-glazed cracker and another enameled with white sugar. The large glass globes contain an array of nibble-sized crackers in various sizes, shapes and degrees of crunch.

kikumi-sembei-exteriorKikumi is at the bottom of a long lazy slope leading up to the Yanaka neighborhood. Yanaka survived the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the fire-bombings of the Second World War and is rich with temples, shrines, and shops.

The neighborhood is perfect for an afternoon walk. Seek out Tennoji Shrine, Yanaka Cemetery and the Asakura Choso Museum. Asakura Fumio is considered Japan’s Rodin and is rightly famous for his bronze statues. He was especially fond of cats and the museum’s feline bronzes are particularly lovely. The museum comprises his Japanese-style home, atelier, and enclosed water garden. His roof garden is wonderful.

Kikumi Sembei Sohonten, 3-37-16 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku. 03-3821-1215. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Coffee at Gekkoso art supply shop

Monday, February 2nd, 2009


You might think of Tokyo as a frantic city—noisy, cramped, hectic—but down a side street in Ginza, in one of Tokyo’s oldest art supply stores, you can sit in church-like quietude as long as you like, on a low stool at a small table, and write a letter or a postcard over a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

gekkoso-coffee2Gekkoso was founded in 1917 and stayed in their original location until a couple of years ago when they moved to this Ginza neighborhood. I had been wandering all over that section of Ginza trying to find a tempura shop located in a crawl space between two tall Ginza  buildings when I spotted the posthorn logo of Gekkoso and the kanji for kissaten. 

The first floor, behind the stained glass door, offers art supplies: oil paints, brushes, sketchbooks, aprons, and sundry other items. The brushes are handmade by the son of the first craftsman ever to make oil paint brushes in Japan. At least, that’s what the young lady behind the counter told me. All the sketch books are also hand bound. 

gekosso-wall2Downstairs is a small art gallery and perhaps Tokyo’s smallest coffee shop. Two tiny tables with stools. Coffee, Darjeeling, Jasmine or Hoji tea are available for 300 yen each. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. If you are so inclined, tack up an original piece of artwork, or just a note, on the wall like hundreds of others have before you.

8-7-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku. 03.3572.5605. open everyday except the New Year’s holidays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The entrance is on Hanatsubaki dori.

Dominique Bouchet and saké at Isetan

Sunday, January 18th, 2009


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.

Chanko nabe at Kawasaki

Friday, January 9th, 2009


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

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008


Here it is New Year’s Eve and I’m excited by toothpicks.

 The supermarkets are jammed with folks buying osechi, traditional New Year’s delicacies, but a toothpick display at Isetan, my favorite department store in Shinjuku, stole my attention.

 Set out next to a gleaming array of sleek Alessi accessories was a modest collection of products from Saruya, one of Tokyo’s oldest shops.

 Since Edo times, Saruya has been a purveyor of handcrafted toothpicks. How could I pass up a pack of 500 shirakaba, white birch, picks priced at only ¥105? The smiling sales woman recommended the more expensive utsugi wood picks, cut from stems of the deutzia crenata bush, as being stronger, thinner, and more flexible, so I bought 250 of those. And I had to have a cordwood-like bundle of the larger, thicker spicewood kashi-yoji, cut with a thin strip of bark still attached. A kashi-yoji is used as a fork when eating Japanese sweets.

 Neanderthals used toothpicks. One of my favorite writers, Henry Petroski, has written a fascinating 464-page book on toothpick technology and culture. Who knew there was so much to say about toothpicks?

 Using a toothpick means I’ve sunk my teeth into something. Not such as easy thing during these lean times.

 Using a toothpick also means I’ve got time to poke around in corners—that I don’t need to rush off to some other task.

 And now that I’ve stocked up, I can look forward to tonight’s soba, and tomorrow’s ozoni soup, and osechi food knowing that I can spend a few quiet moments, like my Neanderthal cousins did, intently probing the gaps, digging out bits, pondering what’s been left behind. 

Where is the Bib Gourmand?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Last month, the second Michelin Guide to Tokyo was published with stacks of their books, as thick and blood red as Kobe beefsteaks, piled high in every bookstore. 

But where is the Bib Gourmand? The chubby little icon smiling next to a listing serving good food at reasonable prices? 

Why are only starred restaurants listed?  Why the full-page color photos both interior and exterior?  Why the long, dull, lifeless prose? Why the typos?

Consider this description of Yebisu, a one-starred teppanyaki restaurant in Ebisu: “At each counter, chefs skilfully [sic] grill Japanese and Western ingredients right in front of diners.” Wow, right in front of diners. Isn’t that what teppanyaki means?

Or more: “The head chef pays particular attention to colour, composing dishes in tempting colours.” Maybe the writer ought to pay particular attention to redundancy. 

Or more: “After dinner, guests can move from the teppanyaki counter to sofas for dessert.” A sofa for dessert? Make mine lightly upholstered, please.

With an estimated 200,000 eateries in this fine city, why focus on a place like Arakawa, a steak joint, where lunch is listed at ¥52,500. That doesn’t include the service charge, by the way.

Why only three Italian restaurants? Why no Korean restaurants?  Why no Indian restaurants?  Or any other from the vast panoply of world cuisines that Tokyo offers?  Why no ramen shops? 

When Michelin really starts to get serious about eating in Tokyo; when it replaces dull ad-copy-like prose with terse descriptions of food, specialties, and ambiance; when it gets rid of colorful photos of food and interiors; when it includes restaurants that offer good food at reasonable prices; when it lists not only 218 “starred” restaurants but perhaps 518 restaurants of all types and price ranges; then their little red book will become a real guide to eating in Tokyo—as it is in Paris and many other cities—and not merely a collection of glossy promotional brochures for each starred restaurant.