Author Archives: Latin Sushi

No need to break chains

Imahan

Restaurants where I can slide my feet back and forth against tatami mats are always soothing. As is this restaurant, where I slide my feet along the smooth wooden raised floors, decorated in tradition style, down the hall to the private tatami mat room in which we are seated. The small stone garden by the window is a nice touch, and I am surprised to learn that Imahan is a chain.

Chain restaurants are definitely not just cheap fast food joints, as I have learned in Japan, and lately, I’ve been devoting some time to trying out some of Tokyo’s benchmark institutions, despite the fact that they’ve often parlayed their success into better real estate and multiple locations. Imahan is definitely one of these. Established 112 years ago, and with locations throughout the city, Imahan is not exactly off the beaten path. As someone who likes to try out little, family-owned, or funky hole-in-the-wall places, however, Imahan was certainly off my beaten path.

We started with smooth thick sesame tofu, steamed root vegetables, and cool squid salad, and continued on to a delicious sashimi plate in our set lunch. Then onto a clear stew with mushrooms, beans, carrot, and daikon, which was hearty and satisfying. But of course it was the unforgettable main event that we had come for: the meat for the sukiyaki/gyunabe was marblelized and set out in large, thinly sliced pieces. Unlike some lower market joints, two waitresses in kimono arrived to cook the sukiyaki for each end of our table. The sauce was very shallow in the pan, they always seemed to know when to add more, exactly when to turn the meat over, and just how long each vegetable needed to be cooked.

At the end, each individual bowl of raw egg was served with the sweet meat and vegetables at just the same time. The juicy meat and egg were gone in seconds, and to my surprise, our bowls were taken away. Unlike at other sukiyaki restaurants, we were given fresh egg in our bowls for each helping. So on the second go around, the ratio of egg to sauce to meat to vegetable was completely unchanged, and perfect. I had no idea sukiyaki could feel so luxurious.

Of course, as most sets do, there was some sort of dessert at the end. An ice cream? A sorbet? Was there tea? In the amazement of having eaten such phenomenal dish, I have to admit anything that followed was quite a blur.
Imahan

Suzunoya Head office Building 6F
1-20-11 Ueno Taito-ku, Tokyo

TEL: 81-3-5688-0754

(Also other locations throughout Tokyo)

Let’s go to my house

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Apres Midi Cafe

Living in Tokyo, one of the things I miss most is the ease of hanging out at friends’ houses; in my hometown, friends were close-by, and cars made last-train considerations irrelevant. Apres Midi Café in Shibuya is like the home of a very cool friend, that is, if your very cool friend has DJ’s come over to spin regularly.

A little bit difficult to find for the first-time visitor, the café is located on the fifth floor of a rather non-descript shabby white building. Inside the atmosphere is very casual, with mismatched chairs and worn-down couches. The food is minimal, but tasty. A very light, albeit small, crunchy gorgonzola pizza makes a good snack, as does the salad, but the drinks are really what this café does best. My pick is the soda and tea-mixed apricot cocktail, my favorite summer drink. Desserts here are French-inspired and reasonably good.

On a hot day, there doesn’t seem to be air-conditioning, but the windows are opened, people are relaxing and grooving, and I almost start looking for my cool friend to compliment her on this great house party.
http://www.apres-midi.biz/

Your evening is Ubcra

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Kyo Restaurant Ubcra

When I’m headed off to some romantic mysterious land, this is how I imagine the luxury dining car. Kyo restaurant Ubcra is warm, dark, and cozy, and its design takes full advantage of the small, rectangular shape of the building as small booths line the walls single-file and give you the feeling that you are entirely alone. For a little more excitement, seats at the bar provide a great view of the cooks preparing yaki-tori, and modern couches and tables at the balcony are a great place for people watching through the restaurant’s two-story glass front.

The extensive menu (in both English and Japanese) makes this upscale izakaya an ideal place to become a regular. Choosing from yaki-tori, sashimi, tempura, nabe, salads, and more, my favorites in past visits have included a light and crunchy lotus root tempura, fried to perfection, to be dipped in wasabi salt. Also notable is the tororo sashimi salad and the tsukune (I’ve heard a rumor that the chicken here is free-range but…). Of course, as it is Kyoto-style fare, yuba is featured fresh, wrapped around shrimp and cream cheese spring rolls, and in croquettes. Pages of options for drinks show a good mix, particularly of shochu, and the specialty cocktails are great, particularly the soy milk one (although stay away from the mojito, which tastes like soda with a little Listerine thrown in).

Having the same owner as the cheesy aquarium walled, over-designed Bar Luxis down the street, Ubcra is surprisingly chic and relaxed, with food to match.

Kyo Restaurant Ubcra

1-3-11, ebisu-nishi, shibuya-ku, tokyo

Phone 03 5428 5057

Open 7 days a week, 5pm-5am

What were we drinking?

Joumon

While most restaurants in Roppongi polarize into the super posh or decidedly not ( China Café 8, anyone?), somehow the Joumon vibe has avoided ending up on either end of the trashy-flashy spectrum. Right in the middle, the inspired design of Joumon is cool, while somehow still earthy and warm. This a laid back yet impeccably decorated joint would seem more part of the scene somewhere quirky and hip, and yet here it is, just down the street from Asahi Television headquarters.

Specializing in kushiyaki, all the traditional favorites were delicious and taken off the grill at the exact right moment. We loved the hearts, pork calbi, and tsukune, and the lotus root wrapped in bacon was good enough that we ordered seconds. Happily puzzled to find a cheese section in the kushiyaki menu, we enjoyed the skewered smoked cheese and camembert.

There were also some unexpected treats to change up the rhythm of our meal. A stewed pork dish was smooth and light, and an enormous croquette bomb, sitting in tartar sauce with a soft-boiled egg in center was rich and crunchy. We also sample the foie gras liver pate, which while irreproachable, would have been better as part of a different meal, with wine perhaps, which we were not drinking.

What were we drinking? Oh boy. Here is where Joumon really shines. The selection of shochu is the speciality, although the variety of choices is matched in pretty much any other drink category. Our friendly and genuine waiter led some of us to the “Kureha Royal” Umeshu, a unique plum wine made using Earl Grey tea, which was truly a revelation.

The only weakness to this otherwise strong menu was the dessert. While the brownie, creme brulee, and quickly forgotten third dessert that we ate were tasty, even the ones I can remember clearly didn’t leave much of an impression.

Sometimes a place can be impressive simply by being solid in all areas. Joumon is definitely worth a second visit, although after this first one, we are already planning to become regulars.

Joumon

5-9-17 Roppongi

Minato-ku, Tokyo

03-3405-2585

Savor Savor Tibet Tibet

As we entered the resoundingly minimal interior of Tibet Tibet, we couldn’t help but feel that the huge black Buddha in the back of the room was beckoning us to stop thinking about crowded trains and other stresses of city life. Situated on a small side street set apart from Shimokitazawa’s funky secondhand shops, this restaurant is the perfect spot for an eye-opening dinner.

We chose a seat on the soft white mats instead of the sofas, sauntered up to the low glass tables and, after glancing at our options, summoned the staff by ringing the worn metal bell (an electronic one would have seemed alarmingly out of place). Fruit-infused shochu arrived first: delicious concoctions of fresh fruit soaking in alcohol in glass jars prominently displayed as faux-art pieces on the wall behind the bar (¥500- ¥700). We recommend the blueberry, pomegranate and raspberry varieties on the rocks.

Every time we visit Tibet Tibet, we gain new appreciation for its inventive Southeast Asian dishes. A shining example is the harumaki spring roll loaded with shrimp, avocado, tomato, tobiko, yellowtail, green onion and carrot drizzled with a gingery ranch dressing (¥880). The presentation in thin rice paper is understated, yet the flavor is somehow both rich and light— and tremendously addictive.

While nibbling on potato-pork croquettes with wasabi mayonnaise (¥680) and an excellent, lightly fried corn and shrimp tempura with sprinkles of shiso (¥700), we got ready for the night’s feature presentation: the Himalayan Coconut Curry (¥900). Arriving in a big wooden bowl, the moat of thick curry hounded the plateau of sweet purple rice in the middle, which was like an eroding desert island guarded by stalks of fresh cilantro and warm avocado wedges. While we generally shy away from curries that aren’t loaded with chili, we can’t help but dish out spoonfuls of hyperbole when contemplating this dish’s brilliance, which lies far more in the balance and ratio of the fresh ingredients than any attempt at taste-bud mutilation.

On nights when the turntables in the corner are silent, Tibet Tibet plays an eclectic mix of Latin, African, Indian and Indonesian music, which leaves us questioning exactly why the restaurant is named after a country that’s barely represented on the menu. This mix of ethnicity was demonstrated yet again with a large urn full of tom yum kun, a mildly spicy, steaming and almost Vietnamese version of the popular Thai noodle dish, replete with green vegetables and crowded with soft tofu (¥880).

Tibet Tibet has found its identity by serving an unpretentious mélange of Southeast Asian cooking. The beautiful irony is that, in doing so, it has succeeded in creating a distinctive character while straddling the culinary borders that so often pigeonhole restaurants into serving popular but mediocre dishes. So take a moment. Forget what you think you know about fusion, and just savor, savor.

2F Nice Bldg, 5-29-9 Daizawa, Setagaya-ku.Tel: 03-5433-1565.

Open Sun-Fri 6pm-1am, Sat 2pm-1am. Nearest stn: Shimokitazawa, west exit. www.livemedia.co.jp/wwc/wwctop/yuutop/tibet/tibetindex.html

Ecstatic palate, Spicy heart.

On entering elegance on a glass floor with lotus flowers under your feet, you emerge looking out over downtown Tokyo, from an unobstructed 35th floor view. In good weather, the city lights around Mango Tree Tokyo remind you of garlic and blinking red chili peppers in the sky. You sit and decide on the more expensive Course B (8400 yen) dinner set, because really, is there any other option, and really, it will be cheaper than ordering a la carte, right? (At this exact moment, you don’t realize that no matter how full you are after the dinner set, you will not be able to resist a couple mojitos, a bottle of wine or two, and maybe a fresh spicy papaya salad or delicious tender satay plate on the side.)

You are surprised by the first of the seven courses, a tiny surf clam salad with spicy sauce which you need to squint to see, but packs a pungency that surprised your taste buds, still recovering from the sweet aftertaste of that mojito. The deep fried chicken wrapped in some sort of Pandan Leaf is soft on your tongue and its sweet and spicy sauce relaxes you. You next receive a spicy mushroomy shrimpy Tom Yum Goong soup, and a “Steamed Pacific Cod Mousse Thai Style Flavored with red Curry”, yes you think you read that right, some sort of orange-colored cod-based Mousse filled with scallops and cauliflower, a novel concoction which is subtle but interesting enough to keep you staring. Well, by this point, your palate is cleared and you have to wait a bit, have some wine, “Take some time for yourself,” their menu exclaims, because you’ll need the rest before feasting on perhaps the most … (for lack of a better word) delicious thing you have tasted all month.

You decide to start a new paragraph to talk about this dish, because well, frankly, it deserves it. Grilled Standing Lump with Spicy herb served with Sticky Rice eeks with herbs, onions, leeks, lemongrass, red pepper, and cilantro, a gorgeous touch to an otherwise already spectacular beef. The thinly-sliced Lump (do they mean Rump?) is medium cooked and grilled with vinegar then covered with the firey mixure which makes you wish aloud, “Dear Mango god, Please let this never end!” All your friends turn to you and decide your outburst is caused by a broken heart, pour you some more wine, and hand you a desert menu, which is really a considerate gesture considering the rice noodle soup and persimmon tatine which came with the dinner set is a bit disappointing after that main course.

You order a glass of port, some organic coffee, and a divine coconut creme brulee (after which 3 of your friends quickly follow suit), because you decide it will sate your sad heart and your overstimulated hunger. This Tokyo jewel has a sister in London and one in Bangkok, and clearly prides itself quality and selection, on not being able to list every city in the world on their business cards, like some Gordon Ramsey carbon-copied mass-manufactured haute chicken fat. Today, Mango Tree has calmed your raging quest for culinary adventure and your emotional confusion has been embraced by the spicy constancy still lingering on your tongue.

Mango Tree Tokyo

Marunouchi Bldg. 35F

2-4-1 Marunouchi

Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Tel: 03-5224-5489

In front of New Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station.

http://www.mangotree.jp/

All’s whale that ends whale

As long as you overlook the fact that every country in the world except Japan and Iceland have ratified the anti-whaling laws, you are in for one of those rare meals that can only be found in this, quite possibly the most culinarily-adventurous cities in the world. And in this particular corner of Shibuya (right next to 109), there is no attempt to hide, or even downstate the whale.

kujira.jpgOn a recent visit, I experimented with the waiter’s suggestion of getting whale prepared 5 different ways. There are a few other things (like fried chicken!!) on the menu, but why would you want to do that to yourself? We started with whale sashimi, which was a bit bland but evoked faux-memories of sailing in the high seas with pirates chasing whales with rusty harpoons. It wasn’t bad, was soft and meaty, just didn’t have the bite that I had hoped. Whale blubber and bacon were next: white rectangles of fat which were so chewy and succulent that I regretted loading it with wasabi and soy-sauce.

We tried whale heart and whale brain, both of which I won’t detail here for purposes ofwhalebacon.jpg creating a little bit of mystery (Do order it though!). And to finish, the waiter brought out fried pieces of karage whale, which though seemingly just chicken in disguise, allowed us to fully taste the fatty vastness of whale, dipped in tangy something sauce, bringing me back to Moby Dick, pirates, and eventually, the street of Shibuya, with lights spinning a bit under my drunken shochu brain. I half-expected to emerge from Kujira-ya in the middle of a bunch of hippies protesting whale-eaters like me. But luckily… this is Japan, where eating is never a crime.

Kujira-ya

Shibuya (right next to 109)

Dogenzaka 2-29-22. Open 11am-9:45pm (LO) daily.

Tel: 3461-9145.

Reinventing the Wheel… (or at Least Adding Avocado)

SushiiiiiiiJapan has some customs that are regarded as indelible such as not wearing shoes indoors, or thou shalt not stick chopsticks vertically into food. At the risk of sounding blasphemous to my Japanese compatriots, California may have a thing or two that it can teach Japan about creativity in the sushi world.

Coming from someone who eats sushi daily and has learned to appreciate the subtleties in the texture of hirame, having avocado and waterfall-like salmon gnawing at my unagi eel definitely induced winces. My friend thought avocado was just a food Californians ate to show the rest of the world how pretentious they are. And I admit, telling Japanese people how to reinvent sushi doesn’t exactly help my case.

San Francisco and L.A. are full of restaurants which produce salmon/mango/macadamia nut rolls by the dozen, but finding these Calimaki institutions in Tokyo was a bit of a surprise. Still though, with a prime location amidst Tokyo’s foreign population in Azabu-Juban and a extensive drink menu with many top sakes and such novelties as white wine mojitos, Rainbow Roll sushi makes up in taste and invention what it lacks in tradition.
restThe restaurant’s namesake, a crab-avocado California roll covered in generous slabs of shrimp, salmon, squid, and nobiko is succulent and unique, as is the Dragon Roll, soft warm eel embracing avocado. The ambiance is sleek and modern, and though the basic sashimi selection was fresh and well-prepared, I wouldn’t go back unless I wanted to experiment. There are myriad impeccable sushi restaurants in Tokyo, but only one where making fun of Californians is so much fun. Don’t take your Japanese grandparents… They probably won’t get it.

Rainbow Roll Sushi

Monte Plaza 2F, 1-10-3 Azabujuban, Minato-ku, Tokyo
(One minute walk from exit A5 of Azabu Juban Station on the Oedo and
Nanboku lines)
Tel.03-5572-7688

The Russian Art of knowing when to stop

How do 4 Russian-cuisine neophytes eat through 19 dishes and 24 drinks at Tokyo’s
most adored (and perhaps only?) Belarusian restaurant? Give them some vodka and a menu.

A dark dark dark black beer (highhhhhly recommended) and a double shot of ice cold Stolichnaya vodka in a frozen shotglass. Flanking an unspectacular thoroughfare near the Russian Embassy, lies a world in which vodka passes as water, and yuppies on Atkin’s diets run for dear life. On a recent outing with my 3 adventurous eating companions, our quest to self-challenge our own gastronomic familiarity was met with equal prowess played by the part of a very adept team of Belarusian chefs and waitresses who slung comments like, “You guys can really drink, huh?” I’ll take that as a compliment at a Belarusian restaurant any day.

Another vodka and black beer round began the journey. We started with the smoked salmon crepes, rolled with capers and decadent cheese sauce, which we knew we’d be seeing again. The potato pancake stuffed with warm baked meat and the stuffed paprika (red and yellow spliced bell pepper) showed us that what’s on the inside really counts. The stuffing trend continued with a few Golubtsys (stuffed cabbage rolls) and what my friend so eloquently describes as “Sumpin’ with sumpin’ inside”. But where he lacked verbosity, he made up for with appetite, challenging the burly white-hatted chefs to a duel of culinary adventure. Another black beer, another double shot of Stolichnaya vodka. And it was then that they pulled out their trump cards. The perfection of the Sour Cream Pork Stew left us begging for seconds; tender soft pork cutlets in tangy sour cream sauce sang a duet with the Beef Stroganoff, the Bolinchky, and as foreshadowed, another 4 orders of the salmon crepes.

While independent since 1990, the former USSR republic has continued to develop and refine its own distinct culinary culture. At one time, Belarusians used to be scornfully called bulbashi, or potato-eaters. Now though, restaurants like Minsk are showing Tokyoites the superlative truth, one dish at a time.

Minsk [Belarusian Home Cooking]

1-4-2 Azabudai Minato-ku, Tokyo

Tel: (03)-3586-6600

How sexy is your Sushi Party?

Sushi 1

What? Has TokyoFoodie.com turned into an adult site? Well, not yet anyway! But the sexier that sushi gets these days, it’s little wonder that the above picture might be censored by your Japanese company’s internet security. A new underground group of architects, designers, and sushi chefs in West Tokyo has created a series of sushi parties, in which expert sushi chefs (think Tsukiji) combine top-quality sushi with modern sculpture-esque creations, chill lounge music, and a deep red speakeasy-like bar replete with models, sushi connoisseurs and designers. It ain’t cheap, but that manages to weed out the kaiten-sushi scum crowd. As red lounge music filled the warm air, bursts of raw hirame wrapped around asparagus covered with black pepper filled our taste-buds. Soon after platters of salmon nigiri, came the toro, more than satisfying the purists who gave suspiciously peering eyes at the ikura wrapped in warm avocado on a bed of soft marinated cabbage.

Sushi 2

The hamachi decadence and aforementioned Avocado wrapped in alternating layers with tuna heaven will thank you for bringing your appetite. The concoctions were accented with spices and novel combinations of fish and vegetables which look like mini cities filled with ikura people and mackerel freeways. Keep an eye out for these secret sushi extravaganzas happening around Tokyo. Sushi is in evolution.

Sexy Sushi Party

Secret Locations around Tokyo on the Den-en-toshi line.

Watch TokyoFoodie.com for announcements.

Yum.

Sushi 3