Category Archives: Izakaya

Cinematic Japanese Food

Have you seen Kill Bill?

Remember the restaurant that housed the big fight scene when Uma Thurman killed all those guys?

Did you know that is based on a real restaurant in Tokyo?

This is how many conversations begin, which culminate in a trip to Gonpachi. As one of the most well-known Tokyo establishments, Gonpachi offers a casually minimal, though consistently adequate foray into non-sushi Japanese cuisine. Of course, they have a sushi bar as well, though the real draw here is the atmosphere.  Gonpachi, run by the massive restaurant company Global Dining, has locations in Ginza, Shibuya, and Odaiba as well, in addition to Fukuoka and Bevery Hills (!) but any Tokyoite can tell you that the one to wow visitors with is the Nishi-Azabu branch.

The soba is not only homemade, but arrivers can watch chefs knead the soba dough through big pane windows. The tempura is perfect, as are some of the “grilled things-on-sticks”. We recommend the duck with wasabi, the toro (bluefin tuna belly), the foie gras, and especially the Gindara, a stupendous black cod glazed with miso and grilled so the consistency is soft and flakes off into bite-size morsels like sea bass. Everytime I’m there, I ponder just asking for 10 orders of gindara.

The drink menu is not only extensive and covers all the basics, but they threw in a few interesting cocktails to wow your parents. The dessert menu was created by Stephane Vieux, which means the presentation always competes with the combinations of tastes; for an unforgetable end to your Japanese barn dinner, indulge in a Warm Chocolate Cake & Sesame Ice Cream or the Kuzumochi & Kinako Ice Cream with Black Sugar Syrup.

Ok, I need to admit something. Almost all my Japanese friends hate this place. Seriously. To them, this is not fine dining, barely Japanese food, and overpriced stereotyped Lonely Planet fodder. I don’t necessarily disagree in premise, it is after all, a big wooden barn decorated to look like a Japanese restaurant on a movie soundstage. Although for visitors, Gonpachi may just fullfill the basic Japanese sterotypical dishes which are so often lost in the modern Tokyo of nouvelle and fusion. This is the kind of restaurant that your family will write group emails to their middle-aged European friends about. Just ask Quentin Tarantino.

Gonpachi

03-5771-0170

1-13-11 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0031

http://www.gonpachi.jp

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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

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.