Category Archives: Roppongi

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

A Tokyo Mexican Restaurant Primer

The last thing you’d expect to be eating in Tokyo is Mexican food. In the greatest culinary capital of the world, inundated with myriad options of all types of Japanese food, curious oddities from other parts of Asia, Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Singaporean food as good and authentic as the best found in those countries, why would any foodie consider eating food from Mexico?

Well, believe it or not, there are some crazy folks who, after living in Tokyo for so long, crave other types of sustenance. For those spicy-searching creatures, I’ll take a quick look over Tokyo’s Mexican restaurants. Please don’t be too depressed. You couldn’t have expected Oaxaca.

La Fonda de La Madrugada – Harajuku

Harajuku station: Jingumae 2-33-12-B2.

This Disney-esque mock up of what they want you to believe Mexico looks like will make you vomit. [ed: That was eloquently put.] This mistake of a restaurant is what happens when a developer decides that interior design is more important than food quality and service. Who cares if half the dishes are just tasteless doughy/meaty things soaked in canola oil? At least it’s festive! While the menu is certainly more diverse than most of the local Mexican joints, the food is all saturated in grease, the waiters are untrained, slow, and uninformed, and the food, well… if a waiter doesn’t spill a plate of it on your lap (this happened to my friend), and they don’t charge you for multiple plates that were never ordered (this happened to my other friend), and they don’t mess up your order and bring you other dishes (this has happened to almost everyone I know), the food will probably make you vomit all over Omotesando Street (this happened to me). Still, the mariachi band is nice.

La Jolla – Hiroo

03-3442-1865. http://www.la-jolla.jp/

Hiroo Station: Hiroo 5-16-3, Koyasu Bldg. 2F.

We award our La Jolla our Runner-up prize. A relative newcomer on the Mexican scene, and located in the foreigner haven of Hiroo, La Jolla has in freshness what it lacks in style. The food, while approaching Junkadelic’s grandeur, is served drably and people often complain of feeling like they are eating in an office building. In terms of offerings, it seems like they photocopied Junkdelic’s menu, though they get props for deciding to add more variations, like fish tacos. We expect that as La Jolla grows up, it will focus on its ambiance a bit more, for although the food gets high marks, the complete dining experience is still lacking that bit of excitement.

Junkadelic – Nakameguro

03-5725-5020.  http://junkadelic.jp/

Naka-Meguro station: Kami-Meguro 4-10-4. Open 6pm-2am.

One of the only palatable Mexican restaurants in Tokyo, Junkadelic shines as a (not-so) hidden gem in the backstreets of Nakameguro. Frequently full of the salsa-seekers and huge-ass-margarita sippers of Tokyo’s international community, Junkadelic retains the position for the second year as Tokyo Foodie’s Mexican Restaurant of the Year! The chimichangas, fajitas, and burritos are large, fresh, and affordable and though some complain about the authenticity of the cuisine, the taste more than compensates. Start with a large order of nachos, try a few GIGANTIC and strong margaritas (in flavors locos likeguanabana and mora), order a main dish or 3, and make sure you ask for chipotle salsa – it’s not on the menu, but they will smile their devious smile when you ask, and it will be the wings on your new-found Mexican angel. Junkadelic was started by a Japanese guy who lived in San Diego, traveled around Mexico, and couldn’t find any acceptable Mexican cuisine when he returned to Tokyo. Theinside is decorated like a Mexican courtyard during a family reunion, and they project skateboarding videos on the wall, acompanied by **not-cheesy** mexican music.

Other Ones

I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but there really isn’t that much edible Mexican food in this city. There are other places to be sure; Corporate places based on plasticized Tex-Mex upscale Taco Bells line Roppongi and Shinjuku (La Fiesta, El Borracho, El Patio, Salsita, Rosario) and overpriced attempts at Fancy Mexican Food (The new La Colina in Tokyo Midtown, opened by the aforementioned Fonda De La Madrugada, and just as under-performing, though costlier).

We tried to warn you. It’s not our fault.

We came here for the sushi anyway.

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

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