Crepes: the slow food version

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Au Temps Jadis Creperie

Tucked away on a little side street between Shibuya and Harajuku, it is not a surprise that the existence of Au Temps Jadis Creperie was passed down to me through a string of friends, each showing it to the next as a secret, sweet discovery. I, for one, hate the fake whip-cream-filled crepes sold in stands all around Shibuya and Harajuku both, and when I was invited to meet a friend for a crepe brunch; I agreed only to be polite.

She took me to Au Temps Jadis, of course, and as soon as we climbed down the brick staircase into the airy dining room, past the red-checkered tablecloths and out onto a patio table by a marble fountain, I realized that dining here had not been an idle suggestion. The fragrant smell of cheeses and eggs cooking was phenomenal, and we settled into our menus, choosing between savory crepes such as salmon and cream cheese, and sweet ones such as banana chocolate.

I settled in to my Orangina and spinach, cream sauce, and ham galette, savoring the richness of the flavors, freshly combined as to still remain distinct. The lunch set comes with a salad and a little dessert of a small sugared cream puff. Although it started to rain and we were moved inside, the early afternoon atmosphere of this busy place so delighted us that we moved on to after-lunch hot cocoas, which were creamy and a perfect finish.

No matter when I return to Au Temps Jadis Creperie, each time the decadence of flavors and homey atmosphere feel like the perfect Sunday morning retreat.

http://www.many.co.jp/jadis/salon.html

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Come for the ambience, not the food

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The Canal Cafe

The Canal Café offers two possible dining options: the restaurant side café, which promises pizza and pasta in a traditional restaurant setting, and the deck-side café, which allows you to purchase food cafeteria style and bring your pet to dine by the canal with you. Visiting the deck side is a great idea for hanging out alone or with friends on a warm day. Soaking up the sun while watching children out in rowboats with their fathers is a pleasant backdrop for a long conversation.

On a recent winter afternoon, I visited the restaurant side for the first time. Sitting outside by the water, the view and ambience were equally as pleasant as the deck side, however, I wrongly expected the food there to be of a higher caliber than it’s take-out-style counterpart. Settling into a menu featuring a full page of pizza options, I was disappointed to find out that there were no pizzas being served that day. My friend and I ended up ordering a panini set and a curry set, and I ended up being disappointed by both. The Panini was not in fact a grilled Italian sandwich, rather it was a cold sandwich served on toasted French baguette. Not bad, but hardly remarkable. The Thai green curry was mediocre, and I became immediately suspicious that it had come out of one of those instant curry aluminum bags.

Once finished with our quickly cooling tea, my friend and I tried to get closer to a heat lamp that may or may not have been on (we couldn’t quite tell). Looking out onto the canal, people had started to rent out boats for the afternoon, and I watched a pig-tailed child lean out over the edge of a rowboat to feed some carp. The sun came out, and I started to think that maybe it isn’t always about the food after all.
http://www.canalcafe.jp/cafe/

You can dress her up but you can’t take her out

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Chabuya

When my favorite neighborhood ramen shop closed to open a bigger, fancier restaurant in Omotesando Hills, I nearly cried. Chabuya had operated two separate shops in Gokokuji, a dimly lit, shio-ramen shop that seated about eight, and a brighter, larger miso-ramen shop with glass windows to the kitchen to watch the noodles being made. Shio-ramen has always been my personal favorite, and I frequented the smaller Chabuya, buying a meal ticket from the machine at the door and sitting down to the stylish long black stone table, so uncharacteristic of the usual utilitarian ramen shop design. The ramen was beautifully presented, and the chashu (pork) was sliced paper-thin; the best I had tasted.

After successfully opening Mist in Omotesando Hills, Chabuya is back in Gokokuji, with a few changes. Sadly, the smaller shop has not re-opened, but I have now made a few trips to the remaining Gokokuji Chabuya. Still brightly lit, the meal ticket machine has been replaced by a suited host, who walks you the three feet to your seat at the counter, and hands you a menu. The new menu now offers both the miso and shio varieties, and the broth is just as rich and satisfying as I remembered. Extra pork can still be added, and I definitely recommend it.

The feeling of the shop has changed, however. On more than one occasion, I have been left to wait for my waiter to order. Candles now on the tables are out of place and combined with the waiter/host, they give the feeling of a restaurant trying to dress up as more than it is. What was once a refreshingly simple ramen shop is now a pretentious one, but the ramen will keep me coming back.
http://www.chabuya.com/

Jamaican me hungry

Aalawi

This is serious comfort food. Comfort for when you’re sitting collapsed on a sidewalk corner crying because you’ve been lost in the Tokyo streets for three hours and missed two appointments. I’m serious. This is exactly how I first enjoyed one of Aalawi’s Jamaican Jerk Chicken Sandwiches, just after I first moved to Japan.

I had gotten takeout from this small restaurant in Ebisu, and while I left it sitting in its brown paper bag far longer than I’d planned, it still did the trick. The flavorful barbecued jerk chicken was heaped into a large sandwich of wheat bread, with fries and coleslaw on the side. Not a dainty sandwich, and certainly not a polite one to be eating on the street, but delicious.

I’m relieved to say that other than that first encounter, I have always eaten in at Aalawai’s. The exterior seems to be an elaborate diorama of a barbecue where I might prefer some real, usable outdoor seating, but inside, the bright muraled wall really punches up the casual décor at what is a fairly small restaurant. The constant reggae music in the background as well as heat from the open kitchen also add to the atmosphere (if you’re sitting at the bar on a summer day, the heat adds perhaps a little too much).

The jerk chicken or pork I’ve ordered has continued to be savory and satisfying, either in sandwich form, or next to rice. The restaurant uses its own original seasonings for the meat, and the result is a flavor that I’ll admit has stopped me from exploring other parts of the menu. On my list for future visits, however, are the stews and fish dishes on the menu, as well as the hard to find vegetable dishes, like collard greens.

Aalawi Ebisu 1-26-13. Tel: 03-5793-5027.

Tuna as Interior Decor

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Jige

I think we may have eaten every part of the fish. Down the street from where tourists rise and shine to check out huge frozen tuna on auction at Tsukiji Fish Market is Jige, an excellent fish restaurant in an area filled with fish restaurants. Its unassuming exterior on a small side-street may not proclaim that it is a special place, but seek it out, it is.

We started with tiny fish grilled on charcoal in front of us, the house service, eaten whole, and a perfect start to impress our out of town guest. Next came fresh vegetables to dip in a paste of seaweed or mayo, and a plate of cool fresh sashimi. Simple and perfectly prepared, these dishes were somewhat predictable, which made the dishes that followed a series of excellent surprises.

The sanma sashimi, slightly salty and bright pink, was wet and delicious in tiny slices. Sides of sushi rice formed into little balls arrived, as if someone had began to make sushi but never got around to adding the fish. They were a nice palate cleanser and helped those of us who were getting hungry for something more substantial. By this point, our taste buds were perfectly primed for the main event: the head (shoulders? chin? ) of the tuna. Cooked in dark sweet sauce and served with grated daikon, we pulled the dense, dark-colored meat off the foot-long, curved bone that we suspected came from somewhere below the tuna’s head.

The great size of these fish is something that goes unnoticed as we consume tuna sushi and sashimi, a staple of any sushi dinner. As we all pulled bites off of the main serving dishes we marveled at how huge the fish must’ve been, and felt lucky to have gotten the last one left. After all, while one tuna can provide for plates and plates of tuna rolls, there is only one head for each, making this a hard dish to find. More surprises were in store for our next dish, the lean, dark red tuna found by the fish’s lungs, spine, and ribs. The bones came, impossibly large again, covered by a thin layer of meat that we scraped off with the provided seashells. Although were were originally told this should be a dish for one person, ten of us shared one order and were each able to eat the equivalent of about two pieces of sashimi.

We ended the meal back with simplicity in the form of black sesame ice cream. On it’s own, Jige seems like a rather plain restaurant: uninteresting storefront, little to remark on in terms of interior decor. And yet, add the head and the lungs of a big tuna on the table, and things suddenly start looking brighter.

jige

Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Tsukiji 2-14-3 NIT Tsukiji Biru

TEL:03-3248-6332 (1F) 03-3248-6333 (B1)

Burgers + Apples = Love

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Firehouse Burger

On my first visit to Firehouse, I was seated at a table converted from an old sewing machine table. Still able to pump the pedal while I waited, I admired the casual antique décor, bookshelves of vintage books, and prints of antique ads hanging on the wall. The Boston Globe has called Firehouse, “An American Burger in Tokyo,”. While I did feel as though I could have been sitting in a restaurant in an old converted townhouse in Boston, the food at this burger joint is hardly an American copycat. In my view Firehouse Burger does what so many restaurants in Tokyo seem to do so well: they perfect the technique of a given cuisine, and then give it a twist.

The twist here is the restaurant’s signature apple burger. With baked sweet apple topping a savory, medium burger with mayonnaise and ketchup—I also like to get cheese added on—piled on to a buttery bun, this burger is a Firehouse original. The burgers, served with steak fries, are cooked to order, but they tend to be on the soft side of well-done. Also delicious is the fresh mozzerella and mushroom burger, and the milkshakes are a decadent treat.

The charm of this burger joint really makes it stand out, but if you’re feeling a bit lazy and live in the area, they also have a delivery service. Across the street, Firehouse has opened Quinos, a new café that features tarts and deli sandwiches, as well as Fireburger in Kasuga, a slightly cheaper place with more of a fast food feel.

http://www.firehouse.co.jp/

A Cicada in the midst

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Cicada

I heave myself against the rough wooden door, and sink in to Cicada. Into the warmth, the darkness that feels like a fireside even in the summer when Cicada’s fireplace is unlit, and the feeling of being the only guests there. I am whisked past the gold glow of the bar area, and I suddenly find myself seated in a shadowy corner drinking the fruitiest sangria, and taking occasional sips of my date’s stellar mojito. The waiter had come and gone so seamlessly I’d barely noticed. And while part of my wants to curl up and roast smores, I am becoming giddy with the summer feeling of sangria on the beach. Keeping my lips to my straw, I fall in to the menu.

The pages of intriguing options fly around my head and I become quite sure I will not be able to pace myself. Lamb Tagine? Asparagus with Hazelnut Salsa? Clams with Chorizo? Hummus? Gnocchi? Something from the impressive cheese list? Sumptuous sounding dishes jump off the page and I start to think one of each might be the only way to go. But we are only two, so let’s be reasonable.

Olive oils to choose from first —do they really make olive oil outside Italy? My date and I are happy to ponder this question, but skip the French and Californian options just the same. Our warm flatbread is a tasty teaser and we are happy with our olive oil choice. Meals somehow get chosen, and once we are done, it’s time to peruse the lengthy wine list for more meal accessories.

With the first dish I might worry that we will peak too soon, but worries seem to be kept at bay, seeing as how I can’t stop grinning as I eat the spicy Moroccan crab cakes. Light and slightly crunchy with no heavy bread flavor, they are topped with a brilliant green sauce of coriander, lemon oil and orange juice. The tastes meld together, tangy and moist, and I am completely taken in.

It is almost a little sad when the plate is empty, but onwards to the rich and hearty Portuguese meatballs. Further on to the velvety ravioli in spinach crema sauce with rucola. Lord, I love rucola. We are already so head over heels into our meal. Although I find the following snapper with potatoes, olives, and rosemary a little too salty, the fish skin is crispy and the meat itself broiled to perfection. Our heady bliss is renewed as the roasted lamp chops with anchovy and rosemary are delivered. We find they match perfectly with the red wine we’ve moved on to, and as we surreptitiously try to gnaw on the stubborn sinews of meat still left on the bone, we start to notice the sleepy satisfaction in our stomachs.

But no matter, it is dessert time now, and our sweet teeth have been jealous for some attention. My Valharna 70% cacao rare cake with chocolate gelato, whipped cream and strawberries, is warm and soft, not oozing. A small bite seems to last, imperceptibly melting in my mouth for days, and yet I take another, and another. My date tries his tiramisu and moans aloud. The lady fingers are perfectly soaked, the ratios of each layer perfect. While I’m not sure exactly what about it makes it a “Cicada style” tiramisu as the menu states, it certainly fits with the entire Cicada experience, which has left me utterly transported.

And days later, when I walk by, I have this urge to press my nose up against the glass. It’s four in the afternoon, and they are closed, and my mid-week me doesn’t have time for a break anyway. Still I glance back as I walk away, wanting so much to escape there again.

Cicada

5-2-40 Minami-azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0047

03-5447-5522

Make sure you ask to see the dessert tray

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Mangia Pesce

Is it unnecessary to review well-known restaurants, places that, to many, are already on their standby list? Perhaps. But in case you haven’t already heard, Mangia Pesce is the solid option for your first date/birthday/dinner with the parents/friend’s in town/anniversary/casual night out. Put them on your speed dial.

The versatility offered by this restaurant starts with the decor and ends with it’s colorful dessert tray. Now that the weather has warmed up, there is a choice of indoor or sidewalk patio seating. It’s interior is simple and without pretense; unusual for a nicer Tokyo restaurant. There is a definite attempt to bring a European feel to the design, but it is subtle, as are the fish motifs strategically incorporated to reinforce that the house specialty is fish.

On most visits to Mangia Pesce, I have come as a casual visitor; usually meeting up with a friend or two who are hankering for some Japanese-influenced Italian food. Although inevitably there are guests there dressed ‘n pressed, having a piece of candlelit birthday cake brought to them for a quiet birthday dinner, there is also always a mix of clientele, and showing up in jeans is perfectly acceptable.

As I mentioned before, fish is the specialty here, and it is fresh and delicious. The menu allows you to combine the type of fish, how you would like it cooked, etc., as you wish, however, the wait staff is always very helpful with suggestions. My suggestions, however, are not of the fish variety. However many times I come back, what continues to amaze me is the quality and freshness of the vegetables. The best green salad in town, with whatever vegetables are freshest, is considered an appetizer, but when I’m feeling hungry, I go right ahead and ask for 1.5 portions. Really hungry, and they are happy to serve me a plate 2 portions large. Also featuring veggies, is the stellar bagna cauda. Crisp vegetables to dip into a heated at the table fondue-like bowl of garlic-anchovy oil.

Also on the appetizer menu, is a delightful little foie gras croquette. A tiny morsel of richness, and for many, just as much foie gras as they can take in one sitting. On my last visit this dish was a little too salty, but on the whole, it has been a winner of a dish. Think you can handle more of the foie gras? Try the foie gras pasta. The fresh-made pasta here is light and perfectly cooked. Also refreshing is the fish carpaccio, make sure to ask for extra tomatoes.
These are just some highlights of a truly rich menu that is constantly being updated. The impressive wine list is complemented by seasonal changes: currently, there is a fair of belgian beer, and the wait staff will gladly recommend dishes to complement each one. Other features include various lunch sets (not bad, although I much prefer the dinner a la carte), and party plans. I previously had a party here for about 15 people, however, and did not feel the quality quite lived up to dining on my own. My advice if you’re planning a party would be to negotiate the menu carefully with the staff, instead of choosing one of the pre-arranged sets.

Could there possibly be more important features? Just one. While the kitchen is not technically an open kitchen, the door is always wide open, and the curious can catch glimpses of the action. In fact, the head chef is always on hand as well, sometimes assisting with the serving. But for the more ambitious, cooking classes are also offered. To be able to create a little of this place at home would definitely be a skill worth learning.

Mangia Pesce

〒151-0051
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Sendagaya 3-50-11 明星ビル(Myoujyou Biru) 1F
TEL : 03-3403-7735
FAX : 03-3403-7736

Singapore (surprisingly) done right

Hainan Jiifan Shokudo

We walk through the pebbled entrance to Hainan Jiifan Shokudo and sit down to check out our paper placemats, which give us some “how to’s” on the specialty of the house: Singaporean Chicken Rice. Surprisingly, our cute placemat describes (in comic strip fashion) both how to eat it, as well as how to cook it. It’s a full recipe in fact, measurements and everything. Chicken, rice, sauce, cook the rice in chicken broth: doesn’t sound too hard, right?

Before we grab our placemats and head home to cook, however, we take a look around at the black and cream contrasting décor, which, with some flowery details, looks warm and not stark. The glass walls let in afternoon sun comparable to that of a sidewalk café, and their large, heavy, black-rimmed panes help the place look grounded and aged, not glossy. Impeccably designed this small restaurant has somehow managed to be both stylish, comfortable, and pretty (a decidedly un-stylish word).

So we’ll stay.

We order curry with roti parata, the famous chicken rice, shrimp and squid stir fried with cracked black pepper, and fruity cocktails and Singaporean beer. The seafood arrives first, and we chew on the perfectly cooked shrimp and squid, crunching down on the large chunks of black pepper, coarsely chopped. Sop up the last of the black pepper sauce with some jasmine rice, and we are ready to dig in to the chicken curry. Topped with plenty of fresh cilantro, the curry is rich and spicy; perfect with the flaky, light roti parata. The roti parata, just as fresh as one from a street stand in Singapore and still almost too hot to touch, tears off easily into strips to dip into the curry. We order some more to enjoy with our curry number two, thinner, and with a tomato base.

And of course the chicken rice. A deceptively simple dish, Singaporean Chicken Rice is not as easy as it sounds, and a Singaporean friend says this is one of the few places that gets it right. The rice is perfectly infused with chicken flavor and not at all greasy. The chicken is moist and perfectly cooked, sliced and ready to be dipped into a combination of the three vibrant sauces. We gobble it up, trying different ratios of rice to chicken to sauce, only looking up when our waiter stops by to refill our sauce trays.

A little mango pudding and we are on our way, stopping as we pay to notice that Hainan Jiifan Shokudo sells an attractive cookbook including many of the dishes we had eaten or salivated over on the menu. Admiring all the color pictures we thumb through and consider trying to recreate our Hainanese/Singaporean experience at home. But we put the book down and pay, knowing we’ll be back.

海南鶏飯食堂(Hainan Jiifan Shokudo)

Ebisu 1-21-14, Costa de Verano 1F. [behind Zest]

Tel: 3447-3615.

What the Japanese have

Daikoku Sushi

“The French have foie gras, the Japanese have ankimo,” I am told, as I begin my two hour course that quickly becomes a lesson in all things fish at Gyotoku’s Daikoku Sushi. My unsuspecting professors are the three well-seasoned Japanese gourmets at my table, as well as the head sushi chef, his wife (who prepares all the cooked dishes), and his son, also a sushi chef. They are correct about the ankimo of course (pictured below). As I press the cool, smooth monkfish liver against the roof of my mouth, I note that despite its creamy similarity to the French delicacy, it is surprisingly light and fresh tasting with its topping of shaved scallions and tangy sauce.

We move on to the seared katsuo, topped with shaved myoga ginger, daikon radish, and onion, and served in a cool, sweet sauce. A classic dish, and one that I had always thought I disliked until trying Daikoku’s version. Because it loses its freshness after only one day, katsuo was a fish truly sought over in the Edo Period, and it was even fashionable to borrow money just to purchase it, says our presiding gourmand. There seems to be a lesson about each course, and I am starting to instinctively reach for my notebook.

We move on to a delicious nuta: sashimi and wakame seaweed in a thick yellow miso sauce. From there, we dig in to a immaculately presented sashimi plate (pictured above), served with a side of boiled intestines of the tsugai shellfish whose sashimi we also enjoyed. Highlights of the sashimi plate included the raw fin of hirame (grey sole), as well as the aoyagi shellfish, also known as bakayagi (essentially, “stupid clam”, due to its habit of biting it’s own tongue). At our particular table, this is followed by a discussion of how to tell hirame from kare, which, while I won’t go into the specifics, results in the sushi chef bringing out whole, dried fish as visual aids to our lesson. I just hope I won’t be quizzed later.

We then feast on arani, the steamed parts of fish that don’t get used in sashimi, and hamaguri (Japanese clams, distinguishable by their curved, not flat, shells), and dobimushi, a fragrant soup of matsutake mushrooms, lime and shrimp. We drink the smoky hirezake, a sake with broiled blowfish fin that you light on fire briefly before drinking (see photo below). All were unusual and flawlessly executed.

And yet, we still have yet to taste any sushi. But at last, it arrives, on a simple traditional wooden plate, classic and easily palatable to any casual sushi eater. Of course it is impeccable, but my highlight is the care behind the second tray that arrives: fearing for the inexperience of my foreign tongue, the sushi chef has prepared a plate of yakitoro sushi (slightly grilled tuna) just for me.

Each time I visit Daikoku, I learn something new about fish and inevitably try dishes I have never heard of. On the wall is a large wooden plaque, listing the fish vendors with whom Daikoku has exclusive relationships, as well as the other Daikoku restaurants around Japan. This is not simply one of a chain, however, rather a network of apprenticeships. After spending years studying and working at a Daikoku, they will allow the budding chef to use the Daikoku name when he or she opens their own sushi shop.

In the way that it does business, in its family atmosphere and kind service, Daikoku is a truly traditional place. This is the ideal place to trust the experts and just ask for omakase (chef’s choice). Your wallet may not thank you, but it will be a meal not easily forgotten.

Daikoku Sushi

〒272-0133
Chiba-ken, Ichikawa-shi, 2-12-13

Near Gyotoku Station, Tel: 047-395-0009