What the hell is this food?

Grill Manten Boshi

Grill Manten Boshi is a type of restaurant that is certainly seen fairly often in Tokyo, and yet, I don’t think there is yet a name for it. The décor of false brick and dark wood is decidedly western, as is the menu of California wines, beef and tongue stew, onion soup, and gratin. And yet it is a kind of charming, idealized western character that is itself uniquely Japanese. I will admit that the Azabu-juban branch of this popular chain is the most convincing, with its basement location in a smaller building better lending itself to a cozy old-world feel. In the Ikebukuro location, at the top of the Tobu Department Store’s Spice restaurant area, the décor may seem rather contrived, however, the nighttime view from the 14th floor is a plus.

The menu features various sets, as well as reasonably priced main dishes that offer sizeable portions. Some notables on the menu are omelet rice curry, rolled cabbage, hayashi rice, and hamburg steak. All of which fit into this category of western-ish Japanese food. The truly remarkable dishes, in my mind, are the beef and tongue stew and the chicken mushroom gratin. The large steaks of beef cheek and tongue are soft enough to cut with a fork, and the rich and piquant stew is slow cooked and added to week after week. The gratin is smooth, creamy, with flavorful chicken leg meat and perfect with the crunchy grilled cheese on top. Grill Manten Boshi has been occasionally featured on Japanese television, showing how the chefs create such a uniform and smooth béchamel sauce for their gratin. All of the white sauce, once made, is folded into a large cheesecloth, and twisted to strain the sauce through. The process alone takes two chefs to handle. I certainly wouldn’t try it at home, but the result is a decadent dish, and nothing like the frozen gratin I sometimes pick up at the grocer.

The main draw of these restaurants, as you might guess, is not the camp décor. At the typical fast food omelet rice joint, it can be hard to understand why this spongey egg dish, often with orange tomato rice, was created at all. The omelet rice at Grill Manten Boshi, however, is moist and melds well with the heavy beef stew. The dish is simple, and does not try to put too many tastes one plate (ever had a fast-food omelet rice with tomato rice, half-curry, half cream sauce, and tonkatsu on top?). Grill Manten Boshi’s execution of this and other western-influenced Japanese favorites, explains why these dishes became favorites in the first place.
Grill Manten Boshi (グリル満天星)

Azabujuban, Tokyo 1-3-1 Apoli Biru(アポリアビル) B1F

〒171-8512 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 1-1-25 Spice Ikebukuro Tobu 14F (スパイス池袋東武14F )

Rock-Paper-Potatoes

Gyros Hero

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Located less than five minutes from Takadanobaba station, Gyros Hero is the ideal spot for a study date, and yet I rarely find it full of students, or full of anyone for that matter. Inspired by the Greek islands, the white and blue motif of this casual sidewalk café/restaurant is clean without feeling sterile. With wireless internet, and even an in house computer, provided, I head over here when I want to focus and get some work done. It doesn’t hurt of course, that I hardly have to spend money to do so.

With gyros costing only ¥390 (¥580 for a gyros set), I can eat a great hot lunch here, for less than a coffee at Starbucks, and, unlike Starbucks, they don’t kick you out after an hour. My favorite is the classic tzatziki gyro, the cool yogurt flavor mixes well with the ground meat, fresh tomatoes, and soft bread. The last time I went they also had a tasty lamb gyro special for the day, which was a treat. Vegetarians can try the mozzarella and tomato gyros, Greek salad (unfortunately short on the feta cheese I found), or falafel and fries, which is great, albeit small.

At such low prices, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of service. Recently deciding to brave the outdoor patio, my friend and I were still a bit chilly, even with the provided blankets. Without our even having to ask, the cheerful manager/owner(?), who remembers the customers’ names, came outside to make sure we were alright, and set up a space heater by our table.

So what are the downsides? Well, there is only one. Part of the charm of this place for me has always been the “jyan-ken potato”. Every customer used to play “rock, paper, scissors” with the manager for a free small order of French fries. On my last two visits, however, this game has been noticeably absent. I’ve been too shy to ask why, but on your next visit, see what happens and let us know…

http://www.gyros-hero.com/

Girly desserts with a view

LOHB

I hate to say it, but this is the girliest restaurant I have ever been to. I have more than once noted that all the patrons are groups of young women, with the exception of the occasional couple on a date. Why is this, are women more susceptible to the promise of healthy dining? Perhaps. Case in point: the last time I dined with so many women was at a “detox tabehodai” (all you can eat). An oxymoron of course, made only more ridiculous by the fact that it included hearty beef curry amongst its buffet.

But back to Lohb, a restaurant with the so-called “Natural&Healthy[sic]&Beauty” theme: in addition to be generally populated by women customers, there is a true sense of pretty in the décor, which incorporates water, crystal, plants, and lush, cushiony seating. The upstairs couches (pictured above) seem like they’d be ideal for a date, although I have not tried them out. Seated by the window downstairs on my visit, I recognize immediately at least one feature that should be attractive to any visitor. The full glass walls of both floors of this restaurant look directly out onto Shibuya Station crossing. My tourist friend was delighted, however, when she immediately began snapping pictures on one visit, we were told—both in English and Japanese—that photos were not allowed. When we pressed the matter (after all, we were not taking photos of the restaurant’s interior), we were told that the buildings across the street would make the restaurant pay money if they allowed visitors to take photos of the very public and often photographed square.

With a good fifteen photos already in the can, we shrugged off this odd rule and checked out the menu. There did seem to be some genuinely healthy dishes, as well as a great selection of unusual cocktails, many boasting high vitamin content. The most interesting and healthy choices came from the changing seasonal menu, which featured a few different dishes using wild rice, and we enjoyed a smooth risotto. Off of the year-round menu we liked the beef carpaccio, although how it would benefit our beauty, I’m not quite sure. We also had a light, albeit unremarkable proscuitto and rucola pizza, and some nama harumaki (fresh spring roll), which fit the healthy bill, but did not wow us .

We finished off with the dessert plate (pictured above), which was definitely the highlight. Everything on it was just as it should be: sweet, rich, and probably pushing us on the road towards heart-attacks. So do not come to Lohb for the healthy food. Do not come for the photo opportunities. Come when you want a great view, food of a solid quality with some seasonal stand-outs, décor done all the way, and maybe when you want to impress a girly-girl.
LOHB

渋谷区道玄坂2-3-1 LikesBldg 4・5F
TEL 03-3464-1919

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.