Tag Archives: Cool

It never gets old

It never gets old.

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

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.

Burgers + Apples = Love

firehouse.jpg

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

ravioli-cicada.jpgtiramisu-cicade.jpg

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

mangia pescebagnacauda

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

Your evening is Ubcra

1_naisou1.png

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