Tag Archives: Special Occassion

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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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

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

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

Ecstatic palate, Spicy heart.

On entering elegance on a glass floor with lotus flowers under your feet, you emerge looking out over downtown Tokyo, from an unobstructed 35th floor view. In good weather, the city lights around Mango Tree Tokyo remind you of garlic and blinking red chili peppers in the sky. You sit and decide on the more expensive Course B (8400 yen) dinner set, because really, is there any other option, and really, it will be cheaper than ordering a la carte, right? (At this exact moment, you don’t realize that no matter how full you are after the dinner set, you will not be able to resist a couple mojitos, a bottle of wine or two, and maybe a fresh spicy papaya salad or delicious tender satay plate on the side.)

You are surprised by the first of the seven courses, a tiny surf clam salad with spicy sauce which you need to squint to see, but packs a pungency that surprised your taste buds, still recovering from the sweet aftertaste of that mojito. The deep fried chicken wrapped in some sort of Pandan Leaf is soft on your tongue and its sweet and spicy sauce relaxes you. You next receive a spicy mushroomy shrimpy Tom Yum Goong soup, and a “Steamed Pacific Cod Mousse Thai Style Flavored with red Curry”, yes you think you read that right, some sort of orange-colored cod-based Mousse filled with scallops and cauliflower, a novel concoction which is subtle but interesting enough to keep you staring. Well, by this point, your palate is cleared and you have to wait a bit, have some wine, “Take some time for yourself,” their menu exclaims, because you’ll need the rest before feasting on perhaps the most … (for lack of a better word) delicious thing you have tasted all month.

You decide to start a new paragraph to talk about this dish, because well, frankly, it deserves it. Grilled Standing Lump with Spicy herb served with Sticky Rice eeks with herbs, onions, leeks, lemongrass, red pepper, and cilantro, a gorgeous touch to an otherwise already spectacular beef. The thinly-sliced Lump (do they mean Rump?) is medium cooked and grilled with vinegar then covered with the firey mixure which makes you wish aloud, “Dear Mango god, Please let this never end!” All your friends turn to you and decide your outburst is caused by a broken heart, pour you some more wine, and hand you a desert menu, which is really a considerate gesture considering the rice noodle soup and persimmon tatine which came with the dinner set is a bit disappointing after that main course.

You order a glass of port, some organic coffee, and a divine coconut creme brulee (after which 3 of your friends quickly follow suit), because you decide it will sate your sad heart and your overstimulated hunger. This Tokyo jewel has a sister in London and one in Bangkok, and clearly prides itself quality and selection, on not being able to list every city in the world on their business cards, like some Gordon Ramsey carbon-copied mass-manufactured haute chicken fat. Today, Mango Tree has calmed your raging quest for culinary adventure and your emotional confusion has been embraced by the spicy constancy still lingering on your tongue.

Mango Tree Tokyo

Marunouchi Bldg. 35F

2-4-1 Marunouchi

Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Tel: 03-5224-5489

In front of New Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station.

http://www.mangotree.jp/