November 2010


Food: Asia and japan and Travels25 Nov 2010 09:20 pm

After our meal at Wagokoro Izumi, Mike and I were not quite ready to return to the hotel. The previous night we had visited a (very hard to find!) sake bar and enjoyed the experience, so we thought we would try another one while in the Kyoto region.

Sake in Japanese is the general word for booze, so when you tell a Japanese person you like sake, you are effectively saying “I like alcohol.” Nihon-shu is the correct term for rice wine, or what we call sake in the west. For the sake of simplicity I will just use the term sake in this post.

The sake bar we ended up at was a small place up several floors in a rather plain looking building. When we walked in, the only person there was the proprietor and he was on his computer at one of the tables. Anytime that happens I fight the urge to just turn around and bolt. Even though I am so inept at Japanese, I still want to enjoy the pleasures that come from living here, so that usually takes over any fear I have. I am very glad we stayed.

He confirmed that we were there for sake, and invited us up to the bar. The bar was quite stylish given the scary building it was in. There was a small stone garden, low lighting and a lot of wood. Of greatest interest was the huge cooler holding many, many kinds of different bottles of sake however.

Jizake specializes in local sake, which is why we were there. I guess it would be comparable to visiting a microbrew beer bar…only stronger!

Sadly most people have had pretty terrible experiences with sake, I think.  POOR FOOLS. They need to give namasake a try. Namasake is unpasteurized so must be kept refrigerated. It offers a complex flavour profile that would rival most wines. It can taste fruity, smell fragrant and floral and will most likely blow any poor opinions you have of sake out of the water. It can be hard to procure outside of Japan because of the difficulty transporting it, so if you ever make it over here you should seek it out.

The man running the show (his nickname is Punch) did not know much English, but that was okay as we did not know much Japanese. Thankfully, he took charge and poured us each a different kind of sake which was exactly what we had hoped for. In return, I used his website on my phone to help steer things and find out what we were drinking.

Punch likes to super age fresh sake, which is not the normal practice. People normally drink it quite quickly after it is bottled. What we drank was very mellow, crisp and delicious, and really excellent. They went down really easily, which explains why Punch puts the turmeric drink up front and center when you grab a seat at his bar. (Turmeric drink is a popular preventative precaution against hangovers here in Japan.)

We had three rounds, the first two being Furosen brands I believe, and the final was the “custom” round. No, seriously, that is what he called it. It was extremely pleasing to drink such amazing sake, made all the more special by the likelihood of what we drank we may never drink again. Okinawa is very much awamori central, whereis Kyoto is very sake based, which is a shame since we really love sake. You can still get it here on Okinawa, but it is difficult to find the quality refrigerated fresh stuff.

Although I thought I would remember what we drank that night, my sake brain must have forgotten. Perhaps someone can help me remember? The menu is online if it helps…

And then the “custom” round. This one I have an easier time recalling.

The glass of my tinged pink 2006 Nipponia nippon sake from Toyama prefecture. This is a daiginjo sake, or a very premium offering. Daiginjo sake must use rice that is at minimum polished 50%.  This creates a very fragrant, a bit sweet and soft drink with a very full flavour. This sake in particular is hard to find I came to find out, which makes it even more amazing that he let me polish off the bottle AND keep the label.

This looks and smells like a rosé wine which is NOT what you think of when you think sake if you are from the west. The pink colour comes from the rice, which is actually red. Crazy, right?  Special, for sure.

Punch poured Mike a glass of Etoile de Hietsu. This is a sake from Toyama Prefecture, and is made from sake stored in barrels of Burgundy wines, and is very sedimented. Again, a very different, unusual experience. I am totally pleased we braved our anxiety and charged into Punch’s peaceful palace.

The very missable entrance to the five floor building Jizake Bar lives in.

Special nods to Eating Out in Tokyo with Jon and KyotoFoodie for their assistance (although they do not know it!) for the suggestion of Jizake, as well as the directions and the post drinking help, both in explaining a bit about Punch and why his bar is different, and in identifying some of what we had. I would definitely like to return there in the future.

And finally a special thanks to Punch himself, for being a very kind host and for featuring us on his blog. (You should go check out the picture!)

パンチ: ご親切なおもてなしありがとうございます!  お疲れ様です。また会いましょう!



Jizake Sake Bar

Kyoto
Open 6pm to midnight, roughly
Map

Food and Food: Asia and japan and Travels21 Nov 2010 11:28 am

Eel is delicious. Sure, it is creepy as all get out, but it is fatty and fluffy (some say like pate), delicious with sauce and has a skin that crisps up. It is no wonder there is a designated eel eating day in Japan. It is said to increase stamina and help you deal with the heat.

In Kansai (Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto regions) the eel is just grilled – in other areas, there is a steaming step that helps remove excess fat. So eel from this area is especially prized for its flavour and texture differences. Many things play a role in the eel grilling; the charcoal type, the way the eels are sliced (in Kansai they are opened from the stomach, not the spine), the sauce that is added.

At a speciality eel restaurant, the eels are kept alive until you order them, and all parts of the eel are served in a multi course meal where you taste all the organs and bits and bobs. So it is worth a visit to one of these places if you love eel.

Our last full day in Kyoto we chose to have lunch at an eel restaurant called Gion U in the ancient cultural district of Gion. Again, we relied upon our concierge to make a booking for us, partly as we heard it was a busy lunch restaurant and mostly because we wanted a special set menu that had to be ordered a few days in advance.

Again, we chose a restaurant from the Michelin guide, just for ease of picking. They serve their eel in special wooden tubs, which impart a particular flavour to the rice and eel. So they say. I am just going to come right out and say I was disappointed.

I am never sure what to do when I have a bad restaurant experience. I usually just do not blog about them, to be honest. The internet does not need any more negativity and besides being my creative outlet I am still unsure what kind of information, valuable or useless, my blog provides to the world at large.

In any case, I feel compelled to write about this restaurant because, for one, I think it was horrible value. Secondly, it does not deserve its Michelin star, in my opinion. Lastly, there is not a lot of information about this place in English online.

Initially, there was a lot to be excited about. The freshwater eel (unagi) used is locally caught, it is served in special cedar tubs made by a Japanese national treasure in woodworking, Kiyotsugu Nakagawa. In certain seasons this restaurant even hand catches eel with bamboo.

When we arrived, we were asked to take our shoes off, as is the custom at many Japanese restaurants. The floor was wet from just being sloshed on, and I curled my feet up as I tried to stop them from getting soaked and cold. It made for an awkward moment as both Mike and I wobbled, shoeless, trying to make it up the stairs to the dining room.

When we were seated in the empty room, we were shown the menu which I did not expect, as we had purposely placed a special set menu order ahead of time. I am not sure exactly where the ball was dropped; maybe the concierge did not communicate our desires to the restaurant. Maybe it was forgotten about during the booking on the restaurant’s end. Who knows! But, it was then that we were informed we could not have the “hanami” eel set course for two as it had to be ordered ahead of time…which we … well, you get the idea. There was not going to be a special lunch that day.

The server did her best at accommodating us and helped recreate the hanami course, but right from the start I felt like we were a huge inconvenience. This is the first and only time I have felt this way at any restaurant in Japan. Even with our ordering blunders, mispronunciations and downright inability to read menus, people have gritted their teeth into a smile and atleast been able to hide their disdain, making me feel even partially welcome as a diner. I felt like a burden to this woman, and this is not how you should feel at a Michelin starred restaurant, in my opinion.

What was even more strange was that we the only diners in the restaurant for the first thirty minutes of opening, right at the lunch rush. Even as we left two hours later, there were still only four other diners who came during our time there. And they all got unagi don bowls.

Our makeshift hanami courses started to arrive, beginning with shirayaki. This is unadorned grilled eel, prized by eel enthusiasts for its lack of other flavours save for eel, but full on texture. It was light, fluffy. But there was something lacking; I found it a bit bland to be honest.

Next, umaki, or eel wrapped in egg with daikon. This was really delicious, and an omelette I would never turn down, even though I probably can count the number of eggs I eat in this style in a year on one hand.

Then, eel sashimi. Surprisingly tendonous and crunchy, from all the bones the eels have. It is not like most sashimi that melts in your mouth. Kansai style sashimi is made in a “yu arai” method, which is dipping it into hot water then blanching it by putting it into ice water. This removes slipperiness that eel can have.

The next dish was the speciality, the kabayaki. This is eel with sauce on rice. At Gion U, this dish is served in handmade cedar wooden tubs. People make a big deal out of these tubs. It was a beautiful presentation, for sure, but I kind of feel like it was all hype. Maybe the fact that we had a make do set meal where the rice was not baked in the tub like it was supposed to.

The eel was grilled on bamboo skewers over charcoal and very delicious.

The “secret” sauce was fine; maybe a bit thin. Normally at many lower grade sushi restaurants here you get a very thick, sweet tare, or sauce on the eel. It masks a lot of the flavour of the fish, so I was happy to find something a bit lighter that did not hide the flavour of this very expensive meal.

This also came with some of the strangest pickles I have had in Japan. Very sour, funky tasting pickles. Odd.

To close out the meal was a bowl of kimosui, or a clear unagi liver soup.

The Tub of Which Many People Have Spoken

Cute rabbit themed ceramics

Wooden tubs waiting to be filled

The exterior of Gion U. Fun fact: the Japanese hiragana letter for the “U” sound is う, which is the white symbol on the wooden board, and on their menu. It looks rather eel-like, so it is often used in restaurants serving eel.

So when it was all said and done, and I had to ask for the rest of my eel to be packed up (after dropping off our last course we did not see our server for atleast 35 minutes) and we paid our truly exorbitant bill, I kind of felt let down. Some might say it is because my palate does not appreciate fine eel. I think that is a faulty argument. Some might say it is because the Michelin guide has ruined dining, and is especially unwelcome in Japan. Many restaurants in the Kansai region guide refused to be photographed, as they did not wish for the notoriety that comes from being in the book and did not want to swell their already impressive reservation lists.

I am not sure what the case was with Gion U. Has it has turned into a tourist trap, did we just got off the wrong (wet) foot there, or were we simply not welcome? Either way, if I return to Kyoto, I will be looking for another place to get my eel fix.



Gion U
Kyoto
日本, 〒605-0074 京都府京都市東山区祇園町南側570−120 (祇園う)
Closed Mondays
Lunch: 12:00 to 14:00 (last order: 14:00)
Dinner: 17:00~21:00(last order: 20:30)
Map



Food and Food: Asia and japan and Travels20 Nov 2010 03:00 pm

Most people say a  trip to Kyoto is nothing without doing two things. That is visiting a shrine or temple and the other is eating Kyoto ryori. Ryori is the Japanese word for “cuisine.” Kaiseki is a special style of ryori famous for being born in Kyoto and is primarily when a meal is served as a series of small dishes that keep with seasonal ingredients.

Wagokoro Izumi is a Michelin starred restaurant that specializes in Kyoto kaiseki. Fall is a great time to visit for this. There are particularly special components of the meal that peak in autumn, just like the leaves around Kyoto. These include matsutake mushrooms, conger eel and new rice. Many of these ingredients do not make it out of the Kansai region let alone Japan they are so fragile and so high in demand. So you must travel to them.

Once again, we used the hotel concierge to help book our meal, and to communicate my food allergies. The restaurant was fairly easy to find. It lacks the pizazz that many kaiseki restaurants have – many have private gardens for contemplating while you dine. This was a simple affair. During the day it could have doubled as a doctor’s office or licence/registry office back home in Canada. When we arrived we were shown to a small private room, and waited for service to begin.

Although there was most definitely a language barrier, the hostess (chef Izumi`s wife) did her best to engage and entertain us. That is very much a part of the experience. We could hear her gently laughing and interacting with the table next to us, and I honestly felt bad that I could not have a conversation with her. I am certain her social skills were second to none.

In the privacy of a closed off room, I was given an opportunity to shoot each course as it came in. I will go in order here. Forgive the lighting; it was really odd. (n.b., comment about doctor’s office earlier)

There are two things to learn from this dinner; presentation and seasonality. It was beyond shocking to eat a meal of this calibre, with this much thought behind it. It is not an overstatement to say that nearly everything had a meaning during the meal, from the dishes used to the look of ingredients to the way they were placed.

We were at first given a small cup of light yellow tea. It was savoury and slightly fragrant; smelling something like popcorn. Which is fitting as it turned out to be genmaicha tea, which is sometimes called “popcorn tea.” Genmaicha means brown rice tea, in the most direct of translations. It is also known as the “people`s tea” because it was originally served in lieu of dinner to stretch out rice supplies. It is made by roasting rice kernels, giving them a toasted scent, and imparting the flavour to the tea. The kernels are very puffy and light and a bit chewy when you eat them.

I am embarassed to say that I am not sure if Wagokoro Izumi follows traditional kaiseki dish order, but it seems to fit, so I will try to slot dishes into the courses I think they are meant to be.

Sakizuke course (a starter, meant to awaken the palate): Ginko nut with a piece of soft shelled turtle, wasabi, yuzu and dashi aspic gelee
Ginkgo nuts are strange. The night before at a small izakaya we got a bar snack of roasted ginkgo nuts and were hooked. If you have ever had boiled peanuts, the texture is somewhat like that. Chewy, very nutty. They have a very starchy texture and are surprisingly filling. They were a nice counter to the gelee.

When I was looking at these photos, I told Mike I could not remember what fish this was. He said he thought Izumi-san said it was suppon, or soft shelled turtle. I was sure he was wrong, and wanted him to be, but when I looked up photos of the meat it seemed he was right. It was so tender that it could pass for a whitefish to be honest.

Along with the dish, we got a small saucer of Niigata nihon-shu, or sake. Niigata rice is said to be some of the best in Japan, so it makes sense that the sake made from it is delicious.

However, we also got a decanter of some local sake, and it came in this beautiful bottle. It seemed almost Turkish in style. Normally when dishware does not match, it drives me crazy, but I really appreciated every single piece that came out at Wagokoro Izumi. Probably because I knew the thought that went behind the choosing of each piece.

Futamono: (lidded soup course) matsutake mushrooms, yuzu and hamo eel
Next up was a soup made with matsutake mushrooms, piercingly clean tasting yuzu peel and a piece of hamo, or the locally famous pike eel which was just on its last seasonal legs – it is a very summery food here. Hamo is a very complex dish to serve, as it is riddled with coarse, thick bones and it takes skill to slice around them. The meat arrives like a puffy cloud of eel that blooms in the broth and is very beautiful. Matsutakes are almost meaty in their texture. Very dense, tasting and even when simmered in broth, smelling vaguely of pine. It is no wonder they sell for upwards of $2000 a kilo.

The broth itself was earthy and savoury, the very dictionary definition (if dictionaries were taste indexes!) of umami. The chef is said to think broth is very important and makes it a big component of his cooking.

Normally I am not a fan of laquerware, but if all my own personal dishes came inlaid with mother of pearl, I am sure I could come to love them. The dishes arrive closed, so that when you are ready, you open them and are enveloped in a cloud of scents and warmth, and get to see the elaborately decorated inside of the bowl lid. It is a delightful way to take in a soup.

Mukōzuke (sashimi): squid, young salmon, toro (fatty tuna)

A large ceramic “basket” was delivered next, full of crushed ice with pieces of sashimi sitting on top, hovering on a wire basket to keep the pieces from falling into melting ice. Fresh wasabi root and a fine salt accompanied the pieces, which were delicate and delectable. We were told to either combine wasabi and salt or wasabi and soy with the fish. Both had equally pleasing flavour enhancing qualities, but I think I prefered the salt and wasabi combination.

Hassun (seasonal main, means “Of the sea and mountains”, combines a variety of items): Kyoto style pressed mackerel oshisushi, salmon roe, chestnuts, seasonal vegetables, egg custard, fresh edamame, persimmon leaves

The pinnacle of the meal was the hassun course, which was the most autumnal dish, I thought. It consisted of pressed sushi, salty Hokkaido salmon roe in carved out young yuzu fruits, chestnuts, little pots of seasonal vegetables topped with bonito shavings, fresh edamame in their furry pods, and two pieces of baked (for 6 hours!), orangey eggy castella sponge cake (of Portugese influence) set amongst imperfect persimmon leaves. Pressed sushi is very much a Kansai-region style dish. This was mackerel layered onto rice and pressed.

When going through the photos I said to Mike, “I cannot believe they picked such ratty looking leaves to plate,” but then he reminded me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. This is that imperfect things provide greater contemplation when meditating and are more visually interesting than perfect things.

From Wikipedia: “Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy and the suggestion of natural processes.”

In this case, I believe the leaves were chosen to highlight the changing of the seasons, which was very apparent during our visit to Kyoto, and is a very important part of the city’s identity.

Yakimono (broiled seasonal fish): Broiled ayu fish, locally harvested from Lake Biwa
The most fantastically presented dish, I thought, was the ayu fish “swimming upstream.” Like the sushi, they also came on a large ceramic basket, which was painted to look like waves were on it. The fish themselves were skewered and grilled in a swimming position and placed amongst pine. They came with a simple vinegar based seaweed sauce for dipping, and were eaten whole.

Unfortunately I thought this dish was the most disappointing in terms of flavours and textures. Crunchy and salty, sure, but I kept dipping and redipping the fish in the vinegar hoping to glean some more flavour from these little guys.

Naka-choko (palate cleanser): yuba with a dollop of ginger and shiso blossoms

Yuba, or curd of soybean, is a precursor to tofu and is best described as the “soymilk skin.” It is kind of slippery, like a thin yogurt. Very fresh and light. This was topped with tiny shiso blossoms and ginger.

Takiawase (vegetables with fish): abalone with leafy greens, yuzu peel and red pepper.

Rice pot

Gohan (“rice” course), Kō no mono (pickles) and Tome-wan (miso soup): Fine rice, roast beef, pickles, miso soup and mochi

Finally, our last dish was rice, served with a delicate roast beef and tsukemono, or pickles. The rice was really fantastic, and they left the entire “pot” with us to eat until we were full. We also got another lidded soup, with miso and mochi balls in it.

Mizumono (dessert): Seasonal fruits with sesame pudding
Dessert was a simple presentation of fruits, including three kinds of figs, melon and pear with a piece of sesame pudding. It had a great texture, somewhere between soft pudding, gummi candies and tofu.


And finally, the culmination of the meal, and supposedly the reason kaiseki exists; to be able to take in the strong matcha tea, which can be difficult on an empty stomach (so I am told.) Kaiseki was a way to help fill the stomach to consume the tea.
The tea service consisted of whisked thick matcha tea along side a matcha dusted okashi, or sweet. The matcha we got was some of the best tea I have had. I suspect this is because it was actually koicha; matcha made with more than normal amounts of powder to thicken it and also made with a higher grade, older matcha.
The sweet was a custard style filling, rolled in matcha. Sort of a petit fours service to close off the evening.

Shortly after we finished, Chef Izumi came in to visit and we said “gochisosamadeshita” many times or “thank you for the feast.” He was very humble. His wife and him followed us out into the street as we strolled away into the Kyoto night. We looked back one last time, and the couple bowed in unison, thanking us for taking part in their evening.
Here are some non food details, mostly pottery and serving ware photos

A rather stark arrangement in our dining room.

Individually wrapped toothpicks

Serving ware for the gohan course

Chopsticks

Pine plate for the ayu fish course

Adorable dancing man on the matcha tea cup

Beautiful tea pot for our mid dinner tea service; one of three kinds of tea we took in that evening.

The lampshade reflected on the table.

A scroll in the room we were seated in.



Wagokoro Izumi
Kyoto
京都府 京都市下京区四条新町下ル四条町366 四条敷島ビル 1F
Map

Closed Wednesdays, open for lunch (11:30~14:30, last order at 13:00) and dinner (17:30 ~ 21:30, last order at 19:30)
They do take credit cards

Food: Asia and japan and Travels18 Nov 2010 09:59 pm

This is a mini tour of Nishiki Market, a pretty touristy but very functional market in Kyoto.

Kyoto is known for its kyotosukemono; locally grown and produced pickles.

More pickles, this time to sample.

Unagi or anago; freshwater or saltwater eel, I cannot remember. Maybe someone can read the signs?

This is the season for chestnuts. The smell took me back to when I was first living overseas in east England when I was 10. My dad took me to Norwich on a particularly snowy day and everywhere, they were roasting chestnuts. It was something out of a Christmas card.

Lots of bubbling tanks keeping many creatures alive for purchase.

A single mushroom for about $25. These were not even the expensive matsutake (pine) mushrooms. The ones that were 30,000 Yen were not for photographing.

There are two kinds of matsutake, the best quality that are grown locally in Japan, and other that are grown in Taiwan, Korea or other countries and imported. These ones in the photo are the “real thing.”

Real wasabi root

Grilled mochi. It takes on a completely different texture when grilled, I hear.

Awesome beer ads

Overview of the covered market

Oden pieces steaming up

Lots of produce and various other Japanese ingredients. Despite all the people clicking photos, life was very much business as usual here as little grannies pushed through to get their items.

Mike got a home brewed ginger soda

Food and Food: Asia and japan and Travels16 Nov 2010 10:11 pm

I realized the other day that I have yet to blog about what may be the most well known Japanese food in the world: sushi! It is not because I have not eaten it. In fact, I eat it atleast once a week, if not more. It shows up all over; at staff parties, izakayas, kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi joints, supermarkets… but we made a special point to eat it in Kyoto. We used the Michelin guide to steer us in the right direction, and it did no wrong. Using the hotel concierge`s help (which I highly recommend if you are coming to Japan for a visit) we booked a dinner reservation for omakase at Sushi Imai.

Sushi Imai is a bit special. So special there are no photos. This is not due to a technical malfunction, forgetting my camera or because we were asked not to take photos. It was a conscious, albeit difficult, decision.

I always feel somewhat bashful when I pull out my camera at any restaurant. Even more so at very intimate places where you stick out like a sore thumb to begin with. I have felt the same at Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon’s Mansion and most very tiny, very busy restaurants here in Japan. It is a hard decision to make, because naturally these are the places I want to blag (blog + brag) about the most. I just could not bring myself to shoot the beautiful pieces of art chef Tomotaka Imai was putting out on the counter. While places like this beg to be blogged about, I still think it is one of the places best visited in person. And going to Sushi Imai can never be a bad decision.

So, I sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the experience. Mostly I was mesmerized watching chef Imai with his knife and sharkskin grater. We ate many kinds of sushi that night: octopus boiled in cherry blossom broth (VERY Edomae style, but with a Kyoto twist from the sakura), fluffy fresh freshwater eel, abalone, gizzard shad, sea bream, egg stuffed with rice… We also made friends with the other eight diners there, including a family of three, a set of three friends or work colleagues and a couple compromised of a writer and a chef who took the bullet train from a few prefectures away just to eat at Sushi Imai. We all bonded over fish. And booze.

We all groaned when Mike hit his head on a low hanging rafter, we shared a bottle of champagne, we all ate our sushi right off of the counter with our fingers, we ooed and awed over the monkfish liver carved up infront of us. (it was turquoise green!) We all felt guilty after eating that.

Yeah right. Pretty sure only Mike and I felt bad after eating it. (Seriously, I wish I had communicated to the hotel concierge we did not want to eat certain kinds of fish.)

Sushi Imai is a Michelin starred sushi restaurant, one of a few in Kyoto. The other diners told us there was no other place better for sushi in Kyoto. Of course the sampling is probably a bit biased.

Perhaps this place is special because it serves Tokyo style sushi which is quite different from the famous pressed Kansai style sushi (which we also had.) Perhaps it is special because of the rice. The service. The thoughtful preparation of the fine fish.

Perhaps there is no “perhaps.” It is special because of all of these things. Go check it out, and remember to take photos with your mind. And tongue.


Omakase (chef’s choice) at lunch is 2100-4200 yen. Evenings, 8400 yen. A la carte will rack up to 13000 yen both times.

Sushi Imai
Map
Sushi Imai is the basement of a rather unremarkable white tiled office building. Look for the noren and entrance, below.
lunch from 12:00 to 14:00
dinner from 17:00 to 22:00
Closed Wednesdays. Make reservations; there are not many seats.

The one photo I took, of the exterior

This is the noren, or curtain to look for.

Food: Asia and japan and Travels15 Nov 2010 11:53 pm

One of my few regrets about living on Okinawa is that there seems to be a limited street food scene. We had some at a matsuri, or festival, but it was cold and gross because we went at the end of the night. Too salty, too.

There is an excellent yakitori yatai (food stall) near us, but we really miss out here on things available in food stalls in other areas of Japan, such as ramen, castella, nikuman and especially takoyaki. Oh, sure I can buy it from a fake stall at my very sterile, very clean shopping center nearby, but it just is not the same there. It should really just come from a little yatai or hole in the wall.

If you are not familiar with takoyaki, it is a lava hot ball of pancake type mix with a chunk of octopus inside. It is traditionally coated in okonomiyaki sauce (a kind of sweet sauce), katsuobushi flakes and the really gross sweet Japanese mayo among other things, depending on the chef. It is really delicious, and is of course best eaten fresh. It was also born in Osaka.

Mike wanted to buy a knife from a famous kitchen supply street in Osaka. I had heard there was a decent selection of yatais nearby, but all I saw were two huge line ups for two takoyaki stalls when we got there. So of course before knife shopping, we joined one of the lines even in the rain, umbrella-less.

The long line up for Takoyaki-kun. It curved out just to the left of the frame and back towards where we were. Normally I would say you cannot go wrong with waiting in a line for food in Japan, but I found out recently that occasionally lineups at Krispy Kreme donut outlets in Tokyo run over an hour long. So I now have my doubts.

I remember thinking “how the hell could I ever pack down 24 or 28 of these things?” Of course that was before I started eating. We got 8.

As we got closer to the front, the line grew quieter. It was because people were watching a master at work. This guy was a star at controlling his … ahem, balls. Constantly moving and adjusting to keep them from burning or sticking.

The takoyaki come with tenkasu embedded in them as well. Those are tempura drippings, and they are all around the grill in the photo. They are a bit like rice crispies and add crunch. There was a sprinkle of nori seaweed and paprika in them, too.

The pan for takoyaki is very unique, and hard to handle, I think. Look how well seasoned this one is though.

After you get your balls, there were huge bins with the traditional dressings. I really appreciated this, since we could customize our takoyaki. Here is the okonomiyaki sauce going on. It is kind of thick and sweet.  Love that they used a paint brush, just like BBQ pros use for mopping their meat.

Just a light drizz of the mayo. We are not fond of Japanese mayo.

Then fermented bonito fish shavings.

People watch the master intently.

Oh god, they are so good. They are hard to handle with just little skewers and also horribly hot. You cannot really take your time to eat them because 1: they become soggy and 2: there were six seats in the little joint, so we had to get going.


Takoyaki-kun
near Douyasuji “Kitchen Street” in Osaka

Food: Asia and japan and Travels12 Nov 2010 08:26 am

So things will be a bit out of order here, but I want to post about Kyoto and Osaka before I forget about them in my super busy November.

Getting to Osaka was relatively easy, door to door. We left our apartment on Okinawa at about 10:30 in the morning, walked to the bus stop, rode that to the monorail which got us to the airport, passed through some of the most pleasurable airport security I have ever gone through (you can carry liquids, do not remove your shoes and can go through as late as up to 20 minutes before your flight) and then were onwards to Kobe. From there it was a train ride to Osaka. I think it took about 5 hours to travel door to door, which is not bad, considering mainland Japan is a completely different world from Okinawa. (Some would say the other way around, but obviously my viewpoint is a bit skewed.)

Daimaru Department Store (Osaka Station) Madness

What’s that? Looks easy? ROOKIE. You try to pick something when you’re hungry, and there are fresh smells, hot foods and flavours all around you.

Upon arriving we suffered through the mindboggling mess that is the Japanese department store food hall and ended up getting some delicious rice and pork to snack on.

After some light shopping in the evening, Mike declared he was hungry. We did not have any place in particular in mind (which can lead to disasterous results in a city as food rich as Osaka – you are crippled by choice!), but after smelling a yakitori joint, we decided to give a chicken place I found online a whirl.

The name uzuraya (うずらや) translates loosely to “Quail House” in English…I think. I still use a complicated combination of dictionary, Google Translate and sounding out things to figure out the names of places. I saw it listed on a Japanese food site (as one of the top 5000 restaurants in Osaka!) and thought Mike would like it, as they were known for wild game bird.

With my confidence in confusing Japanese metropolises falsely buoyed by owning a smartphone with GPS, we set off on a train for Uzuraya. Part way there, I started to get the dreaded low battery warning. Although we were most of the way to the restaurant, the hardest part was still to come; navigating scary snaking streets and this was the worst time for my phone to fail. So close, but so far!

I guess after living on Okinawa for a few months I had forgotten what larger cities were like in Japan; confusing alley streets with stacked buildings and seven or more floors of restaurants. It seemed everything was against us as we raced down back streets, following the little green arrow on my phone hoping to find the restaurant before my phone died.

Looking back, it seems easy to get there again. Especially armed with a full size Google map and sense of direction. But things were tense there for a bit as we crossed and recrossed the same street four times.

Eventually, however, we found the tiny restaurant. I always find it awkward to enter restaurants here. You often open the door into the unknown. What will it be this time? Packed hovel? Empty hall?  Private parties where it seems like the needle scratches off the record as everyone turns to stare at you..?

At Uzuraya, we did not have that problem as we were not quite sure where to enter. There was an open door to someone in a kitchen, a very small cubby hole door (seriously about 4 feet tall) and then a full sized but seemingly sealed door. As we waited a waitress came out into the street we were standing on and went to the kitchen. I went up to her and asked her if it was okay for two people. On a Saturday night at prime eating hour (10pm) I was really worried they would be packed. But she asked if upstairs was okay, and I nodded yes, desperate to eat whatever delicious smell I was inhaling.

Just above the kegs, the little 4 foot high half door. The person in the photo is heading up the ladder stairs to the attic.

I then processed what she said. Seemed Mike did too; “There is an upstairs?” he asked. And yes, there was. A very steep ladder stairway gave way to an attic of an upstairs where about 8 people at four tables were drinking beer and wine, cooking in the hot room. We took the last twotop, Mike awkwardly getting his long legs under neath him.

Someone online described this as “charming.” I would describe it as “fire trap.”

The waitress was extraordinarily kind and brought the menu boards over to us. She assumed we could read Japanese, as everyone does here. I am never sure who is more dissapointed when I reveal the truth; me or them.

In very broken English she explained they were a chicken restaurant (which we knew) and asked if “my choice” was okay. Omakase chicken? YES! My only concern is that she would baby us and not give us the crazy, good stuff.

She then walked (well, crawled almost owing to lack of headroom) away and came back almost immediately to ask if “raw” was okay. And yes, it sure was. We did not battle a dead cell phone and climb up into a death trap just to eat boring yakitori.

And so began the night I ate raw chicken.

For about 10,000Yen we were brought out a succession of several courses of poultry, ranging from completely raw (also known as torisashi) to kinda raw (toriwasa) to full on grilled, traditional yakitori. It was all amazing.

First up was a very simple but delicious plate of raw cabbage leaves with miso dressing. When you eat as much protein as one does here, you are happy to see any greens. Atleast I am.

Then, they plunged in headlong to “the five students,” or raw chicken, five ways. We were to start with the liver, sitting at the 9 o’clock position there, by dipping it in the sesame oil preparation. Soy sauce came with the other four items, starting clockwise with the heart, next to the liver.  The little beige mountain is some part of the neck, I am still unsure what part. It was rich and buttery, but full on chicken flavour.

Next, the stomach; kind of crunchy, kind of squeaky and very delectable; possibly my favourite. We ended with the breast.

I am not sure what I expected when it came to the breast, but it was the most undeniably chicken of the items we ate. The other offal and organs I could pretend were just something, anything else other than what was surely salmonella poisoned chicken. I had visions of spending the next two days fighting over our hotel toilet with Mike, and a ruined vacation I had looked forward to for over a month. But, all that worrying for nothing.

Someone afterwards asked me if the breast was slimy. Good question, since nearly every supermarket chicken breast I have ever touched has been slimy, wet and squishy. It was not slimy. Or mushy. Or slippery. It was like a fine piece of fish actually. Meaty, but melty and very delicate flavour.

A bit of bite giving way to tender… well, chicken. It tasted like chicken, okay?

These were pickled gizzards; very crunchy, kind of spongy and a delicate pickled flavour. Shocking, right?

We do not really know what this was. The waitress, who as I mentioned was very hospitable and patient, tried to use her phone to translate some things, but she drew a blank with this. “No english name,” she said. I thought maybe it was a kind of seaweed. Instead she came over and showed us the raw leaves a few minutes after delivering the plate. The leaves were large and green. And leafy. My botany has really shrunk to nothing these days. I apologize.

They were quite extraordinary though, so I wish I knew what they were. Very clean vegetal flavour, with a soft boiled texture that almost immediately became crunchy in your mouth. Crazy, right?

Then delicious toriwase; chicken tataki. Lightly seared. This was the right amount of salt, fat, savoury and rare. At a Mexican restaurant in Edmonton I sent chicken like this back once, and never ate there again.

From top, grilled turnips, very baby corn (or shishito peppers?) and grilled chicken butts, or bonjiri.

Grilled kabocha/pumpkin.

Grilled quail legs

We were just trying to translate how to ask for quail when she delivered the plate. Perfect timing!

“No guest, relax,” said the waitress and Mike unfurled his limbs. As you can see, it was a tight fit up in the attic.

Tsukune, or grilled chicken kebabs. These were exquisite; the panko bread coating really took them to new heights. How will we ever eat at our local yakitori joint again? (Just kidding, Tenma is amazing.)

Pan fried kidneys. That one without coating really creeped me out. I think Mike made me eat it, but I was well into my third beer by then and feeling dizzy from the heat of the attic and the protein, so I can barely remember.

Pick dem bones.

The decor might be best described as “My grandmother’s house” x “Japanese truck stop”

If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, look for the white lantern.

Bonus! On the way to the train station, we saw the (rare in Okinawa) beer vending machine. They seemed slightly more common in Kyoto and Osaka, but we still thought it was pretty cool.

Any safety concerns I had flew out the window when I got back to the hotel and could finally charge my phone up and read about raw chicken. The chicken used for these dishes is typically a special breed that does not carry salmonella. It is prepared carefully, safely and is very very fresh. We suffered no ill effects and ate like kings the rest of our trip.

Would I do it again? Definitely. There are many things we did not get to try on the menu, like Iberian pork ribs, eggs, raw meatballs and duck. The only warning I have is to make sure your smartphone’s battery is well charged before plunging into the back streets of Osaka.


our spread, with several beers, was just under 10,000 Yen.

Uzuraya / Quail House
Chicken Sashimi (Toriwasa) and Yakitori

Osaka
大阪府大阪市都島区都島中通3丁目5-24
Near Noe station on the Keihan Train Line
Map

17:00 – 02:00
Closed Sundays and the first and third Mondays of the month.

Food and Travels11 Nov 2010 12:31 pm

Mike and I have the great fortune of sharing a friend named Kenny! Our relationship is somewhat long and complicated, but like most of my closest friends, I met him via the internet. A few years ago, he moved to Banff and has what might be described as a dream life. He lives 250m from his workplace, the Banff Centre, and is within an hours drive of some of the most scenic and outdoorsy places in Canada. He tries to partake in the lifestyle as much as possible as well, and loves to rockclimb, scramble and ski.

He was more than generous in making time in his busy schedule to host Mike and I for a few days before we left the country, and especially generous in dealing with my spazzy Kazzy moments as it got nearer to me leaving the country. Luckily by the time we hit Banff, I was already packed up and pretty much ready to go and was much calmer, so I could enjoy the company of Mike and Kenny! and the town of Banff.

We did a day hike spent in glorious thunderstorming beauty up Sentinel Pass, complete with a delicious snack, marmot sightings and Polaroid taking. Ravenous after that, we wanted burgers.

Big burgers.

Kenny! declared there was only one place to go: Eddie Burger Bar.

Build-your-own-burger menu. Toppings ranged from $0.50 to $1.50 and went beyond the normal span of TLM: tomato, lettuce, mayo.

“The Dude” shake. If you have to ask what was in it, you should just watch The Big Lebowski.

Cool bathroom wall interior.

Eddie has various patty choices and mind boggling toppings available for their burgers (including a gluten free option, I am told.) Luckily they have premade combos for those indecisive people in your group. They also try to make it easier by providing a tick box style ordering form, but that also cranks the price up pretty quickly as it is easy to spot something you want on the burger and tick the box, overwhelming your burger and your bill.

The burgers were substantial. It is pretty hard to find fault with a burger you built, but they got the part they were most directly involved in right: the patty was juicy and not charred to a crisp or a mealy mass. I cannot recall if any of us got any weird topping combos, but I think we were all happy with our creations.

We also got a few alcoholic shakes. My only complaint is that they went down too easy. They were thinned by the two ounces of booze, and were so tasty I feel like it was gone in three sucks on the straw. Not super awesome when you are paying Vegas prices for them ($11) but it WAS a special occasion. I think they could have been tempered out by adding some more ice cream to thicken them, personally.

We got side orders of chips, skinny fries and sweet potato fries. The chips were far and away the favourites. I really like Eddie’s; sassy service, and they take a pretty simple concept and make it a delicious no brainer. They also support local suppliers, which is pretty nice. I notice they have an online ordering system. Has anyone tried it? It would be pretty amazing to have someone send in an order from a smart phone while driving back to Banff after a day on a mountain.

Eddie’s is the perfect indulgence following a day skiing, hiking, paddling or … just sitting at the hot springs, I guess. Whatever turns your crank while spending time in the Bow Valley. And you really should do that if you live in Alberta.

Eddie Burger Bar
137 Banff Avenue (on Caribou Street just off Banff Avenue, around the corner from the Maple Leaf Grill)
open 11:30 am – 2:30 am


Food and Travels10 Nov 2010 07:45 am

Before saying good bye to Calgary friends Dave + Jenn, Mike and I went out for dinner with them several times. Calgary`s food scene is pretty amazing these days and I was happy to enjoy it one last time.

CHARCUT is a very popular restaurant in downtown Calgary. And rightfully so…the place is a bombshell.

Downtown Calgary was looking ominous and beautiful when we went.

The interior of CHARCUT is best described as Manhattan loft crossed with meat packing plant.

Oh god, where to start? Thankfully there were four of us, so we got a healthy dose of just about everything.

First up, unusual drinks. After enjoying revived classic cocktails at (the now defunct) Bar Charlie at the Palazzo in Vegas the year previous, I was hungry for more. CHARCUT offers up similiar items; forgotten vintage herbal extracts, quality boozes, all carefully combined.

I got a custom CHARCUT infused martini, with housemade bitters to mix in. I played with the flavours, which came packaged like tinctures, and ended up mixing a little bit of all three in.

Dave and his “Scorn”: kaffir lime, lemon twist, spices, gin and prosecco.

Then, being good carnivores, we dove right in.

House cured meats, naturally. Great presentation, but also excellent flavour. The sausages were a bit lacking, but that is probably because I had been so spoiled by Mike`s sausage experiments that spring and summer.

Oh god, bone marrow. Succulent, buttery, rich and lip smacking. We were digging right down to the bottom to get every drop. If you only go for one thing, make it the marrow.

Steak…I do not even remember whose or what it was. Entering “meat sweats” territory when I took this, obviously…

Poutine. The dish could have been a bit shallower, as the cheese and gravy seemed so distant in the dish.

Ravioli

Awesome curing cooler. Screw wine rooms…our house will have a curing cabinet one day. The house made charcuterie is excellent, I am happy to report. Would return.

I am a sucker for stationery.

Two headed cow says goodbye.

Sorry I do not have much to say. CHARCUT is pricey, but in my opinion backs it up with great food. Homecooking, but tweaked. And gives you inspiration for things to try at home.

For a more indepth review, check out Chris’ at Eating is the Hard Part.

We also paid a very tentative visit to Una Pizza and Wine Bar. After our first two choices on 17 Avenue were wash outs, we ended up at Una Pizza, “hangry.” (hungry + angry)

It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Although I lived less than a 1 minute walk from a Famoso in Edmonton, I much preferred Pizza Una, which is along the same lines.

Not gonna lie, the only chalk celebrity I recognized was Hemingway.

I think.

We got several small plates to share, and two pizzas.

I cannot even write about this pizza, even though last week I ate some half decent stuff here in Japan. Una`s pizza was excellent, and is making my mouth water even thinking about it. Just go, okay? If not for you, for me.

Stuffed mushrooms…good, but probably the most underwhelming thing we had.

Una is stylish and hipster ironic (Harry Potter novel readings were playing in the W/C) … but also delicious. I am sad we walked past this place twice before our hunger forced us to go in. It is definitely worthy of more attention.

Una Pizza
618 17 Avenue SW
night owls, take heed: kitchen open until 1 a.m.

CHARCUT Roast House
101, 899 Centre Street SW (in the Hotel Le Germain)
(for a more substantial review check out Eating Is the Hard Part)

Food: Edmonton and Food: Home Cookin'09 Nov 2010 08:30 am

I have the great fortune of having a father who is extremely talented at BBQ. He has spent much of the last two decades grilling and smoking and basting, and shows no signs of slowing, regardless of which country he ends up living in. He knows of BBQ suppliers in Bangkok and the best places to get wood chips up and down the west coast of North America. I think his skills are safe, even if he does not have Mike and I to scarf down and pretend to critique his delicious dinners.

He (alongside my mom) was very generous in hosting an informal going away BBQ for me and some family friends one last time before I left in July. My mom did the pies, and my dad did the drinks, meat and other little touches.

It was a bitter sweet way to say good bye to the city. Thanks to the friends who were able to attend at the last minute. The food was excellent, but the company really made it special.

I started the last day at the downtown Farmer’s Market. I planned on making a video of it, but… former colleague, my wedding shooter and friend Ryan Jackson recently did a better version than I could have ever hoped to do.

Pretty awesome vid, huh?

I promised to send this photo to Andreas of Greens, Eggs and Ham… and now I finally can. It kind of looks like he is eating a sandwich from Elm Cafe, non?

Okay enough reminiscing. It’s business time.

My dad, at my request, made one of my favourites… smoked brisket. He does excellent ribs and flank steak, but the 12 hour + smoked brisket is really amazing.

He always makes sure to sketch the lie of the land, or the meat grain, so he knows where to cut and how. Note the fat cap.

In case you are in Edmonton and want to know where he gets his meat, he finally settled on Sunterra on the southside. He complains they still do not leave enough fat on it for him, though. One of the great mysteries of Edmonton is why so-called beef country does not have excellent butchers available all over. They are available, just hard to find.

Also note the margaritas. His are killer. In a good way.

Roz and Dan load up.

Cast iron pan cornbread. Crispy, creamy, soft and buttery. Perfect.

Home made beans, probably his best yet, cole slaw and home made bread AND cornbread.

Key Lime pie. I once offended my dad by telling him I thought the key lime pie from Cactus Club Cafe rivalled or maybe even bettered his. In any case, it is a good substitute for when he is not in Canada, which is quite often these days.

Perfect lawn, perfect food, perfect people, perfect day.

Matt and Mike have a post dinner snooze.

On the way to Banff (and onwards to Japan) the next day, Mike and I had brisket sandwiches. Effing perfect.

japan and Travels08 Nov 2010 11:50 am

japan08 Nov 2010 10:57 am

So many games, too little time

When I still worked at the Journal I would blog (very infrequently) at my friend and colleague Ben Gelinas` video game blog, Button Mash. I have done another post which may be of interest to those who read my blog more for personal musings, as it offers some non-food insight into my life on Okinawa.

Button Mash: Tour a video game `recycle shop`

Thanks for letting me invade, BenG.

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