Friday, January 30, 2009
The Food Frenzy Continues...this is a long one. Thank you Jen for your copious notes.
The next morning, after coffee at Starbucks (don’t try to order decaf here) we headed to the food courts in Ginza. Trust me when I say you have never seen anything like this. Matsuya Ginza and Mitsukoshi are large high end department stores with food courts in their basements. Imagine the finest French bakery, chocolate shop, produce vendor, fish monger, butcher, and candy maker in one space times 10. There was every thing you could imagine for sale here. The fish monger was selling incredible tuna loins, the produce vendor had fruit at prices you’ve never seen (tangerines for $3 and strawberries $9/dozen), and the bakeries were obscene-breads and pastries everywhere. We bought teas, cookies, chilies, and several Japanese sweets. We sampled kim chi (yes, a little bit of Korea), fish cakes, and chocolate covered black olives. The packaging was gorgeous. Even the fruit was packed like precious cargo. There was a lot of love and care for each product and we’d buy something each vendor would wrap it like it was a valuable jewel.
From the food courts we went upstairs at the Matsuya Ginza and ate home made ramen at Tanakaya. We ordered the noodles cold with dipping sauce, warm in a steamy broth, and warm with a fragrant duck broth. Then came a huge plate of tender tempura-the crispy coating encasing oyster, broccoli, eggplant, and white fish. It was the perfect cold weather lunch.
We got back on the subway (which, like the bus, is totally silent-you could hear a pin drop) and headed for the alleys of the Harajuku girls (you’ve seen them in the Gwen Stefani video). What a total trip! The teens dress in what we’d wear only to a serious Halloween party. Everything from pink Catholic school girl outfits to Little House on the Prairie dresses, cut well above the knee and full of ruffles. They paint their faces with tons of make up and finish the outfit with black combat boots. The stores sell mini top hats, frilly purses, and ripped and chained black t-shirts to accessorize. Truly a Tokyo original and one trend I don’t think we’ll be seeing state-side.
A short nap back at the hotel and we were off again. It was 6pm and we grabbed a beer at Joe Bar before dinner. Oh, the dinner! We ate at Waketokuyama, a small and gorgeous space that is owned by the chef. His name is Chef Nozaki (on the left above) and he is one of Tokyo’s four top chefs. Even Mika didn’t order here. The chef makes one tasting menu each night and you get what shows up at the table. The service was thoughtful to perfection and the food was made with an incredible amount of love. We learned from Mika how important the season is to the Japanese. Everything from the ingredients, dishes, and chopstick holder reflect the current season. Occasionally the Japanese cook a season ahead, a sign of looking forward to what is to come but they never cook from the season prior. The ingredients were impeccable, albeit not for the faint of heart. Here is a brief description of our 9 courses. Are you sitting down?
1) A hollowed out yuzu, filled with cod sperm, sea cucumbers, and broccoli. This had the texture of very soft tofu with the fragrance from the tart yuzu. It smelled and tasted amazing but, like much of the food we’d had prior and would have this night, had a texture that takes some getting used to.
2) A small rice cake was topped with a piece of cuttlefish bathed in a thick sauce of it’s own ‘guts’ (Mika’s description). I had to choke this one down-the chewy cuttlefish was tasty but the guts…not my thing. On the side was a rare scallop wrapped in yuba and deep fried with a crispy rice crust, a fresh bamboo shoot coated in bonito flakes, deep friend lotus root and a plum blossom to garnish.
3) As if eating sperm once in a night was enough, we had another course of it. This time it was from the blowfish and was swimming in a rich broth with a small Kyoto-style gluten cake
4) The sashimi course had two very big pieces of kampachi, two translucent fresh pieces of halibut, smoked mountain potato, red clam, and fresh wasabi
5) An abalone shell contained a the shellfish, steamed and sliced and covered in a sauce of, once again, ‘guts’ all topped with a spiky coating of fresh briny nori
6) This course with two bamboo boxes, each containing several little bites. On the left was a small cake of miso and chicken, a scallop cake with scallion sauce, and daikon cut like a flower with a piece of (ready for this?) cured whale fat-yes, I ate blubber! It tasted like the fat on the top of your bacon with a hint of sea water. I felt guilty eating it and had to ask why. Apparently there was no beef in Japan during WWII so to fill the protein gap the locals ate whale. It has since become a delicacy but, one I don’t need to try again. On the right side there were two tiny freshwater fish deep fried whole in fresh herbs and panko along with a clam that looked gratineed with a sweet seaweed on top.
7) Already full, we kept going. The next course was a green pottery box with a lid. We lifted the lids to find a huge pile of Matsuba (sp?) crabmeat. It was topped with crab butter and served with crab vinegar for dipping. Much like blue crab, the delicate meat was light and delicious
8) For the finale, we were each given a plate of pickled vegetables, a bowl of miso soup and a cup of green tea. The waiter then came to the table with a huge pottery vessel. He removed the lid to reveal a bowl of seasoned rice topped with cod and nori. He mixed the ingredients carefully and served it to each of us in a beautiful bowl. It is traditional to end a Japanese meal with rice and miso but I am fairly sure this version took the two staples to an entirely new level
9) Dessert, which is tends to be very savory in Japan, was two small bites, One was a sweet potato cake with black bean and the other looked like mochi but was actually made from soy instead of the traditional rice. I love sweets but, was craving a little bite of ice cream or a piece of chocolate
We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and were greeted by the entire staff. The chef was adorable and gracious (he even let us take a photo with him). The service was some of the best I’ve ever had. It was a dining experience I will never forget. Something to do once in a lifetime and a very special night.
I’d return to Tokyo and stay longer than 36 hours. The city is huge with alleys, doorways, and stairways leading to food experiences an American rarely encounters. The people are sweet and reserved, gracious in every way. Two days of eating around town was not enough for me to get used to the soft textures and new tastes I experienced. Did I love the food? Honestly, I’m not sure. I respected it immensely and loved the dedication to the best product of the season. Mostly, I’m thankful for my dear friend Mika and her time and patience taking the four of us (nicknamed ‘the food paparazzi’) on an adventure of a lifetime.