So as I was wandering around Ginza yesterday, thwarted by the line-up outside the Pierre Marcolini Café and Ice Cream Shop, when I spotted a promising-looking dessert destination on the third floor of a nearby building. “Sweets Paradise 90 mins.”read the sign outside the window. “Sweets Paradise” was self-explanatory (and just what I was looking for). “90 mins.”? Well, I just assumed it was one of those quaint Japanese non-sequiturs like “Are you electric?”, “Best contact face”, and “For external use only!”.
Turns out it wasn’t. I stepped inside and was immediately greeted by a cheery woman dressed like a Slavic midwife who handed me a laminated sheet containing English instructions. She then ushered me over to a machine into which I inserted 1475 yen. In return, I received a ticket with a time stamp. I had 90 minutes to eat and get the hell out! I walked over to the buffet set-up and checked out the offerings. There were savories, sweets, and some green chewy things devoid of any discernible flavor. The desserts weren’t bad, simply not comparable to others I’d sampled to date. Needless to say, I wrapped things up well inside the 90 minutes allotted me.
Last night, I went to dinner at Ukai-Tei, a teppanyaki restaurant recommended by the concierge. Upon arrival, I was escorted into a lounge area that resembled your eccentric aunt’s parlor – all antique and crystal and Brideshead Revisited upholstery – where I awaited the rest of my party. Yes, on this night I would not be dining alone. Let it be said that the internet is a wonderful means of connecting with strangers, some of whom may have designs on your kidneys, others who are just eager to socialize. In the case of my Ukai-Tei fellow diners, it was the latter. The first to arrive was Yuka, a native Tokyoite and fellow foodie. We had a great get-to-know-you chat and, after waiting 30 minutes for the rest of our party to show decided, what-the-hell, and asked to be seated. We were shown to our chic private room where we were seated on one side of a table facing the teppanyaki iron griddle. As we were checking out the menu, the third member of our party arrived, Mahesh, an American east-coaster on a whirlwind tour of the Japan. More chatting, some aperitifs, we placed our orders and then the meal began. And quite a meal it was. Our chef host enlightened us on the merits of the various beefs – in Japanese. Fortunately, Yuka was more than happy to translate for us. I started with an excellent foie gras, then followed with an outstanding cream of chestnut soup. Here in Tokyo, chestnut is king, and it’s served every which way, in everything from savory sauces to delectable desserts. I personally think it’s high time North America jumped on the band wagon. Next up was an excellent Alaskan crab served with a saffron butter sauce. The steamed abalone followed, first the body, then the, uh, reproductive organ that Yuka assured me is all the range amongst the men in her hometown. We had some organic spinach, some organic mushrooms and then, finally, the show-stopper: 300 grams of Kobe beef. And yes, to whoever asked, it does melt in your mouth. The first time I tried Kobe beef some six or seven years ago ruined North American beef for me. It simply paled in comparison.
After dinner, we retired to the dessert lounge where I had a Mont Blanc (chestnut cream dessert – Chef Belcham, take note!) and an accomplished Earl Grey ice cream (for the table, natch). The bill arrived and it was a record-breaker – the most expensive meal I’d ever eaten (breaking the three year old record formerly held by Shinjuku’s Seryna Restaurant).
The next morning I phoned up Mahesh and we made plans to meet at the Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast. I suggested we meet at the stuffed lynx (located at the heart of the market) and, at 8:30, I headed out. I reached the rendez-vous point at the appointed time, 9:00 p.m., and busied myself with my GPS and maps. Alas, Mahesh ran late. Very late. 45 minutes later, I decided to grab a seat at a nearby restaurant counter from where I could keep an eye out for him. 15 minutes after that, I ordered some sushi in order to keep my strength up. As it turned out, I had much strength to keep up and, following subsequent orders of chu-toro, o-toro, and ankimo (aka monkfish liver), it suddenly dawned on me that I may have missed him. I headed out, completed one final walk around the market and then caught a cab to my next destination.
“Sunshine City o gozonji desu ka?”I asked the cab driver whether he was familiar with Sunshine City. His half-nod was less than inspiring so I informed him it was in Ikebukuro “Ikebukuro ni arimasu.” He gave another nod and uttered something that sounded like “Unh”, then put the cab in drive. I consulted my research sheet and read out the address: “San-ichi-ni Higashi-Ikebu-” This seemed to annoy him enough to interrupted me with an emphatic “Unh! Unh!” and head bob. So much for conversation.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up in front of the Sunshine City Mall. The first place I noticed as I walked through the entrance was Patisserie Atelier de Reve, a pastry place that specialized in – yep, you guessed it – chestnut cream desserts. I ordered two magnificent-looking desserts – one plain chestnut cream, the other pumpkin-chestnut cream. They were…well, good but not outstanding. The cake portion could have been moister.
From there, I wandered the enormous mall, eventually finding my way up to the top floor aquarium where I took in the penguins and bug-eyed fish. Alas, no sharks but there was one impressive big-ass fish that could probably kill you were it dropped off a tenth floor balcony onto your head.
On my subsequent wanderings, I passed by what looked like the entrance to a kiddy amusement park. Unbearably cheerful employees in costume welcomed youngsters of all ages (between 3 and 17 so far as I could see). Not wanting to come across as the dimwitted tourist haplessly meandering into a children’s funfair, I approached the woman in the candy striper-like uniform manning the wicket and asked if it was something that might interest an adult, say a dimwitted adult tourist. Well, she cheerfully assured me that I would have a great time and happily handed me an English guide map that outlined some of the theme park’s varied offerings: The Pig-Riding Shooting Game, Ice Cream City, the Tokyo Dessert Republic, and something called Pilgrimage to the Cat of Good Fortune. I purchased my ticket, walked in (following an embarrassing mishap at the entry where I was supposed to feed my ticket into a machine, push through the turnstile, and then retrieve my ticket on the other side), and was immediately assaulted by a full-scale sensory overload: lights flashing, music blaring, sound effects, children racing around. I had to sit down and, once I’d gathered my bearings, ventured forth, map in hand, in an attempt to find an attraction called Jigoku Benjo which the English Guide translated to Hell’s Toilet. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Hell’s Toilet. But I did find another sort of Hell in a labyrinth of gyoza stand jamp-packed with children. I got lost and, in trying to find my way out, ended up strolling through something called The Haunted Inn that brought me back to the escalators and the next floor’s Dessert Garden. Lots of interesting-looking desserts but, at that point, I was not so much in an eating mood as I was a passing out mood. I was about ready to call it a day when I spotted the sign for Ice Cream City.
Not unlike Vatican City, Ice Cream City is its own principality within Namja Town. It’s comprised of an ice cream museum, various shops selling ice-cream-related products, and a central shop selling easily 200 different flavors of ice cream from the weird to the freaking weirder. I was surrounded by some terrific Weird Food Purchase of the Day material. And so, I picked up five ice cream (having trouble uploading the vid so check out tomorrow’s entry for the wonderfully memorable flavors) and headed back to my hotel.
I had enough time to change and then I was off once again, across the street and up to the 20th floor of the Yurakucho Denki North Building where I met with a publisher in the lounge of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. We discussed potential properties after which he regaled me with tales of the in innumerable crazy Westerners who have come to teach English in Japan.
Back in the hotel now and getting this off to you before dinner tonight at Hamadaya. If I’m not asleep by the time dessert is served, I may even hit one of those crazy theme bars tonight. I’m thinking either Office or the Absolut Ice Bar. I think I’ll bring my gloves just in case.