So, last night’s dinner reservation was at Chateau Joel Robuchon which is – surprise surprise – an actual chateau located in the heart of Yebisu, across the street from a big honking DVD store and right beside something called the Yebisu Beer Station. I took a stroll through the Christmas displays and then headed inside where I was escorted to a secluded bar that kind of reminded me of the place Jack Torrance has the unsettling discussion with that creepy bartender. Eventually, the rest of the dinner party arrived and we were seated in the main dining room, next to a woman who had done her hair to resemble a giant bow sitting atop her head. When it came to the menu, we were presented with choices, choices, and more choices: a tasting menu, a chef’s menu, a special white truffle menu, and the a la carte menu. Well, I never thought I’d say this but, ten days into my eat-fest and I was beginning to feel overwhelmed, so I ordered a simple appetizer and main. I started with a white truffle appy of fingerling potatoes and foie gras. It was good but, in all honesty, it’s hard to muster much excitement for a dish that marries foie with potatoes. A pumpkin gnocchi with shaved white truffles, on the other hand, was magnificent. My main was a cumin-crusted lamb served with an eggplant caviar. Very good but Michelin 3 star good? I don’t know. The high points for me on this night were less what I ordered but what I didn’t as the creative execution that went into some of the unexpected intermediary dishes was truly impressive. There was the beet soup served in a raised bowl beneath a smoking dry ice base, a golf ball-sized coriander ice nestled within, a refreshing grape granita, and a simply mind-blowing dessert tray that offered everything from chocolates and macarons to petites fours and candies. Service was fine although my water glass sat empty for long stretches and our waiters had the habit of addressing only one of us with regard to any questions the table may have had about the menu.
I caught a cab after dinner and the driver ended up dropping me off at the wrong hotel. As we approached The Imperial Hotel, I informed him that I asked for The Peninsula. He responded in a gruff indecipherable protest that, if I were to hazard a guess, amounted to “I heard Imperial and, besides, what do you want me to do? Drive back against traffic?” It was a nice night so I just hopped out and walked the five minutes back to my hotel. Needless to say, I had no desire to see his Tippu Tippu Dansu.
Again, I hate to say it but I fear my hard-eating ways are catching up with me. It took me forever to fall asleep last night and, when I did, I spent most of the evening tossing and turning, wracked with nightmares involving murder plots, a fight for survival, and a disquieting restroom discovery.
I woke up, had a late breakfast an a little 24 hour place under the tracks, then caught a cab to NHK Studios in Shibuya. My original intention had been to attend the taping of one of those wacky Japanese game shows in which scantily clad women negotiate a labyrinth of spaghetti string or a bunch of men are forced to eat a bowl of mealworms. Alas, no such luck. Instead, I was informed to get there early in order to attend the taping of a cooking show.
I arrived early enough and took in the studio tour, checking out the standing sets of popular period dramas, the recording studios, and a wall display of NHK’s various productions which, curiously enough, were all Japanese with the exception of Little House on the Prairie. I eventually found my way to CT-450 Studio where I informed the clearly horrified pages that I was there to participate in the live broadcast. I was told to stand in a specially designated area with the understanding that if more than 30 people showed up, the participants would be chosen by lot. Alas, only 13 showed up so they were forced to take me. I was handed a plastic button with the number “6” and given instructions in Japanese. From what I could gather, they warned me against taking pictures, speaking on my cell phone, and sitting in the hostess’s lap at any time during the segment. Thus informed, we were free to mill about for half an hour. I grabbed a seat and started to read only to have another one of the audience members sit down beside me and start talking. The fact that I clearly spoke and understood little Japanese did not deter him from carrying on a conversation with me for the better part of twenty minutes. Touched, I did my best to follow along whenever I could, occasionally nodding and murmuring “Mmmm. Mmmmm.” to suggest at least a half-hearted effort on my part.
Finally, it was showtime. We all filed into the studio – the bored elderly women, the homeless men, and the gaijin – and took our designated seats. The grandmother seated beside me seemed quite excited. Apparently, we were going to be sitting in on the live broadcast of a talk show. The guest on this day was the wife of the guy who won a bronze medal for Japan in one of the relay events at the last Olympics. One of the producers addressed the audience one final time, running through a list of do’s and don’t’s in Japanese – none of which I understood. And then, as if suddenly noticing me for the first time sitting in the front row, she asked whether I understood Japanese. I responded “Sukoshi hanasemasu, demo amari wakarimasen.” – I speak a little but don’t understand very much. This delighted my fellow audience members who smiled and nodded. It also seemed to be good enough for the producer who finished up by saying something and then indicating the security guard standing by just in case. The message was clear: No funny business.
A little more conversation with the nice woman seated beside me (She has three kids, one of whom lives in Milan. She has traveled to Madrid and knows a little Spanish. She enjoys skiing and golfing.) and then the show was on. The pretty hostess and her portly but no less lovable sidekick trotted out of the back room and we were encouraged to smile and applaud. I put some extra effort into it, grinning like an idiot, eager to please. They trotted out of the studio and into the corridor where a raucous crowd had gathered to greet them. They did their intro, then welcomed their guest to the show. A little preamble and then it was back into the studio where they were met with more smiles and applause, in particular from the enthusiastic white guy in the front row.
At this point, we rolled into the body of the show – a revealing heart to heart between hostess and guest. How revealing? Damned if I know as I hardly understood a thing. They showed clips of the woman’s husband winning a bronze medal at the Beijing Games, footage of the guest in her days as a synchronized swimmer, and still photos of the couple’s honeymoon in Hawaii. Suddenly, the hostess produced a letter handwritten on lavender parchment written by, I’m guessing, either her husband serving overseas or her long lost mother. As she began to read it aloud, her words accompanied by a shmaltzy music cue, the guest grew suddenly wistful and started dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a tissue. My fellow audience members grew similarly emotional. I bowed my head and tried to look somewhere between stricken and wedding day happy-sad. A few seconds to gather ourselves and then the camera swung around for a minute-long segment in which the sidekick shilled apple. Then, it was back to the interview and a more upbeat exchange. I understood next to nothing but still, I took my cues from my fellow audience members – laughing when they did, marveling when they did, and generally nodding throughout. A final cutaway to a five minute science bit in which the sidekick spoke to some professorial-looking guy who delivered a mini lesson on gravity, and then it was back to the interview. The show concluded with some viewer mail, they signed off, we clapped them out and that, as they say in show biz, was a wrap.
On my way out, the skiing grandmother and the chatty homeless man wished me well, which I thought was very sweet of them.
I walked around Shibuya for a while, then paid my friend Moro a visit at Pierre Marcolini. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince her to perform a Tippu Tippu song like the gals at Cold Stone. I’d even gone so far as to write the lyrics for her:
Tippu Tippu Irrashaimasu!
Domo Arigato Gozaimasu!
Atarashii kutsu kaimasu!
Tippu Tippu Irasshaimasu!
Roughly translated: Welcome tips! Thank you! I’m going to buy some new shoes! Welcome tips! Anyway, it’s a lot more clever in Japanese because it sort of rhymes.
Sadly, even that wasn’t enough to convince her. However, she did promise to come up with something for the next time I’m in town.
Well, that’s it. One more dinner and my culinary odyssey draws to an end. I’d love to come back and do this again. Same time next year – as it will probably take me a full year to recover.