December 7, 2009: Tokyo Travel Day #13 – Sawada, The Tapas Molecular Bar, a Maid Cafe AND a Cosplay Lounge!
It was an atypically warm, sunny, beautiful day today so I ditched my jacket and coat in favor of my leather jacket and headed out.
I was on my way to Sawada, a Michelin two star sushi restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. Despite the fact that I was armed with a map and had been given explicit directions by the concierge, I would have missed the place entirely had it not been for Stefan standing right out in front of the building.
Alas, Sawada was the first restaurant that did not allow photography, so no pics of the meal. But it was something else, lasting nearly three hours and covering a wide array of fish and preparations, from simple sashimi to elaboarte stuffed cuttlefish. Lots of memorable moments including one where we were instructed to eat a piece of fatty chu-toro with lots of wasabi. I expected to have my sinuses seared and, amazingly, the fat of the tuna absorbed most of the wasabi kick. Who knew? A memorable meal, but also our more expensive one to date. Stefan, who enjoyed an admittedly not as accomplished meal at the Tsukiji Market wondered whether the price was worth the significantly higher price point? He enjoyed Sawada more, but did he enjoy it, say, five times as much as his lunch in Tsukiji? Hard to say, though one thing’s for sure: you’re unlikely to get sushi and sashimi this refined or masterfully prepared outside of Japan.
After lunch, I took a stroll back to the hotel and, from there, headed over to Akihabara – Electric Town.
I strolled by this group of men playing some sort of video game, the latest edition of Dragon's Lair I believe.
Met up with some fellow travelers including…
We took a stroll through a place called Don Quixote that offered everything from anime posters to professional uniforms for everyone from…
Which brought us to the reason we were in Akihabara: The Maid Cafe’s. I’d hear a lot about them and was surprised to discover that they’re theme locale for girls, groups of friends, and, uh, the occasional solitary businessman. You essentially pay an entrance fee and then rent your table by the hour. Drinks and food are extra of course. However, in exchange, you are served by some unbearably chipper young ladies in maid uniforms who smile, scurry about, and cheer each other on.
It was mostly cute and good for a laugh, except for the solitary middle-aged man in the sweater vest sitting at the table behind us, leafing through the restaurant’s themed calendar, tapping his foot and bobbing his head – and occasionally playing air drums – to the anime soundtrack being piped into the place. At one point, he bought a bottle of Dom Perignon and, after much fanfare from the costumed gals, sat at his table and drank it alone. “I’d love to hear that guy’s story,”said Said, the freelance photographer from Sweden. “Call it a wild guess,”I told him, “but I’ve got a feeling it would be very sad.”
From there, we walked a few blocks over to a Cosplay Lounge. Here, the gals were a little less upbeat, possibly due to the smoke-filled environment, potentially as a result of the somewhat more thematically relaxed dress code. Oh, they all dressed up, but not as maids. They were apparently all characters from different animes – none of which I recognized. Where was Rei from Evangelion or Hyatt from Excel Saga or Faye from Cowboy Bebop?
Unlike those hotshot maids, these gals didn’t mind being photographed. Okay, guess the animes…
Space Maid Midori.
As we walked the streets of Akihabara, we passed uniformed young ladies distributing flyers for more expensive and far more elaborate themed services. Apparently, for a mere $30, you can spend an hour playing video games with a maid of your choice in a living room setting. Pay more, and you can rest your head on her knees while she cleans your ears. Pay significantly more, and she can be your companion for the day, accompanying on a shopping expedition or maybe that big family dinner so that mom can finally shut up about you not having a girlfriend.
For dinner, I met up with my friend Jessica (tastefully attired in non-maid war) for dinner at The Tapas Molecular Baron the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It was a return visit to the restaurant for me as I had been there some three years ago for a truly way-out meal (as documented in one of my early entries). As the name of the restaurant implies, innovation is the key here as science and gastronomy come together to form some of the weird, whimsical, and wonderful creations.
Before each dish, Chef Jeff Ramsay, with the help of his assistant Satoshi, assembled the ingredients and then presented each dish with an accompanying explanation, inviting questions from the diners. Jessica and I were the only ones who did any asking as the Austrian couples to our left spoke little English while the Chinese couple to our right either spoke no English or had absolutely no interest in hearing about the elaborate prep that went into each creation, focused as they were on barreling through dinner. Two dishes in, they called the waitress over and informed her that the wife could (would?) not eat pepper, forcing Chef Ramsay to improvise some replacement ingredients which he happily did. Still, you would think that given the prep that goes into the some 20 dishes we enjoyed on the night, they’d have had the foresight to give the kitchen the heads-up when making the reservation. Anyway, the quintessential rube moment of the night came when we were served one covered dish that Chef Ramsay instructed us to hold off on revealing. Halfway through his explanation of the dish, he glanced over in dismay at the husband who had simply plowed ahead and polished off his plate with much lip-smacking gusto. It was like eating beside the Hong Kong version of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Chef Jeff Ramsay – Accomplished, inventive, and a lot of fun to talk with both during and after the meal.
I had a great time and plan to return next year, a little earlier in the season so that I can catch the Fall menu. And if you’re going to go – and I heartily recommend it – book well in advance. There are only two seatings a night and only seven spots available at the counter, making for an intimate, engaging and, above all, enormously entertaining evening.