September 19, 2014: Japan Day #9!

Today, we had plans to meet up with our friend, Nihei, for a yakitori lunch but, unfortunately, a last minute meeting derailed those yakitori plans – and sent us to Butagumi, my favorite tonkatsu restaurant, instead!

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Tucked away in a little side street in Nishi-Azabu, the rustic restaurant offers varieties of tonkatusu (golden-fried pork cutlets) from all over Japan.

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We started with a double order of the San Mi Ni Pork – sweet, salty, umami and crispy, it goes great with rice.  I’ve been trying to replicate the recipe at home for years now – to no avail.  sad

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We ordered three types of pork.  Surprisingly, the tastiest was this Nattoku-Toni pork from GIFU prefecture.  I say surprising because it was the leanest cut of our three choices – yet proved equally tender and more flavorful.

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The two month aged Himuro-Buta from Gunma (pictured above) and Kashiwa-Gensou Pork from Chiba were also great, all nestled in an exceptionally light panko crusting.

Butagumi: 2-24-9 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo

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Passed this interesting sign outside a restaurant.  Not sure what it means.  Cool down with tempura on hot days?

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These cool state-of-the-art public urinals come with manual water flushing systems and soap dispensers! Took me a while to figure them out.

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Oh.  No.  Wait.

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In preparation for the cold east coast winter, we also got our dogs some down-filled coats as well.

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Then stopped by the baby section of Uniqlo and, for half the price, picked up Jelly a whole new winter wardrobe.

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Interesting metro print ad featuring Kyari Pamyu Pamyu.

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Mecha-gorilla outside a shop in Daikanyama.

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Akemi and her new friend.

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I’ll do the cutest thing on the menu, please.

 1Wow.  Small world.  It’s nice to know that, despite our cultural differences, we are united in our hatred of obnoxious cyclists.

For dinner tonight, I got a recommendation from a foodie forum and made a reservation at Sushiso Masa.  I was expecting a modest, lovely little meal.  Instead, we were treated to a mind-blowing feast featuring some 40+ different pieces of fish served in an unbelievable variety of ways.  Chef Masa kindly took the time to explain (to us, but really to Akemi who translated for me) the various fish, preparations, and his inspired approaches and philosophy.   We had three different sea urchins prepared three different ways, sashimis, nigiris, cookied specialties, arrangements and presentations I’ve never had before.

Some of the visual highlights…

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Spectacular.  This place has earned its spot into regular rotation alongside Sawada, Esquisse, and L’Effervescence.

Sushiso Masa: 4-1-15 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo

 Tonight, I leave you with another video my sister sent me – this one of a snorky Lulu and her toy:

November 10, 2013: Tokyo Day #5! Shaky shaky! Pork and promenades! Dinner at L’Effervesence!

Roppongi toilet art
Roppongi toilet art

We sure are experiencing a lot of turbulence, I thought to myself in my sleep-addled state.  Suddenly, I stopped brushing.  Wait a minute.  I’m in my hotel room.

“Did you feel the earthquake?”asked Akemi as I stepped out of the bathroom.  The national news was already reporting on the 4.0 quake, a relatively minor that, to me, felt a little more significant.  But business as usual here I suppose.

Eggplant so purple they're black.  Or maybe just black eggplant.
Eggplant so purple they’re black. Or maybe just black eggplant.

Yesterday, Akemi and I headed over to Roppongi for a little pre-lunch stroll through Roppongi (it of the giant spider art, Das).  The plan was to check out Le Chocolat H but, alas, our favorite Japanese chocolatier had packed up and moved to Shibuya.  So, instead, we walked back to Mori Hills and checked out a two-day farmer’s market.  It was just like back home complete with food trucks and guys dressed up like giant vegetables.  I am a sucker for samples and try to avoid them as much as possible, especially here in Japan where everything is delicious.  On this occasion, I didn’t – and ended up buying a bag of oranges to take back to the hotel with me.

Not a lot of trunk space in this baby.
Not a lot of trunk space in this baby.
Eggplant and turnip = BFF
Eggplant and turnip = BFF

Oranges in tow, we made the fifteen walk over to Nishi-Azabu where we were meeting Akemi’s family for lunch at Butagumi, my favorite tonkatsu restaurant.  Situated in a quaint old building in a back alley, Butagumi specializes in crispy, almost ethereal, fried pork cutlets from all over Japan – and beyond.  On this day, we enjoyed three different varieties along with the traditional slaw, pickles, rice – and one of my very favorite dishes: the braised pork appetizer.

Butagumi, where pork is king!
Butagumi, where pork is king!
I would come to Tokyo for this dish alone: the braised pork appetizer at Butagmi.
I would come to Tokyo for this dish alone: the braised pork appetizer at Butagmi.
Crispy pork tonkatsu
Crispy pork tonkatsu

The talk of the table was, of course, Akemi sister’s, Hiromi’s, upcoming wedding.  The ceremony will be steeped in tradition.  Everything will be exact, from the exchanging of the vows to the specific envelope in which the money gift is presented.  Unfortunately, Akemi hadn’t a clue which of the dozens of money envelopes on display at the local Ito-ya would work, so she had her sister and mother pick one up for us. Elaborate, no?

The personalized wedding envelopes Akemi's family prepared for the wedding. is this a subtle hint?
The personalized wedding envelopes Akemi’s family prepared for the wedding. is this a subtle hint?

After lunch, we sent Akemi’s family off with some oranges, then Akemi and I headed back the way we came, making our way over to Tokyo Midtown…

Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate art
Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate art

I was in the mood for a little dessert but, it being the weekend, the place was so crowded I gave up in favor of some chocolate-covered waffles at the little stand-up shop in Ginza.  Which also had a line-up, so we returned to the hotel where I ate a couple of oranges.

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But not before taking a stroll up Ginza dori that is shut down to car traffic on weekends.  Here I snap a picture of a crowd snapping pictures.  What’s so interesting?
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This family of cats hanging around.

For dinner last night, I paid a return visit to one of Tokyo’s most dynamic restaurants, headed by one of its most creative chefs: L’Effervesence.  It’s a bit of a walk from Omotesando, tucked away in a little alleyway – but if you can find it, it’s well worth the trip!

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Yep, keep going, right past the cemetery.

I met up with my good friend, Tomomi. who introduced me to the place last year.  And, like last year, the meal was nothing short of spectacular.  Some of the highlights included:

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This McDonald’s apple pie-inspired appetizer comprised of oxtail, taro and rosemary – that, nevertheless, possessed flavors surprisingly similar to the original.
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Pan-fried scales-on tilefish “Amadai” and mussel from Mont SaintMichel, kohlrabi, Manganji pepper, chanterelle, and kabosu. The fish was crisp and tender, the broth subtly sublime, but those mushrooms stole the show.  

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Other standouts included an appetizer mousse made up of Hog’s head cheese and Japanese sweet potato, the restaurant’s signature whole cooked turnip (slow-cooked for four hours before being simmered in butter and served, incredibly flavorful and, amazingly, still firm), roast Hokkaido venison served with a fig and red wine reduction, chanterelle mushrooms, and yarrow leaves and –

Pictured above, the house signature salad that includes 50 different salad, fruit, vegetables, and herbs.

For dessert, a ginger milk mousse with Darjeeling tea ice cream, apple jelly, lemon preserve, and this favorite:

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Fragments of chestnut creme brulee, rum raising ice cream, wild grape jelly, and olive oil steamed buns.  

And, to end things:

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Pop rock chocolate pops, macarons, and a lemon meringue dessert you assemble yourself by squeezing the lemon custard out of a tiny tube and into a tiny pie shell.

After dinner, the ever-humble Chef Shinobu Namae stopped by the table for a quick chat before heading back to the kitchen to complete the evening service.  It turns out Chef Shinobu will be heading to our North American neighborhood to take part in the Culinary Institute of America’s World’s of Flavor conference alongside the world’s culinary elite: http://www.worldsofflavor.com/schedule/presenters.  Now THAT sounds like fun.

http://leffervescence.jp/en/

Alright, time to get ready.  I have a Japanese wedding to attend. Apparently, I’m going to be asked to sign my name name in hiragana today.  With a calligraphy brush no less!  So, let’s practice…

Picture 1Fish hook with eyes, small L wearing a sun visor, bent t.v. antenna, big-nosed 3, and fish hook with eyes.

October 31, 2012: Tokyo Day #3! Sawada! Shinjuku! Butagumi!

Last night, Akemi and I returned to our favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo: Sawada. It’s always more than dinner, it’s a show, with Master Sawada-san presenting a feast of varied sushis and sashimis, from sweet Hokkaido uni to grilled sea eel, all expertly prepared and utterly delicious.  The restaurant itself is small, seating six at its modest counter, but this, says Sawada, is ideal as it allows him to give each diner his fullest attention.  The meal isn’t cheap, but it is always one of the culinary highlights of my year.

On this visit, we were seated beside a solo diner, Jeff, who was in town from London for two days of business.  We chatted film, television, and, of course, food.  The remaining counter seats were occupied by three 50-something Japanese women whose conversation grew more raucous, their laughter louder, as the evening progressed – no doubt owing to the amount of sake they knocked back.  At one point, one of them got up to use the bathroom, stumbled and almost ate tatami – but found much-needed support in the form of the opposing closet door that almost buckled under her weight.  Once our dinner had ended, I made sure they left first. The last thing I needed was an inebriated avalanche of drunken older women tumbling down the stairs toward me.

Anyway, no photos of the meal itself (Sawada-san enforces a strict no-photo policy – unless you get there early and there are no fellow diners to offend), but I did snap a pic of our new friend, Jeff with Akemi:

Today, we did a little shopping in Shinjuku…

The streets of Shinjuku

I touched and got “Make a mountain out of a molehill”.

Then to Nishi-Azabu for tonkatsu lunch…

Our walk from the metro station takes us by Aoyama Park.
Lunch at Butagumi with our friend, Masa.
The menu offers a wide variety of pork (breaded and fried to golden-tender perfection).
Let the pig-out begin!
This appetizer was the surprise star of the meal and probably the most delicious thing I’ve eaten all year. The pork is braised for eight hours, then cooked with garlic, green onions, soy, and shichimi (a Japanese spice made up of some seven other ingredients). I ended up ordering a second dish – and then a third. Unbelievably tasty.
We ordered three different tonkatsu’s. This one was the thickly sliced, medium-rich pork sirloin from Kagoshima prefecture.
This one was the Imo Buta from Chiba prefecture and was our favorite. Surprising since it was a filet and the leanest of the three.
The super rich Meishan-Ton from Ibakari prefecture. Akemi and I were expecting the marbling to be more evenly distributed. It was a tad queasifying. Is queasifying a word?

We worked off lunch with a walk down to Roppongi Midtown and stopped by Jean-Paul Hevin for macarons before heading back to Roppongi Hills – only to discover that the Mori Arts Museum is closed until mid-November.  WTF?!

Tonight, it’s dinner with my friend, Sachi, at Pierre Gagnaire and then tomorrow, it’s a LATE blog update as I spend the day (and early evening) with my friend, Moro-san, in Yokohama!

How are our friends on the east coast?  Hope you’ve all ridden out the storm and things are returning to normalcy.

December 10, 2010: Tokyo Trip Day #4! Butagumi pork-out! Omotesando dessert run! Izakaya Tofuro!

My feet hurt.  I figured this trip would be a great opportunity to break in those new shoes but, instead, they seem to be breaking me.  We’ve been doing a fair amount of walking these past couple of days and if it weren’t for the endless array of desserts that have given me the much-needed energy boosts I required to complete these seemingly endless strolls, I don’t know what I’d do.  Probably do less walking for one.

Yesterday, we had lunch at Butagumi, a tiny refurbished house turned tonkatsu restaurant serving up the most unbelievable array of crispy-fried pork goodness.  The great thing about traveling with a friend is that it allows you to rely on one another’s strengths and weaknesses to get around.  I, for instance, lend my experience and expertise on the city’s food, subway system, and strict rules and regulations ranging from not eating in public to not sleeping on the subway platforms.  Ivon, on the other hand, can actually read a map.  And so, it was mainly thanks to Ivon that we finally arrived at our lunch destination in Nishi Azabu.

It was cool outside but inside was a pleasant tropical temperature.  Pleasant when you initially walked in to the place, then really freakin’ hot as the meal progressed.  Since we wanted to sample a variety of porkly offerings, we decided to go with the Butagumi-Zen platter comprised of five kinds of pork, three sirloins and two filets (Iwachuu, Ryuuka-ton from Okinawa, Imobuta from Chiba, Eishow-ton which hails from China and is 80% fat, and the grand-daddy of pork – Iberico from Spain).  To further hedge our bets, we also ordered a katsu curry of Matsuzaka pork from Mie.

Matsuzaka pork
Butagumi-Zen sampler platter.

 A good time and a great meal. I very much enjoyed sampling the various offerings and sussing out their porkly nuances.  For his part, Ivon enjoyed the meal as well but wished at least some of the variations had been grilled rather than deep-fried.  But then, that’s tonkatsu.

Afterwards, we took a walk up to Roppongi station where we caught the metro to Omotesando…

I wish to hire this dog to investigate a case on my behalf.
As far as great pants go, this pair stood out on Day #3.
More awesome architecture.
More low-grade bad vacation karma. Ivon loses his passmo and must buy a new one in order to ride the subway.
We stop by Pierre Herme for some of a plate of my favorite macarons (and a couple of other desserts). They were, as always, terrific - in stark contrast to the dry, chewy macarons I picked up the previous night at the Shiseido Buildling. Awful.
This one's for Akemi. Her favorite dessert: the Isphahan.
After dessert, we crossed the street to sample more dessert - the popular Tomonama Doughnut.
Ivon marveled at closely they resembled their lurid plastic display counterparts. I took a bite of one and discovered it was partially frozen. Ivon claimed it was their way of dissuading consumers from eating on the go, ensuring they would have to return home and eat the doughnuts once they'd thoroughly thawed. I did upon my return to my hotel room. I was less than impressed. These doughnuts were the biggest disappointment since my failed marriage.
Tokyo out-Christmases Vancouver. And it aint even close.
Platform for Women Only subway car. To be fair, the gropers get their own car too.
An awesome assortment of Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate macarons. My midnight snack.

Next blog entry: Prison-style izakaya!  Star Bar!  Electric Town!

November 26, 2008: Tokyo Trip Day #4, Kaiseki Feast, Porking Out, Sweets and Such, and The Weird Food Purchase of the Day – Japanese Ice Cream Edition

Appetizer at Hamadaya
Appetizer at Hamadaya

Sashimi and Hamadaya
Sashimi and Hamadaya

Jessica distracted from her soup
Jessica distracted from her soup

Butagumi
Butagumi

Iberico pork tonkatsu
Iberico pork tonkatsu

The famed Roppongi Hills giant spider
The famed Roppongi Hills giant spider

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The view #2
The view #2

A very orchid Christmas
A very orchid Christmas

The sky deck
The sky deck

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Sadaharu Aoki's incredible matcha opera cake
Sadaharu Aoki's incredible matcha opera cake

Lulu's long distance love connection?
Lulu's long distance love connection?

Tokyo's infamous Christmas cows
Tokyo's infamous Christmas cows

Hop into a taxi in Tokyo and you’re in for a wild ride because it’s pretty much a given that your driver will have no idea where he’s going. Chalk it up to the city’s antiquated address system, its winding side streets, or its crisscrossing thoroughfares – whatever the reason, cabbies seem to be veritable tourists in their own hometown. Thank God for nav systems. Last night, for instance, my driver had one eye on the road, the other on his dashboard map, zipping through the congested labyrinth, turning up a side street and then down an empty alleyway, stopping in front of what looked like somebody’s garage. Surely he was mistaken. This couldn’t be Hamadaya, one of the restaurants Michelin had recently awarded an astounding 3 stars? Could it?

Well, once I stepped inside, it was as if I’d been transported far from the city to a ryokan in the Kyoto countryside. The place looked like something out of an Edo period sword and sandals epic. I was escorted into the tea room and there met my internet pal and new food buddy Jessica, a Houston native who is in Japan teaching English to kindergarteners. Following some preliminary introductions (“I’m a television producer, I have four dogs and a wife, and my favorite cereal mascot is the Trix rabbit.”) we were invited upstairs to our private tatami room. Of course, as expected, we had to remove our shoes. And, of course, despite my best efforts to ensure I’d packed my best pairs, one of my socks developed a hole. Fortunately, it was on the bottom of my right foot and I don’t think anyone noticed.

Anyway, we settled into our private room and then proceeded on to our kaiseki feast. For those of you who don’t know, kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal with an emphasis on seasonal local ingredients, taste, texture, and appearance. We started with an amuse, a cornet fish seasoned with kelp, and daikon radish and carrot marinated in vinegar, then were presented with the appetizer, a colorful selection made up of shrimp, mushroom omelet, angler liver, pickled squid served with a sauce of salted and fermented bonito guts. All of the flavors were crisp and distinct, and while I can’t say I was a huge fan of the bonito guts, I did enjoy everything. Our next course was soup with steamed seas breem, deep fried tofu and greens. Again, simple, clean flavors. Very nice. The same can be said for the ensuing sashimi dish – super-fresh tuna, flat fish, and halfbeak served with wasabi. For our next dish, we were served grilled beef filet with Japanese pepper served atop some steamed rice with wasabi stem and greens. Another artful preparation. We followed with grilled harvest fish with white miso, asparagus and crown daisy, and dried sea cucumber dressed with vinegar and then some steamed tilefish and turnip with kudz sauce. Deep fried prawn with grated daikon sauce and then, to round out the meal, some rice, simmered sea eel, a wonderfully rich dark brown miso soup, and pickles. Finally, we closed things out with some melon, strawberry, and hot sweet red bean soup. All I can say is Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a better-looking meal.

By the time I got in, I was exhausted and went right to bed. Then, this morning, I got up, got in a work-out, then headed out to Minato-ku where I had lunch at Butagumi, a restaurant that specializes in tonkatsu – deep fried pork (by the way, kudos to my cab driver who ended up negotiating an impossibly narrow side street to get me there). The menu consists of some 20 different varieties of pork, each with its own little write-up. For instance, there’s the Nakijin-Agoo-buta from Okinawa that was at one time an endangered species, the Eishow-ton fromm Kanagawa in central Japan whose ancestry can be traced back to China and is 80% sweet fat, and, of course, the Bimei-ton which is described as light-tasting. But I was there for the heavy hitter, Spain’s famed Iberico pork. Like Kobe beef, the meat practically melted in my mouth. Of course, like Kobe beef, the meat was incredibly well-marbled.

Figuring I could use the exercise, I decided to skip the taxi and walk the neighborhood. The neighborhood, it turns out, was Roppongi and the walk eventually took me to the Roppongi Hills shopping complex where I went up to the 52nd floor and checked out the glass-walled observatory. Whereas most everyone else had their faces practically pressed up against the glass, I was barely skirting the central shops, staying as far away from the vertigo-inducing view as possible. Still, I did manage to snap a few pics before making my way over to the Mori Art Museum where I took in two exhibitions, one on gold, the other on contemporary Indian Art. The former was fine, more field trip material for students, while the latter offered works that ranged from the silly and suspect to the downright fascinating. My favorite was the room dedicated to the interactive video that would capture your shadow as your stepped inside. Then, shadowed objects would drop down from the sky and stick to you – broken mannequins, cylinders, toasters. The longer you stood in the room, the more objects would come done until your shadow was completely encapsulated within a shell of junk that would bob and shudder with your every step, occasionally detaching from you and attaching onto whatever fellow museum patron you happen to cross paths with.

Suitably edified, I headed out, strolled through a park, and eventually landed in the Tokyo Midtown Shopping Complex where I dropped by Toraya, a maker of traditional Japanese confectionary that goes as far back as the 1600’s. The wagashi are little works of art, fashioned out of red and white adzuki beans, kanten (a seaweed-derived gelatin), and wasambonto (a unique, powdery domestic sugar). I picked up a few, then happened across a shop selling Noka, the world’s most expensive chocolate. But is it the world’s best chocolate? I’ll tell you tomorrow once I’ve sampled the four pieces I picked up.

I had lunch at the food court, some cold soba noodles (I didn’t realize they’d be served cold when I ordered them), then made my way over to Sadaharu Aoki Patisserie where I ordered the chocolate parfait and a perrier. My waitress suggested that if I wanted to order a cake or pastry as well, I should feel free to select something from the nearby display. A cake or pastry in addition to my chocolate parfait? What a brilliant idea. I ended up ordering the matcha opera cake. And it’s a good thing I did because, while the chocolate parfait was fine (cookies, vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and whipped cream), that match opera cake was outfreakingstanding! Layers of green tea genoise, green tea butter cream, and chocolate ganache deliver a sublime bittersweet rhapsody of flavors. This was soooooo good that I’m already planning a return visit.

On my way out, I stopped by a shop called the Pet Shop, sort of a pet store, vet, and doggy daycare in one, and met an adorable Frenchie named Gutsu (perhaps named after the lead character from Berserk?). As I snapped some pics of the little guy, I realized how much I miss my gang back home. They, in turn, are no doubt anxiously awaiting my return.

Well, another successful day which I intend to cap off with another decadent dinner. Tonight, it’s another Michelin 3-star selection: L’Osier.

And speaking of 3-star selections, check out today’s Weird Food Purchase of the Day: Japan Edition in which I sample some decidedly off-the-wall ice cream flavors…