September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More eating, and I take a ride on the shinkansen!

There are three “can’t miss” restaurants I HAVE to visit every time I come to Tokyo.  The first is Sawada sushi – which, sadly, is closed during this two week stay.  The second is Esquisse, a brilliant French restaurant headed by Chef Lionel Beccat – which we’ll be visiting in the coming days.  And the third, is L’Effervesence, with its delightfully inventive menu c/o Chef Shinobu Namae – which I visited last night with my friend Tomomi.

It was a night of consistent culinary highlights.  Among the highlights of the highlights…

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Apple Pie #16 is the sixteenth version of Chef Name’s signature pie inspired by a certain McDonalds menu item.  This version is compromised of foie gras, fig, and a touch of basil.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

In my bid to not go a day without sake, I decided to go with the sake pairing which offered up a wonderful variety ranging from peach sweet to smoky dry.  I was offered my choice of cups to get me started.  I opted for the Mt. Fuji, bottom left.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

With a little Mr. Fuji inside.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

One of the menu items that never changes is this incredible turnip dish.  It’s cooked in a warm bath for 4 hours, then lightly roasted and butter basted.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

The chef chooses lean deer from Hokkaido that is roasted for 10 minutes, then allowed to rest, returned to roast for another 10 minutes, then set aside to rest.  The process is repeated until the eat is perfect, then served – here with local peppers, pumpkin sauce, and a reduction.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

The salad is comprised of 51 fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.  I’m not a big fan of salad but this one was a lot of fun, offering a myriad of complimentary and contrasting flavors and textures.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

My lovely hostess, Tomomi, shows off the Sirene chocolate I brought for her.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Tonka bean mousse, barley ice cream, and a Chinese fruit – whose name escapes me.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Our third dessert was a plate of fun mini-bites including a tube of lemon curd I used to spell out my guest’s name.  Impressive, no?

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

After the meal, Chef Namae came by to check in with us and see how we’d enjoyed the meal, something he does with EVERY table.  I honestly told him that every meal I’ve had at L’Effervesence has never failed to impress.

By the time we wrapped up, it was almost 11:00 p.m.  Between the sake and the jet-lag, I was thoroughly exhausted, but I decided to forego a cab and walked back to Ometesando Station, then caught the metro back to the hotel.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Passed by this interesting-looking eatery.  The spicy pad-thai is like a roundhouse kick in the mouth!

By the time I got in, I was ready for bed.  I had a relatively deep sake sleep, punctuated by weird dreams involving the French counryside and brain surgery, then woke up at 7 a.m.  Rather than hit Tsukiji again for breakfast, we packed up, checked out, placed our luggage in storage, then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka.  On a Saturday!  On what appears to be a holiday weekend.  We just managed to snagged seat – but, sadly, weren’t able to grab a bento box for the ride.

 Osaka Station was super-busy, crowded and crazier than I’d ever seen Tokyo.  Akemi’s dad suspects it’s because of the many visitors who have taken advantage of the long weekend (Monday is, of course, National Old People’s Day) to visit the new Harry Potter theme park!

No Harry Potter for us though.  After meeting up with Akemi’s dad, we grabbed a quick lunch –

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Sashimi.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Tempura.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Stewed fish head.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

And shirasu (that’s what the little fish are called) salad.

Then, for dessert, we met up with Akemi’s friend, Ayaka, for chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate (and pistachio) at Au Palet d’Or…

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

As it turns out, Ayaki is an avid reader of mystery novels (averaging a respectable ten books a month) and so, afterwards, we too a walk down to the nearest bookstore where I bought her…

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

The Japanese edition of Gone Girl.  She was super-pleased.

We’re staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Umeda and it is beautiful…

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Er, interesting art work.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

The room.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

And, to Akemi’s delight, a nice, deep tub.

Akemi and I had dinner reservations at a popular izakaya called Nagahori.  Her dad was hoping to join us as a late addition to our table for two and accompanied us to the restaurant.  Sadly, they weren’t able to accommodate him –

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

He was disappointed.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Akemi took the news a lot better than he did.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Father and daughter, in happier times (ie. before he received news that he wouldn’t be dining with us).

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Me and my lemurs (?) – also in happier times.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Okay, enough chit chat.  Time for dinner!

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

The hairy crab was, thankfully, a lot less hairy than I feared.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

The sashimi plate.  Ooooh, check out all the sea urchin!

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Steamed abalone with abalone gut sauce.  Highly recommended.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Deep-fried anago (sea eel) and yuba (tofu skin) – Akemi’s fave.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

Tasty grilled chicken guts!

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!And, for dessert: Kasu panna cotta with eggplant ice cream.  I’m a big fan of kasu desserts but have to admit – I’ve never met an eggplant-based dessert I’ve liked.

We caught a cab back to the hotel.  If you ever visit Japan, here’s a word of warning: Learn the Japanese name of your hotel.  Japanese cities are confusing enough as it is and, fully half the time, the cab driver won’t know where he’s going.  Chances are he also won’t know the English name of your hotel.  For instance, in Tokyo, if I tell them my destination is “The Imperial Hotel”, they’l  stare back at me blankly.  But if I tell them I’m going to the “Teikoku Hoteru” (Imperial Hotel in Japanese), I fare much better.  On this night, we told the driver we were going to The Intercontinental Hotel.  He’d apparently never heard of it.  After some discussion with Akemi, he apparently figured it out and got us there in record time.  And by “there”, I mean another hotel.  But close enough.  It was only a five minute walk to our actual hotel from there.

Enroute, we cut through a mall…

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

For all your chopstick needs.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

This robot promised to do something cool – and then tried to sell us a phone plan.

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More Eating, And I Take A Ride On The Shinkansen!

I spotted my old friend Doraemon.  He was obviously drunk (again!) and I tried to take away his bottle booze.  Things got ugly after that.

Tomorrow, we wake up bright and early to go to Akemi’s childhood home (my first visit!) to take part in a tea ceremony.  I’ve been warned I’ll be required to sit cross-legged for twenty minutes or so – something I haven’t done since elementary school.  Wish me luck!

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.

November 5, 2012: What day is it? Oh, let’s call it Osaka Day #1! And the tail end of Tokyo Day #7! L’Effervescence! And dogs eating ice cream!

Osaka

Today, we took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Osaka, riding (and eating) in comfort as the scenery whizzed by.

All aboard!

It was quite comfortable (surprisingly roomier than any airline I’ve ever flown), with reserve seating and food vendors who stroll up and down the various cars, offering up everything from ice cream and coffee to katsu (pork cutlet) sandwiches. 

The view from my seat.

I’m thinking that, in the future, this might be the way to see more of the country.  I could start in Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern area, and wind my way south by train, getting off to explore some of the cities along the way.  I could spend a couple of nights in Kyoto, Nara, Okinawa, Kobe, Kyushu…

Before boarding, we loaded up on supplies – in the form of snackables.  Since we arrived at Tokyo Station early, we had to wait some ten minutes for the shops to open.  And, at exactly 8:00 a.m., they did – right on schedule.  Check it out:

I picked up three of those mini pork burgers (they come in both lean and not-so-lean), a bento box, and some macarons for dessert:

My travel bento – a little bit of everything.

I also had some of the chocolates my friend Tomomi gifted me the previous night:

These wicked little morsels of chocolate decadence are highly addictive. They’re like super-dense/moist/rich brownies laced with just a touch of salt. They’re from a place called Chocolat Chic in Minato-ku

Speaking of Tomomi, I promised to provide the details of the incredible meal we enjoyed…

L’Effervesence

It was a spectacular dinner and the culinary highpoint of this trip so far.  The restaurant, L’Effervescence, is located in a quiet side street steps away from the Chokokuji Temple.  It has only been open about two years but has already earned itself a Michelin star thanks to its young, innovate Chef Shinobu Namae.

I arrived early (because I assumed I’d get lost – and did), and relaxed in the sleek lounge while I awaited my dining companion.  Tomomi arrived right on time, looking as gorgeous as ever, and we were escorted to our table, tucked away in a cozy, semi-private section.

In the mad scramble to pack for Osaka, I misplaced the menu, so bear with me as I attempt to tap my spotty memory and recall what, exactly, we ate:

First up were six imported olives.  Three were regular, and no less delicious, olives while another three had been laced with a hint of blood orange.

Their version of kinpira (burdock and carrot) with a touch of yuzu, topped with a foam confrere and accompanied by some yuzu ice.  Apparently, very natsukashii.

Next up was the apple pie which – hey, check it out! – looks a lot like the hot apple pie I used to get at McDonalds when I was a kid.  Chef Namae’s version is made with braised beef cheeks and Japanese sweet potato.  And, yes, kind of tasted like apple pie.

This dish was a masterful marriage of subtle flavors, highlighted by some beautiful Spanish mackerel.

The restaurant’s signature dish is a daikon (Japanese turnip) that has been slow-cooked for some four hours – yet, surprisingly, still retains its firmness and a certain crunch.  No idea how they pull it off but it’s damn impressive. 

The sea bass was perfectly cooked and easily the best I’ve had.  Our waiter described the arduous preparation process that involved switching the fish off from varied heated environments to achieve that perfect textural balance.

Foie gras with fresh chestnuts, chestnut puree, and black truffles.    The foie gras chestnut combination has been a revelation on this trip.

Interesting.  Sipped on the left, the oolong tea is cold.  Sipped on the right, it is piping hot.  Sipped from the middle and you are treated to a swirling combination of the two.  The most unique palate cleanser I’ve ever had. 

The main course was a perfectly prepared piece of pork (Yes, they can serve it pink in Japan because of the type of pork they source) accompanied by some outstanding mushrooms.

I had the cheese course but should have joined Tomomi on the salad instead – made up of 27 different vegetables (out of the 40 in season). 

A pear dessert featuring cauliflower ice cream.  Hmmmm.  Interesting, but I actually think the ice cream would have been far more successful as an added element to a savory course.

Chef Namae’s take on tiramisu.  We were instructed to eat the coffee capsule on the spoon first, then crack the crunchy chocolate top and scoop out the cream and cake to complete the experience. 

We ended our meal with various small sweet bites, among them some pop rock chocolate pops – 

And lemon curd in a tube.  We were also gifted a take-away treat that, frankly, I was to full to eat – which Akemi likened to an incredibly moist caramel pound cake.

Akemi’s breakfast.

Once we were done, Chef Namae came by to introduce himself.  I told him how much I enjoyed the meal and greatly appreciated, not only the execution of the various dishes in terms of the complexity of textures and tastes, but also the amount of creativity and hard work that no doubt gone into their conception.  At some point, Chef Namae had to come up with the inspired idea, then he had to figure out a way to achieve it on the plate, coming up with a game plan followed by a trial and error approach that eventually yielded the sought-after results.  And all I did was show up and eat it!

Highly recommended.

Whew.  Got the first full day of Osaka under my belt.  It’s, uh, quite the unique city. Tomorrow, I’ll take you all on the guided tour.  Make sure to wear your comfy shoes!

And, finally – a some heartening news from sis who has decided to hold off on the difficult decision.  Although he’s not going to get better, Aspen appears to have bounced back and is in much better spirits.  Great to hear!