November 8, 2013: Tokyo Day #2! Quest for the elusive Lawsons fried chicken! The Tokyo underground! Sushi Sawada! And more!

I could have saved me money and enjoyed this weather in Vancouver.

Our Tokyo trip got off to a rainy start.  But that didn’t temper our enthusiasm.  We were up and out at 8:30 a.m., on a quest to track down some convenience store heat lamp spicy chicken nuggets for my breakfast.  We were in search of the ubiquitous Lawsons, the one stop shop for everything from whisky to fruit sandwiches.  Sadly, a Lawsons proved much harder to find than we expected.  Instead, we came across a couple of Natural Lawsons (a weird, bizarro version of the original that didn’t carry any fried foods) and a host of less-impressive Family Mart.

In the end, we decided to table our quest and head underground to kill some time before the stores opened.

This is awesome.  The entire Tokyo subway system offers free wireless.
Subway poster outlining the perils of cell phone use.
Subway poster outlining the perils of cell phone use.
Beware the rude caucasian girl annoying the Japanese salaryman.
Beware the rude caucasian girl annoying the Japanese salaryman.

We resurfaced to check out another area.  Alas, no fried chicken nuggets – but plenty of everything else:

I’m constantly amazed by not just the quality of the food in Tokyo but the variety as well.
Seriously.  How many varieties of canned coffee can the market support?
Uh, what the hell is he putting on that rice?
A convenience machine selling apples. Not whole, but sliced, skinless, with a side of caramel dipping sauce.  Only in Japan!
Always innovating.
Always innovating.  Refrigerated lockers in the food section of the Matsuya department store.  Buy your produce, stow it away, and continue your shopping without worry. 
The team up you’ve been waiting for!  Lupin 3 and Conan Boy Detective together on the big screen!  But not until after I leave Japan!

We had lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo: Sawada.  The sushi was, as always, spectacular.  Alas, the restaurant doesn’t allow photography so you’ll have to take my word for it.  Akemi spent much of the meal chatting with the surprisingly humorous Sawada-san who talked about his days as a student athlete, training, and philosophy and passion for sushi.  We also discussed the new restaurant trend taking Tokyo by storm: standing eateries that see greater profits because of the quick turnover in client.  Great if you’re in a rush I suppose – which most everyone seems to be.

For dessert we headed over to Dalloyau.  Akemi was stuffed, so I had to eat for both of us.  But I drew the line at the apricot ice cream.  The hazelnut cake, on the other hand, was great.
An okay chocolate tart.
And, to wash it down, a nice tall glass of chocolate.

While Akemi headed off to Naka-Meguro to get her eyelashes fine-tuned, I went to Akihabara in search of a cover for my new cell phone. I came up empty on that front, but did make these fantastic purchases:

A new Gintama shirt.
Neon Genesis Evangelion cufflinks!  
And assorted whisky and rum chocolates from Pierre Marcolini.  

Akemi was still full from lunch when dinner rolled around and, while I wasn’t all that hungry, I couldn’t miss out on a meal opportunity.  So, we compromised and headed over to one of the mini malls for some casual Korean…

Fried garlic chicken
And this amazing yuzu soda.

I figured we’d head over to Star Bar for a night cap but, on the way, we were contacted by Akemi’s mother who had arrived in Tokyo (from Osaka) for her daughters wedding.  Whoa, there.  Her OTHER daughter, Hiromi.  And so, we tabled our Star Bar visit and headed over to Nihombashi…

Hey!  It’s already Christmas here!
Akemi says: “Yeah!”
I thought this was cool.  Complimentary umbrellas at the Nihombashi Mitsukoshi department store.  The idea is you take one, use it, then presumably drop it off at the Mitsukoshi nearest your destination – or return it.  Eventually.

We met up with Akemi’s mother and sister who were staying at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel…

Some would consider this view breath taking.  I call it terrifying. 
Hiromi, mom, and Akemi.

By the time we got back to our hotel, I was exhausted.  I was in bed by 11:00 and slept, more or less, through until 7:30 a.m.

Woke up this morning to some emails, including a couple from my “point person” on that super-secret project.  Very exciting stuff.  I just hate the fact that we have to wait until January for the big reveal…

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 12, 2010: Tokyo Travel Day #6! Sawada! More Star Bar! We eat a half pound of fat for lunch! Strolling down Ginza Dori!

First, the Jelly update.  She’s on her way home today!

So last night, I paid a return visit to one of my favorite sushi restaurants in Tokyo: Sawada.  I figured that since this was Ivon’s first visit to the city, he should be treated to a true sushi feast.  And Sawada did not disappoint…

It's a tiny sushi-ya with counter only seating. Master Koji Sawada, with the help of his lovely assistant, works his magic on the other side.
After starting with some salted gingko nuts, we moved onto steamed abalone and abalone liver.
Then some sweet tako (octopus).
Sawada-san's more labor-intensive aburi method...
Yields delightfully delicious results. Here, the saba (mackerel).
The bonito was possessed of a sweet smokiness that lingered long after it had melted in your mouth.
Sawada-san at work on our maki.
Baby snapper maki with shiso and Japanese chives.
A first for me: cooked sea cucumber eggs. Texturally very close to crispy tofu skin but with a wonderful savory flavor all its own.
What looks like well-marbled beef is actually an expertly carved slab of toro (fatty tuna).
The toro was roasted over an open flame. And, yes, it tasted as good as it looks. Unbelievably good.

Then, we moved on to the nigiri.  We had ika (squid), what I believe was saury, two different kinds of horse mackerel, clam, ark shell, various tunas, hirame…

We were presented with a couple of the biggest prawn I've ever seen. Note the rainbow coloring of the tails.
And served.
Gorgeous gizzard shad.
Chu-toro. The wagyu of the sea!
And Otoro.

We were served up several more nigiri, then capped our meal with a terrific tamago.  The verdict?  Ivon said it was the best meal he’s ever had.  Mission accomplished.  Since it was my return visit to the restaurant, I gifted Sawada-san a bottle of ice wine and then we were on our way. 

We were feeling pretty good, partly due to the incredible meal we’d enjoyed, partly due to the three carafes of premium sake we knocked back.  And so, following a late night stroll through Ginza…

…we found ourselves back at what is fast-becoming our favorite watering hole, Star Bar, where we sampled a few more of Master Kishi-san’s creations…

My new drink of choice: the Moscow Mule. Served in a copper cup!
The Star Bar version of the Dark and Stormy made with dark rum and fresh pomegranate juice.
On Ivon's insistence, we tried Abstinthe. Kishi-san had to open the bottle for us. We likened it to the flavor of Pernod with a turpentine kick.
Hair of the dog

It was admittedly a rough night after that and I ended up sleeping in to 9:00 a.m. the following morning.  Ivon was up at 8:00 a.m. and took a stroll in nearby Hibiya Park where he claims he saw a family of feral cats living in the park.  We walked through later that day but there was no sign of feral cats.  I wonder what color these feral cats were.  I’m guessing pink maybe?

We headed out at about 11:00 for lunch.

As the stores set to open, people line up outside the entrances in anticipation. In anticipation for what, exactly, I'm not sure. I guess they simply love their shopping.
Speaking of line-ups, there's always a line-up at this waffle place so, on our way to lunch, Ivon decided to find out way. Well, it turns out it's because their chocolate waffles are awesome. We breached strict etiquette by actually eating them on the go.

After looking for an appropriate lunch spot, we settled on a yakiniku/barbecue grill join on the seventh floor of some building.  We were seated in a tiny two-seat table and presented with a menu that broke down the entire cow by cut.  We ultimately setttled for something called the “premium” cut.  To Ivon’s horror, we later realized that, apparently, “premium” is synonymous with “fat”.

That is some major marbling!

Following lunch, Ivon was feeling a little on the queasy side, so he decided to head back to the hotel for an hour or so to recuperate.  For my part, I decided to counter the fat I’d just consumed with my go-to cure-all: sugar!

It looks like a sandwich but the meatballs and baguette are actually cream-filled choux pastry.
Feeling much better later, I stopped by the Pierre Marcolini Cafe and dropped off some doughnuts for the gals, then took a stroll through Hibiya Park. Didn't spot any feral cats.
Wonder if Ivon meant these guys.

Ivon was also feeling much better later, so we decided to check out the Ginza area – specifically Ginza Dori which is open to foot traffic on the weekend.  As we were walking along, we were stopped by a Japanese television crew and interviewed about the differences between Christmas in Japan and Christmas in North America. 

My impression was that, while North American Christmas was a time for family, Japanese Christmas was a holiday for kids and couples.  Still, for what it was worth, Tokyo out-Christmases any North American city I’ve ever visited.

Our interviewer

They asked us if we were familiar with Christmas cake.  Apparently, it’s tradition for the Japanese to eat strawberry shortcake this time of year (which I’d choose over fruit cake any day).  They also asked us if we were familiar with the tradition of the Christmas boot, a small plastic boot that is filled with traditional Christmas treats (ie. seasame crackers) and gifted to kids.  I pointed out that we hang stockings instead of boots but it’s a testament to the spirit of Christmas that we can come together in communal footwear-stuffing.

We walked around some more and saw this.
And this.
And this lovely pantsuit.

And then it was back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. 

Next up: Pachon!  My toy store haul!  Out and about with Keiko!

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.

What a gorgeous day!

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.

Hard to miss this guy in Tokyo.

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.

Sawada's Master Sushi Chef Koji Sawada.

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…

Angela who couldn't resist taking part in a Harry Potter promotion. I told her she struck me as more the Slytherin type.

Tokyo fashion.

We took a stroll through a place called Don Quixote that offered everything from anime posters to professional uniforms for everyone from…

Medical personnel to...
Those employed in the service industry.

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.

I ordered a tea which was served in this adorable heart-shaped pink cup and plate.
Before being seated, we were handed a list of about a dozen rules of the maid cafe including the last one: It is not permitted to touch the maids. "Can we touch ourselves?"asked Angela. "Is that permitted?"
Anthony, visiting from France where I'm guessing they don't have this sort of thing.
Angela and Said get into the neko-neko dance. We'd received instructions from the girl with the cat ears.

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.”

I bought the table something called the Ice Cream Tower and, after much fanfare, was invited to take a pic with the ladies. Alas, I had to take a photo of polaroid. Sugoi!

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?

Fellow Canadian Paul ordered this sweets monstrosity that even I wouldn't eat. Our server labored for some fifteen minutes, carefully decorating the thing with poky sticks, chocolate wafers, gum drops and candies. I think she also included a button.

Unlike those hotshot maids, these gals didn’t mind being photographed.  Okay, guess the animes…

Super Sailor Capatain Girl!
High School Ass-Kickers!


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.

By the time I headed back to my hotel, it was already dark.

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.

The Shattered Rose Martini: Liquid nitrogen comes into play here as the rose petals are flash-frozen and crumbled into the smoking liquid to give it a real rosy punch.

Puffed Barbecue Pork and Chestnut: The pork puff is crisp and sweet, its flavors reminiscent of my dim sum faves.
Arctic Potato Chip: It possessed the snap and flavor of an actual potato chip, albeit a frozen one.
Apple and Manchego: Crisp and soft, sweet and tangy. Chef Ramsay adds a touch of citric acid to give the apple component that touch of tartness missing in the Japanese fruit.

Tai Chazuke: Deconstructed dish #1. Jessica, who I'm assuming has eaten plenty of chazuke in the many months she's spent in Chiba, loved it.

The result: Roast Pepper Caviar
Baccala Espuma: Want your kids to eat fish? Serve it as a foam! A great dish.
Spider Crab and Jamon: The thin layer of pork marbling melts, forming a translucent coating around the crab. I was intrigued by the leaf on the left that I, at first, took to be cactus.
Scallop with Cultivated Pearl: The pearl is actually a dressing injected into a gel that is then painted to approximate that pearl gloss.
Black Truffle, Lily Bulb: Foam on the bottom, shaved lily root and black truffle on top, intensely aromatic and flavorful all around.
Secreta de Cerdo: This one was served in a sealed bowl that, when opened, released a wafting curtain of deep, rich, smokiness. Tender little pieces of pork in a terrific sweet sauce.
Foie, Coffee, Potato: This was the only dish that really didn't come together for me. The big potato chunks overwhelmed all.
Wagyu Ravioli, Kinome, Maitake: On the other hand, this one REALLY worked for me. The translucent pasta contains collagen which, next to cod sperm and fugu, proved the hot dinner component on this trip.
Xianlongbao: An oustanding sweet potato and pistachio mash on the bottom, and an equally outstanding lamb chop on top. Like the dumplings, the meat is bursting with flavor - and a savory liquid center.
Miso Soup: Deconstructed dish #2. And, hell yes, it tasted exactly like miso soup but with the textural bonus of an egg yolk consistency.
Snow, Sel Guerande: Ho, was this fun! And tasty! We were instructed to eat the "snow" first. The second we put it in our mouths, the frozen powder would react with warm environment of our mouths to create a reaction that...well, Jessica can best explain it in the following video...

Various sweets including: a Genuine Chocolate Truffle which was a combo of truffle both sweet and savory, Capuccino Candy Floss, and Chocolate Pumice
The miraculous Miracle Berry! We finished the meal the same was the last time I was in and it was just as magical. We were served a plate of fruit and asked to eat two pieces. Then, we were served the miracle fruit, instructed to eat the flesh and allow the seed to coat our tongues. One minute later, we were told to spit out the seed and try the fruit again. Miracles of miracles, the fruit was no longer sour. It was sweet. And I'm not just talking about strawberries. I was eating lemons and limes as though they were the sweetest oranges imaginable. The fruit contains a protein that tricks the brain into interpreting sour as sweet. I have got to pick some of these up for the writers' room.

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.