Monday, February 28, 2011

Breakfast Sashimi @ Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

I awoke at about 4:45am and laid out my full Winter attire. Thermal pants, top, woollen cardigan, jacket, beanie, scarf, gloves - the works. I thought this was going to be the worst of all. I left my apartment in the dark of pre-dawn early morning and to my surprise the cold was not that bad. So I walked the ten minutes down the street in Akasaka, picked up a cheap cup of black coffee, and waited at the spot where I was to be shortly picked up in a taxi by my companions. We then drove to the Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan's largest seafood market.
As we arrived at about 5am the place was buzzing with a flourish of activity. Men driving scooter-like delivery vehicles like crazy, people shouting at each other and the pungent smell of seafood hanging thick in the air.
We stepped into the inner sanctum of the market and the seafood was from another world - like an episode of National Geographic where they are doing a special on species that inhabit the bottom of the sea. Most of the seafood is unrecognisable to what you would see in Australia being sold at Claringbolds at Prahran Market (obviously!).
We spent a solid hour or so running around checking out the massive tuna being auctioned off, bright coloured octopus and general madness that was the markets. For those thinking of coming here, it may be advisable to get an official tour because we were hurried out of some areas and it was a bit unclear exactly where the best places to go were. On that note, after a short period, we were escorted out of the market by an official looking officer of some sort, who pointed in the general direction of anywhere but in the market.
The next mission was Breakfast Sashimi, which is a tradition at the market. It is common for the fish traders to come to the rows of restaurants adjacent to the market for a post-work sashimi meal and maybe even an Asahi or three. Given that this was a Thursday morning, and therefore needing to attend work in a couple of hours, we thought it best to conservatively avoid the beer but were happy to indulge in some of the local produce. I didn't want to mess around with distractions so just went for the straight tuna sashimi. After drinking some warm tea and a great tasting miso, the tuna sashimi was presented to me at the table. I don't think I've ever seen the colour of the tuna look such a deep dark red and the fish is just beyond fresh - if a good steak can melt in your mouth, then fresh sashimi can dissolve in the same way. The texture of the fish is so smooth and soft, it's almost as if you don't need to chew. The presentation is of the dish is magnificent (as was my friend's sushi platter).

Overall a great way to start the day. I don't know if I would eat sashimi for breakfast every day, but if the sashimi was this good I probably would. Looks like it might be time to throw out the muesli and invest in that sushi knife!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Izakaya Experience @ Yarukiyo, Gaienmae, Tokyo

Regular readers will know that I have described Tokyo as a labyrinth, making it very difficult to find specific locations. I'll give you an example - I booked a haircut at a place called "Sinden" in the Omotesando district. I downloaded the map off the website and it seemed easy enough. But, unlike Melbourne, anything can be anywhere, a vintage clothing shop can be on the 2nd storey of a Japanese restaurant, a Karaoke bar can be on the 4th floor of an office block and a hairdresser can be in a back alley running off a residential side-street. Lucky I had given myself a 10 minute buffer to find the place, as is often the case nowadays.

So following a quick trim with my friendly former London based hairdresser, I looked at my list of places to check out to see if I was in the vicinity of anything. The description of the recommended izakaya, Yarukiyo noted: "Hard to find even though its on a main street. Call once you're close and Kei will help you find it - Jingumae B1 3-1-21 34758963."
I have now learned how to decipher Japanese addresses. In the above example - 3 is the suburb, 1 is the block, 21 is the building number and B1 is the level in the building. So reasonably quickly (for me at least) I found the building, with a Chinese restaurant on street level, this little Izakaya was hidden downstairs in the basement underneath. I walked in and was greeted by 2 Japanese guys behind a bar that had not more than 15 seats and no other patrons. I sat down, eyed the chop-sticks balancing on a shell covered peanut in front of me, ordered a beer and in Jinglish asked the guy holding the knife to make me whatever the specialty was.

Wow. This was like a degustation being made in front of my eyes. I'll try to recall/name/describe it all but to be honest I have no idea what most of it was:
1. Baby Cuttlefish, with bok choy & hollandaise
The chef must have been trying to test my mettle by starting with cuttlefish. Interesting texture, calamari-like but less chewy. Incredible sharp hollandaise. Overall great.
2. Fried crumbed white-fish with ginger and onion paste
A great second dish - the fish was rolled in some sort of crumbs, topped with an incredibly flavoursome and thick ginger paste. Excellent.
3. Oden Beef Cheek and Turnip with Wasabi
Oden is a big steamer filled with different goodies like fish cakes, eggs, root vegetables and other things. This was a tender beef cheek placed on top of a steamed turnip (I think). Very hearty and enjoyable.
4. Fried Panko Crumbed Tuna
This was my highlight - see photo. The tuna was sliced right in front of my eyes. The centre a beautiful deep red, the outside lightly seared, the Panko crumb giving it a schnitzel like texture. Incredible!

By this stage 3 others had entered the bar:
- 1 x 36yo male Japanese real estate agent about to visit NYC
- 1 x 29yo female Japanese secretary who said I was "very handsome"
- 1 x 89yo male Japanese (no idea what his deal was)
After they entered I moved onto Shocchu, a Japanese spirit like Sake so my memory of the last 2 dishes was a little hazy.
5. 3-of-a-kind (Potatoes with bacon pieces, buk choy and beef/tofu) - see photo.
6. Char-grilled Green Chilli

I told the Japanese chef that it was one of my best meals in Tokyo to which one of the other guys in the bar called me a "Bootlicker" in Japanese ("Asslicker" is the translation in English).

Overall a highly memorable meal. For those visiting me here in Tokyo, you will get taken here. For those that aren't, I'll take better photos next time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Japanese Chicken Soup @ Ippudo, Ebisu, Tokyo

After a long skyping session, my lovely girlfriend said that it being Friday night in Melbourne, she would have to regrettably sign off to partake in the usual Friday night Sabbath meal with her family - the Chicken Soup was on the table. She asked whether I would be having Chicken Soup for dinner in Tokyo. I looked at the meagre options in my pantry and the closest thing was a packet of instant Miso soup. Not good enough. So I put on my thermals, a few more layers of clothing and left in search of Chicken Soup on a blisteringly cold, dark, snowing Friday evening in Tokyo.

Armed with a recommended address on an email, I took the metro from Akasaka station on the Chiyoda line, switched to the Hibya line at Hibya station and got off at Ebisu. In Tokyo it is notoriously difficult to find any particular place. Best practice is to print off a google maps search and take it with you. With the snow pelting into my glasses, I trudged along the streets in search of the place. No luck. I felt the beginning of frostbite in the tips of my fingers as I back-tracked, circled, crossed streets to no avail. I was moments away from packing it in, when I saw the light of a restaurant across the road - I had found it!

After taking off about 8 layers of clothing, and with some strange looks from the waitress, I sat down in the warmth of Ippudo and smiled contently at having braved the torrential conditions and for having not turned back. Ippudo was recommended to me as serving great Ramen - Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish served in a broth. The Jews have Chicken Soup, the Japanese have Ramen.

A big hearty bowl is placed before me. I always remember my grandmother heaping salt into her Chicken Soup before she even tasted it. No need here - the broth is salty, meaty and full of flavour. The semi-hard boiled egg, tender pork, spring onion and noodles combine with the broth perfectly. The only thing missing on a Friday night is Kreplach (dumplings filled with meat and added to Chicken Soup). With my extensive knowledge of Japanese cuisine, I thought the closest thing to Kreplach was Gyoza and quickly ordered a serve. I was tempted to drop them into my Ramen but thought it best not to draw any more unnecessary attention to myself and quickly devoured them.

So the Jews and the Japanese appear to have more in common than we think. Ramen just might be the Japanese penicillin. Now to track down some Challah and I'm set!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Xiao Long Bao 11 @ Yokohama

What better way to bring in the Chinese New Year than by celebrating in Japan. Along with a crew of "Gajin" (Japanese for "non-Japanese") we boarded the train at Shibuya station for the journey to the city of Yokohama, home to one of the largest China Town areas in Japan. Pushing through the massive crowds we managed to view the standard parade.

Following the parade, we moved onto the important business of the day - dumplings of the Xiao Long Bao variety. For the uninitiated, these are generally steamed dumplings filled with pork and a hot soupy broth. The virtues of these dumplings have been well documented in Melbourne foody circles, having been made famous by Hutong. The difference here was that the streets of Yokohama were lined with vendors selling these tasty morsels. To the chagrin of my compadres, I pragmatically chose the stall with the longest queue and waited patiently.

20 minutes later, after the maestro having first steamed the dumplings, then fried the bottoms in oil and then having added a sprinkle of spring onions, they were ready. I eagerly handed over my yen, snatched the dumplings and added the usual vinegar. Then I heard a scream.
My famished rookie XLB eating companion had dived in too soon, biting into the hot soup dumpling, painfully scolding his tongue. Me, being well trained in the art of XLB eating, was familiar with the ancient Chinese proverb "Patience is a virtue" where the Xia Long Bao 11 approach was first developed. See upon receiving your dumplings, you must wait a full 11 minutes before consuming. As you can see in this photo, it is a well trained art. Even with the skill of the grand master that I possess, it can still be a difficult pursuit, particularly eating whilst standing in a street packed with thousands of parade-goers.

And so I too had a minor debacle eating my XLB. With my much cherished last dumpling held high between my chopsticks, I bit in with gusto, piercing the smooth outer layer and releasing a spray of soup so strong, that it hit a 12 year old Japanese girl 2 metres away right on the cheek. Even for the Japanese with impeccable manners, I was met with a death stare that said nothing other than: "What the fuck, Gaijin! You no eat Xiao Long Bao before?" And so the master was humbled. I will certainly try again.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

City Lunch @ Akasaka

The city lunch in Tokyo is a very different experience than heading to a Melbourne CBD local. I was joined by a couple of Bakers' cohorts as we ventured into a local Akasaka eatery actually on a search for Fugu (the poisonous Japanese blowfish). The specialist Fugu chef had since left the building so we decided to take our chances on the non-life-threatening menu.

Japanese food in Japan is totally different to Melbourne. If you think you are going to walk into a Suji-Sushi-esque establishment and pick up 3 hand rolls you are sadly mistaken.

With some valued assistance from my co-worker, I went straight for the Sashimi - as you can see, the presentation of all the dishes is incredible, like a work of art. Besides the Sashimi being incredibly fresh and delicious, I love the fact that you get multiple dishes. The miso is a highlight, with a rich flavour derived from the small clams (or pipis) that are floating in the bottom of the bowl.

I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one - no need for anything else.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Welcome to Tokyo (ようこそ東京へ)

From now my adventures will be coming to you direct from Tokyo, where I will be for the next 4 months. 

Tokyo is an intense, mad, crazy and debaucherous city filled with even intenser, madder, crazier and more debaucherous people.  My first impression: Tokyo is like New York City on acid.

The contrast to life in Melbourne is dramatic.  Whilst venturing into the Melbourne CBD late on a weeknight might be like visiting a morgue, Tokyo is pumping like a heart that has just been ripped out of a man's chest Indiana Jones-style.  You get out of the subway at Shinjuku and you can feel the pulse in you - the fluroscent lights, the streets filled with people, restaurants jam packed, everyone going somewhere.

From my office in Akasaka, the city looks no different to any city.  But when you hit the street and walk across the road, you know it's on.  Each street is lined with multi-storey buildings and each floor has a business, most of which are restaurants or bars.  Imagine Curtin House in Melbourne (home to Cookie, the Toff and Rooftop Bar) lined up on each side of the road for miles on end. 

Food-wise, I am yet to have a bad meal - fresh sashimi sliced in front of your eyes, generous helpings of soba noodles served with spicy miso broth, crunchy perfectly cooked chicken katsu - the list is endless and will feature in more entries to follow.

Like any big city, the challenge is always avoiding the distractions and getting to the soul of it - finding the source of the pulse.  That is my goal in Tokyo and I hope you'll all follow me on this wild adventure.


Last Supper/Last Pizza @ I Carusi II

I Carusi II 231 Barkly Street, St Kilda

I Carusi II in Barkly Street is one of those places where I actually don’t care that the food is not as good as other places. 

I love everything else about it – the drinks (Sardinian beer Ichnusa and the quality wines served in simple Italian glasses), the service and kitchen (all with singing Italian accents) and the place (whether it’s sitting outside on Barkly Street on a beautiful St Kilda evening or inside in the tightly fitting and bustling main room).

There is often debate about the best pizza in Melbourne and the usual suspects are bandied about (Pizza E Birra, Ladro, Supermaxi).  They are all great places and very hard to falter.  In terms of pizza, I Carusi doesn't fall into this upper echelon but it certainly comes close and it definitely tops its rivals when it comes to the venue, ambience and unpretentiousness. 

Sitting around the old wooden table, and following some heated debate about selections, we ordered.  Highlights were the broccoli pizza (broccoli, pecorino and chili), pizza for a friend (roast pumpkin, goats cheese and rocket) and the Napolitano (tomato sugo, anchovies and mozzarella).  The other 2 were not as memorable (one so heavily loaded with the tomato sugo it could not be lifted off the plate).  Also worth noting was the dessert pizza covered in strawberries and chocolate served with vanilla ice-cream – outstanding!

Overall I love this place – it reminds me of travelling through Italy and being in Sienna where my backpacking companion and I treated ourselves to a night at a local restaurant in which scores of Italian families were sitting around tables (talking, gesticulating, arguing) in a setting that did not look too dissimilar to I Carusi. 

So what a way to farewell Melbourne then by sitting with family and friends, enjoying a great meal at I Carusi.  '

Apart from the above, my top 5 pizza places in Melbourne (no particular order) are:

1.  Pizza E Birra (60 Fitzroy St St Kilda)
2.  Supermaxi (305 St Georges Rd Fitzroy North)
3.  Ladro (125 Greville St Prahran)
4.  Oskar (1 Errol Street North Melbourne)
5.  Little Havana Pizza (279 Carlise St St Kilda) Highly recommend for a non-gourmet, Sunday night special.