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Posts Tagged ‘tokyo’

Ah yes, horse, the other red meat. You know, I’ve never understood why horse meat was off-limits in America. I mean, it’s an animal not all that dissimilar to deer or elk and we certainly have no problems eating them. Is it because we ride horses? Would you eat a cow if you rode it? I don’t know. I do know that many other places in the world do eat horse, and Japan is one of them. While it’s not a prominent animal in the extremely large, diverse, and interesting encyclopedia of animals consumed by the Japanese, it is featured in various areas where other meats might not be as readily available. As such, in places like Tokyo, there are restaurants dedicated to serving this animal on a platter rather than saddling it up for a gallop. The other night I finally got my first opportunity to enjoy the succulence of these animals when a friend of mine asked me if he could take me out for a horse. Not only is that the first time another man had ever asked me that questions, but that was a proposition I was only too happy to jump on. So, we headed out to the Ebisu district of Tokyo and headed to a place called Uma Yakiniku Takeshi. Uma is horse in Japanese, yakiniku is the style of grilling meat at your table, and Takeshi is the name of the proprietor of this establishment, he also happens to be a well-known Japanese comedian. Before I get to the food, one thing I love about Ebisu is that there are numerous interesting little izakaya’s serving up weird and exotic cuisine that you would never find unless you stumbled upon them. We ended up walking around for about 15 minutes before finding our destination.

When we sat down we were greeted with a cold glass of draft beer and some lightly pickled cucumbers with salted kombu. I’m not a big pickle or cucumber guy by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, this wasn’t too bad at all. I even think my younger brother, he who has even stronger negative feelings toward pickled cucumbers than me, would eat this. At least he would if he was hungry enough to eat a horse.

We started off with horse tataki. Rolled in black pepper and lightly seared on all sides, this piece of meat (what part of the animal is still up for debate, but I think it’s the tenderloin) was covered with in thinly sliced onion and chopped scallions.

After a quick dip in ponzu (the horse meat, not me) here I am about to have my first taste in equestrian delights. MMMMMMMMMMMM! Honestly, it reminded me of kosher pastrami. I could throw this on some rye bread, slather on the mustard, and wash it down with a Dr Browns and be a happy man. Very delicious and surprisingly familiar to me. I had heard that horse tasted quite a bit like beef, but I think it’s a little more like bison as the muscles don’t have as much fat as cow does.

Next up was horse sashimi. Just think of this as beef carpaccio, except that it went nay instead of moo. A bit of fresh grated ginger and garlic, a splash in some tamari, and down the hatch. A little sweeter than beef, and much more tender than I expected. I can’t recall ever eating a beef carpaccio that I enjoyed as much.

Then we got the yakiniku going. The first plate had some napa cabbage, eggplant, the green part of the scallion, and, of course, some horse meat. This part of the animal comes from the belly/rib area. Think of it as thinly sliced ribeye.

Here’s our tabletop grill in full effect. I didn’t get a pic of it, but we each had a dish with three different dipping options for the grilled meat. There as a ponzu-based sauce that was my favorite, some sea salt, and some rice vinegar.

For the next cut of horse to be grilled my friend thought he’d throw me curveball, something I’d be hesitant to shove down my throat. He was wrong as it turned out to be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I’ve ever grilled yakiniku-style…the heart! I’m telling you, this was so tender and sweet, with a bit of black pepper it was heavenly! I’d jump a fence to get me some of this.

So good, the heart was (that’s my Yoda speak), that we had to get more on our next plate. Besides the heart and horse food (vegetables) this dish also had blood pipes. I don’t know if they were arteries or veins, but they were also delicious. A little rubbery, but after a few chews the clean flavor of the animal really came through. It was almost like eating thick intestines, but clean intestines. Very good indeed.

We put the grill aside after that and got a plate of horse weiner. No, not that kind of weiner, I don’t have that big of an appetite. This was a plate of weiner-style sausages. Again, a little sweet, but a very deep, rich flavor. It was also very juicy.

Our final dish was horse fried rice. With a little scrambled egg and some scallions this was a very typical fried rice, but with horse meat.

I have to say, Americans are a weird bunch. We shun so many different food items that the rest of the world consumes. As I write this blog it becomes clear to me that the reason we’ve not been exposed to things like horse as an edible creature is solely because of politics. If the beef lobby wasn’t so powerful I think we’d be eating all sorts of other animals…guinnea pig, various insects, horse, etc. It really is a delicious animal, and one that doesn’t contribute nearly as much to Climate Change as cows do. If we open our minds as well as our mouths, there’s a lot of tasty things out there we could enjoy. Mr Ed, sorry, but you are one delicious creature!

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The other night Yuki and I met up with a bunch of her ex-coworkers who have moved back to Tokyo. They got a table at a modern, hip Yakitori joint in the Hibiya neighborhood. If you want to buy a brand new Hermes bag, Hibiya is the place for you. It’s a very swanky area filled with great food. The place they met us at is called Yakitori Akira. It’s in the basement of a large office/shopping building along with a handful of other slightly upscale food joints.

When you walk in you take your shoes off and walk past the open counter where the chefs prepare the chow. The tables are sunken. I was a little nervous at first because the tables were floor level and my knees are terrible. But, the floor was recessed making them regular table height, something that is becoming more common in newer restaurants, sort of fusion if you will.

The first dish, after a cold draft beer of course,  was a salad of raw Nappa cabbage swimming in a mayonnaise-based dressing and topped with sliced kombu.

After that came some natto topped with sliced green onions and nori seaweed. Natto is a love-hate food. You either love it or you hate it. It’s a type of fermented soy bean and has a really pungent odor, like ripe armpits. It also has a very sticky texture. It’s commonly eaten with Chinese-style mustard to mask some of the smell. Yuki loves it, I don’t prefer it. Very few Westerners can tolerate it and, these days, not so many of the younger Japanese do either. But, I had to try it since they put it in my face. Needless to say, I took one bite and the quickly proceeded to chug some beer!

Then we had some chicken karage, Japanese-style chicken nuggets. Unlike your McDonald’s variety of processed crap, this is big juicy chunks of thigh meat. I have no idea what kind of sauce this one came with, but it sure was tasty!

This here is the dish I was most looking forward to…rare chicken meat! The meat from the neck was quickly seared, almost completely raw (the pink you see in the picture is indeed raw chicken), on a hot skillet and served with some yuzu kosho. Rare chicken is extremely controversial, for obvious reasons, but given the upscale atmosphere I was certain they were using fresh, high quality birds. Since I have yet to get diarrhea or vomit profusely, I’m pretty sure the meat was clean. Flavor-wise it tasted like chicken, oddly enough. The texture was a little chewy, chicken al dente. Honestly, it’s nothing really special, it’s just chicken meat.

Avocado sautéed in some sort of shoyu sauce came next. Coming from Chicago I’m used to Mexican preparations of avocado. This was a nice change to what my taste buds are used to. The sauce carmelized a little while the avocado stayed nice and soft.

After the Avocado we spiced things up a bit with some kimchi. It was served with some chopped green onion, julienned daikon, and a shiso leaf.

Next came what is probably my favorite snack of the night, deep-fried chicken skin. Japan’s answer to chicharones. Crispy, buttery, all-around chickeny goodness! I may have to make this a staple of my future diet.

What tour around the bird would complete without some chicken wings? These were deep-fried with either basil or shiso in the batter, I couldn’t really tell. With a squirt of lemon they were delicious.

The main course of the night was the table-top charcoal grill. Instead of eating yakitori style (chicken on skewers) we ate yakiniku style (grill yourself). The first pieces we grilled were breast meat wrapped in shiso leaf.

The other pieces of chicken we got were neck meat, 2 parts of the heart (heart skin and heart meat), meat that was dangling off a piece of cartilage (I think the breastplate), and skin. We also had a few pieces of okra to grill.

Once the meat was grilled we dipped the pieces into an onsen egg. Basically it’s just an egg that’s been barely soft-boiled to the point where the whites were just set and the yolk is still runny. To me, this is natures most perfect sauce.

After all of that chicken we decided to get a few cuts of pork for shits and giggles. We got shoulder, cheek, and side meat and grilled them all the same as the chicken.

As Yuki and I were leaving due to having Otis back at grandma and grandpa’s, everyone else ordered up some soup. I really have no idea what was in the soup, but I imagine it was miso. From the pic I took here as I left I can definitely tell you it was topped with nori and had a shtickle of wasabi.

All in all, I thought Akira was a great izakaya. They call themselves Yakitori Akira because the chef’s specialty is chicken, but to me it’s not a yakitori restaurant at all, even though they do serve yakitori. The menu is much too diverse to be called yakitori. Since they serve up numerous small plates and whatnot with a nice beer and sake list, its pure izakaya to me. That said, what’s in a name? An izakaya by any other name’s chicken would taste is sweet.

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Somen noodles are typically eaten in a cold broth in Japan. It’s the perfect lunch or light dinner on a hot, humid Tokyo day. Seeing as the days here in Chicago have been hot and humid Yuki decided to make a somen dish for lunch on Saturday.

Somen noodles are packaged just like soba, wrapped in individual servings. So, she first boiled two servings of the noodles and then cooled them down in some ice water.

While the noodles were cooling she hard-boiled a couple of eggs and steamed (maybe boiled, I wasn’t paying close enough attention) some okra. When the okra was cool to touch she thinly sliced them.

In a bowl, she mixed equal parts water and yamaki mentsuyu (soy sauce that’s been seasoned with dashi). She also added a few dashes of ponzu to give it a little bit of citrus tang. Then she divided up the noodles and topped them with the okra and hard-boiled eggs. We also had some cherry tomatoes so she cut some of those in half and put them in as well.

That’s all there is too it. Delicious, refreshing, and fully satisfying.

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Alright, back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Better known as Japan. Yuki was at a gathering with a bunch of her friends one of the Saturday nights we were there last November. Instead of hanging out with her parents, whom I love to spend time with, I met up with an ex-coworker of hers that I am also friends with, Reiko-chan, who moved back to Tokyo. We decided to meet up at the Ebisu train station and then head to one of the many Izakaya in that neighborhood. Izakaya are Japanese-style bars. Much different from what we’re used to they usually have a great chef that focuses on creative small bites that match with different types of alcohol. I had done some research and found this great little Izakaya called Ippo that focused on seafood and sake, my drink of choice.

Ippo is an extremely hard place to find. We walked all over the neighborhood for about 30 minutes trying to find it. Since Reiko is Japanese, and being Japanese speaks Japanese, I left it to her to ask various retail stores for directions. No one seemed to know exactly where it was even though we had an address. About to give up and go to a different Izakaya, I turned around and noticed the big Fugu hanging in front of the door. Finally! I needed some sake!

When we sat down the bartender handed us each a couple of little starters. One was a cold pork and green bean salad, the other was a macaroni salad in a mayonnaise dressing. Nice little starters, good with either a beer or sake.

Speaking of sake, their list was over fifty long, all written in Japanese. I had no idea where to start. Luckily, one of the bartenders lived in Las Angeles for a while and spoke fluent English. He also knew that sake list off the back of his hand. There were all varieties of sake from brewers both large and small as well as from every region of Japan that produces it. I honestly can’t remember what all I drank, but throughout the night I ended up putting back 4 cups of different sake, all delicious in their own way. Some more floral, some herbal, some sweeter, all fantastic selections. When I say 4 cups I don’t mean those little sake cups we’re used to getting at sushi joints, I mean 4 12oz cups filled to the rim! Love it!

We started off with a plate of sashimi. I don’t know all of the different types, some of the communication was lost in translation, but there were two kinds of tuna and three different kinds of hamachi. I do remember that they were all fresh as can be (they get their fish every morning from the Tsukiji Market) and cut by a chef who knows how to cut a piece of fish. You can’t get sashimi that good here in Chicago.

After the sashimi we got a plate of the house specialty, Namero. It’s basically a tartare of mackerel in miso, ginger, and scallions. Mackerel is a strong-tasting fish with a lot of natural oil, but this was incredible! The miso and ginger masked the strong fishy smell and fit the flavors perfectly. I can see why this is a house specialty as it was probably the best match with sake I’ve ever had.

Then we got the Daigaku Imo, candied sweet potatoes. These were prepared different than normal though. They’re usually deep fried and then coated in a sweetened soy sauce with black sesame seeds. Here, they lightly coated them in batter that had black seseame seeds mixed in before frying, basically tempura style. The were sweet enough that they didn’t need any added sugar. Served only with some grated daikon they were a great snack to eat at a bar.

Kaki was next up. Some of the biggest, juiciest oysters I’ve ever seen on a plate! Removed from the shells and grilled all the chef did was add some herbs to them. With a squeeze of lemon they’re ready to go. If you’re a fan of oysters, you’d love these. If you hate oysters, you’d still probably love these.

After the Kaki we ordered up some Ankimo. Steamed monkfish liver served with grated daikon, ponzu, and green onions this is one of the great delicacies of Japanese cuisine. It’s called the foie gras of the sea, but in all honesty, I think foie gras should be called the ankimo of the land. It’s so soft and creamy. If not for the next dish I’d call it Japan’s greatest contribution to the world of food.

Here it is, one of the greatest things in the world. An item that will make most Americans sick to their stomach but makes my mouth water…Shirako. The king of seafood. Meaning “white children” in Japanese, shirako is the soft roe of male fish, usually monkfish, cod, or fugu (pufferfish). Basically, it’s the male fish’s genitalia. You read that right, it’s a fish sperm sack! You may be wincing at the thought of eating that, but think about it, you eat caviar don’t you? Well, this is the male counterpart to caviar. It’s extremely soft and delicate with a slightly sweet briny taste that literally melts in your mouth (and it’s not sticky!). Ippo serves it raw with ponzu, scallions, and sesame seeds. It can also be steamed. Any way you look at it, I luz me some fish balls!

My experience at Ippo really makes me sad that we have nothing like this in Chicago, or really anywhere in America for that matter. Sure, there are a handful of Izakaya-style bars throughout the country (mostly on the west coast), but nothing quite like Ippo. Just a long bar in a hidden space that serves up some of the best quality seafood and sake one could ever ask for. Why are we stuck with bars that serve nothing but big greasy burgers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), frozen wings, and chicken fingers? Let’s get some creativity into the American bar scene! Great chefs don’t need to be in a white cloth atmosphere to shine. We’d all be better off for it there were Izakayas scattered throughout the country.

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I have to apologize to the environment as well as my physical well-being. There was no Meatless Monday last night. Cafe Hoang is sending all proceeds from yesterday’s take, including tips, to Haiti in order to help feed those who need. For my part I figured the least I could do was to eat some tasty food for charity. From what their website states, they’re doing it again next Monday, the 8th. I encourage you all to take part and keep my boy Jason Tran busy as hell cooking his ass off.

So, instead of a Meatless Monday post I’m going to tell you about a dinner we had at Yuki’s sister’s condo in Tokyo with her family last November. As you can see, it was family-style with some authentic Japanese flavors and some not-so-Japanese.

We had some shrimp tempura. Pretty simple, just fresh juicy shrimp deep fried in panko. Yuki’s mom scattered some cherry tomatoes, parsley, and little pieces of lemon around the plate. A squeeze of citrus, a dip in soy, some herb….makes me a happy man.

There was some Kuri Gohan, chestnut rice. This is a common dish throughout Japan. A favorite as chestnuts add a great flavor as well as nutrition to rice. Simply add the chestnuts to the rice while it’s cooking and then sprinkle some sesame seeds on top.

This is a Raw Tuna Salad that Yuki’s brother-in-law Jun made. Chunks of fresh tuna, avocado, and thinly sliced onion that’s been soaked in cold water to remove the rawness tossed in a vinaigrette. I forget exactly what he put in the vinaigrette, but it was something like sesame oil, soy oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and pepper. He lined the serving dish with some lettuce leaves and dumped it on top.

This one is a classic Japanese home cooked dish. Not sure what it’s called, maybe Yuki will leave a comment and let us all know. Yuki’s mom simmered some lotus root, bamboo shoots, green beans, shiitake, konnyaku, carrots, and chicken. Again, I’m not completely sure what the simmering liquid was, I think it was a mix of soy sauce, sake, and mirin. Maybe some dashi. Always delicious (at least when Tamiko makes it)!

We drank it all down with some Prosecco and some fantastic sake that we picked up on the way to the condo. After we ate we took turns kicking each others asses in Wii.

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Alright, last night I was able to knock out one more Iron Chef from my list as Yuki’s parents took us along with her sister to Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe’s restaurant, Ristorante Massa. It’s located in a very cool neighborhood of Tokyo called Ebisu tucked away off a main street. It’s a simple little restaurant that seats only about 25-30 people. It was full when we were there, and probably is most nights due to his celebrity status and fantastic food.

There were two pre fix menu options. The one we opted for was the less expensive of the two (approx $65 compared to $85) as it offered one less dish than the other. Since none of us are fat Americans it seemed like the right choice. We could chose one from each category of Antipasto Freddo (3 choices), Antipasto Caldo (three choices), Primo Piatto (5 choices), Secondo Piatto (4 choices), and either a Dolce (5 choices) or Formaggio Plate (pick two out of 4 cheeses) followed by either tea or espresso. We washed down the meal with some Chianti Classico. I have pics of everything, but I’m only going to mention what I ordered otherwise this post will be way way way too long. This is already one of the longest introductions I’ve written. So, on to the food!

We each started off with the Oyster starter that was not part of the Pre Fix. It is probably the largest oyster I’ve ever eaten in my life! So fresh and clean it was simply served in its own juices with a little squeeze of lime and some rock salt. What more does a good oyster need?

Then they brought out an amuse bouche. Baked pasta filled with ricotta cheese, a little slice of pear, and an Italian parsley leaf. It almost reminded me of matzoh with cream cheese, a treat dear to my stomach for one week out of the year.

The Antipasto Freddo I ordered was a foie gras terrine with chamomile. It was served with smoked Ishikawa potatoes, a yuzu consomme jelly, Italian Arugula, and sprinkled with flaked red pepper.

My Antipasto Caldo of choice was a bit of a mis-translation. I thought I was getting duck confit, when it showed up we thought is was duck balls, but it turned out to be chicken gizzards. I actually preferred it to be balls since I’ve never eaten bird balls, but it was still outstanding! The gizzards were served on top of a kabocha puree with thinly sliced red onions that were soaked in cold water, a shishito pepper, and a pea pod.

The Primo Piatto, pasta course, I ordered was chitarra with cremini sauce. The sauce was as simple and delicious as could be…olive oil, garlic, and minced cremini mushrooms. There were big slices of sautéed cremini in it as well. With Kobe being the “Prince of Pasta” it was easily the best pasta in my life. Cooked to perfection, nice and al dente.

For the Secondo Piatto I got the beef, of course. A perfectly grilled strip loin to medium rare covered in a light mustard sauce and served with asparagus, a shiitake, a pea pod, and a slice of red pepper. Uichiro, Yuki’s dad, ordered his with black truffles on top. I wish I knew I could do that. He gave me a few of the truffles and they made an outstanding steak even better…as truffles always do.

I opted for the Formaggio instead of a Dolce. I chose the parmigiano and taleggio. He served it very typically with some dried fruits and sliced nut bread. I washed it down with lemon tea instead of espresso as I wanted to sleep later on.

Maki, Yuki’s sister, couldn’t finish her Tirimisu so I took it upon myself to not waste any food. It was served with kiwi sorbet and fresh fruit. Of course, it was the best tirimisu that I’ve ever digested.

Overall, this was by far the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten, hands down. And I’ve been to Italy. I’m sure there are places as good in Italy, but when Yuki and I went there we couldn’t afford any of the top restaurants. We ate some pretty damn good food there, but nothing as refined as this.

I have also said before that I didn’t think modern Italian food existed. I said that due to the lack of creativity and refinement of Italian food in Chicago (although, I have yet to eat at Spiaggia). At home it’s mostly humongous bowls of pasta with thick rich sauces that weigh you down. Nothing like Ristorante Massa where the portions were clean, fresh, perfectly sized, and creative modern takes on classics. I have a newfound respect for Italian food.

While I have eaten at Sakai’s, Michiba’s, and Chen’s restaurants, this is the first time that an Iron Chef has actually cooked for me. It was very exciting to see Kobe back in the kitchen when we walked in. I think there are two reasons Kobe was cooking for us. First, he only has one restaurant while the others all have numerous. So you know where Kobe will be when he cooks as opposed to it being a crapshoot for the others (I missed Sakai by 4 hours back when Yuki and I went to La Rochelle). Second, he’s still young at only 40 and still wants to create. Michiba is an old man and doesn’t cook anymore and I don’t think Sakai cooks too much anymore either.

No more Iron Chefs this trip as we head back to cold Chicago tomorrow. Next trip I’ll visit Iron Chef Japanese Nakamura Komei and maybe Honorary Iron Chef French Ishinabe Yutaka. Morimoto will have to wait as his Teppanyaki restaurant here in Tokyo starts at approx $300 a head!

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In light of my great respect for the fine art of Kaiseki, Yuki’s mom decided that she wanted to take me out for another style. That woman loves me! Frankly, I can’t blame her. At any rate, a friend of hers had recommended Ushiyama in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo, so we gave it a shot last night. And what a shot it was! Slam dunk!

It started off with a plate of carrots, shiitake, and mibuna with grated apple. Who would have thought of putting grated apple on mushrooms? Ushiyama, that’s who. I’m damn he did, it was amazing!

After that came a dish of four. I ate them clockwise from bottom left. Ama ebi (sweet shrimp), raw sardines with thinly sliced onion that’s been soaked in cold water to remove the sharpness, warm salted ginko nuts skewered on pine needles on top of seitan (wheat gluten) cakes on top of grilled sweet potato that was shaped like a ginko leaf, and uni in a lily blossom. No, I did not eat the maple leaf in the center of the plate nor the pine needles.

Next was the soup course. I heavily bonito flaked dashi broth that was nice and smokey with a rinkon (lotus root) and mochi dumpling and a bok choy leaf with some yuzu zest. It ranks right up there with the best soups I’ve ever eaten, next to the one I ate a few years ago at Iron Chef Michiba’s restaurant.

After the soup course was the sashimi course. It consisted of suzuki (sea bass), melt-in-your-mouth tuna, and ika (squid). It must be ika season because the ika I’ve eaten on this trip is by far the softest and sweetest I’ve ever had.

Then they served us home-made soba noodles in a light soy-dashi with some thinly sliced negi (green onions) on top. I’m telling you, there is absolutely nothing like top quality freshly made soba noodles. I don’t know if I can go back to store-bought dried soba when I get home. I mean, of course I can, but it just won’t be the same. So chewy and clean tasting.

Next up was the grilled course. Sawara (a cousin of the spanish mackerel) grilled with yuzu-miso and served with yuzu-miso konnyaku and daikon that was cut into a flower with a small slice of red pepper. I’ve never had yuzu-miso before, I’m a huge fan!

After that was the simmered course which was kinmedai (splendid alfonsino) in a ginger sauce. It was served with spinach and daikon radish with chawanmushi in the middle.

For the fried course we got a dish with some tempura. Shishito pepper and ebi imo (a kind of yam) served in a light dashi with momiji oroshi and chopped chives.

Then came the rice and miso course. The rice was a glutinous rice with chirimenjako (baby sardines simmered in saltwater, dried in the sun, and covered in a sweet soy marinade), sliced shiso, and served on top of a cherry leaf. The miso had mizuna greens in it. There was also some lightly pickled cucumber and daikon on the side (yes Nick, I even ate the pickles!).

Finally, for dessert we got sweet potato mousse. It was so soft and lightly sweet, it was really more like a light sweet potato cheesecake. Served with a sweet potato chip on top.

This Kaiseki was Kyoto-style which is considered to be the most sophisticated and delicate of all styles. Hard to argue as the food was simply magnificent! Plus, all of that food for only $50 per person! I challenge anyone to find a deal half that good for a meal of that quality prepared with that caliber anywhere in the states. Thanks so much for bringing me here Tamiko!!!

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