Monthly Archives: October 2009


Tokyo Love Affair

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

I have been coming to Japan every year for the past seven or eight years. Before that it was a few times per year on business. Friends and colleagues still ask why I like coming here. Unfortunately, there’s no real one word or phrase answer to that question.

…but the devil… has been busy posting as fast as humanly possible given all the stimulus here, food-wise but today, as I exited a train on the Yamanote line in Meijiro, I stopped and looked around. I decided that it is time to attempt to answer this nagging question.

There is just something magical about Japan, and Tokyo especially, that transcends any stereotype of geisha, all-sushi-all-the-time, people being jammed into trains, or Asian mysticism. If you look really, really hard, you will see proud people everywhere, going about their business in a (mostly) quiet way, enjoying some pretty simple pleasures.

Food is a big part of that but so is the way people socialize, their attitudes about subtly but definitively expressing themselves (the picture above is but one example I found today), how they dress (it seems like everyone you see is dressed to kill), and how they treat one another (with kindness and definite respect). So I can attempt to answer the question by saying that when I’m here, I feel so much more like I am part of something that cannot be duplicated in the US.

Wanting and being wanted is a big part of being in love. You feel both elated in the moment and a bit scared that it might somehow go away in an instant. I’ve got it bad for Tokyo (and the rest of Japan) and it is now time to put the love affair into long-distance mode. And like a far-away lover, I’m already yearning to come back and resume the romance. I don’t know if it will be next year or in a few years but right now, the future doesn’t matter but spending my last 24 hours intensely loving this city does.

(We have many more posts in the works about these two food-laden weeks in Tokyo and those will resume after we return to the US next week…thanks to all my friends here that provide invaluable input and discoveries, thanks to you for staying tuned and for all of the kind compliments about …but the devil sends the cooks.


Late Nite Soba

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

The staggering number of noodle restaurants, joints and hangouts in Tokyo means that your noodle cravings will never become a problem. A fair number of them also make their own noodles by hand and those are the shops that are worth searching out.

Hegisoba Kon (へぎそば昆) is one that takes great pride in their handmade noodles. So much so that they stay up real late to indulge their patrons with large flat trays of cooked to perfection soba. And that’s after a healthy set of izakaya dishes. Or as a friend told me, “you might think that you cannot eat another bite but once you taste their soba, you get hungry all over again”.

(photo used by permission of Hegisoba Kon)

(photo used by permission of Hegisoba Kon)

On our visit to Shinjuku’s Hegisoba Kon, most of the parties already there were tucking to small plates of sashimi-thin sliced roast duck, little bowls of deep fried soba noodles and beautiful green ginko nuts, or collars of salt-grilled saba (mackerel). We did the same and after about an hour, I began to wonder when we were going to get to the main soba event.

“Relax, eat some of this, have some more beer…” was the refrain as we continued to snack on deliciously simple izakaya fare. A yuuba-cheese plate made it way out and the fried tofu skin cradled a bit of medium sharp white cheese. It was nearly oil-less for being fried; crisp, gooey and delicious.

Another hour passed, more beer and shochu was poured and one of our group actually had to catch his last train home and had to, regrettably, forego the soba. Eventually, the remainder of the group decided to order soba. I was about ready to burst from all of the food that we had already eaten.

An enormous tray of soba arrived and I simply didn’t believe that we’d be able to eat it all. Although the soba was piled up, the tray was not too deep but it did give the impression of “lots”.

Little cups of tsuyu (a thin, broth/soy-like sauce) also appeared with a small amount of wasabi and thinly sliced green onion – this was zaru-soba…cold noodles dunked into tsuyu, a typical way to eat it.

The soba itself was very subtly green as it was made with seaweed which imparted a very slight briny-sweetness. It was perfectly cooked – chewy but slightly soft. Slurping up mouthful after mouthful, the tray was soon empty and every bit was delicious.

Most soba places end their soba course with a small pot of soba-yu (the water in which the soba was cooked) to mix with the remaining tsuyu to create a warming and healthy drink to end the meal. Although you’re forced to be a bit of an alchemist to get the soba-yu and tsuyu proportions just right, it is a perfect way to end a relaxing fabulous meal.

one of Hegisoba's soba masters (photo by wm. christman)

one of Hegisoba’s soba masters (photo by wm. christman)

Long past the time to catch the last train home, we left Hegisoba Kon just before 2 am but we were barely the last party to leave. You don’t have to stay until late but you will want to stay for a while and experience some of the best soba in Shinjuku, if not Tokyo.


Hegisoba Kon
2-13-11 Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Phone: 03-3354-2927
Open Mon-Sat 6pm-1am Closed Sunday
Nearest station: Marunouchi line, Shinjuku-Gyoen Station. (5 min walk)
Toei Shinjuku line, Shinjuku-San-Chome Station. (2 min walk)
Google Map: 東京都新宿区新宿2-13-11


Serene

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

It’s not often that we post scenery here at …but the devil… but if Tokyo is all hustle-bustle then the countryside of the Kiyasato and Kobuchizawa areas is a serene oasis.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

There’s lots of great food out here as well (as the yakiniku above demonstrates) and a fine place to spend the weekend.

(Kiyosato and Kobuchizawa are about 2 hours by car almost due west of Tokyo.)


Meat Yazawa

(photo by Howard Kveck)

(photo by Howard Kveck)

Nicely seared steaks with all the trimmings. Not a rarity in Tokyo by any stretch but Meat Yazawa does it for a reasonable price and they do it well. And it’s way too much fun to imitate gravelly voiced, serious Japanese samurai movies stars saying “mee-to yazawa” (ミート矢澤).


Old Friends

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Tokyo changes as fast as it stays the same. In some areas, five years ago looks completely different than today. Other remain the same year after year or even decade after decade.

Manshuri Saikan (満州里菜館) has been around since the early 1950’s and turns out an impressive number of Chinese dishes. But the one I’m the most familiar with and fond of is their roasted garlic gyoza (niniku gyoza).

Several years ago I saw a feature on Manshuri Saikan on an imported Japanese program called “Dotchi No Cooking”. The sight of a fat little gyoza bursting with a whole clove of roasted garlic got me translating the show’s commentary and searching for this place. Ithad to be a destination on my next trip to Tokyo.

(photo by howard kveck)

(photo by howard kveck)

A friend and I made it there in 2005 and were very taken by the delicious little morsels. And this past week, four years later, I stopped by to see if the restaurant and their garlic gyoza were still there.

Everything about Manshuri Saikan was exactly as I remember it. The understated entrance and the spartan but friendly interior. The menu was still packed with lots of Chinese dishes, soups, and dumplings. But it was the gyoza that were the target of the day.

The niniku gyoza are a bargain at 5 for ¥550. Two orders of those and some rice makes a nice light lunch for two (or a regular lunch for one). Each gyoza has a large roasted clove of garlic inside of it that dwarfs a minimal amount of the usual minced meat and vegetable gyoza filling.

The garlic is soft, sweet, fragrant and almost potato-like in texture that plays against the crispy underside of the gyoza. A bit of a dip into some soy, vinegar and chili oil mixture adds a bit of astringency. If it sounds like each gyoza is a real mouthful of delicious, you’d be right.

It would take several weeks for one person to eat their way through Manshuri Saikan’s menu but coming for the gyoza is all I need. If tradition holds true, I should be able to return here in four years and still rave about their roasted garlic gyoza. I’m hoping that I won’t be waiting that long.


Bakery Heaven: Viron (Tokyo)

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

If you needed any proof that the Japanese are a food-centric culture, just take a walk through any district in Tokyo and witness the seemingly hundreds of restaurants per square mile. Further cementing the claim to their obsession with food can be seen in the line up of food programs on Japanese television which comprise about 40% of the airtime.

There are as many internal variations of Japanese food as there are of world cuisines in Japan with French and Italian being on the upper end of the popularity scale. This extends to all manner of food categories as well. In the past few years there has been an explosion of higher-end boulangeries and pâtisseries that nourish the food obsessed. And there’s no better example of this category than the French-inspired Viron.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Viron’s Shibuya branch store is a densely packed collection of beautiful looking bread and pastry, bustling clerks, intense bakers and lit ovens. Since the baked goods are the attraction, you see those first. But beyond the counters lies the real heart of the operation and just taking a moment to scan the activity back there shows an intensity that relates to the goods upfront.

The sheer number of breads alone is staggering. Lots of them feature regular and “demi” sizes so the temptation is high to buy many in one go. But it’s the baguette that is really the star of this show. If you order them, you get the ones directly from the last batch made and not from the counter display. Crisp, chewy and very, very French. Croissants, cookies, macarons, and other delights line the glass shelves as well.

rillettes and cornichon on baguette (photo by wm. christman)

rillettes and cornichon on baguette (photo by wm. christman)

There are also 8-10 varieties of sandwiches made with the fresh baguettes. Half a baguette is split and piled with different meats and/or cheeses plus vegetables. As I find it hard to pass up any type of rillettes, the rillettes and cornichon sandwich was my favorite. And it couldn’t have been more simple: great bread, soft and nearly creamy rllettes and the tang of cornichons. It truly needed nothing else.

pain aux lardons (photo by wm. christman)

pain aux lardons (photo by wm. christman)

I could have easily spent a half hour gazing at all the varieties of goods from dense, sticky canneles to pain aux lardons to delicate-looking pain au chocolat. And I could have easily spent all of the money in my wallet as Viron’s offerings are not on the inexpensive side. But as with most things worth buying, you really get what you pay for and sampling a few of Viron’s creations was definitely worth the extra yen.


And It Begins

Perhaps it was not the longest summer vacation ever but probably the most difficult. Simply getting any postings done for the past two months was virtually impossible regardless of actual vacation(s). But since one of …but the devil…‘s inspiration is Michael Nagrant’s Hungry Mag and they have also been on an extended vacation, I don’t feel so bad.

We’re in Tokyo for the next two weeks and posts have piled up to the point that there will be plenty to see and read. For any of you who know me personally, you already know that Tokyo (and Japan) is my favorite place to be besides being home and now that jetlag has thankfully been shot in the back of the head, it’s on. Or in the words of my buddy Leslie Scurry, “and it begins…”


Hidden Treasures

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Tokyo has more teeny-tiny stores and shops than any place that I have seen. Unexpected delights jump out when you least expect them leaving you aghast at the creative utilisation of space.

Le Garcon de la Vigne was a discovery on last year’s trip and there was just not enough time to actually go an eat a meal there. But on a lazy, late evening walk through Hiroo last night, it surprised me all over again. The few reviews online have been generally good and there’s plenty of time to have a nice supper there on this trip. The cuisine is definitely French with an amazing wine menu to match. I was just so enthusiastic about seeing it again, I thought I’d do it justice to telescope a future meal here…