Sunday, April 25, 2010

Benoit and Two Rooms

More Tokyo restaurant coverage. Today, just in time to mentally prepare me for my trip to Paris next week, I had brunch with friends at a French bistro in Aoyama. It was the first nice day in a long series of crappy wet ones, so Peter decided it would be a good day to rally the troops. We all met at Benoit, up on the 10th floor of the La Porte building. I was the first to arrive and, while I waited in the library-themed bar area, got to really admire the beautiful interior of this restaurant. The bathroom alone is incredible.

After being led up the spiral staircase, past the amazing view coming from the floor to ceiling glass windows, we settled into our seats to peruse the menu, which had both prix fixe and a la carte offerings.

We all went for the three-course set meal. For the first course, Yuki went with the pea soup and I had the Pate en croute that I was so darned excited about, I forgot to take a picture of it. For the main, I opted for the ray wing with heavenly sauteed fennel (hard to find here), leeks and kalamata olives.

For dessert, 6 out of 7 of us decided to have the house specialty of chocolate and caramel with a sprinkling of fleur de sel. Despite looking like something dredged out of the pool in caddyshack, it was out of this world delicious! Then we all took a stroll down Aoyama dori to check out some art, do some shopping and decide where we wanted to go next. It was too lovely out to go home.

We ended up at Two Rooms, a little hidden oasis on the top of the AO building. The second best part about this space is the attitude of everyone there. No one is in a hurry. Everyone is lounging and appear to be on holiday time and the waitstaff does nothing to discourage that vibe. The best thing, of course, is the great view and the shiso mojitos aren't too shabby either. We stayed way too long, but it was a great way to start off my vacation (albeit a couple days early).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yondaime Keisuke ramen

The next installment of Ramen enjoyment takes place at another of chef Keisuke's restaurants. This one is right by the subway station near our house, so we have been intrigued, yet intimidated, by it for some time. The nightly line of people out on the sidewalk, rain or shine, gave us some indication that this was going to be good. However, places with busy lines trying to turn over tables quickly, don't usually tolerate bumbling foreigners that don't know what they are doing. Well, we finally got up the courage to check it out. And actually, it was a good thing that there was a bit of a line when we walked up, so that we could see how things are supposed to go down. Here's the drill: First a gal comes out to ask how many you are. Then, she has you come in the doorway to the machine to place your order. She stands there watching you while you do it, so there is no time to look words up or hesitate. Then you go back to your previous place in line and wait some more. Eventually when enough people have left, you get called to take your place at the counter (which only seats about a dozen people) and, in theory, your food will already be waiting for you.

The ramen at this restaurant uses a fish broth, but what makes it special is that the chef adds spiney lobster, which gives it a very heavy, richness. You can definitely taste the lobster. Chunks of pork in the broth make this a very hearty meal. This shop is different also in the way that it serves the noodles. They serve them yakimorimen style, which means they fry them briefly on one side to give a nice crispiness and serve them separate (tsukemen-style) from the broth. Ryan got his with a side of pork slices (and a frosty beer).

Mine came with a cooked egg. Look at that thick broth! The hardest part is breaking the noodles up into chunks to dip in the broth. I thought for sure I was going to get some blisters.

Finally, when you have finished with all the noodles and have about a third of the broth left, you ask for a "ri-sue bo-ru", or rice ball, which has been deep fried and crackles when it hits the broth. You break this up and finish off what surely has been the most fattening meal you've had in a while. This is no light Japanese fare. We went home and contentedly rubbed our bellies for awhile.

Monday, April 19, 2010

not your typical ramen

In the course of my drooling over various food blogs, I stumbled onto a couple of very good ones related to ramen (here's one; here's another). Now usually when I think of ramen, I think of those 15 cent bags of dehydrated noodles alongside a flavor packet available in the grocery stores back home. They were perfectly edible (once I jazzed them up with fresh veggies and an egg), but considering the price, I always associate them more with the penance I had to do for splurging on something earlier in the week. Definitely not something I would want to write home about. But reading the descriptions that these guys were giving and seeing the steaming bowls of goodness on their blogs made me want to rethink this whole ramen thing. My boss told me that there are various styles of broth that are representative of a given region: soy- flavored chicken broth for Tokyo; miso broth for Hokkaido; and "tonkotsu" or pork bone broth for Kyushu, all of which are available in the school cafeteria. Of these three, I tend to lean toward the richer, tonkotsu style.

However, as the ramen blogs inform me, there are incredible variations on these basic styles. I was particularly interested in the chain of restaurants opened up by Takeda Keisuke, a classically trained french chef. Each of his restaurants specializes in his unique take on the classic. At Shodai Keisuke, which is located just across the street from the front red gates of the Todai campus, the specialty is "kuro miso ramen" made with a broth of burnt miso and garlic.

After putting money in the machine by the door and picking the button for what seemed like a reasonably priced item that included the kanji for "kuro", I sat at the counter and waited for my bowl. The burnt miso and garlic gave the broth an almost black color and a toasty, rich flavor. The toppings are thinly sliced meat (pork I think), scallions, a soft-boiled egg and thin strands of what I think might be saffron. It was really yummy and incredibly hearty. The noodles were much thicker and chewier than the curly stuff you get in the bag. When I finished fishing out all the noodles and chunks, they gave me a small bowl of rice to drop into the remaining broth, making a sort of risotto, which is eaten with a black ceramic spoon.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hanami Part II

This Sunday we decided that we would not only celebrate Hanami, we would also throw in a little Easter for good measure. I found a great recipe for carrot cake, which might have been a snap to make if I wasn't working with the world's tiniest grater. We also made homemade rice balls (some stuffed with kimchi, others with tuna salad) and most importantly, Easter eggs! These would have been impossible if it weren't for my friend Marianna who brought me a Paaz decorating kit as a gift from her recent trip to California. Having only 3 colors to work with (pink, blue and yellow), I think we did a pretty good job with them. Late Sunday morning, we threw all our goodies into a bag and headed out to Yoyogi park to meet our friends Michael and Momoe.

M&M brought some great wine, chips and guac, serrano ham and a bunch of other goodies and we had a feast out on their blue tarp. It was pretty chilly and rain was looming but that didn't keep the masses from coming out to the park. Today's crowd was far younger and a bit rowdier --no less than 4 boomboxes were heard in our vicinity-- but was still relatively calm and civil. For the shear volume of people that were present, all of whom were drinking, there wasn't a single fight or even a raised voice. Okay, there was that one guy that hung from the sakura tree when we first got there, but he was curled up in fetal position within the hour, not to be heard from again.

Maybe it was because "hanami man" was there to keep the peace.

And since it was Sunday in Yoyogi, the goths were there as well.
The cherry blossoms were really lovely. It is too bad that they will die within the week. Sure glad we got to sit out there with friends and enjoy them a bit.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Hanami Part I

This weekend the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, which means just one thing: Hanami!
Hanami means literally "flower viewing" and it is a traditional custom to get together in one of the many big parks and have a picnic with your friends. Ryan had lessons on Saturday, so I went solo to meet up briefly with a friend in Shinjuku Gyoen. This park is I guess a private park, so there is a small entrance fee (~$2) and no drinking is allowed. The upside is that the grounds are very manicured and sport really nice elements like these ponds and bridges that make for excellent photo ops.
Due to phone malfunctions, I never did find my friend in the park, but instead met this nice group of UCLA alums. The protocol for Hanami is that someone spreads out a blue tarp and everyone just brings all kinds of foodstuffs that get spread out in the middle and shared. I got major props for bringing the pastel colored mochi in the foreground - very hanami.

As you can see, this is a very popular tradition. And this was only at noon. Come 4 or 5 pm, this park would be wall to wall blue tarps, I'm sure.
But I didn't have time to find out. I was double-booked and had to race off to my cooking class. Today we observed some Indian cooking from inside the kitchen at a restaurant near the community center.
The chef made eggplant curry, tandori chicken (on the salad, below) and naan. The latter two recipes require our actually owning a tandori oven, so this "cooking class" was a little impractical but yummy nonetheless.
We strayed from the usual format on this occasion because, of course, we had some blossoms to see.
After the class I took a stroll with the ladies along a river near Oji shrine (called Otonashigawa) that is completely lined with cherry blossom trees, sometimes making a canopy over the walkway.