Over a month ago I visited Japan for the first time, travelling with my wife and two touring punk bands I'm friends with. It's taken my taste buds that long to recover from the abundance of amazing dining experiences we had. It's taken a month to get the courage to write about it without sounding like some gushing gringo who had some great food while on vacation
(which I was.) So here goes...
First meal. After a 14 hour flight where I was served three consecutive meals of the same raw garlic and overcooked linguine in a coach seat crunching my two herniated discs deep fried shoe leather would have seemed like a gustatory delight. We settled into the salaryman's neighborhood of Otsuka, little ramen stands and otafuku huts dotted the suburban neighborhood. We managed to sniff out a nice meal of assorted yakitori at Ryoma. The crowd looked like hungry locals out for a late night snack and some drinks, just perfect. Speaking no Japanese and too tired to negotiate at 11pm we relied on the one recognizable picture outside of a Yakitori assortment platter and an oyako don. The yakitori was sweet and smokey and the oyako don was a comfort in our new and strange environment. All the other restaurants we were to visit would be much more difficult to find after thian this one. Using a great list from our resident Japanese food whiz, Aki, we stumbled and flubbed our way around Tokyo , trying to find restaurant's that the locals barely knew about. Sometimes that might take half a day given the language barrier and a lack of knowledge about Tokyo's address system.
The next morning our internal clocks were totally screwed up. We woke up at 5am and the first thought I had was Tsukiji! The fish market opened early and we could get our first sushi fix before 8am. The market was pure chaos. Motorized mini-forklifts whizzing by in every direction. A Las Vegas for fish lovers, the seafood action was wild. After a brief walk through the market before the 8am closing tour we headed out to find a sushi bar amongst the myriad that our travelguide promised lined the streets in the surrounding area. Nothing stood out as exceptional or authentic. Most places were epty at 8am or were pretty low key, "grab and go" type places. Finally on a sidestreet one place stood out. It was clean, well lit and attractive AND filled with colorful locals chowing down. We squeezed into the bar and paid around 3500 yen for an omakase meal. What followed would be the greatest sushi meal of my life. Entire schools of tiny irridescent fish floating on a pile of nori-wrapped rice, amazingly tender cuts of tuna all of it handed to you on the bar in front of you sans trays or plates. We thought we stumbled upon some hidden locals joint and took a picture to find out the name of it when we got back so we could spread the word about this "hidden treasure". When we got back to NYC Aki pointed out that we'd been to the original Sushisay, mother restaurant to the great NY sushi restaurant and it had been there since the 19th century!
That night I would develop a life-long craving for fried curried donuts(curry pan) at SHIN JUKU NAKAMURA YA. Upstairs at Lupa, good chicken and beef curry was served in an American diner ambience.
The next day we had an revelatory Ramen experience. In Shinjuku we made it to Ban Rai. In the entryway you're greated by a vending machine. Put in your coinage, hand the chef your ticket indicating the size and type of ramen chosen, and gain admittance to
a duplex of roasted pork delights. The Char Siu ramen was covered with the thickest, richest, and most tender roast pork I've ever eaten. Every vegetarian instinct in me was instantly crushed by the power of this soup with it's deeply flavored broth and toothsome ramen.
The highlight of day three was a Yakitori house near Shibuya called Morimoto. A small place filled with mostly salarymen they feature the real deal wood smoked yakitori, no gas or electric fueled flames here. We were treated royally by the local crowd who got such a kick out of our finding their special hideaway. Everything was amazing and I managed to devour massive quantities of skewered liver, chicken skins, tendon, and hearts and whatever parts my didn't want and donated to my plate. The raw chicken was hard to take even though our neighbors at the bar requested it well done for us. Their idea of well done would be a health code violation in NY but you know when in Shibuya...In the fall, the menu of chicken, eel, and fish is bolstered by game birds such as sparrow(illustrated by a sad cartoon sketch above the kitchen.)
The most overall enjoyable Tokyo meal was at an artisinal Soba house in Kanda called Matsuya. It was just an overall enjoyable meal with the most gregarious and helpful staff. Just really solid cooking with equal attention to the finest ingredients. It's a very tony ambience in there but we were happily sandwiched next to an older couple who enjoyed chatting with us and ordering for us. The waitresses were all really old-school professionals but very mothering as well. We put ourselves in their good hands and enjoyed every minute. We started with two succulent skewers of chicken yakitori, then an order Go Ma Soba which is cold soba served with a sesame broth for dipping. An order of Ten Num Bang was a beatuiful bowl of hot soup swimming with small tempura shrimp and japanese leek in a salty broth. I was stuffed but the giant tempura shrimp delivered to the table next door were calling to us. They were perfection. I finally truly understood the appeal and purpose of deep fried food. The shrimp wasn't just there to have the batter stick to something. They were juicy and packed with flavor. Every layer worked together to form a paradigm of crunchy deliciosness. Another dish that I'd never witnessed was Soba-gaki. A beautiful presentation of a giant leaf-shaped block of pressed buckwheat flour in a rectangular lacquer bowl. Our partners in dine chipped off slabs of it, placed it in their bowls and filled it with broth. Every detail here was attended to down to the top-quality squares of nori which were dipped into some soy sauce and eaten on their own. I felt as satisfied and cared for after this meal as my parents usually do after a meal at Union Square Cafe.
Random highlights of snacks picked up along the way(mostly in the food-meccas that are Japanese train stations) include banana curry pan, seasoned rice onigiri with dozens of fillings, and a potently addictive premade soybean health shake with a provound nutty vanilla flavor that was bought in haste from a kiosk and now will forever be craved.
On our last day in Tokyo we finally got to dine at Obana, a very rarified eel restaurant, which uses a special type of wood charcoal to cook the eel with available only in Japan. It took us three hours to find the place on our first try a week earlier and it closed the moment we got there at 1pm. The hostess remembered us and we sat on the floor and enjoyed an only in Japan experience of roasted eel over rice, unaju, that was so fresh it took over a half an hour to prepare. This place is straight out of a Kurosawa movie, with a serene courtyard and fountain hidden behind a tall fence near a cemetary. It's truly a beautiful and elegant place.
Other cities on our trip included Osaka, Sendai, Nagoya and Yokohama.
Yokohama is a port city lying in Tokyo's shadow with a late-rising but beautiful Chinatown, both a curry and ramen museum, and a baseball stadium. Strangely in such an international city there wasn't much amazing deliciosness to be had. Bad frozen eel, mediocre sushi, when the highlight meal is a curry pan from Starbucks you know that dining opportunities are limited. The Curry Museum was a the top of a tall pachinko parlor/arcade. It took awhile to make our way up through the many escalators and the payoff was small. A food court of curry with various restaurants all serving specialized versions of the curry theme. The "museum" portion was a bunch of cans of spices in sad-looking window boxes and black and white photos.
Nagoya would provide us with tasty Chicken Yakotori meal consumed rapidly before the concert that night. The Yakitori house was corporate owned but still very homey. The chicken was covered with a sweeter than usual marinade and was very likeable.
It was also here that we finally gave into the charms of the ubiquitous Mister Donut. The coffee, though weak, is more drinkable than a lot of the other stale attempts at European coffee that we encountered. Unlimited refills aren't a bad deal either. I really liked the curry pan here. Though the filling was utterly artificial and made no attempts at pretending there were actual meat or vegetables the flavor was really great. It even came in both mild and spicy which I alternated allegiances to depending on mood. The coffee at Doutor was "ok" but we found little exceptional coffee that we'd heard so much about.
In Sendai we had another great sushi meal but in a much more familiar context. An old school place but a bit more upscale than other places we tried. We were the sole patrons except for two business men who got a great deal of amusement in watching us order sushi. The owners were hyper-helpful and provided a book with images of different fish to point out what we were up to eating.
There are two signature dishes of Sendai, one is a pressed fish cake called Sasakamaboko which has all of the appeal of eating an old sock to me. It's definitely one of the few foods I haven't developed a craving for. The other is Gyu-tan, grilled ox tongue. The ox-tongue had was some aromatic and peppery seasonings and was grilled and served over rice. It was a very simple dish showcasing the richness of the beef.
Snacks consumed in Sendai included some soft-serve green tea ice cream that tasted more green than tea. And an instantly made pressed waffle type sandwich filled with sweet red bean paste. A lot of ready-made, sold by the pound fried foods were prevalent in the meandering covered roof malls that cut through town.
In Osaka we waited on line outside and across the street away from entrance to get in to the most famous of all of the okonomyaki joints in a town famous for okonomyaki. Happy dancing vegetables adorned their sign and we felt even happier as we sat elbow to elbow at the grill watching as the giant crepe was poured in front of us and topped with slabs of bacon, piles of scallions, and bits of nori. Sweet brown sauce and manyonaise intermingled under a shower of bonito flakes. The pork variety in particular had so many levels of flavor to it. We also sampled a squid and an octopus version that were good but not as intensely flavored obviously. Other versions I've had in NY were more premade and reheated later. This was an oozing bubbling mass evolving before our eyes.
Never before have I seen such care taken with ingredients and the entire dining experience than in Japan. It really obliterated my preconceived notions of what a fine restaurant meal could be. While mediocrity is also prevalent in Japan in various guises from bad ramen stands, generic o-bento boxes, to Izakayas that served up raw onions and pink, unripened tomatoes as appetizers. On average, and particularly at the Chowhoundish places we sought, the quality bar was set a couple of notches higher than what I'm used to.
Everyone we encountered was so helpful and genuinely friendly it was shocking. People would walk us ten minutes to our destination after dialing it into their web-enabled J-phone and calling for directions. Chefs would come out onto the street to wave us into their restaurant through the jam-packed, narrow streets because they heard we were lost. We truly felt as we found our new home for good chow and we just can't wait to go back.
I haven't compiled all of the detailed address info for these places yet but if anyone wants more detail about a place please just ask.