Hop into a taxi in Tokyo and you’re in for a wild ride because it’s pretty much a given that your driver will have no idea where he’s going. Chalk it up to the city’s antiquated address system, its winding side streets, or its crisscrossing thoroughfares – whatever the reason, cabbies seem to be veritable tourists in their own hometown. Thank God for nav systems. Last night, for instance, my driver had one eye on the road, the other on his dashboard map, zipping through the congested labyrinth, turning up a side street and then down an empty alleyway, stopping in front of what looked like somebody’s garage. Surely he was mistaken. This couldn’t be Hamadaya, one of the restaurants Michelin had recently awarded an astounding 3 stars? Could it?
Well, once I stepped inside, it was as if I’d been transported far from the city to a ryokan in the Kyoto countryside. The place looked like something out of an Edo period sword and sandals epic. I was escorted into the tea room and there met my internet pal and new food buddy Jessica, a Houston native who is in Japan teaching English to kindergarteners. Following some preliminary introductions (“I’m a television producer, I have four dogs and a wife, and my favorite cereal mascot is the Trix rabbit.”) we were invited upstairs to our private tatami room. Of course, as expected, we had to remove our shoes. And, of course, despite my best efforts to ensure I’d packed my best pairs, one of my socks developed a hole. Fortunately, it was on the bottom of my right foot and I don’t think anyone noticed.
Anyway, we settled into our private room and then proceeded on to our kaiseki feast. For those of you who don’t know, kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal with an emphasis on seasonal local ingredients, taste, texture, and appearance. We started with an amuse, a cornet fish seasoned with kelp, and daikon radish and carrot marinated in vinegar, then were presented with the appetizer, a colorful selection made up of shrimp, mushroom omelet, angler liver, pickled squid served with a sauce of salted and fermented bonito guts. All of the flavors were crisp and distinct, and while I can’t say I was a huge fan of the bonito guts, I did enjoy everything. Our next course was soup with steamed seas breem, deep fried tofu and greens. Again, simple, clean flavors. Very nice. The same can be said for the ensuing sashimi dish – super-fresh tuna, flat fish, and halfbeak served with wasabi. For our next dish, we were served grilled beef filet with Japanese pepper served atop some steamed rice with wasabi stem and greens. Another artful preparation. We followed with grilled harvest fish with white miso, asparagus and crown daisy, and dried sea cucumber dressed with vinegar and then some steamed tilefish and turnip with kudz sauce. Deep fried prawn with grated daikon sauce and then, to round out the meal, some rice, simmered sea eel, a wonderfully rich dark brown miso soup, and pickles. Finally, we closed things out with some melon, strawberry, and hot sweet red bean soup. All I can say is Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a better-looking meal.
By the time I got in, I was exhausted and went right to bed. Then, this morning, I got up, got in a work-out, then headed out to Minato-ku where I had lunch at Butagumi, a restaurant that specializes in tonkatsu – deep fried pork (by the way, kudos to my cab driver who ended up negotiating an impossibly narrow side street to get me there). The menu consists of some 20 different varieties of pork, each with its own little write-up. For instance, there’s the Nakijin-Agoo-buta from Okinawa that was at one time an endangered species, the Eishow-ton fromm Kanagawa in central Japan whose ancestry can be traced back to China and is 80% sweet fat, and, of course, the Bimei-ton which is described as light-tasting. But I was there for the heavy hitter, Spain’s famed Iberico pork. Like Kobe beef, the meat practically melted in my mouth. Of course, like Kobe beef, the meat was incredibly well-marbled.
Figuring I could use the exercise, I decided to skip the taxi and walk the neighborhood. The neighborhood, it turns out, was Roppongi and the walk eventually took me to the Roppongi Hills shopping complex where I went up to the 52nd floor and checked out the glass-walled observatory. Whereas most everyone else had their faces practically pressed up against the glass, I was barely skirting the central shops, staying as far away from the vertigo-inducing view as possible. Still, I did manage to snap a few pics before making my way over to the Mori Art Museum where I took in two exhibitions, one on gold, the other on contemporary Indian Art. The former was fine, more field trip material for students, while the latter offered works that ranged from the silly and suspect to the downright fascinating. My favorite was the room dedicated to the interactive video that would capture your shadow as your stepped inside. Then, shadowed objects would drop down from the sky and stick to you – broken mannequins, cylinders, toasters. The longer you stood in the room, the more objects would come done until your shadow was completely encapsulated within a shell of junk that would bob and shudder with your every step, occasionally detaching from you and attaching onto whatever fellow museum patron you happen to cross paths with.
Suitably edified, I headed out, strolled through a park, and eventually landed in the Tokyo Midtown Shopping Complex where I dropped by Toraya, a maker of traditional Japanese confectionary that goes as far back as the 1600’s. The wagashi are little works of art, fashioned out of red and white adzuki beans, kanten (a seaweed-derived gelatin), and wasambonto (a unique, powdery domestic sugar). I picked up a few, then happened across a shop selling Noka, the world’s most expensive chocolate. But is it the world’s best chocolate? I’ll tell you tomorrow once I’ve sampled the four pieces I picked up.
I had lunch at the food court, some cold soba noodles (I didn’t realize they’d be served cold when I ordered them), then made my way over to Sadaharu Aoki Patisserie where I ordered the chocolate parfait and a perrier. My waitress suggested that if I wanted to order a cake or pastry as well, I should feel free to select something from the nearby display. A cake or pastry in addition to my chocolate parfait? What a brilliant idea. I ended up ordering the matcha opera cake. And it’s a good thing I did because, while the chocolate parfait was fine (cookies, vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and whipped cream), that match opera cake was outfreakingstanding! Layers of green tea genoise, green tea butter cream, and chocolate ganache deliver a sublime bittersweet rhapsody of flavors. This was soooooo good that I’m already planning a return visit.
On my way out, I stopped by a shop called the Pet Shop, sort of a pet store, vet, and doggy daycare in one, and met an adorable Frenchie named Gutsu (perhaps named after the lead character from Berserk?). As I snapped some pics of the little guy, I realized how much I miss my gang back home. They, in turn, are no doubt anxiously awaiting my return.
Well, another successful day which I intend to cap off with another decadent dinner. Tonight, it’s another Michelin 3-star selection: L’Osier.
And speaking of 3-star selections, check out today’s Weird Food Purchase of the Day: Japan Edition in which I sample some decidedly off-the-wall ice cream flavors…