Sunday, January 8, 2012

Gyoyu : "Fish Play" with Chef Iwamoto in Ginza

48 hours after I arrived home from Jakarta, I was on a plane again bound for Tokyo. Traveling for business has its perks, one of which is regular trips to Tokyo, Japan -- a real foodie's paradise where I have yet to eat a mediocre meal.
As usual, my gourmet Japanese friend had scheduled a dinner upon my arrival.
He knows (though he does not approve) that I have stopped eating meat and bless his kind heart, always goes out of his way to give me a new food experience.

We walk from the hotel to the Ginza area and on one of the side streets, very near the corner of Harumi dori, among many anonymous buildings, we come upon this small lighted sign on the sidewalk.
It's fish night tonight! My friend has never tried this restaurant before but has read many good reviews about it and has seen it featured on t.v.

Let me drag my gourmet Japanese friend out of anonymity and obscurity.
Here we are standing in front of the small elevator that will whisk us up to the fish restaurant.
This is Nobuo Abe, the Japanese expat from Dentsu who established Dentsu Philippines ten years ago. Since then, we have shared many dinners, lunches and marvelous meals together.
He was a foodie long before the word became fashionable.
He is also a very kind and good hearted friend.

Typical of many buildings in Tokyo that house fantastic, small restaurants, you won't see any windows at street level -- they're all hidden up inside the building.
You have to be able to know the address and read the signs posted so that you know where to go.
This sign reads "Gyoyu" the name of the restaurant that Abe san has discovered for tonight.
According to him, the first character stands for fish -- although I think it somehow looks like a
cow -- or even a horse.

Surprise, surprise! The chef proprietor is a woman! Her name is Chef Iwamoto and she's very friendly and gregarious.
She gamely poses for this photo while pointing to the fish on the wall, which she painted herself.
The restaurant name "gyoyu" when taken as two words ... "gyo" stands for fish and "yu" means play. This is a chef who loves fish and plays with it to draw out unusual and unique taste experiences.
Talk about "playing with your food"!

The restaurant is very small -- as I have seen in most restaurants like this that are run by chef proprietors. There are 4 tables that seat 14 and a counter, right in front of the small open kitchen that seats 4. If you sit at the counter, you can chat with the chef and watch her while she cooks your food.

Abe san and I share a large bottle of Sapporo -- very cold and very good. Later on, we would switch to shochu -- with Abe san remarking that he notices that I have become a much stronger drinker!

Here is a small table by the entrance. Each table has hangers right beside it so that you can hang your coats and winter gear.

For this dinner, Abe san has thoughtfully ordered ahead. Reservations are crucial for this tiny gem of a place -- With just one seating each night and no lunch offered, the chef needs to prepare what she intends to serve since all ingredients are fresh, just sourced and in season.
Our first course is a tray filled with three small dishes.
From the top, chopped crunchy greens with sesame seeds in a light and smooth dressing, a fat plum marinated in shochu which gives a salty alcoholic kick and a slice of cold daikon or radish with a dollop of a yummy miso paste -- with small slivers of citrusy yuzu skin.
Everything is well matched -- slightly tart, salty-bitter, cold-creamy-citrusy.
We're ready for the next course!

The next small dish that comes out contains three different kinds of sashimi -- just two small slices of each kind. There is young tuna, tuna cheeks and a different kind of fish. So good -- each is different from the other one, in terms of texture, subtlety of taste and mouth feel.

A salad of mixed greens acts as a palate cleanser after the sashimi. Again, the dressing is very simple -- just a taste breaker that prepares us for the next course.

Next up comes a slice of ishidai or false parrot fish -- a species that is indigenous to Japan.
This has been lightly basted with a sweetish sauce and grilled in the salamander. It is a bit thick and chewy, not the usual flaky, melt-in-your-mouth fish but it's very interesting and sort of grows on you.
The skin is thick and tough -- but surprisingly tasty. So -- I chewed away!

After that delicious new experience with the ishidai -- we are next served these two very small cups that contain less than a teaspoon each of our next course.
The yellow pieces in the cup on the left are bits of fish liver which are oily, fatty and very rich, as liver usually is.
The cup on the right contains bits of anchovies -- yummy and salty.
These small portions are shared between the three of us.
Japanese food is really an exercise in restraint and discipline -- can you imagine sharing these very small portions among three people in Manila?
But here in Japan -- why eat more than a mouthful if the taste of that single bite is enough?

After the saltiness of the anchovies and the fish liver, Chef Iwamoto brings out another dish that is shared between the three of us. It's an old and traditional food that Abe san said is difficult to prepare and hardly is seen in any home.
This one dish I happily recognize as having a counterpart in the Philippines.
It's fermented rice with slices of salmon. It's creamy and sour and very refreshing.
I tell Abe san about our own local buro, which is also fermented rice with either fish or shrimp and which is quite similar to this.

When the waitress brings out three bowls of rice porridge, I know that this is the end of the meal. This is simplicity at its best. Rice with chopped greens, some onions and radish in a clear and uncomplicated broth.
It is the perfect single note ender to the symphony and play of fish flavors that we have just enjoyed.

It has been an evening of "fish play" with Chef Iwamoto.
Before we leave, I give her a bow and tell her I am so happy to have dined at her table.
She speaks English well and invites me to come and visit again.
When she learns that I told Abe san that I thought she was about 40 or 45 years old, she gives a
hearty laugh and hugs me tight -- telling me that she is already 61!
I cannot believe it but then again -- she is forever young because she is forever playing with her love for food and fish!
Domo arigato gozaimashita, Chef Iwamoto!

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