Friday, December 20, 2013

Yakitori in Yurakucho Part 4 of Best of the Best

The best yakitori is usually found in little izakayas spread out all over Tokyo but the most well known spot for this is under the railway tracks in the Yurakucho area, just slightly off Ginza.

It is a cold Sunday night in November when we pass through the little alleys of Yurakucho and the bright red lanterns of the izakayas are just too tempting.  The street is quiet and free of the usual office crowds.

We spy an outdoor table and decide that this is the best place to have dinner.  The locals are smarter than us though, as they are all indoors, insulated from the cold by these thick plastic sheets.

Beer cases stacked on top of each other make small but sturdy tables.  We lose no time in ordering mugs of draft beer -- to ward off the evening chill.

There's an english menu, with a "welcome to Japan" message at that.  While most of the items are chicken parts, there are pork and vegetables on the list as well.

We order mixed skewers of chicken skin (heavenly but oh so deadly), gizzard and a combination of white meat and leeks.  The waiter asks us if we want yakitori shio, grilled with just salt or "tare" which is yakitori with sauce.  For our first plate, we go with shio and it's a great idea.  The meat is deliciously and perfectly seasoned -- the salt brings out the wonderful flavour of the chicken.

For the white meat, we decide on yakitori tare -- a bit of sauce makes the normally bland breast meat taste much better.

Tebasaki or chicken wings are my favourite.  These were grilled to perfection -- plump, juicy and they just melted in the mouth.

Here we are with our friendly waiter who was so attentive and efficient all throughout.  He spoke a bit of english and is a Vietnamese student working nights at this izakaya.  We promised to look him up next time we find ourselves hungry for yakitori in Yurakucho.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Icho Namiki -- Tokyo's Golden Road Part 3 Best of the Best

Tokyo is world famous for its  cherry blossom season in early April but I find that fall, when the leaves turn red and gold, is the more beautiful time of the year.  I was lucky enough to be in Tokyo in mid November,  just in time to get a peek at the gorgeousness that was about to come.

 Since I didn't have time to wander out of Tokyo, I was told that Icho Namiki, a street lined with gingko trees was a good way to enjoy autumn colours within city limits.  It's just a few minutes walk from the Aoyama Itchome station.
We got there at 8 in the morning, and the streets were still quite empty.  "Icho" means gingko and true enough, the short avenue was indeed lined with perfectly symmetrical gingko trees from start to end.  At first glance, the trees were still quite green with only the tops starting to turn yellow gold.

But further down the street, the yellow gold colour became more evident.  More of the trees had started to put on their fall finery.

It certainly made for a lovely stroll.  The gingko trees line the road but they are also planted on each side of the wide sidewalk.  There were no crowds at this time of the morning.  The few people walking around had their cameras out and were busy taking photos, just like us.

 Here's a proud specimen -- flaunting its yellow leaves for all to admire and enjoy.

 I craned my neck up and saw only yellow gold leaves, hardly allowing the sunlight to stream through.

The one thing that lovely autumn leaves shares with delicately pretty cherry blossoms is their brief breathtaking burst of  beauty.  These fallen yellow leaves however show just how ephemeral their splendour is.
Beauty, no matter how impressive, is fleeting.  It's a thought for quiet reflection while walking amidst the spectacular scenery of Icho Namiki.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Maisen -- Second Most Popular Tonkatsu in Tokyo Part 2 of Best of the Best

You don't usually remember who came in second but in the case of Maisen, dubbed as  "Tokyo's second most popular tonkatsu place" we will certainly remember the great meal we had there.

Maisen is truly a tonkatsu landmark -- it's even prominently shown on the street map that is right outside  the subway exit on the Aoyama itchome crossing.  

It's Sunday afternoon and the crowds are so thick along Omotesando.  I was worried that we would lose our way until I looked up and saw the directional sign pointing the way to Maisen.  

Thanks to more directional signs along the twists and turns of the back roads of Aoyama, we had no trouble reaching our destination.  Maisen has other branches in Tokyo but this is the main shop.

Pork, pork glorious pork!  I have an all time favourite tonkatsu place in Tokyo. 
Would Maisen beat my favourite?

There is counter seating just as you enter the building.  Since it's almost 4 in the afternoon, the chairs are devoid of diners.

Through the noren, I peek at the cooks who are chatting and savouring the off peak hours.

We go through this hallway with more tables for diners.  I feel like I am being led to the Promised Land of Pork.

After passing through the empty areas in front, I certainly wasn't expecting the main dining room to be full.  Everyone was chomping down on full tonkatsu meals at 4 in the afternoon!  Just my kind of crowd!  This building used to be a public bath house way before World War 2 which somehow explains its spacious but utilitarian interiors.

There are the usual pots of different types of sauces -- for the tonkatsu, there is the regular and the spicy variety and there's the dressing for the shredded cabbage.  We were also given a small dish of grated radish with bonito flakes -- now what is this for? 

Time to check out the menu although Jay knows exactly what he came here for!  There are several types of tonkatsu but the specialty according to the waitress is the Kurobota set.  At 2,100 yen, it seems like a good deal.

All tonkatsu is fried and cooked to order  -- otherwise how would you enjoy that fresh crunch? 
We have a bit of a wait -- enough for me to check out how the Japanese diners use the grated radish.   
It is spooned on top of each bite, along with the tonkatsu sauce.  Japanese radish or daikon is milder than the usual kind so it enhanced and didn't compete with the tonkatsu sauce.

Surprise, surprise!  I decided against ordering tonkatsu and instead had this aptly called "Festive Meal" . Japanese cuisine always follows the fours seasons and my tray was overflowing with what were probably good choices for autumn eating.  A small plate with two slices of very fresh tuna sashimi served as the appetiser.  Three small donburi bowls look so colourful and appetising!

Aside from the tonkatsu, ginger stewed pork or shoga yaki is the next best specialty of Maisen.  People who grow a little weary of ordering tonkatsu all the time probably use this as a taste breaker.  My "Festive Meal" came with three small donburi bowls -- one of which was topped with Maisen's ginger pork.  Shoga yaki is a simple quick stir fry but the flavour is amazing -- just proves that the simpler the preparation, the better the taste!

After ooh-ing and aaah-ing over my shoga yaki -- and having Jay try a bite -- I moved on to the next small bowl.  This is shredded salmon and salmon roe on top of rice.  Salmon is not my favourite fish but I love salmon roe.  Each small globule of goodness was like an umami explosion in my mouth.

The third small donburi had deep fried small  pork bits and chopped scrambled egg, artfully and attractively arranged.  The bright yellow made a great contrast with dark brown and small sprig of green completed the pretty picture.  This was so good.  The pork was fried till it was almost crunchy and yet, it was perfectly seasoned and didn't taste dry at all.  At first I thought it was ground pork but it seemed that it had been hand chopped to small bits.

In addition to the three donburi bowls, a small plate of kushi katsu croquettes was also part of the "Festive Meal".  What  great value for just 1,600 yen!  

Thank goodness for a small dish of yuzu flavoured sherbet to cleanse the palate of all the rich, porky flavours!  

We finish dessert and head out to enjoy the cool autumn weather.
The trees lining Omotesando have started to show off their fall colours.
A leisurely walk along this beautiful avenue is just the thing to cap off a memorable meal at Maisen.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tsukemen at Rokurinsha … Double, Triple Dipping Required! Part 1 of Best of the Best

On our recent November trip to Tokyo,  disruption and change were called for.  We would forego our usual favourites and look for new yet well known restaurants to try.  It would be a discovery of the "best of the best".  

When I googled "best ramen in Tokyo", I discovered that Tokyo Station has gathered 8 of the best ramen restaurants from around Japan and put them all together in a place called "Ramen Street".   Tokyo Station may be a huge and confusing place but Ramen Street is in Basement 1 of the South Yaesu entrance and thus, quite easy to find.

This poster lists the different ramen restaurants and their best dishes.  They're all located, sitting side by side in one long alleyway on the basement level.  These are not big restaurants, most of them are just 20 to 25 seaters so you can imagine how busy they all must be.

And true enough, at 3:30 in the afternoon, there were long lines snaking along the corridors of Ramen Street.  People were walking around, choosing which restaurant to queue up for.  
We however, were looking for a specific place that we wanted to try.

Rokurinsha was high up on my "must try" list.  This is a relatively new ramen place.  
In a country where iconic restaurants are usually several generations old, Rokurinsha was established only in 2005.   Small, compact, usually just a counter type restaurant, the endless long queues attest to its overall acceptance and popularity.  
The lines are usually an hour long but perhaps because it was mid afternoon and not lunch time, there were just about 20 people lined up in this branch in Tokyo Station's Ramen Street.

Naturally, Jay and I could not resist taking a "selfie" with the Rokurinsha logo in the background.  The things you do to while away your time while in the queue!

The line moved pretty fast and in less than 30 minutes, we were finally seated.  The open kitchen has counter seating all around, for solo diners.

Tables for groups are packed tightly beside each other.  You share tables with like minded ramen fanatics.  We met this lovely couple from the USA  in the queue and shared a table along with great conversation on food and travel.  Meeting new and wonderful people is a gift that the travel gods bestow!

This is the reason for Rokurinsha's popularity.  This is the famous Rokurinsha Tsukemen.  It is not your standard classic ramen with noodles in a pork bone broth.  Tsukemen was invented in Tokyo and is a recent innovation but has become so popular it is now a category unto itself.
The noodles are thicker than the usual curly yellow ramen noodles -- tsukemen noodles are fatter and firmer, and consequently heavier.  They come in a generous portion, with a whole boiled egg -- which has a creamy, golden yolk-y centre, just the way I like it.
There is no broth instead there is a separate bowl of a thick, rich, savoury -- I hesitate to call it "soup" since it seems almost like a gravy -- dipping sauce that comes with ground pork, vegetables, seaweed and a small mound of a brown powder -- which when tasted definitely was made of some kind of ground fish.

The trick with tsukemen is to mix up the bowl of "sauce/soup" until all the flavours -- pork broth, ground pork, powdered fish, seaweed, vegetables -- are blended into a melting pool of umami goodness.
Then, you take your noodles -- fat and heavy as they are, and dip them into the bowl before bringing them to your hungry and waiting mouth.  The whole operation can be quite messy which is why waiters at Rokurinsha offer you a large paper bib to protect your clothes from the inevitable tsukemen splatter.
After my first bite -- I was in ramen heaven!
But wait -- the surprise isn't over.  There is a huge piece of luscious pork chashu hiding at the bottom of the bowl! A tsukemen coup de grace!

 We savour yet rush through our mid afternoon ramen delight, conscious of the fact that in a place like Rokurinsha, a seat is precious and dilly dallying is not a considerate thing to do.
While Rokurinsha may seem like a fast service ramen restaurant because of the quick turn over of its long queues -- the  care and quality that goes into its tsukemen is definitely a testament to slow food cooking and the result is therefore a transformative ramen experience.