Monday, April 21, 2014

Dinner in Teramachi at Tonton's Tasty Food

Aside from high end department stores (think Takashimaya, Waco, Isetan etc),  Japan's retail scene includes the more appealing (at least to me) covered shopping arcades.  
Running for blocks on end, these covered shopping strips run the gamut from cheesy and tacky souvenir stands to small cafes and bars to artisanal, one of a kind designer boutiques and luxury shops.

Right at the heart of downtown Kyoto are two famous shopping arcades -- on the east lies Shinkyogoku, which is the second oldest shopping arcade in Japan (the first being Asakusa's Nakamise dori, one of my favourite destinations in Tokyo) ...

and connected to it, on the western side of the street is Teramachi.   Both arcades are near the world famous Nishiki Market (see my previous post) where you can find the best of the best of Kyoto's high quality produce.

On this latest trip to Kyoto, dinnertime found us still wandering around Teramachi and Shingkyogoku.  The prospect of sitting outdoors and having a beer and some snacks didn't seem particularly appealing.  

There aren't many restaurants along Teramachi.  When we spied Tonton Tasty Food, with its peculiar un-Japanese name and pink and green sign we hesitated -- it seemed like an Italian restaurant at first.

However, this huge sign advertising one of our favourites, okonomiyaki was what made us push through the door and grab one of the few tables inside.

 Aside from okonomiyaki, Tonton's plastic food display showed omurice, yakisoba and other casual izakaya style dishes.

The tables had a built in hot griddle -- very common in restaurants that serve fried and sautéed food.
I was careful to place my ice cold mug of Kirin beer well away from the hot metal.

We were famished so we ordered quite a lot -- 2 orders of yakisoba, okonomiyaki, teppanyaki and as an appetiser, some cheese chikuwa.  The head chef in white (I presumed that's who he was) started prep work  at the counter, assisted by a younger apprentice.

After making sure that the food had been properly prepared for cooking, he handed over the task to the younger cook,  all the time keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.

I asked if photos could be taken and they graciously agreed.  They must be quite used to tourists asking the same thing.

 Here's our food being semi-cooked.  The okonomiyaki is on the right  -- the pot cover would soon be placed on top of it to add steam to the cooking process.

We were given smaller spatulas to use both to further cook the food and to scoop them onto the small plates.

First up on our griddle was this mound of yakisoba.  

Next up, the cheese chikuwa -- normally, this fish sausage comes with cheese stuffed in the middle but Tonton's version had slices of sausage all wrapped in gooey melted cheese.  But hey, I was not about to complain.
Our okonomiyaki came to us "bare" with just a thin layer of mayonnaise on top.

To finish cooking the okonomiyaki, we brushed it with the sweetish sauce specially for this purpose and drizzled it with lots of bonito shavings on top.

This is what the okonomiyaki looked like -- thin and very flavourful.  Cooking it a bit longer on the hot griddle would have made for a crunchier bottom but who had the patience to let it sit longer when we could have it on our plates instantly?

Last to be served was the mixed teppanyaki -- a medley of vegetables, squid, shrimp, chicken and beef.  

As you can see, we were one hungry bunch.  Nothing was left on the table except for some sad, lonely bits of cabbage.  

And here is the Teramachi Gang -- sated on okonomiyaki, yakisoba and teppanyaki.  We'll see you again, Tonton Tasty Foods ... your name lived up to its promise!

Some photos on this post are courtesy of my son, Gani.

Weeping sakura and Dancing Maikos at the Heian Jingu shrine in Kyoto

After seeing sakura in Ninna-ji -- Chieko san had another surprise up her sleeve -- the next stop was the Heian Jingu shrine where she said that more sakura could be viewed.

Given that almost everything in Kyoto seems to be many many centuries old,  Heian Jingu can be called a "baby" as it was only built  in the late 1800s to commemorate Kyoto's 1100th anniversary
Despite its relative "youth" the vermillion lacquered Otenmon, the main gate is very imposing and impressive and quite a sight to see.

This is the Daigoku-den or main hall.  Chieko san said that today was our lucky day -- not only would we see more sakura, but there was a festival in the shrine's grounds and we would get a chance to watch some traditional performances.

Behind the main building of the shrine are several connected gardens which showcase the flowers of Kyoto through the different seasons.  While visiting the grounds are free, like Ninna-ji there is a fee to enter the gardens.  

This is  Chieko san and I as we are about to start our stroll through the gardens of Heian Jingu.

Shidare sakura or weeping cherry blossoms grow plentifully in Heian Jingu's gardens.  
The row upon row of  clusters of drooping light pink and white sakura is so pretty and fetching.  
In Ninna-ji, I thought shidare sakura felt slightly melancholy but given the profuse blooms in Heian Jingu, I changed my  mind -- they no longer seemed sad at all.

There are less crowds in these gardens.  The gardens are bigger and the sakura are planted further apart. Trellises have been built to support the blossom laden branches.  As we walked through the path, a slight breeze showered sakura petals on us.  Completely delightful!

Aside from the shidare sakura, other varieties are still in the last stage of their bloom.

I am  captivated by this young couple in traditional dress albeit pushing a modern trolley between them.  They have come out in costume to view the sakura and I surmise that the trolley holds their "normal" clothes, to change back into after this brief interlude.

This little pond is strewn with the fallen petals of the shidare sakura that grow around it.  It may look imperfect with a slight air of decay but it is a charming aesthetic nonetheless.

The pond winds through the gardens and there are ducks rooting about in the water.

As we walked through the gardens, I looked up to see this tangle of sakura -- with three colours, white, pink and light green.

These are the ukon sakura -- in shades of light yellow to green.  I think it's my favourite of all.

This bright pink variety is called the kanzan sakura.  If the yama sakura has only five petals, the kanzan sakura can have as many as 30 to 50 petals per blossom.

We ended our walk through the gardens to come upon this peaceful and lovely scene -- a tea house at the edge of the pond with ladies in Japanese kimono having tea right under the weeping sakura.

 Just as we exited the gardens, a dance performance of maiko or geishas-in-training had just started at the grounds.  The brightly hued Otenmon gate in the background made for a very striking and dramatic effect.

I was completely enthralled watching these two young girls dance so expressively and exquisitely. Accompanied by musicians playing traditional string instruments,  it was a performance that we were  privileged to have seen.

 It was mid afternoon when we left Heian Jingu.  We walked past this massive vermillion torii that  marks the entrance to shrine  -- replete with sakura and the remarkable beauty of Kyoto.

Sakura viewing at Ninna-ji Temple

We were back in Kyoto for a brief vacation in mid April and my fingers were crossed that we would catch the beautiful but short lived sakura season which only runs from end March to early April.
Chieko san, one of our favourite Tours by Locals guides had said "no promises" but that she would try as best as she could to make the sakura "wait" for us.

Thankfully, Chieko san's powers worked!  Sakura waited for us.  Our sakura viewing morning started at Ninna-ji Temple, one of the more important temples in Kyoto and a World Heritage site.  
Ninna-ji has a garden of locally grown omuro cherry trees which are lower and closer to the ground and most importantly,  they are late blooming sakura.   

 This map of the temple complex shows the garden devoted to the omuro sakura.

 I got so excited when I saw this tree right at the entrance of the temple grounds and was about to run right over and fling myself on it.
Chieko san had to restrain me as she said "you ain't seen nothing yet" -- in more polite language, of course.

This is one of the many varieties of sakura called called ukon sakura.  The colour ranges from a light yellow to green.  Too bad there were only a few ukon sakura trees -- a cluster would have been breathtaking.

 Ninna-ji has built a  wooden pathway all around the sakura garden.  You can walk through and just overdose on all the loveliness.  The faint sweet smell of sakura was also very attractive -- specially to the bees that kept buzzing about.

Everyone had their cameras out, trying to capture the fleeting beauty of so much sakura.

Even if Ninna-ji's omuro sakura were late blooming, the petals had also started to fall.  Chieko san said that a windy or rainy day would hasten the end of the season.

The sakura season is dazzlingly, impossibly  beautiful but lasts for just a brief moment.  It is said to be a metaphor for life -- can we make our lives as beautiful and meaningful as the sakura?

This is yama sakura or the most common type of sakura in Japan.  You can see that the five petal  blossoms have fallen and the leaves have started to sprout.  At its peak, the sakura tree is completely covered in blossoms, without any leaves at all.  Such a gorgeous sight!

At the tail end of sakura season, the azalea season kicks in.  Here is an azalea bush with its showy pink blossoms, competing for attention with the sakura tree behind it.

We leave the garden and walk over to the belfry, which is framed by this shidare sakura or weeping cherry tree.  Much like the weeping willow, the branches and blossoms droop to the ground.  I find it gives off a delicate, fragile and slightly melancholy air.

I am overwhelmed by the entrancing beauty of Ninna-ji's omuro sakura garden.
Just before leaving, I  take this shot of the temple's five storied pagoda framed by sakura.
This is the priceless gift that Kyoto bestowed on me today.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Long, Leisurely Luxe Lunch at Antonio's Tagaytay

If a budding chef wants to know how to get diners to drive to a rather out of the way destination just to eat his food -- he should take lessons from Chef Tonyboy Escalante who with his namesake restaurant Antonio's, has been one of the pioneers in what I like to call "destination dining".  
In the early 2000s, before food became such a serious trend, Chef Tonyboy opened up his own fine dining restaurant hidden in (at that time) far away Tagaytay.  
Nowadays, "foodies" (shudder) think nothing of driving for 2 or 3 hours just to eat in a trendy or popular place but at the time that Antonio's opened -- it was quite a novelty and also a risk.

For one thing -- it wasn't even along the main road of Tagaytay, you had to drive  through a narrow country road just to get to it.  For another thing, and this to my mind was the biggest risk -- you couldn't just drop in and dine.  
Antonio's was one of the first exclusive places where you had to call for a reservation.  
This caused quite a stir in the business -- there were talks of well known people being turned away from the gate because their names were not listed in the reservation book -- stories of fights and tantrums.  It all made for such good press and heightened the curiosity even more.

I first dined at Antonio's right in the middle of the buzz about it.  I had to wait for a couple of months before I could get a reservation.  Was it worth it?  It was certainly a lovely little place -- it looked elegant and refined and seemed very much like the chef's own home.  
But ambience aside, the food that Antonio's served me was quite stellar.  
It was far from "fancy" even if the prices could be called that.  
The food was surprisingly hearty and not at all pretentious.  Dishes were of very high quality and certainly without any airs.

After that first experience at Antonio's, I came back a few more times -- with friends, with family, with visiting balikbayans who I wanted to offer a different dining experience from the usual "kamayan" at the mall.  
I stopped going many years ago although I did note that the restaurant still rated very highly and consistently among various reviews.  The Miele Guide for Asia ranks it as the country's best restaurant.

A few days ago, my friends and I decided to have a mid week lunch at Antonio's.  
I didn't realise how much the place has grown -- from a simple country home setting, it has now evolved as a major wedding and event venue.  
This beautiful outdoor garden that they call the "Lounge" has a bar that serves cocktails  -- there are small tables scattered about and a really charming love seat with a candelabra hanging right over it.  
I can just imagine how enchanting this must look at dusk.

There are white wooden lawn furniture made comfortable with green cushions -- perfect for lounging around and having a glass or two of wine (or in my case, a bottle of ice cold beer)

Near the "Lounge" is another pavilion for events and weddings.  A bit smaller than the main dining area, it nestles amidst trees and shrubbery -- perfect for a small and intimate wedding party.

Inside the pavilion, the floor is laid with classic black and white patterned tiles and wide open doors lead to a veranda where more guests can be accommodated.

I loved this huge "wood art" piece -- I can imagine the gorgeous photos you can take, posed within its frames -- an elegant and unique "photo booth"  if there ever was one.

There are cocktail tables in the veranda -- an ideal way to while away the minutes before dinner.

The veranda is festooned with all kinds of climbing vines and delightful flowers -- their subtle fragrance wafts through the air.

We were interrupted in our exploration of the new delights of Antonio's by our waitstaff telling us our table was ready.  On the way up, we passed by this delightful al fresco spot -- where you can sit and dine while a giant blooming bougainvillea bush looms over you.  
But it's summer and too hot so we escape to cooler interiors.

Service at Antonio's is efficient but unobtrusive and moves along with the pace that you set.  
We were four ladies who were there for a lot of conversation and laughter and we were definitely not going to rush through our meal.  
Specially since we took so much time enjoying the warm fresh baked rolls given out as soon as we sat down at our table.

Aside from the main entree (which comes with salad, soup and dessert) we ordered appetisers to start up our lunch.  This golden crusty raclette with pickled onions and cornichons was just classic -- a delicious way to prepare our taste buds for what was yet to come.

Not content with one appetiser, we had to order the portobello mushrooms in balsamic vinegar.  The balance of tart and sweet was perfect.

I have always enjoyed the house salad, a tower of mixed greens -- I suppose sourced from the restaurant's own farms -- with caramelised walnuts, crumbly goat cheese and an appetising raspberry vinaigrette.

The soup for the day was a simple tomato and basil broth with a seafood puree but for vegetarians, the kitchen served it sans seafood.

Chef Tonyboy came out to chat with us mid meal and sent out his famous ginger sorbet -- so divinely delicious.  Could I have a bigger scoop?  Preferably on top of a sugar cone?

While there are no vegetarian entrees on the menu, all you have to do is ask.  Our server Anthony gave me the choice of a mushroom or tomato risotto.  I opted for the mushroom dish which was quite filling -- perhaps I shouldn't have had that extra roll?

My betsubara (second stomach, as the Japanese call it) was crying out for dessert -- never mind that I wasn't able to finish my risotto.  But dessert comes with the meal so I chose a chocolate terrine that came in a puddle of cream sauce with toasted pistachios for garnish.

We each had a different dessert so we could taste from each other's choice.  While the chocolate terrine was good I still found the soufflĂ© more to my liking.

We were not at all surprised when we ended the meal at 3 p.m.
 It was a lovely long lunch among good friends -- made even more special by the remarkably distinctive experience that only Antonio's in Tagaytay can deliver.