Friday, April 17, 2015

Cutting edge Japanese cuisine at Itamae Bar in Ginza Tokyo


I was looking forward to a traditional  Japanese dinner this cool Sunday evening in March with my long time gourmet friend Abe san.  However,  he ended up surprising me by bringing me to his latest restaurant discovery - a trendy, cool bar somewhere in the side streets of Ginza.


Itamae in Japanese means cook or chef.  Such a basic, simple name for a place that Abe san said was quite new,  now very popular and hot with the Tokyo dining crowd.



Itamae proudly proclaims what it offers ... Japanese Food / Sake / White Wine.  Oh dear, it seemed quite hipster-ish and young to me.



Looking around the casual, "industrialised" interiors of this modern izakaya,  I laughingly told Abe san that we were the oldest patrons in the place.


Counter seating was available,  conducive to watching the itamae or chef prepare and plate the dishes.  As it is essentially an izakaya or bar, Itamae serves mostly "otsumami" -- the Japanese version of "tapas" -- lots of small dishes meant to be enjoyed while drinking.   
It's what you would call a gastro-pub.  This being Tokyo, I was sure the pub fare would be superb.


When drinking in Japan, it is normal to start with a cold glass of nama or draft beer.
Then you can move on to sake or shochu or in the case of Itamae, something from their carefully chosen selection of white wines.
We were started off with a small amuse bouche of a shiso leaf wrapped around bits of stewed tofu, bamboo shoots, greens and diced potatoes.  The sauce was sharp, vibrant and refreshing.
A single pink blossom garnished this appetiser -- perhaps to evoke the coming sakura season.



 Abe san ordered one of Itamae's specialties -- grilled awabi or abalone, sliced and artfully presented on the shell.  Along with the awabi were fresh vegetables like baby corn,  a surprisingly sweet and tasty no-heat little red pepper,  cucumbers and daikon.
Everything was beautifully presented on a large glazed dish that mimicked the sheen and shape
of an abalone shell.


A dark green sauce accompanied the dish.   Made of abalone liver and fat, it delivered a
straight umami kick right to my unsuspecting palate.  This dip was decadently delicious --
rich, with a light hint of bitterness and deep overtones of the briny sea.
So silky smooth with a complex, satisfying taste.
My Pinoy sensibilities secretly wished for a small bowl of  hot kanin or rice to slather all this superlative sauce on.
Extra rice please!


Itamae puts its modern, contemporary take on regular Japanese food.  From recent forays to non-traditional restaurants and bars in Japan, I note that cheese is used more and more in Japanese dishes.  This dish Abe san ordered was camembert lightly dusted with herbs,  fried up as a tempura and then wrapped in a thin, nearly translucent slice of fresh, uncured ham.
Pork and cheese -- definitely not kosher but oh so delicious.


It must have been all the richness -- from the ambrosial abalone dip to the mouthwatering camembert tempura but I was all of a sudden,  "onaka ippai yo" or quite full.
But it just took a little bit of persuading for me to agree to a one-for-the road order of assorted sashimi.
Abe san and I enjoyed fatty toro, slices of tai or sea bream,  succulent kampachi or yellowtail tuna, slivers of raw squid that slithered down my throat -- all these artfully presented on a bed of greens, twigs, julienned radish and yes -- a small dish of "nitro" for that  foggy molecular gastronomy effect.
I am happy to say that nitro or not, the sashimi was the star of the show.


An evening spent in wonderful company,  excellent contemporary Japanese food, beer and sake -- it was the perfect way to end the week-end, fully recharged for the meetings ahead.
I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the bright vibrant lights of Ginza and feeling grateful for new memories made -- of another great food experience with a dear old friend.

Sleeping under the Sakura Tree - Park Hotel's Artist Room by Hiroko Otake


When in Tokyo, I always stay only at the Park Hotel in Shiodome, a few steps away from the head office.  While I have tried other hotels in the area, I prefer this hotel for its quiet, relaxing ambience and discreet stylish elegance.


Park Hotel is on the 24th to the 34th floor of the Shiodome Media Tower,  also the headquarters of Kyodo News, a non profit Japanese news organisation.  


The past couple of years, the hotel has embarked on an arts program -- inviting well known and contemporary Japanese artists to showcase their work in the hotel.  The artwork is not confined to just exhibits in the lobby and public areas -- rather the art is brought right into the guest rooms themselves.  Featured artists are invited to create a special "Artist Room" with themes of their own choosing.




On my last business trip to Tokyo this March, I decided to book my stay in an Artist Room.
Since it was almost sakura season,  I was happy to choose the " cherry blossoms" room so that I could sleep with sakura all around me.  This particular room featured art done by Ms Hiroko Otake.


The entire hotel room is the artist's canvas.  As I entered my room, Otake san's happy blue butterflies greeted me at the hallway entrance.


This hardly prepared me for this  astonishing,  stunning sight --  a gorgeous cherry blossom tree in full bloom.  Pink sakura, petals and butterflies seemed to shower down on the bed.
Dreamy gold clouds made up of separate gold leaves added warmth and richness.
What  dreams would I have amidst all this breathtaking beauty?


Otake san's  large sakura tree trunk dominated a corner of the room -- spreading out blossom laden branches throughout the two walls.  Butterflies continued their flight on the dark blue ceiling.  
It was an enchanting, captivating sight.  I felt like I was part of one big magical canvas.  
And I was almost sorry to spoil the effect by my presence.  
Perhaps I thought,  I should sleep in the bathroom and preserve this scene, unsullied by my ordinary, messy self.


Gold butterflies flitted about wherever I looked, even behind the small t.v. on the work desk.
Each day of my stay,  I hurried back to Park Hotel as soon as my meetings ended to luxuriate in my delightful surroundings.
And for once, I kept the t.v. turned off throughout  -- it didn't seem right to watch sordid and mundane affairs such as the world news on CNN in the midst of a peaceful and tranquil setting.



It took quite an effort to break my gaze from Otake san's art, so soft, serene and timeless,  to view the steel and concrete city that unfolded below me.  
I always book a room with the view of Tokyo Tower at the Park Hotel.
Then I would sit and watch the changing colours of the city skyline, a panorama  I never grew tired of.
This time, the blues, pinks and gold of the art on my walls perfectly complemented the vista that unfolded outside my window.


This small plaque with Otake san's  bio data and brief description of her artwork and her aesthetic    was tucked discreetly on one portion of the wall.  As I read her message about the sakura and its meaning and symbolism, I appreciated her art and her aesthetic even more.



Domo arigato gozaimashita, Park Hotel Tokyo and Otake san.
I am truly grateful for this extraordinary stay --  it was brief but utterly exquisite -- just like the remarkable sakura.





Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A German break at Stein Haus in Ginza, Tokyo


It was a Sunday afternoon and I wandered around the side streets of Ginza, not knowing what I wanted to eat -- but knowing what I didn't want to eat.  
And sacrilegious as it may sound, and the Japanese embassy may revoke my visa for saying this, 
but at this particular moment in time, I knew I didn't want to eat Japanese food.
Fortunately, Ginza has many international cafes, trattorias, bistros -- you name it, you can find it.  
In Ginza 2 chome, I stumbled on Stein Haus,  a German beer garden that also serves hearty German fare.


Stein Haus is on the 8th floor of  Ginza Velvia.  The building itself houses a lot of froufrou trendy boutiques and shops.  The restaurants on the 7th and 8th floors all had long queues this Sunday afternoon -- making me think that these young Tokyo-ites had just woken up and were sitting down to a very late lunch.


I ordered a glass of a premium German draught beer called Franziskaner Weissbier,  which was golden and cloudier than the normal Japanese beer.  It was slightly pleasantly sour  and had a fruity and a bit of a spicy undertone.   Much heavier than Asahi or Kirin but still very easy on the throat.  
Stein Haus offers a number of high quality German beers and I was very happy with my choice.



 A side dish of piping hot truffled  fries arrived right after the beer did --  I had to exercise extreme restraint to keep from finishing the entire plate.


Please don't think I ate this all by myself.   My colleague and I ordered a sausage platter good for two with three different kinds of sausages, a  generous slice of ham, roasted potatoes and a very good sauerkraut that wouldn't be out of place at the Oktoberfest.  
Hot grilled sausages and beer  -- Ach mein Gott,  sehr gut!  


On top of the fries and the roasted potatoes, we ordered the bread plate -- warm soft pretzels and slices of sourdough bread -- these certainly upped the carbohydrate count.
I was so tempted to take two pieces of bread to make a sausage sandwich but didn't want to raise the stylish eyebrows of the hip young diners beside me.


Tomorrow I promise to go back to sushi and sashimi but for now -- Prost! 
Danke, Stein Haus.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Salaryman's Super Chirashi Bowl at Sushidokoro Marui in Ginza, Tokyo


When in Japan for work,  I try eat where the normal salaryman eats.  This has led me to some of my favourite restaurants -- the food is always good, served fast and most importantly is reasonably priced.  On this last trip to Tokyo, my colleague took me to a sushi place in Ginza -- an area where prices are usually on the high side.  But surprise, surprise -- I had a fantastic lunch at normal salaryman's prices.


Sushidokoro Marui is hidden somewhere in the back streets behind Matsuya Department Store.  We arrived way past the lunch hour on a Saturday so the entrance was devoid of the usual long queue of office workers.


Sushidokoro Marui is compact --  the sushi counter  on the ground floor seats just six people.
While there were vacant chairs in front of the sushi chef, we opted to take our meal upstairs in less cramped surroundings.


 There are just 11 items on the lunch menu.   Marui caters to salarymen and OLs or office ladies who need to get back to work right away and thus, do not have the time to lengthily ponder the question "What am I going to eat today?"
I find it so amazing that most of the sushi offerings fall well below 2,000 yen.  Such a bargain for sushi in the Ginza district.



 I ordered the Zukeana Chirashi which is a bowl topped with grilled soft anago and slices of dark red maguro.  A raw quail's egg sits atop the fresh ingredients, ready to be poured over everything.    Bright yellow tsukemono or pickles,  fresh perilla leaves, a smudge of wasabi and other greens make this bowl so colourful, vibrant and appetising.


 The fresh quail's egg mixed with the sticky sushi rice complemented and tied all the flavours together.   This was definitely one of the best chirashi bowls I had ever had!
Once I got past the surface of the bowl  I found more meltingly delicious tidbits mixed in with the sushi rice.  There were bits of tamago, mini umami-laden globules of tobiko, pieces of ebi, salmon,  shredded nori ... each bite yielded a new texture and surprise.
It was such a delicious and satisfying lunch bowl and at 1,300 yen -- definitely a culinary steal!
Marui -- I will be back!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Denboin Garden in Asakusa - hidden in plain sight


Senso-ji in Asakusa is my favourite place in all of Tokyo.  I never fail to visit each time I am in the city.   It is the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo where the Goddess of mercy Kannon is enshrined.
There is a garden in Senso-ji called Denboin that I had passed by many times but had never been able to enter.  It is located beside the pagoda and is hardly ever open to the public.


On this last trip to Tokyo, Denboin opened its doors with an exhibit of traditional Japanese paintings.   This exhibit would last till May 7 and would give visitors a chance to see both the gallery and the garden.  The first day of the Denboin's opening coincided with my visit to Senso-ji so it was indeed serendipity -- and of course, I believe it was a grace given to me by Kannon herself.



It's a pity that photos were not allowed inside the gallery where I enjoyed a small but excellent  exhibit of traditional antique Japanese paintings and sculpture. 
As I stepped out of the gallery, the garden of Denboin slowly unfolded before me, transporting me to a serene and tranquil place -  far from the crowds and noise of Senso-ji.


The gardens comprise a land area of about a hectare and was designed by a famous Japanese landscape gardener more than 300 years ago.  While a hectare may seem large, the garden itself was compact and very easy to navigate.  


So many varieties of trees, shrubs and plants can be seen in Denboin.  Perhaps it was a bit early for spring blossoms but if I had come a few weeks later,  the greenery would probably be in full flower.


The main reason why Denboin is closed to the public is that for generations, this has been the residence of the head priest of Senso-ji.  Only nobles like the Shogun and priests were allowed to enter.    Denboin is very much an active part of the workings of the temple.  I was told that the gardens are opened occasionally to the public, perhaps twice a year.  Which is why I felt truly fortunate to be in this place at this time.


Today, the priests of Senso-ji have opened the gardens to us and have even laid out cups of steaming hot matcha.  These provide a warm welcome, particularly on this chilly March afternoon.
The deep rich matcha tastes of the woods, of trees, of the earth, of goodness --  I feel it tastes of the gardens of Denboin.



I make my way through the garden and come upon this tangle of branches with a single sakura blossom.  It's a sweet early sign of cherry blossom season and a perfect example of wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of impermanent beauty.


Like many traditional Japanese gardens Denboin features a pond built in the middle.  Looking at the reflection of the trees and the buildings on the water doubles my pleasure and enjoyment of this lovely place.


As I make my way around the path that encircles the pond, so many alluring and captivating views are revealed.  From this spot, the pagoda of Senso-ji makes  a magnificent backdrop against the blue spring sky.


Each step, each glance opens up another exquisite perspective.   I find myself stopping at certain spots, hoping to imprint this particular memory in my mind's eye so that I can return to it again and again.


 Even this last look at Denboin, with the towering Sky Tree in the background does not strike me as incongruous -- I see it as a harmonious balance between old and new, traditional and modern, efficiency and elegance.


 As I reluctantly make my way out of Denboin,  I come upon this small rock pool.
Surely not by design, but perhaps blown down by the wind, one pink camellia rests on the edge of the stones.   I know it as a parting gift from Kannon, a sign of her mercy to lift my spirits.
Namu amida butsu.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Savoring Sapporo's Specialties, Part 4 -- Breakfast with Buta at Drive In Ito, New Chitose Airport


All good things must come to an end.  It was time to say good bye to our short, fun working visit to Sapporo and head back to reality.


Nana san and I had separate late morning flights back to Tokyo so we headed to Sapporo station bright and early to catch the train to the airport.



Quick! A selfie before entering the station!



It was rush hour so the train to New Chitose Airport was full of commuters -- we had to wait for the next one before we could get on board.


New Chitose Airport is chock-full of shops and eating places.   It's even more interesting than
Narita Airport. The restaurants are one floor above the departure level so after checking in our bags, we checked out where we could have a quick but delicious meal.
Pork in the road immediately zoomed in on this corner place that featured piggy decor and furnishings.  Buta or pig for breakfast would be the perfect last meal in Sapporo!


This is Drive In Ito, a Sapporo restaurant specialising in pork.  Apparently, the original restaurant is a drive-in place,  hence the name.   Perhaps here at New Chitose Airport, this branch should be called Fly In Ito!


The cute mascot at the entrance holds up the restaurant's famous dish, butadon or pork and rice bowl.


Even at this hour of the morning, there were some die hard pork aficionados  who were tucking into their savoury breakfasts.  My kind of people!  This was definitely not the skinny latte crowd.


 This is the piece de resistance at Drive In Ito.  A huge bowl of porky scrumptiousness.
Slices of tender, utterly divine pork marinated and grilled with a piquant, lip smacking sauce covered this bowl of hot, sticky Japanese rice.  
Toku betsu. So special.
Shita ga tokeru -- it melted in my mouth.
Drive In Ito's butadon was one of the best pork dishes I have ever had!


 Our happy faces certainly attested to the delightful eating we enjoyed at Drive In Ito.  Oh yes, that and our near-empty bowls.


So farewell for now,  Sapporo and New Chitose Airport.  If I ever make my way back here,
I certainly know what my first meal will be ... butadon at Drive In Ito on the 3rd floor!