Sado Island & Back To Tokyo

I took the high speed boat early yesterday morning from Niigata City to Sado Island, about eighty miles off the coast and in the Sea of Japan, accompanied by my friend T.   We had a day planned of visits to agricultural producers and people involved in food.

The boat took an hour.  Our seats were assigned.  It was quiet the whole way.  Passengers slept or read.

The day included a visit to a dairy plant where milk, cheese, and yoghurt are produced.  The products were first rate.  We tried milk that had a nutty taste.  The yoghurt was thick and sweet.  The two cheeses were mozzarella style and Gouda style: Young and delicious and tough to tell apart from their European inspiration.

We met an older baker and his wife in their sixties.  Both were delighted with life and the wife curtsied and made jokes while the husband couldn’t stop smiling.  The wife would not stop feeding us, and what we had was better than anything baked I’ve had in a long time.  The style was French in terms of crust and interior and salt and butter.  And there were Japanese touches like a baguette layered with stewed burdock and a light sesame paste.

Lunch was at a wonderful, large, hidden restaurant near a rice field where the kitchen served sashimi, noodles, tempura, and…pizza.  The udon was delicious.  In season briefly is buri: This yellowtail couldn’t be fresher.  The pizza had mozzarella from the dairy plant.  Have you ever eaten pizza with chopsticks?  Well, I have.

From there it was a stop at my friend Rumiko’s sake brewery MANOTSURU: I’ve known her nine years, and it’s always a pleasure to see her.  Her sake is stellar.  Afterwards, we went to the brewer who sells his sake to NOBU.  Stunning.

We took the two and a half hour ferry back to Niigata.  Passengers can choose between seats and tatami rooms.  We chose the latter.  Can you imagine the pleasure of napping on a futon with a clean wool blanket as you ride on the Sea of Japan?

Niigata, Japan: Just Like I Pictured It

It’s just past six A.M. in Niigata and from T’s apartment, I can see Niigata City’s tall, gray buildings with their pinprick, red and blinking lights and beyond them and the flat surfaces between them, that is the Sea of Japan.

It’s my fourth visit to Niigata, 15th to Japan.

Kawabata made Niigata famous in his lovely, unsettling novel, “Snow Country,” and it’s a book I read ages ago.  You should read it, too, as it gives one man’s turmoil and desire to experience longing again and again on a daily basis an odd, broader context within nature and civic life.  He won’t let go, but can’t move forward.

Yesterday T and I visited three extraordinary micro-breweries, each one with distinctive features.  The final one, deep in the countryside, is run by a very individualistic person with a wonderful sense of humor and a ten year old Shiba Inu named Sakura.

Later we went to a brew pub in town to taste beer.

I am writing about micro-brewing in Japan for Beer Advocate.

Today we take the high speed boat to Sado Island to visit two sake breweries and a cheese factory.

From Kyoto to Niigata

The NOMA team left Kyoto yesterday morning just before 11 A.M. although the chef, Rene Redzepi, remained behind for a few days of privacy with his wife and three young daughters.

I spent a big part of the day walking around Kyoto with M.  She grew up here, and has since moved to a remote farming area to work on her art.  She is photographing for my work here, and as she put it, “I am your eyes.”

M and I were invited then to a long, delicious three hour kaiseki lunch at Ritz Carleton.  As is often true here in Japan, I learned something new about the food and culture.  The traditional, multi-course kaiseki meal, which I have enjoyed before many times, is an original tasting menu very deep in seasonality that emerges through 5 colors, 5 tastes, and 5 ways of preparing the food.

Later in the day, I met up with K.  He and I hit a terrific Italian restaurant and followed that with visits to “Invitation Only” haunts in Gion for whiskies, shochu, and gawking.  Real geishas, old school jazz, the cultural mix was jarring and inspiring.

And now it is time to fly to Niigata to see T and visit microbreweries, two sake breweries, and a dairy farm.

NOMA & THE ART OF ZEN

Yesterday I joined the NOMA team on a jaunt to an enormous Zen temple complex in northern Kyoto.  The property is up against a bamboo forest and we all climbed a slope to reach a short point halfway up the summit.  Chefs and cooks and wait staff and lots of babies made the trip.

We had lunch inside the complex at a vegetarian restaurant where we were seated on tatami mats in three long rows.  A succession of dishes arrived to join what had been placed before us when we first sat down.

Everything was delicious.  And plentiful.  We had pickled vegetables, yuba, fried taro root, and so on.

When the meal ended, the chef came out to say hello and take questions, I was struck by the deep curiosity of Chef Rene Redzepi.  “Wow,” he kept saying with an inspiring, boyish awe.  And then alongside his desire to know more about how dishes were prepared, what steps were needed, how many people were in the kitchen, and the history of vegetarian food in Japan–was his delight in experiencing the world through taste.

As we returned to the hotel, I imagined I saw the world a little perhaps the way he saw it: What is hidden around and within us?  What do we need to do in order to coax from nature and ourselves the best of experiences that celebrate life?

Noma, Chef Redzepi, Kyoto

Last night a huge event took place in Kyoto at Hyatt Regency when Rene Redzepi, Chef of NOMA, introduced a, “Coming Attractions,” spool of film that documents his Big Adventure in Japan, followed by a Q & A I did with him onstage before 120 Japanese dignitaries.

The teaser film clips herald what will be a Warner Brothers movie that is going to rival and then surpass the most recent Japanese movie about film, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” because the passion, humor, and improvisation are frankly astonishing and eye opening. New ways of thinking.

The questions I asked Rene were inspired by the film teaser.  Although we were limited by the ten minutes allotted, the audience and I heard detailed answers to these four questions:

How did your aesthetic and way of cooking change through your experience in Japan starting with your first visit to Kyoto a few years ago?

What do you mean when you say that something tastes Japanese?

What are some ingredients of Japan you enjoy especially?

Through change in your cuisine through contact with Japanese gastronomy, is it unrealistic to think of a global vision that breaks down national barriers and creates more peace and love?

 

 

NOMA in Kyoto

The NOMA restaurant team of sixty people left Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo yesterday at 1100 AM, and I joined them in the ground floor lobby as more than one hundred cooks and other hotel staff cheered and waved and hugged to signal their departure.

Cameras went off by the dozen, lots of cheers and smiles.  I imagined that it was like being with a rock band of great notoriety.  The warmth and excitement were deep and genuine.  It was moving to see so much happiness.

We rode two buses with thirty people on each to Haneda airport.  In less than an hour, we arrived there.

The restaurant team, including chef Rene Redzepi kept coming over to introduce themselves, and tell me about themselves.

Rene is unique among chefs I know: He dressed simply, spoke softly, did not separate himself from his team, and was engaged in the nitty-gritty of the trip.  Such as helping to pass out airline tickets, unload luggage, and when seated on the plane to Itami-Osaka placed in row 39 of economy between two of his three children.  His humility was demotic, and it must inform his cooking.

It took one hour by bus to Kyoto.  We arrived at Hyatt Regency.  After champagne toasts and an introduction by Ken Yokoyama, the GM, we left for our rooms.

That night the chef hit a top kaiseki restaurant.  I met my friend Mika for yakitori at Torito.  Torito is my new favorite yakitori in Japan: Small and lively room, well priced and deliciously smoky chicken, good draft beer.  My third visit, and I’ll be back on Thursday.

Tonight is a benefit for Kyotographie, a terrific photography collective, at which I’ll be doing a Q & A with Rene Redzepi on the subject of creativity in cooking.

 

Waking up in Tokyo and seeing Fuji-san from my Window

People tell me now and then to write a book about Japan–frankly, I’m not aware of my long interest in the country, the how’s and why’s of that interest, but it’s there.  

When I was a boy of about 12, the public TV station in NYC showed famous, old classic movies from around the world.  So in addition to seeing Resnais, Bergman, Truffaut, et. al., I saw “Rashoman” and “Seven Samurai,” and was moved as only a young boy can be by the grunting and passion.  

Subsequently, I don’t know how it happened, I read Mishima and Kawabata and Tanizaki on my own in my first year or two of high school.  

I took a hiatus in college from all of this, but in graduate school did my doctoral theis on the psychology of the nuclear threat, which led to reading a great deal about Japan.  

About thirteen years ago, I came here for the first time, not interested in the trip, having become a Europhile, but invited by Daniel Boulud personally, I could not say no, and was smitten and immediately fascinated deeply.  The hybridization of the culture, the contradictions, the aesthetic, the food, its modernity, all took me by emotional and intellectual surprise.  

So I returned to the States knowing a little and wanting to know more.  I read ridiculous amounts of novels and histories of the country.  Continue to study the written and spoken language and acquire a little, little by little.  

So maybe it’s time to write about the psychology of Japan with sufficient awe and humility.  

Fuji-san can be seen in the winter light, just behind and between tall, black office buildings.  The buildings make me think of the stone markers in Buddhist graveyards.  The mountain is all pure white due to the time of year.

 

Back in Tokyo!

Wasn’t I just here?

I returned to Tokyo just about an hour ago.  The long flight from JFK was uneventful.  I got whacked on the head by a man and his wife in the row behind me, as they got up to use the rest room, which woke me from a deep, needed sleep.  Then they spoke loudly for most of the flight.  In the aisle directly across from where I was seated, two young women, high school or just having started college, sang and spoke louder than the couple I mentioned.  But we landed safely.

High winds now from the 32nd floor of Mandarin Oriental where I am spending the night.  Very dramatic, very lovely.  This is my third stay here.

Hot shower, pleasant shave.

Soon it will be time to meet R and H for yakitori and cold draft beer at Tokyo Station, which is within walking distance.

Tomorrow I fly with the NOMA crew to Kyoto.

 

NOMA, NYC, ANA

It’s just past dawn in Stuyvesant Town, on 18th and First, and I’ve been in town just under twenty-four hours.  The flight from Boston was short and uneventful.  I’m here to see N and to catch a plane from JFK on ANA later this morning to reach Narita and from there to Tokyo and Kyoto where, on Tuesday evening, I’m doing a Q & A with Chef Rene Redzepi, of NOMA, at Hyatt Regency.

I’m tired.

But not so tired, after not sleeping well for a couple of nights, not to hit a bunch of familiar places.

Rubirosa for the city’s best pizza.  A visit to Eataly for pasta and cheese.  Porto Rico (on St. Marks) to buy coffee for N and a friend in Japan.  My go-to Italian for dinner: Il Buco Alimentari: Lattuga, pasta with black truffles, pasta with a beef ragu.  Finally, a few bars in the LES.

 

Eating in the Winter

I’m almost done reading, “Under the Tripoli Sky,” a short novel by Kamal Ben Hamada, about families in pre-Gaddafi Libya, which is as good as the reviewer said it would be writing about it in a recent TLS.  Between shoveling, that is.  Two feet today to add to the four there already.

But that’s winter: In this part of the world, we eat what’s in front of us, whether it’s books or the blueberry pancakes and Kentucky bacon I cooked this morning.

Speaking of pancakes: I finally made it into Alden & Harlow, in Harvard Square, dining out because it was time to see, “Father Comes Home from War,” down the street.  That extraordinarily well written (and yet lugubrious) and well acted play is at the A.R.T.  Three hours.  Really?  Three hours?  Try ninety minutes.

Anyway.  Pancakes.  Alden & Harlow sold me a plate of corn pancakes with sashito peppers on the side and maple syrup and popcorn.  And then beets with fried garlic.  And swordfish belly with kimchi on the side and smoked lamb ribs.  Great service, killer room.  But if it wasn’t for the chef trying so hard to showboat, what would be there?  Not a heck of a lot.  The pancakes were a silly dinner item.  Popcorn?  C’mon.  The beets had literally no flavor.  The ribs were so fatty and greasy it wasn’t possible to eat them.  The swordfish was OK.  $134 for two, inc. tax and tip.  (Two cocktails, one glass of wine, one beer.)

I’m roasting a chicken tonight.