Tokyo!

Never mind about the Ninja dinner: Yes, it was dangerous, but we all survived.  Prior, it was a top secret meeting at the JR office @ Tokyo Station and…oh, damn, now the secret is out!

Prior, it was a lavish dinner @ Park Hyatt, NY Grill, views, beef, bourbon, and sides.  Is there a nicer room on earth?  I didn’t think so.

Prior, gin-rik-sha, also known as human-powered-vehicle.  A view of the biggest tourist attraction in Tokyo–Asakusa Gate–(Seriously?  Seriously?), where I’d been only 32 months prior, and then raw fish and did I mention the Ninjas?

Today at least was eventful: Huge bonita flakes and Hokkaido konbu, that’s for Boston home cooking, a hunger strike at a tofu restaurant that did not fully attend to a shellfish problem, and later a visit to a crafts center.  Do you want kangaroo leather sneakers made in Hiroshima?  I can tell you where to buy them.

And now, on the 28th Floor of Conrad, the huge Tokyo harbor in view, enjoying news of my umami piece in Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, which appeared just this morning, as I sip a gin Martini.

Never mind is right.

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Satamai

After many hours in the bus, after a brief walk around a mountain, after a view of an epic seated Buddha (no sleight of hand, but you get the picture, and, no, there was no call for eradication of Muslims to the West), after the whale (grilled in butter), we arrived, via a long tunnel beneath Tokyo Bay, in Satamai.

It’s a suburb of Tokyo, green in parts, and here, from the tenth floor, bleak and gray and industrious.  Crows cawing, strips of blue, a four lane street emptied of cars, hot and green tea.

The bonsai museum yesterday afternoon held trees some of them 500 years old, one of them 1000 years old.  Apparently, these were signs of mastery in homes of the aristocracy rather than indications of discipline engineered by the Zen Buddhist monks.  I don’t know, it looked like a lot of torture to me.

Prior to arrival at the hotel, it was a brief kaiseki dinner in a magnificent, fancy pants, wooden house.  The food was good and the setting was even better, and the water flowed.

Afterwards, some of us absconded to a local joint (King’s Bar) hidden on the third floor of a side street building for ice cold gin.  I’d go back.

We’ll Always Have Chiba

Sunday A.M.: First prayers, Buddhist temple, Narita.  Ten monks file in: One in canary yellow, four in purple, two in traffic light green, one in black, one in gold.  Long, slow, dolorous notes on a small drum, a bell, and a single string instrument.

The robed monks hold large shoulder bags on their left side: Two blue, three orange.

Shaved heads.

Everything communicated in silence or musically until huge blasts from a drum on the left that is about eight by eight feet.  Shakes the building.

Followed by chanting: Deep, from below.  Shaking of bells, lots of chanting, lots of commotion, fire, movement, fast drumming.  Now we need wailing guitars.

Ceremony ends almost with a weeping sound.

Next: Slaughter of the unagi.  Heads nailed, skinned alive, blood, wriggling.  Lunch follows.

Ankimo and tuna sashimi; grilled chicken; tonkatsu with salad; unagi and miso and pickled vegetables.  Really delicious.

That night: Poconos style, 260 room resort with splendid baths and a breakfast the next morning that makes me think of hostages released with small children after weeks of captivity.

The First 36 Hours

Whirlwind, yes, whirlwind.  From the fire ceremony of the percussive Buddhist temple on.  Now that’s a sound that would make a killer backdrop to a jazz ensemble or wailing guitars.

Followed by tori niku and unagi.  Oiishi des!

Then a visit to a sake brewery.  I saw an impromptu jazz matsuri across the street and began talking to the young hipster in charge, but got the hook and wound up back at sake.

Next up: Geishas and drinking games minus the ETOH.

I left out the outlet mall.  No: here it is: Outlet Mall.

Evening: A sprawling 260 room resort.  Best bet: The big hot spring baths down below.

 

Just the Facts, M’am, Just the Facts

Do you ever find yourself in strange places, feeling awkward, not sure how you got there or perhaps that understanding is imprecise?  Well, I do.

The sun is rising over the mud colored hotel visible from my square window overlooking the scimitar shaped entrance driveway of the hotel where I am staying at Narita Airport.

I arrived about 5:45 last night, via Detroit, after a long, restful flight.  That’s right: Finished a new book, “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” that began with satiric promise, but ended with a knitting basket of too much.  Still, it was fun.  And what flight these days is complete without, “Hangover Part Three?”  I don’t want to ruin it for you–Spoiler Alert!–but I can’t believe they killed off Jeffrey Tambor!  Was that necessary?

A couple of vegetarian Asian meals later–one of which was delicious–and I found myself back at Narita.  ホームスイートホーム, as we say here: Home, sweet, home.

And here I am at the Narita Hilton, a mere 20 minutes from the town of Narita.  As such, rather than stroll the town streets, where I’ve been, and eat a meal of unagi while seated on tatami with a cold draft in hand, I ate at the lobby buffet on cold beef and drank mizu (a.k.a. water) last night.

Today I am certain of change.

NEWS BULLETIN: Kaiseki Dinner @ James Beard House!

OK, so you missed it.  But, hey, listen, next time someone suggests a long, delicious, vegetable driven, ingredient powerful, highly seasonal dinner?  Say, “OK.”

Last night, at The James Beard House, the formidable Taeko Takagami organized one of the most memorable evenings I’ve enjoyed, and the others there enjoyed, it appeared, in a very long time.

Aided by the chef from EN; Chef Sono Chikara from KYO YA; a bar tended by Shingo from SAKAMAI, with a demo of how-to-make-soba (been there, done that, ate that in Kaga Onsen), it was a long and lively evening of many small and deeply flavorful courses.

These highlighted the ingredients of Japan.  To top it off?  Dassai sake brought by Kzuhiro Sakurai.

Everything noted below: Bite sized pieces.

Zatsuki: Grilled saltwater eel (anago) with shin-nori sauce.

Zensai: Sesame tofu, crispy white fish puree with yamato imo, simmered burdock root with ankimo, salted multed roe and daikon, roasted duck and yaki-negi, grilled mackerel ham0-zushi, tender abalone shibani style, pickled red and golden beets.

Owan: soba with pike eel (hamo), mizuna greens, and tsuke-dare.

Sashimi: Canadian toro, kagoshima madai, Alaskan botan ebi, Santa Barbara uni.

Yakimona: Grilled shrimp mousse with matsutake, seared Jongiskan style lamb, chestnut duo, taro sesame miso dengaku, broiled Saikyo miso black cod, pan roasted ginkgo nuts, kikuna greens and chrysanthemum ponzu-zuke.

Onmono: Alaskan king crab in poached egg yolk kokabu broth

Oshokuji: Hokkaido kinki and maitake kamadaki rice with shoyu-ikura roe; red miso soup with junsai and homemade pickles.

Kanmi: Chickpea zenzai with shiratama dumpling and sweet potato tempura; sweet bun with Nagaimo mousse, kinako tuples, and matcha sauce.

Oishii desu yo!

 

Get in, Get the Pasta, Get Out

On Acela at this very moment as we head towards Providence and then the gorgeous Connecticut shoreline.  Medium black Dunks, and my one annual “Old Fashioned” and in my right pocket a Golden.  So all is right in my little world.

One meeting after another looms.

Locanda Verde, followed by a kaiseki dinner at the James Beard House, and then, tomorrow, meetings at Balthazar and Mailino.

Did I mention Eataly?  Eataly.  The fresh agnoletti there are lovely, the Piedmontese style beef from Montana delicious, and the Neapolitan pizzas?  First rate.

The meetings are in preparation for the upcoming Japan pieces.  Talk about change.

What a strange mix of militarism, religiosity, Chinese culture, and Western principles.  No wonder there is foment.

 

 

Food in the News!

First, the sad news, really, of the death of Hans Riegel (90), who was the scion and marketing man behind gummi bears.  Was there ever a better candy?  Of course not!

Then the news, speaking of marketing, that food companies are introducing honey to products to sell them.  Hey, sugar is sugar, but isn’t it it nice to see bees at work?

Then, in Boston, a round-up in today’s paper of where to get ramen around town.  Folks, in Japan?  Ramen is eaten by teens and people in their twenties and that’s about it.  Thing is, it’s so salty and filled with fat that unless you’re very young or you’ve been drinking, why bother?  It’s cheap, filling, and immediately satisfying.  One of the joints in the round-up is a militant pork place in Porter Square, Cambridge, where the owner won’t allow portions to be shared or taken home.  We’re talking massive bowls of pork broth.  Thanks?  No thanks.

More to the point: A light miso soup with sheared corn kernels and chanterelles followed by steamed bok choy and broiled hirame.  Where?  Here of course.

Give me gummi bears or give me hirame!

Japan in the Cards

For about ten bucks, you can get yourself a little box of simple, delicious food to eat on a train in Japan.  That’s what I’ve been researching the past couple of weeks and will be writing about this week for a certain U.S. publication that is running the piece in January.  Another couple of dollars and you have a cold can of Ebisu beer.  Is that Fuji-san?  It is.

I’m also writing about a number of cultural features of Tokyo for two certain U.S. publications, including jazz, stand up comedy, and wrestling.

It’s such a fascinating, hybrid nation, Japan is, and a number of notables I’m interviewing for these pieces add  to my understanding.  The influence of Japan on their work is often implicit.

Basically, a lot of silence and respect for adumbration rather than a celebration of noise; though there’s that, too: But the noise is anti-demonic and while demotic in form has elite, religious roots.

No wonder: For centuries Japan’s best and brightest headed to the military and the temples until they fused and adopted a religious sense of mission and an arrogance pertaining to the purposes of their missions.

The eki-ben sold at train stations are about the size of a hardcover book.  You open the top and on a firm bed of vinegary rice are strips of protein.  I love the unagi.

 

 

Song for Albany

 

They don’t call it the capital of the Empire state for nothing.  Inch for inch, the food in Albany, New York trumps bigger cities in quality and value.  Take that Boston with your $14 cocktails and oxtail ravioli!

I started with Ragonese on New Scotland Avenue : A great, old school Italian grocery store and deli.  A chicken parm sub the size of a big baby’s arm.  Folks, delicious doesn’t describe this.  Try: Really or very delicious.  Closer.  Toast the roll next time and lines will be out the door.

Dinner?  Well, after the sub a light meal was in order so I returned to Dinosaur BBQ in nearby Troy for fried green tomatoes, a pulled pork sandwich, a half rack of ribs, and sides of creamy man ‘n’ cheese and collards.  This joint trumps any BBQ in the aforementioned city that is too busy selling $19 hamburgers made of choice beef.

Today it’ll be the redoubtable Jack’s diner for a contender for the world’s best turkey Club.

Oh, Albany, Albany, your treasures yield such bounty!