Looking Ahead: Spring Dining

It’s true, spring is here or nearly or burgeoning.  First sign: That skunk on Sunday night, unseen, but apparent in front of the house.  Then birds tweeting all week at dawn.  Yesterday?  One of the dogs stopped cold, put on the brakes, mid-walk to look up.  I looked up.  Couldn’t see what had grabbed his attention and then I did.

A huge, beautiful hawk maybe one hundred feet above us, wings outspread, patrolling and riding the wind currents.

On a base, culinary level: The estimable Oregon mushroom folks (www.oregonmushrooms.com) posted on FB this week sighting of morels.  At New Deal fish: Shad roe for sale.


Popular Mechanics & How To Be A Great Chef At Home

Back in the day, when I was a kid, the guys–the fathers, uncles, neighbors–all had workshops in their homes.  Filled with power tools, nuts and bolts, screws and nails, plywood, hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, vises, and all sorts of equipment, the workshops were not just a retreat from the intimacy of the bedroom and kitchen, but a legacy from  the recent world war and the war in Korea.

The men had the notion  that they could and that it was their responsibility to fix things, make things work, make chairs, tables, benches, and so on.  Having coming from the military just recently, the premise was that men could soldier on.  They knew how to make things work.

Nowadays, Popular Mechanics, a magazine found in many homes back then, is replaced by cookbooks and recipes cut from magazines or newspapers and downloaded from the Internet.  People actually think or believe that the dish they are reading about–and may never have tasted in a restaurant or from a cook who was trained for years–is something they can make at home.

That thought or belief is a legacy of years of both unemployment, excess, self indulgence, and decades of being told, for the affluent, that they are precious and gifted and can do anything.  The audience for the home cook who aspires to be a chef are generations of the special.

But watch out because when the hammer comes down on the thumb, it hurts.

Better to learn to make a good omelet.

The Japanese Diet

The Japanese Diet.  As if there is one diet.  Well, they call the parliament there the Diet, but is that really what we mean?

Sure, the older generation in the rural and small town areas of Japan used to thrive on local vegetables, kelp, fish, shellfish, seasonal fruits, noodles, and rice. But as far back as the Taisho period (starting in 1879, ending in 1926), the city folk have enjoyed all the of the above, but sought to add Chinese and western components to the diet.

These days more people in Japan, under the age of forty, eat more potatoes than rice, drink more wine and hard liquor than sake, eat more pizza and pasta and processed food than eel or sushi.  Processed food is what is commonplace is most homes.

There’s a romantic view of Japan held by many unfamiliar with its shifts, and the sense by some outsiders writing about the food there is comparable to goofballs going to India in search of enlightenment when the Indians dream instead of engineering models and biochemistry.

I’m not saying there isn’t beautiful food: Ishikawa holds bounty, Tokyo startles with tastes, Kyoto is a delicious city, Hokkaido marvels, etc.

I still cook soba, love yakitori, crave raw fish, and carry home with me a pound of rice and powdery, numbing Japanese pepper, but the world is changing…

Mada mada, Tokyo…

Well, I don’t know about you, but two weeks in Japan feels like a very long time indeed.  So much to absorb, inhale, take in, and observe even on this, my twelfth visit in about as many years.  From the 45th Floor here at Park Hyatt Tokyo, the view combines sprawl and order, the natural beauty of a distant mountain range and the gray and white, tomblike architecture of the city itself.

Tempting to go for a walk before the long haul home today, but Shinjuku (new village) is a neighborhood of government buildings and office buildings.  A few side streets of local shops, a street of fugu restaurants.

Yesterday, I went with the executive chef of Park Hyatt to OTA market: the center of all the produce for Tokyo.  Just past dawn, the auctions over, we walked and took an electric cart through the football stadium sized building and then to small, cement house-like structures where retail is available.  Some of the retail areas specialize in just a few ingredients.

We saw the first signs of spring (haru): Mountain vegetables, asparagus, and gigantic turnips.

I was given a musk melon (meron), pale green inside, that turned out to be the best, juiciest I’ve ever had.

Hibiki, on the rocks, red lights twinkling.


The Japanese Chefs Weigh In

Yesterday began with a long interview with a renowned sushi chef @ SORA, his place, on the 38th floor of Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo.  Precise cutting and focus as he spoke about the seasonality of his work in view of the city stretching out languorously below.  Sora means sky in Japanese.  The decor was stark and black and gray of his digs.

Then it was a second interview with Chef Ooe, whom I’ve known many years, at KOZUE, his kaiseki place embedded within Park Hyatt.  The chef had prepared and written lengthy, detailed, and fascinating responses to my questions about seasonality.

Both chefs emphasized the long standing spiritual links between modern cuisine and ninth century traditions.  Earlier in the week, I’d wondered if these conversations could take place with Western chefs regarding religiosity and cooking, and, sure, they could.  The implication in the West is that the chef is above nature while here, traditionally, the chef is part of it.

Much later, it was a full house @ NY Grill at the formidable Park Hyatt, and now, within twenty minutes, I’m off to Ohta, Tokyo’s fruit and vegetable market, with Park Hyatt’s executive chef.  We’re searching for seasonal produce.

What Are People Eating in Tokyo?

Ramen here is the equivalent of hot dogs in the States: Cheap, fast, and high enough in fat and salt to be satisfying.

Unagi, freshwater eel, is cheap, if it is raised in China, and pricy, if grown on farms in Japan.

Along with tempura, tonkatsu (fried pork), udon, soba, and sushi, the food in Japan is varied and often delicious.

But, folks?  That’s not the trend among those in their twenties and thirties.

They don’t want the food, formality, and drinks of their fathers.  Not every day, anyway.

Sake sales are declining, old school restaurants are half full.

The big things here are pizza and craft beers.

The pizza is deeply flavorful and you see places all over Tokyo.  Many use tomatoes, cheese, and olive oil from Japan.

And the craft beer holes in the wall–IPAs, etc.–are popping up.

That’s the future.

Meanwhile, you have DEN, a two star Michelin, where Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, the self-described son of a geisha, dazzles with surprising and very precise dishes, served in a series and omakase style, from kamo foie gras with dried passion fruit to snapping turtle soup to a fried chicken wing stuffed with pine nuts and rice to buri-daikon to Spanish mackerel with dehydrated cabbage to a dessert of moss and sweet cream.

Sausage and cheese or pepperoni?




Sky High in Tokyo

The view facing NW from the 31st Floor of Park Hotel in Shiodome is of the red radio tower and skyscrapers in every direction, and although the harbor is behind me, I can see in the distance a vague, dinosaur like shape, which must be Fuji.

Arriving late in the afternoon from Kyoto on the efficient Shinkansen, it was a dash to the hotel in order to interview the head chef as well as the head bartender.  Both were extremely informative, the former more than the latter (who sported a great Elvis-like coif), and of course I learned a lot.  Chiefly, the broths in Tokyo don’t use kombu from Hokkaido and instead rely upon small fish, seasonality is practically a religion, the rules of kaiseki are well defined, and the chefs share knowledge as a virtual guild.

Below the roar of JR trains.

Last night I went to the 7th Floor of the old Maranuchi Building across from Tokyo Station.  Filled with chic restaurants.  OK, it’s not the most memorable food, but I have to say that my Italian-accented meal with Heartland beer at Rigoletto in a crowd of the seemingly happy, well-heeled young was a nice antidote to the seriousness of dining that I’ve been participating in the past couple of weeks.

After all, restaurants are not just about the food.

Kyoto in Winter

Riding a bike throughout the city yesterday meant access was granted to a wider swath than the downtown area and Gion that I know pretty well.  So it was a temple compound far from the ones on the hill and then later an old, private garden designed in the 1890s.

Also: A thick broth with udon and grated ginger.  For $8.50!  So delicious and served in a lovely setting.

A visit to a spice shop where the owner grinds spices by hand and creates a range.  For $17, I had two spices and two, little wooden dispensers.

In the evening, it was yakitori at a joint playing spools of Beatles music, from the band’s beginning to its break-up, and after that a return to a hidden Irish bar in Gion.

Snow is expected east of here tomorrow, but by that time I should be safe in Tokyo, which is where I’m headed around noon today.


Kyoto, after the temples

It’s my third visit to Kyoto, first in winter.  Snowstorms NW of Tokyo forced the cancellation of my visit to a property in Karuizawa so I will remain here longer than planned, and show up in Tokyo a day earlier.

Yesterday was made up mostly of one long interview with a chef who taught me about the Zen principles behind Japanese gastronomy.  Fascinating stuff, and right up my alley in terms of a longer project than the article I am writing about the role of seasonality in cooking here.

Later, a friend from Tokyo added insight to my thinking on the question: How can people be sad if the food is satisfying?  If the food is based on Zen principles that are meant to create harmony, and if the food succeeds, where is the harmony?

He said that people who do eat well in Japan are not as miserable as those who do not.  I’m meeting with a Japanese doctor later this year who believes the same.

But I have my doubts.

Mind, what kaiseki cuisine–multiple courses–or washoku–pre-Western–tells us is that it’s not just about the food, but its presentation and timing.  Plus, so much of Japanese dining has to do with textures and temperatures, which require concentration to appreciate fully.

But I have my doubts.  Because where is the harmony (wa) in Japan?

Of course, those doubts are what makes this longer project so potentially funny and interesting.

Meanwhile, more pragmatically, last night it was a long walk to a wonderful, hip craft beer joint loaded with IPAs and later, across the bridge, a visit to a great yakitori joint where the tsukune were first-rate.



The Japan Notebooks: Wa, Wa, Wa

Just after dawn in Kyoto.  Turns out I know the city pretty well having rented a small, old “tea house” in Gion over the summer of 2012.  It’s one of the best walking cites in the world, and yesterday we did just that.

The Nishiki market, for example, with its array of fish, shellfish, fruit, vegetables, tofu and yuba, and kitchen supplies.  People were unusually outgoing and friendly, which was a pleasant surprise.

En route, we stopped at one of the city’s old, finest rice cracker shops.  And we walked by a “cat cafe” where people sit and have coffee or tea while cats are “rented” to be stroked by them.  What a concept.

Lunch was a classic soba joint: Beautiful buckwheat noodles, slices of duck, and cold draft beers.

That afternoon and evening I had long interviews with two chefs about the philosophy behind the seasonal and ingredient driven cuisines of Japan.  I found myself wondering: If the food is so exemplary, and the aesthetic so refined, why are there such high rates of sadness here?  And: Is there a relationship between sadness and dissatisfaction?  Can one be sad and still be satisfied?