I’m not saying there’s nothing to eat in Boston. There’s plenty. Got a hankering for burgers, pizza, wings, fried food that’s bastardized from an array of Asian cuisines? You are all set. Eager for pig’s ears, fried rabbit, tails, squid, and the cheapest fish this side of tilapia? Pull up a chair. Celebrating? Why, dinner for two at mislabeled “French,” “Italian,” or “Japanese” joints can run you easily and routinely no less than $300 per couple.
Whew. Glad I got that off my chest.
Seriously. Ask around in the hospitality industry both in the city and elsewhere and they’ll tell you the same thing.
Take last night. Please.
It’s 7 P.M. I’m hungry. Long day dodging piles of snow and plows. Looks like there’s nothing in the house to eat. I check out delivery sites on the web. The best bets are Soul Fire (Allston) and Felipe’s (Harvard Square). Both are actually terrific restaurants. But, gee, I don’t know, do you feel like having pork ribs, delicious though they are, or tacos, flavorful as can be?
So then we do we go out? Night Market is wonderful. And so is Giulia. But that wonderful on a night when the temp is under 20F?
The spa diet is on hand: I find two waygu-style burgers in the freezer I’d ordered in December from DeBragga. There is a bag of baby Yukon’s in the fridge. A sliver of Emmental. And miracle of miracles! The last two sesame seed buns from Martin’s!
Now that’s something to eat.
Contradictions aren’t really contradictions, there’s no science or nature to suggest that events which seem to be at odds with one another are really at odds. It could very well be that it’s the anecdotal experience or perception which makes for discordance. In other words: Things actually fit together. There is affiliation between what appear to be opposites.
Pragmatically, we’re talking about:
A thin slice of fried tofu I brought back from my friend Mika’s favorite tofu “factory,” in Kyoto–the factory is a hole-in-a-wall beside the Kamo river. She recommended I place it on a hot skillet to crisp it. She was right. Served up with a tiny dish of soy and powdered spices, including powdered yuzu, and sake from Niigata. In front of a blazing fire.
A large fresh mozzarella pie, half sausage, with a cold Lagunitas “Little Sumpin,'” so strong and bitter I could only finish half a glass.
And, finally, dried Blenheim’s with chocolate squares from Japan chased by a sip of Nikka Yoichi 15 year old–has to be the best whisky I have ever tasted.
Am I in Japan? New England? Italy? Home? Visiting?
The eleven hour flight on ANA from Narita to JFK flew by. It felt more like eight or nine hours.
As the carrier is Japanese, most passengers were as well, which meant that it was quiet enough to sleep a lot of the way. The seats reclined in Economy, the attendants were pleasant, and with spice I carried with me from Japan, the food was fine. I read Kawabata and edited my new book. I fell into a deep sleep about thirty minutes before landing.
I’m now in the US Airways lounge in transit to Boston. The flight is in two hours. The noise everywhere is louder than the past two days. In the lounge are apples, oranges, coffee, tea, water, and two kinds of bagels, raisin and plain.
People speak loudly into cell phones without regard for others around them: “Hey, Bruce. That thing. That thing last week. One of the values must be low somewhere. It’s no problem, but I just thought someone should see about it. OK, not a problem. I just thought someone should look into it, etc.”
This feels like eleven hours.
On the final morning of this latest whirlwind visit, I’m thinking of when I will return and hope that it is no later than June. Then perhaps it will be time to visit farmers in Hokkaido and Noto Peninsula and friends here in Tokyo and other prefectures.
But before I return for the 16th visit, isn’t it time to improve upon my Japanese? I can order a meal, negotiate a sale, ask directions, and feel the comfort which precedes listening to a foreign language. Time to build on these rudiments.
Yesterday I shopped for gifts and an “eki-ben” for the plane ride home. Settled on yakitori for the latter: Momo negima, tsukene, kawa.
Later that same day met up with Yumi and she was kind enough to be my interpreter for an extremely informative meeting with the managing director of Japan’s Professional Cheese Association. Wait and see if the Japanese cheese industry doesn’t grow and surpass expectations.
That night the GM of a well known hotel invited me to a private dinner.
Soon it will be back to reality. But at least I will have the 15 year old Nikka I bought yesterday to help inspire recollections.
The city is obscured this morning, but not so hidden as to be unseen. The day ahead is promising. I am meeting with a person to talk about hotels. I am meeting with the head of Japan’s Cheese Association: What do you suppose we will talk about? Could it be cheese?
I arrived back in the city late yesterday afternoon and returned to the same room where I started this trip. The afternoon was spent editing; the evening was with friends Rie and Robb at Pirouette in Toranomon Hills.
Toranomon Hills is modern complex of offices, shops, and retail that opened last year.
The restaurant is French in style with Japanese ingredients and preparation, and it is very good. Think marinated beef cheeks in miso and then slow braised for hours. But above all it was vegetables that were important: The young chef, a charming guy, grew up on a farm and it shows in his menu. Really delicious food.
Tokyo is always surprising as well as familiar. Quite like the city physically now due to the fog.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?