Summer of Noodles

I just put my three pairs of white jeans into the wash.  Summer is now over.

It was a summer of noodles for me.

I’m not one for eating sandwiches or salads in restaurants.  Each bite is the same as the bite before.

And while Boston now has many very good noodle joints, the salt and fat in the food served in these places makes them a treat rather than go-to.  On top of that, $14-17 a bowl?

So I learned how to make cold noodles at home.  Nothing tastes better in the summer.  The trick is to get great noodles.  There’s a company in California selling terrific noodles; these are about $4 for two servings, and the wonderful H Mart sells them.

I learned how to make cold, spicy noodles using Korean oil flavored with hot peppers.  I learned how to make cold sesame noodles using a Japanese recipe.  I learned how to make cold Sichuan style noodles with tofu, ginger, and shallots.

It was all flavorful, vegetarian, and relatively healthy.

The chief downside is the social isolation.  Few experiences in restaurants are more fun than slurping noodles with others slurping noodles.

Hunkered down in front of my computer and writing about longevity in Japan, and a boy lost in the mountains of Hokkaido?

Cold comfort.

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Yakushima: A Japanese Island You’ve Never Heard Of

Traveling to Japan as often as I do, about three or four times each year, means discovering things.  Whether it’s a Japanese hip-hop club in Tokyo or a hidden whisky bar in Gion, each visit provides new experiences that are eye-opening.

Going outside of the routes of many vistitors is exciting, too.  Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Hiroshima are important places, of course, and offer limitless and deeply memorable experiences.  And it’s great to build on times in these places by going to Hokkaido, Japan’s largest and northernmost island, which was more or less colonized in the nineteenth century with the help of Americans.  A visit can also be rewarding to the region of Kyushu, center of early Christianity in Japan, which is the subject of, “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s new, brutal movie based on the classic Japanese novel by Shūsaku Endō.  (Ironically and tragically, Nagasaki was the capital of Christian life in Japan for centuries.)

But if you want to get way off the beaten track, you ought to head to the island of Yakushima, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been anywhere.  Part of the fun, as always, is getting there, which is easy, but requires a bit of planning.

Yakushima, located off the tip of Satsuma peninsula, in western Japan, can be reached in two ways.

You can take a boat from Kagoshima through the East China Sea.  The Yaku 2 Ferry leaves at 8:30 each morning (though the schedule may vary on time of year).  There is also a jetfoil, called “Toppy” or “Rocket.”  If you have time, the ferry is a cultural experience with tatami rooms, a small noodle bar, and a wide, open deck.  Both boats dock on the northern tip of Yakushima.

If you just want to get there right away, you can fly.  Direct flights are available from Osaka-Itami; return flights go through Kagoshima and land at Haneda in Tokyo.  To get to Yakushima from Tokyo, you go via Kagoshima and change planes for a second flight that takes less than thirty minutes.

The moment a visitor arrives in Yakushima, it’s clear that this place is different from most of Japan.  It’s a tiny airport and a tiny landing strip, and palm trees can be seen as well as ancient, verdant, volcanic mountains nearly 2,000 meters high.  In winter the mountaintops are decked out with crests of snow while below, in subtropical climes, jungle-like conditions exist.  No wonder at all that Yakushima, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is one long and narrow two-lane road circumnavigating Yakushima, and with speed limits of 50 kilometers per hour on open stretches and as little as 20 kilometers deep in the mountains when parts of the road become one lane, driving here is a bit like being in a theme park.

The theme is nature.

The coastal regions provide views of the ocean that are vast and open.  Peaceful blue and gray, the occasional fishing boat or transport carrier.  Just east of Yakushima one can see Tanegashima, which is a long, flat open island that is home to the Japanese space program.  Lining the road are orange orchards, tea farms, bed and breakfasts, farm stands selling fruit and vegetables and sweets, a few cafes, and fewer restaurants.

The base I chose for a week long stay is Sankara: Originally designed in a style more closely associated with Bali, this small hotel has a series of villas divided into halves.  Each half has a sprawling bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, and balcony.  Spread out on well-manicured grounds, the villas surround a main building in which there are a couple of restaurants, one that is French-Japanese, and one that is Italian-Japanese.  There are also a spa, swimming pool, and library.

The library has a small machine in it that dispenses draft beer all day, which is a very good thing.

The food at Sankara is refined, modern, and informed by sophisticated techniques and local ingredients.  So, depending on the season, guests might have mackeral, flying fish, taro flan, or even a bouillon of hibiscus.

The hotel’s sister property, The Castle Hotel and Spa, in Tarrytown, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan, serves as a training ground for the chef so that much of what’s served is as good as it can get in a major urban center.

Yakushima is of course more than good digs, draft beer, and delicious food, and with a rental car, exploring the island is easy.

The Ohkonotaki Waterfall Scenic Forest, along the southwestern coast, with a tiny, one lane road weaving through a thick forest alongside a sea cliff is splendid.  Give yourself plenty of time: The drive is harrowing at points, the road is crowded in areas with families of wild monkeys and very tame deer, and is that a bus coming right at you?  It is.  Better find a place to back up.

Nearby is a remarkable site: The Nagata Lighthouse.  Reachable by a long road, unpaved in parts, the lighthouse has simple grounds and its interior is closed to visitors, but the reason to stop by is to walk just behind it and look out to the string of islands, which stretch south to Okinawa.  One can feel as if it’s the end of the world.

The farms, vistas, wildlife, cliffs, and beaches are all magnificent on this magical, subtropical island.  Japanese like to say that Yakushima is filled with “power” centers that provide spiritual sustenance.

Best of all are the island’s national parks known for their dense cedar forests.  Hiking on Yakushima is first-rate, and it is possible to trek deep into the mountains, coast to coast, without meeting many others.  If you are inclined, however, to take days hiking rather than days and nights, choose one of the parks and plan to spend time wandering.

Yakusugiland is one of the island’s best.  You go up a long, curving road, and as you near the top, great views of the harbor are possible.  Within the park, there are three extremely well-marked trails, which include stone steps and wooden walkways, and take you over ravines on suspension bridges and through mossy and verdant forests with many variations of exqusite green.  Long ago, the cedar here was harvested for shingles of roofs, but nowadays and in recent history, the forests are preserved.  No wonder: These majestic trees, each unique and some with name plaques, tower over hikers and provide a kind of serenity not readily found anywhere else.

And after these hikes, it’s a lot of fun to head towards the port where you can find Cafe Jane.  This is a tiny place where recorded jazz plays, old greats like Dave Brubeck, on a terrific sound system, and locals hang out and sip beer or drink tea.  For 800 Yen, you get a bowl of delicious udon noodles in broth.  Just be prepared to wait a little, and your patience will pay off: It’s made from scratch, each order, start to finish.

Now that’s eye-opening.

 

…fond farewell to the month of July

…and so another July is tossed into the dustbin.  Wet, cold, rainy, humid, a perfect month for writing and reading.

I read about a half dozen books and wrote about fifty pages this month in between naps and runs and walking the dog and tuning out.

Oh, and “Girls.”  A marathon watching of all six seasons.  Addicted to the extraordinary writing and wonderful acting and brave ideas as well as the shallow and narrow-mindedness.  Good riddance to the twenties, defined seemingly, so to speak, by sex and emotion, having little to show, no way of knowing limits.

The food jag has been chiefly Korean and Japanese this month: I learned how to make a very good version of cold sesame noodles and a very good version of cold spicy noodles, too.  Lately I’ve been grilling pork or chicken with a homemade Korean marinade.  I’m guessing this hunger for heat and soy and vinegar is related to time spent away from these flavors in the mountains.

August brings the eclipse.

Taking Stock

We stocked up on spices, and then got a hold of a few wooden spoons.  We brought sharp knives with us, and then, in about ten days’ time, bought a big, red manually operated citrus press, a manually operated coffee mill, a manually operated pressure cooker, and an electric food processor.

The new kitchen was all set.

The stove is electric, and the water safe to drink.

In the cellar, there are large, locked storage areas and along with the three other dwellers of, “Selbsanft,” we are putting down wines.  Heide, Humagne Rouge, and a white Merlot that a fellow named Guido, whom I met ages ago, is bottling.

The ingredients for cooking are extremely fresh, dated to show when they were produced, rather than dated to show when they expire.  Huge fresh garden lettuces, cherries, young cheeses, sole, and so on.

Meanwhile, on the home front, weeks later, new restaurants open.  Tech has come town, big money, so you now see beets as an appetizer for $15 or a plate of pasta with Bolognese sauce for $27.

On the former item, the joint throws in an ingredient no one has heard of, “panteleo,” (raw milk goat’s cheese) so that customers–oh, I mean, “guests,”–feel that the absurd price is somehow worth it.  With the pasta, it’s “traditional’ with “beef short ribs,” and there’s an account mark over the “u” in ragu.

Dinner for two at these places runs about $200, ballpark, so I went to EATALY and bought $200 worth of food, which will be enough for six dinners for two people.  Or: ten pizzas from Pepe’s.

 

 

 

Japan, Multifaceted

Japan is the focus, of course, sort of the flip side of the coin.  On one side is bombast, and on the other is silence.

The latest on Japan will be this, a 200 page book out on 6/23/17, about Japanese ryokan as well as a detailed history of aesthetics: https://www.dropbox.com/s/msuih10na0o88uz/R%26C_JapanBook_v12%20%28full%20hi-res%29_FINAL.pdf?dl=0

In addition, my new piece on Japanese environmental practices is out this month in University of California’s Gastronomica.  Then, too, there is this month my piece on Hoshino’s new urban ryokan in Tokyo: http://robbreport.com/travel/hotels/new-hotel-new-york-capetown-2715163/

Closer to home, it is page 155 in a long “project” inspired by the boy left in the mountains of Hokkaido last summer.

Sons & Daughters of Dunks

Everyone knows that New England is the home of Dunkin’ Donuts.  Well, not everyone, just many people, and especially those who can’t get enough fried dough with lots of sugar.

It all started in 1950, in Quincy, Massachusetts, when Bill Rosenberg opened the very first Dunkin’ Donuts.  Affectionately known among New Englanders as “Dunk’s,” this company has become an enormous franchise with shops all over the planet.

And for good reason.

Delicious doughnuts, great coffee, and a well-trained staff that pours and serves fast.  The coffee is fresh and delicious.  The doughnuts–my favorite is the, “Old Fashioned,” which is a plain doughnut–are always the same, and really satisfying.

The profit margins on doughnuts, by the way, are phenomenal.  Only pizza comes close.  Unlike protein, which has a food cost as high as 33% of the price, the cost to make a doughnut–even a Bavarian creme!–is about 2%.  After all, it’s flour, sugar, eggs, and sugar, and salt, and sugar, and food coloring, and sugar.

So it’s no surprise that the big boon in Boston and everywhere else in the U.S. are doughnut shops and bakeries.  Variety!  Reliability!  And sugar!

Wylie Dufresne, star chef of what was WD-40, a fancy place, just opened a doughnut shop in NYC.  In Boston, in addition to new local doughnut shops, there are numerous bakeries where you can buy a sandwich and a soft drink for  between $15-18.  Good stuff!

So good, in fact, that Panera recently bought Tatte bakery.

And guess who bought Panera?

Krispy Kreme doughnuts!

 

The Merry Month of May

Absconded, captivated, captured, whatever, it’s been nearly a month since making note of what is, was, and will be.

There’s an explanation, there always is, even if it’s that the parallel bars in the window block the view of the prison yard below.

In my case, it’s just been a flurry of effort on what has emerged as an unanticipated work inspired by the lost boy on Hokkaido last summer.  Left in the mountains above Hakodate as punishment for his disobedient act of throwing stones at cars, he survived about a week among bears.

I hadn’t intended to start and stay on this project, it has just taken over a lot of my life.  I love the idea of the boy not fitting in and what it implies about families, communities, schools, and even nations.

Then, too, my piece on the ideology of Japanese cuisine was published a couple of weeks ago in University of California Press’s Gastronomica.   See below.

More immediately, we’re talking naps, reading about the disparagement of Korean communities in Japan historically, the reasons for youth unemployment in Japan, and the regimentation of Japanese high schools.

Hmmm…that’s not quite immediate.

Oh, immediate.  Well, that would be thick spears of white asparagus oven roasted, agnolotti stuffed with cheese, and, for some reason, bowls of good if not pricey ramen at a couple of good joints in town.

GFC1702_01_Haas

RUKA, RUKA, RUKA

What, another great restaurant in Boston?  Huh?  What?  This one is RUKA, a Peruvian-Japanese place, and it’s inside the new Godfrey Hotel on Washington Street, which also houses a George Howell coffee salon.

(That salon sells coffee for $20 to $80 a pound.  Eighty dollars a pound, that’s right.  Howell was the owner of Coffee Connection, long ago, which he sold to Starbucks, long ago, and no one knows more about coffee than him.  The people selling cups of coffee seem to identify with his finesse as their movements and speech suggest that they are selling diamonds rather than coffee.)

So, RUKA.

Preston Miller is the executive chef at RUKA.  The food is a lot liker what’s served at NOBU, which makes sense since both are Peruvian-Japanese in many ways.  NOBU nods more to Japan and has much greater focus and specificity, while here there’s a menu that highlights the chef’s skills.  That makes sense since Miller was the executive chef at The Breslin, April Bloomfield’s terrific place in NYC.

The food is terrific, from fresh noodles to toro to chicken thighs to scallops ceviche to sea bass.  Great textures, beautiful presentations, small plates meant for sharing.

A first-rate menu of sake and cocktails.

Beautiful room that looked a lot like David Rockwell.

It all cost about $90 per person, including everything, and it was well worth it.

Dining in April

The Automat, in Kendall Square, Cambridge, opened in November, but I’d never heard of it before looking for a place to eat on Saturday before going to see and hear Cécile McLorin Salvant at a jazz club in Boston.

The Automat is the perfect restaurant for this town, what with good bowls of chili, chicken wings, mussels in broth, slices of ham, and grilled, hot peppers.  Nothing memorable about it, but it is a refined diner and, bonus, the portions are small and well-priced, and you can share the food.

It’s a lot like another restaurant, Night Market, which is even better and is memorable.  This is the kind of low-key izakaya you find in Shinjuku or East Village.  Delicious, pan-Asian dishes, a really positive vibe, and good digs.  The one thing missing is beer on tap and cocktails, but liquor licenses in Boston are notoriously pricey and sparse, which is another reason why the dining scene in this town is so dismal.

But there’s hope, and these two places are an indication that while lunch around here is second to none, dinners might catch up, though it’s very doubtful.

NYC, Dining, April, 2017

The trend is that equity and higher rents are changing the type of restaurants opening up in town.

Stalwarts are closing.  Prices are going up.  Places are popping up and then closing months later.

You can go high end, lots of places where, for about $800-1200 a couple, you can dine with refinement and complain over dinner about Donald Trump.  Where else is context so removed from reality?

It’s time to stop patronizing these high-end places that collude with the investors who support the regime.  Either that, or quit the lip service, and support the regime.  Who do you think supports these joints?

(Same with low end, like Shake Shack, which is part of an enormous equity fund.  Burger and fries?  You’re paying for the top 1%.)

You can go low end, and for a buck a slice, have a delicious piece of pizza pie.  Great value for the pizzeria because the cost of that slice is about ten cents.

I’ve been going to favorites, and am never disappointed.

Service in Manhattan is especially good, which is refreshing compared to Boston where  front-of-the-house is uniformly dreadful or adequate.

But of course it’s the food where restaurants in NYC excel.

So this weekend it was Via Carota, Yopparai, Ivan Ramen, Cafe Altro Paradiso, Brandy Library, and Schiller’s.

In order: First rate rustic trattoria; delicious hole-in-the-wall sake bar and izakaya; terrific noodles; refined Italian; arguably the best whisky bar in the country; and, a nice, neighborhood American restaurant.