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I Do(nut)/Un-American Activities: Dominique Ansel Japan

She said yes! 💍 Honored to be a part of a special moment here at the Bakery, when Allen surprised his girlfriend Sam – not only did she not know he was going to be in Japan, but then he proposed to her with a ring hidden inside our Blossoming Hot Chocolate! Congratulations to Allen and Sam! Wishing you lots of love and hot chocolates for many years to come. #DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #shesaidyes #Omotesando プロポーズ大作戦! フィリピンからお越しのサムさん、何も知らずオーダーした花咲くホットチョコレートから輝くエンゲージリングが💍、そしてフィリピンにいるはずの彼のアレンさんがサプライズ登場!!✨ アレンさん、サムさん本当におめでとうございます㊗️いつまでもお幸せに!#ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #ドミニク #花咲くホットチョコレート #プロポーズ #表参道

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There is nothing un-American about using food in your public marriage proposal. I think it might’ve been one of the tenets our nation was founded on. So, I suppose it’s not that strange for someone to use a Blossoming Hot Chocolate for a “Will you marry me?” vehicle at a Tokyo branch of an NYC bakery helmed by a Frenchman. No idea on the nationality of the betrothed, though I think it’s a safe bet with names like Sam and Allen they are not Japanese.

I’ve never eaten a cronut before but I can’t resist seasonal, localized flavors so I did stop into the Omotesando location and order the November flavor, rose ganache, chestnut jam, even though floral edibles are not my bag. Also, the autumn religieuse, which turned out to be very pumpkin-y, just because it was so pretty.

Mr. Roboto buns, fake tomatoes, and more.

Our Oden Bûche de Noël, just in time for the holiday season here at @DABJapan. It’s inspired by our favorite kinds of oden! 🍢 The “Hampen” at the top is made with cheese cake, the braised egg in the middle is actually caramel with a yuzu mousse “yolk” inside, and the “Chikuwa” oden at the bottom is made with chestnut mousse. Available also as a mini version both @DABJapan Omotesando and Ginza Mitsukoshi.#DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #Omotesando #Ginza #Christmascake 今年も人気のおでんのようなブッシュドノエル🍢 上から、滑らかなチーズケーキで出来た はんぺん に、煮卵 はキャラメルとユズムースで黄身もしっかりと表現されています。そして 一番下の ちくわ はしっとり大人な味わいの栗のムースです🌰 #おでん #ブッシュドノエル 大きいサイズは表参道限定 ミニサイズは表参道、銀座店共に販売しています! 注目のオデンブッシュ、ぜひお試しください。 #ドミニク #ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #表参道 #銀座 #三越 #クリスマスケーキ

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Sadly, there was no trompe-l’œil oden on my visit, though it was cool enough for real oden to make an appearance elsewhere. I wonder how much usage the 🍢 emoji gets outside of non-Japanese world?

Shovel Time: Bar Masuda

I am a planner by nature, leaving little to chance or happenstance on vacations. I mean, I wander, but I often already have places in mind to eat or drink in the area I’m going. I didn’t, however, research drinks in Osaka. No idea why since I had a list of bars for Kyoto, none of which I ended up going to.

While joining the early evening crowds roaming Dotonbori, I did spy an unexpected fat-fetishy hostess bar, La Potcha Potcha, which is the kind of place I wouldn’t try to enter without prior research. Maybe I could write about it? Strangely, one of the only English language articles I found about it was in Vice from a few years back and it made it sound like white guys would be turned away, and definitely no women would be permitted. I don’t know if that’s true, but as a socially anxious lady, I wasn’t bold enough to test it out. I’ll never know if this was a missed opportunity. I’m no gonzo journalist.

But just down the street, there was a stone arch marking a non-flashy bar. It just seemed right, and by accident we stumbled into maybe the best bar in Osaka, Bar Masuda.

It had just opened so we had no problem getting a seat at the long narrow bar. There was a menu, which opened to a page that I think was meant to emphasize the importance of drinking water with your alcohol.

Osaka was the land of dubious drinking claims (though I’m not saying staying hydrated while drinking alcohol is dubious).

The menu also contained lists classic cocktails by primary spirit and Bar Masuda originals. Only titles were in English, ingredients were in Japanese so the so-called classics I’d never heard of like the King’s Valley or Emerald Cooler remained mysteries. Unlike in New York (or Tokyo, though Tokyo is surprisingly less expensive on many counts than NYC) the drinks were completely reasonably priced, many in the $10-$12 range.

There was a leg of what looked like serrano ham on the counter. This was promising.

It turned out to be Kagoshima Black pig, a local specialty, served in slices with cilantro, Japan by way of Spain.

And then I noticed a bunch of enamel pins high on a shelf, one of “Uncle Tory,” the ‘60s-style Suntory mascot, that I had just bought at the Yamazaki Distillery in Kyoto.

The bartenders were also wearing a few Bar Masuda pins on their lapels. I used my Google translate app to ask the young man behind the bar if I could possibly buy one. He went and got Mr. Masuda (son of the original Masuda) himself, silver suit jacket to match his hair, to come over. And just like everyone in Osaka, though we could only communicate in piecemeal English, he was chatty and generous. He reached down under the bar and pulled out a long piece of fabric with pins attached and gave me both that I had been asking about. Normally, this would call for a nice tip but no one even accepts them.

Boiled peanuts. I had no idea this was a thing in Japan.

When the lights dimmed and a pyrotechnic show started at the end of the bar, I was convinced to switch from my simple, well-made martini to a Blue Blazer. 

The drink really isn’t more than a hot toddy with scotch–at least in the US–but this version, a Blue Blazer II, added Grand Marnier and swapped lime for lemon. It is served warm in tin cup, heated by a flame that gets dramatically transferred from one metal mug to another as the liquor is poured from a great height. This is the specialty of the house, and I say it was worth the theatrics.

Bar Masuda * 2 Chome-3-11 Shinsaibashisuji, Osaka, Japan

Shovel Time: Kushikatsuryori Katsu

There are a handful of regional specialties unique to Osaka and environs, takoyaki being the biggest one, which I completely forgot to eat. That’s crazy. I’m also still kicking myself for not buying takoyaki Pringles that every single souvenir shop was selling.

Lesser known (at least to me) is kushikatsu, a.k.a. kushiage, which is kind of tempura on sticks. It’s deep fried meat, seafood, and vegetables, so yeah, the only difference is breadcrumbs in the crust where tempura is more puffy.

This was an accidental pitstop since we were in Osaka station, just wanting a snack, but around 5pm every restaurant was packed wall-to-wall. You’d think as a near-New Yorker I’d be used to squeaking into cramped seating arrangements but Japan takes close quarters to new extremes.

This place, which had no English name (that I have since deduced with 95% accuracy is Kushikatsuryori Katsu, based on many image searches), had open seats. The menu was a little bit confusing (no English, but pictures) so I ended up picking a set meal to split rather than going blindly a la carte, so it was a little pricey (for train station food) but it came with soup, a lot of cabbage and raw sliced vegetables, and a surprise scoop of ice cream at the end. It was also a little fancier than other kushikatsu restaurants I’ve seen online as there is no communal dipping sauce.

 

I have no idea how the chef decided what to place in front of my vs. my travel companion. We just went with it.There was a prawn, a giant stalk of asparagus, ham wrapped around a giant oyster that wasn’t battered at all. The fun is kind of in the dipping sauces like hot mustard and worcestershire-heavy tonkatsu sauce, some which we were advised went with specific skewers.

The star, though, ended up being a seasoned salt that just looked like salt with maybe a grayish hue and scant dark specks. I have no clue what was in it (Googling kushikatsu salt gets you nowhere) but probably MSG because it made everything taste more savory and amazing.

I only spent two days in Osaka, but my impression was that staff, while we couldn’t communicate well, were super friendly, more so than in Tokyo or Kyoto. We ended up with parting gifts at three establishments: chopsticks at a yakitori place, enamel pins at Bar Masuda, and here, the mysterious salt blend. We were talking about it while we ate but I’m fairly certain no one was eavesdropping. Maybe everyone gets salt to take home?

This was a very exciting part of the trip.

Kushikatsuryori Katsu * 1-1-3 Shibata, Kita-ku | B2F Hankyu 3-Bangai, Osaka, Japan

Chains of Love: Ichiran

I used to get excited about foreign chains in NYC but lately I’m more indifferent. Case in point, Ichiran opened right around the time I went to Japan last year for Thanksgiving and I still haven’t checked it out and it’s almost the end of 2017. I don’t want to go to Bushwick to eat overpriced ramen, as in $19, even in a so-called flavor concentration booth. (I’d liken them more to library carrels, which I just spelled “carols” even though I’ve worked in a zillion libraries.)

Bowls of ramen are practically all under $10, even with tip, in Tokyo where novelty comes cheap and with the territory. Ichiran in Tokyo is 24 hours, you buy a ticket from a vending machine with large photo buttons kind of like a cigarette machine (you do remember those?), look for an open seat on the big electronic wall display, then proceed into a hushed room flanked by two rows of stools. You can fill out a card with preferences like degree of noodle doneness, richness of broth, garlic or no garlic, spice level, and extras and add-ins. And of course there is a red button if you want service. 

Each seating space has an individual water dispenser which is amazing. If you order a ramen that comes with a tea egg, it will be presented first in a little dish. At least I don’t think this is an appetizer as much as it looks like one. You will only see hands and lower bodies beneath the screen and once the hands place your order in front of you, they will drop the screen altogether.

As to the ramen, I never have the wherewithal to go nuts with flavor descriptions. I don’t think I’ve yet to encounter a meh bowl of ramen in Japan, and Ichiran’s was better than average. What makes it so? The tonkotsu-style broth is rich and assertive as a pork broth should be, but it’s not overpowering.  There is a balance to the amount of noodles and sliced not-that-fatty pork with just a pop of salt and heat. 

I hate to say that ramen isn’t my first choice unless I’m starving, but it tends to make me feel too stuffed and tired afterwards. I’m sensitive to carbs, though. I’m also not usually a food-sharer–in fact, I’ve been called a “food hoarder,” disparagingly– but I ended up giving some chashu and noodles to my travel companion (you can also fold the wooden walls to make a shared space). I can’t even imagine ordering extra noodles, which you can. I was the only one at group meals (even with super fitness-y women) to order a small rice instead of the standard and was the only one who didn’t finish it.

More to the point/less about my adorable eating habits: I would recommend Ichiran for the full immersive experience if you happen to be in Japan. There are 60+ locations around the country so it’s likely you’ll pass by one.

Ichiran * 3-34-11 B1F Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan 

Unamerican Activities: Taco Bell Japan

 

One of the most recent American fast food (re)entries in Japan is Taco Bell, and there was surprisingly little difference on the Tokyo menu from our standards. I was led to believe there was a localized shrimp and avocado burrito, which I didn’t see, and taco rice. There was beer (though we’re catching up). 

There were loaded fries (Taco Bell Japan are no racists) which I did order, though the nacho cheese was strangely low on flavor. Maybe it just needed more salt.

The biggest difference between the Taco Bells on two continents was price. Two hard shelled tacos, fries, and two Asahis cost over $20. I guess that’s the trade-off for $8 ramen that would go for $15 in NYC. There are no self-serve salsa packets, perhaps because Japanese don’t have spare kitchen drawers to store extra condiments and abhor litter. You have to specify spice level when you order.

A tacocat was posing out front, fortuitously. He (or she–the mane might’ve fooled me) was gone when we left.

P.S. A new Tokyo Taco Bell just opened today!

Taco Bell *  2 Chome-25-14 Dogenzaka, Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Momiji

I’m sure there are exceptions but state capitals tend to be almost non-places and definitely not food destinations. Sacramento? Albany? Salem? Have you ever been curious about sushi Oregon’s capital? Probably not.

Salem is full of lesser regional chains like Izzy’s and Pietro’s, and also a Sizzler. (I can’t believe the only one left in Portland that I was supposed to go to on a Tinder date but ended up going to with my grandma is gone.) I went to the Oregon State Fair earlier and decided to stay the night. Momiji was one of the few places open late on Sunday (until midnight) and I kind of like this level of non-purist sushi: crazy rolls, all-you-can-eat specials, and saloon doors separating a video poker room. A lot of businesses in Salem are low-slung and windowless like they are up to something. 

You don’t even have to wear shoes.

When in Salem one must order the Salem roll, a holy trinity of cream cheese, avocado, and fake crab, fried tempura-style and drizzled with eel sauce. Momiji is the kind of place where you don’t feel guilty for ordering sushi with sweet and creamy sauces, though I still got some unadorned ikura and maguro.

I might’ve guessed that the poke on the appetizer list was just riding the wave of Hawaiian raw fish popularity, though it’s hard to say because I forgot how much of a Hawaiian presence there is in the NW. I’ve heard because many Hawaiians go to the University of Oregon and end up staying. I’ve been to multiple luaus in the 20 months that I’ve been visiting Portland. All that plus tempura was too much food.

Momiji * 4590 Silverton Rd., Salem, Oregon

 

Newborn: Khao Nom

Just around the corner from Khao Kang, in a similar rough wood style that all the new Elmhurst Thai restaurants seem to have adopted, is a newish cafe serving mostly Thai sweets. I don’t think the two businesses are related. (Ok, they are.)

Coconut pudding was a special so I tried an order of two (and I ate most of one before I took a photo). A salty layer of coconut cream hides a pale green gel flavored and colored with pandan. I also bought emerald sticky rice in a banana leaf, just because I love green and pandan might be my favorite natural scent in the world. They also have a short list of savories like curry puffs, salads, and noodles. I didn’t see any khanom bueang a.k.a. Thai tacos (crepes often with a marshmallow-like meringue which can be dressed up sweet or savory) though I think they do those as well.

The to-go packaging is cute, with a strong brand identity and a banana leaf laid inside the cardboard box. Tables inside have little place-markers that instead of names read cheeky words like “badass” or “sexy.” It’s something different, at least.

Khao Nom * 76-20 Woodside Av., Elmhurst, NY

Shovel Time: Khao Kang

I don’t know why I have never written about Khao Kang.  I guess for the simple reason that I never write about anything here anymore. As 2017 starts coming to a close, I can finally admit to myself and the world that I am going to move early next year. I’m manifesting shit as I speak. My amazing Queens food days are numbered (#queens4lyfe became #queens4now) so I might go hard and devote a day to Queens eats for a month. 

Khao Kang is maybe five blocks too far to run out for lunch when I work at home (Google Maps says it’s a 13 minute walk each way) but I’m going to try and remember it more. The concept is simple: you are given a big scoop of rice and can choose two ($8.50) or three dishes ($9) from 10 or presented behind glass to be ladled on the side.

It’s the closest thing to street and market vendors in Thailand with vats of earth-toned curries to choose from. But instead of tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk, it’s more rough wood and dangling lights like a modern Bangkok restaurant.

Choices change daily, as I discovered on my last visit and they didn’t have the sweet crispy pork nuggets that I love. There are descriptions taped on the glass but I just go by what jumps out. On this trip I got a mild, almost Chinese tasting (I can’t pin down why I say that) shrimp and squid curry, yellow with turmeric, a fiery breaded fish and eggplant curry, as well as a dry curry with bamboo shoots and pork (there was a meatless version before). F.Y.I. hot is hot. I have a fairly high threshold for heat and some of these curries–I never know which ones, but always anything with bamboo shoots–are forceful.

Khao Kang * 76-20 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst, NY

International Intrigue: Wagamama

We all have our biases. My ears prick up if I hear word about a Japanese chain coming to NYC, which means my ears have been pricking up a lot lately.

(And as an aside, it’s been a decade ago but I don’t recall that DaDong in Beijing was this upscale. I also doubt they will serve the black sesame sludge for dessert and crab apples with dramatic dry ice vapors rising between them. And because no one reads blogs anymore, I can say here that I’m baffled by the new sensitivity that has emerged surrounding anything derogatory said about food someone didn’t grow up eating, and if it’s not “othering” than it’s it’s liking it too much and being a cultural appropriator. Like Bon Appetit was called out the other day for saying matcha, turmeric, and spirulina tasted like dirt. Dried, powdered turmeric pretty much tastes like dirt, so I guess I’m a racist. Am I allowed to say black sesame pudding looks like sludge?

wagamama squid

UK chains? Not so much. Sure, I checked out YO! Sushi but I was only motivated to visit pan-Asian Wagamama when its newest branch opened recently in the former East Village Japanese convenience store, m2m, and they were giving away free meals to the general public.

The buns were nice, though the pork version was tastier than the beef, which is almost always the case unless you’re at a steakhouse or burger joint. And the fried squid was fine. The dipping sauce did have a little bite. 

wagamama ramen

The “ramens” weren’t so much ramen as noodle soup. And no, I’m not even sure now that I think about it what makes something a ramen. For me, it’s in the broth, and this version with duck was kind of wan and lacked the depth of even a simple shio ramen. At least they included a few fatty shreds of duck meat and skin for extra flavor.

The prices weren’t crazy, the dining room with lots of blonde wood communal tables was spacious for the East Village, and I imagine it will do well close to all of the NYU spillover. But it’s certainly not a destination, especially with all of the Japanese ramen in the neighborhood plus Little Tong, Yuan, and others. 

Wagamama * 55 Third Ave., New York, NY

 

 

International Intrigue: Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya

kizuki facadeRamen is all good and well, of course, though there is something to be said for the journey rather than the main event. Which is to say, there is practically nothing I love more than uncharted suburbs (and stumbling upon US chains abroad) and I’ve realized I miss driving through them. I’ve been away from Portland for nearly 20 years, and in my absence planned communities have sprung up from fields on the outskirts of town and people want to live there. (My first encounter with this boxy sprawl was in 2002 when I met my former library coworker at an Indian restaurant in the still-developing Orenco Station enclave.)

This visit 15 years later, I met a high school friend in a suburban strip mall on the westside because it was close to her office even though we both grew up in an eastside suburb where she still lives in the exact same house with her parents since the 1980s.

cedar hillsFirst, I had to find a Walgreens because I’d ran out of a prescription and ended up in some area called Bethany Village that seemed to consist of one giant earth-toned outdoor shopping center surrounded by new apartments, likely with vessel sinks and carpeted bedrooms. Or is Bethany a neighborhood? I don’t recognize fully half of neighborhood names in the Portland area and they are not inventions that nod to geography like South Slope or BoCoCa. No, they are confident, seemingly historical names like Arbor Lodge, Overlook, and Brentwood-Darlington that  materialized post-millennium and are now accepted as fact by new residents. If someone says a restaurant is in Cully, I have absolutely no idea where that is.

The young white woman who was working at the pharmacy had blue and magenta hair and she complimented me on my wallet, which only now I’m realizing was blue and magenta. I put a plastic bottle of Perrier in my purse and walked out without paying for it like an old shoplifter starved for attention.

To get to Kizuki (formerly Kukai, as it still reads on the facade, Kookai in Japan, but apparently the word means poop in Hawaiian?) my GPS steered me through ‘80s upscale neighborhoods anchored by a country club until I popped out in another development that looked like Bethany Village but without unified branding. These modern strip malls always seem higher-end but on closer examination this one contained a generic grocery store called Market of Choice and a Supercuts (though also a barre studio).

suburban cowboy

 

Even though these developments are meant to evoke small towns, there is no foot traffic, everyone drives. So a craggy man in a cowboy hat, maybe in his 50s, cigarette dangling out his mouth while taking a small dog for a walk seemed wildly out of place. I tried taking a few creepshots but he was too far away to capture all the detail. A woman my age with a grade school daughter glanced at my feet, either admonishing or admiring my grass green Swedish Hasbeens. I shot a glare at the back of her head to psychically signal that she couldn’t judge me because I’m not a Portland mom.

kizuki ramen

 

Will I get to the ramen? Maybe. I’m more ramen enthusiast (udon is more enticing, honestly) than expert. I ordered the gut bomb version, garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen, with a photo in the middle of the menu, larger than the rest, which was pointed out to me when I asked the enthusiastic server what was most popular. I like a rich pork broth, though this was extra oily, with a whole soft-yolked egg, and lean cut of chashu. I’m a slow eater so my big bowls of noodle soup always cool down before I get to the bottom, which makes the fattiness more pronounced. I would try the yuzu shio next time to see how it compares to Afuri’s signature yuzu-spiked version.

I was surprised that my friend said she couldn’t use chopsticks, despite my knowing that Filipinos don’t traditionally use them, and yet unsurprised because there was something very Portland about this, like no matter your heritage or place of birth, each decade spent in Oregon diluted any evidence of being “ethnic” despite your appearance. Some go the other way as adults. I know non-religious black people who became Muslim and changed their names and Jews who I didn’t even know were Jewish move to the Upper West Side and become orthodox. But more typical are minorities who support Trump, which I discovered when I accepted a Facebook request from a middle school friend.

Upon arrival, I got the no seating incomplete parties story, which is unusual for the area, particularly since the restaurant was nearly empty. We overstayed our visit, lingering at our table for two that was blocked by a wall from the main dining room, and as we left, I noticed the restaurant was full with people waiting not just in the lobby but outside as well. Clearly, the suburban ramen chain has an audience.

Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya * 11830 NW Cedar Falls Dr, Portland, OR