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Shovel Time: The Last Hurrah a.k.a. Goodbye to All That (Food)

I don’t use the word epic lightly. Or at all really. But I made sure to have an amazing, unforgettable food week before I left NYC for good. Even though I wasn’t that hungry or in the mood for cheesecake, I ordered delivery from Cheesecake Factory and ate it in my empty living room, the night after all of my packed possessions (majority of my furniture, which I sold and gave away) were hauled off in a moving truck for a very painful price. I could not eat out the rest of the year and I still wouldn’t come out even. 

I’d written off Le Coucou long ago since they never listed tables for one on Open Table and they don’t do bar seating. But I checked on the off-chance and found a 5:30pm slot available on the day that I had been roped into doing a big work presentation that sucked up a lot of time that I should’ve been devoting to packing and getting my affairs in order. My plan was to do the presentation, cut out early for a bunch of drinks, then go to a fancy solo dinner despite the practice still inducing anxiety even after four years of practice. The presentation ended up getting canceled because I botched a rehearsal, all my work was for naught, so I still ended up day-drinking (at home) but invited one of my few–possibly only– friends who is the rare combination of having disposable income, no food hangups, and will go anywhere on a weeknight despite not even living in “the city,” a phrase I took offense at as a Queens resident in the late ‘90s but had started to use by 2018 as a Queens resident again.

I started with the Bon Voyage (rum, pistachio orgeat, chartreuse verte, lime) which I only see as symbolic now a month after the fact. Goodbye! We ordered the super soft leeks and hazelnuts, quenelle de brochet “Route de Reims” in champagne beurre blanc and topped with caviar, the rabbit presented multiple ways (which I forgot to photograph poorly with my phone) and ended with the flambéed omelette Norvégienne (more pistachio). I’m almost embarrassed to admit I have never eaten a quenelle and never made it to Le Grenouille even though I gave it some serious thought a few years ago. I’m not embarrassed to admit we drank the lowest priced sparkling wine with this meal because who cares.

We were nudged to order more food, but the amount was fine. Also, Le Coucou doesn’t list prices online which is frustrating even if money isn’t an issue. And it didn’t appear to be an issue for anyone–grown children accompanied by parents with very taut facial skin, and tan, impeccable types that only exist as fictional characters here in Portland where grown men wear shorts and polar fleece when fine-dining. That Le Coucou played a minor role in the Anna Delvey tale is telling. 

Then to one of my favorite dark, comfortable bars, Forlini’s, that I accidentally discovered just a few years ago when I needed to go to the bathroom in Chinatown.  It’s kind of a cop and city worker bar because it’s across from the Manhattan Detention Center and near the courthouses, and also filled with regulars that aren’t too young and rambunctious. It was closing for a private party at 8pm so the bartender, who I think is Portuguese, gave us free shots. But he also gave me a free shot on my last visit so he’s likely just congenial. Opposite the bar are booths for two, which always get me.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an equivalent bar in Portland. Most that come close are too divey or too fancy. Forlini’s and Fanelli, both starting with F and ending in I, are dive-like holdouts in neighborhoods that have changed mightily since they were established but they also draw professionals not just blue-collar drinkers. I’ll have to think on this.

I always thought of Hi-Collar as a Japanese coffee shop. It was only recently through Instagram that I saw they became more bar-like in the evening. I missed when they were doing a weekly highball thing (and I was sad that I packed my Suntory pins I got in Kyoto even if it might be dorky to wear them) but wanted to stop by anyway even though I had already reached my Thursday night limit. I ended up with a Japanese stout and a plate of kaarage, followed by a highball containing a whiskey which I can’t remember at all.

This was when the friend and I parted ways and I should’ve gone home but walked roughly ten blocks up from the east village to Molly’s, another bar I like, talking to guys I probably shouldn’t have, then walking 20 more blocks up to Grand Central.

After one month in Portland, I can say that I don’t miss the subway at all, especially having to stand at 2am which is unfathomable to anyone in cities where bars close early and the streets are desolate after 10pm. And I love driving, but it is not so great to have to think about how much you’ve been drinking because you need to drive yourself 20 miles home because your temporary home isn’t even in Portland but you still say Portland because no one has heard of Scappoose.

When I said this was the last hurrah, I meant an ode to my final days in NYC. But it might be this blog’s last hurrah too. That kind of makes me sad, but as I get older I have less time and energy to devote to niche interests and I have other interests I want to pursue that are less saturated by others.

Le Coucou
Forlini’s
Hi-Collar
Molly’s

Duck Duck: Canard and The Decoy

In a matter of 24 hours I ate at two restaurants with duck themes of varying degrees. The two couldn’t be more unlike each other.

Canard is the walk-in casual Le Pigeon offshoot (which I thought Little Bird was but I’ve not been a permanent resident of the city for two decades, so I could be wrong) with small plates and sassy (yeah, sassy) flavor combinations that might not seem like they would work on paper. I stopped in at happy hour but the most appealing items to me weren’t part of that abbreviated menu. The $5 apéritifs with a choice of many liquors from classic Lillet Blanc to local Imbue Petal & Thorn. I chose Imbue Bittersweet.

The uni Texas toast is luscious and rich with crunchy pops from the yuzu tobiko (which I’m not sure now was roe flavored with the citrus or fruit somehow pearlized to resemble roe). A great balance of fat and acid. Honestly, I don’t even know that it needed the avocado but I often think this secretly.

I love steak tartare in all forms. This version reminded me of Estela’s now classic style, which I could’ve swore also was dusted with parmesan wisps (not true). Maybe it was the fish sauce and crunch? I did not expect a plate of butter lettuce. Every component on the menu jumped at me: fish sauce butter, cashews, ok, maybe not the broccoli. It didn’t totally work for me, though. I think this might be better as a shared item interspersed with bites of other things. It was a little bitter when I wanted unctuousness. Like the Texas toast delivered.

I would go back and try the shrimp toast, wings with truffle ranch, the soft serve of the day…lots of stuff.

The Decoy, on the extreme other hand, is a diner-ish dive bar that I always pass on my way to Scappoose. What finally drew me in was the promise of Chinese food that’s often on the marquee.

I didn’t get the story, but I will. The clientele and waitstaff is what you might picture (despite feeling like a small town in the middle of nowhere, Linnton is still Portland as is only a 15-minute drive from the NW hubbub) but there did appear to be a Chinese couple cooking. Did they come first and decide to make Chinese-American food or did someone decide that there needed to be Chinese-American food and found them?

Though you can’t tell from the above photo, the booths were full this Wednesday night and our waitress was being run ragged.

So yes, there are crab puffs a.k.a. rangoon, kung pao chicken, and chow mein on the back page of the menu that is filled with omelets, burgers, and a NY-style pizza section.

The potstickers were doughy in a good way and nicely toasty on the bottom. I can’t not order crab rangoon when I see it on a menu. These fried pockets of cheese came with sweet and sour rather than the sweet chile sauce accompaniment I’m used to at Thai restaurants or the packets of duck sauce, which is probably regional, from Chinese take-out restaurants. Oh, and salt-and-pepper calamari that was just light coated in rice flour and stir-fried with onions and peppers. It practically qualified as health food. I’m not going to talk about that cheeseburger that snuck in.

 

Canard * 734 E. Burnside Ave., Portland, OR

Decoy * 10710 NW St. Helens Rd., Portland, OR

Shovel Time: Huber’s

Huber’s is not yet a dead memory, so there was no need to rush or even feel remiss that I had never been to this restaurant that claims to be the oldest in Portland, born in 1879. I mean, my mom who has been living in Oregon for ages and my grandma who has been here since the late ‘70s (1900s not 1800s) hadn’t been to Huber’s either.

I wasn’t under the impression that food–maybe minus the year-round turkey dinners–was this downtown stalwart’s calling card. The draw is the Spanish coffee, ideally served in the bar room, full of dark wood, framed with arches and lit by curved ceilings with glass inlays. I can’t think of another restaurant in Portland that is such a preserved period piece, and it’s a palate cleanser from all of the aesthetically pleasing white-washed tones, natural fibers, and succulents that blur together.

I had a turkey monte cristo sandwich that was neither here nor there. I do appreciate that monte cristos in Oregon are not served open-faced as they are in New York. 

Tools of the trade, plus a not-so-subtle clue about expected tipping. We all had Spanish coffees made tableside by a seemingly bored gentleman of Eastern European descent. I don’t blame him; performing the flaming ritual over-and-over for visitors with guidebooks probably gets old.

You have to admit flames are fun, though they don’t typically add anything flavor-wise.

The Spanish coffee was grandma-approved.

It appears that purple streaks run in the family.

Huber’s * 411 SW 3rd Ave, Portland, OR 

Shovel Time: Sushi Ya

I had a mid-life epiphany a few years ago, one that I am only coming to terms with now: I don’t actually like writing about how food tastes. Obviously, I care about how food tastes–untasty food is very upsetting–and I have the critical facilities to describe dishes for paid assignments, but I’m more naturally inclined to write about atmosphere or the hows and whys.

And honestly, taste doesn’t appear to be the motivation behind the bulk of mainstream food content anyway. Food blogs are dying a slow death because people prefer pictures over words. Well, also because people like streams of content now, not going to a zillion individual sites, which by the way, RSS feeds did perfectly (I still use them for work and sometimes pleasure). Instagram is where you show off.

Which is why I’ve turned my attention elsewhere. But allow me one last superficial update on my Japan trip that took place a full four months ago.

In 2016, I did my first Tokyo sushi splurge at Sushi Tokami. In 2017, Sushi Ya (sometimes spelled Sushiya, which is just the generic term for a sushi restaurant which makes Googling not easy). These are high-end, not normal every day sushi restaurants, but not the tier where you need to be a regular or have an in to score a reservation. Even so, you can’t make a reservation yourself because Japanese don’t like to deal with foreigners, which would get blowback in the US but somehow adds to the mythos of these specialized restaurants where you’ll easily spend a few hundred dollars per person. Also, many including Sushi Ya don’t even have websites. Good luck trying to call. I tried that at Tokami, got an English-speaker, and was told I would have to go through a hotel. Shrug emoji.

Which is why it was so mind-blowing that a party of four middle-aged women who I’m pretty certain, who were Chinese but not necessarily from mainland China, did everything you’re not supposed to do at these very rule-oriented places. I cringed when one mentioned up front that she “Didn’t want too much raw fish.” Um, in a sushi omakase meal? Then left half-eaten pieces on her plate and talked on her cell phone while sitting at the counter. You’re not even supposed to talk on cell phones on the subway! The chef (Takao Ishiyama) is relatively young, and clearly good-natured, because I was fearful that they would get thrown out. There might have been a bigger problem if there were any Japanese diners present. There weren’t. Only me and my guest and a solo man, Asian but not Japanese. (For some reason, I always assume that non-Japanese Asians in Japanese sushi bars are Singaporean because they are into food that way.) This behavior is one of the reasons why it’s hard for foreigners to get reservations and need to go through concierges as if somehow that vets out boorishiness. Believe me, I tried to use concierges from my fancy Amex and the Park Hyatt (two free nights!) to snag hard-to-get tables. I was told they no longer could help with wagyu paradise, Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara, because foreigners no-showed too many times. 

Anyway, I couldn’t even begin to recall the precise details of all of the courses. That’s the point, right? Below are the notes I quickly typed as the sushi was served. 

Bonito lightly smoked. Super rich and buttery.

Snow crab. Fresh seawater flavor.

Cod milt creamy clam chowdery

Tuna cheek. Rich but tart sauce.

Mackerel.

Botarga with rice cake. Bitter

Monkfish liver with pickles. Amazing. Foie gras.

Sea perch nodoguro

Red snapper firm mild

Wild yellowtail. Citrus tart rice strongly vinegared.

Chu toro medium fatty tuna  

O toro

Mystery tuna

Squid with hit of lime

Shrimp

Kohada shad. Firm. Maybe lightly pickled

? Green pesto Shiso scallion? Aji horse mackerels

 

? Clam?

Eel

Winter melon kampiyo

* * *

Ok, so I don’t see the winter melon and I didn’t even mention the uni or tamago. Clearly, that was an epic parade of sea creatures but I can’t even begin to convey that. That’s fine.

I’ve since eaten sushi at upscale for Queens, Daizen, Sushi Ginza Onodera, and Satsuki (above, fresh because it was just the other night) and I only feel the need to mention those in passing, which is freeing.

Sushi Ya * 1F Yugen Bldg., Chuo 104-006, Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Marco Polo Global Restaurant

I noticed that the Salem Statesman Journal was recently hiring a food writer. I’ve only been to Salem twice in recent history, primarily because it’s sort of a half-way meeting point between Portland and Eugene (where my less-vegetarian-than-she-used-to-be sister and her vegan husband live) so I’m no expert. I would love the job if I could write exclusively about Pietro’s and Sizzler and Marco Polo-type restaurants (and were two decades younger–I’m too elderly for a near-entry level newspaper salary or any newspaper salary).

Marco Polo Global Restaurant is described as having “Chinese, Italian & American menus, plus English-style afternoon high tea.” That’s all you need to know. Good bye. They serve dishes like gluten-free raspberry pistachio chicken, fajitas, samosas, eggplant parmesan, jambalaya, and a full roster of Chinese-American classics.

For what it’s worth, Marco Polo presents as a Chinese restaurant. I think?

I stuck with the Chinese-American side of things and ordered crab rangoon, obviously, and some mildly spicy orange sauced thing that I can’t remember if it was pork or chicken (it was pork). The spring rolls with the ketchup dip with a hot mustard stripe and beef and broccoli weren’t mine. Everything was fine. You could do worse if you had a craving for this type of crispy, heavily sauced Chinese-ish cuisine.

Honestly, I was more enamored by the style of the building than the food, which is peak late ‘70s/early ‘80s NW style. There is also a lot of concrete brutalist municipal architecture in Salem, in stark contrast to all the woodsy facades.

Marco Polo Global Restaurant * 300 Liberty St., Salem, OR

Shovel Time: Kura Sushi

The beauty of being anywhere outside the US on Thanksgiving is that you can avoid turkey because turkey is not good, though I love stuffing, gravy, and all the accoutrements. (Well, they did have outrageously priced frozen turkey at the Carrefour in the Mall of the Emirates.) It’s one of my favorite weeks to travel, plus if you have an office job it’s two days off paid.

There is also beauty in conveyor belt a.k.a. kaiten sushi in Japan because it’s not all horrible. It was perfectly fine to eat pre-made sushi at a chain on Thanksgiving in Kyoto. This particular restaurant, which was walking distance from my Airbnb and next door to the best 99-cent (yen?) store I’ve encountered in Japan (even better than Don Quijote because the aisles were spacious and it wasn’t crowded) already had a wait even though it was early.

99-cent store haul

Most of these places aren’t terribly English-friendly (and when they call your number for a table, you probably won’t know it) but if you have basic sushi knowledge it’s easy to deduce what’s what based on the photos displayed on the laminated menus and touch screen. You can also just grab a container with different colored plastic plates as it goes by. If it’s not to your liking, it’s a pretty cheap mistake.

Bacon sushi might’ve been a mistake

You could also order noodles and cooked dishes but why would you? But then, I’ve taken to ordering fries at these places, so…

Surprises: I didn’t realize shiraki a.k.a. cod milt a.k.a cod semen was so pedestrian that you could pre-make it, send it on its way, and assume someone would pick it, since it’s more of a specialty item here. Also, monkfish liver (ankimo) is a standard offering.

When you push your empty plates down a chute at each table (at first, I was scared to do this because it wasn’t clear that the metal door was for this purpose) a video is triggered for your enjoyment and each color-coded plate is tallied and added to your bill. I guess we put away 17 plates. 

There are hundreds of locations (I had no idea) and even a bunch in California and Texas. There is, however, no cod sperm on the American menus.

Kura Sushi * 440 Ebisucho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan

 

Un-American Activities: Starbucks in Kyoto

Japan has no shortage of high-design Starbucks locations, some where you would have to strain to even see a logo. I’m neither a Starbucks person, nor much of a coffee snob despite growing up in the Pacific NW, the epicenter of second-wave coffee culture. Pre-ground Cafe Bustelo is my morning jam, followed by two cups of watery office coffee of unknown provenance on the days I go to the office.

But I almost always end up at a Starbucks when traveling to other countries. Mostly to gawk at any localized beverages or snacks. I was introduced to an unknown-to-me sweet, lamingtons, little Australian square cakes, frosted, and coated in coconut flakes, at a Starbucks in Hong Kong. I would always get one in the airport (it makes it sound like I regularly hit that airport; I’ve been in and out of it maybe eight times, none in recent history).

So, it was not a leap to seek out the Starbucks in Kyoto that took residence in a Taisho-era teahouse last summer. Even though there is a sign hanging beneath the shingled eaves, it would be easy to miss the Starbucks on the cobblestone path up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in a city lousy with shrines, temples, and Michelin stars. The wood-clad building on the corner blends into the surrounding shops stocked with more pickled things than you could ever imagine being pickled and souvenir cans of Pringles in takoyaki flavor, the octopus balls that are a regional claim to fame. (I am still kicking myself for neither trying takoyaki nor buying these Pringles.)

Look past the Japanese tourists dolled-up in rented kimonos, though, and you’ll see a slate-blue noren with the familiar mermaid marking the entrance, as well as the original racy topless, two-finned logo on an iron lantern that looks as if it has been there for more than a century but could’ve been crafted in 2017.

The interior is dim, understated, with cement floors, wood beams, and neutral tones that lend a spartan quality more aligned with an art gallery than coffee shop. Rock gardens and bamboo fountains occupy outdoor nooks. It’s genuinely a respite from the weaving mobs outside that neither favor walking on the right or the left. I don’t understand this about Japan. Even subway stations would sometimes have arrows indicating to walk on the right, which pleased the rule-lover in me, then sometimes on the left. That’s chaos.

Starbucks has a long history in the country, as it entered Tokyo, its first international market, in 1996. The Seattle-based company has added 1,303 stores since. Kyoto alone has 33.

The newer world’s biggest Starbucks in Shanghai has been grabbing recent attention among the followers of chain-related happenings. That’s all fine for more-is-more China, but they do things a little differently in Japan where hypermodernity clashes with analog traditions. The country clings tightly to phone-only reservations and a preference for cash transactions, inconveniences for digitally reliant foreigners. (Of course, you can pay by app at Starbucks in Japan..)

Upstairs, customers patiently wait on benches for their turn in one of three tatami rooms covered in the traditional straw mats and zabuton cushions for seating. There are friendly reminders to remove your shoes and low shelves to store them. No worries about anyone making off with your footwear–this is Japan, the lost and found capital, after all.

(My travel companion left his iPhone in a cab, and we got it back the next day, only with the help of a Japanese speaking friend who communicated with everyone and filled out the paperwork–did I say they like analog transactions? This amazing turn of events, spurred us to pay it forward the next day when we found a phone dropped on the sidewalk and turned it into a police station on the corner. They had to get an English-speaking translator on the phone to explain we had a right to claim any reward money as well as being reimbursed for travel to turn it in!)

Maybe in other parts of the world you might feel embarrassed for showing interest in an American chain rather than immersing yourself in authenticity, but most Japanese citizens aren’t judgmental like that. No one in Tokyo is ashamed to line up for Shake Shack or overpay for nacho fries at Taco Bell. A few gawkers were taking photos of this 100-year-old-plus structure and young women with expensive SLRs had no problem striking poses or setting up shots of pastel drinks, presumably to share on Instagram, or more likely, Line.

Perhaps not my best photo, but it does capture something essential to my character.

Blessedly, pumpkin spice has not yet infiltrated the autumnal Japanese consciousness (though they are mad for sweet potatoes). Instead, seasonal beverages included Grapy Grape and Tea Jelly Frappuccino with blobs of gelatinous black tea and sliced grapes bobbing around, Hojicha Cream Frappuccino, made from the roasted green tea, and a Christmas colored Candy Pistachio Frappuccino sprinkled with raspberry cookie crumbles. This nutty beverage might be the only treat in Japan of that pale green hue not flavored with matcha. No surprise, the glass case at the counter is a sea of green tea scones, pound cake, and doughnuts. There is no Thanksgiving buffer outside of North America so songs like “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride,” reworked by The Platters and Earth, Wind & Fire were on rotation the fourth Thursday in November.

Un-American quirks abound, like the advertised existence of a smaller size than “tall.” It is called “short.” There are tiny thimble-sized plastic containers of milk, no self-serve pitchers, and no almond or coconut pseudo-milks (soy milk is 50 yen extra). Perhaps the most un-American thing about the Kyoto Starbucks, though, was the clientele. Westerners made up fewer than half of the customers and I didn’t hear one familiar accent.

Starbucks * 349 Masuyacho Kodaiji Minamimondori Shimokawara Higashi Irushiigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan

Shovel Time: Matasaburo

I was thinking Kobe beef might be a better thing to eat in Osaka than Tokyo since Kobe and Osaka are geographically close to each other, though I don’t know if that’s true. It might be like how I assumed there would be good Thai food in Malaysia since those two countries share a border and was sorely disappointed.

I was really tempted to try Steak Misono because it’s the original teppanyaki restaurant a.k.a. The O.G. Benihana. It originated in Kobe but is now a chain, so I thought better of overpaying for something potentially gimmicky and touristy. Also, wagyu sandwiches seem to be all the rage. Well, at least they were a few years ago and now this $180 nonsense is washing up in America. I’m curious but not that curious.

Anyway, I ended up choosing a modern yakiniku style restaurant, partially because its tagline was so irresistible: “The Beef Wonderland.” Also, you could make online reservations, an anomaly in Japan, as long as you could decipher the Google translated text.

You can order a la carte but I didn’t trust myself to pick the optimal cuts (plus, my dining companion isn’t as enamored with tongues and intestines, “horumon” in Japanese,  as I am) and I have an awful time mentally converting grams to ounces and an afraid of getting charged like $100 for a petite piece of meat, so I went with a set meal.

The show piece is dry-aged Kuroge wagyu (there is also Tosa-Akaushi, a brown cow from Koshi) which is cooked for you on the charcoal grill. The marbled piece of meat gets tended to periodically, turned, placed closer and farther from the flame, and strategically covered in foil.

I was kind of overwhelmed by the whole meal (and was spatting off and on–no, not about offal). Strangely, the meat was just a fleeting memory. I should have parsed the flavor and savored it more.

Meanwhile, other dishes are presented like wagyu tartare on toast and boiled peanuts, which I had no idea was a Japanese thing. Oh, plus smaller cuts of beef we got to grill ourselves.

The savory portion of the meal is finished with curry rice, which seemed odd as that’s a substantial dish, but was odder when we were warned it was spicy. Nothing in Japan is truly spicy so I mentally called bullshit. It really was spicy, though!

This is the point I would split a dessert if I had to but probably wouldn’t order one at all. They thought I was nuts saying we could share one, so I picked an eclair even though I wanted the sundae I had seen brought to many tables. The dining companion ordered it and turned out to not be a sundae at all. The parfait glass contained a god damn fruit pile (and soft serve). Fruit is not a dessert and there is no such thing as nature’s candy!

Matasaburo * 2 Chome-13-13 Nagai, Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka, Japan

I Do(nut): Avocado Appropriation

In a word: No!

 

Tag someone who should propose like this #valentinesday #2018 #avobox #vegan #proposal #💍 #avocadoproposal

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Shovel Time: Menkuikinya

Everyone–at least Americans–seem ramen-crazy. I like ramen, but I might like udon more. Soba? I could take it or leave it. So, I tracked down this counter that was walking-distance from one of the gazillion temples in Kyoto.

 

 Even though it was prime lunch time, there were two open spots at the far end of the counter, which was great but not so great for fat-asses sucking-in and shuffling sideways between the open foot of space between the customers’ backs and the coats hanging on the wall. (I felt better when I Google-translated some Japanese-and-Korean-language reviews that made reference to the narrow space.) I do like that there are always coat hooks in restaurants in Japan, though. 

I just ordered a simple kitsune udon because I love the sweetness of the broth and eggy texture to the big flat sponge of tofu. But the thing here, apparently, was udon with a big tuft of tempura green onion. It was a total Kyoto-style Bloomin’ Onion.

Tending to the noodles


Later on the subway, I thought I was clever for noticing the resemblance to the screens used for draining tempura to shelves for bags (I couldn’t even imagine shelves on the NYC subway). Then I started noticing food-like objects everywhere. The sponge in our Airbnb had a very tamago-like quality.

Who are you calling a baby?

Menkuikinya *112-2 Hakatacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan