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Posts from the ‘Japanese’ Category

International Intrigue: Ikinari Steak NYC vs. Tokyo

 

ikinari steak interior duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

Unlike the first US outpost of Afuri, the Ikinari Steak that popped-up near St. Marks in that international chain mini-district held down by Ippudo and Tim Ho Wan, was almost identical to the one I visited in Shibuya, just swapping Japanese staff for locals. Oh, and also that it was at capacity while the similarly sized Tokyo branch was maybe one-third full also around 6pm on a Friday night. A line started to form at the cutting and weighing counter and a good-natured staff member who was acting as ring-master, shouted a few times, “Stand close to the wall as you can!” which definitely wouldn’t happen in Japan, though no one seemed to mind.

ikinari steak cutting

Four cuts of steak were offered in Japan: rib-eye, tenderloin, US Angus beef sirloin, and Japanese beef sirloin. Hamburg was also an option–hamburg steak is rampant in Japan–but maybe that doesn’t translate to the US. I chose the latter, 200 grams, and the most expensive at 10 yen per gram. The US is also using grams (though they provide a handy conversion table on the menu) and lists rib-eye, filet, sirloin, and a combo of scraps. I went with the cheapest cut, sirloin at 8 cents a gram, also 200 grams.  I paid roughly the same price: $17 in Tokyo and $16 in NYC but clearly the US’s prices are higher. Both are non-tipping restaurants, though, which I love.

ikinari steak duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

You’ll get the same corn on the side, browned garlic and butter on top, and onions underneath, which get great char as they mingle with the juices. This is not dry-aged prime steak, though it’s not quite the Tad’s (r.i.p.) of Japan either. The sirloin was not supermarket steak bland, picking up smoke from the grill, and the little rim of fat adding extra lushness (if you prefer lean, just ask the butcher to remove it). You can add garlicky soy-based “J-sauce,” garlic paste, mustard, and wasabi, which are stationed at the standing tables. I don’t recall that it was recommended you order your steak rare in Japan–there are lots of signs stating this in NYC–I ordered medium rare both times. Rice and salad (radish or green) are extra. I skipped salad this time because I don’t care about roughage, but they are selling bottled dressing at the register so I guess someone likes it.

ikinari steak basket

I also love the foldable baskets for storing your coat and bag, found at Japanese restaurants everywhere, some taking the form of little hammocks adhered to the bottoms of bar stools,  though there was only one allotted for my face-to-face solo standing table, and the gentleman before me had commandeered it. (I’m also in love with the current season of Baskets, just FYI. Louie Anderson is genius as Christine.)

ikinari steak order

You verbally tell the meat cutter what you want here while you brought a little wipe-off card, filled out by a server, to the counter in Japan. This wouldn’t be a bad idea in NYC since I had to repeat myself a few times and with the crowds, the staff has high potential to become overwhelmed. 

They really think of everything.

They really think of everything

ikinari steak facade duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

I did not eat at this Bunkyo branch (there are over 100  locations in Japan) but I only just noticed the same style basket outside with what I assume to be clothing freshener. The East Village facade is more minimal, no menus out front, though there is a photo, out of frame, of the same executive chef.  

I haven’t even mentioned the standing concept yet because it’s not really that weird, though Americans prefer to sit even for tapas. There’s no one rushing you, and you can have your steak re-heated if it gets cold. Of course, it’s not leisurely either, and supposedly the price reflects the high turnover. This also reminds me that the Japanese Michelin-quality standing restaurant that was promised for Manhattan in 2013 never came to fruition. Perhaps the seeming success of Inkinari Steak may pave the way for similar concepts.

Ikinari Steak * 90 E. 10th St., New York, NY

International Intrigue: Afuri Portland

It recently dawned on me that I’ve become a townie.

This development is surprising since I didn’t grow up in a college town or go to school in a college town, which were one and the same, so that label has never had any resonance. But I’ve come to recognize the provincial symptoms: nostalgia for the bad old days, suspicion of the new, disdain for outsiders with seemingly more money than sense.

I wasn’t shocked that a bowl of ramen at the new(ish) Afuri in Portland cost twice as much as in Tokyo because like most modern humans I look at online menus before I dine at restaurants. And I’m not outraged. Objectively, it’s a really good bowl of ramen. I’m not saying it’s not worth $16 (even though Manhattan-priced Ippudo is $15). But food doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and this is as good as any example what’s weird with the New Portland.

Afuri is located in an area that now some like to call the Central Eastside Industrial District, three blocks from dive, My Father’s Place, that I used to call lovingly, “Cum on the Grill,” and just up the street from a friend’s $2,000/month design studio, which will triple in rent in a few short years.

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People in Portland are living in tents like it’s no big thing. Maybe everyone is too stoned to care? (Though the city, because it was traditionally do-goody, has always had a disproportionate amount of homeless.) I vaped nice and legal anxiety-quashing high CBC/low THC weed 75% of the days I was there (I was never a stoner in my youth, which is a feat in the NW) and still think there are way too many dispensaries and billboards advertising cannabis. Even local white bread Franz Bakery (that employed a delivery driver who rear-ended and totaled my parked Chevette in the late ‘90s—I will never forgive them) has cutely illustrated vans now saying “Get Portland Baked.”

Post-college, I lived on $425 a month, which my step-dude leaked to my Oregonian boyfriend a few weeks ago coupled with the advice,”Don’t ever apologize for being working class,” and the year I moved, 1998, I made roughly $14,000, the result of an $11 an hour, full-benefits, part-time (by choice) government job. (Library pages at NYPL in 2017 make $11 an hour.) Twenty years later, and practically no one I know, friends and family, makes over $40,000 a year in Oregon. (Though I haven’t a clue how much clothing design brings in, and I’m aware of an NYC transplant frenemy who earns $70,000, likely a step down salary-wise, and pays $1,800 for a studio apartment.)

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Why should I care? I have a well-paying job, low overhead, no dependents, and most importantly, I don’t even live in Portland. It offends me that studio apartments in my hometown cost more than my mortgage and maintenance in Queens. And yes, Queens is still NYC. It offends me that job searches using “content” as a keyword turn up grocery store clerk positions.

Ok, back to the food. Nomad.PDX just morphed from pop-up to permanency with a $160 tasting menu, which Eater defended thusly “But remember, 20 courses for $160 is still peanuts when compared with most prices in other cities.” Not really. Sure, I wouldn’t even give it a thought in NYC. I still think that’s aggressive pricing in Portland. I once let my guard down and tried the $125 Nodoguro “Hardcore Omakase” and I can’t remember anything about it. Everyone I’ve encountered in the restaurant industry is nice, the staff are always very earnest, but there’s a lot of pretense. I almost laughed at a recent dinner when a server asked if I wanted the short or long explanation of the Venica “Talis” Pinot Bianco he was pairing with the mushroom larb. Short, please. And for what it’s worth, the $80 tasting at Langbaan is a great value.

afuri-trio

Tokyo style

 

Ok, now back to Afuri. The Portland branch shares the ramen in common with the Tokyo original but that’s where all resemblances end. Afuri, at least in Harajuku, isn’t a hole in the wall. There’s an upscale feel but there are only counter seats, you place your order by feeding change to a vending machine and handing the ticket to the host/cook, and there’s very little to contemplate beyond ramen or tsukemen.

afuri dining

The Portland restaurant is vast, with a separate bar, counter seating, and at least twenty tables, freestanding and along the wall of windows. There was more than one party that consisted of grown children accompanied by confused parents, very similar to Williamsburg. There is a wine list, cocktails, the menu has a callout box featuring five ramen on the upper right side, and the rest is devoted to hot and cold appetizers, robata offerings (St. Helens Farm beef tongue, Jacobsen salt, black pepper, scallion, sesame oil, lemon, anyone?) and sushi and sashimi. It would almost make sense for the US restaurant to use that strange SE Asian naming affectation and call it something like Yuzu by Afuri indicating its lineage but broadcasting a different concept.

afuri ramen portland

Same bowl, same ladle spoon, extra metal plate.

 

I wasn’t asked if I wanted the standard chu-yu (chicken oil) in my yuzu ratanmen or the extra oil. It came with a marked sheen on the surface and was definitely heavier than the Japanese version. The magic of Afuri’s ramen is that it is extremely rich and concentrated but still manages to be light. I hate to use the word “clean” to describe food, though I almost felt energized the first time I ate it. This bowl still had the nice citrus tones that complemented the spice, but there was no way I could eat a pancake soufflé afterwards like I did in Tokyo. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed my quick Sunday afternoon meal.

But maybe I wouldn’t have if I lived there. That’s the rub. I’ve been toying with moving back to Portland, I guess for love, but I just can’t justify it when there are scant professional jobs there and my cost of living is less in NYC. I never thought I’d have much in common with rent-stabilized natives of Bushwick, yet now I’ve been gentrified out of my hometown and it’s still kind of a shithole. Keep Portland weird, you guys!

P.S. If rumors are to believed, Afuri is going gangbusters in Portland. A second downtown branch is supposedly already in the works.

Afuri * 923 S.E. 7th Ave., Portland, OR

Shovel Time: Gen Yamamoto

threeshovelI planned to drink at more bars for obsessives (Benfiddich was not terribly far from my apartment but it was too early or closed the days I was nearby) and also ones that had female bartenders (horrible headline warning). That didn’t really pan out. I am glad that I did make it to Gen Yamamoto.

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(I had intended to take the subway there, just off two days in Seoul where I took buses and subways all over with ease, but the multiple train and subway lines from different companies was confounding and at this particular station there wasn’t a map in English so you couldn’t safely choose your end stop. I realize NYC is an anomaly but subways are so easy when it’s not distance-based. Plus, you don’t have to hold on to your ticket to exit. So, we hailed a taxi in desperation and even though he was driving at a respectable speed, it soon became clear we would be late. I was phobic of being tardy in Japan because I know it’s very frowned upon. Hilariously, I was scrolling Google maps in the taxi and I accidentally hit the link to call Gen Yamamoto. I never ever call places, it’s totally anxiety-provoking, so I was surprised that I didn’t hang up. On the spot, I just said I had a reservation at 5:30 and would be five minutes late. I was thanked profusely, and then again in person, and now I wonder if I’ve been living my life wrong all this time. We were five minutes late, but the three other people who shared our reservation all arrived later fyi.)

I naively thought we would order the four-drink $39 omakase, but I hadn’t gotten into the rhythm of Tokyo yet. When you’re seated it’s so peaceful and the bartender takes so much care, it would almost be insulting to not stay for the additional two cocktails. (Also, it’s slightly awkward to leave when there are three other guests that are staying.) There’s a time for slamming a bowl of ramen and another for sipping seasonal cocktails.

gen grid

  • Gooseberry with sparking rice wine
  • Barley sake, Granny Smith, green tea
  • Filtered sake. I wrote “Nihinga pear sweeter 1 month after harvest” but there does not appear to be something called a Nihinga pear. I’m assuming it was a misheard city or region because on the online menu (which has completely changed) each fruit is assigned an origin.
  • Cotswold gin, ginger, yuzu. Everyone seemed to like this the most, because it had more of a kick and was less subtle than the drinks made with sake.
  • Suntory whiskey, water, ume. Yamamoto was a huge Suntory fan, which was interesting. One of the couples from LA asked his favorite whisky, expecting something esoteric. It’s the consistency that he prizes.
  • Roasted sweet potato, milk, chocolate

More on drinking in Tokyo in The Middle Ages.

Gen Yamamoto * 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0045, Japan

Shovel Time: Kurauzo

twoshovelI kind of regret not eating at any yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurants but I feared paying $50 for a few bites of wagyu. Kurauzo couldn’t be more opposite. Because I’d already eaten dinner (never opposed to second dinner/fourth meal on vacation) I was just tagging along with the beau’s jiu jitsu crew, also from Portland, in town for the annual judo Grand Slam (which only coincidentally coincided with my trip). These are paleo-ish folks so meat, no beer, salad substituted for rice.

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You can choose different cuts of steak, by the gram. Hamburg steak with demi-glace, beloved by Japanese (I wasn’t convinced to try it), is also featured. And no one blinks if you get a steak and hamburg combo.

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I had 200 grams of a very meaty, slightly tough cut that I’m struggling to remember (I can’t find any English info online about this place) the name of. I’d not heard of it before, but was swayed by the menu’s claims that it was favored by the Japanese (also that it was like $13). Steaks are accompanied by green beans, corn, potato wedges, and rice, obviously. You can’t not have rice with your meat. A salad course is first. The raised circular spot on the hot cast iron tray is for further grilling your meat.

This restaurant looks like a chain, yet it’s not (it’s so Japanese it doesn’t have a website). There are, however, lots of similar low-cost steak concepts in Tokyo, one which has promised to open in NYC at any moment. More on Ikinari Steak later…

Kurauzo * 4 Chome-1-3 Ueno, 台東区 Tokyo 110-0005, Japan

Shovel Time: Old Imperial Bar

threeshovelOld Imperial Bar along with Suntory Eagle Lounge and others I assumed I’d yet to discover, I thought would make a great, visually dazzling article for some sort of outlet. But of course, this was already done by Monocle nine months earlier. You can gawk at the slideshow even if you’re not a subscriber (I am not).

old imperial grid

On a weekday afternoon, is was all but empty. Just one man who stopped in for coffee, laid a bunch of paperwork on the table, then left in a hurry, and a lone woman drinking a fruity cocktail at the bar.

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It’s assumed if you do wander to the farthest reaches of the mezzanine level, you’re there intentionally. I was given a few architecture volumes with pages marked when I sat down.

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If I’m understanding correctly, the hotel due to earthquakes and disrepair has been built and re-built for over a century, and one iteration was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That version was demolished in 1967 but pieces like the mural in this bar were restored.

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I couldn’t get enough of these menus that looked decades old but clearly had modern prices; $19 for that American Clubhouse Sandwich. Cocktails were Manhattan hotel bar prices.

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I ordered the signature Mt. Fuji (old tom gin, maraschino, lemon and pineapple juice, cream, egg white) even though I knew it would be milder and sweeter than preferred. I had to switch to a martini next, schooling the boyfriend who stopped drinking before he was legal drinking age. He asked “Which drink has the most alcohol for the price?” Well, I wasn’t going to let him order a Long Island Iced Tea in Tokyo.

old imperial panorama

It was a miracle I only smoked one cigarette in Tokyo, and off my apartment’s balcony, because there were so many fitting opportunities. I always want to smoke when I drink, so that’s the power of Wellbutrin. I did at least snag a few matchbooks from this bar.

More on drinking in Tokyo in The Middle Ages.

Old Imperial Bar * 1-1, Uchisaiwaicho 1-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8558

Shovel Time: Hajimeya & Baird Taproom

twoshovelI regret to inform you that I ate no whale, no horse, not even chicken sashimi in Tokyo. I didn’t delve deeply into yakitori esoterica either, though there were opportunities.

hajimeya menu

Oil producing region of chicken coccyx?

Hajimeya I do love Japanese specificity, though, resulting in dozens of subtly different cuts of chicken (hiza nonkotsu/knee cartilage vs. nonkotsu/breast bone cartilage) and pretty much every internal organ up for grabs where we Americans only concern ourselves with thighs, wings, and breasts. Ok, maybe some livers.

hajimeya trio

The most outré cut I sampled was bonjiri a.k.a. chicken butt, partially because I could say guess what? You know the answer. But also because it provided great contrast: chewy fat, singed skin (shio-style, only salted, for purists) and little crunchy bits of cartilage, all irregularly shaped onto a skewer. Above were also tricky-to-eat wings, skin, and cartilage.

I chose Hajimeya because I was a little intimidated by no English, only paper hand-written Japanese menus on the wall izakayas, and I was meeting a friend of a friend who spoke little English, and I hoped to use him as a translator. But as you can see above, menus were available with English translations scrawled on them.

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Shovel Time: Gonpachi

twoshovelYeah, this is the Kill Bill restaurant. The movie wasn’t filmed here, it was just the inspiration. It’s vast, the outside is practically castle-like and it occupies the entire corner of the block. Sushi is served on the second floor, the main level is more of an izakaya.

gonpachi duo

gonpachi quadThe food isn’t really any great shakes. I just stopped in for a few dishes on the early side with no reservations. Sushi, a pizza that I think was on a tortilla and like something you’d make as an after-school snack, but with chile sauce for dipping, giant takoyaki balls in a panko crust rather than the usual batter, and some skewers of yakitori.

I was surprised to see many tables ordering bottles of wine. Also, the six or so chefs scurrying around in the glass-enclosed kitchen were all African and South Asian. Sometimes you forget in Japan, that not everyone is Japanese.

Gonpachi * 106-0031 Tokyo, 港区Nishiazabu, 1−13−11, Japan

 

Shovel Time: Butagumi

threeshovelI didn’t go deep on any particular item of food in Japan. As a first time visitor, I was fine with varied and broad (and ignoring Japanese curry). So, if you’re only to eat one tonkatsu, you have to make it count. There are workhorse breaded pork chops all over the place, where the only choice you’ll probably have to make is rosu (loin) or hire (fillet). Rosu, obviously, because it’s more fatty.

butagumi moon

On the higher end, Tonkatsu Maisen ranks with Butagumi (which yes, does attract a lot of tourist attention because it has an English menu) but I went with the latter because it’s located in a residential neighborhood (a bit of a walk from the nearest subway stop, especially if it’s pouring) in a two-story traditional house. It was cozy, and we were seated next to the crescent moon cut out that you see from the street.

butagumi menu

Rosu on the left, hire on the right.

There are about 30 different breeds of pork–mostly domestic but also Iberico–to choose from. I doubt any one of them would be a clunker. While I marveled at how inexpensive food was in Tokyo, this was not an instance. Prices at dinner (there are lunch specials) for deluxe (set meal) started at around 1,900 yen and went up to 4,500 yen.

butagumi tonkatsu

Lean ryuka-ton from Okinawa in the background, fatty akan pork from Hokkaido for me. You can use the thick, sweet-tart tonkatsu sauce, mustard (kind of a surprise) or just sea salt for extra oomph, though you probably don’t want to drown the pure pork flavor. Of course, the panko crust was greaseless because I came to realize that the Japanese are masters of frying. This chop was definitely rich, but not overwhelmingly so, the portion was just right, and the cabbage salad (self-dressed with miso vinaigrette) balances the fat.

Highlights from the weirdo soundtrack: The piña colada song (yes, I know it’s “Escape”), Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E.’s in Love” (no, I didn’t realize it wasn’t Chucky’s until two minutes ago), and Gordon Lightfoot.

Butagumi * 2 Chome-24-9 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tōkyō-to 106-0031, Japan

Shovel Time: Good Morning Cafe

twoshovelMy only goal was to have breakfast, ideally sweet, walking distance from my apartment. But I didn’t arrive until 11am. L.O. (last order was listed as 10:45am). Lots of menus leave no question as to when french toast is off limits and you have to move to savories.

good morning sendagaya

I chose the set menu of the day (very Spanish akin to menú del dia) and took a chance on a special that was described to me as “cold pork.” These lunches were heftier and more varied than I usually eat, and once again, the prices were lower than in NYC. The pork loin, which I would hesitate to order in the US because it would be lean and dry, wasn’t, and the slices were accompanied by a sensible apple mustard compote and potato salad, but then they had to go add a green salad as well as a cucumber-carrot salad, and a choice of warm bread hunk or rice. Oh, yeah, and a cup of vegetable soup came before this course. All of this was $8.25 and it was a “nice” cafe with acai bowls and red and white wine (and of course, plum wine) from Japan. Notice that the steak in the background came with fries and rice.

good morning sendagaya art

The best bathroom art I saw in two weeks–or maybe ever?

Good Morning Cafe * Sendagaya 1-17-1 Shibuya-ku ,Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Hoshino Coffee

twoshovelAfter a bowl of ramen at Afuri, which was essentially breakfast, I wanted a nice third wave coffee that you’d have to wait at least 10 minutes for. I’d walked past all sorts of tiny, woodsy, Brooklyn-meets-Portland shops, and yet the first cafe I encountered enticed with its homey chain vibe. There was a wait to not be seated in the glassed-off smoking section even though only one table was occupied and no one was smoking (I tried it out, and it was brutal) and by the time we sat down it seemed like we should order something more than coffee.

hoshino chestnut pancake

In Harajuku there appeared to be a mania for this pancake-soufflé hybrid. After we left, I a girl in the crowd holding a sign advertising this delicacy somewhere else. I ordered a single stack (doubles were available too) with chestnut puree and marron glacé because it seemed seasonal and Japanese (by way of their French fetish). Maybe it was because I couldn’t read the menu, but no one warned it would be like a 20-minute+ wait (duh, soufflé). I was worried that they’d forgot about me. I mean, they do totally ignore you unless your push the call button on your table. These were totally the opposite of Denny’s pancakes: so sweet, light, and fluffy like angels (or teens dressed as gothic lolita angels) had whipped them up in the heavens.

hoshino french toast

This was French toast.

hoshino coffee

The cream pitcher was so adorable, I almost wanted to pocket it. In Japan they appeared to portion out cream in smaller servings than we do. At KFC when I ordered an iced coffee, I was given a plastic container about 75% the size of our typical ones.

hoshino plastic food

These were the plastic food items outside the entrance to lure you downstairs.

Hoshino Coffee *  1-23-10 Jinnan, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0041, Japan