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Posts from the ‘Asia’ Category

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

Un-American Activities: McDonald’s Japan EBI Filet-O

 

I’m not one of those McDonald’s nuts who has to pay a visit in any city, but it was late and the Marriott I was staying at for two nights in Osaka had a skybridge attached to the train station  with a McDonald’s on the other end that happened to be still open right as I was heading home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

And the EBI Filet-O a.k.a. shrimp burger seemed to highlight the differences between American and Japanese tastes best. It’’s a classic, always on the menu, not a limited edition. Shrimp is a perfectly fine thing to make a patty out of, though this is more like a flattened croquette, crusted in panko and fried. The sauce was kind of tartar and kind of thousand island. For some reason in Japan, fried food doesn’t seem like an unhealthy choice.

These cheesy potato puffs, a.k.a. American Cheddar Potato, were part of an “American Deluxe” promotion. Less like tater tots, these were mashed potato mixed with cheese and fried. Yes, like another croquette.

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: Mingles

threeshovel So, I didn’t end up eating any traditional food in Seoul but that’s not to say I avoided Korean cuisine altogether. I just went a little fancy with it. Mingles, though, is the funniest name for a restaurant freshly Michelin starred, South Korea’s first inclusion in the guide. It screams swinging singles a la Regal Beagle, and also makes me think of Mumbles, a fern bar-ish restaurant that was in Gramercy up until a year ago. Put those thoughts out of your head, though.

mingles interior

I didn’t have any urge to try a tasting menu type restaurant in Tokyo, but somehow it made sense in Seoul because it’s so modern and glitzy and status-y. I did a prix-fixe lunch, a pretty good value at 58,000 won ($50) even with multiple supplements. I went wild and added the 50,000 won beverage pairing because it was Thanksgiving and as the lone American I felt it necessary.

mingles menu

 

What follows isn’t going to be insightful at all. The menu descriptions are minimal and my server verbally explained things to me like “baby pine tree sprouts,” so I had no idea what the original Korean words are for a lot of the ingredients. Sometimes I asked, but my notes are not helpful as I typed what I thought I heard i.e. “choeksak” which turned up zero hits on Google.

mingles amuses

Amuses: omija kombucha, smoked eel, and fish cake with a mustard sauce. A lot of appreciation depends on your familiarity with Korean ingredients. Omija is “five-flavor berry” and commonly used in a tea. The corn and egg curd also contained cauliflower in the custard and chorizo hidden at the bottom of the shell.

mingles fish

The fish dish of the day was eel with sansho vinegar jelly. At least I did know that sansho is a Sichuan peppercorn relative.

mingles salad

Foie gras salad, described as autumn fruits and vegetables, herbs with a foie gras torchon and lobster. I do not know any of the fruits, vegetables, or herbs. I want to say there was a slight cherry flavor.

mingles duck

I chose the dry-aged duck as my main course because it was the only poultry, hence closest to turkey (which is always meh anyway). It was not totally un-Thanksgiving-like with a little dish of chestnut cream. Also, garlic leaves and that something that I noted as “choeksak.”

mingles tart

The autumn dessert was a fermented pineapple tart with “doen jang” chestnut, which I think is a fermented bean paste using chestnuts, and “makgeolli” ice cream. I’m not sure if the quotes around makgeolli meant that it was flavored with rice wine or something to mimic the effect.

mingles tea

There were a choice of teas (I guess technically tissanes) and I picked Jerusalem artichoke tea. Mignardises were chestnut choux and grape jello. It was a good thing that I love chestnuts.

mingles drinks

A sochu made with “baby pine tree sprouts.” Thankfully, it was not piney at all, more bready and yeasty. Also, a 2004 Australian Chardonnay and 2014 Chinon.

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Ok, if I ever return to South Korea I swear I’ll eat bibimbap (I did get that on Korean Air) and bbq and my favorite Korean thing ever, ddukboki.

Mingles * 94-9 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: 48 Hours in Seoul

gontran cherrier duoGontran Cherrier This lovely matcha almond croissant prompted a Facebook friend to comment “Aren’t there any local delicacies you could eat?” Uh, no. Well, French pastry is practically Korean. Hello, Paris Baguette? I didn’t set out to eat absolutely no traditional Korean food (though I intentionally stayed in Itaewon, which has a lot of American and international influence) but traditional Korean food is extremely unfriendly to solo diners. The restaurant culture is super communal, social, and family-style, barring fast food and street food. I’d read stories of people being turned away at bbq joints even if they promised to order portions fit for two. Tokyo, was totally the opposite, thankfully.

pancake house

I almost went to the Original Pancake House instead of Gontran Cherrier, just because it felt like my duty as a native Oregonian. Yes, the original Original Pancake House is headquartered in Portland.

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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