Skip to content

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

 

Shovel Time: Sushi Tokami

fourshovelThis was not a sushi-splurging vacation (especially since I was spotting my boyfriend–yes, I’ve entered the future Judge Judy litigant stage of the relationship).  But it would be a shame to travel to Tokyo and not experience stellar sushi.

Saito, Sawada, Sukiyabashi Jiro, and that ilk was out of the question. I wavered among the second still-celebrated tier: Sushiya, Sushi Iwa, or Tokami. Lunch at all those three were supreme values. It wasn’t the cost holding me back, or the exclusivity (no one’s going Saito except select regulars) but the inability to score a reservation.

There’s not really an OpenTable in Japan. You can’t request reservations by email. I tried a workaround with the Gurunavi (free!) reservation service for restaurants on their site (Iwa) and of course you have to call–Japan has not got the memo that phones are only for texting now–and I was told they couldn’t make reservations at Michelin starred restaurants. I resorted to calling Tokami after practicing a few Japanese phrases. The women answering replied curtly and in English, “We don’t take reservations from tourists. Your hotel has to call.” If you’re staying at an Airbnb, you’re shit out of luck. I was trying to get to the bottom of this reluctance and the phrase “liability” was bandied about on message boards from those in my same desperate situation. I interpreted that as restaurants don’t want to deal with no-shows, non-local phone numbers, and somehow a hotel concierge, possibly with access to your credit card, is the only guarantee you’ll arrive as you’d promised. 

Anyway, way too much detail, but I finally realized that my Chase Sapphire Reserve card (that made this whole trip possible, amazing business class round-trip included) had a concierge service. Even that was a whole lot of rigmarole and being sent a list of etiquette rules like it’s rude to be late (I’m obsessed with punctuality so), perfume is frowned upon, and so on.

IMG_1159

Anyway again, I settled on Tokami because the chef, Hiroyuki Sato, reportedly was relatively young, spoke English, and had a more playful, less stoic demeanor. And it was the perfect choice. Lunch was roughly $120 (tip included, of course) for 16 pieces of sushi (smaller omakases are available). Tokami is a tuna specialist, so we were treated to three cuts of tuna, all levels of fattiness, which practically justified the cost of admission. Hokkaido uni also made an appearance, and the meal was rounded out with a torched tamago, almost like creme brulee, the chef’s signature.

I’m not going to detail every nuance but I can’t let these photos only exist on my hard drive. The rice, which resembles brown rice, is a darker hue because the chef uses red vinegar, a traditional edo-mae style that’s kind of polarizing. I didn’t think it overwhelmed the delicacy of the fish.

tokami grid

 

These were my notes:

Smoked bonito
Flounder
Squid
Scallop
Chūtoro (medium fatty)
Akami (“regular” bluefin–interesting that it was not a straight line from lean to fatty)
Ōtoro (fatty tuna)
Kohada/shad
Ikura/roe
Ebi/shrimp
Kisu (?)
Ikura (not sure how this was different from the above roe)
Clam
Yellowtail
Uni from Hokkaido
Rock/black (?)
Anago/eel
Miso soup
Tuna handroll
Tamago

IMG_1160

I never take photos with chefs. I was just going to take chef Sato’s photo, but he wanted us to join in–and very social media-savvy, he suggested I hold up the nameplate of the restaurant that normally would hang behind our heads. Win-win.

He sent us off with the name of his former sous chef who’d started working at Azabu in NYC. The week prior, though, Azabu lost its Michelin star and Sushi Inuoue, that’s helmed by a former Azabu chef (and my good friend’s sort-of-boyfriend), was just granted one. I can’t decide where to go next. (Ok, neither–I just went to Tanoshi under the guise of checking out the new Second Ave. subway.)

Sushi Tokami * Ginza 8-2-10 | Ginza Seiwa Silver Building B1F, Chuo 104-0061, Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Bar Umi

twoshovelI spent nearly an hour trying to find the name of this place and went down a rabbit hole of Google translating the list and blurbs of restaurants in Tokyo Station, only armed with the fact that this restaurant served dishes from Hokkaido. There are so many regional restaurants in that complex: just browsing I came across ones featuring specialties from Okinawa, Niigata, Osaka, Sendai, Yamagata, and Nagoya. I didn’t recall English signage, only that it was more of an izakaya than restaurant,  it was in a cluster of restaurants (there are tons of them i.e. GranAge, Kitchen Street, Ramen Street, GranRoof, etc.) and I was lured in by a chalkboard promising “Hokkaido tapas.” 

I had planned to eat tsukemen at Rockurinsha in Tokyo Station, but the whole state of affairs underground was overwhelming. There are hundreds of restaurants, high and low. I mean, Sant Pau? Or Wendy’s?  I wanted to start a blog no one would read called “Tokyo Station” where I would sample a new establishment every day. There would be fodder for years.

umi deer bacon

So, Hokkaido tapas. I could not resist ordering deer bacon. It turned out to be more like less salty country ham and served with sliced raw onions and mustard, which felt not Asian at all and borderline Hungarian. Whiskey highball, of course. 

umi salmon

This was a nice little bowl featuring salmon, but also fried oysters, roe, omelet cube, and pickled celery (possibly the only humane way to serve celery).

umi trio

Potato, two ways, and a warning against eating raw oysters if you’re tired.

I didn’t make it to Rockurinsha but I did find a new-to-me non-Sanrio character, Kapibarasan, which had a pop-up store devoted entirely to it. Apparently, there was some collab with Rockurinsha because I recognized the brand’s three hexagon logo on goods where the capybaras were slurping ramen.

Bar Umi * 1-9-1 Marunouchi | Grand Roof B1F, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Eagle Suntory Lounge

threeshovelI’m not sure if Japan has lots of bars with liquor brands in their name, or I just happened to visit a disproportionate amount of them (also, Ginza Lion/Sapporo Lion and Kirin City). Eagle Suntory Lounge is right in the heart of modern Shinjuku, yet it feels like a time capsule. A lot of Tokyo feels like that.

suntory interior duo

 

Every flight of stairs you go down erases a decade. The chandeliers (not pictured), wood paneling, and brutalist stone mural behind the bar signal mid-century, yet the menus appear straight-up early ’80s (when the bar actually originated). Only the prices have kept up with the times.

suntory menu quad

 

Whiskey, though, starts at roughly $3 a glass.

suntory eagle escargots

I was just there to drink since I’d eaten 200 grams (ok, that sounds larger than 7oz.) of steak en route. But everyone was eating a flambeed dish despite not one being on the menu, and my curiosity got the better of me. It was escargot en cocotte served with toast points.

suntory steak duo

Then the floodgates were open and we ordered a steak sandwich, not hefty American-style, but dainty, more appropriate for tea. The meat came very rare, bolstered with a layer of iceberg lettuce, slicked with horseradish on one end and Worcestershire-ish sauce on the other. Look at the pickle garnish. Crazy attention was paid to slicing and presentation. A couple on my left befriended a couple on their left (all smoking–if you are sensitive to cigarettes, old-school Tokyo bars are not for you) and shared their dish. I’m saying “dish” because I seriously have a mental gap as to what they eating and nothing on the menu jogs my memory (it wasn’t fish or poultry or steak–I’m thinking sausages or ham) yet I remember all the flourish with which it was prepped and served. The bartender sliced the thing I can’t remember into separate portions and plated it using that two forks as tongs technique.

suntory eagle menu purse hook

Half-way through I realized I didn’t have a purse hook. That would not do.

suntory drinks duo

I’m still steamed that I forgot to pocket a coaster.

Eagle Suntory Lounge * 3 Chome-24-11 Shinjuku, 新宿区 Tokyo 160-0022, Japan

Shovel Time: Han Oak

threeshovelEach time I visited Portland in 2016–more times than I’ve visited in 18.5 years combined–I reluctantly enjoyed a different New Portland restaurant. Langbaan in January, Mae in September, and Han Oak last month. All take foreign or regional cuisine and elevate it but not so much that a person accustomed to eating Thai or Southern or Korean food wouldn’t recognize it.

hanoak spread

Han Oak is the biggest bargain of the bunch. Just $35 (though Mae with a suggested donation of $65 and byob is close) for a shitload of food. It didn’t help that I had came straight from my family’s Christmas celebration (on the 23rd because they are monsters) where I ate ham and bacon-laced baked goods, and like 3 slices of assorted cakes.

hanoak cocktail

But I have to start with the cocktail, a Korean Goodbye (whiskey, Campari, vermouth, kimchi, smoked agave foam). I do not think this was a good cocktail. It was an interesting cocktail. Basically,  alcoholic kimchi juice topped with sweetened foam, and I think furikake. It tasted like when you start to throw up in your mouth but swallow it down. I might stick to beer.

hanoak banchan

All the banchan. This night we were served a mix of kimchi cabbage hearts and daikon, roasted brussels sprouts with miso,  squash with togarashi and fried garlic, and in the front an amazing sweet and sour potato, all caramelized, crisped edges and sesame. 

hanoak soup

Kalgooksu. This soup! It was so good. Little squiggly hand-cut noodles (they were being made in front of our eyes) and a very deep chicken stock. You could eat this broth all day.

hanoak ddukboki

I had to order ddukboki because I love the texture of rice cakes and I felt guilty for not seeking any out in my short time in Seoul. This was not the expected red, gochujang, fishy version. This version was a little swampy, green from padron peppers, and laced with bulgogi. 

hanoak meat

The ssam course comes with pork belly, pickled daikon, and rice noodles sheets as well as very rare smoked hanger steak, a slaw and ssam-jang dipping sauce. Oh, and chewy purple rice. It wasn’t until I took a bite of the beef that I realized the campfire smell that permeated the entire dining room (essentially, a garage) was the meat being smoked, an unexpected touch.

hanoak counter

I hate fruit as dessert! Not nature’s candy. I almost lost my shit on Korean Air when I was served half and orange and a giant wedge of cantaloupe and watermelon as dessert. On my return flight I was asked “If I wanted my fruits.” and I was all fuck, no, and the flight attendant looked at me with disbelief, “Are you sure?” Oh yes.

hanoak fruit

So, Han Oak serves fruit as dessert. I mean, the nicest apple and pear are just lost on me (kiyokawa family orchards, if you care to know) and they had run out of pear as we were the last diners (reservations at 9pm on Friday–Portland is not a late dining town). But I appreciated the server’s honesty. “You don’t have to eat all of them,” acknowledging the hefty amount of food we were just served, more than fruit being a sorry excuse for a dessert. The rosy-fleshed slices of apple were very pretty though.

Han Oak * 511 NE 24th, Portland, OR

 

Shovel Time: The Rheinlander

twoshovelI know no one gives a shit about Rheinlander other than me. Portland is strangely void of history and nostalgia, and well, I’m not sure the food is even good anymore (or if it even ever was). Oh, I guess one person does. It would never even occur to me to pitch a missive from the closing of the Rheinlander to The Awl, but there it is. I’m pretty sure I was there the same night as the author too. That’s why I’m a blogger.

rheinlander-dining-roomI went Christmas week, desperate to see the German restaurant that served as special occasion marker in my family into my early 20s one last time. It was brighter than I remembered, though that may have something to do with the Alpine room (I think it was called) right off the lobby, less labyrinthine and hidden. The food was brought out in quick succession, no waiting for appetizers to be eaten before mains. You could have a three-course meal and be out in an hour (my family who have no patience would probably love that).

rheinlander-fondue

There were two accordionists, no Victor Meindl, not in lederhosen. (I recently looked him up as he permanently seemed middle-aged when I was young and could’ve been anywhere from 50-65, so it’s possible he’s still alive. There is an gentleman with his name in West Linn, so I’m holding out hope that he’s still around.)  The fondue is served in a microwavable bowl rather than a cast iron crock.

rheinlander-sauerbraten

But…I don’t know…the food was pretty solid. Maybe not so pretty, but delicious. I never order sauerbraten since the last time years ago at Schnitzel Haus it was dry and stringy. Here, it was not, and I could eat the lightly browned, buttered spaetzle for ever. I love red cabbage sauerkraut too.

rheinlander-schnitzel

The local boyfriend who I’d dragged along (I made a reservation for 4 but couldn’t find two other takers!) seemed mystified by the menu and ordered a chicken schnitzel with mushroom sauce, which took me back at least 20 years ago when I attended Christmas dinner with my dad’s new family, and Jody, the methy step-sister who I always imagine in over-sized Loony Toons shirts ordered that very dish. She liked it so much she asked, “Could I get more mushrooms?” and I suffered humiliation by proxy. You ask for seconds at restaurants? She got an extra helping, served in a little side dish, by the way.

rheinlander-streudel

Apple streudel, which I’m so-so on, but it was the only German dessert on the menu. I don’t even remember the other three, though I totally wouldn’t be surprised if there was a chocolate lava cake.

rheinlander-sign

We both grew up in the Portland area, so I reminisced how Horst Mager was the original celebrity chef (ok, James Beard, whatever) and appeared on AM Northwest all the time and he had no idea who I was talking about. Times change. Mager was quoted in a press release, “This decision didn’t happen overnight; we’ve been discussing it for a long time. I have bittersweet feelings about it, of course. But I feel it’s the right thing to do, especially considering today’s Portland food scene. It has been evolving, and so must we.” Self-aware, yet I’m not sure what evolution even means for Portland’s food scene. Food trucks and pop-ups can’t be the be all to end all.

rheinlander-me

I look ok here, maybe a little sweaty, but I had to find and go straight to after-hours urgent care after this meal because I couldn’t swallow or hear and couldn’t stop coughing. I only point this out because Portland makes me crazy but it’s so goddamn easy. (I would consider moving back if the average rents now were less than my NYC mortgage and maintenance.) It was like a 12-minute drive to a different quadrant of the city (NE to NW), we were able to park right in front of the clinic, I was seen right away and in and out in 20 minutes, including the filling of two prescriptions, and it was $65. (I had an ear infection.) I haven’t been so impressed since I had to go to the hospital in Singapore and it was posh and $35.

Previously, on The Rheinlander. 

The Rheinlander * 5035 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR 

Shovel Time: Sushi Nova

twoshovelKaiten a.k.a. conveyor belt sushi is more fun than delicious. But Sushi Nova is extra fun because you order it on demand from a personal screen, there are choices galore (not just sushi), and it zooms on a conveyor belt from a mysterious back room to your place setting. The only human interaction is when you go to the counter and pay (touchscreen payment would complete the diy fantasy).

sushi-nova-belt

Sushi shows up in just a matter of minutes.

sushi-nova-overflowing

There are myriad permutations of sushi and appetizers, based on category tabs like, some fairly nuanced. Gunkan  topped with salmon roe or gunkan overflowing with fish roe?

sushi-nova-setting

You can even get fries, which were surprisingly good. Way more sushi involved mayonnaise for my taste. Of course, no one forced me to order the ham and cheese genovese (pesto) maki drizzled with mayo.

Sound and action for full effect.

Sushi Nova * 1 Chome-6-12 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan