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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.


(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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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
Chūtoro (medium fatty)
Akami (“regular” bluefin–interesting that it was not a straight line from lean to fatty)
Ōtoro (fatty tuna)
Kisu (?)
Ikura (not sure how this was different from the above roe)
Uni from Hokkaido
Rock/black (?)
Miso soup
Tuna handroll


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