First we did coffee. Now we do food, by day.
Night and day, of course, are not mutually exclusive categories. This was just how I happened to experience them, and based on Dan’s guiding expertise, I’d say they were pretty sound judgements.
Tempura Mochiku (天ぷら茂竹) | in Ginza (銀座)
The first meal we had in Tokyo, after coming up from Ōsaka. Dan whisked me, Oki, and John away to Ginza to visit his mother at her gallery, and for lunch at his favourite tempura place. It’s a little place, in typical masterful Japanese fashion: eight seats around an L-shaped, light-stained wooden bar, on a second floor in the heart of the famed high-end shopping district. There is no way I would have stumbled across this place on my own.
It is run by a husband and wife; the husband cooks the tempura at the bar and the wife provides wonderful service. We were seated cordially, softly, around the corner of the bar, and waited.
The husband had everything laid out before him. He mixed a fresh batch of batter, deliberately; tested his oil; gave us slow smiles, the hush and the look.
We enveloped our faces in steaming towels, hot and cooling rapidly in each turn through our hands. And by the time they were cold, fifteen seconds, we were presented with new objects.
Carrot (にんじん), soft, curled into a ring. Lotus root (れんこん), nutty, crunchy, delightfully and subtly astringent. A perfect bulb of spring onion (たまねぎ), sweet, and slightly spicy. Shishito pepper (ししと), bitter, and hot.
Salt-water eel (あなご), thick yet light, substantial yet delicate. Pickles (おしんこ), green onions and shiso. Kakiage (かきあげ), round fritters of sliced onion, carrot, and burdock.
Corn (ともろこし), a perfect section of kernels; crunchy, hot, sweet, savoury. A first and a highlight.
Asparagus (アスパラガス), crunchy, floral, sweet.
Gomae (ごまえ), greens dressed with pounded sesame. Always a favourite of mine.
Kisu (きす), whole shad; buttery, delicate, glassy. Whole fish is always a pleasure.
Ika (いか), squid; the most tender ever.
At this point, I remarked that their salt was the soft colour of white peach, and slightly moist between the fingers. It was served in a small ceramic dish. I learned it was from Hyogo prefecture. And, like most places like this, the pottery is a reason to come in itself.
Then there was shiitake (しいたけ), so aromatic straight from the hot oil, like fresh bread and tropical fruit.
Megochi (めごち), small grey fish. Bean, so crunchy, and somehow aromatic. Everything is perfect, at the height of freshness and flavour. One morsel is all you ever need; partly because the perfection of the first dissolves any desire for a second, and partly because by the time you resurface from quiet ecstasy there is another different one awaiting your rapture.
And then, there was the maitake (まいたけ). So delicate, and somehow so meaty. Mushrooms truly are the most amazing things, especially when battered and fried in the hands of an expert. This was a sort of climax, a finale.
Followed, as if in a pair, by koshiabura (こしあぶら), a type of mountain herb. I don’t know what it’s called in English. It tasted like sweet, dark soil, black and rich with humus, fresh grass and a pervading, steely minerality, like Burgundy. One flat leaf of it, crisp and undeniable.
Dan and I ventured to Tsukiji, the famed fish market on Tokyo Bay, one morning – early, but not as early as we’d have liked. If you go at six, that is when all the chefs are there, inspecting the catch, buying what’s best. And the sashimi at that hour is the best and freshest you might ever have. Nine, though, suited us fine. For we were mostly interested in Inoue and their famous ‘breakfast ramen’, which they only serve in the morning, distinguished by pickled bamboo shoots (竹の子).
First, we ventured through the stalls, admiring, being transported.
Dan’s awe face.
Fresh wasabi root.
Fresh sanshō pepper.
Modes of transport.
The likeness was irresistible.
Then it was ramen time.
Dan’s mom joined us for the ten-minute ritual, standing at the narrow tables just outside the stall.
The Japanese have mastered the savoury start to the day. I love Japanese breakfast for their blend of umami and delicacy. This ramen was somewhat more robust but definitely still within the category. The pickled bamboo shoots were the perfect touch, both for their crunchy, slippery texture and their unique flavour, as well as the slight tang in contrast to the slices of fatty pork, the savoury broth, and the noodles.
Afterwards, we continued our adventure at Isetan, the department stores among department stores. Their whole basement floor, as is common in Japan, is devoted to specialty foods of all kinds. This is a custom I can support, I think.
We stopped at one of their favourites, the World Meat Bar, to sample some impeccable cured Mangalitsa ham. Then we went to Pierre Hermé. Of course they have a Pierre Hermé in the basement of Isetan. Where else does it make more sense?
I treated myself to an asparagus and hazelnut macaron. I think they might have the most inventive flavour combinations I’ve seen in macarons, as well as some of the most well-executed, at least to my taste. I like them crackly on the surface and rich, moist, and deep below. This one did not disappoint.
An all-organic market and restaurant. Somewhat rare for Japan, but that, I think, is changing. They have this amazing all-vegetable lunch buffet that changes every day. They even have a bookstore and a toystore. My kind of place.
We went for lunch and sat outside on the covered patio. Lots of young mothers with kids, and some grandmothers too. As four males, we were very aware of our gender.
The food was amazing, and just what I needed at that point on tour. Everything was utterly fresh, vibrant, and simple but deep.
Salad with mizuna, sprouts, apple. Gai-lan with bean sprouts. Tōfu with yuzu miso. Daikon salad with carrot and kombu. Miso soup. Brown rice with black sesame. Barley tea.
Yes please and thank you.