Monday, June 25, 2012

Lunch at Sushi Kanesaka

One final review before this writer shuts the hell up about Japan and goes back to writing about New England (especially since it's summer now and there are good things like sea spray, fresh seafood, sunshine, and veggies abound). But as you've been reading about all the delicious things we've been devouring in Japan, I'm sure you can sympathize. It's kind of not fair. There's delicious food everywhere there. Even in the down the block convenience store, there's all sorts of real food to eat. Not just chips and chocolate (which they have an incredibly diverse selection from the weird to the wonderful to the weirdly wonderful), but all sorts of items that were cooked that day, and have, like, nutritious ingredients and shit. ::sigh::
So as every great food trip deserves a sort of exclamation point at the end, we had ours in the form of a lunch at Sushi Kanesaka (鮨かねさか). Everybody who goes to Japan knows the following: everything you get just by walking into a joint off the street is pretty good, kaiten-zushi (回転寿司) is something you should do at least once, and the really good sushi places that get accolades like Michelin Stars are so good that you should damn well feel unworthy. Well, maybe that's a little harsh. For the prices that the really good restaurants charge, you are getting what you deserve. But for sushi connoisseurs for which the local sushi take out joint is so bad that it disappoints you even when at your most desperate hour, there is always a feeling when going to a great sushi restaurant that you want to just soak it all in, making sure to preserve those delicious memories of rice, seafood, and other delicacies so that when you are at another grim hour, you can at least remember why it's worth the wait to next time. Aha moments, closed eyes, squeals of glee, and proclamations that there is a God. That's good sushi.
If you are at this point in your life where you want the best sushi, but do have financial limitations, I feel for you. There are some work arounds we've found. One is to buy a Michelin Guide, and look for the sushi restaurants with stars that have a more affordable lunch option. You may have to book well in advance, but it's always worth planning, and if you're staying at a good hotel, you can ask them to make the reservation for you. We had great luck when asking our hotel to book a lunch reservation at Sushi Kanesaka.
View from across the street when
standing in front of the restaurant
Sushi Kanesaka's
red noren curtain
Locating the restaurant does take a tiny bit of effort. You're not going to have to bribe someone to bring you there and sell you a password or anything quite so drastic, but leave yourself about a half hour, just in case you have difficulty finding the place. Once you find the street, there will be a sort of parking garage, and then you can look for a red noren (curtain) inside of the garage. If unsure of whether you've found the place, here's a little help. If you see the same view on the other side of the street as is shown in the photo, you're on the right track and then can just start looking for the noren identifying the little sushi restaurant.
The sushi bar
On walking through the curtain, we went down a flight of stairs and entered the main dining room, which is basically a long sushi bar divided into two separate areas for two sushi chefs. We confirmed our reservation for lunch and were seated next to a nice Japanese couple who were very kind to speak to us and also try to help translate when we were clearly having some difficulty. 
Chef Sanpei
Our chef was named Sanpei and while we had long heard about the stereotypical stoic sushi chef, Sanpei was quite animated and friendly. He spoke with us in both English and Japanese, and was happy to discuss the origin of the ingredients, as well as where we were from, where he was from (which happened to be a town neighboring that of my mother's hometown in Ibaraki) and where else we had been while traveling in Japan.
And so the meal started. Brace yourself. It was outstanding.
Wakame and myoga salad
Wakame and myoga salad: A simple starter, Sanpei prepared little portions of wakame and shredded myoga, adding a vinegar soy dressing and a few sesame seeds. This fresh, zesty little salad left us with clean palates, ready to experience the big show.
Hirame nigiri: The sushi course began with this wonderful slice of white-fleshed flat fish. The chef molded the sushi rice into one hand, and then of course, tenderly but firmly pressed the shiny white hirame onto the the mound of rice. The way in which he sculpted the nigiri would be consistent throughout the meal. While he had firmly molded the mound of rice, it wasn't pressed together like a rock, but perfectly formed to fall apart in ones mouth. The outside of the rice was tightly packed, while the inside was more sparse, thereby making the perfect nigiri. The meat itself was clean tasting, moist and lightly fishy, like the freshest flat fish is supposed to taste. These delicious morsels also come pre-seasoned, so be prepared to see that shiny soy-based sauce dressing coating each bite we enjoyed. A delicious, delicate first bite of sushi.
Shimaji nigiri: Shimaji is the Japanese term for Stripe Jack. This was another delicate white fish. The meat was firm, but also tender, and played wonderfully with the slightly more al dente texture of the sushi rice that they use at this restaurant. I would call this another refreshing and delicate course... perfect leading up to the more flavorful fishes that were coming up.
Maguro nigiri: We started out with a leaner cut of ruby red tuna sushi. I'm not sure that I've ever had a slice of tuna that was so elegantly sliced, or flavorful. I find that with the leaner cuts of maguro, there isn't quite a special flavor to them back at home. They taste somewhat bland, and therefore you find yourself reaching into your pocket for an order of the fattier chutoro or toro. But this was not the case with the lean maguro we were served. It was rich with the flavor of a rare, dark red beef, slightly minerally and still so lean to be both tender and satisfying to chew.
Toro nigiri: The fatty piece of tuna that we graduated to next was so different than the lean. While the meaty flavor was still there, the fattiness of the fish added an amazing textural element. Tasting the sushi comes in stages... first the meaty flavor of the tuna, then a first chew and a mingling with the delicate vinegar flavor of the rice and the touch of salt from the soy sauce. But then the protein melts away and melds with your rice, releasing additional rich, savory flavor with each chew. Toro is undoubtedly a treat, and in a world of bad days, if I had a choice between a good glass of wine or a piece of fatty tuna belly, I would choose the toro each and every time. Amazing.
Slicing the ika
Ika nigiri
Ika nigiri: And now for a technique I had never seen before. Sanpei called to his fellow sushi chefs, as he had done throughout the meal so far, requesting fresh batches of sushi rice, or other ingredients. He now called for ika, as he did not have any at his station. There was a brief discussion with another of the sushi chefs, and then a large, long rectangular portion of ika was produced. it was perhaps three inches wide by a foot long, and about a quater of an inch think. Sanpei stretched out the squid onto his board, and began slicing through the minuscule quarter of an inch, lengthwise... not once, but multiple times. When he was finished, he cut the entire stretch of ika into thin little noodles. I was astonished at the knife skills it must require to be able to thinly slice this squid. The chef explained that he chose this technique because the tenderness of this squid was not quite up to his standards for serving it in the traditional nigiri form. Sanpei then took his ika noodles and pressed them delicately onto a mound of rice to produce one of the most interesting pieces of sushi I have ever seen. He dressed it with the same soy-based sauce and precisely placed it onto our plates. The ika was fatty. It was sliced in a way so that it was not chewy or harsh, and the longer you had it in your mouth, the more the flavor coated every inner surface. Lightly fishy, but more just buttery in flavor, I don't know if I've ever enjoyed ika so much.
Prawn with tiny baby shrimp
paste on the inside
Ebi nigiri: I'm pretty sure these were Tiger Prawns, though please correct me if I'm wrong. At any rate, these lovely orange-striped, huge shrimp were among the most beautiful specimens I've ever laid eyes on. They had been cooked previously until just tender, and Sanpei began his preparation by spreading a sort of baby shrimp paste onto the inside of each prawn. He then added mounds of rice and a touch of wasabi to each large piece of seafood, only at the end cutting the large nigiri into two pieces, a head piece and a tail piece for each diner. The tender, sweet shrimp was satisfying to chew, and the shrimp flavor was only intensified by the strategic use of that sweet baby shrimp paste. The tail piece was my first bite, and completely satisfying. The head side came with an additional surprise. In addition to the wonderful flavor experienced in the tail piece, the head piece also had a good dose of that fantastic, unctuous head fat still hidden between the meat of the shrimp and the vinegared sushi rice. A sweet piece of delectable shrimp suddenly had a richness, a liveriness with the care that came with preserving a bit of that head fat. Fantastic.
Kisu nigiri: I've completely failed at finding the English translation for this little succulent fish. From the shade of the skin as the chef had removed it, I would say it might be related to mackerel or a smelt, but this is 100% a guess on my end. The flesh of the fish was clean tasting, while perhaps a little bit more fishy than the other varieties that we had tried that afternoon. It was evident that we were switching into stronger flavored fishes for the rest of the meal.
Tai nigiri: Sanpei let us know that this piece of snapper nigiri had come from Kyushu, which was exciting because we had received so much delicious food from that area of the country only days earlier. The snapper was the sweetest, brightest flavor of the day. I couldn't tell you how unexpectedly sweet this sort of flaky flesh was. I think this was the revelation of the meal, demonstrating first hand why Japanese people hold this fish in such high esteem. Aside from being delicious, the color of the sushi was dazzling. So beautiful.
Aji nigiri: The horse mackerel sushi, perhaps even more so than the maguro, was the most distinctly fishy piece of nigiri that we had enjoyed during this meal. It had the scent of the ocean, and a bit of an oilier texture compared to our other courses. It was nice to see this progression of stronger flavored fishes continue and come to a sort of exclamation point of seafood flavor.
Katsuo nigiri: The rosy colored bonito sushi that Sanpei had set aside and skillfully carved for us was another highlight of the meal. I believe that this fish is a touch more briny than the leaner maguro, but perhaps these two fish were the closest in flavor. It was downright meaty, and the best piece of bonito I had ever enjoyed, particularly again with the bright vinegar kiss of the rice that fell apart in my mouth.
Clam miso soup
Clam miso soup: At this point, a nice young server, the only woman I had seen in the restaurant, arrived with a small serving of what appeared to be miso soup with three or four tiny little clams floating in the sandy colored soup. On the first sip, you would expect the classic flavor of miso to shine through, but I had been delighted to taste the strong flavor of briny, salty and livery clams shine through in the broth. The little clams themselves added to this burst of seafood flavor, something that made me very keen to eat steamers again when back at home. A little bit of murkiness at first bite, and then the flesh becomes more tender and sweet with every chew. What a great miso-based soup.
Surf clam
Surf clam nigiri: Venturing deeper into an interesting array of seafood, Sanpei retrieved a shellfish from his selection of seafood. He began carving it out, and soon I knew we were in for hokkigai or surf clam. The surf clams that we'd enjoyed time and time again as sushi and sashimi back home have always been lightly cooked. They have a distinct flamboyant pink shade near the tips that give them away. These clams, however, were still alive. The shine from the flesh as he pressed each piece against the rice mound did not reflect the typical pink, but they shimmered with a deep black. When he slapped them, they moved on their own, and I couldn't believe how fresh this would be. On devouring the clam, they were chewy, but only satisfyingly so. They were cool, and briny, and growing sweeter with every second. I'm not sure when I'll again be able to eat a raw surf clam as I did at Sushi Kanesaka, but it was sweet and another example of how to enjoy the essence of the sea, the fruit of the sea, only enhanced again by that wonderful rice. A smile on Sanpei's face showed that he knew that we now knew.
Hotategai (baby scallops)
Hotategai nigiri: When the chef mentioned that we would be having scallops, I half expected a huge diver scallop would appear on top of the nigiri. But again, Sanpei wanted to do something different for us. Tiny, baby, day boat sized scallops, sweet and drizzled with the soy sauce, were presented in a little boat-style sushi, similar to what we've seen with ikura, tobiko, or uni back home. These little, raw baby scallops were the softest, most buttery and delightfully sweet that I've eaten. Who knew that little scallops could be so special.
Uni nigiri: Just as we had not expected the scallops to arrive in the boat-style nigiri, we did not expect the presentation that Sanpei chose for the uni. He placed a little mound of rice, perfectly formed, just as he had done with the other courses, but this time into a little bowl. He then lovingly draped, piece after piece after piece of sea urchin from Hokkaido on top, giving a quick brush of the sauce at the end. I absolutely adore uni. I think it has a strong sweet, creamy, and perhaps touch minerally flavor at the end. The texture is soft, but the roe should pop a touch in ones mouth, like little bubbles that dissolve on your tongue. This was a great way to enjoy fresh, perfect pieces of uni.
Anago nigiri: Earlier in the week, we had been like heat seeking missiles in our passion for all things eel. We had enjoyed our barbecued unagi in Kyoto, and now would have the opportunity to enjoy fresh water eel at Sushi Kanesaka. Now, I don't know how they had simmered the eel to have such a subtle, fresh, clean, and sweet flavor. I couldn't tell you where it was from. But I can tell you that it was melt in your mouth delicious. Sweet and not overpowered by any sauces, only complimented by a dab of sweet/salty sauce on the top, this was almost like a way to calm down ones palate as the meal neared its end. Couple more treats to go though.
Sweet egg omelet
Egg omelet: When the egg omelet, a perfect rectangular slice, and a mellow yellow shade throughout arrived, the Bigger Half was the first to sink his teeth in. His eyes closed and smile widened. Though he was almost full, the custardy texture of this sweet egg omelet was the dessert-like course that he was waiting for. I have no idea how they get it to be borderline cake completely devoid of bubbles, and still lighter than air.
Maguro maki
Maguro maki: The meal was now just about through. A final three little pieces of maki, made from a diced piece of the maguro that we had enjoyed near the beginning of the meal, seemed to bring us full circle. A final crunch of nori and the last experience of the rice, and then that clean, meaty flavor of the delicious lean maguro.
ごちそうさまでした! An amazing meal. A feast if ever there was one, and clearly the best sushi experience of my life. From the revelation of sweet tai to the lean maguro to the live surf clam to the sweet egg omelet and back again. I think that this sushi lunch at Sushi Kanesaka, at the hand of the skilled Chef Sanpei, and the gracious service of the other chefs contributing to the meal, was one of the finest meals I've ever eaten. I believe that it was worth every penny, and covered a diverse set of the freshest, expertly prepared fish available in Japan. I thank everyone for the meal, and highly recommend that if you are looking for one place to go to make the commitment and get a reservation at Sushi Kanesaka.

Japan, Tokyo, Chuo, Ginza, 8−10−3 銀座三鈴ビル B1F

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bar High Five in Ginza, Tokyo

This is a review that almost did not get written. I've been fretting about it for a couple days. Why? Well, I'm afraid of not doing it justice. The pictures I had taken that evening came out lousy, and I wasn't diligent enough to write down my usual series of notes. Furthermore, everything we had here was a product of years of training and scientific trial and error, so much so that I don't think I can accurately convey the experience. But to not write about it, to not tell whoever might be interested would be a worse injustice. If you've heard of Bar High Five in Ginza (バー ハイ・ファイブ), you have to go. If you haven't heard about it, consider yourself now aware.
Location: Bar High Five
This little bar, like many of the outstanding, classic cocktail bars in Tokyo, is located on an upper floor down a small street in the Tokyo neighborhood of Ginza. You'll have to keep an eye out for the sign that's located above eye level, along with a series of other signs of businesses located in the same building. When we first found Bar High Five's building, there were a number of business men being met by two uber polite young ladies dressed up as playboy bunnies by the elevator on the ground floor. This same building houses a number of colorful businesses, including whatever club the gentlemen were headed to, and a rather loud karaoke bar, also located on the fourth floor, which is apparently the bane of the owner's existence.
Bar High Five
On locating the entrance to the small establishment, you'll notice first the long bar with maybe eight or so seats for patrons. There are a couple tables at the back. Behind the bar is the huge expected assortment of liquors, bitters, glasses, and other tools. And then there was Hidetsugu Ueno, owner of Bar High Five.
Hidetsugu Ueno at Bar High Five
There are bartenders, then there are great bartenders, then there are your local bartenders, and then there are artists. Hidetsugu Ueno is an artist. When we had first entered, it was a slow night, and a bit early, so he had a bit of time to talk to us. You were immediately struck by how proud he was of his bar, and how hard he has worked in order to get this little space. He liked this little space, despite the next door Karaoke space, because it is not on the first floor, and therefore people who are seeking these cocktails are not likely to be those drunkenly wandering off of the streets. This man told us about how when the earthquake struck, he had sent his apprentice home to her family, as she had been shaking from fear after it happened. The bottles struck the floor, and there were aftershocks coming days after. He stayed in his bar. He slept there for days. For the first day he did not clean, but the following days he reordered all of his ingredients, and had been set to open. He explained how as patrons came in to check on his bar, and check on him, he had warned them that they were welcome to stay, but that he was concerned for their safety. All this time, he stayed, sleeping at his bar.
With all the stories and the pride that he took in his bar, you also got the sense in his body language and tone that he was a bit...well... cocky. After speaking to so many Japanese on this trip, one somewhat expected that there would be an overtone of humility in their voice each time. Not here, however. This man, this diva of a bartender, kind of knew that he deserved what he had, he had earned it, and that he was the best of the best. He explained throughout preparing drinks about how long it takes to develop a perfection of the classic cocktail, even noting that his awesome apprentice had been studying under him for five years. The woman never made a drink while we were there. She tended to the special ham that they prepare in the style of Iberian ham, and also made sure to bring water to guests. She made the delicate ice balls and cubed ice. She was an expert in pouring sherry, and had been experimenting in infusing different liquors with other ingredients, such as fine English tea. But she never prepared a drink while we were there. We were given the impression immediately that he took great pride in her, but this was his bar, and he was the star of Bar High Five.
The Spring Feeling
And he was. The drinks were made with a panache that I've never seen before. I had been a great skeptic of the a) actual existence of the Japanese hard shake b) whether it makes a difference to the enjoyment of a great cocktail. But then he started making the Bigger Half a beverage known as the Spring Feeling. The ingredients, while exquisite, were straightforward and not complicated. He used V.E.P. Chartreuse, aged as is the custom, and then added lime juice, and gin. The man then used different pieces of very cold ice, and a three piece shaker, typically used by bartenders in Japan. While at his former bar, Star Bar, they had been fond of using a two step Japanese hard shake, where the pull back of the shake is a bit faster than the push. But at his very own bar, the master utilized a three step hard shake. The shaker was moved in three fluid motions, growing faster as he repeated each series of three, and then ending in a very fast abrupt motion forward. He poured the Spring Feeling into a classic cocktail glass (think martini glass), and there were visible tiny shards of ice floating near the top. This dry, tart cocktail was enjoyable, and enhanced by the existence of those tiny shards of ice, melting in ones mouth and emphasizing all of the harmonious flavor notes of the drink. The hard shake has been confirmed as real, and indeed adding to a cocktail's enjoyment.
Me, being the moron that I am, did not order a cocktail that used the same technique. This is not to say that my drink wasn't delicious. If not the best Negroni I've ever had, it definitely comes in a tie for the best. This drink is my favorite little night cap. It's dry, and alcohol forward when produced by my favorite bartender back home. This was slightly different. The traditional ingredients of gin, vermouth, and campari bitters came together to produce one of the smoothest drinks I've had in years. It also came complete with another lesson in technique. Hidetsugu Ueno, in a last movement before presenting the beverage, twisted a lemon peel, and made two quick hand motions forward, splashing the spritz from the twist of lemon into the air to fall perfectly on the rim and onto the top of the drink. It smelled delightfully of lemon with the first few sips, trickling smoothly in a long line down my throat.
We were soon venturing outside of our favorites zone, asking the bartender what drinks that he liked to make. Sometimes I think that this is a question that is almost polite to ask a bartender. Kind of like, "Let's give you a break. You've really made two awesome things so far... what's an easy one for you?" This isn't to say that we didn't expect something awesome for him, because this same question often produces something that a bartender excels at naturally or thinks of as his signature cocktail. But the response from Hidetsugu was, "I really don't like that question." He explained that it's not about what he likes to make, it's about the cocktail, and finding ways to make a better classic cocktail. Furthermore, it's about the customer. What does the customer like? What does the customer want?
Ingredients for the Japanese Garden
With a genuine appreciation for his response, I asked what Japanese people like to drink, and what he has created most recently that embodies this idea of a great cocktail. He was happy to produce a short menu of beverages that he had made at the most recent Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. One of them was called "The Japanese Garden," featuring Hakushu, Midori, and Hermes Green Tea Liquor. His apprentice quickly went to sculpting a perfectly round, large ice ball for my beverage, as he precisely measured the ingredients, and combined them in a tall glass, specially used for mixing ingredients for cocktails that use these types of spirits (also used typically when making an Old Fashioned). After carefully stirring and adding the ice ball, I had a wonderful cocktail. It was both sweet and dry, and slightly bitter from the use of the Hakushu whiskey and even a little grassy from the addition of the green tea liquor.
Japanese Garden - Also note
the ham in
upper lefthand corner
You'll also notice on the right hand corner of the photo to the right that we took the opportunity to order a plate of the ham that they prepare at Bar High Five. The ham, watched over carefully by the apprentice was wonderful. The two explained that they first select the pig that will be used for the ham, and later prepare by salting within a bag, and then turning and resalting according to their proven recipe. It was both sweet and salty, in the style of Spanish hams, but with a distinct earthy flavor attributed to the terroir in which the pork was raised. If you're peckish when visiting this bar, make sure to order the ham that the skilled woman has prepared.
English Tea Cocktail
Moving on, the Bigger Half was also looking for something special to order, but unsure in which direction to go. After a few questions to the bartenders, he decided on one of the drinks that the apprentice helps to prepare. (I must apologize. I keep referring to her as the apprentice, because I was not smart enough to ask her name. In my opinion her skills far exceeded about 98% of bartenders I've known in the States.) This woman is a great fan of fine British black teas. She has taken to experimenting with infusions of clean vodka with the black tea, and has had tremendous success. This beverage used her tea infused vodka, white vermouth, and a tea liquor from Paris. It tasted subtly of alcohol, with the flavor of strong, black tea quite pronounced. This was another delicious cocktail.
Singapore Sling -
made with fresh
And so after nursing our ham a bit, and trying to decide on two final beverages, it came up in conversation that another patron at this bar believed that Hidetsugu makes the best Singapore Sling in the world, better than that of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Well, that's an "I dare you" if ever I heard one. We ordered up a Singapore Sling, and this crazy bastard perfectionist, pulls out an immersion blender and starts carving a pineapple. That's right. He's using fresh fruit and blending them TO ORDER. With the pineapple prepared, he added the traditional cherry liquor, gin, and Benedictine, and we had ourselves a frothy, beautiful, fresh fruit cocktail. Not that I spend much (or any) time in Singapore, but I can't imagine that the Singapore Sling there is anywhere near how delicious this was.
Bloody Mary - made
with fresh tomato
The final cocktail of the night? Well, a few other patrons had drifted into the bar at this point and we had a few moments to observe the cocktails that they were ordering. The kind gentleman to my left had ordered a Bloody Mary. Again with the immersion blender, a fresh, bright red tomato was pulled out from under the bar, and the craftsman began constructing a classic drink in the way that he felt it would have no flaws. A great tomato, sliced and blended, a little pepper vodka, and celery, I believe went into this drink. I must have been drooling as I watched the beverage that was prepared, with salt carefully pressed onto the rim of the glass, and the mixture being poured in. The man saw how impressed I was, and insisted that I take a sip of his drink. It was the cleanest, most subtle Bloody Mary I've ever tasted. There wasn't a heap of horseradish or any accoutrement beyond a simple lime wedge and the salt. Nothing overpowered the flavor of the sweet tomato and the clean vodka. It was amazing. And you better believe that we ordered our own and drank it with great gratitude for our final cocktail of the evening.
Dandanmen at Hashigo
Our bill paid, Hidetsugu asked what our other plans were for the evening. We were a bit tipsy and pretty much ready to call it a night. But like a great host, he said he thought maybe it was a good time for ramen. We asked where was the best place to go, and of course, after a little discussion and debate among the regulars at the bar, he had a great recommendation. So after heading out the door, and toward the elevator, the bartender gave us instructions on how to make the short walk to Hashigo for an order of the spicy dandanmen. Spicy ramen after a night of fantastic beverages is just what the doctor ordered to have a clean start to the morning. The broth was fatty and porky, with enough spice to wake us up for the walk to our hotel. The noodles had just the right amount of chew. Boy, what a great recommendation. 
So that was our night out in Ginza. Bar High Five, while hyped beyond all reasonableness, was impressive. The cocktails were not only perfect, but perfected to the present, as you know that Bar High Five are continuously honing their craft in producing the best classic cocktails. As opposed to Western fans of cocktails who want alcohol-forward beverages, these drinks were especially honed for a Japanese palate that wants all elements to be symbiotic in flavor and harmonious in texture. None of the drinks were harsh, but more everything seemed to fall into place. Both bartenders were amazing, interesting, and fantastic hosts. I look forward to my next evening in Tokyo where I can again enjoy such mastery of the art of cocktails.

バー ハイ・ファイブ

東京都中央区銀座7-2-14 第26ポールスタービル4F

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Craftheads in Shibuya

Oh thank heaven,
for Craftheads in Shibuya
The craft beer movement in Japan doesn't seem to have caught on with quite the grip that it has back home. While trying to locate a good craft beer bar, as we always do when traveling, we ran into a little bit of difficulty. There seemed to only be maybe one or two different beer bars in Tokyo that serve Japanese craft beers. Luckily, after a good bit of research, we located one of them. Craftheads is located about ten minutes from Shibuya Station in the basement of a building a little away from the craziness of that neighborhood.
Featured pours on the wall behind
the bar
It's a cool space with a nice long wooden bar, and a few tables behind. There are all sorts of bottles located at the rear, and rows and rows of taps. On the chalkboard wall behind the bar, you'll see a list of beers that they have on tap and are featuring for the day. When we visited, they had a bunch of beers from North Island Brewery out of Hokkaido. We were all in.
North Island Coriander Black
I started out with the North Island Coriander Black. At initial taste, I was surprised just at how dark and chocolatey it was, with just a hint of spice and coriander zing at the back of the throat. It went down smooth, and I would order it again. A nice, diverse, different beer. 
Shigakogen's IBA
The bigger half went for Shigakogen Brewery's IBA (India Black Ale). The hops that they use for this ale were especially fragrant, maybe even flowery. I wonder if they're grown in Japan? It was bitter and smooth, but with distinct caramel sweet notes near the end.
Onidennsetsu's Tomato Ale
Since I wanted to try something really different, I ordered up a glass of the Onidennsetsu Brewery's Tomato Ale. A little strange to add tomato flavoring to a Belgian style ale, but it kind of worked. The beer was sweet and fruity, but also a touch savory. I would describe this beer as crisp but clearly too much stuff going on to say light. Not sure if I would order a keg of this for a summer party, but it was an interesting Japanese beer to try.
We also ordered the Fujisakurakogen Pils, which was really just a good solid pilsner. I would call it less fragrant and crisp than say a typical Czech pilsner, but it still had a good fizz as it went down the throat, and some floral grassiness in the head. (sorry, no photo.)
The next beer that we went for was the North Island Brewery IPA Falconer's Flight. This beer tasted more akin to an American IPA than a British IPA, very interesting, pronounced hop notes, again bringing us to wonder whether the crisp herby flagrant smell could have been produced by hops grown in Japan. Even if they were not hops grown in Japan, they were definitely a flavor that we'd only seen distinctively here. (sorry, no photo.)
Three Floyd's Robert the Bruce
Nearing the end of our tour, I picked out a beer too well named not to try. Robert the Bruce, by Three Floyds, would be yet another beer we would be unable to try in the USA. It was hoppy and dark, with distinct caramel notes and a fine scent of flowers coming off of the fluffy head. Quite a lovely malty beer to enjoy with anyone who likes a malty, earthy beer interplaying with floral notes, and a touch of sugar near the end. 
Three Floyds' Thick White Freaks
The final beer that we ordered was the Three Floyds' Thick White Freaks. While not Japanese, we can't get Three Floyds in Massachusetts, so I was delighted that they had it. The Thick White Freaks was a delicious example of a Belgian white ale. Very light, smooth and a little bit fruity. The smell is clean and refreshing.
While sipping all sorts of beautiful beers that we would soon miss back home, we were getting peckish. And that's the great thing about this little beer bar is that they have a variety of pizza, burgers, and little snacks to order. We went for the smoked plate.
Smoked quail eggs
The plate came with tasty little quail eggs, prepared in nitamago style, marinated with soy, mirin, and sugar. The light smoke that flavored the eggs was a welcome addition to something that I pop like candy at any time of day... if I could only find them in my perfect world somewhere over the rainbow. Creamy center, solid whites, sweet/salty/smokey flavor.
Cold smoked salmon
There was also a few wonderful slices of cold smoked salmon, which were tender, salty, and highly addictive.
Smoked cashews
Who doesn't like salted, smoked nuts? I didn't know what I was missing. These smoked cashews were crunchy and savory... excellent at soaking up some of that beer.
Smoked pork
To round out the plate, they had rounds of delicately smoked pork loin. Smoked pork is one of my favorite things, as it's so meaty and satisfying to chew. This salty version of thin sliced, smoked chashu - whether on top of a steaming bowl of ramen, or artfully presented in a tasting plate of deliciousness, is always a welcome site. I was thrilled to see something so homey being smoked and served up as an item at a little beer bar.
If your'e looking for a craft beer bar in Tokyo, Craftheads is an excellent choice. The owner is American, and commented to us when asked how the craft beer movement is doing in Japan that he has been here for 17 years waiting for it to explode. I certainly hope that it does, and it's certainly making strides with nice little bars like this.

Craftheads Craftbeer & Bourbon
渋谷区神南1-13-10 B-1

Monday, June 18, 2012

Osaka: An Amazing Food Town

I have my reservations about Tokyo. I've stated it before. I still like the city, but it's really just too big for me. It feels like a city with a little bit of a confused identity at times, and the rush is just too intimidating... like exactly not what I'm looking for when I'm on vacation.
I had been a little worried that Osaka might feel the same. Just a big shiny city, with too much bustling. But Osaka delivered big time. The city has been featured somewhat recently on TV shows like Bizarre Foods and No Reservations, and I can see why. The people there are funny, kind and love to eat. Despite being a huge, commerce-oriented metropolis, citizens sauntering the Dotonburi don't seem to take themselves quite as seriously as those in Tokyo, and therefore, everything seems a little more silly and laid back. You know that feeling that you get when there's an ad hoc party and you're asked to stop by to chill? That's kind of what Osaka felt like.
First off, let's take a little tour of the amazing signage. It's awesome for those seek out wild neon, as does the Bigger Half.
You can peer down the street at huge fugu set over restaurants hawking, well, fugu.

Another restaurant next door might have a gigantic moving crab, thereby indicating that they sell crabs.
Then a little further down, there's a dragon eating ramen.
On the other side of the street you'll see a huge octopus cooking tako-yaki (the city's most beloved food).
Then there's the famous Glico Man sign, and that weird clown guy that bangs a drum, which was actually cooler than I thought it would be.
And I think there was also a restaurant called the surprised donkey... great name... though not sure what they're selling.
Some restaurants showed families hovering over big bowls of horumon or offal, and then there were other random signs showing huge tanukis welcoming people to Dotonburi.
Now, I'll disclose at this time that we had already settled down at a random little restaurant earlier in the evening to hang out with our friend Mari who had been married just days earlier in Kyoto. I was so excited to see her, I just wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible with her before she would have to catch her train/bus back home, and therefore food took a back seat. For the record, we ate at a little restaurant with some great mochi okunomiyake, but I was so thrilled to have time to talk to Mari, I didn't take any pictures. My b.
Pork on sticks!
After Mari left, and we had some time to digest and walk around the Dotonburi, we finally arrived at a random little stall, kind of off of the beaten path. The place had wooden tables and stacked crates outside to sit on, and there was a single narrow bar on the inside with about five stools. Above the bar, there was a handwritten menu, and on the other side was a single hard working gentleman, manning an aromatic charcoal grill. When we walked into this place, the man behind the bar and a single male patron sitting on one of the stools looked a little concerned. There are no English menus in this place, and it's a little down and dirty old west in appearance. But the nose don't lie. When I smell delicious pork wafting into an alleyway via charcoal grill, it's gotta be good. A few moments after speaking in Japanese to the two men, and reading the menu, asking about this item and that, they were at ease, even breaking out into English and talking a little bit about Osaka with us near the end.
And the food didn't disappoint. You have to keep your nose to the air for these kinds of places. The gentleman manning the grill let us know that tonight they were only serving pork, and we were actually pretty excited by this news. This was again new for us to try in Japan.
We started out with orders of the liver, which was minerally, irony, and nice and creamy. While the outside was nicely charred over the hotter area of the grill, the center of each chunk of liver was left rare, making for a nice crunchy and creamy contrast of textures. The sauce on the outside was sweet and salty, as were the other sauces that we had encountered for grilled foods in this country. Very delicious pork liver.
A cut from the throat
The patron sitting next to us also kindly recommended a different cut of meat. I don't recall the term that he used, but he explained that it was a cut from the throat, and we were eager to try his recommendation. The pieces of this meat were sweet and porky, with the actual flesh tasting of the must succulent pork loin you could imagine. There was also a piece of cartilege and fat attached. This may freak some people out from a textural standpoint, but it really just adds a bit of bacony flavor and then the crunch from this chewier piece of meat. I was so glad the guy next to us recommended it.
A cut from the leg
We also went for another recommendation from our new pal. This piece, I believe is from the leg of the pig, and as strange as it sounds, the melt in your mouth, tender texture of the dark meat was similar to a prime rib of sorts. It was dark and minerally and intensely porky. Because I suck at life, I don't have a translation for you, but perhaps you can either show this picture, or point to your leg and hope for the best.
With our beers consumed, and snacks long gone, the two men were happy to discuss food and baseball with us for a while before we bid them a good evening. And then it was time for one last snack before calling it a night.
We went back to one of the stalls on the main street that had been grilling up takoyaki all night, and it seemed that it was one of only a few that had a perpetual line of people waiting for those octopus balls. With the line greatly shortened since it was so late, we ordered up a batch of six, topped with sauce, mayo, and katsuobushi. They were screaming hot... like burn the roof of your mouth, have all the skin fall off, and pay for it for a couple days hot. But totally worth it. Creamy center, delicious sauce, and tender octopus, all in a perfect orb shape. I miss them already and am not likely to get something anywhere near as good for several years. If you're going to Osaka get the takoyaki.
I'm glad that we decided to spend a sort of night in transition in Osaka. It was pretty fantastic, filled with nice people and tasty, beer-appropriate food. I would definitely put it on your itinerary, at least for an evening in any upcoming travels you have scheduled for Japan. P.S. Go Hanshin Tigers!