The Great Noodle Tour: Thai Food in Harajuku

Of course, it wasn’t all Japanese food in Japan.

After all, that cuisine seriously lacks heat and a gal needs to spice it up now and then.

That’s how we ended up eating Thai food for lunch – that, and it was the only place open after 40 minutes of walking.

20150422_002332 Chaiyaphum Thai Restaurant is at the top floor of a sketchy looking building. Well, as sketchy as it gets in Tokyo Which is still probably safer and cleaner than your yoga studio. When we were here, there seemed to be one server and one chef and everything was happening  verryyy sloowwwllyyyy.

Luckily, we were in great moods and the food is excellent.

20150422_004753 Thai BBQ chicken

always get this even if you don’t like chicken or BBQ sauce. This isn’t what you are thinking. This is burnished, smoky, charred chicken that is so juicy and tender within that it might be injected with butter.s It has a nutty, deep flavor that is accented by the sweet-hot chile sauce alongside.  20150422_004932 Spring rolls

Always get spring rolls, and DEF always get them here. They are so hot that they will scald your tongue if you don’t take care. Stuffed with bean threads and woodsy mushrooms, they are all salt, crisp, and sweet when dunked in the accompanying sauce. Dunk, eat, repeat.

20150422_005208 Satay

Always get chicken satay. This version is exemplary – satay can so often be tough and tasteless, relying entirely on saccharine peanut sauce. This is not that at all. This is juicy, fragrant chicken tenderly cooked until its still moist and served with wonderful peanut sauce. Spicy, salty, savory, sweet…everything. That peanut sauce is everything. The cukes alongside are lightly pickled, sweet, and refreshing, but that satay stands on its own. So does the peanut sauce.  20150422_005813 Pork Larb

The best version I have ever had, hands down. The balance of flavors is memorable. It’s spicy from chiles. Sweet with sugar and a little gritty from rice powder. Bright from limes. The pork tastes clean and the cabbage somehow cools the heat. Some larb is just spicy, too bland, lacking acid…this one sings on every tastebud. I can’t recommend it more.  20150422_013732 Coconut custard

That’s what they claimed it was. Really, it was just hot panna cotta. Ugh. Do not get.

But everything else was just delicious. If you are looking for a break from sushi and ramen, head here for some really tasty Thai food.

Then fall headfirst back into Japanese cuisine for dinner.

The Great Noodle Tour: The World’s Best Tonkatsu at Butagumi

When we wanted to get tonkatsu, I imagined that we would enjoy it at Maisen.

I was so, so wrong.

We ended up at Butagumi…and I have been praising the culinary G-ds ever since.

20150423_050723 Butagumi is a small, quirky restaurant located in a residential neighborhood near the now-chic Roppongi Hills complex. It’s actually an old house that was converted to a restaurant. And it’s pork-a-licious.  20150423_050730 That entire menu is chock full of pork that you can get tonkatsu style – lightly fried in panko breadcrumbs. All that they serve is pork. Many, many breeds of pork. Imported Iberico and Mangalitsa pork. Specially fatty Japanese pork. Especially lean pork. Sirloin which is fattier and tenderloin which tastes more purely porky. It’s pork heaven.  20150423_052023 Pickles

Not my favorite start to the meal the way that I thought it would be. A little bitter and a little too funky, even for me.  20150423_053435 Minced pork tonkatsu
20150423_053606 Now THIS is an appetizer. The chicken nugget of my dreams. An impossibly, thick, shaggy crust concealing the juiciest, porkiest patty I have ever enjoyed. It’s so sweet and juicy that I could eat this with honey and be totally satisfied. However, if you dip it in some of the accompanying thick and sweet tonkatsu sauce, you won’t be disappointed. Amazingly delicious.  20150423_060618 Cabbage

The classic tonkatsu accompaniment. Douse it with the addictive tangy vinegar at your table to cleanse your palate and allow for maximum pork consumption. This, plus rice and miso soup, are all unlimited during the course of your meal. I defy you to eat more than one bowl.  20150423_060623 Pickles for tonkatsu

Unlike their predecessors, very good. 
20150423_060742 The pork…the pork! We got several different cuts and each was a gem.  20150423_060816 The golden boar pork was my favorite since it is so fatty and rich. The fat melts like the fat at the bottom of a pan of meatloaf. Just golden, buttery, rich. Not at all bouncy or weird tasting.  20150423_061006 The tenderloin is no slouch either and was cooked until it as just barely rosy so it was still juicy. 

The biggest shock here is the taste of the meat. It isn’t at all robust or barnyard-y. It’s gentle and elegant – sweet, even. It would be perfectly at home at an elegant dinner party. How can this be peasant food?! 20150423_061313 The miso soup is just he best I’ve ever had. Chock full of flavor and these tiny, adorable, sweet clams.

Butagumi is a MUST VISIT in Tokyo. It’s up there for my favorite meal of the trip. The service is delighful, the surroundings are unique, and the food is fabulous.

You could really make a pig of yourself here. 

The Great Noodle Tour: Uni Donburi at Tsukiji Fish Market

If you are a foodie…or even a person, really…you need to visit Tsukiji when you go to Tokyo. It’s the world’s most famous fish market. We took a fabulous guided tour (for another post) and by the time we were done seeing gigantic tuna, live scallops, and eels wriggling around in buckets, it was time for lunch. Tsukiji has some of Tokyo’s freshest, most reasonably priced sushi, and though it may not be Jiro, it is pristine and fantastic.

20150422_233401 After winding our way through the alleys, kitchen shops, and multiple restaurants that surround the large fish market, we ended up climbing the stairs at just one of dozens of spots promising mouth-watering chirashi, sushi, and the like. We emerged into a beautiful, upscale restaurant that belied its humble exterior. It looks similar to Sushi Yasuda here in NYC – blonde wood, quiet, fastidious service, and a clientele that is almost entirely Japanese. There is a brief English menu and the servers, who aren’t necessarily fluent in English, are phenomenal at somehow delivering exactly what you want to eat. And what we wanted to eat was donburi, a classic Japanese dish of rice covered with various toppings. Katsu, vegetable curry, eggs, or – in our case – premium raw and cooked fish.  20150422_234703 Tuna, toro, uni, and ikura donburi

I’m crying looking at this. It is beyond merely delicious. It is perfect. Each fish compliments the other. The tuna is fatty but not overly so, to allow the buttery, delicate flavor of the toro to shine. The uni is creamy and SO mild, letting the almost fluorescent ikura handle the salty, briny component. There isn’t too much toro, since that would overtake the entire dish. The ikura itself is gently cured so it retains some brightness and isn’t at all bitter.

And that uni…YES. Hokkaido uni now reigns supreme even over Santa Barbara uni in my book. It’s really that sweet and clean tasting. Even the ginger is excellent, a nice palate cleanser in between bites of seafood.

20150422_234713 Tuna donburi

An embarrassment of riches. Similar to the above lunch, but this time with different cuts of tuna, each highlighting a different aspect of this impeccably fresh sashimi. The tekka is smooth and lean, with a mild, not metallic taste. There are no odd sinews or bloodlines as there are in other sashimi. The maguro is much fattier but it doesn’t taste fatty. It just tastes…lush. No other way to describe it. Not too rich, but certainly more full and deep than the tekka. Then the toro. That buttery, smooth, decadent toro that needs just a hint of fresh wasabi to make it a full flavor experience in one bite. This is excellent.  20150422_234723 Broiled seafood donburi

Salmon, red bream, scallops, Botan shrimp, and sea urchin. This is usually made with tuna but my mom is allergic to that and through a flurry of Google translate, rudimentary Japanese, and hand motions, the server somehow understood this and substituted salmon (which I think is what all Japanese people assume that Americans like to eat). It’s just amazing at what lengths the servers went to accommodate my mom. At one point, during the rather busy lunch rush, there were 3 servers bent over my mom, smiling, chattering in Japanese, and trying to figure out what she wanted. It was much appreciated and so amazing to see this level of service in the equivalent of a hole in the wall restaurant.  20150422_235025 Tsujiji Itadori Bekkan is a GEM. Lunch like this isn’t cheap – each bowl averaged between $18 and $25 – but the portions and quality of the food make it worth it. Big time. The surroundings are lovely, the service is fantastic, and the food is just what I dreamed it would be in Japan – simple. Fresh. Delicious.

Don’t worry, there’s lots more about Asia coming up next week!

The Great Noodle Tour: Yakitori Fest at Birdland

Yakitori is one of Japan’s finest cuisines. It consists of skewered chicken and vegetables, often grilled over charcoal underneath the elevated subway tracks.

Of course, this being Japan, you can go high scale as easily as you can go low scale.

And when a place offers opentable reservations, a Michelin star, and 2 very reasonably priced tasting menus – why not take the high road?

20150422_054633 Birdland is one of Tokyo’s premiere yakitori restaurants and it’s all centered around a large grilling pit. The action is really there at the counter, but if you have a large group like we did, you will be seated at one of two large picnic tables, slightly removed from the action.  20150422_054651 The room is filled with smoke and for once it isn’t the cigarette smoke that pervades the city. It is chicken and it smells GOOD. You can order a la carte but we went with the large tasting menu. And it was really, really large. I would actually recommend going with the smaller tasting menu and adding the cheese (the cheese is that good…really). 20150422_055511 Amuse bouche

From the top left, clockwise:

Gizzard – a little chewy but rich and pleasantly minerally in flavor

Seaweed salad – um, no

Other vegetables – another um, no

Chicken skin – a little rubbery – not my fave.

20150422_060258 Medium rare chicken breast

Juicy, light, sprinkled with green onions. Not at all slimy or raw, just rare enough to be juicy. Seasoned with pepper and enough salt to be mouth-watering. That’s right, I just called grilled chicken breast mouth-watering.  20150422_060755 Chicken liver pate

One of my favorite courses of the meal. Rich and coarse with buttery undertones. It’s intensely minerally but seasoned enough not to be off-putting – it reminds me a lot of the liver at Sammy’s.
20150422_061517 Chicken breast with wasabi

Not medium rare, but still juicy and sweet next to the tiny dabs of searing fresh wasabi paste.  20150422_062030 Chicken liver skewer

The favorite of many at the table. Juicy, tender, and almost creamy in texture. Mild in taste and liberally sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Fabulous.  20150422_062435 Chicken with scallions

Plain but delicious. The chicken is so fresh that it’s almost impossibly tender and more sweet than barnyard-y.  20150422_062914 Tofu with micro tomato.

I mean…a micro tomato. Do you see how tiny and adorable that is? This doesn’t taste different from a regular tomato, but it is SO much cuter. The tofu was a little bland for me but my husband loved it.  20150422_063219 Gingko nuts

Nutty and a little creamy, with a texture similar to chestnuts. I loved this as a mid-way chicken break.  20150422_063420 Teriyaki chicken thigh

They didn’t all it terikayi, but that’s what it was. This meat is almost gamy in its darkness. Its juicy and rich – much more wild tasting than the breast meat. 20150422_064506 Tsukune

These Japanese meatballs are a perfect bite. A crispy, thin crust outside a tender, juicy, well spiced and salted meatball. Delicious.  20150422_064942 Dark meat with crispy skin

One of the only pieces of the night that I didn’t enjoy. Just too gamy and rare for my tastes.  20150422_070632 Grilled mushrooms

YES! Mushrooms are such a natural complement to meat. They are meaty themselves but not rich and don’t compete with the chicken at all. They are smoky from the grilled and sprinkled with soy. When doused with lime there is a certain light, bright aspect to them that mushrooms rarely seem to have.  20150422_071406 Chicken thigh with spring onion

Mmmmmm! Love it! 20150422_072154 Grilled cheese

The extra course you have to order no matter what. Stretchier ad creamier than halloumi but with a similar salty taste.

20150422_073257 Oyako don

Just the most perfect dish ever. Creamy egg, sticky rice, juicy chicken. A few strands of savory green onion. I absolutely lapped this up.

20150422_074321 Creme caramel

A good dessert, but not memorable.

Absolutely every other thing was, though. The service is excellent, with a staff fully versed in English and a menu that has something for even the pickiest of eaters. It isn’t cheap but it isn’t super pricey either and if you don’t get that cheese and oyako don, you are crazy.

Japan – it’s not all raw fish after all.

The Great Noodle Tour: Noodle Nirvana in Kyoto

One of my favorite afternoons in Tokyo didn’t even take place in Toyko. 

20150424_211442 It took place in Kyoto. We took the bullet train for a very comfortable 2.5 hour ride to one of the oldest preserved cities in Japan. Almost all of Tokyo was destroyed in WWII, so the chance to see the ancient streets, gardens, and temples of Kyoto was something that we couldn’t miss.  20150424_213927 Plus, there is a lady who comes by on the train selling things like Chip Star, green tea ice cream, and Pocari Sweat (a mix between lemon Gatorade and carbonation-free Fresca that my husband found addictive). 20150424_230059 When we arrived at the train station in Kyoto, we were shocked to see that people simply left their backpacks and luggage in the main hall while they shopped or used the facilities. Crime is so low in Japan that it didn’t occur to anyone that someone might try to steal their things. And, indeed, no one did. Amazing. 

20150424_235207 We saw a gorgeous temple. 
20150424_235257 Spied a few women in full, exquisite kimono getup (not geishas, though Kyoto is the epicenter for seeing genuine geishas).
20150424_235353 And decided not to pay for a fortune. We already knew we were pretty lucky. 

Then it was time for lunch. So, we walked down the main drag of Gion, Kyoto’s historic district. And walked. And walked. We must have been on 5th Avenue or something because for 40 minutes we could not find a single place to eat that wasn’t an ice cream or sweets shop. They were all closed or…nonexistant. I was getting hangry. Finally, we found a little udon shop teeming with both tourists and locals and got the last empty table.  20150425_002343 The requisite hot spices (Japanese food is woefully lacking in heat). 20150425_002351 The simple, crowded shop. Don’t even think of trying to order soda here. 
20150425_002610 Accouterments for the soba

Bitter grated radish, sharp green onions, and a tiny quail egg to enrich the dipping sauce. Did you know that a raw egg can enrich a cold sauce? I didn’t!
20150425_002803 Buckwheat soba

So hard to find in NYC. And so amazingly delicious.  20150425_002929 Tempura

20150425_002434 Vegetarian udon with fried tofu and green onions
20150425_003109 The greatest noodles of my life. Yes, I mean that. This is noodle nirvana. Chewy, bouncy, earthy, and profoundly wheaty. They suck up the umami dashi broth and are slippery flavor vehicles. The fried tofu and green onions are nice but not necessary. This is all about that light but fully flavored broth and those thick, wonderful noodles. I never really order udon, but they seemed to be the specialty of this shop and I am so happy that I indulged.  20150425_004248 Wouldn’t you like to know where I went? Well, so would I. We were so hungry, hot, and tired that I didn’t even ask for a business card. This sign is my only clue to this glorious restaurant. I couldn’t even tell you how to get there, except wander around Gion aimlessly, turn down a side street, get lost near somewhat of a red light district, and then it’s on your right hand side. 

Kyoto is a beautiful, historical side trip from Japan. It takes most of the day to get there, walk around a bit, and get back, but it’s worth it. 

And be sure to get the business card if you try some restaurant’s fabulous udon!

The Great Noodle Tour: Japan Airlines First Class SFO-HND

This post covers food and drink. For a more comprehensive review of the product, check out this excellent post.

This was the latest flight that I had ever taken – or maybe the earliest? At 1:35 am it’s definitely one or the other. By the time that we were ushered into our seats by the fabulous JAL crew (honestly..they couldn’t stop bowing or apologizing for things that hadn’t yet, and never would, go wrong), we were almost asleep.  20150420_041404 Luckily, a glass of Salon 2002 perked us up. This is one excellent champagne. It has a full, toasty aroma with tight bubbles and an aftertaste that is a little sweet without too much acidity. I far prefer it to the more buttery, heavy Krug.  A perfect way to pep me up for a gourmet late night snack.  20150420_051309 Sushi and chawanmushi

Beats the hell out of the stuff at Whole Foods, and this is at 35,000 feet in the air. The rice is a little clumpy and dry but the fish is almost amazingly sweet and lush. The chawanmushi is even better. It’s creamy and deeply savory without being too salty or heavy. It’s so comforting and full flavored without being rich or greasy.  20150420_051457 I mean, just look at that beautifully cooked shrimp! 20150420_051752 A little caviar never hurt anyone, though the blinis are strangely leaden and they could use a little more sour cream. It’s still some damned fine fish egg.  20150420_052230 Fish crackers

Do not, under any circumstances, eat, or even open. It smells like the deep blue sea in a baaaaad way.  20150420_104259 A few glasses of champagne in and I thought that some $400 per bottle whiskey might sound good. Luckily, my husband finished it off – I’m just not a whiskey gal. 

I settled in for a nap (complete with a blanket, pillow, and a freakin’ MATTRESS…amazing.) and when I awoke, I enjoyed some espresso and a plate of buttery sugar cookies.  20150420_134400 Not to mention the full Japanese breakfast of soy simmered sablefish (tender like salmon but twice as mild), roasted duck, chawan mushi, pickles, perfectly steamed rice, and fresh miso soup. Americans do breakfast all wrong. I think I like omelettes and then I have some miso soup and freshly broiled fish and I’m like “no way…this is where it’s AT!”
20150420_144736 Special iced tea over which my husband kvelled

Icy bathwater slightly reminiscent of hay. I just don’t like tea.
20150420_151000 But I DO  like a large selection of Bollywood movies on the AVOD.

JAL offers a phenomenal first class flight product. For a red eye flight, they offer more choices than I could even try (damn, I wish I could get my hands on that vegetable curry right now), the alcohol is a class act, and the service is absolutely unmatched. It is deferential tot he point of making you feel uncomfortable, but get used to it. Because when you land, you are in Tokyo – it’s not Kansas anymore, Toto.

The Great Noodle Tour: The Best Clam Chowder in a Bread Bowl on Fisherman’s Wharf

Well, it’s been a LONG time, readers! I am so sorry to have left you in the lurch, but I am back with a ton of great eats, awesome hotels, and crazy anime arcades!

Every great journey must start somewhere, and for the purpose of this blog, we will start at the tail end of the trip. In the city by the bay, San Francisco. San Francisco is a great place to start or end the journey to the Asian Pacific, since it breaks up the very long flight.

And since we were tired (nay – exhausted!), confined to either walking within the vicinity of hotels or taking cabs, and only had one night, we figured – let’s just be total tourists. And we were, in the most egregious of ways.

20150429_223730 We ate animal style fries. 

20150429_230329 We went to Ghiradelli Square and gorged on ice cream sundaes with hordes of other tourists who were just begging to get ripped off.

(Whatever, the location is central, the hot fudge is EXCELLENT, and who doesn’t feel like a sundae after coming off of a long flight?)

20150429_221215 We went to Fisherman’s Wharf and took photos of Alcatraz. 

20150429_191357 We ate crab out of styrofoam cups, doused with lemon and cocktail sauce.

This one came from the second “The Crab Station,” the one with Chinese writing on it. It is sweet, fresh, and totally delish. 
20150429_221244 And, of course, we ate clam chowder out of bread bowls.

This one came from Alioto’s stand, and it’s the best on the wharf. Mostly because Alioto’s is the greatest of all of the overpriced Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants and supposedly their chowder comes directly from the restaurant’s kitchen. It’s filled with sweet, tender clams, creamy potatoes, and has a clean, briny flavor. It’s not too gluey and benefits from a hit of hot sauce at the stand. Best of all, it comes in a tangy, chewy bread bowl that soaks up all of that chowder flavor.

Next up: Let’s fly to JAPAN!

I Think I’m Turning Japanese

…See you on the other side of the world, readers!

I’m headed to Asia for the next two weeks and can’t wait to give you all the delicious details! Posting will be sporadic until May 4, but don’t worry  – when I come back, it will be with tales of sushi, ramen, and dumplings!

Sayonara!

Sugar and Plumm – Better than Ever!

It’s so much easier to access than that-which-shall-not-be-named (it rhymes with “hairendipity”), the food is great, and the cocktails REALLY are delicious. Don’t miss the macaron ice cream!

 

Kashkaval Garden – Tiny but Terrific

It’s never easy to find somewhere to eat before a night at the theater. You want somewhat nice but not super expensive. Somewhere leisurely but that knows how to get you the check so you don’t miss your curtain time. Somewhere that is delicious but not too heavy – nothing worse than falling asleep during “Sunrise, Sunset,” amirite?

Kashkaval Garden delivers on all corners.

This minuscule Hell’s Kitchen wine bar is the holy grail of theater restaurants. A generous happy hour and full wine and liquor list. A staff who knows how to get your food on the table ASAP without rushing you to eat. And some seriously delicious Mediterranean food.

Be prepared, the place is tiny and doesn’t take reservations. But if you get there around 6 on a weeknight, you should be seated pretty quickly.

20150414_182347 Warm spiced olives

Juicy, meaty olives warmed in a garlicky, citrusy olive oil. It’s salty, savory, and surprisingly satiating if you crave a nibble before the meal. Warm olives are just the greatest and these go really well with a martini.
20150414_182356 Goat cheese salad

Doesn’t look special but really hits the spot. Fresh greens, sweet, grapes, a swath of creamy goat cheese lining the plate, and the MOST delicious marinated mushrooms I have had in a long time. They are savory, meaty, and incredibly umami. Served cold, they are superior to meat in almost every way.  20150414_183033 Chicken and chicken adana skewers

Shades of India and a welcome dose of heat and spice. The chicken is tender and marinated in yogurt so it’s juicy and savory. The adana skewer is well spiced with red pepper and garlic – like an awesome long meatball. Served with a tangy squash caponata, a zesty red pepper puree, and some really creamy, cucumber-rich tzaziki – what more could you want? This is accidentally low carb without meaning to be. It’s so delicious!

Kashkaval Garden is a delight. It’s really well priced, the portions are huge, and the food (I didn’t even order my favorite babaganoush or stuffed grape leaves this time) is dynamite.

Hopefully your show can live up to the precedent that your dinner sets!