Japan Eats

Restaurant Review: Il Cantuccio (Shimo-Kitazawa)

In the interests of being up front with you, dear readers, I stumbled across Il Cantuccio looking for a quick bite before going to a play and had no intention of reviewing it. However, that quick bite turned into such a great experience that I quickly realized I should write it up. Here goes.

In a neighborhood packed to the gills with little, interesting eateries, the Italian restaurant Il Cantuccio took my surprise for a few reasons. First, once you get inside, it’s surprisingly big. Not chain family restaurant big, but at somewhere are fifty, it seats more people than most of the local restaurants in Shimo-Kitazawa. Read more

Restaurant Review: Entertainer Curry Kitchen (Akasaka)

After emerging from exit two of Akasaka station (Chiyoda line), hit this curry restaurant that is in the building just to the left (underneath Lotteria) for a decent bowl of Japanese curry.

There’s enough space in this shop to bring friends, but the counter facing the kitchen is ideal for people dining alone. It’s worth taking your time to work your way through both of the menus because if you don’t you might miss something. And to my mind there are at least half a dozen main dishes on the menu worth trying. The beauty of this place is that there are lots of options–way more than you normally get in a curry shop.

Basically, the menu can be divided into three main sections: regular curry dishes; specialty curry dishes; and their popular–and spicy–curry nabe (hotpot).

The last time I was there, I went with the chicken curry from the regular menu (pictured above). Moderate spice with very juicy chunks of chicken and a decent load of onions for 650 yen. They also have a kid’s curry (in a heart-shaped bowl) and vegetarian curry for the same price. The regular curry menu starts at 500 and tops out at 880 yen for the “jumbo fried shrimp curry”. Additional toppings are available for between 50 and 100 yen. Side dishes, such as a potato and bacon salad, kimchi, and chicken wings, are all priced in the 250-850 yen range.

And then there’s the specialty menu. The dishes in this section are all being pushed by a different celebrity. K1 fighter, Musashi, wants you to try his spicy curry, which ranks four out of five on their in-house scale, that features a beef steak perched on top (1,020 yen). Or you could try the relatively mild chicken and onion curry endorsed by actress Chisato Morishita (850 yen). There are a few others, and it’s possible to do a half-and-half meal with two of the celebrity selections for an additional 100 yen.

Also, keep in mind that you can get half portions of the specialty curries for 500 yen. For whatever reason, this information is only listed in the drinks menu.

Then there’s the curry nabe which looks very, very Korean in its presentation and starts at 950 yen per person. There’s some fire involved, and you can choose your own adventure on the aforementioned five-tiered spiciness scale. Those who like spiciness should be fine with a level three or four.

Several set options are available with the curry nabe. The simplest of these involve adding some kind of noodle or rice to the leftover spicy soup when you’re done with what was floating in it. A plain white rice set is 200 yen while cheese risotto will be an additional 500 yen per person. Or you can go a bit bigger and ask for one of the two multi-course sets that are available. They both set you up with a couple of different celebrity curries, a side dish or two, the curry nabe, and dessert. The two versions of this set are priced at 1,980 and 2,480 yen per person, respectively.

But this is the type of curry shop that also wants you to stay and drink. You can add a 90-minute nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) option to the two most expensive curry nabe sets for an additional 1,500 yen per person. The nomihoudai is actually advertised as being two hours in length, but they pull a ‘last call’ routine at the hour and a half mark.

If you’re just ordering by the drink, then there are a few options available. Draft beer (regular Malt’s) is 480 yen while a bottle (Premium Malt’s) is 600. Whiskey highballs (Kakubin) are 390, and Cassis and Dita cocktails are 550. Wine is 500 yen per glass and soft drinks are 400. They have two umeshu available for less than 600 yen, and you can get potato or barley shochu for less than five. Sours are 450, and a bottle of Korean soju (they don’t sell it by the glass) will set you back 1,280 yen.

The curry and the flexibility of the menu make this place worth a look. It’s also one of the cheaper places to eat in the area immediately surrounding the TBS building in Akasaka and located right next to exit two. They apparently have a sister shop in Shibuya.

Cost per person: 1,000 to 4,000 yen

GuruNavi page: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a223300/ (includes a map and partial menu)

Directions: From exit two of Akasaka station turn left and walk about 10 meters up the sidewalk. Entertainer Curry Kitchen is in the basement of the first building on the left (Lotteria on first floor).

What We’re Drinking: Takachiyo honjouzou nihonshu (sake)

I’ve recently been spending tons of time learning everything I can about shochu. If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably already familiar with my ramblings on the subject.

Anyway, it came as a bit of a surprise when I noticed that I have yet to review a bottle of nihonshu.

TakachiyoSo I busted out a bottle of Takachiyo and gave it a whirl.

After letting the temperature on this one rise a little (I purposefully keep my fridge cold enough to kill the taste on most Japanese macrobrews) it hit the tip of my tongue with a bunch of bready sweetness that gave way to a rather round body.

The closer this sake got to room temperature, the more I liked it. It developed more of a spine as sour notes began to creep in from the sides. I started to get a slight amount of fruitiness as it warmed as well. This made perfect sense since I was revealing a fruitier bouquet on the nose with each refill.

Although I didn’t have enough left to try it myself, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it might be amenable to warming. This nihonshu really made me want to eat some fish. It would go well with saba (mackerel).

The seimaibuai (milling rate) on this one is 63%, and the label on the bottle states that it is a honjouzou which indicates that a small amount of distilled alcohol was added during the brewing process to (most likely) level the flavor out a bit.

So while it wasn’t ginjo, it was definitely smooth and balanced enough to be worth another try. If anyone else has tried this, I would love to read your tasting notes. Just post them in the comments.

For those who can read Japanese, here is the Takachiyo website. You won’t find the bottle pictured above on that website. As you may already know, labels and bottle colors can change drastically in the nihonshu world from year to year.

Special Event: Japan Booze Blind LIVE

It’s almost hanami season!

Every year, Japanese throw outdoor parties beneath the sakura (cherry blossoms). Known as hanami, these flower-viewing parties are really just an excuse for families, co-workers or groups of friends to meet and drink together.

To celebrate the arrival of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Japan Eats is hosting an exclusive LIVE event. Hosted by Christopher Pellegrini, Japan Booze Blind will go out live Sunday, March 28th at 3 p.m. (Tokyo time) on Livestream. We know you’ll have questions about hanami season – what it is, and how best to celebrate it. We invite you to submit them via email (pellegrini@japaneats.tv) or in the chatroom during the show.

This is your chance to get involved. We look forward to hearing what you have to say!

Restaurant Review: Q.E.D. Club (Ebisu)

This restaurant didn’t receive any stars from Michelin, but it’s still one of the nicer places you can have a meal in Tokyo. And as Q.E.D Club happens to be the spectacular former residence of the Hungarian Ambassador to Japan, it has been known to play host to a number of other pastimes for the well-heeled such as weddings and casino nights.

Q.E.D. Club Grill RoomThis place doesn’t disappoint.

If you arrive a bit early for your reservation, you’ll be led into a spacious, art-encrusted sitting room with floor to ceiling windows that would offer a phenomenal view down the hill if it weren’t for those ferro-concrete buildings in the foreground. If a view is what you have in mind, then make sure to do dinner at Q.E.D. Club.

But the grill and main restaurant open at noon (last order at 1:30 pm), and there are few finer places in Ebisu for a business lunch. The grill room (teppanyaki) has two cooking islands that front a beautiful tree-rimmed view of the grounds. Book early so as to make sure that you can be one of the two parties allowed in.

We opted for the 6,800 yen course, and started with a delicate vegetable appetizer. That was followed by tuna, bream, and horse mackerel sashimi (raw fish). Then Mr. Ishii, the teppan chef, quietly entered stage right and began working his magic on the remainder of our meal. He began by grilling some fish and followed with beef. The subtle teppan theatrics later involved fresh vegetables bathed in salt and garlic-infused oil.

That mild salt he uses is from Hiroshima prefecture, and it’s a condiment that every kitchen would do well to stock. Both the filet and sirloin are wise choices while the garlic chahan is a bit too dry and perhaps the only letdown on the menu that we sampled. Superior to the garlic chahan is the takana gohan, both of which are options along with miso soup once the grilling is done.

Drinks at the Q.E.D. Club are the only things on the menu that are not anchored to some kind of course set-up. Glasses of wine start at around one thousand yen while the lunches themselves are priced between 5,200 and 12,000 yen. Dinner, which runs from six to eleven pm (last order at 8:30), sees the set menu prices vault to the seventeen to twenty-seven thousand yen range.

The main restaurant area caters to lovers of French and Japanese cuisine, and again everything is set up as a multi-course meal. If you’re the type of person who likes a little more control over what you eat, then I’d recommend going French. A three (4,500 yen) and five (5,800) course plan are available at lunch, and it’s more of a choose-you-own-adventure set-up than can be experienced in the grill room. The impressive list includes everything from the obligatory foie gras to grilled Basque pork. After six, however, the set menus come back into play, and two courses (twelve and sixteen thousand yen, respectively) are available.

Diners who select Japanese for lunch (course menus: 5,200; 6,800; and 12,000 yen) will enjoy sashimi, tsukemono, plus a variety of other fish, meat, and rice dishes. There’s only one course meal option available for dinner, and that’s priced at 17,000 yen.

And in case you were worried, the dessert plates are Q.E.D. Club Dessertmassive (well, at least that’s how it works in the grill room). After some post-entree tea, we were led back out into the massive sitting area where we enjoyed a full sofa each as we attempted to rip through a multi-cake finale. The chocolate spoon was a nice touch. Coffee followed, and then we were lovingly rolled out the door.

Expect to spend between 8 and 20 thousand yen per person for lunch, and 15 to 40 in the evening. Q.E.D. Club is ideal for the aforementioned power lunches, first dates, or any other occasion where one hopes to impress. They also have black tie events such as casino night and there’s also the occasional wine tasting.

The Q.E.D. Club is accessible from the west exit of JR Ebisu station. Click here for a map.
Reservations: 03-3711-0006
For online reservations and inquiries click here.

Directions: from the west exit look across to the other side of the rotary and find the Doutour coffee shop. Walk up the small street on the right side of the Doutour building for seven to ten minutes. The road goes uphill and finally veers off to the right. The Q.E.D. Club is at the end of that road (don’t go down the hill after the road turns).

March ‘10 Magazine Roundup

Sake, seafood and… sumo? It’s time once again to take a look at the month’s food and drink magazines.

Another month, another ambitious ‘best of list’. This time it’s Syokuraku (860 yen) with their “42 best restaurants in Tokyo”.  Dividing restaurants into 7 categories (yakitori, Japanese cuisine, tempura, shabushabu, rice bowls, tonkatsu and okonomiyaki) the magazine’s editors award marks for “the quality of food, cost performance and service”.

The March issue of Ryori Tsushin

Syokuraku takes a more radical approach toward ranking sake, doing so by comparing various types of rice wine to sumo rikishi (come on… what could be more obvious!) It’s east versus west, with the sake divided into yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira and jyuyo. The magazine also features 10 Tokyo restaurants which make creative use of nihonshu.

This month’s dancyu (860 yen) continues the sake theme. The magazine introduces upcoming sake breweries in places such as Akita, Tochigi, Hiroshima and Saga. And for those who love seafood but also think cooking fish is difficult, dancyu offers a selection of quick and easy seafood recipes. Dishes include Japanese, Western and Chinese otsumami.

Coffee is flavour of the month in Cafe-Sweets (1300 yen), the editors noting that the cafe scene in Japan is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. In particular, they note that coffee schools are growing in popularity – students can take classes for beginners through to advanced. The March issue features a number of coffee schools, from industry giants Starbucks and Tully’s through to small privately-owned cafes such as Tokumitsu Coffee in Hokkaido and the mail order coffee beans shop Unir in Kyoto.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) meanwhile dedicates its March edition to what they are calling “The age of Women”. The editors introduce women who are active participants in the Japanese culinary scene. The magazine features restaurants where all meals and service are provided by women, those restaurants which are owned by women as well as female innovators in areas traditionally dominated by men – sausage and ham artisans, coffee roasters and pizza chefs.

The Wine Kingdom (1500 yen) offers a list of “The best 30 winter reds from Italy”. There’s also a special feature on Sauvigon Blanc and a pull-out section of the magazine introducing 50 brands of wines from Washington. The booklet has information about each winery, their products and personalities.

And also…

The March issue of dancyu sees the announcement of a sake tasting event to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary. 74 different sake breweries will present their wares at the Grand Prince Hotel, Shintakanawa on March 27th from 13:00 to 15:30. Tickets are 5000 yen per person. See the dancyu’s March issue for further details.

Asazuke

This wonderfully fresh pickled ‘salad’ makes an excellent winter side-dish. I like to serve this together with any kind of nabe (Japanese hotpot) or beside salmon or mackerel, the yuzu-flavored pickles helping to balance the oiliness of the fish. It also makes excellent otsumami (Japanese tapas) served alongside beer, shochu or sake.

This particular recipe calls for Chinese cabbage, but you can also use a mixture of Chinese cabbage and the regular variety.

Flavored with yuzu, a citrus fruit found in China, Korea and Japan.

Flavored with yuzu, a citrus fruit found in China, Korea and Japan.

Ingredients (serves 8 as a side dish)

  • 300g Chinese cabbage (3-4 leaves)
  • 80-100g cucumber
  • 150-200g kabu turnip (with stem and leaves still attached)
  • 1/2 a yuzu, sliced into strips
  • One 10cm by 10cm piece of kombu (kelp)
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of kobu-cha (kelp tea)
  • 1 dried red pepper

Method

First cut the Chinese cabbage into large pieces. The leaves should be roughly 3-4 cm in size, while the hard white stem section should be sliced into pieces 5-7cm in width, following the grain.

Next, slice the cucumber into pieces 2-3mm thick.

Cut the stem from the top of the turnip, leaving about 1cm. Boil the stems in a pan of water for about 10 seconds, then place them into a dish of cold water. Quickly wash them and squeeze any moisture out. Cut the stems into sections 3-4cm in length.

Now, wash the turnip, using a toothpick to clean the remaining stem section. Peel the turnip, being careful to leave the remaining stem in place. Finally, slice the turnip into 1mm thick pieces, again following the grain.

Prepare the kombu by cutting it into 2-3mm pieces using a pair of kitchen scissors.

Finally, slice the red pepper into two halves and discard the seeds inside.

Seal all the ingredients in a double plastic bag, making sure there’s still some air trapped inside. Now shake the bag, so that all is mixed well.

Squeeze the plastic bag so as to let all the air out. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours (or even overnight) before serving.

A note about serving asazuke

It is important that when you serve the dish, you drain any excess water by using both hands and squeezing the vegetables.  Asazuke should not be served swimming in liquid.

Café Review: Tokyo Apartment Café (Harajuku)

I’d first visited this café several years ago when I’d just arrived in the country. Being a snobby ex-barista from Wellington I was disappointed to find that coffee and cafés in “cool Tokyo” were mostly chain places with automatic machines. Apartment Café was one of the places which gave me hope that Tokyo did indeed have a café culture worth getting excited about.

Apartment Café

Apartment Café

Apartment Café uses Illy beans, imported from Italy. Having recently visited an Illy brand café in Yurakucho I can happily report that the barista at Apartment Café can actually create something good with them!

My first coffee of the visit is a hot café latte – a distinction that needs to be pointed out in Japanese cafés. The café is busy, but not frantic, so my coffee is delivered promptly. The milk has been spun and stretched quite well, though the finished product is not as shiny as you would really like. Still, no complaints. This coffee is smooth. The shot is nicely done, too. The finish was suitably smooth, though I think it was a single shot. A double of these Illy beans might be a bit rough. The temperature of the coffee was good, too. Quite often, especially at the chain cafés, the baristas rely on a temperature gauge in the milk jug rather than their hand. The two baristas I’ve seen here at Apartment Café are using their left hands on the side of the jug and are getting good results – no boiled or burnt milk here.

The bean hopper on the grinder looks to be three quarters full, but the baristas are only grinding beans as necessary. Good. Ground beans exposed to air have a shelf life of about 5 minutes. If they’ve been sitting there for longer the cup that arrives at your table won’t be as good as it could be. Both baristas are stretching milk without too much noise, meaning the milk will be thick and smooth, not big and bubbly. One thing I have noticed though is that they are not wiping out the basket between shots. Grounds left in the basket from the previous shot can make a coffee quite bitter. However, the shots are going straight into the cups, not into a shot glass. This means that the crema is intact when the milk is poured, resulting in a better looking coffee.

I’ve got time for another coffee, so an espresso is in order. While waiting for it, I’d best mention the prices. This espresso is setting me back 500, while a latte goes for 550. Not really an Excelsior or Doutor price, but one that café patrons in Tokyo can expect if they’re after something made well. It would seem that tax isn’t included. The total is 1,102 yen.

The espresso has arrived, so let’s take a look. This is a single as well, and looks to have been quite a long pour. The crema isn’t really what you’d call great – there is a big hole in the middle. The first sip was ok, but the second starts hinting at some real bitterness. I can’t get any indication of the sweetness that a good espresso should have. After a bigger gulp towards the end, and the initial shock of that, the flavour does settle out a bit, but really it didn’t impress me as much as the latte did.

The Tokyo Apartment Café @ Harajuku – certainly worth a visit and a warming milky coffee.

The café itself has a very cool feeling to it – lots of dividing walls about the place so you feel you have your own little part of what is actually quite a big place. The music is cool, décor too. The drink menu is good, though not too extensive, and the food going past me to waiting patrons looks pretty good too. It’s easy to find, right on the corner of Omotesando-dori and Meiji-dori, or just past Softbank if you’re walking down the hill from Harajuku station.

Open 365 days a year. www.harajuku-ac.com 03-3401-4101.
Green Fantasia 1F, 1-11-11 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo.

The 1st Japan Eats Recipe Tournament

Welcome to the first ever Japan Eats Recipe Tournament, the 2010 Winter Olympics Edition.

With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games set to kick off in Vancouver on Friday, we here at Japan Eats have decided to give all of you gourmets, gourmands, foodies, epicures, and cooks out there a chance to compete alongside the athletes.

We’re looking for snack recipes – original, unusual, or little-known treats and tidbits of which you know, tweaks and twists on old favorites – from the fancy to the simple, fingerfoods to salsa, we want to see (and eat) what you’re cooking. Read more

Japan Eats on Livestream

As part of our neverending quest to bond with you over food and drink as much as possible, we here at Japan Eats are expanding into live broadcasts (or, rather narrowcasts) as well as our existing recorded shows: Japan Booze, Blind and the forthcoming Tokyo Bites.

For now, it’s just fun and games, though. Join us early Thursday afternoon (exact time TBA) to participate in the first ever Japan Eats Live Throwdown, or whatever we end up calling it – everything is up in the air and open to your suggestions at this point.

So, please come around and join JBB Host Christopher Pellegrini, Japan Eats video Director Marcus Lovitt, and Producer Garrett DeOrio  for some food and drink and, more important, to help us decide what should come next in the future of live video for Japan Eats.

So come visit our Livestream page.

We’ll be talking about what’s coming up for the site and taking questions and comments about all things food, drink, and Japan. We hope to see you there.