Japan Eats

Bar review: Teppei (Kagurazaka)

Escape busy Waseda Dori and discover one of Kagurazaka’s best kept secrets.

Teppei offers a wide variety of shochu and umeshu.

Teppei offers a wide variety of shochu and umeshu.

Getting there is half the fun. Across from Zenkokuji Temple in the center of Kagurazaka, between a fire escape and a clothing store, there’s a claustrophobic alleyway just wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Walk twenty meters along this narrow path and you’ll come to Teppei, a bar which combines serious drinks with obanzai style cooking.

The interior is attractive wood panel affair, and while somewhat cluttered, it wouldn’t be out of place in small-town Kyushu. A wooden counter runs the length of the downstairs area. Directly opposite, shelves lined with some two hundred bottles of shochu. Take a seat at the bar and not only can you nod to your drink of choice, but you can look on as the staff work the charcoal grill in the kitchen. Behind the barstools there’s also a raised tatami section with shoes-off table seating for about a further dozen or so.

It’s a safe guess that for many customers, Teppei is all about the shochu. Devotees of Kyushu’s famous spirit will have no trouble locating familiar favorites – all of the top Kyushu distilleries are represented. Those seeking something sweeter will no doubt be happy with a three page umeshu selection. Elsewhere, there are beers, four types of sake and five types of chuhai on offer. Oh, and let’s not forget Teppei’s range of seasonal sours (right now it’s sudachi, yuzu and daidai from Tokushima, squeezed by hand and served with honey). Suffice to say, the bar is well stocked.

Cucumber with homemade rayu.

Cucumber with homemade rayu.

But what elevates Teppei above most of Tokyo’s other shochu bars – in fact, Tokyo’s bars in general – are its vegetable-oriented otsumami. Yes, meat on a stick may be Tokyo’s go-to bar snack, but there’s a lot to be said for pickles, fried vegetables and salads when you need something to cut through all that alcohol. Few bars take their finger food as seriously as this one, and if you’ve dropped by for a drink rather than a full-blown meal, there’s plenty to choose from. Teppei specializes in sun-dried fish, some of the more eye-catching items being the anago, nodokuro, kinki and sardine nukazuke. Then there’s the yasaiyaki (grilled vegetables) which customers select from a basket of fresh vegetables brought right to your table.

On the night we visited, still recovering from a lengthy lunch, we’d planned for nothing more than a quick drink. All that changed when we saw what our neighbors at the bar were eating. We promptly ordered the chopped cucumber with homemade rayu, followed by the spring cabbage seasoned with jako (dried baby sardines) and sesame seeds. Both were excellent, the rayu lending the cucumber dish plenty of flavor and the ‘salad’ the kind of dish you can imagine your Kyushu grandmother preparing alongside family meals.

Salad seasoned with jako (dried baby sardines) and sesame seeds.

Spring cabbage seasoned with jako (dried baby sardines) and sesame seeds.

The bar does have its flaws – our barman radiated ‘new guy’ and more than once had to be directed to a particular bottle on the shelves. Then again, it’s probably not everyday some Australian comes in and starts ordering off menu. A slight lack of space between the bar stools and the tatami area was our only other gripe.

Teppei offers excellent food, a lengthy drinks menu and plenty of atmosphere. Those who prefer their bars neither rowdy nor restrained will find much to like in Teppei’s brand of stiff drinks and unpretentious cooking.

Directions: From Kagurazaka station (Tozai line) follow Waseda Dori down toward Iidabashi station. When you reach Zenkokuji Temple turn left at the tiny alley hedged between the wine bar and the clothing store. Teppei is 20 meters ahead, on the left just before the T.U.C window.

Tel: 03-3269-5456
4-2-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
17.30 – 23.00 (L.O.)


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Restaurant review: Old Thailand (Iidabashi)

Solid Thai food for those who prefer to be stirred rather than shaken.

A couple of years back I was fortunate enough to see a musician friend play Tokyo’s famous Blue Note Jazz Club. It was a great show, and afterwards we sat down to talk about how the gig went. As we ran through the set and talked about the players, I made some off-handed remark about how much I loved the opening piece – a wild, cacophonous explosion of sound, the likes of which is rarely heard at a Japanese club. “Yeah, the chaos,” he replied “it’s the one thing we’ll play like that in Japan. Back in the States, most of our set is like that. But after years of playing here, we learned that Japanese audiences don’t go in for chaos. Now we dial it down when we play Tokyo.”

Khao soi

Chiang Mai's famous khao soi.

Anyone who’s explored Tokyo’s so-called ‘ethnic’ food scene will spot the similarity to what happens when a Thai, Indian or even Vietnamese restaurant opens. Strong flavors, be they spices like chili or cumin, or herbs such as cilantro (coriander) are quickly brought down to a level more acceptable to the majority of Japanese customers.

Prior to visiting Old Thailand, we were assured that despite being part of a restaurant chain, their dishes were pretty authentic, and certainly the familiar ‘chili scale’ illustration (one chili meaning not particularly hot, three meaning pretty darn hot) suggested that we’d be swabbing our faces with oshibori in no time.

The lunch menu offers all the Thai standards, and then some. Khao man gai (boiled Thai-style chicken with steamed rice),  kaeng khiao wan (green curry), and tom yam-flavored noodles head up the menu. Elsewhere, a ‘new lunch menu’ offers a green curry with shrimp and avocado, as well as a personal favorite – khao soi (noodles in a soupy chicken curry).

We ordered khao soi and pad ga prao kai (minced chicken cooked in basil) and were impressed when both dishes arrived in a matter of minutes. The khao soi was a pretty good approximation of what one would find on the streets of Chiang Mai, albeit somewhat oilier and containing the kind of thin ramen noodles which tend to clump together. Still, pretty good for a dish that many Japanese are yet to discover.

But it was the ga prao that dominated conversation. It was surprisingly bland, with none of the flavor we were expecting. Where was the promised ‘three chili’ spiciness? Clearly, this was a case of a Thai classic being modified to suit local tastes. Now, this isn’t always a bad thing (the Japanese have reworked countless foreign dishes to great effect) but here the result was mildly disappointing.

Old Thailand delivers plenty of ambiance, and the long lines suggest this is a popular destination for Iidabashi’s office workers come lunchtime. But if, like me, you like your Thai liberally seasoned with chaos, I suggest you ask ahead.

Directions: Turn left from Exit B2A of Iidabashi station. It’s 3 minutes walk across the bridge and on the second street to your left.

Tel:03-5212-4566
2-3-8 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku,
Tokyo-to, 102-0071
Hours: 11.30 – 15:00 (L.O. 14.30) and 17.30 – 23.00 (L.O. 22.00)
http://www.sscy.co.jp/oldthailand/


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Restaurant Review: EAT (Gaienmae)

Tokyo has plenty of burger restaurants, but few as good as Gaienmae’s EAT.

Beef patty on top, veggies below.

What happens when you pair Kobe beef with a decent chef? Hands-down some of the best burgers in Tokyo.

The chef, MICHI, who has brought his talents back to Japan after opening a successful fusion restaurant in Los Angeles, found a hip little space in the ritzy Gaienmae district of downtown Tokyo to open his American dining burger shop, EAT.

The restaurant seats about a dozen people at one time, but the casual and bar-like nature of the place belies the quality of the fare. Yes, it’s an American burger stand, but EAT specializes in Kobe beef patties, and that alone sets it apart from the small upper echelon of burger joints in this town.

We started with a garden salad of fresh greens, mushroom slices and tomato wedges, and then moved on to a dish of EAT’s fresh French Fries. Don’t be alarmed by the counter-rattling thud. That’s just the sound of the cook running a whole potato through the slicer.

After that, it was on to the burgers. We sampled a cheeseburger and an avocado burger, and both were delicious. The Asanoya rolls are toasted until firm on the grill, and the vegetables are as fresh as everything else on the menu. MICHI’s burgers are stacked so that the juices from the beef patty and the sauce on top won’t waterlog the bottom half of the roll so long as you eat at a normal pace. For those that eat more ponderously, there are paper burger sleeves available to help keep your meal out of your lap.

EAT also has lunch sets that include a small portion of homemade fries with your burger of choice. The few times that we’ve visited, there have always been customers coming in to take advantage of the restaurant’s takeout service.

Great burgers just a short walk from Meiji Jingu Baseball Stadium.

The only thing that we could fault the place for was the English translations on the menu. The misspellings were thorough and comical. But perhaps that just adds to the charm. And one thing to be wary of, especially if you have English-speaking children with you, is that the music selection is uncensored (Internet radio channel, perhaps).

EAT has a brief bar menu that features a few imported bottled beers and lots of cocktails. Expect to pay between 1,700 and 2,500 per person for the three dishes mentioned above plus one drink. As with many places, the cost drops if you stop by for lunch.

Directions: This burger stand is about three or four minutes on foot from Gaienmae subway station. Using the route-finder on our smartphone, we walked to EAT from JR Harajuku train station in 20 minutes.

Tel: 03-6459-2432
2-12-27 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku
Hours: 11:30-15:00 and 17:30-22:30 (Weekdays), 11:30-15:00 (Sundays)


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The Perfect Christmas in Tokyo

Senior Yuletide Correspondent Garrett De Orio shares his tips for Christmas in Tokyo.

To begin this piece on Christmas in Tokyo, I attempted to add to what I knew by sending out a request for recommendations to a number of long-term expat residents – usually a surefire way of getting ideas.

This time, every single person who responded either pined for the Western locales they knew from days of yore or quipped that the best place to celebrate the holiday in Japan was New York (or London, or Miami, or Munich, or Monowi, Nebraska—you get the idea).

Indeed, Tokyo is not seen as a Christmas destination. For the parents of young kids, it’s a time to buy toys, which is a lot less endearing when not experienced through the hoary brume of a Burl Ives record. For young couples, it’s almost identical to Valentine’s Day in the Anglophone world. In this light, my expat friends’ response isn’t entirely unfair.

Well, put on your Bing Crosby, your Nat King Cole, or even your Chipmunks or your Percy Faith if that’s what floats your boat, and get into the spirit, friend. There is hope.

DECK THE HALLS

The giants Costco (¥4,200 annual membership required) and Ikea carry a variety of holiday items, including real fir trees, Ikea’s being a particularly good deal at ¥1,990 plus a coupon for the same amount if you bring the tree back.

In-town favorites Tokyu Hands and Don Quijote have numerous locations and an array of artificial trees, ornaments, lights, and decorations ranging from classic green saplings to huge tacky light-up giant Santas to items best-suited to decking the halls of your bordello. The always handy Foreign Buyers’ Club can also help with décor if your order soon to account for shipping time.

For those of you of a creative bent, Yuzawaya and Shimojima carry myriad supplies for the craft-inclined – from wreaths to cloth by the yard to wrapping paper and holiday decorations.

NOW FOR THE FOOD

Christmas display

A Christmas display at a Shinjuku department store.

If you’re being traditional and cooking at home, you’re in luck. Many of the dishes you love are just as possible here as at home. Check the aforementioned FBC or The Meat Guy to order a ham or turkey. Both also carry appropriate sides and pies. Niku no Hanamasa also carries whole turkeys and hams. Import mini-market chain Seijo-Ishii carries a respectable assortment of holiday dishes, including turkeys (by order), pie crusts, mixes, and more. Import markets Euroseed and Jupiter, a relative newcomer to Tokyo, but long popular in the Chubu and Kansai areas, have similar offerings. Of course, the good old depachika (department store basement) near you is sure to carry a selection of seasonal items, especially desserts, albeit at a price.

It’s worth keeping your eyes peeled, too. In years past, roasted turkeys have popped up for sale in locations as unlikely as fashion retailer Comme ça du Mode.

GOING OUT?

Tokyo is a veritable paradise of date spots around Christmastime. Virtually any restaurant with even a vaguely Western menu, and many without, will offer some kind of Christmas course for couples.

If you and your date are looking for something special, the city’s top tier hotels are a good place to start. The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel has options ranging from a European Christmas Buffet (¥3,500 lunch/¥5,200 dinner) to a Christmas Dinner Course (¥15,000). Special room packages are also available, from the “Joyful” or “Shiny” Christmases (¥20,000-¥25,000) to the “Christmas Dream” in the Presidential Suite (¥300,000). (All December 23rd to 25th.)

In addition to its “Stylish Christmas” illuminations and décor, the Hilton Tokyo Bay offers room packages and dining options ranging from a Christmas Buffet (¥3,900 lunch/¥5,500 dinner) and a World Christmas Dessert Buffet in the lobby lounge (¥2,700 weekdays/¥2,950 weekends and holidays) to a Chinese Christmas Special Course (a Christmas Day tradition for a number of Americans, ¥3,800 lunch/¥10,000 dinner), all of which run from the 22nd through the 25th, except for the Dessert Buffet, which starts a week earlier.

The Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi offers an elaborate six course dinner in its Executive Dining Room (¥30,000) from the 23rd to the 25th. Also available, from the 19th to the 25th, are a Christmas Dinner (¥13,000) and a three course Christmas Lunch (¥3,900). From the 1st of December, sample a Christmas Cocktail (from ¥2,100) or Christmas Afternoon Tea (from ¥3,500).

The Park Hyatt’s New York Grill offers a five course Christmas menu (¥22,000), and selections from its 1,600-bottle wine cellar, served in its famous 52nd floor premises overlooking Shinjuku from the 16th to the 25th.

Stylish Swedish establishment Aquavit has an artful holiday menu on offer (¥12,000) from the 22nd to the 25th. For a meal cooked by a proper Swedish chef in a more relaxed atmosphere, Kokubunji’s Lighthouse is offering a Christmas dinner for a bargain ¥2,000, in addition to their fine collection of regular and guest beers and ales.

Of course, the much-touted four course Christmas dinner at Wine Bar Davis (03-3440-6007), which boasts roast goose and British Christmas pudding, is available for one sitting on the 23rd and 26th and two sittings each night on the 24th and 25th.

For those who want something more casual, the Pink Cow will be serving its customary popular Christmas dinner (¥4,200) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One of the highlights is that the Pink Cow’s holiday feast includes vegetarian-friendly offerings. If a communal feel, tofurkey, and some live entertainment appeal to you, this would be the place to go.

Good Honest Grub also serves up a traditional meal, with vegetarian-friendly options, in a casual atmosphere. This has long been a favorite not only with hungry expats, but with those interested in organic food or in knowing whence their fare hails.

The ever-popular Hobgoblin has a three-course ample Christmas dinner available on Christmas Day (¥5,000) and is also hosting a Charity Pub Quiz on the 14th at which a turkey dinner will be available.

 

This article first appeared in the Tokyo Weekender.

Out and about: Ama-san in Osatsu

The ladies of Mie offer the freshest catch in town

What makes the pursuit of fantastic and original cuisine so enticing is that it’s inseparable from the unique culture in which it was conceived. In an era where nearly everything that we dine upon is primly packed, shipped, and plainly arranged to follow the path of least resistance to the consumer, somewhere in the recesses of our consciousness we’re aware that what our palate is experiencing is no mere accident. Someone, somewhere was in a position to conjure up a flavor or a dish because it made sense given a situation and resources and people cross cities, states, provinces, mountains, nations, and oceans with their sights set on tasting “the real thing”.

Ama_feat

Two ama-san in Ōsatsu, Mie prefecture.

For many, one early morning excursion to the Tsukiji fish market followed by a sushi breakfast in the charmingly rustic shitamachi is an authentic enough experience of Japan’s culinary obsession with the treasures of the sea.

However, for the inquisitive and adventurous, I can point to about 1,000 women in Mie who can further satisfy your appetite.

To this day, in the small fishing village of Ōsatsu in the southern port of Toba City, Mie prefecture, nearly 1,000 fully active and hard-working ama-san (海女さん – literally “sea woman”) forage for the ocean’s offerings the old-fashioned way – by diving for them, leaving the air supply at home.

While the distinctive white garb and physically demanding practice have history in some other isolated regions of Japan, as well as in Korea, Toba City (including Ōsatsu) is the home to nearly half of the roughly 2,000 active Japanese ama-san – a significant figure in a city with a population of approximately 20,000. Put simply, 1 out of every 20 people in the city (roughly one out of every 10 women!) spends a good 2 hours in the frigid ocean waters most mornings foraging the key constituents of the local diet. The a.m. session was for a long time followed by a bit of rest in the ama-koya, or “ama hut”, with a second outing, once rejuvenated. Nowadays, dives are limited to just one in the morning, partially for safety reasons, but primarily because there are other options for the working woman today. Indeed, most of the ladies pursue other activities in the daytime. Somewhat unique for a fishing village, there’s a reasonable spread of rice paddies which allow for local farming in conjunction with the diving.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

The other reason for the more “relaxed pace” may well be the fact that most ama-san are in their 60s and 70s, with the oldest active divers in their mid-80s. A handful of up-and-comers are in their early to mid-20s, though. While certain scenes in Ōsatsu may feel frozen in time, these hard-working ladies on the front line are combating the same social issues as the rest of the nation. One can easily forgive them for limiting their active duty to a “mere” morning dive. That said, with the village gradually making its way into the public eye, and with a surprising number of young women now actively seeking to succeed their mothers and grandmothers in the trade (the opposite of the trend we’re seeing in Japan’s struggling farming industry), it’s entirely possible that the vitality of a new generation of ama-san may bring about an entirely new image and lifestyle for women and the local fishing industry.

Don’t expect these ladies to don diving gear anytime soon, though. While “protecting tradition” and suppressing certain costs associated with gearing up may be the obvious reasons, the major factor is more simple: balance. The natural limitation placed on the divers in these conditions places a natural limit on just how much can be caught on any given day during any given season. It’s this balance that has sustained the city and the culture for generations, and the people of Toba see it as the key to continued sustainability for generations to come.

What does this have to do with your insatiable appetite? Well, where there’s a congregation of individuals partaking in a unique and impressive, but largely extinct cultural practice, you’ll also often find open arms welcoming the curious traveler – particularly when there’s food involved! So it is in the ama-san village of Ōsatsu, currently making the push for recognition as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity‘.

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Although a significant step up in terms of comfort compared to the real thing, a special ama-koya has been constructed specifically for those adventurous individuals who wish to dine only on the freshest morning catch, consisting of freshly grilled sazae, a form of conch or “sea snail”, abalone, as well as the occasional ise-ebi (a member of the lobster family).

It should be noted, however, that while it’s common for clams, scallops, and squid to also appear on the menu, these can’t be classified as part of the “ama-san catch”, as these are left alone by the brave divers. In fact, the primary target for ama-san is seaweed and sea grasses, including ise-hijiki, wakame, as well as awame, a particular variety of kelp which can only be found in local waters, typically only used in local Mie and Kyoto dishes. The varieties of local kelp and seaweed are most commonly prepared boiled or stewed with combinations of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, often becoming part of soups.

The experience as a whole is most certainly one worth seeking out, as a comforting veil of both vitality and mystery seems to hang low over the waterfront village. Although technically a tourist attraction, the ama-koya offers a chance to get one step closer to the cuisine of local waters than you’ll find just about anywhere else, and the its location far down the oceanfront jetty will conjure a sense of discovery in even the veteran explorer. It’s worth noting that the real ama-koya are not open to the public – the coals burning there are used primarily as a heat source for the small enclosure rather than for preparing meals.

In Japan, quality seafood is never hard to find, but those with curious taste buds and who long to know just where their meal is from would struggle to do better, even in Tsukiji, making the ama-koya dining experience one you’d have a tough time duplicating just about anywhere.

Special thanks to Asami Murata for the photos and wealth of additional information.

Restaurant Review: Yama to ten (Shinjuku)

Soupless in Shinjuku

Spicy abura soba

Spicy abura soba

Abura soba shops are popping up all over town these days. A lot of the shops that specialize in this soupless style of ramen serve abura soba and not a whole lot else. The fact that restaurants can have only one item on the menu is clear testament to the popularity of this dish.

Yama to ten (山ト天) in Shinjuku diversifies a bit by featuring a few in-house versions of abura soba as the centerpiece of a modest izakaya menu.

Highly recommended is the spicy abura soba (辛味温玉) which will set you back 600 yen. Heap some freshly chopped onions on top, douse the whole thing with vinegar and raayu, and then mix it all together with your chopsticks. The soft ramen noodles soak up the oils nicely, and they play well with the onions, chashu, bamboo shoots and shredded bits of dried seaweed.

There’s also the standard abura soba for 500 yen and a couple of other options that usually run in the 600-700 yen range.  For those who are better with colors than with kanji, the spicy abura soba is the big button at the top of the ticket machine that has a red background (second from the left).

The shop’s modest menu is also tucked full of izakaya-style dishes that go well with a beer. Everything from gyoza (380-480 yen) to a side of kimchi (290 yen) to sausages (480 yen). A draft beer goes for 420 yen, and the rest of the drinks menu mostly deals with shochu-base drinks such as sours, hais and umeshu (most are 380 yen). You can also order a half bottle of house wine for 980.

Because it’s an izakaya, the whole place is smoker-friendly. If you’d like to avoid the fumes, then we suggest stopping by after the busiest lunch hours and before business picks up again at around 6 PM. They have some tables off to the sides of the counter that are mostly untouched by smoke when the place isn’t busy.

Directions: Yama to ten is part of a new izakaya-themed, mostly open-plan dining area on the MB3 floor (the ‘M’ is not a typo) of Odakyu Halc. In other words, go to Bic Camera near JR Shinjuku west exit and head downstairs. The main entrance is down the stairs that are located near the B2 entrance of Odakyu Halc supermarket.

Tel:03-6302-0405
Odakyu Halc (Haru Chika)
Hours: 11:00 – 24:00 ( LO 23:30 )
Tabelog review (Japanese): http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1304/A130401/13119474/


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Japan Eats Podcast: Episode 11, “Lucky Peach – Part 2″

In the second part of our conversation about Lucky Peach, we discuss authenticity, the magazine’s recipes and talk about what we’d like to see in the next edition.

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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You can also subscribe to the fortnightly Japan Eats feed via iTunes or directly with our RSS feed.

Find the Japan Eats Facebook page here. Have something to say? Drop us a line.

Here are some links to what we discussed this week:

You can e-mail us at lovitt@japaneats.tv

Follow us on the Japan Eats Twitter feed. And please “Like” Japan Eats on Facebook.

Video: Sumashi-jiru (clear soup)

Keiko Inomata and Yutaka Yasuda explain how to prepare sumashi-jiru (Japanese clear soup)

We’re pleased to present this video by the talented folks at Yasuda Photo Studio.

Keiko Inomata is a researcher and lecturer focusing on kaiseki cuisine. Born in Tokyo, she is a registered nutritionist and consults on menus for the food service industry.

Yutaka Yasuda is a photographer/videographer who in 2001 established the Yasuda Photo Studio in Nakano. He specializes in food photography.

Japan Eats Podcast: Episode 10, “Lucky Peach – Part 1″

The panel discuss the new food quarterly from Momofuku’s David Chang

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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You can also subscribe to the fortnightly Japan Eats feed via iTunes or directly with our RSS feed.

Find the Japan Eats Facebook page here. Have something to say? Drop us a line.

In this week’s Japan Eats Podcast, Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini give their impressions of David Chang’s Lucky Peach.

Here are some links to what we discussed this week:

You can e-mail us at lovitt@japaneats.tv

Follow us on the Japan Eats Twitter feed. And please “Like” Japan Eats on Facebook.

Restaurant Review: Ivan Ramen (Rokakoen Station)

Christopher Pellegrini samples the noodles at Ivan Ramen

You should definitely try Orkin's roasted tomatoes (Roast Tomato Meshi).

Ramen is one of those dishes that people will travel considerable distances to consume. It’s kind of like the trouble die-hard fanboys go to when trying to get their hands on a freshly released edition of a franchise–they’ll wait in line for it. They’ll make plans days in advance to be in another part of the country just to have dibs on the best seats for the big event.

And if you understand that, then you can comprehend with reasonable accuracy the lengths to which true ramen fans will pursue their addiction. They’re as obsessive as any other foodie out there, and in many cases more so.

And while I’m not the fanboy type, I must admit that I planned nearly a week in advance to visit Ivan Ramen, a corner ramen shop less than 10 minutes on foot from Rokakoen station in Setagaya Ward (Keio Line) that is owned by American chef, Ivan Orkin.

The shop is a very simple square with an L-shaped counter and space for about 10 customers. There is nothing significant going on with the decor, and the concrete-floored kitchen space is both well-organized and spotless. The focus is clearly on the food at Ivan Ramen, and that’s how it should be.

Ivan Orkin is something of a celebrity both for successfully wedging his way into the secretive ramen world here in Japan and for doing things his own way. His ramen soup is not rammed with lard as is customary, and he makes his own noodles with a dough that utilizes three types of flour. There’s also a very strong dependence on fresh ingredients. In that sense, even though this is technically ‘B-class’ Japanese cuisine, and is often referred to as fast food, dining at Ivan Ramen does not exact as much of an attack on one’s health as ramen customarily can.

After ordering your food from a ticket machine out in the alley, diners are encouraged to find a seat and enjoy the soft music playing in the background for just a couple of minutes. Jazz was on the airwaves when we visited, and we were grateful for the attention to detail on the proprietor’s part.

The wait doesn’t last long at Ivan Ramen. Most orders will be in front of you in less than a couple of minutes. Ivan himself explained recently in the first edition of Lucky Peach that his ramen noodles take 40 seconds to boil, but we were still surprised how quickly our meals arrived.

One special currently on the menu at Ivan Ramen is the “Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka” which is a blend of garden

Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka Ramen

salad and cold soup and all with a bit of Chinese cooking thrown in for good measure. And we were pleased that we grabbed one of these (only 15 are served daily) because the freshness of the ingredients (the tomatoes are absolutely out of this world!) and the marriage of the soup and noodles led to an exceptional and filling meal.

It’s important to note that the specials change regularly, so it’s worth it to either check the restaurant’s website or make a return visit every once in a while.

We also tried the Cha-shu- Spicy Red Chili Men (noodles) and the Roast Tomoto Meshi (rice). The former features the house’s signature thin ramen noodles and a small puddle of chili soup with half of a hard-boiled egg bobbing in the shallows. The regular menu also sports several shio and shoyu-base ramen dishes, tsukemen, other sides, a ‘beer of the day’ for 400 yen, and homemade ice cream.

Ramen dishes are mostly priced between 800 and 1,000 yen with topping upgrades such as extra cha-shu- and menma costing 100 yen each. A range of rice bowls range from 200 to 800 yen and are available in two sizes.

It’s very difficult to go wrong at Ivan Ramen. We would highly recommend anything with Orkin’s roasted tomatoes in it. The preponderance of fresh and healthy ingredients in Orkin’s creations will make you rethink whether ramen is a Japanese version of fast food.

And for those who enjoy the innovation that is part and parcel with his take on ramen, then you are encouraged to visit Ivan Ramen Plus, a second shop that he opened last year.

3-24-7 Minami Karasuyama, Setagaya-ku Tokyo, 157-0062
(Rokakoen station on the Keio Line)
Ph: 03-6750-5540
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 5:30 PM – 10:30 PM (closed Wednesdays)
Sat, Sun and Nat’l Holidays 11:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Also closed the 4th Tuesday of every month.
http://www.ivanramen.com/top_en.html


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