In the fourth of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick takes his sticks to the legendary Budoka.
Your guide knew he’d found his kind of place from the moment he walked through the chained-open door to stand before the simple ticket machine and was greeted by a guttural call from the dimness within.
It was a Sunday evening just as the college guys were leaving for winter vacation, but the couple of open seats available at the counter were an anomaly even then. The ten seats in the narrow space between the counter and the wall are far more often being waited for by a line out the door than empty.
I went with the chashumen and, before I even turned to sit down, the strapping youth running the shop gave a friendly shout for the specifics of my order (these being how you want the noodles and the soup). I settled in to see three young guys negotiating the tight kitchen, adding entire porcine rub cages to the giant stock pot. They all had their sleeves rolled up onto their shoulders, tightly-rolled white towels around their heads, and rectangles of wood with their names written in black marker on them hanging from their necks on strings.
At my back was a wall covered almost floor to ceiling with the business cards and expired train passes of appreciative customers (go have a look for Nick “The Sticks” Kowalski).
Budoka has a big reputation and lives up to it. The noodles were thick and slightly chewy, the toppings were copious and neatly arranged to make everything look nice, but the kicker was the soup. It was thick and meaty without being salty, which is a rare, but lovely flavor. The textures of this soup make it something you’ll want to roll it around your tongue.
This is what a bowl of ramen should be like, especially in the winter. Heavy, flavorful, and interesting. Yours truly isn’t getting any younger and fills up quicker than he used to. The young guys on the other hand gorge on the bottomless bowls of rice you can get for a pittance.
Budoka is near exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori, past Genten. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right, it’s set back a bit from the sidewalk, less than a minute from the station.
In the second of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick settles in for a bit at Merci.
From Shichifukya, where to go, where to go? Down the road on an express route to the finish line? That ain’t never been Nick’s way.
To school, then. Leaving Shichifukuya and turning right, you can travel but a few stretches of the pins to old Merci, also on your right, not far from Waseda station.
“Old” is the key word here. For a guy like yours truly, Merci has two appealing points and one important thing to be wary of, just like a good dame.
Fancy name aside, everything about this place is straightforward, which, oddly enough, gives it a kind of subtle charm. From the white plastic katakana sign hanging over the sidewalk to the old style display case showing off dusty plastic ramen and omu-rice next to the door to the big plate glass window fronting the place – you know what you’re getting into before you even walk through the door.
So what is it that you’re getting into?
A fairly spacious, veneer-paneled, tiled room, sans the usual counter. Instead, Merci has neatly-spaced wood-grain formica tables surrounded by two to six plastic chairs each. The kitchen is in the back and has a big pass-through, like most non-ramen restaurants. The feeling that Merci was not originally a ramen shop is strong.
The menu is simple, relatively brief, and printed in black and white on the wall. Your guide went for the chashumen, which, at 630 yen, was just about the most expensive thing on the menu, including the beer, which was 530 yen for a big bottle of Super Dry.
The wait for the ramen was not long – Merci has prompt, courteous service, if not the garrulous buddy-buddy-ness of many newer, trendier noodleries, which seems to suit it’s all but 100% male, student and salaryman clientele just fine.
The crowd seemed split about two to one between small groups of students lingering over cigarettes and sports papers or manga and salarymen who bolted (their food) and bolted (for somewhere else to linger).
There was a distinct, sour old ramen shop smell, not really a pleasant odor, even if it is kind of familiar, but I soon got used to it and, unlike another place I shall later review in this space, it wasn’t enough to cause discomfort.
Before the big kerosene heater by the table had time to warm my toes, a perfectly ordinary bowl of shoyu ramen was set down next to my beer. A bit of seaweed, a bit of corn, and some pleasantly thick chasu slices topped a bowl of very ordinary noodles – neither thick nor thin, neither hard nor soft, in a bowl of very ordinary soup – salty, a little oily – no secret ingredient, no texture, no intrigue. This was not Goldilocks’s “just right” so much as eminently forgettable.
That’s not the point, though. Merci has a different crowd (and it does have a crowd, especially at lunch time). I love a place that is so very Showa. That reminds of a time before I was born, but without being retro. This is not the time of movies recounting an elderly director’s childhood, but the time of his late 30s and 40s. The time of architecture and furnishings that would be forgettable were they not so pervasive, if overshadowed these days. This is the real “delightfully tacky”, which has nothing to do with dolls pretending Mötley Crüe is going to come back for real. This is a little taste of a time not so long ago, the boom time, when there was no time decorate with taste or build to last.
Merci‘s crowd, though, seems to love different things: it’s cheap, it’s fast, there’s a basket of manga, and the staff don’t mind if you hang around for a while after you eat in the afternoon.
Merci is near Waseda station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past Shichifukuya, pas the SMBC ATM, and you’ll see it on your right. Big plate glass window. Ramen from 400 yen.
Several industry insiders came together to bring the nihonshu-loving public “Taste of Akita” on Saturday
October 23rd at Akita Bisaikan. And 40+ fortunate souls were treated to an evening of Akita’s finest, all while being guided every step of the way by nihonshu author and expert, John Gauntner, bilingual guide and brewery tour organizer, Etsuko Nakamura, and brewery representatives such as Saiya Shuzo’s Akihisa Sato.
Starting with a quick introduction to the history of sake production in Akita Prefecture, Gauntner simultaneously espoused on the mystery sake, a unique unlabeled contest sake given to each table. From there the food began to arrive. First, a hinaidori chicken liver pate followed by broth-simmered Azuki Babylon Shellfish.
And by this time sake number two had already been delivered, again one bottle per table, but this time every table got the same thing–Mansaku-no-Hana Daiginjo. Aged for two years and much more refined than the contest sake, this sake was an excellent counter point to the far richer flavors found in the shellfish and pate.
Next up was the Kariho Hiyaoroshi (fall seasonal sake), a junmai ginjo that nicely complemented the fresh sashimi selection with its pronounced and bright aroma.
Right on Kariho’s heels was crowd favorite Saiya Shuzo’s Yuki-no-Bosha which is actually a genshu at 16%. Genshu is the result of a brewing style that doesn’t involve using water to dilute the sake, and the fact that this sake peaked at 16% means that the toji (master brewer) is one of the best in the business. Most genshu end up being several percentage points higher in alcohol content.
Last but not least, and as the small dishes of food continued to appear in front of the six people at our table, a tokubetsu junmai sake by the name of Ama-no-To Umashine appeared. Teamed with Akita’s specialty, Kiritanpo Nabe, this sake from Asamai Shuzo added liquid notes of raisin and butter to the end of the meal.
From start to finish, “Taste of Akita” was a wonderful experience for both the uninitiated and experienced sake tippler. The Akita cuisine matches easily with what Gauntner calls the “fine-grained” nature of the sake produced in that region, and there were ear to ear smiles on everyone’s face as they left the restaurant to take pictures with the two namahage waiting outside.
This was the first time that Gauntner and Nakamura have teamed up with a prefectural government to help sake reach a wider audience. To make sure that you don’t miss future events like “Taste of Akita”, subscribe to Gauntner’s monthly newsletter.
Reliable Thai, only a few minutes walk from Shinjuku Station.
One of the quirks of living in Tokyo is that some types of cuisine are ubiquitous, while others are virtually ignored. There are numerous French bistros, Italian pizzerias and Chinese fast-food joints, yet finding a decent bowl of Vietnamese pho or Malaysian laksa can prove difficult. And don’t even get me started on the dearth of Lebanese or Moroccan food.
Thankfully, good quality Thai cooking is well represented. From the casual charm of Shinjuku’s Bankirao to the upmarket Mango Tree in Marunouchi, lovers of lemongrass and chili needn’t go far to get their fix.
One of the most popular is Plik chee fah. Hidden away on the 5th floor of an unremarkable building on the west side of Shinjuku Station, Plik chee fah serves up good quality renditions of familiar favorites – curries, noodle dishes and spicy salads. The restaurant is especially popular at lunchtime, when it packs in the crowds of (mostly) young professional women.
Like so many of Tokyo’s other Thai restaurants, this 5th floor loft space isn’t much to look at. Plastic tablecloths protect the furniture from falling debris and the window curtains appear to have seen better days. Nor does it stand on formality – although the soundtrack of Thai pop is for the most part unobtrusive, the same cannot be said for the widescreen television which gets switched on mid-evening. All this, of course, is part of the charm, but probably not ideal for that intimate candlelit dinner.
The weekday lunch menu (11 am to 3 pm) consists of a dozen or so ‘sets’, including standards such as kao man kai and tom yum goong, for under 1000 yen. On the weekend, the restaurant serves up a lunch buffet between 11 am and 3 pm. On a recent visit, the minced chicken and basil proved especially popular (I apologize to anyone standing in line behind me).
As one would expect, the dinner menu is more comprehensive. It contains all of the classic Thai dishes one usually comes across in Tokyo: pad Thai (1200 yen), fried morning glory (a tad overpriced at 1200 yen) and popia tod (spring rolls) for 1000 yen. There are also a couple of surprises: Chiang Mai’s signature dish, kao soy (1300 yen) and a wide selection of salads, including yam wun sen (spicy noodle salad – 1200 yen) and yam mu yaw (Thai sausage salad) for 1300 yen.
We decided to take things slow and to start with drinks and the yum wun sen. The waiter, however, had other ideas. Service was extremely fast. Our salad arrived only moments after ordering, and seemed none the worse for it. A riot of flavors accompanied the first mouthful. First sour, then salty, then sweet. The perfectly cooked texture of the squid and shrimp was impressive.
Next, we decided on the kao soy. Essentially a chicken noodle soup, the Chiang Mai original balances different textures (soft noodles/a crispy noodle garnish) and flavors (sweet coconut milk/spicy chili). We found Plik chee fah’s version went overboard with the coconut milk. Thick and glutinous, it was a little too sweet. This could have been helped by a dash of lime juice, but like many other South East Asian restaurants in Japan, a side dish of lemon substituted for lime.
If you’re looking for satisfying, unpretentious Thai, Plik chee fah will not disappoint. On leaving, the staff thank you twice, in both Thai and Japanese.
Now what’s “That was delicious” in Thai?
Directions: Plik chee fah (2) is located on the 5th floor of Meiko Building in Nishi Shinjuku. To get there, walk out Shinjuku Station’s Odakyu Exit and proceed down the hill toward Seibu Shinjuku. On the left side of the street you’ll see a large pachinko parlor. The restaurant is located in a small building in the street to the rear.
5th Floor of the Meiko Building, Nishi Shinjuku.
Bunryu’s original shop in Takadanobaba has a long and proud history of making good Italian food. Less than
a one minute from JR Takadanobaba station, this small restaurant has been keeping restaurants happy and coming back for more since the 1973.
While the restaurant itself is not large, there is enough seating for parties as large as 10, and customers dining alone can easily be accommodated at the central island table.
The bookshelves, ceramic lamps, and other assorted classic touches are nice, but the real attraction is the food. Lunch is a great time to try this restaurant out, as it becomes considerably more affordable for the average non-executive or university professor, but be prepared to wait if you arrive right at noon. While in the queue, you can busy yourself deciding which of the four lunch courses you’d like to try. At 950 yen, the A course gets you a salad, pasta dish of your choice, and post-meal cup of coffee or tea. If one happens to be sporting a decent appetite, then opting for a course that comes later in the alphabet is advised.
The other three courses, B through D, build in varying degrees and amounts of Italian-inspired delights with the most involved being the D course at 2,800 yen. For that price you’ll enjoy an appetizer, salad, pasta and meat or fish dishes of your choice, homemade bread, and the aforementioned hot drink.
From the pasta menu, anything featuring Tagliatelle (a pasta noodle made with egg) is a safe bet.
There is also, of course, a small variety of pasta, meat, fish, and pizza a la carte selections available. Pasta dishes are 750 at lunchtime, while everything else is priced between one and two thousand yen.
Beer and house wine are 300 yen during the afternoon.
Bunryu happens to be very popular with the local university professor crowd, so it is not uncommon to find them there reading a book in the afternoon or having dinner with small groups of graduate-level advisees in the evening.
Bunryu also has a restaurant in Kunitachi.
Directions: JR Takadanobaba Waseda exit (accessible from Tozai and Seibu-Shinjuku lines as well). Find “Big Box” (there’s a police box at the foot of it), and from there locate Mizuho Bank across the street. Bunryu is in the basement beneath Mizuho in the FI building.
Address: 169-0075 Tokyo-to Shinjuku-ku Takadanobaba 1-26-5 FI Biru B1
Hours: Lunch 11:30-14:00; Dinner 17:00-22:00 (until 21:00 on Sundays)
Guru Navi: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a530000/
Bunryu Website: http://www.bunryu.co.jp/restaurant/index.htm
Nouka no Daidokoro grows its own vegetables in the shop and is an excellent, if a bit pricey, place to have a meal for vegetarians.
Featuring a comfy, farmer’s market interior, Nouka no Daidokoro (translation: farmer’s kitchen) is highly advised for those in search of some creative and healthy food in Tokyo.
The first choice one needs to make after sitting down is which course to choose. The three dinner courses are listed as 4:3:3, 6:2:2, and 10:0:0. These number describe the ratio of vegetables, meat, and fish in each. By that logic, the third option is a one hundred percent vegetarian option while the first and second mix in varying degrees of carnivorous fare.
From there customers are asked to further refine their selection. The two courses involving meat and fish have three variations–courses priced at 3,800 yen, 4,800 yen, and 5,800 yen. The vegetarian course has two options (no 5,800 yen version).
One thing that is common to all three of the courses is access to the salad bar which is perhaps the most uplifting part of the experience. It is so easy to enjoy food that is both organic and grown by the passionate people serving it.
Many of the vegetables on display are literally grown in-house, and a quick glance at the greenhouse to the right of the salad bar will show you what will be served in the near future. Because the salad bar tends to go light on leafy greens, the result is a delightful glass of vegetable sticks, halved cherry tomatoes, and delicious mushrooms.
The main course involves a flurry of vegetable dishes with the occasional slice of fish or meat. The creativity in the kitchen involves everything from a vegetarian and riceless risotto (above left) to a clam ravioli dish covered in a froth of cappuccino cream.
Naturally, fresh fruit and vegetable juices are available, and don’t forget to check out the kitchen’s selection of flora-inspired cocktails. Juices and cocktails start in the 400-500 yen range. Premium Malt’s is the beer on tap (680 yen), and a decent selection of umeshu, wine, and traditional cocktails are also available (generally 600-1,000 yen). A few bottles of shochu and nihonshu are stocked as well.
On your way out you can pick up some fresh vegetables to take home with you as the entrance doubles as a produce section.
After 9:00 pm it is possible to order dishes a la carte. If you’re dining before that time, it might be wise to make a reservation because the restaurant fills up quickly at dinnertime.
At dinnertime, expect to pay at least five thousand yen per person for a meal and two drinks. The lunch menu has a la carte dishes for less than 1,000 yen.
Directions: Take the west exit of JR Ebisu station or exit 1 if you arrived on the Hibiya subway line. Look for the Doutour (coffee shop) and Kinokuniya (liquor shop) diagonally across the rotary. Keeping those shops on your right, walk up the street that passes in front of them. You will soon see a Lawson convenience store on your left. On the first floor of the next building on the left, you will find Nouka no Daidokoro. If you reach Family Mart convenience store, then you have walked too far.
Address: 150-0022 Tokyo-to Shibuya-ku Ebisu Minami 1-7-8 Ebisu South One 1F
Hours: Lunch 11-15:30 (last order 14:30); Dinner 17:30-23:00 (doors close 21:45; food last order 22:00; drinks last order 22:30)
Guru Navi (Japanese): http://r.gnavi.co.jp/p963301/
Finding a place to eat in Kagurazaka between the hours of three and five pm can be a real challenge when you’re determined not to settle for Royal Host or McDonald’s. Enter “Ryukotei”, a two-floor Chinese restaurant right in the thick of the main road going up the hill from Iidabashi station. This place isn’t out to impress, but they will give you enough food to keep you going until it’s time to eat again. 1,000 yen per person should do the trick.
Lunch is served from 11 am until 5 pm which means that this restaurant doesn’t close between meals like the majority of its neighbors. Lunch sets are 1,000 yen, and while the ‘white fish meat and tomato stir-fry‘ is a little too salty, their ‘chicken and cashews stir-fry‘ is definitely worth a try. All sets come with a bottomless bowl of rice, pickled veggies, a small bowl of rather bland egg soup, and a drink.
A la carte dishes are available for between 1000 and 1400, and the ‘dessert of the day’ can be added for 300 yen. Speaking of which, a dessert set (dessert plus a drink) costs 800-900 yen.
Coffee is 400 yen when ordered on its own, and a double espresso is 500. Ryukotei has Chinese tea starting at 550 yen while more common options such as Earl Grey start at 500. Soft drinks start at 500 yen.
The restaurant also has a small selection of alcohol. They get points for serving Premium Malt’s in both a bottle (650 yen) and on tap (550), and for stocking six different types of umeshu (starting from 500). Nihonshu, shochu, and spirits are also available for between 500 and 1,000 yen.
The interior of Ryukotei is clean and comfy while the music isn’t at all distracting on the first floor. The service is fast and courteous, but unfortunately they have chosen to follow their neighbors in offering a very pro-smoking environment.
To be fair, however, they prohibit smoking on the ground floor during the first half of lunch (until three pm) and most of dinner. But for whatever reason they have a two hour gap in the middle where the whole restaurant becomes a smoking area. Nowhere on the menu, front door, or advertisements is this indicated in any way, shape, or form. Ask upon entry if that is something that can ruin a dining experience for you.
The interior is clean and comfortable, and the music on the first floor was quiet enough that it wasn’t distracting.
Directions: Take exit B3 of Iidabashi station and walk up the hill. Ryukotei is on the left across from Royal Host.
Located on the same street as the Emporio Armani store, this basement izakaya, “Touan”, specializes in decent drinks, tofu, chicken, and sashimi. Several private tables, plus a few that look out onto a cellar-type Japanese garden, provide the perfect backdrop for a romantic dinner or small-scale night out with friends. Jazz music plays in the background.
And Touan has a few dishes that will keep vegetarians happy. Try the dekitate (fresh) tofu, at 780 yen, that comes with seven toppings and can be split amongst four if one thinks in izakaya serving sizes (read: small). The large tofu slabs go well with a side of fried renkon (lotus root) chips (480 yen). The negi shiitake kushi (grilled green onions and mushrooms on a stick) are also worth a try at 200 yen each.
Meat-lovers will enjoy the tebasaki no karaage (fried chicken for 580 yen), and the tofu no gyoza (580 yen for six pieces)–sorry, healthy people, this one almost certainly has meat in it. It’s just too good. But everyone can wind down with a dish of tofu ice cream which is astoundingly tasty (380). Another wise selection is the ebi (shrimp)tenpura and cha (tea) soba (680). The tea flavor is more apparent on the nose than anywhere else. Very nicely done indeed.
The “Naina?” imo shochu at 700 yen a glass, and yuzu umeshu at 620, are excellent choices for herbivores and carnivores alike. The “Hakkaisan” junmai ginjo nihonshu (980) is recommended for those looking for a decent bit of the drink that John Gauntner has taught us so much about.
The drink selection is respectable in several ways. While “Four Roses” is the only whiskey on the menu, Touan steps it up with 14 different bottles of umeshu, 12 potato shochu, six nihonshu, plus wine, beer, kokutou and rice shochu, and cocktails. Draft beer is 580 yen, and wine is 450 per glass. Most alcoholic beverages range from between 450 to 900 yen. Soft drinks are 350.
Directions: JR Kichijoji north exit. Outside the station (looking at the rotary) turn left. You’ll soon pass Baskin Robbins. Go straight until you come to a four-way intersection with a traffic light. Turn right. Walk one block and turn left before Tokyu Department Store. Walk straight (past Banana Republic) and take the second right. Touan is on the left (B1) just before a furniture shop called Kagura. If you reach Emporio Armani, then you’ve gone too far.
Guru Navi Page: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a045212/
Lunch: 11:30 – 14:00
Dinner: 17:00 – 24:30
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
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).