Japan Eats

Restaurant Review: Demode Queen

Burgers and fries. What kind of pie?

Perhaps more than any other city, Tokyo is built around speed. From the moment city dwellers stumble out of bed in the morning they are consumed by a need to keep to a tight schedule. 6.00 Wake. 6.05 Check email. 6.10 Prepare the kids’ breakfast. So it goes for the rest of the day – a never-ending quest for maximum efficiency.

Demode Queen

Cheese avocado burger

And lunch (if you even take lunch) usually means a quick bowl of gyudon or a bento at your desk. Slow food? Forget it. There’s just no time to relax. No time to take a break.

Perhaps in order to counter Tokyoites’ workaholic tendencies, there are now some fifteen public holidays each year (a relatively high number compared with the ten federal holidays in the US or the nine in the UK). Not that it makes all that much difference – rather than enjoy the time off, many Japanese simply use such occasions to work from home.

I had no such thoughts one recent Friday – my first day off in a month. Despite some shitty weather (a blast of cold air more appropriate to the Siberian steppe than Tokyo the Urban Heat Island) a friend and I were determined to make the most of our officially mandated lethargy. What we needed was somewhere to hang while mother nature worked out her issues. And in Demode Queen, we lucked out.

Demode Queen is an American diner. A very good diner. Hidden one of the small streets to the north of Shibuya Station, a visit to Demode Queen is to be reminded that not all of Shibuya is catering to the maru-kyu crowd. And what’s more they serve Tex Mex, which is a rarity in Japan.

Up two fights of stairs and possessing a large balcony, Demode Queen is a large, somewhat industrial space with sofas and plenty of room to spread out. The interior is dimly lit, the music laid-back rock – just right for afternoon cocktails. In a move I would quickly come to appreciate, a large heater had been placed at the entrance to ensure those seated near the entrance wouldn’t freeze.

On arrival customers are greeted a large, grubby four page ‘Grand Menu’, and it ticks all the boxes. Burgers, Pizza, Pasta, Mexican. We opted for a Cajun burger, a cheese avocado burger and a Margherita pizza.

The standout dish was the Cajun chicken burger. The chicken was excellent – juicy with just the right level of spiciness. The cheese avocado burger, meanwhile, was served with a thick barbecue sauce. Both dishes came with a generous helping of fries. Good too was the pizza – the Margherita had that thin Neapolitan crust popular in Japan, and was topped with fresh basil. Demode Queen also carries an extensive drink menu, which runs the gamut from beer and cocktails to coffee and milkshakes. Particularly good are the mojitos – strong and worth the 1000 yen price tag.

The staff, a motley bunch of hipsters (tatoos! hats!) aren’t about to fawn over you, but frankly that’s one of the things I like about the place.

Alas, neither of us had space for dessert (it was the best we could do to remain upright after the burgers) but the menu includes that diner favorite, apple pie (800 yen) served with your choice of ice cream and sauce.

Somehow by the time we’d paid our bill and wandered out into the melting snow, five hours had passed.

Directions: From Shibuya Station, cross toward Starbucks and walk all the way up Sentagai. When you reach the end of the street, turn right and then take the first left (the residential-looking street with the metal rail separating the cars from the pedestrians. Turn right when you get to a path that opens into a street. Demode Queen is on your left, above Paradise Macau.

Tel: 03-3780-5232
Sai Bldg. 3F, 39-5 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0042
Demode Queen does not take cards.
Mon – Sat 11:30 to 05:00 (L.O. 04:00)
Sun 11:30 – 23:00 (L.O. 22:00)

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Book Review: Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails by Yuri Kato

Japanese cocktail recipes for beginners

Despite being home to some of the best bartenders in the world (by now many will have heard of Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender at the legendary Bar High Five or Kazuo Uyeda, purveyor of the ‘hard shake’) Japan is better known for its beer and its sake than for its cocktails. Even Japanese whisky enjoys a higher profile thanks to Bill Murray and a certain Suntory Limited.

Enter Yuki Kato. In her new book, Japanese Cocktails, Kato makes the case for Japan to be taken seriously as not only a cocktail loving culture, but also as a destination for those seeking to experience the unique flavor of ingredients like ume, yuzu and shiso.

The book is organized into four sections: sake cocktails, shochu cocktails, whisky cocktails, and cocktails made with other ingredients such as rum or vodka. Along the way, we encounter Japanese standards such as the Hinomaru (sake and umeboshi), the Oolong Hai (barley shochu with oolong tea) as well as curios like the Tokyo Dome (barley shochu, apple juice, lemon juice and ginger ale) and the Oyaji (whisky soda with the additions of a slice of orange and maraschino cherries).

From the outset, Kato demonstrates that she is able to discuss Japanese concepts of balance and seasonal produce in a way that is readily accessible. Although raised in Japan, she understands her audience may not be familiar with ingredients such as shichimi togarashi (a Japanese mixed spice) and writes for those with little or no knowledge of Japan or it’s drinking culture.

“Drinking,” she writes in her introduction, “is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese family culture. Many homes include a well-stocked liquor cabinet with Japanese whisky, Scotch, bourbon, sake, and shochu. Sometimes you’ll find a case of domestic beer, but alcohol like wine or chu-hai, canned cocktails, are not typically kept on hand.”

Here, Kato also points out some of the essential differences between Japanese cocktails and their western equivalents. She notes that Japanese cocktails are, by and large, light on alcohol. She quite rightly observes that “It is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating, so there are not many bars that serve alcohol without food in Japan. Paring food and cocktails may be new in some countries, but not in Japan”. Readers may be forgiven, then, for wondering why Kato did not complete this thought by adding food pairings to her recipes.

The recipes themselves are, on the whole, mercifully straightforward. Those seeking a challenge, however, may want to look toward the Hotate-zake (“In a small saucepan over medium heat, add butter, scallop, and rosemary and heat for 1 to 2 minutes”) or the Bubble Shooter (remember to marinate those salmon eggs overnight!)

Alongside are brief snippets of cultural background, and while well chosen, there’s not a great deal of depth. There are passages on baseball in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and cherry blossom season, but few of these go beyond the tourist brochures. Nevertheless, there are also some great little tidbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that the Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo lays claim to being the oldest bar in Japan (1880).

The book’s structure make a good deal of sense – the four sections are easy to navigate and let’s face it, this is the kind of book you dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Still, international readers might question which cocktails are commonly found on Japanese menus, which are unique to particular Japanese bars, and those that are Kato’s own original recipes.

Japanese Cocktails’ credits afford copyright to Suntory International Corp. As a result, some parts of the book feel like an ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly the case in the whisky section, where the history of Japanese whisky may as well be the history of the company.

Japanese Cocktails is a good English-language introduction to the world of Japanese drink culture. Those new to sake and shochu are going to want it on their coffee tables. Those with a serious interest in the history of Japanese cocktail culture, however, will be hoping Kato’s follow-up explores the subject in greater detail.

Japanese Cocktails
Mixed Drinks with Sake, Shochu, Whisky and More

by Yuri Kato
Illustrated, 96 pages
Chronicle Books, 1,384 yen

Boozehound: Bar Albatross (Shinjuku)

If it weren’t for Tokyo’s ongoing economic troubles, Golden Gai – that shanty town wedged between Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine and Kabukicho – could well have been turned into condos or (worse!) a Mori-style shopping precinct. After all, it was repeatedly targeted by developers in the bubble years. Somehow this ramshackle collection of bars (about 175 at last count) survived the heady 80s and early 90s. Hanazono Hills was not to be.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Golden Gai is that it manages to be both determinedly nostalgic whilst never lapsing into self-parody. Anyone who has visited Harajuku or Yokohama’s Chinatown will be familiar with Japan’s penchant for Disneyfication (take something unique, extract anything controversial and wait for the tour buses). Thanks to a new generation of bar owners, however, Golden Gai retains what made it interesting in the first place – individually-themed bars, cramped seating and the whiff of a sordid past.

Hidden on dimly-lit 5th street is a two and a half storey wooden building that enjoys all of these qualities. Bar Albatross resembles a dolls-house with its scaled down furniture and narrow wooden stairways. Burgundy walls are adorned with picture frames and a chandelier hangs from the upstairs ceiling. Make it all the way to the ‘attic’ space above the second floor and you’ll get a great view of the regulars chatting and drinking below.

The bar has a fairly extensive menu mostly priced around the 700 yen mark. There are beers, shochu and a wide variety of spirits on offer. On my last visit I stuck to the relatively unadventurous Moscow Mule, but you’d do well to sample some of the bar’s other cocktails.

The staff are friendly without being overbearing. If downstairs is full, latecomers are encouraged to go upstairs where there is a second bar with space at one long counter. It can be somewhat nerve-wracking watching tipsy guests wobbling up the rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, but most seemed oblivious to the threat of falling.

Given that the seating fee is a low 300 yen per person,  the bill works out to be inexpensive. And the sit-down charge includes a small otooshi – nimono or some similar nibble to balance all that alcohol.

With places like Bar Albatross, Golden Gai’s future has never looked brighter.

Bar Albatross is located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku. Go out of the East exit of Shinjuku Station and turn left. Cross Shinjuku-Dori and make your way to Yasukuni-Dori. Turn right and then left into the park beside Mr Donut. Go through the park and then continue past Champion. The bar is on the right side of 5th street, four narrow alleyways after the karaoke bar. Look for the sign above the door.

Address: Kabukicho, Golden-gai (5th street), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3203-3699
Home Page http://www.alba-s.com