Japan Eats

Japan Eats Podcast, Episode 18: “The 19.6 minute lunch break”

On this week’s show, we cover recent travels and the evolution of the Japanese lunch hour

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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Restaurant review: Bills (Odaiba)

The third incarnation of this Australian café will win over the kids.  But will adults see past the shopping center location?

The Irish have been putting up with it for years. Wherever you go, there’s an Irish pub to tempt you with a carefully packaged cultural experience that has little, if any relationship to what you’d find on the street corners of Dublin. With their unread copies of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and embossed plaques proclaiming the virtues of Guinness, such places are little more than pastiche, inducing a longing for a simpler time, even if that never existed in the first place.

Ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter.

Ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter.

Odaiba, the man-made island in the middle of Tokyo Bay, is the Japanese home of foreign-inspired kitsch. Forget theme parks, chain restaurants or resorts – Odaiba has enough to make even a cryogenically frozen Walt Disney wince. Whether its the VenusFort shopping center, the ‘life-sized’ Gundam or the “Oh-god-what-were-they-thinking” replica of the Statue of Liberty, Odaiba successfully blends commercial interests with cultural naivety.

So we come to Bills. Named after Australian owner/chef Bill Granger, Bills sets out to be “a warm, open interior inspired by Bill’s own home, accompanied by friendly service and a simple yet lively menu centered around the freshest ingredients.” This is Granger’s third Japanese venture, the first being in Shichirigahama, followed by a second branch on Yokohama’s waterfront. A fourth restaurant baring the name opened April 18th in Tokyu Plaza, Omotesando.

When we arrive, the staff quickly guide us to a long bench in the center of the main room. Our waiter is all smiles when he takes our order.

Friendly service“? Check.

At 11.30, the menu is yet to switch from breakfast to lunch, but  no matter. We go with the scrambled organic eggs with toast and a serve of Granger’s signature ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter. I order a black coffee, which the Japanese waiter repeats back in impeccable Australian: “One long black…” Granger, it seems, likes a hearty start to the day – there’s also a ‘full Aussie breakfast’ with toast, mushrooms, bacon, roast tomato and chipolatas, and lengthy list of sides to be had with your eggs. At lunch, you can opt for a wagyu burger with lettuce, beetroot, zucchini pickles, tomato relish, and herbed french fries. Room for more? Try the pavlova with passion fruit and cream. The menu is high on calories, and in that respect, very Australian.

Scrambled organic eggs with toast

Scrambled organic eggs with toast

A simple yet lively menu“? Wagyu burger aside, it’s a fair claim.

But as for “a warm, open interior inspired by Bill’s own home“? Well…

Here’s the problem: Bills is at one end of a giant shopping complex. While the restaurant may aspire to bringing the atmosphere of an Australian café to Tokyoites, it struggles to overcome the sterile confines of its location. Clearly a lot of money has been poured into the fit out, but it’s more IKEA cafeteria than suburban coffeehouse. It’s hard not to view Bills as yet another theme park concession.

When the food arrives, it doesn’t disappoint. The rich scrambled eggs are excellent, although I could have done without the extra pill of butter on the toast. The famous hotcakes are pretty darn good – much lighter than anticipated. And that honeycomb butter is the kind of thing you’ll want to recreate at home. Be warned, though: order hotcakes during the lunch hour crush and they will take at least 20 minutes to appear.

Everywhere there are mums and toddlers. Indeed, Bills may be the most child-friendly restaurant of its kind in Tokyo. There’s no smoking section and they offer a kids menu. For a time, I realize I’m the only male customer not under 18 months.

Look past the packaging and there’s a lot of good here. The food’s excellent (although frankly overpriced – lunch will set you back close to 2000 yen), the staff professional and it’s one of the few restaurants in Tokyo that not only welcomes children but goes out of its way to be family friendly.

If only it weren’t in a 600 ft long shopping center.

Directions: Exit Kaihin Koen station (Yurakamome line) on the water side and follow the signs to Decks. Bills is just inside the glass doors in the building to your right.

Tel: 03-3599-2100
3F Decks Seaside Mall
1-6-1 Daiba, Minato-ku
Hours: 9:00-23:00 (daily)
http://bills-jp.net/


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Café Review: Phonic:hoop (Shinjuku)

Far from the madding crowd… Marcus Lovitt asks why cafés like Phonic:hoop are so hard to find.

Downstairs at phonic:hoop

Downstairs at phonic:hoop

Grabbing a quick bite in Shinjuku can be frustrating, especially at lunch, when its office workers launch an all-out assault on every café and restaurant within a five-mile radius. All too frequently, the hungry café-goer is forced to wait in line and contemplate such mysteries as why Shinjuku has so little indigenous café culture. The high rent? That would seem unlikely, given that café-rich Omotesando or Shibuya actually charge more on average for a first floor retail space. A preference for big chains? Perhaps. If you’re willing to wait there’s the faux Starbucks, Excelsior, or the smoky Doutor. The much nicer Tully’s even has drinkable drip coffee.

But where are the independent cafés? Where can the harried shopper kick back with a coffee and a snack, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to run into him or her on their way back from the condiment bar with a oversized cinnamon-dusted full-cream mochaccino?

Only ten minutes walk down busy Yasukuni-dori is Phonic:hoop, a café/bar which goes a long way toward redeeming Shinjuku for its long lines and bland chain cafés. Even better: it’s situated on two spacious floors of an office building only a short distance from Tokyo’s major department stores on Shinjuku-dori.

In front of you as you enter is the first floor bar. It’s a bright, sunny affair thanks to a series of floor to ceiling windows. To the right, a pair of vintage sofas. The high ceiling and polished concrete floor add to the feeling that you’ve stumbled into Tadao Ando’s lounge. Downstairs is more intimate, with a dozen or so non-smoking tables. Antique Singer sewing machines, piled with books and magazines, separate the tables below the stairs. It’s a lot less kitschy than it sounds.

Hanbagu with rice

Hanbagu with rice

But what makes a bigger impression is the music. It figures that any place called Phonic:hoop is going to take its tunes pretty seriously, and here it means a trippy Eno-like soundtrack which somehow never overwhelms conversation.

The lunch set menu (1000 yen) changes daily, but expect to find such things as a “beef plate”, “curry plate” and a so-called “p:h plate”. All are served with a light vegetable and egg soup. As part of the set menu, customers can choose between coffee, tea, and grapefruit juice.

While Phonic:hoop is more a licensed café than a fully-fledged restaurant, the portions are more than generous. On my first visit, I tried the curry plate, which turned out to be chicken cooked in a thick, sightly sweet sauce. While it didn’t really register on the heat index, it made great comfort food. On a subsequent visit, we ordered the “beef plate” – hanbagu with rice (pictured) and the curry. The Salisbury steak, accompanying rice and salad was more than filling. The “Vietnamese chicken curry”, meanwhile, turned out not to be very Vietnamese at all – a mild Thai-style dish that (we agreed) was delicious.

Lunch break over, it was back to the less sonorous sounds of the street with it’s shoppers, touts, and tourists.

Directions: From Shinjuku Sanchome Station, take exit C7 and walk straight ahead to Yasukunidori. Cross this street and turn right. Phonic:hoop is approximately 100 meters down, on your left.

Tel: 03-6380-6604
Sky Building. 1F
Hours: 12:00-15:00, 18:00-29:00 (weekdays) 12:00-29:00 (Saturdays) 12:00-24:00 (Sundays and holidays)

http://www.ph-hp.jp/


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Book Review: The Just Bento Cookbook

Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh

Through her sites Justhungry.com and Justbento.com, Makiko Itoh celebrates the many facets of Japanese cuisine, describing ingredients, detailing cooking techniques and offering recipes to an international audience. The first of these sites, Justhungry, has been up and running since 2003 and contains Itoh’s musings on the rudiments of Japanese cooking; how to make dashi, the way in which to prepare sushi rice, and so on. It is Justbento, however, for which Itoh is particularly well known. Here, she writes on the humble Japanese lunchbox, demonstrating both its versatile flavors as well as the health benefits associated with a balance of ingredients.

With her first book, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go, Itoh brings her passion for the bento to an even wider audience. “A bento-box lunch is really just a packed lunch – but it’s a packed lunch prepared with a little extra care, for your family and loved ones, or just for yourself” notes Itoh in the introduction. “Bento-box meals are satisfying to the eye and the soul, as well as the body. They do not have to be overly cute or take hours to prepare. With minimal effort and a splash of creativity, they can be things of simple beauty that not only bring a smile to the recipient’s face but can be as pleasurable to make as they are to eat”.

Born in Tokyo, Itoh is particularly well suited to the role of bento evangelist – she has lived in several countries and is as much at home in English as she is in Japanese. Western readers will have little trouble grasping explanations of how to prepare tamagoyaki (“a rolled omelette that is savory yet slightly sweet”) or chicken kara-age (“deep-fried marinated chicken”). Not that more experienced cooks will find the book too prefatory – there’s plenty here to interest even those who already have a good knowledge of Japanese cooking basics.

Indeed, Itoh understands her audience. A frequent complaint of those living outside Japan is that it’s often difficult (if not impossible) to source Japanese ingredients when following Japanese recipes. Here, Itoh gets around this problem by offering two types of recipes: “Japanese style bentos” and “Not-so-Japanese Bentos”. The former includes such standards as ginger pork bento, soboro bento (“ground meat, fish, egg, or vegetables, seasoned and served mixed in with or sprinkled onto rice”) and soba noodle bento. Throughout the text, Itoh explains whether or not ingredients are commonly found outside Japan, and offers possible substitutes for items not available.

Itoh really mixes it up in the second part of the book dealing with bento inspired by other cultures. Recipes include “Everyone Loves A Pie Bento” (containing pies made from a yeasted dough of wheat flour and olive oil), “Spanish Omelette Bento” and a “Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento” (the use of edamame in place of chickpeas when preparing hummus is particularly clever). Prescriptivists will no doubt bristle at all this freewheeling creativity, but Itoh recognizes that not everyone is going to be satisfied with a noriben or the richness of unagi no kabayaki.

In addition to the recipes, the book carries helpful information on the various types of bento boxes and a glossary of Japanese ingredients. There’s a section on safety tips (“Cool down cooked food before packing into a bento box”, “Use an ice pack for certain foods, and in hot weather”) and another dealing with practical tips for speeding up the bento-making process. Throughout the text, Itoh also discusses the nutritional benefits of her recipes, choosing low-calorie accompaniments for rich meat dishes and offering vegan alternatives where possible (not something you’ll come across in similar Japanese cookbooks!)

The Just Bento Cookbook thus contains a wide variety of recipes and practical information – 150 ‘easy-to-prepare, original, bento-box-friendly’ recipes, according to the introduction. Curious then that the design of the book feels somewhat underdeveloped. Given the glut of cookbooks heavy on the food-porn photographs and light on actual recipes, it seems odd that Kodansha didn’t furnish Itoh with a larger budget for the images. It matters little, though. Itoh’s writing is enough to sell readers on what to expect from each recipe.

In sum, The Just Bento Cookbook is a well-written introduction for those new to preparing Japanese lunch-boxes, and a useful reference for anyone who already knows the classic Japanese recipes and is looking for fresh ideas. Best of all, Itoh is clearly unafraid of experimenting with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. What matters is not what’s authentic but what’s practical and tastes good. Her readers will no doubt appreciate Itoh’s efforts to render the bento a practical lunchtime alternative and follow her example.

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go
by Makiko Itoh
Kodansha International, 2,000 yen, 127 pages

Restaurant Review: Ryukotei (Kagurazaka)

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.

Café Review: Margaret Howell Café

Fronting half of the establishment, this café provides an alternate entrance into the Margaret Howell world of clean-cut clothing for both men and women. On a side street up the hill from TGI Friday’s in Shibuya (and just around the corner from Craftheads), this little café is a delightfully quiet lunchtime option for shoppers who have found themselves on the north side of the Shibuya craziness.

Highly recommended are the limited, but delicious, lunch sets. The ‘Sandwich’, ‘Quiche’, and ‘Season’ (changes monthly) plates are all under 1,400 yen and include a main dish, soup, and drink. The chicken sandwich isquite good, and while the soup of the day (potato and celery) wasn’t exactly to die for, the cappuccino was just what the doctor ordered while sitting in the small open-air interior of the shop with the sun shining through the floor to ceiling windows.

For the record, this is one of the few cafés in the immediate area that actually has a no-smoking section (a practical choice given that the café opens right into the clothes shop itself). The generous outdoor seating is, as one would expect in Tokyo, puff-friendly, but there’s enough space between tables for this to not be too much of a factor (depending on the wind of course).

Serving lunch/brunch from 11:00, the modest menu errs on the sweet side while providing enough variety to keep those in search of light fare happy. Scones, cakes, coffee, and tea range from 400 to 700 yen. Go ahead and try the carrot cake (600 yen) with an iced latte (680). Laze around long enough and you might find that a glass of mulled wine (700) will suit the slow swing of the afternoon.

Fresh OJ and lemonade (630) might be logical options if you’re hoping for a bit of brunch. A regular coffee (530) and toast with butter and jam (380) would be the perfect complement on a sunny morning on this alarmingly sedate back street not seven minutes walk from Hachiko.

For those in search of an alcoholic beverage, there’s Yebisu (690) and a couple of imports (790) available for beer drinkers. Wine by the glass is 700 yen, or you can spring for a bottle of the house selection for 4,200.

Click here for a map, or click here for the Guru Navi page (Japanese).

Directions: From Hachiko go up the street on the right side of the corner building with Starbucks and Tsutaya in it. Keep going straight until you pass Tower Records (on your right). Take the left after Tower Records and then take an immediate right just before TGI Friday’s. Walk straight until the small road forces you to turn left. Take the next right and walk straight for about 50 meters. Margaret Howell café is on the right.