Japan Eats

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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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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Restaurant Review: Plik chee fah 2 (Shinjuku)

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.

Pad Thai

The lunch menu features such dishes as Pad Thai, tom yum goong and green curry for under 1000 yen

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.

Tel: 03-5326-8588
http://www.plikcheefah.com/
5th Floor of the Meiko Building, Nishi Shinjuku.

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
8:00pm-05:00am

What we’re drinking: Abbot Ale at “Frigo”

One of Greene King brewery's best known offerings.

One of Greene King brewery's best known offerings.

Never had this beer on tap before (I’ve tried it in a can), but Frigo in Shinjuku had it when I was there. Frigo is a very cool, dark, wooden basement bar that has a huge cooler of pricey, but excellent beer. You can go up and grab exactly what you want to drink. It’s comforting.

Or you can do what I did and stick with the 6-10 beers that they have on tap. Abbot Ale is an amber-colored (slightly orange?) English Pale Ale that has some sweetness to it. The head retention (stop giggling, children) is quite good, and there’s some very interesting biscuit-like maltiness going on in this beer.

I’ll definitely have another one of these the next time I see it on tap. And now I’m craving another one of Greene King’s famous libations, Old Speckled Hen.