いらっしゃい!
...an expat libertine with a penchant for sparkly dining partners, jazz bars and izakaya.
Opinions here expressed are not necessarily shared by any with whom I associate. Fault for errors and any offense caused is entirely my own.
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Entries in Nihonshu (7)

Wednesday
Jan092013

Akaoni, Sangenjaya 赤鬼、三軒茶屋  

Akaoni, the lauded Red Devil of Sancha, is said to be one of the best nihonshu focused izakaya in town, famed for its list of 100 or more sakes – with a particular focus on smaller local breweries’ jizake – and quality food, both of which have been enjoyed by loyal patrons over the last three decades.

In my humble opinion, Akaoni enjoys a reputation better than it deserves.

Sure, the sake list is impressive and competitively priced. The food is good, but nothing mind blowing, the portions a little stingy (always leave feeling hungry) and the speed with which it is served at times agonizingly slow. 

My first visit, almost a decade ago, left me feeling that the place was a little unfriendly and lacking in warmth – an impression that remained on subsequent, infrequent visits.

A bonenkai there with Moxie, Woody and Tobi-chan in December of last year confirmed my previous assessment as far as the drink and food goes, although the welcome and service was much friendlier… perhaps too much so, as the lady of the house was in full sales mode, to the point of being overbearing.

Such gripes aside, Akaoni is still a good little izakaya, and worth a visit, as long as your aim is to drink plenty of sake and nibble as an afterthought.

When you do nibble, the sashimi moriawase is a good bet, and can be had at a discount (i.e., an extra fish is added) if you order when making a reservation. 

The towering stewed daikon was another favourite, as was the grilled lotus root.

On the other hand, the salads and nabe were pretty dull. 

If sperm sacks are your thing, then the shirako might please, being particularly soft and creamy of texture.

Don't believe the hype, but don’t neglect to stop by either. For a more thorough appraisal, look here and here.

 

03-3410-9918 

Akaoni

Saturday
Jan212012

Ginsuiso, Izu-inatori  銀水荘、東伊豆町

A stay at a ryokan is a fine thing. Especially if it provides a cozy room, onsen a sea view and an interesting menu.

Ginsuiso, an apparently well-reputed inn in Hagashiizu-cho (nearest station: Izu-Inatori), ticked all these boxes, and managed to heat the rooms so perfectly that one could ponce around in a yukata even in early January without the slightest shiver.

Both the evening meal and breakfast were substantial and nicely presented. The service provided was excellent, truly attentive and willing to explain and describe tirelessly. If there were any complaint with the food, it would be that they over played the seafood card with the breakfast. Sure, this inn is right on the sea, but every dish was some kind of fish, shellfish, unholy jelly-like substance or seaweed of some kind.

As expected, drinks were hugely over priced. Thankfully I managed to “smuggle” a few bottles in, so all was not lost.

Dinner consisted of a variety of dishes, ranging from shellfish to cream soup. 

Awabi odori-yaki – live abalone grilled on tabletop brazier

Shiro-ebi konoko gake – white shrimp served on sea cucumber ovary sauce – with shin-takenoko, ika kinomiae – new bamboo and squid topped with tree buds

Ikura, kinome, uni, yuba bekko an – roe, tree buds and sea urchin resting on tofu skin simmered in broth

Maguro, shiromi, uni sashimi – tuna, white fish and sea urchin sashimi

Kinmedai sugata zukuri to awabi – sashimi of splendid alfonsino and abalone

Kinmedai nitsuke – splendid alfonsino simmered in sweet soy sauce, complimented with daikon radish and aubergine 

Kinmedai sanma sushi, hatsuki kinkan mitsuni, hizu kazunoko matsumaetsuki, kukonomi, aiyu nibitashi shirozu – splendid alfonsino and mackerel sushi, honey-poached kumquat, salmon cartilage with herring roe, Chinese desert-thorn seeds and sweetfish simmered in white vinegar

Chilled Fubuki – the only sake of the evening

Steak with salad

Cream soup

Kani zosui – crab and rice porridge

Breakfast

Pickles

Maguro sashimi, ebi, wasabi zuke – tuna sashimi, shrimp and fermented wasabi

Salad

 

05-5795-0161

Ginsuiso

Tuesday
Mar292011

Kaasan, Nishi-Shinjuku  かあさん、西新宿

Kaasan (“Mum”) is an interesting chain of izakaya dotted around the city in major transport hubs and business districts.

The theme is simple, yet successful. Focusing on down-to-earth home style cooking and presentation, these izakaya are staffed by teams of middle-aged motherly ladies who bustle around taking orders, relaying them at high volume to the kitchen, and pouring sake and kindly – if somewhat direct –  words for their customers.

The interiors seem to vary little between the handful of Kaasans I’ve visited (although I mostly end up in the Nishi-Shinjuku store, on the street behind the Yodobashi Camera honten); worn wooden floors, heavy set wooden tables and benches and long counter before an open kitchen, upon which huge bowls and dishes containing simple, robust dishes are displayed. Usually to rear of the shop, fridges chill a nice selection of sake, while beer kegs congregate around the till for some reason. In other words, it’s all intended to hark back to simpler times.

Tired as this approach can appear, it actually does serve to pull the heartstrings of older salarymen. The veneer of home, of the tender wife setting pickles and beer before him when back late from work, or else distant memories of his own mother back home in the mythical furusato. I doubt these images now resonate much with younger Japanese. The clientele seems mainly to be middle-aged men and women at any rate, with perhaps a smattering of younger “nostalgia” seekers.

They might get a dose of the good old days, but not much in the way of fine dining. Kaasan isn’t really about the food. Which is not to say it’s bad – it’s not. It’s just unpretentious, basic, hearty and yet decidedly average stuff. Fish and chicken, fried and grilled mainly, as well the kuroke are usually gracing most tables. Seasonal vegetable dishes usually make an appearance, but tend to suffer from being over cooked. Chunky, low-grade sashimi, potato salad and all manner of pickled, deep-fried and stewed dishes. Although way to oily, the deep-fried gobo (burdock) is a personal favourite. Prices are very reasonable, bordering on cheap. So too for the beer.

Although, Kaasan is more about sake than beer. They have plenty of the stuff, covering a surprising variety of regions and makers. Sadly, the sake is less aggressively priced than the food and beer. What seems like a cheap meal can soon turn out otherwise if you, or one of your dining partners, have a thirst on.

Still, the (usually) lively atmosphere and simple surroundings (not to mention large tables) make a nice change once in a while.

 

03-3344-0771

http://www.kasan.jp/

Friday
Apr302010

Orenchi, Musashi-Kosugi  おれんち、武蔵小杉

Earlier this week, with the Golden Week feeling already sinking in, I left the safe confines of Tokyo and crossed the border over to darkest Kawasaki to join The Woodsman in Musashi-Kosugi for an evening’s indulgence at Orenchi. Good food, better sake and a smoke-free environment were promised, and there was little reason to doubt. 

A ten-minute walk from the south exit of the station, Orenchi isn’t much to look at. It has a decidedly dishevelled aspect, which is faithfully maintained inside the place too. Tardis-like, all the clutter, bric-a-brac, yellowed walls, wooden counter, washitsu and smoking room are contained within a floor space that you’d never imagine from the outside.  Not that the place is dirty or in need of bulldozing, it’s merely one of those lovely, worn looking establishments that a connoisseur would call a “real” izakaya.

Our visit did not start well. The oba-chan that greeted us was more than a little surprised to hear we had made a reservation. After much hustle and bustle, and shuffling of note pads, it was determined that we did have seats reserved. Why the confusion? The nice lady had ingeniously managed to render The Woodsman’s name in kanji, and as such was not expecting any gaijin to turn up unannounced! Her linguistic adventurism didn’t end there, as throughout the course of the evening she (while enduring my incoherent descriptions of dishes we wanted to try) managed to meet my risible Japanese halfway with smatterings of English. To her credit, and that of the other ladies and gentlemen responsible for the comfort of Orenchi’s patrons, the service was excellent throughout. Kind, patient, jovial. Indeed, most of the customers present were also rather friendly and not in the least hesitant in striking up conversation with a couple of hairy barbarians.

And the food? Pretty good actually. With hot towels came an o-toshi of some kind of vinegary fried fish, the name of which escapes me despite having eaten it on countless occasions. This was washed down with some real ale. Baird’s Red Rose. A tasty beverage certainly, although I’m less certain that I’d be able to drink more than a couple. Maybe I’ve been married to Yebisu and Premium Malts for too long, but I find the taste of real beer a little overpowering nowadays.

Following form, we ordered the sashimi moriawase, which as well as being reasonably fresh and delicious, was notable for the ski-like dish it was served upon. A good two feet in length, and rather weighty, it was a novel way of presenting the fish, and made a change from the usual beds of ice and shredded daikon. Two slices each of eight different sashimi (the usual suspects), which went very well with the first sake of the evening, Kaiun. This was very drinkable indeed, so much so that I took no mental note of its region or ought else. Anyway, it didn’t last long, and neither did the Tengumai, another old favourite.

Following yet another of my vivid “descriptions,” the chef managed to produce a gorgeous dish comprised of fried garlic potatoes generously coated in a tomato sauce, and topped with molten cheese. Very garlicky, very tasty. Thinking back on it, I now wish we’d ordered it twice. The yamaimono, and tofu salad were both satisfactory, and supplied in ample quantities, but failed to excite somehow.

Next up on the sake list (drier at the top of list and descending into sweet hell toward the bottom) was the Hidami, which neither of us thought much of. All the sake is available in 60ml, 120ml or 180ml servings, so if I’d been a little more thoughtful (less inebriated?) it would have perhaps been better to sample unknown sake in 60ml shots. Will remember for next time. To round of the meal, a crunchy, bony deep-fried fish fin of some kind and then simple, homely yakionigiri to soak up the sake in order to make room for a last glass of draft Malts.

A thoroughly enjoyable izakaya, Orenchi scores pretty well on the food front, is excellent (and fun) in terms of service and atmosphere, and provides some nice sake. Prices were probably reasonable, although the bill can stack up if you get carried away with the drinks. The menu is crammed full of various dishes and, despite being a little hard to read (kanji and small print are not much fun), is updated, and printed, daily (you see, Woodsman, I remembered!). Although it was not available at the time of my visit, they apparently serve a wonderful moriawase of five grilled fish. This will be the excuse for my next visit.

 

Tel: 0285-23-6739

Tuesday
May192009

Nozaki Saketen, Shinbashi  野崎酒店、新橋

Friday night in Shinbashi and the multitude of izakaya, sushi shops, tachinomi-ya and yakitori joints are heaving with salarymen and OLs (office ladies.) Walking up and down the streets off the main Shinbashi Nishiguchi Dōri we look into each establishment we pass, waiting for one to take our fancy. Many do, all are full. The izakaya that look good probably are. That being the case, those office workers that frequent the area are already packed into them, frothy beer and potent shōchū flowing freely. Hungry, thirsty, I begin to wonder if we’ll find a place able to accommodate us. Thankfully, as we pass Nozaki Saketen I notice that several customers in the doorway are in fact paying for their meals and about to leave. The place looks promising enough, narrow shop front of glass and a sign declaring the izakaya to be a “jizake senmon”, or “sake specialist”. More importantly there’s a table available.

The table we are led to, after being warmly greeted, is tiny, one of four or five along the right wall, with barely enough room to squeeze into my chair.  Once seated I feel something at my back, and looking over my shoulder see pipes – water I suppose – protruding from the wall, covered in white towels in order to pad them out and make them more comfortable. Running along the left side is a counter, the low “wall” separating it from the open kitchen, above which hang numerous handwritten menu

entries on strips of white paper, is plastered with sake labels. To the side of the kitchen a glowing cooler stands, bottles of nicely chilling sake lined up within. Nozaki Saketen is not large, being made up of a narrow ground floor and squarer basement level, and on this occasion very busy, very lively and very warm.

Thirsty, the first couple of beers are finished before we’ve even ordered our meal, and the o-toshi of kabu (turnip) with chicken mince untouched. When the waitress informs us that our visit is limited to a two-hour period, we hasten to choose. The service brisk, yet polite, our chosen dishes arrive in quick succession. So much so that we soon struggle to fit them on to the table. A large bowl of salad, immediately impressive by dint of its size and good looks, consisting of long, thin slices of daikon, cucumber and tomato upon which is heaped negi-toro (mashed raw tuna fish) and large dollop of mayonnaise. Over this interesting, delicious salad we poured a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi, complimenting the tuna perfectly, and adding something special to the flavour of the salad itself. Moist and crunchy, this unusual take on negi-toro don (bowl of rice with negi-toro on top) is easy to recommend. A selection of pickles – aubergine, cucumber and daikon – accompanies my first glass of Dewazakura, a light, drinkable sake of which many kinds and qualities are available. The soft, fluffy texture of the enormous dashi-maki tamago (egg roll) in fish stock with grated daikon and mayonnaise contrasts well with the crunchy salad and pickles.

Sipping on the pure-as-water Asamayama, a sake from Gunma prefecture, I take in the photos, hanging on the wall, of various stages in the sake making process. Several of the staff of the izakaya are themselves visible in said photos. A grilled fish head of tai (sea bream) soon arrives. Not spectacular, but tasty enough and certainly fresh, it has a distinctly home-cooked feel to it. Tender, only lightly seared, chicken sasami in a yuzu (citron) and green chili pepper sauce introduces a richer flavour to the meal, although the portion of this dish is considerably less generous than those that had come before. Two long skewers of chicken liver in tare sauce, kushiyaki rebā tare, arrive, as does a glass of excellent Masaku Junmai, and while the sake is quite gorgeous, the liver seems over cooked and thus too dry. The waitress hurries by with a fantastic looking bowl of soba (buckwheat noodles) and I notice a bottle of Masumi looking lonely in the cooler, but we are full, and I am tipsy…

 

Tel: 03-6430-3329 

Sunday
Apr262009

Uokisuisan, Shimo-Kitazawa  魚㐂水産、下北沢

My dining partners arriving later than expected due to heavy workloads – the more people that lose their jobs the more the remaining employees of Japanese companies have to work it seems – we finally emerged from the smoky warmth of Masako, our appointed meeting place, to find Shimo-Kitazawa particularly crowded, even for a Friday evening, with its bars, izakaya and streets heaving with newly employed salarymen and university freshman newly inducted into various groups and circles (April being the traditional season for hiring and school intake.) Despite the weather having changed for the worst, cold night air and the smell of rain, the throngs of excited youths and inebriated corporate warriors gave the main street from the station’s south exit an almost carnival atmosphere. Fun as it was we had little hope of finding room at any of the town’s inns.

Heading straight down the main thoroughfare past the busier chain-izakaya and the sickly stench of the donna-kebab shop (why the Japanese are allowing themselves to be beguiled by such “food” is beyond me) the crowds eventually thinned out leaving us to stroll at leisure and view various bars and izakaya bursting at the seams with happy, and enviably warm, customers. In the vicinity were a good handful of establishments I had not yet tried and one in particular, recognisable for its broad façade covered with hanging blue noren, seemed interesting enough for us to venture through the low door only to find the place full as it had been hired for a corporate party. Shame, as from the brief glimpse I had of the interior it looked wonderful. Cold and now feeling very hungry we opted for a brand new izakaya, Uokisuisan, neighbouring our first choice.

I had actually spotted this izakaya a few weeks ago when it was under construction, and then again when the street before it was adorned with a veritable forest of flower arrangements and bottles of sake given as gifts and tokens of good wishes to the new business. The shop front is rather modern looking and seemed to promise a contemporary dining experience. Stepping in we found a fairly small dining area with a beautifully lit open kitchen framed by a counter of pale wood along the right of the room. On the left were tables crowded with gas burners for nabe, hot pot, and piles of bowls and small dishes. Receiving a warm welcome from the master’s, Suga-san, young wife we were seated at the only available table. This, unfortunately, was directly in front of the door and as such was chilly and freezing whenever the door opened. In winter this is going to be a real problem, there being no genkan (hall) separating the main room from the door onto the street. In fairness we were offered blankets to cover our laps. Such attention to our comfort was a sign of the service to come.

Mrs. Suga supplied us with hot towels and menus before proceeding to explain that the first drinks of the evening were to be complimentary, and that we could select whatever we wished from the menu except champagne (a strange addition to the usual muster of izakaya beverages.) Having already spent the day guzzling beer elsewhere, I opted to begin dinner with a glass of Hakkaisan sake to accompany the otsumami (appetizer), of ebi-dango (shrimp dumpling) and spinach. The table was a little too crowded with all the various bowls, dishes, condiment pots and the gas burner, but as soon as the staff had been told that we would not be ordering nabe all the clutter was swiftly removed. The menu was interesting, several of the dishes prompting us to ask for an explanation, fish being the shop’s speciality. Having ordered we took in our surroundings.

As mentioned above, Uokisuisan is new having opened for business but two weeks ago. It shows in the interior decoration. Fairly minimal but with a contemporary kitchen complete with gleaming tiles and stainless steel and the stacks of tableware lined up above the kitchen under lit to produce a pleasing ambience. This atmosphere is let down, however, by the overly bright lighting above the dining area, and by the tables and chairs themselves that appear not to be new. The counter, too, is rather uninspired looking like a panel of Ikea bookshelf rather than the rough wood so often encountered (no pun intended) in izakaya. In general the décor is well considered although dimmer lighting so as to create a cosier atmosphere and accentuate the subtle lighting and design of the kitchen would most certainly enhance the feel of the place. Although I did not take a look, the second floor apparently has koshitsu (private rooms).

Such small gripes aside, the food itself was enjoyable. A fairly large kaisen (seafood) salad of chunky chopped tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, egg-roll, crab meat and roe started off the meal along with perfectly fresh isaki (grunt) sashimi. A similarly chunky (dainamikku = dynamic) plate of crunchy pickled cucumber and asazuke soon followed. The speckled grey goma-dōfu (sesame tofu) topped with spring onions, which arrived as a delightful half sphere, is highly recommended. Two good-sized grilled squid stuffed with squid guts followed. Although the squid itself was delicious (maybe a little too tough…) the taste of the raw innards was too strong for my taste. And then the service kicked in.

Having noticed my taste for sake, and ‘rare’ ability to eat raw fish, Suga-san, his wife and mother proceeded to join us in conversation and supply us with vast quantities of free drinks. Their talk was friendly and not at all reserved. Indeed Suga-san explained that they wished to create a relaxed family atmosphere for their customers in which formal modes of speech could be ignored and a fun time enjoyed by patrons and staff together. Being a sake lover himself, Suga-san proceeded to introduce us to some of his favourites. From Yamagata prefecture was the deliciously smooth, almost honey-like, taste of Dewazakura, and the strong tasting rougher feel of the Koshi no Kagetora from Niigata. As the alcohol began to make its effects felt we needed to eat a little more. Enquiring as to what rice-based dishes were available we were recommended to try the niyanko-meshi, a bowl of steaming rice into which we mixed a raw egg and oyster sauce before sprinkling freshly grate katsuo (bonito flakes) that Suga-san graciously allowed us to grate ourselves. The taste of the fresh katsuo was nothing short of divine when combined with the egg and rice. Perfect. A small helping of bitter tasting fuki mixed with miso paste was served along with yet more free sake such as the wonderful Isomatsu, a namazake (live sake) from Kagawa prefecture and the somewhat less refined Haneya from Toyama.

All had an enjoyable evening, due not only to the lavish attention and complimentary food and drink offered by Suga-san and his family but also thanks to the care and attention they are obviously putting into the food they serve and the atmosphere they are trying to create. Prices are very reasonable, the menu interesting and the dishes not only well presented but delicious too. The service was extremely friendly, though some may feel it is a little too familiar. Plainly all of this results from a family trying hard to make a success of a new business venture. If the Sugas can maintain their enthusiasm and hospitality they have every chance of creating a successful izakaya and many happy customers. I only hope they dim the lights a little so as to make the dining area a bit cosier.

No sooner had we stepped out into the rain, not a little drunk and with full bellies, than Suga-san’s mother sent a waitress scurrying across the road to purchase umbrellas for us. Excellent service.

 

Tel: 03-5432-4488

Saturday
Feb072009

Torishin, Shimbashi  鳥心、新橋

Shimbashi hosts myriad izakaya, nomiya, bars and restaurants. Not only is the casual visitor spoilt for choice but also easily overwhelmed. A favourite haunt of salarymen, the sheer number of eateries and neon lit bar signs hint of culinary delight, chance encounters and, of course, the possibility of disappointment. As neither my dining partner or I are particularly familiar with the area we had, as is often the best policy, to rely on instinct in selecting our evening's establishment. 

But five minutes stroll from Shimbashi station Torishin's facade appealed immediately. A well presented, thoroughly 'Japanese' style design of wood and noren (shop curtain displaying the name of the establishment) hanging before the entrance seemed to promise quality food, convivial atmosphere and possibly higher than average prices. We were not disappointed on any count.  

Entering the warmly-lit, cozy interior of wooden beams, kitchen counter of polished wood and raised table seating we were greeted by a polite gaijin-friendly woman who quickly showed us to a place at the counter from which we could enjoy the shelved display of quality shochu and patron's 'keep bottles'. Coats and umbrellas were taken and carefully hung, and drink orders promptly taken with a smile. 

Thanks to the lively atmosphere, the air filled with the sound of conversation and lively laughter of groups of salarymen and young couples, one soon slipped into the mood of the place and felt comfortably at ease. Although not a large space, the counter seating was not, as can all too often be the case, cramped although the table area certainly seemed to offer a more comfortable dining experience. 

Browsing the limited menu it became apparent that Torishin is a Yakitori-ya (shop specializing in grilled chicken morsels on skewers) specializing in shochu. That said a small but choice selection of nihonshu (sake) is also available. Accompanied by an initial otsumami (appetizer) of dried, baby shrimp in vinegar and grated daikon (radish) with soy-sauce the smooth, dry taste of Seikyo provided the greatest thrill in terms of nihonshu. Later the Hiraizumi was somewhat uninspiring while old favourites such as Kubota were over-priced. 

The Torishin-salad was a pitiful affair of lettuce, tomato, yellow pepper and chicken in a painfully mundane dressing. Why the proprietor, a Mr. Huruta Takashi, deigns attach his shops name to such a dish is beyond me. Fortunately the quality of further dishes, such as the assorted kushi plate comprising of two skewers each of chicken liver, chicken and leak, and tsukune (minced chicken) and chicken sasami (lean chicken meat) with plum sauce and seaweed, were excellent with the skewers of chicken liver being grilled to perfection being neither over- or under-cooked and thus exquisitely tender. Certainly it has been many years since I last encountered liver tasting this good.  

Other highlights included lightly salted skewers of onion and shitake mushroom, and a sesame coated grilled onigiri (riceball). The menu is somewhat limited with each dish being a little too small for my taste. However, that which is on offer, salad aside, is a considered, well presented selection that encourages a second visit. Prices are somewhat higher than average although the quality of the food combined with the pleasant service and atmosphere of place go someway to justifying them. Fresh ingredients, careful cooking and a clean shop interior all add to the joy of dining at Torishin.

My only complaint other than the price and size of the dishes is that the counter does not look onto a kitchen. The kitchen is itself behind doors to the side of the counter area, with food only appearing in the counter 'kitchen' to be served. The ability to watch ones meal being cooked is always a bonus...

Still, I will no doubt be making another visit to Torishin although with so many other enticing restaurants in the area I may well be distracted... 

 

Tel: 03-5405-2785