Thursday, March 22, 2007

Back to Tokyo

March 20

Lunch was at a winery called Cave d’Occi in the warmest part of Niigata prefecture. The grapes were mostly traditional Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals, although the winemaker had been planting some Italian and Spanish grapes in recent years. That went with a lunch that was basically regional Italian, if you treated Niigata as a region of Italy.
Both Japanese and Italian cuisines put a heavy stress on the use of local, seasonal stuff, so it’s really no stretch to take the ingredients that are available in Japan — octopus and baby mackerel, say — and assemble them with an Italian sensibility. And that's just what they did.
Dessert was a cassis, strawberry and vanilla parfait accompanied by strawberry sorbet and, for Japanese content, cherry-blossom jelly.
We also stopped by Echigo, home of Japan’s first microbrewery. There we sampled a pale ale, an amber and a weissbier as well as the only beer Echigo exports to the United States. That was a light lager sold in Japanese an Korean restaurants for $12. Cool, big bottle, all in Japanese.
After a couple more stops, to look at lacquerware and possibly buy other things — Naren picked up some bar implements, I just looked around — we hopped back on the shinkansen to head back to Tokyo.
During the train ride back, Suimi Fujiwara, a representative from JR and a companion of ours for the entire trip, handed out beer, sake and preserved Murakami salmon, sliced in strips, and, using Akiko as an interpreter, quizzed us about the trip, asking us to evaluate it. We gave them high praise, although I suggested that perhaps we didn’t need to dine on the floor quite so much — it’s a nice tradition, but it hurts. I also said it would be nice to see where the Murakami cattle was being raised and to visit other production facilities.
Back at the Shinagawa Prince hotel, we took an hour to decompress and then headed to the Roppongi neighborhood.
Akiko wanted us first to stop at Roppongi Hills, a large commercial and residential complex with many restaurants and shops. We popped our heads into L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. We wandered around the bakeshop and no one said a word. That was in sharp contrast to what I thought was the universal practice in Japan of greeting everyone who walked into your establishment with a warm, hearty welcome. I asked Akiko if it were true that even at McDonald’s in Japan you were met with such a greeting.
She said it was. And I know that anyone who walks into a shop in France is greeted with a warm “bonjour,” and you’re supposed to say “au revoir” when you leave. So it’s not like the Atelier staff was just following French custom. They seemed just to be rude.
We ended up eating at an izakaya called Gonpachi. Naren wanted to eat there, because friends of his had said it was good and because it had been in Kill Bill, so it would possibly be touristy, but also possibly cool.
The décor was that of an oversized, two-story Japanese tavern, just over-the-top enough to be appropriate for Kill Bill, yet with a hint of bar & grill mixed in. The servers reminded me of southern Californians.
I was in the mood for vegetables and Naren was in the mood for meat, so between with us we basically ordered the entire menu. Akiko and Fujiwara-san seemed fine with that.
We lingered until after the subways had stopped and resolved to stay out until Tsukiji, the wholesale fish market, opened. Naren wanted to see the tuna auctions and that was fine with me.
From Gonpachi we went to a bar named Mangin. It was a cool spot run by kids who looked too young to drink, but it seemed to be doing well. When we told them, through Akiko, that we were from New York, they asked if we knew chef (Masaharu) Morimoto and said that he frequented the bar when he was in town.
I sampled Asahi beers that I hadn’t seen in the states, although the bar mostly offered shochu.
Takeshi had told me that young Japanese people made the shift to shochu sometime between 2001 and 2003, when he was studying in Boston. Akiko concurred. Fujiwara-san didn’t say anything. He just ordered an umeboshi sour, which is shochu with a salted plum.
Naren stepped outside and ended up finding our next spot. A late night basement bar that played recorded jazz onto the street, I assume to attract patrons, which it did. We spent the rest of the night there, sipping beer and eating udon noodles until a little after 4, when we hopped into a taxi to Tsukiji.
It was still an hour until the tuna auction, so we wandered around, watching the merchants lay out their live seafood. One guy was sticking wires down the spines of wriggling fish, which Akiko said deadened their nerves and kept them from wriggling.
The auction was in the back of the market, where whole headless tuna, all frozen, lay on the ground and were being inspected by men with hooks that looked rather like crowbars, hacking into the flesh near the tail to examine its quality.
The auction was fast, fascinating and completely incomprehensible. Several auctioneers would hold up their hands and sort of chant rhythmically while potential buyers made gestures with their hands that I didn’t understand. It was great.
As the sun rose we stood in line for early morning sushi, shivering a bit in the cold.
I was back at my hotel a little after 7. Fujiwara-san picked me up at 8:20 and took me to the train, rode me to the airport, led me to check-in, pulling my luggage all the way. I thanked him and we bowed several times as I went off to check in.
I thought that was the last I would see of him, but after I had checked in he was waiting on the other side, making sure everything went all right. We could use more people like him.
I slept well on the flight home.
This is a picture of Fujiwara-san dishing up a rice dish at Gonpachi. Isn’t he great?

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