A Japanese vacation turns foodie marathon
Even without a foray into fugu or aburi toro-basashi, Tokyo offers a cornucopia of culinary adventure. Blowfish and seared horse-meat sushi, respectively, are not worth attempting to sell to a 17-year-old daughter—who does, however, acquire a taste for fried octopus during her 10-day stay with a family in Fukuoka before our rendezvous in the capital city.
Fish is the fulcrum around which the Japanese diet turns. One visit to the vast warehouse that is the Tsukiji fish market, with its army of vendors and ocean of Styrofoam boxes displaying the sea’s bounty, is proof enough. Around 7:30 a.m., after the day’s catch is auctioned and the buyers transport their take to the army of delivery trucks stationed outside, it’s time for a sushi breakfast.
Tsukiji Sushi Sen offers geso—octopus-chewy cuttlefish tentacles—and aji, jack mackerel jazzed up by a dab of ginger and a sprig of spring onions. Iwashi, or sardine, has “little scissors,” the chef warns of the bones. Another winner is the nam hamu maguro, tuna with prosciutto and the jaunty spring onions. It’s weird experiencing a gnarly sushi belch at 10 a.m.
At a grocery store, we marvel at two peaches for $12. Nearby is an $8 cantaloupe. A small watermelon is on sale for $6. It’s hard getting used to not tipping as well.
We delight in tempura at a place run by kindly, kimonoed grandmothers. Kakiage—small shrimp, diced cuttlefish and scallop valve muscles—tastes significantly better than it sounds. A simple pot sticker, or gyoza, joint in Harajuku is a major hit.
One evening, Katie suggests we visit a greasy-spoon ramen joint. The most expensive item at $12 is noodles with the works, which include two fist-sized cubes of fatty pork. Also at her request, we negotiate steep stairs with an—ouch—low ceiling down to Pescaderia, an ostensibly Italian restaurant in the boutique-heavy Ginza district. Observing the other diners, most of which smoke, it appears to be a popular Japanese date place.
Very big night for mackerel; it’s showcased in carpaccio, capellini and gnocchi. The olive-oil-doused carpaccio is littered with cherry-tomato halves and toothpick-sized zucchini slivers. The Caesar would be harshly condemned at home for its unclear-on-the-concept composition: mixed greens, tomatoes and bacon. A handwritten sign on the wall touts raw oysters with Guinness. Oyster options abound: Australia, Ireland, United States, Hokkaido or Hiroshima? The latter two are meaty and fantastically fresh. No bread is offered to mop up the remaining pool of runny Gorgonzola sauce after Katie dispatches the penne.
The burlesque of saltshaker banging and steaming onion-slice volcanoes does not sully Tokyo teppanyaki. These are serious chefs creating serious food. At a six-seat counter in a bright white second-floor restaurant, the courses keep coming. The salad stars kidney beans, olives, cherry tomatoes, bamboo and bell peppers. Then dashimaki—“egg filled with stock soup,” the menu says—laid out in a rectangle on the grill and meticulously rolled. For the sautéed vegetable course, two can be chosen of 10. Among the 10: manganji, a sweet pepper; eringi mushrooms; and lotus root.
Next comes fish. Gindara—butterfish—salmon or swordfish. The butterfish is sweet, tender and flaky. Then sirloin or tenderloin with a dipping dish of soy, a spot of wasabi and daikon sauce. The standout is a jumble of noodles, cabbage, dried shrimp and green onions wearing a fried egg chapeau, emboldened by a generous splash of Worcestershire sauce.
We eat a similar noodle dish at Yukari, which specializes in okonomiyaki, a type of Japanese cuisine not common in the states, although findable in cites like San Francisco and New York. Here, it’s a mix of eggs, enoki mushrooms, small shrimp, red bell peppers and sprouts, cooked as a half-inch-thick pancake on a grill in the center of the table. After flipping it a few times, the Japanese flavor it with a tempuralike dipping sauce, but our waiter suggests gaijins might prefer barbecue sauce or mayo. Katie does. Sprinkling dried octopus on the pieces is eerie as the shreds sway and curl from the heat.
So many tempting tastes, so little time.