Friday, March 21, 2014

"through the narrow door" | Sushi Yoshitake - 鮨よしたけ - Tokyo

Perhaps it was over-ambitious to have made a dinner reservation for the evening of our arrival in Tokyo, after about seventeen hours of travel. But it seemed foolish to miss any opportunity. As it turned out, we had just enough time to retrieve our bags from the airport carousel, hop on the train, transfer to the subway, get lost in the Shinbashi Station, find our way (with some assistance) to the hotel, check in, drop our bags, splash some water on our faces, and hail a taxi to Sushi Yoshitake in nearby Ginza.

When we arrived, our driver pointed up to make sure we understood that the restaurant was on the third floor of what appeared to be a nondescript office building. After exiting the elevator, we spotted the kanji that matched the picture our hotel concierge had provided us, fumbled with the door,[1] and then nearly stumbled right on top of six diners seated along a wooden counter in a room smaller than many walk-in closets. A hostess politely shooed us back outside, then directed us across the landing to what appeared to be a cupboard built into the wall. We assumed she was going to put our coats away there. Instead, she opened the door and beckoned us inside.

We stepped through the narrow door, crouched into a tight passageway, and emerged into an even smaller room - if the first one was a walk-in closet, this was a broom closet - which was our private little sushi den for the evening. So this is what a Michelin three-star restaurant looks like in Tokyo.

(You can see all my pictures in this Sushi Yoshitake flickr set).

The chef,[2] in halting English, asked if we had any dietary restrictions. "We eat everything." That was put to the test immediately. The first course, our first bite in Japan, was a chawanmushi topped with fugu shirako. I fully processed these words[3] only after having taken a couple bites. "Fugu" is pufferfish - potentially lethally poisonous if prepared improperly. "Shirako" is milt or "soft roe," i.e., the fish's, er, laden male genitalia. The shirako is one of the most sought-after delicacies from the fugu fish, and February, it turns out, is high season for both fugu and shirako in Japan.[4]

Blistered from a quick sear on the grill, the shirako was warm, creamy and subtly oceanic, its texture and flavor nearly blending into the silky, dashi-inflected custard on which it rested - a warming welcome on a cold evening. It was neither as gross as you might think nor, frankly, so delicious as to warrant risking death.[5]

Several rounds of sashimi followed. Octopus, cut in big blocks, had three distinct textures - the thin membrane and suckers with an almost crispy pellicle, beneath which a delicate, gelatinous layer surrounded the main part of the tentacle, which was tender with just a bit of pleasing chew to it. Next, stacked slivers of pink-hued amadei (tilefish), just the skin seared, were served with a soy sauce infused with the fish's bones.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Japan - Impressions, Travel Tips, and a List

It is both humbling and exhilarating to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Before our two-week trip to Japan, from which we returned this weekend, I had never been to the Far East. For those who are veteran globetrotters it may sound silly, but I'll confess I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of being literally halfway across the world in a place where we not only didn't know, but couldn't even decipher the characters of, the native language. But that fear was more than outbalanced by our love of Japanese culture and food, and the desire to experience them first-hand.

We needn't have been so concerned. Literally from the moment we arrived, we were buoyed by the graciousness, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit of the Japanese people. As we wandered our way through the Shinbashi subway station dragging luggage behind us, a kind lady - who spoke no English whatsoever - helped us figure out where our hotel was, and then walked with us for nearly ten minutes to guide us there. It was a scene that repeated itself throughout our stay. Whenever we were lost, whenever we needed help, someone was always glad to assist.

We saw so many beautiful things. We ate so many fantastic meals. But more than anything, I was won over by the people of Japan. That lady in the subway station. The sushi chef at the restaurant with three Michelin stars who bounded down three flights of stairs so he could see us off in the taxi after our meal. The dark-suited businessmen who bought us a round of sake at dinner in Kanazawa. These were the things that made Mrs. F and I feel welcome as strangers in a strange land, and which made our celebration of our twentieth anniversary even more special.

Over the coming weeks I will try to recap some of our best meals in Japan, several of which were among the best I've experienced anywhere. In the meantime, here are many random impressions, a few words of advice for fellow first-time travelers to Japan, a list of all the places we ate at that I can recall, and several expressions of thanks for many people whose guidance made our experience so much better.

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