Archive for March, 2009

Maru: Affordable kaiseki in central Tokyo

Kaiseki dining is notoriously difficult to access as a gaijin in Japan — you need an introduction and even if you have the luck to get a reservation, it’s all clouded in formal Japanese, so it’s not very accessible to your average gaijin.

This is where Rakushokushu Maru comes in: it offers a wonderful alternative for the expat community in Tokyo — modern kaiseki cuisine with an English menu and English-speaking staff. Lest you think it will be swarmed with gaijins, I didn’t get that impression at all when I went. It seemed like there was a 50-50 balance of locals and foreigners.

interior

Maru has a discreet entrance and once inside, you will be ensconced in a cosy restaurant with woody interior and hushed conversation. Apparently, you can order a full course before your reservation or go ala carte. Ours was a last minute decision so we went ala carte and I was pleased with our selection.

We kicked things off wit ha bubbly, cloudy sake, which was gorgeous in its smooth, slightly sweet, slightly tart palate. Be warned, it goes down too easily and you could get quite tipsy from this drink.

sake-bottle

fizzy-sake

Let’s get into the food. I’ve had a couple of kaiseki spreads in ryokans and what we had at Maru matches up in terms of quality. Most of the dishes were simple creations where the extremely fresh meat and produce shone through their herbs and condiments.

entree

tempura

This croquette dish was one of the few modern touches in the menu. It wasn’t too heavy because the portions were small and the crust was surprisingly light.

pork-with-watercress

This was probably my least favourite of all the dishes, but only because I wasn’t fond of the barely seared pork slices. The watercress and sauce, on the other hand, were fresh and savoury.

rice

You have to order the rice half an hour in advance and you won’t regret it. It comes in a black cauldron-like pot and what you get is a tasty, moist rice which you eat with pickles and a dried sardine paste (pictured below), which is not for those who dislike pungent fishy aromas.

pickled-something

prawn-thing-in-soup

The most complicated dish during the evening was very kaiseki in nature — a deep-fried minced root vegetable ball that floated in a thick, salty broth with scallions. It was hearty despite its tiny thimble size.

grilled-fish

roast-pork

Meat-lovers will swoon over this unadorned smoky platter of roast pork. The secret probably lies in the excellent cut from the freshest of pork and a very subtle marinade on its skin.

bill

Even the bill was done in the spirit of kaiseki. There is usually no direct exchange of money for authentic kaiseki dinners and customers pay their bill via bank transfers a few days or even weeks after their meal. Maru placed the bill simply as a number scribbled on a piece of paper in a cloth envelope, so we put our cash in there, and that was it. We paid a little over the amount required but didn’t stay for the change, but I wonder if we’d waited, would there have been a receipt? By the way, the bill was split between four people, so it was about 8,000JPY per head. Not bad at all for such a classy spread.

Address: Aoyama KT Building B1F, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Tel: 03-6418-5572
Opening hours: Lunch: 1130 – 1400 (Mon – Fri); dinner 1800 – 0100 (Fri 1800 – 0200; Sun 1800 – midnight)
Nearest station: Omotesando (B2 exit)

How to have a great hanami

hanami-picnic

Spring is upon us and the sakuras (cherry blossoms) are going to explode everywhere very soon. The exciting thing about the sakura season is nobody really knows when it will happen till just a few days before it will actually happen. It seems this weekend will mark the start of gazing at pink flowers and the whole of Japan will be celebrating.

Hanami (means flower viewing) parties make any sober Japanese (or gaijin) come out of their shell. I think it’s the abundance of warm sunshine after a drab, cold winter and everyone wants to come out and play (plus a lot of booze is involved).

If you are a hanami newbie, you might need some pointers to thoroughly enjoy the season.

Reserve a spot early. Spread a ground sheet with your name and arrival time to “book” your spot. It’s a pain but somebody has to do it if you want an excellent spot in a popular park (eg. Yoyogi, Inokashira etc).

Further inside the park is better. While being near the station has its plus points, you may find it way too crowded to truly enjoy your hanami party. You don’t really want to be squashed right up with your neighbour’s guitar playing, loud drunken musings, and wild dancing. So, search for a place further central in the park where fewer people will be inclined to venture.

Bring warm togs. Don’t let the sun fool you — it may be warm at midday but once the sun starts fading in the late afternoon, it actually gets cold very quickly. A thick scarf and an extra jacket will do you just fine.

Don’t drink too much alcohol. Well, this would probably apply only to the ladies, and it’s not dished out with prissy intentions. See, there aren’t many toilets available in parks, and even if there are, each toilet hub would only have a few stalls and the never-ending queues of women lining up to wee is extremely daunting when you have a full (and drunken) bladder.

You don’t want to spend the majority of your hanami party queuing up for a loo or searching for a less crowded one. Advice: just drink less alcohol and pace the fluids; go to the toilet before you really have to as it will save you a lot of mental trauma.

Take along entertainment. A hanami party typically lasts the whole day, so conversation might dry up even for the chattiest of people. Some folks might bring along a book or magazine, or a portable CD player (or rather, these days, an iPod and portable speakers). Feel free to bring cards or a guitar. Just think about how you would like to enjoy the perfect picnic.

Give some thought to food. Conbini snacks serve some people well enough but it’s likely that the conbini closest to the park will be jam-packed with a huge crowd clamouring to get their food and drinks. Nab an awesome sakura-themed bento box from a department store, or make your own goodies. Salads and finger food work best, but you might want to consider a small hot pot if you are going to linger after dusk. Warm soup with delicious meat and veggies will help you party on, instead of running back home.

Be responsible for your trash. You’ve got to do something about the used disposable plates, utensils, and napkins, so remember to include gomi (rubbish) bags in your picnic basket.

Spots that rock during hanami:

Yoyogi Park
Aoyama cemetery
Shinjuku-gyoen
Chidorigafuchi (near the Yasukuni Shrine and Imperial Palace)
Sumida Park
Ueno Park
Inokashira Park

Photo: Altus

Are you craving for good Chinese food in Tokyo?

As a Singaporean-born Chinese, I’m always in the mood for Chinese food, but sadly, there’re very few establishments that have authentic, affordable, and delicious Chinese dishes.

I’ve become jaded about sticky and sweet ma po tofu, starchy vegetable stir-fries, stale-looking cha han (fried rice) and fancy Japanesey dim sum.

For a change of scenery (and culinary palate), we took ourselves off to Yokohama’s Chinatown in search of a great meal.

If you are not fussed enough to go as far as Nikko or Kamakura for a day trip out of central Tokyo, Yokohama is an excellent and convenient destination that is just 20 minutes on the express train from Shibuya. Yokohama may be a also city but it has a certain quaintness about it — it’s quieter, more spacious, and moves at a more languid pace.

Here are a few pictures of Chinatown in all its red glory.

yokohama-chinatown

small-shops

We poked around and found authentic Chinese ingredients, like fried shallots, fiery-hot chili paste, and dried scallops, but strangely they mingled next to Thai curries and coconut milk.

The ubiquitous nikuban (meat bun) stalls were at almost every corner we turned. They looked fat and yummy.

nikuban

Although the restaurants on the main Chinatown street beckoned with their shiny new menus and extravagant offerings, my friend and I decided to dine at a hole in the wall type of Chinese eatery to get away from the common fare so readily available.

As we ambled down the dark little side lanes, we spotted lively shops promising delicious dishes with the aroma of garlic and oyster sauce wafting out. Rule of thumb while hunting: always pick a more crowded restaurant than an empty one. And so we did.

We got a hearty all-you-can-eat dim sum spread for only 2,500JPY.

har-gao

dumplings

fried-dumplings

fried-radish-cakes

spinach-dumplings

The only things that had a Japanese twist were the spinach dumplings. They used sticky mochi as the skin but they tasted pretty good anyway.

restaurant-name

restaurant-address

I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation of the shop’s name so here are pictures of the kanji and the address, in case you want to look for this place. I wouldn’t say it was out-of-this-world dim sum but it was very good for its price and the dumplings were all succulent and savory like they should be. The sizes are normal (read: not miniscule Japanese servings) so you will feel stuffed to the brim.

This Weekend in Tokyo

raining-in-tokyo

+ Tap into your creative side and feel inspired by Festival/Tokyo, a performing arts festival that is on till the end of March. This weekend, there are four exciting events going on: Clouds. Home, Sunshine 63, Fireface, Shinkan Shonen (Kumquat Seed). Our top pick is Sunshine 63 as the audience gets to take part in the performance. For more details, surf over to the official website.

+ The weather will probably be wet and miserable, so if you don’t want to head out in the rain, hole up in your nook and watch funny Japanese commercials on Youtube. Here are a few suggestions: an old sake anime ad, a weird but kinda cool MacDonald’s ad, a bizarre exercise equipement one and lots more.

+ If movies are what you need to switch off from that stressful work week, there are three movies out that may tickle your fancy as an escape from reality: Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, or Disaster! (a claymation flick by the Team America guys. Yes, it was released in 2005, and it finally made it to the big screen in Tokyo, like…now).

+ It could be time to get yourself to hugely popular French crepe café, Le Bretagne. Park yourself there nice and early at 11.30am or as late as 15.00pm as it’s hard to get a table during peak lunch hour. Go sweet with fruit and syrup or hit the spot with a savoury plate of eggs and ham.

Photo: Kim

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