Akaoni, Sangenjaya (also HAPPY WORLD SAKE DAY!)

Happy World Sake Day!

Akaoni has a wicked name! It literally means “red demon” in Japanese. And it’s located in the wickedly fun area of Sangenjaya!

I didn’t turn into a red demon when I visited, but I got immediately schooled by the waitress when I asked if they had any autumn sake such as akiagari or hiyaoroshi.

“This is a namazake speciality store,” she replied smoothly with a well-practised smile.

Akaoni specialises in unpasteurised sake. This is definitely NOT autumn sake, which is pasteurised once or twice in order to mature it over the summer.

Oh the shame 🤦🏽‍♀️ I had no idea they were namazake specialists but fortunately… I love namazake 😈

I wasted no time in ordering some of their house specials (it seems they have direct contracts with some breweries) and I very much liked the Black Moon muroka-namagenshu. Later on, I also enjoyed Fukucho from Hiroshima brewed by a very talented female toji, Miho Imada. 🍶💪

As for the food… Well, all hungry stomach demons will be really satisfied. Even the otoshi (small dish served at the beginning) made an impression – one was topped with some kind of creamy mushroom paste that I didn’t quite catch the explanation for, but want to eat it again!

We then tucked into three dishes from the seasonal specials menu:

Ginger shoots wrapped in pork…with a gentle amount of gingery kick.

Lotus root, tomato and anago (conger eel) agedashi – deep-fried and lightly stewed. Unami levels were sky-high.

Clay pot cooked rice 💕

And I was extremely hungry so I was being an extreme lightweight and needed to eat a salmon onigiri too 😂 (I then got takeout ramen, gyoza and takoyaki and… Yes, I really should be enormously fat! 😂😂😂)

Akaoni
Mon – Fri 17:00 – 23:30; Sat 17:00 – 23:30; Sun 17:00 – 23:00

Spice Lab Tokyo, Ginza

The Spice Trail was laid out before us; our duty was simply to follow…

So began our journey through eight courses at Spice Lab Tokyo. The premise was slightly outrageous – “the perfect union of new India and Japanese sensibilities” – but definitely intriguing and, from the first mouthful – a beautiful tomato jelly presented as an “Offering” to the “Temple” – it promised to deliver.

We moved on through tamarind-spiked pineapple to a plate of street food “classics” with a twist – chaat as ooba (perilla leaf) tempura with tamarind, mint and yoghurt; the bao with tamarind chicken; the samosa with five-spiced lamb.

Heading toward the Coastline, we encountered mustard ayu, followed by a plum and cumin palate cleanser, and succeeded by the”Emperor”. This was a dish that truly deserved to rule –  pillow soft chicken breast cooked at low temperature, morels, broad beans, cashew nuts, fenugreek and saikyo miso (sweet white miso).

Then arrived the biryani cooked in bamboo and filled with summer vegetables and begging for seconds in its own right, and then thirds and fourths when smothered with its accompanying dishes of a fresh avocado and aubergine raita, a peanut and tamarind curry, and a rich and creamy mung bean dal,

If this sounds like a lot of food, you should be aware that all this comes with four kinds of kulcha (Indian leavened flatbread): butter, hojicha (roasted green tea), edamame and blue cheese, and sundried tomato and basil (the ultimate Indian pizza). Whatever combination of rice, sauce, or kulcha, the variety and depths of flavours took me down avenues of adventures, and led my Indian companions down memory lane.

By the time we got to the chocolate chickpea laddu with mango sorbet and passion fruit, I knew I needed to study – fill my ignorance of Indian cuisines. I also knew that the Spice Trail was actually a pilgrimage.

Fortunately, at the end of our meal. we were able to directly pay homage to Chef Tejas Sovani, who worked at Noma among others. He immediately returned our praise with a question: “Were you sceptical before you came?” When pressed on why he would ask, he explains that many do not believe delicate Japanese and robust Indian flavours could ever be married successfully. Indeed, it took hours of experimenting to perfect but Sovani has carved out an exciting new culinary path, and you would be foolish not to embark on the journey. 

Spice Lab Tokyo
Daily: Lunch 11:30 – 15:00 (14:00 LO); Dinner 18:00 – 22:30 (21:00 LO)

Out Restaurant, Shibuya

August 12th. It had been a very strange day – a day worth remembering, not least because it was my 32nd birthday. It began with alcohol shopping at 7.30am, resulting in a bizarre encounter with the police, followed by organising and filming a sake cocktail competition at a sake brewery, followed by a crazy lightning storm stopping all the trains home. I didn’t think I’d bother going out for dinner by this point, but a little voice said to me that it’d be quite sad if I didn’t. 32 years old and sitting home alone would be tragic and, exhausted though I was, I just didn’t have the energy to carry my self-pity that far.

Fortunately, I have excellent friends and one had anticipated, more than myself, that I might actually want to do something. He quickly booked us dinner at Out, a restaurant he’d suggested taking me to ages ago.

The concept of Out is quirky to say the least. It’s something that perhaps could only work in Tokyo, so I was told on the night, and so I very much believe. The menu – priced at 4000 yen – consists of 150g of fresh pasta with 5g of truffle, and a glass of red wine. Guests around the counter are bathed in purple light while a record player spins Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin only.

The concept apparently came about from a dinner party involving – you guessed it – a lot of truffle pasta and a lot of wine. There was a moment when Led Zeppelin was played, and a perfect moment was born… a moment that three friends aimed to encapsulate and serve to others: Melbourne restaurateur David Mackintosh, entrepreneur Tom Crago and Tokyo based gastronomic consultant Sarah Crago,. The website describes it as ” the coming together of a shared affinity for fine food, wine and ambience. All in one mouthful” and that image truly does deserve a bit of savouring.

Once seated, I quickly realised I knew nothing about Led Zeppelin’s music – save for Whole Lotta Love and Stairway To Heaven, neither of which deigned to put in an appearance . But I didn’t care because I quickly found a glass of champagne and some cheese-stuffed shiitake in front of me. Appetite whetted, I sneakily eyed up a couple tucking into a mountain of fresh pasta. An actual mountain. It was as big as their heads – or bigger.

A few queries, and I confirmed that yes, they had upped the portion to 300g and I realised I must fo the same. Sarah, the chef, warned us that 300g of fresh pasta is equivalent to about 600g when cooked. But I was determined and before long, I was ogling my own carb mountain, shimmering with melted butter. I began my hike and immediately realised this was more than a flavour stroll but a texture adventure: with just fresh fettuccine, truffle, butter and a dusting of parmesan, the dish is simply, relying on the slatiness, the gentle eaty umami of the truffle and the springy and tongue-teasing smoothness of the pasta. Admittedly, 150g was probably enough, not just because of the portion-size but because it did get a teeny bit repetitive. Fortunately, we took it slowly alongside our glass of red.

For the maximum experience, we ordered “Truffle Truffles” – yes, those are truffle chocolate truffles – with truffle ice-cream and a roasted almond flavour, which was like pure almond butter in ice-cream form. I would like to tell you more details but I believe much wine was consumed. I’ve just referred to my notes on my phone to merely find some incomplete garbled sentences and the very helpful line: “A slot machine of adjectives spinning by.” I am sort of proud of that, and also face-palming at the same time. I best leave you to make your own conclusions.

I left with a full belly and a full smile, and promptly passed out on my friend’s sofa. I am 32 and I clearly don’t do late nights anymore.

OUT
Opening hours: Wed – Sat 18:00 – 22:00, brunch on Sundays (as of Sep. 6th, please check)

Kakyoubeisen, Akihabara – Yunnan Food in Tokyo

There was a distinct sense of irony about the circumstances which brought four of us to dinner. We were meeting to discuss our ideas for various series introducing Japanese food to a wider audience. But it was agreed we all liked spicy, exotic and unusual foods so the natural option was to search for something not Japanese.

My Chinese companion, who hails from Xian, hit upon Kakyoubeisen (過橋米線), an unassuming 2nd floor restaurant in Akihabara/Suehirocho, which specialises in food from Yunnan province. I couldn’t even put Yunnan on a map but it has just leapt onto my internal food map that lives mainly in my stomach.

Yunnan is known for its rice noodles, which are lighter than wheat noodles and so delightfully silky smooth to slurp. We ordered Cross-Bridge Rice Noodles (过桥米线), where all the ingredients come separately and are added last minute! Legend has is that a scholar was working on an island, where his wife would bring him lunch every day. But the journey would leave the noodles soggy and the soup cold. So the wife separated the ingredients and then put a layer of boiling oil on top of the soup to trap the heat and …tadah!

In all honesty, I looked at the thin soup and thought it would be so boring and bland. How wrong I was! It was light but so delicious and quite refreshing.

Again, I had a similar experience when I tried Steam Pot Chicken (汽锅鸡), a broth near translucent but it had so much depth of flavour from the herbs! There are only a limited number of portions a day so it might be worth reserving in advance if you want to try it (hint, hint).

On the side, we opted for seafood: some stir fried turban shell (sazae) and deep-fried white fish in cumin.

The lady serving us was more than happy to advise. And basically, I can’t wait to go back and try the rest of their menu. Deceptively delicious and healthy!

Kakyoubeisen Akihabaraten

Opening hours:
Daily 11:30~14:30; 17:00~24:00(L.O.23:30) 

Arossa Shibuya

I normally just update my Instagram & Facebook, but I am reviving my blog. Expect records of my absolute favourite eats that you absolutely should go to – because you wouldn’t doubt me, right? And watch this space for travel destinations too. The hospitality industry needs a lot of love right now.

As a starting point, it’s only fitting that I write about Arossa Shibuya, a small restaurant serving up Australian / Australian-inspired fare (yes, they have kangaroo). I can’t actually count the number of times I’ve been there. I would probably be embarrassed to know the number.

My previous office wasn’t too far away and if I timed it write, because Arossa is rightfully a very popular lunch destination, I could arrive, mildly out of breath, and squeeze onto a table just before midday.

Then, they stopped lunch service and I was very sad.

But now they’re back, and with a brand new menu offering to boot. 1600 yen gets you a starter, a choice of main (two pastas, one chicken, one pork and one steak dish) and a dessert, with your choice of tea or coffee.

This is a starter. Yes really.

The most important thing you need to know: everything that passes your lips will be brilliant. The staff are also warm, welcoming and accommodating.

For starters, starter looks like a dessert: an organic vegetable parfait comprised of carrot mouse that hides lentils, topped with consommé jelly and more veggies.

Last week, for main course, I chose their weekly tomato pasta – a delectable ragu topped with grana pedano. This week, ichibo (hipbone cut) steak from Australian beef with alshings of garlic butter and potatoes crisped to perfection.

Dessert was also smooth and well-balanced coffee blancmange topped with coffee jelly. Also sampled almond babaroa (Bavarian cream).

Dinner is around 6000 – 8000 yen, although that’s entirely dependent on how many of their Australian wines you decide to sample. I’m looking for an excuse to go, so by all means, invite me! In the meantime, I shall be a faithful regular lunchtime visitor.

Arossa Shibuya

Opening hours:
Currently subject to change. Please check their Facebook or call the store (some staff speak English): 03-3469-0125

Teahouse Sekison on Mt Oyama

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Have you been to Mt Oyama?

Did you just say Mt… Where?!

An easy day trip from Tokyo, Mt Oyama should be top of your list if you’re looking to escape the city or just experience a different side of Japanese life. Known as the rainy mountain, it boasts traditional crafts and great hiking as well as being a popular pilgrimage site. For more on its history, read this excellent piece by Alice Gordenker.

Grab yourself a Tanzawa-Oyama Free Pass (2520 yen) at Shinjuku that lets you ride the train, bus and cable car for free for 2 days. Then, hope on the Odakyu line to Isehara. A short bus journey up into the hills and you are there.

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It is a little bit of a climb up some steps to the cable car but you will be following a shopping street. Stop to browse different kinds of pickles and sweets, or even stop to get the excellent  pork-tofu croquettes from Oyama Tonkatsu Nakamuraya (you can eat in or take out). Stop also to admire the traditional wooden spinning tops which are a local craft in the area. Sadly, there are only three makers left.

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Once at the cable car, you get to admire the landscape as you are taken higher and higher.

At the top station, you will find yourself by the lower shrine of Oyama Afuri shrine with the main but significantly smaller shrine being at the summit. It’s a fairly steep but rewarding climb that can be completed in a 2.5 hour loop.

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Oyama Afuri Shrine

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Hi, friend!

But the great thing about Mt Oyama is the variety of paths and Mt Fuji views on a clear day. For those not wanting a strenuous hike, follow a flattish path along to Miharashidai (見晴台). Take a map of the area and see what you feel like.

Now, while I love spending time in nature – I take myself for walks and even went hiking in Yakushima and Ogasawara alone – I also enjoy working up an appetite. (….Who am I kidding? I always have an appetite!)

After admiring the breathtaking views and enjoying the fresh mountain air on Mt Oyama, it is clearly time to treat yourself to more of the same BUT with delicious things included!

 

 

Teahouse Sekison is located in Oyama Afuri Shrine and it simply stunning – from the setting and design to its very fashionable menu.

Of course, you will find excellent tea and coffee – the “spicy latte” with cinnamon is quite a treat – but you can enjoy a light meal. Their galettes look particularly tempting.

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Mizu shingen mochi and spicy latte

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Oh what a thing of beauty!

I was already stuffed from eating a giant guesthouse breakfast and then finishing everyone else’s breakfast (shamelessly, may I add) so I only went for sweets.

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The matcha tiramisu is apparently creamy and dreamy and an absolute must. Which is why it was sold out by the time I got there. Instead, I got a matcha affogato, which was hardly disappointing. The bitter, umami-full matcha flooded the vanilla ice-cream combining into a smooth, lightly sweet dessert, a colour as vibrant as the forested mountains before me.

Teahouse Sekison / 茶寮 石尊

 

Taka Goryokaku, Hakodate

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There are times when you have a meal so perfect that you’re almost afraid to eat again because you know that your next meal could never match it. Dining at Taka Goryokaku was one of those experiences. This was where my friend held her wedding dinner last year and it had left an impression – another opportunity to dine there was not to be passed up.

We had a reservation for 7.30pm, and arrived to find ourselves the only party there. We shed our shoes and stepped up into a hallway as if into someone’s house. Guided into a private  room, a menu detailing our courses was laid out before us, but the dining experience was already well underway.

Taka Goryokoku – taking the latter half of its name from the nearby star-shaped fortress – is run by chef-owner Takatoshi Fukui, who spent a year and half training in both France and Switzerland, returning to Japan to hone his Japanese-style French cuisine. This harmonious approach to two of the world’s finest cuisines is immediately apparent from the openers.

While sipping on our beverages of choices, we were presented with the amuse-bouches. The “s” isn’t a typo – for unlike some stupidly pretentious experiences (Joël Robuchon, I am looking at you), we were presented with a vast selection: ebi-bouzushi – prawn sushi, wrapped in pink turnip and pickled chrysanthemum, the vibrant colours sparking as sharply as the vinegar in the rice; turnip mousse topped with consommé jelly and tomato – a feat of umami; rum raisin cream cheese encased in a light pastry; potato salad enhanced with tuna and onion, topped with tantalisingly soft-boiled egg; quiche loirraine so well-balanced it would be sure to win a competition.

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These were followed by a second amuse-bouche – for the selection was classed as one – with a burdock cappuccino, lightly frothed and effortlessly moreish.

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Next up, Taka’s pastry skills were in show once again. A puff pastry pie appeared, the crisp topping flaking satisfyingly as it gave way to the spoon to reveal juicy prawns awaiting below.

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Succulent trout with expertly crisped skin bathed in a cream beetroot sauce and mildly sweet bamboo shoots. This triumph was hotly contested by a fillet of beef that yielded to the knife like butter; fried asparagus, matsutake mushrooms and a simple potato gratin all played competent supporting roles.

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Finally, we had to face that it was time for this gastronomic adventure to come to a close. Representing Japan, a sakura tiramisu, with red beans and matcha, nestled alongside a cheesecake-style stick of crema catalana that successfully held the sugar at arm’s length, and was complemented by a strawberry compote. Yet our stomachs were to compete a little longer – black sesame biscuits and meringues accompanied our coffees.

My father asked me to translate “I’m in heaven and you’re an angel” to Taka as we showered him with our appreciation. He grinned from ear to ear and said he’d never been complimented so much. Guess we’ll have to go annually to make sure he gets used to it. This is an essential dining experience in Hakodate and one I certainly intend to repeat.
Taka 五稜郭 (Taka Goryokaku)
25-12 Goryōkakuchō, Hakodate, Hokkaido 040-0001
0138-83-5777

Coffee life: Frankie Melbourne Espresso, Shimokitazawa

t’s been over a year since I last squeezed myself into this tiny place, but I really regretted not having dropped in sooner. Don’t be prepared to get a seat – with only 3 tables and a bench outside, and a well-deserved reputation, Frankie’s is a busy. Especially on a mild Sunday afternoon.

If you’re a coffee fan but – like me – really have no idea what all these newfangled drinks really are, having just about managed to work out the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, then Frankie’s has you covered. Cue: an amazing menu that explains all the differences. I ordered an ice double (432 yen with tax) which contained two espressos but less milk than a latte. Don’t ask me how it’s different from a gibraltar.

All I know that this was a standout coffee – one of the best I’ve had this year, if not the best. Rich, mellow coffee rolled smoothly over the milk, and unfortunately made me gulp it down with far too much relish, finishing the affair far too quickly.

My friend got a hot bachelor (don’t we all want one, eh?), which contains a double ristretto, which is the first 20 seconds of extraction, rather than a full 30 seconds for an espresso. This is supposed to result in a sweeter coffee flavour. It didn’t strike me as immediately sweeter but packed a powerful coffee punch, even if it did have a slight grainy finish.

This was combined with their Number One Popular homemade banana bread! It was so moist with the perfect balance of banana-sweet to bread. I don’t even like bananas but this banana bread whispered to softly in my ear. All right then. Take me.

Frankie Melbourne Espresso

Blu Jam Cafe, Daikanyama – Cali brunch dreams

Yes, this is “brunch carbonara” and, no, it does not contain pasta. I am sorry, Italians…

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Today marked my second visit to Blu Jam Cafe, having been invited to for brunch, an institution which I still feel Tokyo is lagging behind in. Blu Jam has two locations and I headed both times to the Daikanyama location.

Daikanyama is known as a trendy, slightly upscale place with its Western-style cafes, beckoning fashionable Japanese and homesick foreigners. It’s T-site is legendary – a large, beautifully designed Tsutaya bookstore, harbouring Starbucks and popular hangout of trendy kids, casual readers and the freelance, mobile working crowd.

It was after my first visit to Blu Jam in which I called into Tsutaya to browse some of the magazines. There, staring me in the face, was a Dancyu – popular food magazine, with a serious of great recipe books. Within the first few pages, it promised to reveal true Italian food, and led with a paragraph about the true nature of carbonara. Continue reading “Blu Jam Cafe, Daikanyama – Cali brunch dreams”

Obanzai Nana, Shibuya / おばんざい 菜な、渋谷

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Have you ever been in need of an izakaya that was reasonably priced by reasonably healthy? Where the atmosphere is casual yet comfortable?

Well, Obanzai Nana is your answer…I’ve now hit up their Shibuya store (opposite BIC Camera) three times and delighted whoever I’ve introduced.

A good friend of me let me on this secret as she’s a big veggie fan. Nana will sort you out with veggies, pickles, grilled fish, tofu. Nothing is overly sweet, although I did order some grilled chicken once that could have oiled my bicycle for a year…

Obanzai itself refers to a kind of traditional cuisine from Kyoto, in which at least half the ingredients must be produced and processed in Kyoto, and be seasonal. Obanzai Nana is a very small chain, ironically with no stores in Kyoto but I guess they have plenty of obanzai restaurants there already… Continue reading “Obanzai Nana, Shibuya / おばんざい 菜な、渋谷”