Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Japan / Izakaya & Yakitori

The Japanese don't think about restaurants the way we do. In America, you can walk into any Tchotchkes or Flingers and order anything from grilled salmon to fish tacos, chicken pot pie to chicken parm.  Pretty much any type of cuisine can be had, and it will all taste vaguely familiar.  Closer to home, in Philly, if you go to your neighborhood sushi spot, you're likely to see miso soup, gyoza, yakitori and  ramen on the menu, right next to the maki rolls and sashimi.

That's not exactly how it works in Japan. Following the creed of dedication to one's craft, the restaurants there tend to focus on one particular thing, and do that thing really well. If it's a sushi place, that's usually all you'll see on the menu, and it will be exquisite. If you want yakitori, you go to the grill guy down the block. And that yakitori will be equally wonderful. The one quasi-exception to this rule would be your friendly local izakaya. 

Izakaya literally means "stay and drink".  They evolved from sake shops that would allow customers to hang out and drink a while before getting on the train back to the suburbs.  They're extremely popular and very fun. An izakaya generally has a range of dishes on offer - sashimi, grilled meats, tempura, etc., along with daily specials and lots of booze. The Japanese like to drink, and drink heavily. If you've got a little something in your stomach, you're less likely to fall off your barstool after that last shot of shochu. 

Most izakaya's are small, with between 10-30 seats. Seating can be at traditional low tables on tatami mats (shoes off, please), high-tops, or at the bar. These places are filled with co-workers kicking back after a long day at the office, so there is generally a lot smoking, drinking and shit talking. 

It's customary at an izakaya to serve a little snack - a tsukidashi - that can range from a piece of tofu with scallions & fish roe to a small salad. There is usually a nominal charge on the bill for the tsukidashi, but this is seen as part of the cover charge. So don't be surprised when you see a ¥300 charge on your tab when you just came in for beers and thought you were getting free snacks. Roll with it.

We stumbled onto this great izakaya called Asasyoku off a side street in Rappongi, just a couple blocks from our hotel. Even if I gave you the address, you'd never find it on a map. Fun fact about Japanese addresses, they are kind of useless. Most side streets don't have names. Each section of the city is subdivided into areas called Machis and then into neighborhoods called Chomes.  Since there are no street names to go by, they include the block number in the address, which you just kind of have to know.  The blocks are not necessarily in any particular order. 

So an address of 3 Chome-9-8 Roppongi, Tokyo would be in the city of Tokyo, the Rappongi Machi, Chome 3, Block 9, Building 8.  To confuse matters, the house numbers don't go in sequential order. They can, and often are, based on when that house or building constructed in relation to the others on the block.  So, if you're house was the 5th one built, you'd be #5. Your next door neighbor could be # 37.  Right…….

Anyway, back to the izakaya - we got seats at the bar and got to watch the show as the two chefs/servers prepared dishes. Between the four of us, I think we ordered half the menu. 

Surprisingly enough, I think this salad was one of the few green things we had (not counting the wasabi & seaweed) during our eight days in Japan. I don't know how they stay in such good shape. 

Raw octopus, with scallions and wasabi. Super tender and tasting like it was caught that morning, which it probably was. 

Some sushi grade salmon, just barely seared. This literally melted in your mouth. No chewing necessary. Amazing.

A gorgeous piece of mackerel that was seared with a blowtorch tableside - note the scorch marks on the banana leaf - and a hefty swipe of wasabi mustard that would clear any head cold. I was surprised to see how much mackerel was on menus here. It was just as common as tuna or salmon in sushi.  This was probably one of the best pieces I've ever eaten. 

Not being able to read Japanese, we had no idea what the specials were. Luckily someone a few seats down the bar had ordered what looked to be a huge hotpot. After some pointing and grunting, we managed to order one for ourselves. So resourceful.

You get your own little gas hot plate at the counter, filled a mile high veggies and what looked to be a miso based broth below. I'm not 100% sure on everything in there, but I can report back that it was tasty. Plus you get to cook it yourself, which is always fun.

You also get to have your wife serve you, even more fun. 

Another highlight - tiny, grilled, enoki mushrooms topped with bonito flakes and a dash of soy sauce.  The Japanese put bonito flakes on pretty much everything.

In case you're wondering, bonito is a type of fish that they basically smoke and salt until it's petrified.  Then it's shaved down on an upside down block plane and the results are pinkish translucent flakes of fish that is delightfully salty and bursting with umami. At this point it's called katsuobushi in Japanese.  Katsuobushi is a staple of cooking here and is one of the main two elements (the other being dried kelp/seaweed) of dashi - the broth that all Japanese soups are based on. Every Japanese mother knows how to make dashi from scratch. You can buy an instant version, but this would be considered sacrosanct and you'd probably be deported for suggesting it.   Heathen. 

Tempura is another specialty of this country. The batter should be light and airy - thanks to either club soda or beer in the batter.  That batter should be made to order and not sitting around, the effervescence still bubbly and alive.  The one pictured above we got from a specialty shop in Asakusa called Daikokuya. They actually have two locations around the corner from each other, and an adorable little Japanese lady walked us over to the one with seats available.  Huge prawns, battered and deep fried over a simple bowl of rice. The menu was fairly limited, as was the case at most specialty shops.

The last thing I want to speak to here is the simple elegance of yakitori. It literally means "grilled chicken," but basically means anything grilled up on a skewer.  It looks like a mini kabob, but it is so much more than that. A proper yakitori joint does not mess with sauces and marinades, per se. They focus on ingredients and method. Nothing but the best cuts of beef & chicken, perfect mushrooms, fresh scallions. The charcoal used is very specific - binchotan - which burns hot and clean. The skewers themselves are flat, so the meat doesn't spin around while grilling. The grill is purpose built, sized appropriately to the little skewers. You sit around the big hibachi and watch the show. The chef sprinkling each skewer with just the right amount of salt, a spray of sake, and a perhaps a brushing of tare. 

It looks deceptively easy. But you've never tasted anything quite so satisfying in your life, especially washed down with a cold Asahi beer. Everything is cooked perfectly, a nice char on the outside, just a little rare on the inside. The piquancy of the savory skewers with the bite and sweetness of charred scallions or onions. It is heaven on a stick. One more reason that I love it here.  

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