Tuesday, March 30, 2010

#12: Old Vine, March 8

I'm a bit of a marketing geek, so I'm fascinated by the study of consumer behavior. It's a subject I think about a lot as I walk around my neighborhood, which is oversaturated with restaurants. How do people choose? Why did that crowd of salarymen pass up a bunch of izakayas in favor of an identical izakaya? How did the well-dressed couple decide between overpriced French, overpriced Italian and overpriced Korean? How does a tiny sushi shop in a basement on a side street draw customers? Why is Zest still in business?

So how did Teri and I choose Old Vine for happy hour? In this case, it wasn't some intangible combination of ambience, decor, reputation, or any of the other hundreds of factors that drive consumer behavior. We chose Old Vine because it was open. Specifically, it was 5:30 p.m., and most restaurants in this neighborhood are closed from 2 to 6. Old Vine opens at 5. Sometimes choices are made for you.

Old Vine boasts of having one of the most extensive wine lists in Tokyo, but for an after-work drink, we were more intrigued by the 500 yen glasses of champagne. The waiter brought small dishes of salami (about three bites apiece) meant to offset the 500 yen table charge. I can't drink on an empty stomach, so I ordered some bread and a dish of crab, scallops and mushrooms in white wine sauce. (I hate mushrooms, but Teri likes them, so we split the dish oddly.)

I feel too uninformed to write much about this place, because we didn't sample the wine nor the teppanyaki menu, which is somewhat like attempting to review a steakhouse after having a soda and pretzels at the bar. All I can say is, the sparkling wine was good, it was cheap, and Old Vine is a 90-second walk from my apartment. All of these are good things.


#11: Homework's, Feb. 25

I enjoy life in Tokyo for a lot of reasons, ranging from the major, life-altering ones (unlike in D.C., no one has been fatally shot on the street in front of my house) to the extremely minor (wide availability of iced jasmine tea). Another one on the minor end of that scale: minimal chance of encountering American cheese.

I have to explain here that I LOATHE American cheese. Not merely in the way I dislike, say, cauliflower, which I don't eat but don't actively hate. No, my abhorrence of American cheese rises to the level that I can't think about it without feeling queasy. And I simply cannot take the chance that I might eat it by accident. I won't eat any dish that lists "cheese" as an ingredient unless the waitstaff can assure me it's not American. I once sent back an omelette because both cheddar and American were options, and I thought the cheese looked suspiciously shiny. I will not eat it in a box; I will not eat it with a fox.

Most Japanese cooks either feel the same way, or see no need to import slick, oily slices of plasticine "cheese product" when there's already so much good cheese available here. In nearly three years, I'd never come face to face with my culinary nemesis. And so I've let my guard down, ordering food without interrogating waiters and biting into sandwiches without first whipping out a jewelers' glass to examine the cheese for telltale sheen.

I didn't think I needed to exercise such caution at the Hiro-o branch of Homework's, a popular burger and sandwich chain, because American cheese wasn't even on the menu. But one bite into my bacon cheeseburger, I knew the awful truth: this cheddar wasn't cheddar. It was too pale, too slick, too reminiscent of the McDonald's bacon, egg and cheese biscuit I ate for breakfast every single day when I was 19. (My American cheese aversion didn't kick in until age 23, the same day my McDonald's aversion kicked in, both courtesy of a terrible Filet-O-Fish.)

And here we enter the Discourse On The Differences Between American And Japanese Culture.

In America, I would have rejected this burger on the spot. I hate sending food back, and I'd like to think I'm never a bitch about it, but I would have politely explained that the cheese wasn't what I'd ordered and asked for a new burger with a non-orange cheese, partly so there would be no chance of a second mixup and partly because even if cheese #2 WAS cheddar, my brain would nettle me with taunts of "It's American, it looks American" and I wouldn't be able to eat it without gagging.

But in Japan, I just don't feel right doing that. Part of it is the language barrier -- I can order food fine, but I don't speak well enough to engage in a lengthy argument over varieties of cheese. Part of it is that I already feel I'm causing hassle for the staff by my mere presence, with my first-grade-level reading skills and my general ineptitude at understanding spoken Japanese, and I'm loath to cause any more by sending back food.

And there are two bigger factors, that microcosmically represent my entire viewpoint on my life in Japan.

One: I don't want to be that gaijin. I'm grateful to Japan for allowing me to live here, because: they don't have to. America? Has to put up with me. I'm a citizen. I have a God-given birthright to live in America, no matter how horribly or even criminally I behave. (Not that I behave criminally, but I could.) Japan doesn't; they could deport me. Not for sending back a hamburger, obviously. But I feel a responsibility to my adopted home, to fit in as best I can, and to behave like a Japanese citizen, not like an obnoxious American throwing my weight around. It's part of the bargain, you know? You let me live here; I don't get into fistfights in fast-food restaurants.

Two: This is sort of Broken Windows Theory, but: Japan begets Japan-ness. My first time at a movie theater here, I tried a handful of caramel corn and had some leftover kernels, and I was stumped on what to do with them. In the States, I'd have thrown them on the floor along with the spilled sodas and Milk Duds and god knows what else was on the floor. But this theater was sparkling clean; I didn't feel right throwing them on the floor. So I put them in my pocket.

Similarly, service people here are unfailingly polite. They may be saying rude things about me behind my back (or even to my face, I wouldn't know) but -- always nice. I, in turn, am compelled to also be polite.

I was always dismayed, in the States, how quickly so many transactions went to hell. Sometimes it's purely bad customer service, but usually it's a chain reaction of things: the traffic is bad so customer #1 is a jerk so the waitress is upset and then rude to customer #2 who is then annoyed and therefore rude to the barista and so on. It's a roundabout way of saying that in the States, I often feel comfortable being confrontational because the entire transaction has been a confrontation. You ignored me for five minutes and threw my change at me, so I feel entitled to throw a fit about the cheese being wrong. But when I've been offered Ritz-Carlton-level service at a diner, I'd feel like a jerk making a scene over cheese.

So I scraped off the cheese with a fork. The burger wasn't bad. (Again with the tartar sauce.) I'll go back. Non-orange cheese next time.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

#10: Chinese Cafe 8, Feb. 20

My expectations for Chinese Cafe 8 were high, not only because my friends love it (the food AND the giant gold penis hanging from the ceiling) but because I had to sit through "Avatar" before dinner. By the 120-minute mark, I was starving, and wishing the movie would hurry up and get to the ending we all saw coming so I could eat already.

Adding to my anticipation: the promise of Peking duck. I'd never eaten this, primarily because of the requirement in many stateside restaurants that the dish be ordered in advance. To me, Chinese food is not something you plan to eat; it's a meal of last resort, when the cupboards are bare, the nearest takeout joint requires shirt and shoes for entry, and you just had pizza for lunch. It's what bubbles up from the bottom of a dwindling pool of options.

There's no such requirement at Chinese Cafe 8, a crowded, lively place popular with tourists (thanks to that golden schlong) next to Roppongi Hills. A window between dining room and kitchen displays row after row of ducks on spits, reassuring fellow procrastinators that no matter how last-second our dining decision was, we won't be denied our duck.

We ordered a bottle of apricot wine for the table and what turned out to be way too many appetizers -- salmon dumplings, spicy beef, fried rice, a hot pot. I was already getting full when a chef wheeled the glistening duck to our table, held it up for our drool/approval, then deftly sliced it. He somehow managed to wedge the platter of duck onto our crowded table along with plates of its traditional accompaniments: steamed pancakes; sauces, including hoisin and a honey sauce; vegetable sticks; and crispy chunks of fried wonton.

From my first bite of duck, I regretted the appetizers. Don't get me wrong -- they were fine -- but I wanted to go 20 minutes back in time to when I had an empty stomach, the better to fill it with slice after slice of crisp, juicy duck. This was doubly true when it became apparent that, despite our best efforts, we weren't going to finish it. Wikipedia (which is never wrong, it's on the Internet!) informs me that traditionally, the leftovers are sent home with the diner. But doggy bags are outlawed in Japan, so we had to abandon everything we couldn't cram into our bulging bellies.

Did I mention the duck is only around $40, and can easily feed three or four people? I should. This is a great place to take a group. The staff is used to accommodating large, loud groups of gaijin, the duck is a delectable, filling bargain, the booze is cheap and the sprawling menu has something for just about everyone. Also there's a giant gold penis. I really can't stress that enough.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

#9: Bistro Lyon, Feb. 13

Another busy Saturday, another meal in the Omotesando-eki food court. (I said I was going to try new restaurants, not new locations.)

Bistro Lyon's big business appears to be huge filled crepes, but I wanted a smaller meal. I was just about to order quiche when I saw a sign advertising croque monsieur and changed my order in mid-sentence. (I was sorely disappointed recently to find out that my favorite croque monsieur in Tokyo is no more. Cafe Hana, in Nishi-azabu, is no longer serving food, only drinks and cake. I'm bummed that I'll never again taste that peppery sauce, but Sarah put things in perspective: "They're serving cake? How is that bad news?")

Big mistake. I got the worst excuse for a croque monsieur ever -- about eight bites of sandwich filled with tough, stringy meat that I think might have been pastrami. It definitely wasn't ham, unless it was ham that had been cooked to the texture of leather. The flavorless cheese didn't help to offset the awful meat, either.

It's a good motto for life: when in doubt, order the quiche.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

#8: La Gorda, Jan. 25

Another Metropolis find, La Gorda is a Cuban restaurant tucked away on a side street in Roppongi that has so many awesome-looking eateries, I could spend the entire year dining only on that street and still not hit all of them.

I was lured in by the siren song of roasted chicken, a dish I crave constantly but rarely find. (Add to my list of things I miss about the States: rotisserie chicken in grocery stores.) Metropolis specifically mentioned this chicken -- along with lamb kebabs and ropa vieja -- and La Gorda's menu touted it as the restaurant's specialty, marinated for hours in the chef's special sauce.

I ordered a quarter chicken and settled in with a book, visions of Boston Market dancing in my head. (And my mouth.) I was surprised when my order came out barely three minutes later; surprised again that the chicken portion was smaller than I'd been picturing; and surprised most of all that the entree came with two sides that hadn't been listed on the English menu -- black beans and rice, and a colorful salad with carrots, red peppers, Romaine lettuce and purple cabbage. The cost for this meal? 1,000 yen -- an unheard-of bargain at dinner. Lunch sets in this neighborhood usually cost around that much and include a side or two, but at dinner, the prices go way up and the sets are abandoned.

For 1,900 yen, I could have gotten half a chicken, or a whole one for 3,700. At first, I wished I'd gotten the half, but the beans and rice were filling, and midway through the meal I knew I'd gotten the right portion. The chicken itself was a bit of a disappointment -- the white meat was somewhat on the dry side, surprising given the long marinating process. The crispy, tangy skin was delicious, though. I could have made a meal out of that! Not a healthy meal, mind you, but if you served me a half pound of that skin, I wouldn't complain. (This reminded me of a former boyfriend who'd grumble every time I ordered French onion soup. He knew I had little interest in the broth, and zero interest in the onions or the soggy crouton. "Why don't you just ask for a big glob of melted cheese?" he'd say. "That's all you really want." It was true. "Can I have half a chicken worth of skin?")

La Gorda also offers your typical rum drinks -- mojito, pina colada -- and a couple of beers. I'd planned to get a pina colada but was distracted by the handwritten sign outside offering "hot rum." It was cold out, and the thought of a delicious mug of hot buttered rum, the brown sugar melting in my mouth, was irresistable. I hesitated for a second before ordering it, with one side of my brain arguing that the sign didn't say anything about "buttered." It just said "hot rum." But the other side said that was ridiculous; of course they wouldn't just serve a big glass of heated Havana Club.

Yeah. It was just a big glass of heated Havana Club. About 12 ounces, in fact, served in a soda glass that was too hot to hold for most of my meal. That wasn't much of a problem, because once I realized I could smell the pure rum from six feet away, I had no intention of drinking it. I called for some water and spent the meal praying that the women smoking at the bar wouldn't ignite my neglected drink. The lesson here is clear: never pass up a chance to drink a pina colada.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

#7: Marvelous Cream, Jan. 18

Speaking of things that wouldn't fly in the States: a photo of this storefront would end up on FAILblog, and deservedly so.

Oh, get your minds out of the gutter: it's ice cream. And it really is marvelous.

Marvelous Cream is similar to Cold Stone Creamery, in that its staff chops up ingredients on a marble slab to blend with your ice cream. It's different in that the portion sizes are manageable, so you don't waddle out feeling like you just ingested 8,000 calories worth of butterfat and Oreos.

I ended up here not because I felt a need to expand my ice cream horizons, but to kill time between "(500) Days of Summer" and "The Young Victoria" on MLK Day. Most of that time was spent translating the katakana menu, but I was able to read it, albeit slowly, and I settled on a combination involving raspberries and raspberry macarons. Heavenly, especially the bites with macaron chunks.

Marvelous Cream is a chain based in Japan (I went to the Hibiya Chanter location) that's also expanded to Singapore. I'd have to make more visits (many more visits ... raspberry macarons ...) to say for sure, but I think I prefer it to Cold Stone, which is inexplicably popular in Japan, with lines stretching out the door even in winter.


Monday, February 01, 2010

#6: GARB Pintino, Jan. 12

GARB Pintino is one of the reasons I started this project. It's next to my doctor's office, so I'm always walking past it and thinking its patio looks inviting and intending to try it, but never getting around to it. My underlying goal this year is to stop intending to do things and actually do them. So after my latest doctor visit, I decided to move this place out of the "I should eat there sometime" column.

The patio that looked so enticing in the summer was open despite the rain and the chill, thanks to thick plastic sheeting and heaters, but I chose to sit inside because the padded benches looked cozier and I wanted to be far away from the weather.

The lunch menu offered half a dozen sets for around 1,000 yen, but my choices were limited to the dishes whose kanji I could read. (I'm kind of surprised that GARB -- sitting across the street from the entrance to Tokyo Tower -- didn't have an English menu, because it seems like an ideal spot for tourists.) I picked strips of whitefish in a delicate tempura batter flavored with wasabi, and loved it. My only complaint was that the tomato sauce accompanying a side of grilled zucchini spilled onto the fish, which masked and ruined the flavor.

Lunch sets are the best way to eat cheap in Tokyo, and this one was no exception -- it also included a huge salad, a post-meal cup of tea or coffee and two delicious rolls. The waitress didn't seem to mind my lingering over a book, and even offered me more rolls.

I'd like to come back here for dinner, when the patio is open, and with someone who can understand the menu better than me. I don't think there's any hope for understanding the restaurant's odd name, though.

GARB Pintino: http://www.garb94.com/pintino/

Friday, January 29, 2010

#5: ZipZap, Jan. 10

Bad name, good burgers.

This project would be so easy if I wrote only four words about each restaurant.

Speaking of the project, I've given it a name: Project Palette. (Bravo network, if you'd like to buy this concept from me, give me a call.)

We hit ZipZap for brunch the day after the '90s party (which also included several hours of food at Zest, which doesn't merit a mention in PP because I've been there far too many times) and we were all starving by the time we arrived and persuaded someone to take our order.

Now, brunch means different things to different people. Some people want lunch, but with an excuse to order a mimosa. Others want a huge meal, thinking it needs to make up for the two they're missing. To me, though, the best brunch is simply breakfast eaten at a more civilized time of day. So I was a little underwhelmed that ZipZap's brunch menu included only burgers and sandwiches. Even when I'm not starting my day until well after noon, I still need to ease into the day -- some eggs, some pastries, maybe a little smoked salmon. And tea. Lots and lots of tea.

One bite in, though, my mouth silenced any of my brain's lingering objections to greeting the day with hamburger. Although I'd been tempted by sandwiches (especially the turkey sandwich, a creature not native to Japan and rarely spotted on Tokyo menus), I picked the smaller 150 gram burger and splurged on two kinds of cheese -- cheddar and monterey jack -- as well as housemade bacon. The burgers come with lettuce, tomato, a "house sauce" that tasted a bit like barbecue sauce (or maybe more like Arby-Q sauce), and ... tartar sauce? This wasn't the first time I've encountered tartar sauce on a burger here. I'm not sure why the Japanese think tartar sauce belongs on a burger. Maybe they don't understand why we think it doesn't. I ordered mine without sauce, and it came with the house sauce but without the tartar, and that worked out OK.

This was a downright delicious burger, the kind of food I can't stop eating even when I'm full, then past full, and knowing I'll regret my binge later but unable to resist the tactile sensations of tasting, biting, chewing.

Ryoko ordered the turkey sandwich I'd rejected, and I didn't regret my choice. The sandwich lacked any dressing and looked very dry. Reva's tuna melt was intriguing -- served open face on two rolls, with a different cheese on each side -- but not enough to make me turn my back on the burger.

I wish two things were different about ZipZap (OK, maybe three. What's up with that name?).

One, although lots of restaurants have irritating Web sites (too much hey-I-just-learned-Flash and too little information), this one takes the prize for its sound effects. It was apparently designed by the same person on the Star Trek team who thought that in the 24th century, humans would like their doors to beep and whoosh every time they opened.

Two, I wish the location was easier to find (and that the map on said Web site gave better directions). I followed Ryoko there, and I'm not sure I can find it again. Maybe that's just as well, though; there are lots of great burgers in Tokyo, and I need to keep moving on, trying new ones.

ZipZap: http://www.zip-zap.jp/