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Friday, May 27, 2016

Izuu - Kyoto, Japan

Scouring the streets of Gion is no easy task, but someone said sushi and I came running. Search for Izuu, part 2.

Found Izuu, made finding Nemo look easy. Fortunately, the menu is a no-brainer.

But first, another barrier. The roll is wrapped in kelp, which must be removed before eating the fish beneath. Good thing the staff speak some English or I'd still be choking down seaweed.

Intro to Kyoto-style sushi starts here. Box-pressed rice ball topped with slabs of silvery, vinegar-marinated mackerel, basically a sliced rice ball with fish.

The mackerel is actually really good. More is more with vinegar as sour rice highlights sour-er mackerel. Sea Bream is softer and far more subtle, lending just a little fishy fun.

I still don't love mackerel but I remain determined to try. Still preferring other types of fish but definitely more amenable to mackerel now.

Oku - Kyoto, Japan

Stuffed from the stalls of Nishiki, still determined to hunt Oku down. With an enthusiasm rivaling my approach to Yasuda-san, I wade through the uniform back-streets of tourist-town Kyoto, looking for the one doorway with a telltale plaque.

I have neither the time nor means for Miyamasou's Michelin-approved chef, Hisato Nakahigashi, but I will make the time to test-drive both his dishes and his plates.

The day is hot and the sun is strong. Escaping the heat is an accomplishment in itself, nevermind successfully hunting down a cafe using a constantly-scrambled GPS.

My reward is the Koto Sake; dry, crisp, and refreshing. #daydrinking, #dontjudge
Kaiseki focuses on small plates with impressive presentation, and this lunch set is almost as pretty as the dishes that serve it.

The Braised Bonito Tataki is a breath of fresh char around the edges, bold and tender in the middle, and a dash of ponzu makes the flavors pop. Yomogi Tofu is a cohesive, gelatinous surprise, an herb bouquet replacing the neutral soy. Miso is a sweet hint on a chunk of Trout, bringing forth a salty, salmon-y taste. Bonito makes a boiled appearance next to a chewy bamboo shoot and brothy stalks of butterburrs that taste like celery.

The flavors are concentrated so it takes many alternating bites of rice to really make a dent in this modest-sized meal. But when it's over, it's over, as Yomogi turns from savory to sweet in a bean-sweetened ice cream sandwich.

By the end of this trip, I will have graduated from frivolous foodie to a bona fide stalker of chefs with an insatiable thirst for...well...anyone who can cook. I didn't see any dishes for sale or I probably would have splurged and walked out with an entire set as a souvenir. Fortunately, I didn't see any way to get to Miyamasou either or I probably would have walked out with chef Hisato Nakahigashi as a souvenir.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nishiki Market - Kyoto

Sometimes the best way to tour a market is to sample your way through. Nishiki Market in 10-15 bites:

Sawawa makes warabimochi, but I didn't want to go for a giant box. The Green Tea Mochi is a great other option, chewy and cool. The Green Tea Manju is softer, doughier, channeling a harder bao but just as good.

Manju and mochi are already putting me into food coma, but Strong Coffee at Pulau Deco jolts me wide awake.

Should have waited til Konnamonja for coffee. It would have gone well with their fluffy soy milk donuts, which are like regular donuts but so much better.

Dessert then dinner, that's how it goes. Eel is soft on a stick, and the Squid is served whole, with all the belly roe intact. Might have been better served warm.

I'm almost full by the Karikari Kakase, but we have to stop for Takoyaki. As usual, more yaki than tako, but the soft, starchy balls are easy to eat and have a nice fried flavor.

Between all these little bites, there are plenty of pickles to try. Garlic, daikon, cabbage, melon. Nothing is safe from a Japanese tub of brine. I would have bought some to bring home, but I don't know how long they keep.

There is nothing in Kyoto I enjoyed more than noshing my way through Nishiki. My greatest regret is only going once. There's so much more to try!

Syunsai-Syubou Suishin - Kyoto, Japan

Some restaurants are chosen and specially sought, carefully curated by multiple internet searches, encyclopedic guidebooks, and sagacious friends alike. Others arise out of necessity, stemming from the deep-seated need to eat something before we faint or the desire to just sit down before we take our 15-thousandth step that day.

We were hungry, we couldn't find Izuu, and this restaurant was there. The food menu was promising at first,  a comprehensive list of small plates, covering a respectable range of items hot and cold, deep fried and raw.

The cold slices of Octopus from Hokkaido were my first sign that we'd ordered too much. Each transparent slice tasted like slightly-chewy nothing.

Fried Chicken Skin is the eastern chicharon and my new favorite yakatori. Theirs had no substance and no salt.

Grilled Smelt, a safe option, was standard; little cooked fish with lots of roe.

The Grilled Beef Tongue didn't break the bland streak, and despite the thin slices, none were very tender.

Generic Gyoza hit the spot but the coarse pork and hard scallion filling was quickly forgotten.

The Wheat Gluten Parfait is ice cream between several slabs of varying texture. Savory grilled wafers are a contrast to mochi button-balls with a coat of slimy starch.

Well that'll teach me to run to a random restaurant in the most commercial part of Kyoto! I started looking a lot more carefully during the next few days.

Shinpuku Saikan Honten - Kyoto, Japan

A lot of people say Tokyo isn't for tourists, but I think what they're saying is that Tokyo isn't for California tourists. Fast-paced, tightly-timed Tokyo brings out the best of my northeastern instincts, but it must be a nightmare after a life of SoCal leisure. I loved Tokyo, but after four fast-paced days, I could handle a change. And what a change Kyoto turned out to be. 

I stepped out of Kyoto Station to a sweltering sun. I hauled my suitcase through a dry, heavy heat, feeling like I was being fried alive on the single block walk between the station and my hotel.

Starving but reluctant to walk much farther, I picked one of two adjacent ramen shops, the one without the line. 
There was a reason everyone formed a sweaty line for the other one. Shinpuku Saiten's Shoyu Ramen is very heavy on the shoyu. The bowls are the color of mud, though the pork broth interspered with leaner chashu is still savory beneath the salty soy.

A side of Fried Rice costs nearly nothing. Equally heavy on the shoyu, but actually quite good. I was chugging water after so much soy and salt, but at least I was staying hydrated in the heat.

I might have enjoyed Shinpuku Saiten more if I hadn't just had a brilliant bowl at Uchi. I'd heard so much about the food in Kyoto, and this meal fell a little short of satisfying.

Omoide Yokocho - Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

I've learned a lot from Tokyo, important life lessons and the like. One of the more important lessons is letting go of stranger danger. Everywhere you go in Tokyo, you'll inevitably share something with someone you've never met. Whether it's two couples casually ignoring each other's conversations at a table for four or awkward elbow bumping at a beer and/or noodle bar, your personal space is not sacred.

It's a tight fit at the bar of all izakaya, but you can't even have a beer gut to sit at this counter. A large Asahi makes the two inches between you and the nearest salary man seem like four, but you can still smell each other's breath.

But not to worry, food is the ultimate social lubricant, and you learn to converse without worrying about other people hearing because well, no one at this counter has any idea what I'm saying. Combine a Set of skewers with a Special Set of skewers, and I don't have much to say anyway.

Small slices of bilious intensity comprise a skewer of chicken liver. Chicken gizzard's chewy texture provides a contextual contrast. The chicken wings require a little bony dissection, but the flame-scorched flavor goes all the way through the juicy pieces. Chicken breast is boring, but they keep the pieces small enough so the limited flavor won't make you don't fall asleep. Chicken skin is still my favorite, thin, dissolving strips zig-zagging up a toothpick trellis. The chicken meatball is dense yet light, meat marbled with savory fillers. Fatty pork bursts intensely, draping its gristle over slices of scallion.

Steak tastes like steak, and chicken cartilage crunches under a bland piece of breast.

Roasted Garlic loses some of the pungency and softens into a sweeter chew. Shishitos are slightly bitter and finish with a hint of hot.

A couple beers and a dozen skewers later, I've lost all semblance of shyness. Thanks Tokyo, I've learned so much from you: how to be comfortable when uncomfortably close and how to squeeze into very small spaces.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Uchi - Toshima, Tokyo, Japan

I haven't had breakfast yet, but I'm itching for some Uchi. I've heard good things, and I had to work to find it, wading through some pretty suburban-looking streets.

First good sign: I really have to work for a bowl of noodles. The prepaid ticket machine is harder than it looks, and the owner, who speaks not a word of English (second good sign) pantomimes me through quite the ordeal... Which I have to go through twice.

The ticket takes longer than the ramen. It appears almost instantly, and the broth is thick and dark. The pork bone is rich, and the marrow-y warmth cuts deep. A hint of seafood lightens each deep slurp, and the noodles are as thick as a bonsai branch.

You'd think that's plenty for under $10, but surprise, there's a rice bowl, too. Ramen is so filling, how could anyone have ramen AND take down a bowl of rice? Oh but there are seductive little scraps of chashu on the rice, and it's the softest, meltiest chashu I've ever had... wait, who just ate all my rice?