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Archive for November, 2009

When Babelfish happens to good Japanese people….

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Tsukiji Fish Market

Monday morning came early after our hedonistic feast at the Molecular Bar, but we awoke (albeit a little later than planned) adamant to catch the action at the Tsukiji Fish Market on the Tokyo Bay.  The market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and the day typically begins bright and early with a tuna auction around 5:30am.  It would be easy to visit Tokyo and forget that it sits almost directly on the ocean, but at Tsukiji, one realizes what great real estate Tokyo boasts as far as seafood.  Nearly all the seafood in Japan passes through Tsukiji before it goes on its way to the various tips of the country.  Even tuna caught in my neighboring town, Oma, goes all the way down to Tokyo before it is shipped back and resold in the two supermarkets here.  (Though if you know any fisherman, as almost everyone in Kazamaura or Oma does, you bypass this silly step entirely.)

Pick a fish, any fish

Pick a fish, any fish

Tuna Awating the Knife

Tuna Awaiting the Knife

A fully operating daily market, the Tsukiji Fish Market is comprised of a huge warehouse, at the center, where the big tuna auctions take place.  Surrounding the warehouse are stalls upon stalls of individual sellers, offering up everything from hoya (sea pineapple), ikura (fresh salmon roe), any assortment of fish, squid, or eel your heart desires, and, ofcourse, maguro, (tuna) in all its many cuts and forms.  Outside of the covered market, and between the roadway arteries where zip all forms of man- and gas-powered vehicle at Level 5 Frogger speed, are the shops selling wholesale veggies, knives, pottery, pickles, and my favorite: the early morning sushi and sashimi shops, barely wide enough for a single bar seat.  The equivalent of $30 got us two cups of green tea, ten varied nigiri, a few sushi rolls, and two steaming bowls of miso soup.  A breakfast that was hard to beat in price, freshness, and taste.

Good morning, Tsukiji

Inside the Market

Sushi Breakfast

Lord preserve us, and protect us, we've been eatin sushi for breakfast

As a (sea)food lover, Japan has been a pretty big treat in terms of feeding my hankering for fresh, good quality fish.  However, I can’t help but be suspicious at the grocery store when I purchase cheap fish, or when I stroll the bustling, bursting, cultural and epicurian hub of Tsukiji, and wonder…how these fishing practices can continue sustainably.  They, Japan, subsidizes their fishing industry in the same way we, America, subsidize our meat industry: nearly to the point of exhaustion.  Small fishing villages like Kazamaura and Oma consistently bring in less and less of everything, compared to years past. And in a country where you still find neat, pink packages of kujira (whale) in your average supermarket, and further, where the hunting of whales has been justified since they “eat all the tuna,” I struggle to find a happy medium in the seafood department.  I love eating melt-in-your-mouth toro sashimi (an especially marbled and delicious cut of tuna) but I have also heard it likened to the negative environmental impact of driving a Hummer.   All that said, it is hard to take away from the unique experience that is Tsukiji and I believe you must appreciate it for what it is, without losing sight of its very real, slippery underbelly.

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Two weekends ago found me on a 9 hour night bus ride down to Tokyo to spend the long weekend with my sweetie, directly arrived from the States.  Tokyo was a welcome treat for many reasons, but one such splurge was our reservation at the Molecular Tapas Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Sunday night, to celebrate J’s birthday.  We did it right, and arrived early to enjoy a cocktail in their lounge, situated on the 48th floor overlooking sparkly, twinkling central Tokyo at night.  At promptly 6pm we were accompanied to the bar to find four immaculate place settings in front of a clean, crisply lit glass case behind which stood two hip, young chefs with zippers adorning their white chef coats.

For those of you unfamiliar, molecular gastronomy “is a scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking, [and] seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients, as well as the social, artistic and technical components” of food.  (Thank you, Wikipedia.com)  In laywoman’s terms, molecular cuisine takes the elements of food (taste, texture, sight) and through processes such as temperature or ‘chemical’ reaction (for example, dropping pure carrot juice into a calcium chloride water bath to form “carrot caviar”), changes these elements to create new, interesting flavors and feelings.  In short, it is awesome.

The Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental boasts 1 Michelin Star, and rumors abound that they could garner one more during the next rating.  The service and the creativeness of the food, not to mention the tastiness, make this apparent. Dining here is an experience, more so than a meal.  Also, the menu changes seasonally and this night we were greeted with a menu promising the following:

Apéritif

Rasberry Soda

Kobujime Sea Bream

Smoke

Foi Gras, Kinako

Scallop Pumpkin Lime

Carrot Caviar

Peaches and Cream

Cappuccino

Chestnut and Cepe

Xialongbao

Salmon

Matsutake Gohan

Wagyu

Apple, Manchego

Yaki Imo

Sanma, Parsnip, Tonka

Miso Soup

Chocolate Pumice

Fruits

Because it would be too tedious to describe (and read) in detail every course of our meal, I will highlight some of them that I thought were especially innovative and/or amazing.

The Magic Men Behind the Glass Bar

The Magic Men Behind the Glass Bar

Apéritif

Apéritif: Sparkling Muscato Foam/Jelly with a Muscat Grape nestled at the bottom

Making Carrot Caviar

Making the Carrot Caviar

Carrot Caviar

Carrot Caviar, tossed with a little EVOO and topped with a sprig of parsley

Kobujime Sea Bream

Kobujime Sea Bream: Sea Bream Sashimi marinated in kelp (in the Kobujime style) - made to taste exactly like Ochyazuke, a typical Japanese rice soup breakfast

Smoke

Smoke: Hokkaido Venison Tartare - upon opening the lid, the smoke emitted from the Tartare whooshed into the air

Miso Soup

Miso Soup: Made by the same method as the Carrot Caviar, this miso soup (accompanied by small droplets of tofu) burst deliciously in my mouth

Chocolate Pumice

Yaki Imo - sweet potato meringue dipped in liquid nitrogen, that when eaten, forced smoke out through your nose, fire-breathing dragon style. Careful to not let it rest on your tongue too long, or it would stick!

Dessert Tower

Dessert Tower: Foie Gras and Kinako Doughnuts, Cappuccino Cotton Candy, Rasberry Soda, Chocolate Pumice, young Peach and Cream tartlet

Fruits

Fruits: The last course. First we had to suck on a small, red "miracle fruit" seed for 60 seconds, cleanse our palates with some water, and miraculously everything that would normally be considered sour, bitter, or tart was rendered into almost syrupy sweetness. A veritable party in your mouth!

Besides the photos – and my apologies for certain out-of-focus ones – some notable dishes included the sous-vide prepared Wagyu beef, accompanied only by salt, black pepper, and red pepper; the Apple, Manchego dish: thinly sliced and dehydrated apples wrapped around a Manchego sorbet; and the Xiaolongbao: traditonally a Chinese pork dumpling, but in this case, fashioned out of lamb chop so the lamb itself served as the dumpling skin and the “sauce” was actually injected back into the meat and sealed around the chop , so that it literally burst upon the first bite.  The whole meal was entirely delicious and decadent, especially when paired with the Som’s selection of four wine flights, and I can’t wait to go back, whenever that may be, to try a different menu!

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