Aquavit – A Scandanavian Dining Experience in Tokyo

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Our waiter, searing the beef with alcohol, right by the table, before serving.

Aquavit, a fixture in the New York restaurant scene since the late 80’s, opened in Stockholm and Tokyo in 2008.  The restaurant spoils diners with its fusion of traditional Scandinavian fare with Japanese-style presentation and flair.  The restaurant itself, located in Kita Aoyama, is a showplace of Scandinavian furniture and decor, which creates an ambiance of warmth throughout the dining experience.  The wait staff was skilled in white-glove service, and was omnipresent without being overbearing.  The dinner was a bit pricey, but considering what we ate and the way it was presented, we felt it was well worth the expenditure.

We ordered the tasting menu, listed here with a few of the photos:

CHEF’S NORDIC TASTING

Smoked Cod Roe and Cereal Bread
鱈 子 の ス モ ー クとシリア ル ブ レ ッド
aquavit1
Amuse of Puree
beet, sweet potato, carrot, amaretto mascarpone
4種のピューレ ~ビーツ、安納芋、人参、アマレットマスカルポーネ~
Parsnip Puff and Goat cheese
竹炭のシュークリームと山羊のホイップバター
aquavit4Herring and Bleak Roe
cucumber and elder flower granite
鰊 のマリネ 胡 瓜とエルダーフラワーのグラニテと供 に
王様が愛した白鱒の卵 ロイロムを添えて
From Garden
季節の野菜料理
aquavit2foie Gras and Chestnut Dacquoise
フランス 産 フォアグラと栗 のダックワ ーズ
Monk Fish and Crayfish
leek, sea urchin, stout beer
鮟鱇のムニエルとクレイフィッシュ 黒ビールのアメリケーヌソース
西洋葱と焼き雲丹添え
aquavit8Broccoli, Herbs, and Fresh Cheese Sorbet
ブ ロッコリー のピューレとハ ーブ の 菜 園  フレッシュチ ーズ のソル ベ 添 え
Hokkaido Venison
berries and smoked beet
北海道産蝦夷鹿の低温ロースト
スモークビーツと赤いベリーのジビエソース
OR
または
aquavit12Beef
Fillet
shallot and red wine sauce
熟成牛フィレ肉のポアレ マルシャンドヴァンソース
Fingering Apple
林檎の木のアヴァンデセール

aquavit15We ended up with a dessert sampler that included a little bit of all of several types of berries and sorbets, accompanied by a bit of strawberry nougat.
We paired the entire thing with a rich Oregon Pinot Noir, which added a deep finish to each of the dishes.  If you are in need of a beautiful restaurant that takes its food seriously, then consider Aquavit as your top choice for dining.

Obento – How Very Japanese!

obento2My daughter, Sydney, has lived all but three of her eleven years in Tokyo and considers herself very Japanese. Almost daily this is reflected in the lunch she brings to school from home. Many obento1days our wonderful nanny, Minnie, makes Sydney’s lunch, but over the years, the two of them have learned to create beautiful obento lunches together.  Here is yesterday’s example: It’s little sausages over rice, with each sausage cut to look like an octopus.  Proper Japanese mums would put seaweed “eyes” on each one, but I’m not that detailed.  The top box is full of finely sliced cucumbers. And it all fits together like a little puzzle in the little Japanese box. Tabemasho! Let’s eat!

 

An Incomporable Dining Experience

An oasis in the city

An oasis in the city

Tofu-ya Ukai, housed on what used to be a sake brewery, sits on a huge parcel of beautifully landscaped  land right in the center of Tokyo below the specter of the Tokyo Tower.  Rather than one dining room, the restaurant has 50 private tatami rooms, all done zashiki style – meaning spare and beautiful, with exposed beams, tatami floors and genuine beauty all around.  Though diners must sit on the floor, removing their shoes first, there is a foot-well so no one has to fold their legs unnecessarily.  All of the servers and hosts are clad in kimono and skilled in the art of fine service.  The food is done kaiseki style, consisting of multiple courses mostly comprised of fish and tofu.

Today was an exceptional day to go to Tofu-ya Ukai because Tokyo had the largest snowstorm of the past 40 years just this past weekend and the juxtaposition of the lingering

Tomoko, Marlene, and me enjoying a glass of umeshu, plum wine in our private tatami room.

Tomoko, Marlene, and me enjoying a glass of umeshu, plum wine in our own tatami room.

snow with the persistent blossoms painted an extraordinary picture of Mother Nature’s joy – or sense of humor, depending on your view of the situation.

We had a menu of eight courses – only in Japan can eight courses be small enough to just be a taste of everything yet big enough for diners to feel full and not overstuffed.  Each course seemed to linger and depend on the one coming up in that the quality and complexity of the courses created a crescendo of taste

Blossoms peeking out of the snow.

Blossoms peeking out of the snow.

and texture.  The fried tofu had a satisfying crunch, while still being smooth.  The sashimi and other prepared fish exploded in a bloom of freshness.  Everything was presented with grace and beauty, from the pouring of the sake, to the dishing out of the soy milk with two perfect pieces of tofu floating in it.  The mixture of seasonal: tastes, sweet and savory, salty and fruity, all combined to make an exquisite dining experience.

The pictures barely do it justice – the food or the surroundings.

After lunch, Marlene, Tomoko and I took a short walk through the Japanese gardens where we

The Course Menu we selected.

The Course Menu we selected.

saw the small out-building where chefs were hard at work frying tofu, as well as plants, rocks and lanterns that traditionally make up a Japanese garden.

It was a beautiful day.

The food:

ukai 1 ukai 2 ukai 3 ukai 4 ukai 5 ukai 6 ukai 7 ukai 8 ukai 9 ukai 10 ukai 11 ukai 12 ukai 13

The surroundings:

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The Top Ten Things I’ve Missed About Tokyo Now That I’m Back!

vending machine   I’ve been away from Japan for seven months in order to take chemotherapy for lymphoma.  Now that I have a clean bill of health, I’m back with my family in our adopted home of Tokyo Japan.  (More on reacquainting and other issues on another day…)  Here are the top ten things I’ve missed about Japan and am joyfully rediscovering daily:

10 – Walking everywhere  I have barely used the car since being here and my new friend FitBit tells me that I’m taking about 10,000 steps daily – in my regular life, without embarking on an exercise program just yet.

9 – Cleanliness Everything is Tokyo is shiny clean, no mean feat in one of the most populous cities in the world.  People don’t litter.  Being neat and clean is a matter of pride, so that every shopkeeper is responsible for his front sidewalk and sweeps and cleans it regularly.  People carry their trash until they find bins.  It’s amazing.

8. Polite People Everyone says excuse me and speaks quietly.  Japanese people are polite, orderly and quiet in general. Yes, I’m generalizing – but that’s the cultural norm with individual instances of the opposite characteristics happening rarely.

snapper with a smear of pumpkin puree

snapper with a smear of pumpkin puree

7. Timeliness In general, people show up when they’re supposed to.  Things – events – start on time. The trains, with rare exception, run on time.  I never wait more than ten minutes for a doctor.  It’s amazing.

6. Pomp and Ceremony In Tokyo, things are marked by great displays of ceremony.  We were at the Grand Sumo tournament last weekend and we decided it’s as much about the show as it is about the wrestling.  Walking out of the arena afterward, there was a drummer high in a watch tower, beating out the rhythm signaling the end of the day’s matches.  Ritual. Ceremony. Expectation.

The function arm of my Washlet

The function arm of my Washlet

5. Heated toilets with various functions A serious luxury.  Amazing stuff. In the dead of winter there’s nothing as comforting as a warm toilet seat and I missed it.

4. Shrines, randomly placed with various events at them We were walking out of the subway at Azabu Juban station on Sunday and the shrine next door to the station, the one with the beautiful torii gate and streamers, had a festival going on with amazing drummers and dancing.  It was unpredictable and beautiful and placed right in the center of the city.  Beautiful and unexpected and appreciated.

3.Vending Machines They’re omnipresent and sell everything from shoelaces to soda to sake. Drinks can be warm or cold in the same machine.  Quite extraordinary and handy.

2. Small Portions of Food in Restaurants The portions aren’t overly small, they’re just reasonable for a meal for one human.  It’s quite the opposite of the US where I almost always took home half my meal.  Some people eat double portions!

small portion 1

Sashimi tuna topped with a slice of applewood bacon

1. The Unbelievably Delicious Food From sushi, to noodles to French food to pizza, there’s no better place to eat than Tokyo.  Tokyo has more Michelin stars and more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris.  Come here for a truly incomparable eating experience.

What Are You Doing?

cooking 1Sometimes people have asked me what I’m doing with my time since being diagnosed with cancer.  I must admit that some days it takes a lot of energy to simply exist.  Luckily those days are few, and when they happen (predictably on days 5-8 after a chemo treatment) I just stare at reruns of “NCIS” without even seeing them.  However, I do get out to see friends, to go shopping, to have a meal, on almost every other day of the treatment cycle.  Even if I’m feeling blue or tired, I force myself out for a little while every day.  I’ve also learned to force myself to go out walking on days when I feel okay and the weather is good.  (My definition of “bad” weather has expanded to include high humidity however – sweating never feels good, but feels particularly yucky on a covered, yet bald head.)  So I am out a lot.

One thing I have always loved doing is cooking.  I find that it’s the one thing that completely empties my brain of all other tasks and trials.  It’s not that I find it relaxing, but I can’t multitask when I do it.  I have to concentrate on the task at hand or risk making a mistake that ruins the dish.  I also find it tremendously satisfying to make things that other people get to eat. When someone I love pronounces a dish I’ve made as yummy, it’s the highest form of flattery and satisfaction to me.

Recently, since feeling even better, I’ve done more cooking.  I made a Japanese dish, beef wrapped sauteed vegetables, for Ellie and Steve – one that I learned at a cooking class I took in April.  It wasn’t perfect because I couldn’t find thin enough beef, like that used to make shabu-shabu, which I would have bought in cooking 2Tokyo.  I found thin beef, but I should have pounded it thinner.  That’s okay – it was still yummy, even if it didn’t look as perfect as I wanted it to.

Then, this week, I took it upon myself to make a full meal including dessert.  I had been having conversations with my friends Maxine and Bonnie (separately, I might add) about cooking and how seldom people cook from scratch anymore.  True foodies cook from scratch though, and I do like to consider myself a foodie, not just a gourmand! No one has time, and convenience foods are so readily available that many people rely on them exclusively in the U.S.  Cooking and eating are such arts and the preparation of a meal takes a lot of time that most working people don’t have anymore.  But time is one thing of which I have in abundance right now.

I went to the grocery store last Tuesday and slowly gathered ingredients.  I then spent upwards of three  or four hours in the kitchen and later tried not to feel disappointed as the meal was consumed in ten minutes.  Ellie and Steve are a pleasure to cook for, though.  They appreciate each flavor and are generous with compliments.  I didn’t care how long the meal took to make – the looks on their faces as they enjoyed it was more than compensatory.

My only food restriction from the cancer treatment is that I can’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables – nothing raw.  The doctors are afraid that if there’s one bit of bacteria that’s not washed off properly, then I might get sick in my immune-suppressed state.  Getting sick when one is immune-suppressed is dangerous.  So I can eat whatever I want – as long as it’s COOKED.

I made a Food Network shrimp dish for a main course.  Craving tomatoes and berries, I made a caprese salad with roasted tomatoes a la the Barefoot Contessa.  I also made ricotta cheese toast with caramelized tomatoes from Martha Stewart.  For dessert, also from Martha Stewart, we had blueberry and strawberry scones with cream cheese whipped cream.

Cooking is a great way to spend my time as I go through the treatments.  It occupies my time, empties my brain and delights my tummy.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Storage: An Interesting Grocery Conundrum

harris teeterThis is the advertisement in the Wednesday “Food” section of The Washington Post from Harris Teeter, a local grocery store.  The point of it is that the store is looking out for the economic health of its customers and giving away items for free – albeit with a purchase.  If a customer was going to buy one box of triscuit crackers, why not buy two  – and then the store will GIVE him three more boxes for free.  As Americans we are all accustomed to this type of pitch.  There’s even an acronym for it in its purest form: BOGO – buy one; get one.  This however, goes over the top – B2G3?

As someone who has been living in Japan for quite a long time, it’s not just the health concern that gets me – as in, beyond having a party, who the heck is going to eat all of those hotdogs before their shelf (or freezer) life expires??  But it’s also the space.  Buy two CASES of Pepsi, each of which contains 12 cans of cola, and then get another three cases, 36 more cans, for free.  I can’t think of anyone I know in Japan who has storage for 60 cans of soda.  I guess many Americans do have that type of storage in closet or basement, but people in Japan, especially Tokyo, do not. Japanese kitchens are smaller in general, have smaller cabinets and significantly smaller refrigerators than American kitchens. It has become fascinating to me what people in the U.S. actually keep in their cupboards.  There’s a lot of “stuff” in there that people don’t even remember they have.

I do not mean to criticize – just remark. I can hardly criticize – I used to do it myself!  I’ve just gotten way away from it in the past 6+ years of living outside of the U.S.  If you can store all of that stuff, then you are lucky to have the space.  It’s just really interesting to this American girl who has moved away from it all.

What Can You Do With Leftover Frying Oil?

When frying in oil, the question of what to do with the leftover frying oil is always a problem.  It can’t be just thrown down the sink without dire consequences to the plumbing.  It also can’t be thrown in the trash because of it soaking through everything and hurting the garbage process.  A lot of people bag the oil and freeze it to throw away later, which works, whether in the sink or the trash.  But then one has old oil in the freezer until remembering to throw it away.

The Japanese have a great product they use after frying, however.  It’s called katameru tenpuru. Here’s a picture of it in the box.

cooking oil 2It’s little crystals that you sprinkle on the pan with the oil still in it – and slightly hot.  You wait a little while – less than an hour – and the whole thing is solidified.  I used a spatula to take it out of the pan and simply flip it, pancake style – into the trash, where it’s completely safe.

Perhaps they have this product in other places and cooking oil 1I just haven’t seen it.  I think this is completely ingenious, and it makes frying a breeze.  I don’t do a ton of frying, but the Japanese have some terrific and light recipes for a fast fry that require oil.  I’ve tried a few and been frustrated afterward with the cleanup of the experience even though the food came out just great.  No more frustration with this product around!