Making Umeshu – Take Two!

This is our second year in a row of making umeshu (plum wine) from scratch for my good friend Saori and me.  This year we got serious.  We bought the “right” type of containers, the perfect amount of plums and alcohol, and found good directions.  We were determined to follow the directions to the letter, thus making the very best wine possible.  We carefully washed, dried, and de-stemmed each tiny plum by hand.  We carefully layered the plums and the special rock sugar as described.  And then – only then – did we QUIETLY pour in the alcohol.  I am still unclear on how exactly one pours “quietly” but we did the best we could.

Both of us put our containers under our respective kitchen sinks, a cool, dry place, and they will remain there throughout the summer.  The plums need about 3 months to ferment properly, so we will see what happens in late September!  Stay tuned.

British Pub Humor in Tokyo

From the little bathroom in the pub

I have an American friend here in Tokyo whose mission it is to try all of the smoke-free craft brew places that she can.  Her hunt led us to the Aldgatein Shibuya.  It’s a great little place off the beaten path on the second floor of a building that is behind the main drag.  They have more than twenty beers on tap, including hard cider, a favorite of mine.  The cider was a bit sweet for my taste, but the amber ale was a delightful mixture of hoppy and bitter, with a bit of wheat taste.  A group of us went together and it was like a time warp.  There were a lot of foreigners in the bar, but it wasn’t exclusive, and there were soccer matches going on on all the TVs in the joint.  It really was a proper British pub, serving bangers and mash along with fish and chips with their craft brews.

Don’t piss off the bartenders!

My favorite thing was the signs, however.  Here is just a sampling of one behind the bar and one in the bathroom.  Funky signs abounded and kept us chuckling all night.

If you like craft brews, British wait staff, soccer and a good chuckle, then this is definitely the place for you!


Pizza Strada – The Best in Tokyo (according to some)

Sources close to the writer (a very pizza-knowledgeable 12-year-old who I adore, but is not my child) insist that the best pizza in the city is at Pizza Strada in Azabu Juban.  He might very well be right.  The crust is thin and alternately soft and crunchy in the right spots.  The sauce has a touch of sweetness but not overly so.  The best part is the place itself.  It has a beautiful terrace and inside the atmosphere is cozy and warm.  The pizza chef makes each pizza to order and apparently loves to chat as he shifts the yummy goodness in and out of the stone pizza ovens.  There are only four pizzas on the menu and the ingredients in them are very specific.  If you want cheese on the marinara pizza, it’s 500 yen extra.  If you want sauce on the Tamaki or pepperoni, it’s 500 yen extra.  Like most menu items in Japan, there are no substitutions.  The way it’s written is the way it comes, and asking for it otherwise is generally quite an ordeal.  In fact, the night I went with my favorite pizza-buff, I ordered the Tamaki pizza, which is an interesting mix of smoked mozzarella, peccorino cheese and cherry tomatoes.  As I mentioned, it does not come with sauce.  When I asked to add sauce, the waitress went to ask the pizza chef if that was possible.  I felt terrible, as if I was insulting the chef.  But the waitress came back and replied in the affirmative that it would be okay to add the sauce – for the extra charge.  Of course.

Pizza Strada has a few wines, a few beers and a great sangria.  The menu in general is not extensive, but each item is made to perfection with a fair price to boot. Be sure to look at the menu pictures carefully – they’re very specific.  And then look at the rules – only in Japan could a joint post rules like that and expect them to be followed.  Almost anywhere else, they’d be laughed at – really – let’s not drink too much??  Who ever heard of pizza without a few beers?  Well, perhaps my twelve-year-old, but he’ll learn in time.  Enjoy!


Zurriola – An Amazing Restaurant

This past weekend we had occasion to go out to dinner with good friends to a great, new restaurant called Zurriola in the Azabu Juban neighborhood of Tokyo, which is right near our home.  It’s Spanish food, but of course with a Japanese flair.  The combination of flavors excited the palate in a way not often experienced.  It has been given one Michelin star, and it’s no wonder.  Each dish was more delicious and beautifully presented than the one before. The actual plates were beautiful and different.  It hosts a fine wine list of mostly Spanish libations, and we were able to start with Cava, go to white wine and finish off with a spicy red wine that perfectly matched the flavors of the final courses.

There is no a la carte at Zurriola, but the set is not horribly priced – for Tokyo.  Each dish is so perfect that I cannot imagine what I would have removed to lessen the number of courses. Each dish was beautifully appointed and it was clear that a chef had taken the time to see to it personally so that the flavor fairly exploded as soon as it touched your lips.  But not only that; the presentation was so lovely that for the first few courses, we just wanted to look at them for a while before eating them.  After the first three or so, we realized how yummy each one would be and we just wanted to take that first, best bite.

The atmosphere at Zurriola is cozy and intimate.  We felt like we were getting personalized service.  The decor is sort of nondescript, but the place was well-lit and warm.  There were plants strategically placed to be welcoming.

There is no way to pick a favorite among the eleven courses, so I’ve taken a photo of a few that I loved.  You’ll just have to go there to see for yourself.

This decadent piece of heaven is foie gras with praline inside. Yes, praline. Hazelnut chocolate.


The fish course, Angler fish, settled lightly in an olive soup. I do not care for olives, and I loved this dish.


The slice of pork tenderloin was lovely, but the gently roasted and seasoned vegetables outshone the dish in this course.


The tenderest, sweetest, most artfully prepared scallop I have ever eaten. That's a whipped almond puree on the side, by the way.


The beef course - beef tail, to be exact. While it wasn't my favorite dish of the night, it was delicious and soft and succulent wrapped in its bit of pasta.


No meal is complete without a bit of sweet and this is no exception. A light bit of brownie and ice cream with a Basque sauce. Scrumptious!

Run don’t walk, to Zurriola.


Thanksgiving in Tokyo, Take 2

I say “take 2” but that is just because it’s my second blog posting on the topic.  In reality, this is our seventh (!) turkey day in Tokyo.  Each year has been a little different and this year is no exception.

Our lives are different this year, having been through a number of new beginnings in September.  One of the biggest was my return to work.  It has been an interesting experience from start to finish, but one of the biggest things I’ve found is that teachers at a secondary school are different than those at a university, most notably regarding the formation of a collegial atmosphere.  I love the camaraderie and sharing.  I love the community.  I love being able to run next door to ask another teacher a question if I have one.

Since much of the faculty and staff is American, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day together.  To be sure, we will all work a full day and then have an early dinner so we can get up Friday morning to head back to work.  The Japanese have not embraced the Thanksgiving spirit like they have for Halloween and Christmas, which is really fine with me.  It’s not the same having a truly American holiday while NOT in America and I don’t want to pretend that it is even close.

We are going to a restaurant called Addis.  Here’s the menu:

  • Brown Lentil Fresh Thyme Soup
  • Cranberry mustard and cream cheese canape
  • Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese and Fennel salad
  • Roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce
  • Pumpkin Cheese cake
  • and of course a vegetarian option that’s very Japanese: Grilled tofu wrapped with eggplant in a port wine cardamon reduction

We will have bottle after bottle of wine, I am certain.  We’ll be about 12 for dinner. The cafe is close to school, and pretty casual.  It should be a wonderful time.

I am thankful for so many things this year, many of which are new and different, so mostly I am thankful for the wonderful things that ARE new and different.  I am delighted to spend the holiday with the people with whom I work, along with my husband and kids.  What a year it has been.

Wherever and however you are celebrating, I wish you a dinner full of love and peace.

Restaurant Ordering Via IPad

The Menu of the Hong Kong Kitchen

This weekend, we had dinner at the Hong Kong Kitchen in Roppongi Hills.  Most people think of Dim Sum for weekend brunch, but this restaurant has an all-you-can-eat Dim Sum Menu in the evenings.

Dim Sum is a Cantonese word for “snack” but is commonly comprised of a meal of individual dumplings.  Some examples include: pork shumai, spinach dumplings, shrimp dumplings and individual servings of roasted duck on rice.

We don’t go to this restaurant particularly often, but often enough to notice, after we were seated, that they had changed the menu slightly.  Then the waiter came over to our table and handed us an iPad.  He showed us how to look over each item on the menu on the machine – seeing the items together or individually.  They we could select the items, choosing the number we wanted, before going to the final place to press “order” and the entire order would go to the kitchen.  Since it was all we could eat, we could do that as many times as we wanted. The food magically appeared a few minutes after pressed

Marc and Sydney pour over the menu!

“order” each time.

It was SO COOL!

We couldn’t do anything else on the iPad – it was configured to run only one program, but it was still neat to order in that manner.  And there were no mistakes.  We got everything we ordered perfectly.

I love technology and of course, living in Tokyo.

The Umeshu!

This past Sunday was the long-awaited unveiling of the umeshu (plum wine) that my good friend, Saori, and I put together back in June.  We had been storing it in a cool, dry place (as cool as we could get in sweltering Tokyo) for at least two months.  When we took it out, it was a beautiful golden color with the plums swirling and beckoning within.  When we poured it out of the mundane container, it sloshed lightly in the glass, catching the glint of the light.  Both Saori and I like it over ice, so the cubes clinked against each other to welcome the liquid.

The taste was just the right amount of sweet: tangy, but not insipid.  It was strong – we could taste a quick hint of the alcohol as it warmed our throats.  It was, in short, perfect.

The amount we made should, perhaps, last us through the winter – or at least until we can make another batch again in the spring.  I sense this become a yearly event.  Kampai!

The Top Ten Things I Miss About Tokyo

It’s about that time of year again, when I do the list of things I miss about my adopted home when I am away from it for so many weeks.  So here we go!

  1. Walking everywhere – I spend so much time in my car in Washington DC – even living right in the city!
  2. The drinking culture – because everyone drives, fewer people have a smaller number of drinks – I do love my drinks!
  3. My favorite sushi restaurant – Fukuzushi.  In Roppongi.  I never eat sushi in the U.S.
  4. Mount Thabor bakery in Azabu Juban – there is truly no French bakery quite like that here in DC.
  5. Using my iPhone like it was meant to be used – I do as little data roaming as possible here in DC, and I miss just pulling out my smart phone at will.  I use a cheap, old, little Nokia phone here in DC.
  6. My tiny little car – I’m driving a rented Chevy Impala here in DC, which is 1.5 times bigger than my little BMW 318I in Tokyo.
  7. The service – I like American restaurants just fine, but the service in Tokyo is white-glove perfect, all without tipping.
  8. May’s Garden Spa in Roppongi.  I have a pretty good hairstylist here in DC, but even if the cut is nearly as good, the experience of the salon in Tokyo is second to none!
  9. Japanese TV – those advertisements are a stitch!!!
  10. My TOILET – for reasons I will not enumerate – but suffice to say, I miss its “functions”!!

I’ll be in DC for a little over two more weeks.  I love it here, but I am looking forward to going home to Tokyo.

Restaurant Week!

Every summer I think I’m going to miss the food in Tokyo, and every summer I am pleasantly surprised by something in the U.S.  This week is restaurant week in the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area of Maryland, which is essentially suburban Washington D.C.  For this special week, a group of restaurants in one area create menus for crazy prices.  Two course lunches are $15 and three course dinners are $30.  (The restaurants agree on the pricing and set their menus accordingly.)

Today, Marc took me out to a great French restaurant called La Ferme. (Here’s the review from Washingtonian)  Located in the gorgeous village of Chevy Chase, it is set in a copse of trees and resembles what I think of as a French farmhouse.  There’s even a romantic, outdoor verandah which looks quite romantic for a cooler, non-heat-wave day. We sat at a lovely table for two which sported high-backed wooden chairs with arms, making us feel settled and comfortable.

For the set menus, we could choose two courses, either appetizer and main course or main course and dessert.  We both chose the former.  Marc had scallops in a puff pastry to start, and I had beefsteak tomatoes with arugula, pine nuts, and goat cheese.  The tomatoes were crisp, yet ripe and sweet and only lightly drizzled with a balsamic reduction.  The varying flavors of the cheese, nuts and tangy leaves made for a delightful layering of tastes.

For our main courses, Marc chose a cajun-spiced tilapia that was light and flavorful without being overly spicy.  I had chicken breast in a apple brandy and mushrooms, which was juicy, cooked to perfection.

In case you don’t know, in Maryland, if you don’t finish your bottle of wine, the restaurant has to cork it for you and let you take it out.  We ordered a delightful bottle of white wine from a vineyard called Sancerre, which has never disappointed us.  It was slightly nutty, and a perfect pairing for our meals.  I only had a little bit, and Marc had one glass, so we took the remainder home so we can have more of it later.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is simply charming.  They have two tiny balconies above the main floor that each host a table for two and the waiter told us that many a marriage proposal has happened up there.  There are huge urns of fresh flowers strategically placed around the huge room, and every inch of it is beautifully green or white.

Restaurant week is a brilliant idea because now, when I am asked where I’d like to go to eat in the DC metro area, I will respond with this restaurant, and I will pay full price after this low-price introduction.  The atmosphere, service, and of course, the food, are all tremendous and worth much more than the small amount we paid.

A Hidden Treasure – the Azabu Haus Restaurant

copyright Iwamoto and Associates - showing the beautiful interior

In Tokyo, one of my favorite things to do is happen upon a new restaurant.  There are so many gems to discover in this city that it’s almost a shame to go to the same place twice.  In this case, though, I hope to become a regular customer.

The Azabu Haus is located in Azabu Juban and has been open for six or seven years.  (No official website listed, unfortunately)  It’s off the main road on a street perpendicular to a second main shopping street parallel to the Shotengai.  It’s owned and run by a man calling himself simply Jo and his English and mannerisms are simply exquisite.  Every server in the restaurant treats customers like they were the most

The appetizer plate

important person in the place.

The design of the restaurant, done by Iwamoto and Associates architects, marries light wood and stone to create an ambiance of warmth.  The ceiling is curved inward next to the window so it makes diners feel enclosed in the unique world of the water view and cozy table.  There are two private rooms that can be closed off to the rest of the restaurant which would make a great spot for a business meeting or private function.

We found the restaurant because I have a friend who is an explorer.  He likes to walk down the side streets – he says it is the only way to really see what’s going on.  He noticed the large, flat-front building with lights directly set into the walls.  There’s also a long man-made stream running alongside the building, with some greenery surrounding it.  The affect is very soothing.

Sea Bream in basil over greens

The food is Japanese-style French and Italian, with a wine list that is exclusively European. We chose the set menu for dinner and it was nearly more food than we could eat.  Priced at about 7500 JPY, it’s pricey, but not unreasonable for Tokyo and the plentiful portions we received. The appetizer plate had four different types of dishes in one – a terrine, tomato-mozzarella, a vegetable combination and a bit of sashimi.  The next course, pasta, we picked off the menu.  I had a cream sauce, one friend had a fish sauce, another friend had a meat sauce, and my husband had a wine and mushroom sauce.  Each tasted distinct, a neat trick with pasta sauces.

The fish course was a beautiful displayed, light, flaky piece of Sea Bream in basil sauce.  Then the main course was a perfectly roasted pork.  We shared desserts – hand-made gelatto, pear tart, fruit cup and tiramisu.  The cappuccino really

The main course

finished off the set beautifully and didn’t even need sugar.

The atmosphere, food, and service all deserve a gold star for their excellence.

Azabu Juban [Map] 2-7-14, azabu275 Building, 1F; Tel: 03-5439-6671