Kaiten Zushi

The sushi just travels on plates around the restaurant until a diner picks it up.

On Sunday evening, after a grueling two and a half hours on the soccer pitch, we went out with our good friends the Mitchells (Chris, Saori, Kazuma and Saya) for a special meal at a Kaiten Zushi restaurant.  Kaiten Zushi is sushi served not by hand, but by a conveyor belt that circles the restaurant.

As in most sushi restaurants, the sushi chefs are visible from almost all locations – at the bar and at the booth – but they focus on the production at this type of restaurant.  The restaurant, called Pintokona, is located in the basement of Roppongi Hills.  At the bar, you can keep your shoes on, but if you sit at a table, you need to remove your shoes on the tatami and put them in conveniently placed lockers at the front of the shop.  You put in your shoes, then take your key for safekeeping, thus ensuring that no one steals your shoes.

The eight of us squeezed into a back booth and the conveyor belt was only at one side of it – so my kids were the only ones next to it.  The point of this experience is that you start eating

right away.  Bailey and Sydney immediately started pulling plates of shrimp (nigiri style – raw over a bed of rice) off of the conveyor belt for themselves and Kazu and Saya.  We had to slow them down a little bit – the four kids wanted everything!

The waitress does come around to take a drink order, even though the green tea is made right there at the table.  Every table has a box of green tea powder and a hot water spigot.  Saya expertly made tea for everyone.  But

when the waitress came around, Chris and Marc had a beer and Saori and I had our favorite: plum wine.  The kids stuck with tea and water.

If we did not see what we wanted, we had two choices.  We could either wait until we noticed a waitress, or we could shout through, over the conveyor belt, to the sushi-chef behind it.  The kids, predictably, opted to shout out to the chef precisely what they wanted, so it appeared through our little “window” in seconds.

With the conveyor belt, there’s always a concern about freshness – how long is that fish on that belt anyway?  But here’s a quote from Bento.com about Pintokona: “A modern conveyor-belt sushi shop with a high-tech element – an electronic chip in each plate keeps track of freshness, and fish is taken out of rotation after thirty minutes.”  I am not sure how other shops keep track of each plate, but this place is great about it.

We ate pretty typical sushi – all nigiri style: maguro (tuna), salmon, eel, fatty tuna, and then some tekkamaki – tuna rolls.

The plates all sit on the table until you’re done with the meal because that’s how they know how much you’ve eaten: they count the plates.  But it’s not simple counting –

The magic wand goes up the stack!

the color of the plate matters.  The blue plates are one price, the gre

ens are another price, and so forth. The kids had a contest to see who had m

ore plates on their stack – them or the adults.  The kids won – they ate more than

the adults.

At this particular locat

ion, the method of calculation is rather interesting.  Each plate is fitted with a microchip, so the server comes along, and waves

her magic wand machine from the bottom of the stack to the top.  Then she is able to read the machine and print out an exact bill for us to take to the front to pay.  Many places have the old-fashioned counting method, but this is high tech and super accurate.  And interesting to boot!

Food in Palm Beach

Okay, I admit it: I’m a food snob.  The food in Tokyo is so amazing and beautifully presented that it’s hard to compare to anywhere else.  In fact, Tokyo now has more stars from Michelin than Paris now.  Also, in addition to more stars, there are more restaurants with stars in Tokyo than Paris.  Often I am contemptuous of American food.  But today, I was not.

For my upcoming birthday, my mom took me to a restaurant called Cafe L’Europe right in the heart of Palm Beach.  The service was impeccable, the food was delicious and the decor was exquisite.

Every table of the small-ish restaurant (seating about 50 in the front room) had a short, square vase with a few roses in it – each table sported a different color vase.  In the summer, off-season, the restaurant has a prixe fixe menu – three courses for a set price.

The afternoon began with a bellini, into which they poured more champagne when the glasses were empty. So incredibly delicious. an d decadent.

Mom and I both started with the trio of soups.  In three tiny bowls set on one plate, we had cold pea soup, gazpacho, and cucumber dill soup.  Each was better smooth and perfectly spiced.  Mom had a the chicken Milanese, and I had snapper over pineapple rice.  The desert was also a trio of decadent creme caramel, coffee ice cream over chocolate cake, and a fresh fruit tarte.  Of course, since my birthday is next week, there was a resounding chorus of happy birthday.

Mom and I had a wonderful time.

Pizza, Tokyo Style

What's left of a Partenope Pizza after lunch - it's huge!

Anyone worth his salt knows that a pizza is not simply a pizza.  Wars have been started over this stuff, for heaven’s sake!  And why should Tokyo, as a major player on the global food stage, be any different?

I grew up near New Haven, home of “New Haven Style” pizza.  When I found out that our new Rabbi, Rabbi Antonio DeGesu, here in Tokyo is from a small village in Sicily, and a pizza fanatic, I resolved to do some pizza exploring.

New Haven Style pizza, originating at Pepe’s Pizza on Wooster Street, has oregano in the crust – and Romano cheese on top.  One must ask for mozzarella if he wants it. It has a thin crust and that crust is crispy outside and chewy inside from being cooked in a brick oven.  Neapolitan Pizza, from Naples, on the other hand, has mozzarella and most notably, fresh buffalo mozzarella preferably.  Pizza from Naples also has a thin crust, but in order to be authentic, it has to be made by hand, never, never rolled with a rolling pin.  A rolling pin apparently crushes air bubbles that add texture and some extra flavor.

Then we come to Tokyo.

The rabbi’s and my first stop was Savoy, in the area where Azabu Juban meets Roppongi, about which I have been hearing for years now, and have not yet been until recently.  They have basically two types of pizza there – marghareta with tomato and basil, and pepperoni.   The crust is perfectly formed with a hint of crunch on the outside and doughy on the inside.  The sauce was slightly sweet, but not overly so.  The basil on top of the mozzarella was incredibly fragrant and fresh.  But the rabbi found the crust to be a little too salty for his taste.  The ambiance is great – intimate.  The whole thing is a bar with a dozen seats.  The pizza is more than filling and served steaming hot out of a brick oven.

The rabbi’s first choice for pizza is Partenope, a proper Italian restaurant in Hiroo.  He finds the pizza to be familiar to him – homey.  I acknowledge that the dough is definitely less salty.  Also, though, it’s cooked a little longer, and browner on the bottom.  The cheese and sauce tasted similar to those at Savoy and the ingredients were definitely fresh.  On an atmosphere scale, there’s no comparison.  Partenope is a proper restaurant with a proper menu and servers.  At Savoy there are two choices of what to eat, and patrons sit at a bar.  Pasta and other delights are available at Partenope, which are not at Savoy.

I have a feeling that my pizza excursions with the rabbi are just beginning.  We’re going to hunt around Tokyo for the very best pizza, as rated by a native Italian.  Tokyo, the city with more Michelin stars than Paris, has a living and growing food culture that I enjoy every day.

If you have experience with a great pizza joint in Tokyo, please let me know and we’ll try it – and report back!

Filmmaking and Writing and Learning

On Monday I was fortunate to have lunch with filmmaker Tamara Rosenberg, who was in town for the Asian University for Women (AUW) event from last week.  Tamara is a freelance producer whose best-known work is the film she presented at the event, “Time for School” which follows the lives of seven children across the globe and their educational lives.  The film crew meets with each child every three years and shows their progress.  The last episode of the film is scheduled to be in 2015 when the children will theoretically be graduating from school, but also to coincide with the United Nations mandate that states that every child across the globe should be receiving a free basic education by 2015.  The film is wonderful; somehow she has managed to make it poignant yet uplifting.  I came away from watching it with great sadness for the state of education globally, but somehow with great hope for the future.  I’m looking forward to the next installment in 2012.

Tamara was scheduled to fly out of Tokyo on Monday night, so our meeting and lunch really was her last jaunt in the city.  I took her to my very favorite sushi restaurant, Fukuzushi. We ate one lunch set: cooked tuna appetizer, chowamushi (egg custard) and decided on anagyoju (cooked eel and egg over rice) for our main course.  We ate the rice flour balls in bean paste for dessert.

The interesting thing though, was that we were able to compare our work.  Tamara feels grateful as a filmmaker to be able to make films about anything and everything.  She noted that when she toured the sumo stables (that’s what they call the sumo training grounds) she saw it through the lens of her camera.  She had a thousand questions she wanted to ask, such as: what do you eat? You’re young; do you go to school? How many hours do you train? Where do you sleep?  She said that she could see where she would do a close-up shot and where she would pan back for a wider view.  Tamara said that she doesn’t see everything like that; like when she was in Kyoto and touring temples as a tourist, she just let the scenes and ideas wash over her like any other tourist.  But if she sees a story in something, that’s when it penetrates.

It’s the same thing for writing.  Last year I wrote a long piece on soba noodles for a magazine called Food and Beverage Underground. I did a ton of research about the history and traditions of eating soba in Japan, as well as on the nutrition and serving styles.  Am I food expert? Am I a nutritionist? No, of course not.  But I’m a writer.  The beauty of being a writer is the ability to discover subjects and topics and write about them – research is crucial.  But beyond that, I’m free to move on to the next topic when that article is done if that’s what I choose to do.  After that piece on soba, I wrote a nice piece on anti-aging food and restaurants that are cropping up all over Tokyo for Kaleidoscope magazine.  It was related, but not the same.

Writers and filmmakers and other creative sorts have the gift of being able to take a topic and use it to serve a purpose – inform, entertain, anything.  I get to learn something every time I write.  And then the next time I write I get to learn something else that’s new for me.

Tamara and I stayed at Fukuzushi for at least two hours – until they were closing for the break between lunch and dinner.  We talked about topics that ran the gamut of city living, Japanese culture, creativity and a million other things.  I feel very lucky to have had that special time with her.  And I’m hoping that she gets back to Tokyo to visit in the not-too-distant future.

My Best-Kept Secret in Tokyo

It doesn’t mean to be hiding, but its location on the Roppongi Hills plaza, across from the Enoteca, without a marking

The entrance to Mikawa is a secret, but once inside it's an explosion of taste!

on its door, gives it an air of mystery. The reality is that the restaurant is branch of popular and established restaurant with a main branch in Nihonbashi with a newly opened branch slightly outside of Tokyo. As a self-confirmed “foodie,” I have always thought that Tokyo is a city that could please even the fussiest of palates.  Tempura Mikawa, however, exceeds all expectations, and will ruin the casual diner for eating tempura anywhere else.

The décor of the restaurant is the first thing that catches the eye.  The entry door itself is a brilliant yellow with birds flying upwards painted on it.  The door is set in from the plaza, with a cascade of rope in front of it.  To walk in, the door must be slid left and guests must duck under the blue Japanese noren (small, low, welcoming curtain) in front of the door. Inside, there is a counter that seats ten and then, to the right, behind sliding paper doors, there are four tables on the floor with foot-wells underneath them so diners to not have to sit on their knees or cross-legged.  Two giant paintings grace the walls of Mikawa, done by the Japanese artist Maeda, whose graphic prints and interesting shapes of ceramics have made him famous throughout the country.  The effect is a warm and welcoming splash of color.

A matsutake mushroom at Mikawa - only in September and October

One is greeted at Mikawa by the wife of famous chef from the main shop.  She wears colorful kimono and seats each diner personally, bustling around like an efficient mother hen.  The effect is that I feel like I’m being personally taken care of every time I walk in there.

There is not a lot of choice with the menu of Mikawa.  For lunch they have a 5000 JPY set or a 7000 JPY set and for dinner, there’s an omakase (chef’s suggestion) menu for about 10,000 JPY.  There is one type of sake available that is served warm and one type of sake that is served cold.  There is one brand of beer served.

But it never matters.  What the diners get is a feast of the imagination.

One must note that somehow, this tempura feels light.  It is so gently battered and quickly fried by a well-trained expert that no one who eats at Mikawa will ever eat tempura the same way again.  One secret is potato starch instead of flour as the base, but there’s also some secrets in there that shall forever remain a mystery, and I’m delighted about it.  I don’t need to know how it all happens – I just want to enjoy it!

Sake cups made by the artist Maeda, used at Mikawa

The items that the long-trained chef serves are all locally obtained – and is all fish, shellfish and vegetables – old fashioned style. The first course is ebi, shrimp, but not the colossal type that is popular.  These are normal-sized, local shrimp.  We eat two of them, and then we promptly receive the shrimp heads to enjoy, which are crunchy and vaguely reminiscent of popcorn.  Over the seven years we have been frequenting Mikawa, I’d say that the shrimp heads have become our favorite treat there.  The rest of the courses are equally small and filling and there are many of them.  There’s squid that somehow melts in the mouth; whiting, a small fish served in a bunch; a fish of the day; a veggie course of asparagus, eggplant and whatever else is in season (in the autumn there’s matsutake mushrooms – we always go for a treat of them in September!); and then the ending is kakiage, which is served to the diner in a possibility of three ways – in soup, over rice, or by itself.  Each course is served slowly with plenty of digestion time between.

As with most course menus in Japan, there’s a little, tiny dessert which is only mildly sweet, at the end. At Mikawa, it’s most often a little bit of plain jelly with azuki beans in it.  It’s the perfect ending to a perfect meal and somehow the cool, soft feeling relieves any over-stuffing one might feel.

Mikawa is a treat for the senses.  The sound of the sizzling tempura, the bright décor of the restaurant and the delightful explosion of light taste in the mouth invite pure pleasure.

What I have learned over the past seven years in Japan is to open doors.  Sometimes unmarked doors can hold the greatest and most delightful surprises.

Candy, Japanese Style

They do have plain ol Kit Kats!

Though you might not believe it, the Japanese do like their candy.  They just like it in a different way than we do.  Well, perhaps I’m being hasty.  I’m a purist about my chocolate.  I like my chocolate to just be chocolate – I’m not even a fan of truffles if the flavors are too complex.

The other day I was in the convenience store and I noticed a few additions to the candy aisle – in the form of flavored Kit Kats.  There were several types including Wasabi Kit Kat, Soy Sauce Kit Kat and Banana Kit Kat.  I bought a banana and a green tea to try.

Here's the Roasted Soybean Flavored Kit Kat

My friend Ben, a visitor to Japan and my cousin Julia’s boyfriend, liked the green tea one a lot.  It’s all about expectation, he explained to me.  If you look at it closely, it’s not really chocolate.  It’s green tea flavored candy around a wafer.   And indeed he is right.  If you like green tea candy and wafers, you’d like this.  But it has nothing to with what I think of as a Kit Kat.  My husband had similar feelings about the banana flavored Kit Kat.  He loves banana and he loves Kit Kat.  When asked though, if he’d go buy another one, Marc did not hesitate, and answered in the negative.  I can get banana candy in some other form and still keep my regular Kit Kat, he explained.  No one in my house or family was brave enough to try the other flavors.  Or maybe we were just not willing to spend the money taste-testing items that were pretty much guaranteed to be odd and slightly disappointing to our American palates.  I’m not sure why the Japanese like to mess around with the candy flavors that we enjoy so much, but they do.  It most likely has to do with improving on a design, and the constant desire to engineer the heck out of everything so in the end, you forget that what you had originally wasn’t even a Japanese product.  Here are some photos of the other flavors, too. As for me, I am sticking with my Hershey Bars – plain and simple!

The Soy Sauce Kit Kat!

Wasabi Flavored Kit Kat, in case you don't believe me!

The Inside of the Green Tea Version

The banana Kit Kat

Passover in Tokyo

The Jewish Community of Japan is a terrific place that aims to be “home” to the entire Jewish population of Tokyo.  Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes it is not.  The common wisdom is: “two Jews, three opinions.”  But at times like these, when I am away from home for the holiday, I appreciate its existence more than usual.

For those of you who don’t know, Passover is one of the “majors” in the Jewish religion, up there with Easter and Christmas.  It celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt – out of bondage and into freedom.  It’s a festival of spring that celebrates liberty.  We don’t necessarily go to services on the holiday at the synagogue, but we do have family meals called seders at home, where we retell the story and eat ritual foods.  Each Jew is commanded to remember the exodus from Egypt as if he had been there himself – the book from which we read, the Haggadah states that “it is that which the Holy One did for me for which I am grateful.”  We are aware that if not for the interceding of G-d, through Moses, we would still be slaves.

To digress for a moment, the food for Passover involves only matzah as a carbohydrate; nothing with flour in it is allowed.  This is because when they left Egypt, Moses and the Jews were concerned that the Pharaoh would change his mind about them leaving and they went in a hurry, so they did not have time for their bread to rise before the trip.  Therefore, in commemoration, Jews do not eat anything leavened for eight days. For seder in my home on Tuesday night I have already begun cooking.  I made matzah balls (soup dumplings) and chicken soup, carrot souffle, chocolate matzah, honey cake, and apple cake.  I hard boiled eggs as a symbol of spring.  Today I will finish up with matzah stuffing, potato kugel (casserole) and the main dish – lamb.  All in all, I have already used about forty eggs and three large packages of butter.  It’s the holiday of cholesterol.  This week we celebrate and eat – next week we diet.

So my mother and father are in New York this week celebrating with my aunt and uncle and grandmother and other various family members.  My husband’s parents are in Connecticut with his brother and other various family members.  And we are in Tokyo.

This is where the friends and the JCJ come into play.  Through the JCJ I’ve met some wonderful people – all of whom are in the same situation as I am.  We have formed a community of friends who are, by extension, family.  We support each other, care for each other in times of need, and on days like today, celebrate holidays with each other. The community is made up of mostly expatriates, most of whom are of American or European or Australian.  There are very few native Asian Jews.  While there is a large community of converts, the Japanese are not familiar with a monotheistic concept of religion, so the ideas of Judaism are confusing at best.  So most members of the community are from elsewhere.

I’ve written extensively about the Jewish Community in Japan – notably in two magazines here in Asia – Asian Jewish Life and the Jewish Times of Asia. But those articles don’t necessarily capture the true feeling of community shared by the people who live here.  We are a family in the best sense of the word.  We decorate the sukkah for sukkot, we dance with the Torahs at Simchat Torah, and we say the prayers for forgiveness at Yom Kippur – we are together in worship and celebration no matter from where we hail originally.

I am very lucky this year that my cousin Julia Ledewitz will fly in from Boston with her boyfriend in time for seder, so I will have a blood relative at the table tonight.  But that doesn’t change the fact that my family of friends is one for which I am eternally grateful. A sincere and loving thank you to the Bajaj and Hozack families for Monday night’s seder.  And many hugs and much love in advance to the Stephenson and Kapner families, and David Cohen, who will celebrate with me tonight in my home.

To my greater readership, I hope that whatever holidays you celebrate this spring, that you can do it with those whom you hold dear.

A Coffee Experience

The beans are sifted to weed out impurities before roasting

My friend Bill raves about the coffee place he frequents and after having some spectacular coffee at his house this past weekend, I asked him to take me to his spot.

The Japanese are very particular about their coffees.  One would think this was a solely tea-drinking society, but it’s not.  The Japanese love coffee.  There are coffee shops everywhere – Italian ones, French ones and particularly Japanese ones with low tables and $5 tiny cups of java.  Of course there is the requisite Starbucks which is hugely popular among the Japanese. As with most things, anything worth doing is worth doing right.

This particular shop is located in the Azabu Juban area of Tokyo, a popular area for expats but also for upscale

The package of beans and my adorable new scoop

Japanese and those looking for a bit of an international flavor in an otherwise homogeneous society.  It’s called Kobo and it’s located right by the big slide park – aka Azabu Juban park.  Kobo is not a coffee shop in which one sits to sip a drink, but a place where a serious coffee purchaser goes to buy beans for use at home.

The shop couldn’t be more than the size of my kitchen, which is pretty small, but the walls are lined with bags of coffee from all over the world.  There are at least a hundred varieties of beans, all of them in jars and un-roasted so they are beige-ish in color.  The shelves, the wall and even the counter are done in dark woods so light is at a premium in the shop.

The Roaster

The aroma in the Kobo is the most memorable and overwhelming part of the whole sensory experience.  The coffees all blend together to create a rich and fiery smell that assaults the nose upon opening the door to the shop.  If you close your eyes in there, tt is reminiscent of wood fires and cozy sofas of days gone by.

The man behind the counter is the gem of the place. He is quiet and deferential, bordering on overly formal.  He measures out the ordered coffee and puts the beans in a sifter to make sure each bean is pure and nothing untoward gets into the roaster.  The roaster is amazing.  Beans don’t just sit on the fire but they are subjected to air so they are constantly turning and moving as they heat and roast.  It’s mesmerizing to watch the beans floating around in the glass cylinder turning from boring beige to rich brown.

I asked the man behind the counter to choose something for me -whatever he recommended – and he gave me an “Azabu Blend” which was supposed to be a medium-roast coffee.  It took twenty minutes to roast, so I went off to have lunch and came back.  When I returned, he was waiting for me with a silver package of whole beans and a special gift – a Kobo coffee scoop.  It was “for service” as the Japanese say when they give away little gifts with purchases.

The door to heavenly java

I couldn’t wait to brew my beans so I ran home to put them in my grind-and-brew.  The result was delightful – a real experience in java.  The taste was almost smoky and bold without being too strong and there was not a hint of acid.  It was almost rich tasting.  One thing to note: the beans are so well-roasted that the grinds are extra powdery.  There was very little residue left in my grinder and clean-up was a breeze.  That hasn’t happened before with any other bean I’ve used.

The containers of beans line the shelf

This type of specialty coffee-bean shop is not something I expected to find in Tokyo, home of the omnipresent green tea.  But one thing I’ve learned about Tokyo: expect the unexpected.

Tokyo Tuesday: Soda with a Twist

Back in October Pepsi introduced Pepsi Azuki into the Japanese market.  A Westerner might ask what Azuki is, but anyone who has been in Japan for long enough knows that it’s a common bean found in many desserts.   Now the Westerners are saying “beans and dessert?”  It’s true! Japanese people eat these sweet beans as a dessert with gelatin, particularly after a filling meal such as tempura.  It finishes off the meal with a hint of light sweetness without the weight of chocolate or cake or pie.  The beans are even mashed and used as filling for donuts.  Warning: don’t ever bite into a donut that you think might be jelly – it’s likely to be azuki!  (Though it’s amusing to watch someone do it – as evidenced by my visiting uncle a few years ago!)

But now the Pepsi company has combined the azuki bean flavor with their cola and the result seems to be less than stellar.  In previous seasons Pepsi has combined cola with shiso (a green leaf) and cucumber.  Those seem almost normal in comparison.  The azuki was supposed to have been seasonal through the autumn, but it is still available widely in stores and it’s already January.

True confessions: I read so many horrible reviews of the product that I don’t even want to spend the 150JPY (about $1.75) to buy a bottle.  Some have said that the initial smell upon opening the bottle is akin to day-old trash.  Some have said that the flavor is biting.  The mildest review that I read called the product “not offensive” and that the bean taste is mostly in the aftertaste.

Japanese love combinations so this shouldn’t be a surprise.  But still, some things are not meant to be combined.  Enjoy the photo of the bottle anyway!