Food is Travel, Travel is Food (part two in Tokyo)

Japan has been weighing on my mind lately for obvious reasons.  So why not write about Japan in Part Two of this series of posts?

Before I go there, I have to confess.  After writing the first post of this series, my wife asked me, “What about my cooking?  Don’t I rate in your memories of great meals?”  To which I replied, “Of course, honey.  But I was writing about travel and food.”  Being the clueless male that I am, little did I realize that I screwed up.  So, let the record state that my wife is indeed an accomplished and passionate cook.  Many of the best meals I have had were prepared by her.

On to the travel bit.

Unlike travels in North America where I can recall the exact names of many restaurants I’ve visited, I can’t do the same in Japan.  But I can recall specific meals for sure.

Probably the most memorable meals were two different kaiseki meals.  These are multi-course feasts.  You get a little of everything: a perfectly grilled portion of beef (kobe if you’re lucky and/or rich), the very freshest sashimi, delicate soups and more.  Every course is a revelation of simplicity and pleasure.

Kaiseki is a typical setting for business dinners, so in some regards the enjoyment of the meal is also a reflection of the relationship with the persons with whom you’re dining.  As a meal with someone you’ve just met, it can be a bit formal.  But with business friends, it can be thoroughly enjoyable.

One can’t mention Japan without talking about ramen.  It’s so plentiful, cheap and common as a lunch meal that you could dismiss its sublime nature; rich broth, toothsome noodles and just the right balance of ingredients.

If you’re my wife, the quest for great ramen outside Japan is approching an obsession.  Too bad she hasn’t been to Japan more often.  And ramen causes obsession in Japan too, as evidenced by the movie Tampopo.

Another memorable meal was a simple one.  I asked the concierge at the hotel to send me to a neighborhood sushi restaurant.  The type that would be small and catered to the residents.  My colleague led me to believe that he loved sushi too, though in retrospect his tastes were pretty limited.

We walked into a place with maybe two stand alone tables and took two of just eight seats at the sushi bar.  It was simple, almost rustic.

I ordered omakase style, where you place your trust in the chef to choose your food.  You are often richly rewarded.  The chef proceeded to present a series of fishes, many of which I hadn’t had before. Given how much sushi I’ve eaten over the years, this was an accomplishment in its own right.

The most surprising dish of the night was when the chef lit a small bunsen burner, and proceeded to grill a couple of oysters on the half shell.  Before serving, he drizzled a little bit of soy and maybe some rice wine vinegar.  The dish embodied Japanese food: fresh, simple.  Every ingredient contributes something, but only 2-4 ingredients are used in all.

I can’t wait to return.

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