Crunchy Bottoms

Striking the caloric balance. Barely.

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Japan, Tokyo 2011-12: Ichiran Ramen

Ramen.

It’s the one dish to nuke your diet so far out of the water you’re going to need binoculars to see where it went.

It’s the one dish that, in my opinion, throws the entire Japanese diet into disequilibrium – one that most would consider the epitome of health and longevity. Ramen singlehandedly manages to shake all preconceived notions of the Japanese diet. It seems to exist to be a reminder that, underneath the glimmer and rosy-hued tint of squeaky cleanliness, an oddity lies, quite like Tonkatsu and Curry Rice, but none more sinful.

I shall call it the Japanese Paradox – inspired from the French Paradox (of a diet high in saturated fats but a lifespan among the top ten in the world).

Think about it. It’s a paradox! It’s baffling! The only ingredients that look remotely like dietary fibre in a bowl of ramen are the slivers of spring onions. That’s all! There should be a fourth level to the food pyramid, above all the sugary, fatty criminals. Ramen should be there – at the top.

But then there is Ichiran. And all I can say is thank heavens it’s all the way in Japan or I would bugger off the side of a building in self-despair and wanton gluttony.

I’m only saying this because, if Ichiran didn’t exist, keeping Ramen up there wouldn’t require much discipline. There just isn’t any other ramen that would make me tell my reasonable eating habits to have a vacation and never come back.

So, the usual situation: Freezing cold weather, and the prospect of having piping hot soup blipping away in the tummy.

The poison of choice: Ichiran Ramen.

I had it on my list, but with no address and barely any research on it. So when we stumbled across it on the way to Harajuku, we immediately spun around and made the detour up its steps at 11.30am before the lunch crowd poured in.

Now there is a process to Ichiran, but it’s not too difficult. Trust me.

1. Vending Machine: Choose your ramen, and any additional toppings you wish to have. (Please pick the tamago (egg). It was to die for.) Slot in your money, collect your ticket, and head on inside.

2. Direction Board of Vacant Seat (it is named as such, do not mock it): Check the board for seat vacancies. Green lights indicate vacant seats. Red indicates occupied seats.

3. Cubicle: Yes, you have a cubicle, do behave. You may unfold the partitioning if you must see your dining partner. Customise your ramen with the order sheet. Ask for an English one if it is not given to you.  Choose your Flavour Strength, Richness, Garlic, Green Onion, Roast Pork Fillet, Secret Sauce (chilli), Noodle’s Tenderness. I would recommend one full clove of garlic, and firm noodles. Cross your fingers with the chilli. I liked mine Regular.

4. Hand Order Sheet Over To The Disembodied Hands Behind Your Screen: There are wait staff scuttling back and forth behind the screens. If that unsettles you, the appearance of your bowl of ramen should appease you.

I loved every bit of my bowl of ramen. It had one of the best – if not the best – creamy tonkatsu-based broths I have tasted. My noodles came completely submerged in a generous portion of spicy soup. I was tearing and sniveling, and was probably a hideous sight to behold, but that’s what the partitions in your cubicles are for. They will not, however, give you privacy from the chorus of slurping all over the restaurant, so as with any other choir, you are expected to contribute to the chords.

Also, the tamago is served separate from the ramen, and still in its shell. I will let the picture speak for itself.

I was surprised that you can get additional noodles (buttons to order more are at your cubicle), but if you’re like me and found the broth absolutely divine, then you would have practically inhaled all of it. They do not give you additional broth, unfortunately. I polished off my bowl, and let me tell you that I do not polish off bowls of noodles. Ichiran was an experience of many firsts. I could rave, but I shan’t. Needless to say, this is ramen you mustn’t miss – not even on pain of death – when you’re in Tokyo.

Waddling out of the restaurant full and replete, we smugly squeezed past the snaking queue into the cold, stumbling down steps and feeling mightily invincible with the furnace in our bellies. Like I said previously, you can’t have this daily. Because feeling this luxurious every day would render the mysterious Japanese paradox void, and just be boring ol’ reality instead.

Ichiran Ramen

Address: Jinnan, Shibuya, Tokyo Prefecture, Japan

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Tokyo, Japan 2011-12: Sushi Zanmai

24-hour chain restaurants are deigned to be viewed with no less disdain as mass-produced pink slime.

Such places don’t seem to possess any redeeming factors. You don’t need intricate knowledge of the restaurant industry to know that the food will have been sitting limp and listless since morning, and that ‘freshness’ can – at best – only be something of a foreign concept, a level simply unattainable by chain standards.

But as with all things normally distributed, you will have the outliers, the daredevils, the reality-benders – those that are allotted the tiniest of probabilities of ever being good, but are. They exist, says statistics.

Sushi Zanmai is possibly the only 24-hour, 365-days a year sushi restaurant, with over 30 outlets scattered about.

The numbers alone inspire cynicism in me the likes of no other. But as luck would have it, I knew nothing of their business, only that its name sounded vaguely familiar, and that we were beside ourselves with hunger at 10pm, on the verge of withering in the bitter cold, and that the warm lights past the restaurant glass front was salvation.

Sushi Zanmai proved that there is hope in life, if only in Japan. This calls for rejoicing.

The menu has both Japanese and English, and although there is a kaleidoscope of unfamiliar fish, as long as you can read Pictures, you’ll be well on your way ordering up a massive amount of sushi. Don’t bother with portion control. Unless your idea of portion control is multiple orders of ten sushi at a time, then you have my green light. Other than the main menu, there is a set menu on the side entirely in – no not Pictures – Japanese, for sets that span a range up till ¥3,000. But figuring out what each set has to offer is only a matter of matching the words to the pictures on the main menu. Child’s play, I say.

Sushi is not cheaper in Japan. Sorry to have to break it to you this way. Unlike how coffee in Italy, bread and cheese in France, dim sum and congee in Hong Kong are at least half the price and double the quality, dining in Japan is at a cost only slightly less expensive than Japanese restaurants here, but at an unbeatable quality.

I had the ¥2,500 (around S$40) set of 12 nigiri that came with a bowl of miso soup. Every piece of nigiri, with the exception of the lacklustre sea urchin and rubbery herring roe, was beautifully draped atop the rice and fresh.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have the sneaking suspicion that the waters around Japan have mystical properties, ancient mumbo jumbo happening below the surface, producing not merely fish, but creatures of the culinary Atlantis. It’s easy to forget that you’re eating seafood.

The girls got themselves heaps of maguro (tuna), shake (salmon), ika (squid), hamachi (yellowtail), and waved a waitress over for another round because, much to their own surprise, they absolutely adored the tuna. While clearly not from premium maguro (usually coloured a vibrant ruby), it tasted very clean.

So yes, while I will still keep my reservations on dubious-looking 24-hour chain restaurants, Sushi Zanmai has cleared my radar with an exceptional score. I should emphasize though, that its winning element lies in how much bang for your buck you get – at any time of the day.

Although the original outlet is located at Tsukiji, the one we stumbled into was in Asakusa, where we were staying. It’s safe to assume that the Tsukiji outlet is trustworthy, but there are plenty of other outlets as listed on their website 

Sushi Zanmai

Address: Sushi Zanmai, 4-11-9 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku

+81 (0) 3 3541 1117; open daily, 24 hours.

Japan, Tokyo 2011-12: Sushi Kanesaka

I have an age-old habit of recounting things in chronological order. I have to present things sequentially. It’s rather like a form of reassurance for myself, that I haven’t left anything out, and also because I’m a stickler for build-ups and dramatic climaxes.

For the better part of the last three months, I’ve been putting this off. This was, after all, the last – but most memorable – meal I had in Japan, so it has to come after I’ve blazed through a total of three cities’ worth of blog posts, because Tokyo was my last stop. Right?

But I can’t wait. I ache, and pine, and yearn, and crave. Perhaps writing it out will soothe the gaping maw that Sushi Kanesaka has left in my chest ever since, as if being lovesick from Japan isn’t enough.

Sushi Kanesaka is a two-starred Michelin restaurant, located in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It is, almost by definition of being a famous sushi restaurant, invariably excruciating to find. So what if it’s Michelin-starred? Before the rampaging Michelin people started sweeping across Japan, these sushi joints were already popular among locals, cleverly squirreled away in basements, near car parks, office buildings, and the like. You’d need to be local to know where these ninja restaurants were.

Googlemaps is useless. Heck, Googleman, is useless. After anxiously circling blocks of buildings in Ginza, and already late for our reservation, I had to phone up the restaurant for directions. Truthfully speaking, even after that, if one my of travel companions hadn’t been able to read the Hiragana on Kanesaka’s red banner, I’m certain we would have given up and sat on the sidewalk, and I would probably have been in tears.

We even wandered down into a tiny warehouse because my frazzled brain was convinced we’d be dining among crates of fruits and sake, which doesn’t sound half bad, but unfortunately wasn’t Kanesaka. A kind Japanese man had to lead us gaijin out and point us in the right direction. Boy was that hilarious.

Perhaps calling it a sushi ‘restaurant’ isn’t quite as accurate as describing it to be more of a sushi bar. It isn’t as tiny as Sushi Saito (7 seats), but still rather small at 14 seats. To put things into perspective, I almost walked right into my seat when we slid open the wooden, rice-paper entrance door. Yep, you read it right. I opened the door, and less than an arm’s length away, was my seat. Perfectly convenient. The three of us had to shuffle around each other to get comfortable. I was also almost responsible for injuring a French customer after I sent a chopstick flying through the air in the narrow confines, but that’s another story.

Our reservation was made about 3 months in advance, done by a friend (thank you Edward!) who was doing an exchange in Japan, and who could speak the language. We had to settle for lunch instead of dinner because of our flight to catch in the evening.

Sushi Kanesaka serves their Edomae-style sushi only as omakase – a phrase which very literally means “I’ll leave it to you”, and which also means that you entrust your stomach, and wallet, into the capable hands of the chef. There is no menu. You will not know what you will get. It is a gamble, except that you can be certain that it is, at the very least, skewed in your favour at Kanesaka. I do believe that it is this silent agreement, rather like a leap of faith, that enriches the dining experience and forms an intangible bond with the chef almost immediately from the moment you quote your price. It is personal.

Their lunch omakase go for a range, at ¥8,000, ¥10,000, ¥15,000. Prices may vary according to what ingredients are available that day, but not by very much. I’ve seen other posts on Kanesaka on the web quoting different prices. Lunch will, however, always be around ¥10,000 cheaper. That’s about S$170 cheaper. My travel buddies went for the ¥10,000, while I went all out with the ¥15,000.

I won’t lie, sushi omakases are a pricey affair. Be prepared to drop at least S$150. This was a meal I had saved up, apportioned, and reserved a sum of my travel budget for. This is also, after all, a two star restaurant, not that the sushi chefs in Japan actually give a flying rat’s ass about European culinary grading or anything.

This is going to be a picture-heavy post, and possibly my lengthiest one ever, but I’m sure you’ll understand since I have 18 courses to cover. You might also want to brace yourself and grab a cup of tea or two.  Read more of this post

Aoki – Other-worldly Set Lunch

It’s a little difficult to wax lyrical about Aoki now for two reasons, the first being that this lunch was more than half a year ago, and the second being that it’ll only be about another week before I fly of to stuff my face proper with sashimi in Japan. But see, this post will never go up if it doesn’t right now, because I’m afraid Aoki will lose its charm, its Zen minimalism, its serenity, after I get back.

Aoki is under the Les Amis group of restaurants, but stands out in its austerity, and although it is situated in the row of the Les Amis Empire (as I like to call it) to the side of Shaw Centre, its easy to waltz by without a second glance, if you even gave it a glance to start with. I had to peek past the drapes, and ask if it was indeed Aoki, before proceeding into dark corridor and into its hushed interior, half expecting to be walloped over the head and taken to see the Yakuza.

I didn’t dare snap pictures of the interior. And if you’ve been in Aoki, you’d understand why. The entire restaurant seats no more than perhaps 28 people, with private rooms hidden out of sight, I’m sure. All you’ll see are three or four partitioned tables, and then the sushi counter down a short flight of steps. It’s so small that any new arrival warrants everyone’s attention. I wasn’t about to whip my camera out anytime soon.

It’s minimal, furnished in lightwood, lit mostly by the bright ochre lighting atop the counter seats, and shrouded in a reverent sort of silence. Yet, the activity is a sight to behold – hushed, diligent, confident, and directed, from wait staff and Sushi chefs alike. It’s another world, where time slows down, where you sit back and let people take care of you, and where you’ll notice thin rice cloths hanging from the ceiling, swaying lightly in gentle drafts.

I made reservations a few days in advance for lunch, where their lunch sets go for $35++ in contrast to their dinners that rocket past $100. I’d advise that you do, for the counter seats especially, because these seats give a show more spectacular than a conveyor belt of listless-looking sushi. You see the chefs in action, blowtorches blazing, razor-sharp knives deftly slicing equally portioned slices of sashimi from slabs of fish, and the swift, almost effortless formation of sushi. It’s $35++ for amazing quality food, and meal-time entertainment. You don’t get that at many places.

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