Archive for ramen

Tokyo – Shinjuku – Noodles and Jazz in Golden Gai

Posted in Golden Gai, Japan, Kanto, Shinjuku, Tokyo with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2019 by gannet39

Shinjuku is a great neighbourhood for eating and drinking and I had one of the best experiences of my trip there in Golden Gai, an old entertainment district in a tiny grid of streets just a few blocks away from the east exit of Shinjuku station.

My Google map here.

When you walk the streets of Golden Gai you’re effectively stepping back in time to how Tokyo used to be before the Japanese economic miracle happened in the 1950s. Many of the buildings that line the narrow alleys are wooden, two-storey constructions that date from that time.

To get there you might walk through the brash neighbourhood of Kabukicho, once the theatre district but now a red light area (without the red lights) and a Yakuza stronghold.

Ignore the bright lights of the so-called Robot Restaurant and the automatons outside it.

I’m sure their nightly shows are quite a spectacle (from 1.15) but my advice is keep your head down and keep walking till you get to Golden Gai.

In the 1980s there were several attempts by the Yakuza to burn Golden Gai down so that it could be developed in the same way as the modern blocks that surround it. The locals prevented it from happening by organising themselves to keep watch on their buildings at night.

Mine and Shinsaku’s reasons for being here were the same as usual; ramen and music.

Nagi (Elementary A), 1 Chome-1-10 Kabukichō, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160-0021, www.n-nagi.com

Ramen shops are by nature small, seedy affairs, in fact their lack of refinement seems almost a prerequisite for good noodles and Nagi is no exception. As with all good noodle shops there is a queue which in this case was down a very narrow side alley. There was a small trickle of ‘water’ of some undefined origin running down the middle of it which you have to straddle.

The front of the queue is by the door where you can make your selection using a vending machine. Just above your head the staff have improvised a loudspeaker made from a funnel and some plastic tubing.

When it’s your turn to come up a staff member will shout down the funnel for the next person to come up the narrow treacherous staircase to the tiny eight-seat noodle shop on the second floor.

The house speciality is Niboshi Rāmen. Niboshi are small dried sardines that are used to flavour the broth, a ramen style typical of Aomori prefecture in the north of Honshu (the big, central Japanese island). I’m guessing that here this broth is mixed with other broths like chicken (torigara) or pork (tonkotsu) to give more depth of flavour.

If the fish taste isn’t strong enough you could always add some niboshi flavoured vinegar.

Another unusual aspect of this bowl is that besides the chunky noodles you also get some large, broad, pasta-like flaps in there as well. Very unusual indeed but all very tasty (B+).

So if you want atmosphere with your ramen then look no further. It’s open 24 hours apparently. Learning the letters for ‘ramen’ ラメん will help you find the shop.

After eating we went on a hunt for music and liquor. As I mentioned there are about two hundred bars to choose from in Golden Gai, each specialising in a certain musical niche like punk, country, electronic or in our case jazz. Many of the bars can only seat about six people and only cater for their regulars. The owners will most likely let you know when you come in if they can accommodate you or not and will charge non-regulars a cover charge.

I can’t remember the name or address but we found a place playing classic jazz up another narrow staircase. Unlike JBS in Shibuya there was no vinyl on the shelves, just CDs, but hundreds of them.

Our host was gruff but hospitable. Still I was thankful of having Shinsaku with me to smooth the way.

We sat huddled at one end of the bar drinking rum and coke for a couple of hours listening to some great music most of which we’d never heard before.

The CD cases were passed from customer to customer to be read and appreciated.

Albums we heard included ‘Indeed’ by the trumpet player Lee Morgan, ‘Spirit of Django’ by guitarist Martin Taylor and ‘We Get Requests’ by the Oscar Peterson Trio.

And that was pretty much a perfect night out for me (I’m an easy date). I loved it so much that next time I go to Tokyo I’m going to get the nearest AirBnB to Golden Gai.

Here are some suggestions from Rough Guide for other bars to try in in the area.

Despite its ramshackle appearance, Golden Gai isn’t particularly cheap which is kind of understandable as it must be hard for the business owners to make ends meet when their shops are so small. If you don’t fancy ramen and want to save money on food, you could go to the infamous Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho aka ‘Piss Alley’ instead. Doesn’t sound great does it but this is another patch of narrow alleys around Shinjuku station that’s stuffed with yakitori and noodle bars. Again, very atmospheric at night and very cheap. I went a couple of decades ago but can’t personally vouch for anywhere in particular. Eat Like A Girl has a suggestion for Soba and Udon Tempura though.

If you are passing through the east exit of Shinjuku station, keep an eye out for this place…

Bake Cheese Tart (Initial A), 〒160-0022 Tōkyō-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku, 3 Chome−38, 新宿3-38-1ルミネエスト1F cheesetart.com

Originally from Sapporo in Hokkaido but now international, these awesome little tarts are filled with a mousse made from three kinds of cheese; a full-bodied one from Betsukai, in eastern Hokkaido; a mild-flavoured one from Hakodate, in the south of the island and a salty French fromage to round it out.

The mousse fills a pastry cup made from cookie dough which is twice-baked and the tart is served hot from the oven. They’re extremely moreish so I advise you to buy two per person. Unfortunately, they also taste good eaten cold or reheated under a grill. Expect a bit of a queue (see the floor diagram in the pic above) as the tarts are a very popular Omiyage item.

The next stop on my tour of the Yamanote line is Ginza!

Tokyo – Eating Ramen and Tonkatsu in Meguro

Posted in Japan, Kanto, Meguro, Tokyo with tags , , , , on January 7, 2019 by gannet39

It’s all about the ramen noodles and pork cutlets in this post.
For more food in Meguro see the next post on restaurants and yakitori in Nakameguro.
All these places are on this map.

Another reason I chose my AirBnB was that it was right next door to this branch of a famous ramen chain…

Ramen Jiro (Elementary B+), 3 Chome-7-2 Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tōkyō-to 153-0063

As Jiro opens at midday I thought that I’d be straight in if I arrived at 12.30. No such luck as all the seats were full and a dozen or more people (all blokes; students and workers) were waiting patiently in a line outside.

This seemed to be the case whenever I walked past, whatever time of day or night it was.

It’s definitely a good sign because it means the ramen is worth waiting for. Unlike European diners, Japanese ramen-ya customers will quickly eat and go, so you won’t be hanging around for too long, which is a good job as there are only seven seats in Jiro.

I was surprised by how much spoken Japanese I had remembered after so many years without using it but I’d virtually forgotten how to read. This meant I couldn’t understand the buttons on the vending machine or work out what the six varieties on offer actually were. Most times, if you press the first button it will most likely be the most popular one. However if there’s no machine, just say ‘osusume?’ to the chef which politely means ‘recommend’).

I watched a few other customers making their choices and went with the most popular button. After putting my 500 yen coin in the slot I got a blue plastic token in return. When it was finally my turn to squeeze onto a stool at the cramped counter, I handed the token over to the chef without a word being exchanged.

The ramen was fantastic; big chunky bread flour noodles swimming in a powerful pork and soya sauce stock, topped with two hefty slabs of cha siu pork, pork fat, cabbage, bean sprouts and two big dollops of raw garlic.

The preparation and presentation was very rustic with zero finesse, but it packed a powerful punch and was heaven in a bowl as far as I was concerned.

Extra toppings are free but it was a hefty enough portion for me.

Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto Meguro (Elementary B+), 〒141-0021 Tōkyō-to, Shinagawa-ku, Kamiōsaki, 2 Chome−13−45 トラストリンク第3ビル1F moukotanmen-nakamoto.com

Another famous ramen shop, in a side street near the Meguro JR station. The fiery red shopfront serves as a warning as Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto is famous for its hot spicy ramen.

Nakamoto is the name of the original owner who retired and sold the business to a regular who had been a faithful customer for twenty years. With the shop came the secret recipe for Nakamoto’s spicy ramen.

The vending machine has heaps of options but fortunately they have English menus here as well.

I had the Gomoku Mouko Tanmen ramen; a miso (bean paste) tanmen (chicken) broth served with cabbage, carrot, scallions, beansprouts, Chinese mushrooms, tofu, boiled eggs, negi (Japanese leek) and plenty of Chinese chilli. It was by no means the hottest (the Hokkyoku ramen is the shop’s most fiery bowl) but it was still pretty feisty.

I went for the ‘kaedama’ option; an extra portion of noodles to add to the remaining broth when you’ve finished the first lot. I love spicy ramen (if it’s avaialbe, my usual order is ramen with extra kimchi; fermented Korean chilli cabbage) so this went down very well with me (B+).

Tonki (Intermediate A), 1 Chome-1-2 Shimomeguro, Meguro, open 4pm-10.45pm, closed Tuesday and third Monday of the month

This shop is one of the best places in Tokyo to eat Tonkatsu, a breaded cutlet similar to Wiener Schnitzel or Cotoleta Milanese except that it uses pork rather than veal which is a rare meat In Japan (and not to be confused with Tonkotsu, a type of ramen broth).

Customers eat at the long bar which surrounds the pristine open plan kitchen. Chefs in white wellies expertly perform their stage of the production process in full view of the diners.

I had the tonkatsu served as part of Teishoku, that is as a set meal with the holy trinity of sides; boiled rice, miso soup and pickles (cucumber and giant radish). Teishoku began at Zen Buddhist temples and slowly spread to the restaurant industry.

There are two options on the menu; ‘rosu’ (fatty belly meat) or ‘hire’ (lean loin). Trying to be health conscious I went for the loin which I regretted as it didn’t have quite as much flavour as I was hoping for. It was still very good though (B+).

The best accompaniment for me is a cold bottle of Sapporo beer.

More food in Nakameguro next!

New York – Manhattan – Ramen Bars

Posted in Manhattan, United States of America with tags on January 21, 2017 by gannet39

Ramen is one of the things I love most in life and NYC, with its large Japanese community, is a great place to eat it. These are some of the best places I went to:

Totto Ramen (Low Intermediate A+), 366 W 52nd St, www.tottoramen.com

This place in Hell’s kitchen was my favourite. The service is good and the ramen broth is excellent and quite unusual (A).

I had the Pork Miso Paitan which consisted of wavy noodles with ground pork, half boiled egg, scallions, bean sprouts, onions, char siu pork, topped with Koji miso bean paste.

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Paitan translates as ‘milky broth’. The fat and collagen from animal bones (probably chicken and pork) give it an opaque milky white colour and a viscous taste in the mouth.

Koji refers to the culture, aspergillus oryzae, which is a time honored means of fermentation in Japan.

With a bottle of my favourite Japanese beer, Sapporo Black Label, I was in heaven.

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Ippudo Ramen (Low Intermediate A), 65 4th Ave, www.ippudony.com

Part of an international chain, this place in the East Village is one of the best ramen bars in town and very popular. To beat the queues I arrived at 11.30 on a weekday but I would have still been okay if I’d arrived at 12.

I had the Shiromaru Hakata Classic; a tonkotsu (pork bone) broth with cha siu pork loin, sesame kikurage mushooms, scallions, menma and red pickled ginger. It was fantastic; top notch stock and quality cha siu pork (A).

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Kikurage are also known as Cloud Ear mushrooms and are very common in Chinese cuisine. Menma are fermented bamboo shoots.

The Brooklyn draught beer served here is good but a bit pricey at $6 for a half.

Ippudo is definitely worth coming to but Totto is better in my opinion.

Sapporo Ramen (Low Intermediate B+), 152 W. 49th St, www.sapporo-nyc.com

This place in Midtown is also well renowned. I had the Chashu Miso Ramen with cha siu pork, minced pork, sweet corn, scallions, bean sprouts and nira leek (garlic chives) with extra Thai chilli, which was very good (B+).

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Unfortunately the Gyoza I had on the side let the side down as they were a bit cold (B).

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Also the Sapporo draught had a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste (B-).

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There are of course many more great ramen bars in town. If you type ‘ramen’ into the search box of my Google map, you’ll get a few more.

Snacking in Sao Paolo

Posted in Brazil, Downtown, Jardim Paulistano, Liberdade, Sao Paolo with tags , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2012 by gannet39

Just a short stay 36-hour stay here unfortunately, which hardly did the place justice.  Sao Paolo  is a huge mega polis, the main business hub for the entire continent.  Even flying over the city seems to take ages, so you can imagine what the traffic is like.

Freeway

Unlike Buenos Aires or Rio, there doesn’t seem to be much of a grid system and it’s basically a huge maze of traffic-packed streets.

Lazy Sunday

 

I stayed at the cheap and cheerful but fairly central EZ Aclimacao Hotel at 668 Av. Armando Ferrentini, near Avenida Paulista. I didn’t have enough time to research a good place to eat so I went for the nearest one to the hotel that was listed in Frommer’s  top ten restaurants. Ideally I would have liked to get in at Jun Sakamoto’s famous Sushi restaurant but he only has 8 tables and likes to hand pick his customers. So instead I plumped for…

Antiquarius (Advanced A-), 1884 Alameda Lorena, Jardim Paulistano, SP, Tel 11 3082 3015

This place specialises in Portuguese cuisine (lots of codfish) and I would have preferred somewhere with more local food but I went as it was relatively near the hotel. It still took me nearly an hour though due to the Saturday evening traffic! It was a bit of a mistake to come here really as it’s very formal and they charge a small fortune for food which would be a fraction the price in Portugal. Still, the food is very good.

Antiquarias

The service is pretty OTT and I had to deal with separate waiters for my aperitif (a very stiff Caiparinha (A)) food, wine, water and bread but eventually it settled down to just one guy. He was a Portuguese chap who spoke good English and who I presumed had escaped the economic woes at home to come and work in the former colony. The irony is very poignant. Surely no two countries have ever reversed roles so completely.

Several small plates of starters arrived first, which I presumed were only charged if you ate them. I scoffed the lot! They included pate, soft cheese (these first two being replenished if you finished them), garlic bread, three kinds of fritters (salt cod, fish and cheese), something non-descript I couldn’t discern. I doused the fritters in ladles of small hot peppers in olive oil from the small pot on the table.

Starters

I quite liked the soundtrack too, a breathy female vocal singing such classics as ‘I’ve got you under my skin’, ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Come Fly With Me’. It got me humming anyway.

For my main I went for the steak with French fries and white rice.  This involved a very tender and bloody slab of beef (A+) with a brown gravy-like sauce (which the waiter could only tell me included herbs) and lattice chips (B). I had to remind them about the plain rice (B) I was craving, and which was the only reason I’d ordered the dish in the first place. I despair of my contradictory habits sometimes. I have a huge desire to go out and eat but often only want the simplest fare when I get there.

Steak

I still had half an imported bottle of average Vale de Mina red (B) so I asked for a little cheese to go with it. I got two large ice cream scoops of powerful ewe’s cheese which I could only manage a few small slithers of because the taste was so pungent(C+). I would love to be able to eat this stuff but I really don’t think it agrees with me. I nearly had a whitey once eating something similar in Paris whilst sipping strong wine and sitting in the sun.  I’m sure the cheese was the prime culprit.

Super strong ewes cheese

My man kindly replaced it with a plate of Quejo Casteloes, which had been heated in the oven till it had a consistency similar to molten Mozzarella, very stringy and totally delicious (A).

Quejo Casteloes

The restaurant was heaving now so I vacated the table and went over the street to the Cuban cigar bar for a bit of secondary smoke and a couple more Caipirinihas.

The next morning I met my old friend Elcio and his lovely wife Mae, who took me out for the day. I had a great experience of SP thanks to them.

We went for a walk around the ‘old’ downtown financial district of Sao Paolo which was pretty much deserted on a Sunday (though the streets were still heaving with traffic). It’s a bizarre mix of architecture with Gothic churches neighbouring art deco apartment blocks.

Downtown

Mainly though it’s all soaring New York style office buildings cluster around a couple of small parks and pedestrianised zones.

Skyscrapers

Some of the oldest buildings in the city are here but few of them have made it to a hundred years yet.

There are still a few nice ones though, like the Teatro Municpal,  which is modeled on the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. You can apparently get guided tours of the building but you have to book ahead so we missed out unfortunately.

Theatro Municipal

LampostThe original financial district has been relocated now and the streets are heavily populated by large numbers of homeless people and ‘Oxi‘ addicts, either passed out on the pavement or walking around like zombies. It’s definitely not a place to come at night but we didn’t have any problems in the daylight.

We also took in the museum in the square of Pateo do Collegio, which is considered to be the original spot the city was founded on in 1554. The small museum has some interesting displays showing the growth of the city, and a collection of church artefacts. You have to pay in but it’s not much.

We also stopped in at the cathedral, a neo-Gothic pile of stone much like any other.

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The only item on display in the very plain interior was a glass case inexplicably containing a flagrum whip!

Pigeon apostles

In front of the church is the Praca de Se with a statue of Padre Jose de Anchieta, a Jesuit missionary who was one of the founders of both Sao Paolo and Rio.

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This area is as historical as it gets in SP.

The highlight for me however was the Mercado Municipal, an old European style market in the heart of the downtown.

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The ground level of the huge central hall is a mix of greengrocer’s stalls stacked with huge piles of exotic fruit…

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Exotic fruit

…Italian delis with hanging displays of sausages and cheeses… Italian deli

Deli Italiano

Ham vendorBike deliverySausage stand

 

Oil stall

…and a multitude of butchers and fishmongers who are gathered together in various corners.

Mystery meat

One dried cod stall had the biggest fillets of bacalhau , I’d ever seen, about a metre long. It was labelled Gadus Morhau aka Atlantic cod, and so must have been imported from Norway.

Cod fish

On the first floor is the restaurant area with two blocks of cafes and snack bars and seating for probably about a thousand people. Elcio told me there were two classic Sao Paulo snacks I should try in order to become an honorary Paulista (someone from the state of SP, which includes Paulistanos, people from SP city itself). I couldn’t choose between them so the solution was to have both!

First off was the scrumptious Pasteis de Bacalhau, a deep-fried pasty stuffed with salt cod, sliced olives and parsley, something I’d had in Rio but is particularly well known here (A). Italian Brazilians say that the flat, envelope-like pasteis or pastel and the more bulbous fogazza were both derived from Italian calzone. Others say that it was the Issei (Japanese immigrants) who adapted Chinese wontons for sale on the street. Still others say that they are derived from Indian samosas. Anyway wherever it’s from, everyone eats it because it’s delicious.

Pasteis de Bacalhau

Greedily I followed up with the legendary Mortadella Sanduiche, a hot baguette containing about twenty wafer thin slices of Mortadella (lard laced sausage, originally from Bologna), and provolone cheese, tomate caqui (‘persimmon’ tomato which we just call a salad tomato), oregano, lettuce and rocket. With a cold beer to go with it, this was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had (A+).

Mortadella Sanduiche

I didn’t know at the time but my food hero Anthony Bourdain filmed this fabulous sandwich for one of his No Reservations programmes (the sandwich is about four minutes in).

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After these starters we walked a short distance to Liberdade, aka Japan town. Sao Paulo has the biggest expat Japanese community in the world and in this neighbourhood there are several streets of Japanese shops and restaurants.

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I first came to Liberdade late at night in 2006 when Elcio took me for sushi in the early hours of the morning. The place he took me to is seared on my brain forever. As soon as you come in the entrance, you are immediately on the dance floor which, on the night I went, had several multi-racial couples (many mismatched in terms of height) close dancing feverishly to what Elcio described as Brazilian country and western music. Over to one side was the bar where a midget sushi chef was standing on a box and jigging around to the music while simultaneously moulding rice balls and raw fish. The back half of the room was a pool hall with an array of other unusual characters knocking balls around on the baize. All in all, one of the most bizarre restaurant atmospheres I’ve ever been in.

We sat down and I was introduced to the Mamasan who took our order (in Japanese);  a large wooden model boat crammed with the finest raw fish I’d had since I lived in Japan. That experience totally won me over to Brazil. Why live in conservative Japan when you could experience their fantastic food culture in much more relaxed social surroundings? Brazil has it all!

I was hoping we could go back there this time but there were so many other, equally enjoyable, things on offer that we didn’t have time.

On this muggy Sunday afternoon, we started off at the open food air market in Liberdade where there were many more multicultural examples of Brazilian food fusion. One stall was selling fogazza (deep-fried dough balls with fillings such as palm heart or ‘Calabrese’, a spicy sausage with origins in southern Italy) alongside Swiss crepes and ice cream tempura!

Crazy fusion

A lot of it looked pretty ropey to be honest so I saved my appetite for a proper restaurant, which prompted a debate about whether to eat Chinese, Japanese or Korean food, all of which was available in top quality.

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The choice was left to me in the end, and there could only be one…

Aska Lamen Bar, 466 Rua Galvao Bueno, Libertade, Tel: 3277 9862 (no reservations)

Ramen (also spelt Lamen) is one the food I miss most from the time I lived in Japan and I jumped at the opportunity to have it again as I’ve have never found a satisfactory place in the UK. This place is the real deal and has a great reputation, so there a small crowd waiting with us on the pavement for the shutter to come up at 6pm. On other days apparently there can be long lines along the street.

Aska Lamen bar

Mae told me that the old guy who ran it had gone to Japan to study how to make Lamen after he had retired from working all his life in a big company. He obviously does it for love as his prices are amazingly low when he could charge a lot more. You’d think he’d be taking it easy now but he’s there every day, working away in the kitchen with his chefs.

I had the Miso Tonkatsu Ramen (bean paste and roast pork) with a portion of Kimchi (fermented Korean chilli cabbage)  The noodles were thinner than I’m used to, like vermicelli, and you had to eat them extra fast before they get too soggy. Japanese people slurp their soup noodles loudly, which makes them taste better due to the intake of oxygen, as well as cooling them down. The stock is the key to a good ramen (many of the best places in Japan have secret recipes) and this pork-based broth totally hit the spot for me (A).

Pork tonkatsu

We also shared two great portions of Gyoza (steam fried dumplings), one pork filled (A+), the other veg (B+). Both had a delicate skin which had to be treated very gently to maintain their structural integrity when dunked in the dipping bowl of soya sauce and chilli oil. An ice cold bottle of Brahma completed one of my favourite meal combinations of all time. Pure heaven.

Pork and veg gyoza

Sadly this was the end of our little tour as we all had to make our various ways home. Every time I’ve been to SP I’ve eaten fantastically well, which might justify Paulistano claims to have the best food and restaurants in the country. Mae and Elcio did their best to prove this theory correct. Thanks guys, it was great! X

Elcio & Mae

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