Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Japan: Photo roundup #1

Here is the first roundup of our Japan trip from a couple of weeks ago. We visited Sapporo, Otaru, Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. Although the trip was busy and we ran into a few stumbling blocks, Japan is and will always be one of my favorite places on earth and we did have a lot of fun.

1) Hot NUTS! It was my first time on business class and, being the dorky type, I was almost as excited for the flight as I was for the vacation in Japan. When the United flight attendant served me a bowl of fresh, warm nuts the minute my butt hit the seat, I was pretty much on my way to a great flight. I'm sure those of you who fly business all the time are yawning at this little tidbit, but I was as giddy as a kid in a candy store. Crunchy, salty and toasty nuts in five different varieties, plus a glass of champagne? At that moment I wished the 11 hour flight was 18 hours. *sigh*

2) Fresh fruit and yogurt. "Is this a post about JAPAN or United business class?" you're probably wondering. I promise, last photo (at least in this post) of airplane food but C'MON!!!Doesn't the deep color of those blueberries make you want to chomp your monitor right now? Again, dorkface me was utterly impressed. Woo hoo!

3) Yosakoi Soran Festival. J and I were wandering the streets of Sapporo when we thought we heard takio drums in the distance. As we walked toward the sound, we started noticing more and more people and then we pretty much ran smack into this festival which is the fusion of the Yosakoi Festival of Kochi and traditional soran folk music of Hokkaido. Tons of people danced and clapped to taiko-like beats, and we could tell that there were numerous teams, each sporting their own colorful uniforms. We found out that we were there on the second of three days, and a taxi driver informed me that on the third and final day, a winning team is announced and the whole thing is "crazy."

4) Crab at Nijo Market in Sapporo, Hokkaido. I know I had some photos of live ones in my last post, but are they not impressive?

5) Ahhh, Engrish. This is one of the best examples I've ever seen. Although it's funny at first look, it's actually quite deep if you think about it. I mean, who wants to be treated like that? I'd surely be crying if it was me.

6) Hip girl in shotengai (shopping street) in Sapporo. Fashion in Japan never fails to amaze me. You can wear pretty much whatever you like and no one even blinks an's just a form of personal expression and the majority of Japanese seem to completely accept that, which I think is fantastic!

More to come...........

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Restaurant Review: Picchu, Sapporo, Japan
The Meaning Of Restraint

I am back from my Japan trip, and it was a trip, to say the least. I’ll leave out the gory details but J ended up with a badly twisted ankle on the second day of our vacation; I decided to sprain my foot a few days after. Toss in a visit with the police (did not involve me personally but I had to play interpreter at 5:00 AM) and an earthquake which scared the living daylights out of me (I was in my high rise hotel room) and you’ve pretty much figured out that this wasn’t exactly the trip of a lifetime. However, a wacky Japan experience is better than no Japan experience, so I’ll spend the next couple of posts relaying the highlights of our trip.

One our very first day in Sapporo, we strolled around Nijo Market, famous for their bounty of locally caught seafood. We gawked over some of the biggest crabs I’d ever seen, piles of whole salmon and an array of a conch-like shellfish stuck to sides of large tanks. Almost all of the shops had lots of other local specialties like dried squid with squid ink, crab miso and even canned seal (please do not write me emails about this- I am simply making an observation!). One of the fish mongers offered to crack open a live uni (sea urchin) for us to eat and I was giddy since I’d always seen this on TV but had never tasted fresh-from-the-shell uni before. O M G- it was fresh, slightly briny and totally rich and J loved it as much as I did.

As we were walking around, J spied a teeny tiny restaurant with a sign that read “Picchu.” We peered inside to see that, at 2:00 PM, it was closed but gathered from the display of good olive oils and balsamic vinegars on the counter that it was an Italian restaurant. There was something so compelling about the bar-only restaurant that, even though it was our first day in Japan, we tossed our plans to eat sushi aside and vowed to come back for dinner.

On the way back to the hotel I picked up a few interesting food items to bring back to my friends. Sapporo is known for their food, particularly seafood, dairy, corn, ramen and potatoes. Each little shop carried the most unusual snacks showcasing these famous foods and I couldn’t resist. I bought four different flavors of caramels- corn, milk, potato and shio-ramen and decided that the corn and milk work, the other two definitely do not.

We returned to Picchu at around 7:00 PM and found the 10-seater bar half full. Since the space was so small, it was quite warm but once we opened an additional window it was quite comfortable. There was one lone chef- I’d say mid-30’s- working behind the bar in plain sight of all the customers. One very capable and polite waiter was the only other employee so he doubled as a dish washer as well between orders. We spied the specials written on a chalk board but since my Japanese reading ability is mediocre at best, we simply asked the chef to give us a tasting menu of what he recommended that highlighted the local ingredients. J went over the extremely reasonably-priced wine list and selected a bottle of Prosecco to start, then a half bottle of a red from Montepulciano.

The chef worked very steadily but calmly, and in no time we were both handed a plate with a small fish that the chef described as a tiny salmon. It was in a light broth and slightly grilled, very tender and extremely delicious. Topped with a thin slice of marinated konbu (seaweed) and a dollop of caper relish, it was the perfect compliment to our sparking wine. J and I knew at that point we were in for a treat.

The next course was a piece of homemade crab sausage made almost entirely of pure crabmeat. It, too, was lightly grilled and placed in a reduction so tasty that I almost picked up the bowl and drank every last drop. It was just so pure and beautiful in it’s simplicity and we both knew the chef was there to showcase the ingredient, which is did better than anyone I’d seen do in a long time.

I was very happy when a plate of spaghetti was the next course, since I’d been hoping for some pasta. The noodles were tossed with some good olive oil, salt & pepper and was peppered with chunks of local conch and edamame. The slight crunch of the conch came through and was mellowed by the sweet soy beans.

What came next was another dish I’d seen here and there but never eaten- uni risotto. You can only imagine how good his version, using the best local uni, tasted and I wanted to make sure to savor every last bite. This was a “wow” dish, and once again it was simple, beautiful and not overly rich.

The first of two main courses was a braised lamb, wrapped in caul fat and perched on a bed of dark green mashed local potatoes. Tender doesn’t even describe the softness of this meat that still somehow retained its meatiness. The basil-infused mashed potatoes were so fresh with herb flavor that I only wished I had more. I know, I’m gushing at this point but every single bite of every single plate to this point was so profound that we just sat there and ate in silence. I can still taste the basil in those potatoes they were so prominent yet completely melted with the flavor of the lamb.

Think it doesn’t get any better? Feast your eyes on this plate of local wagyu beef sitting in a garlic and potato puree and topped with watercress. Yes, it was as good as it looks if not even better and we both agreed that this was the absolute best thing of a fantastic meal. It was juicy and tender and everything I’d hoped real wagyu beef would taste like.

At this point one word kept popping into my head that explained clearly what this chef was all about- he was an expert in restraint. Nothing was over-sauced, over-garnished, over-thought or over-produced. It wasn’t even over-plated……..the places in which he held back made each dish perfect. Talk about an exact opposite experience of the one I had at Tojo’s in Vancouver. This chef was quiet in his perfection but modestly so- he wasn’t standoffish and answered questions we had but focused on the food and let it speak for itself. I mean, isn’t this what every food loving person in the world HOPES and dreams they will experience? The fact that we stumbled upon this nondescript place that ended up being one of the best meals we’d ever eaten made it even better. I mean, who would have known that such a small restaurant in the back alley of a fish market would be the location of what was most definitely one of the more profound dining experiences of my life eating Italian food in Sapporo?? Mind boggling, isn’t it? When I asked the chef if he’d been to Italy, he answered “No….but hopefully one day I will get the chance.” I swear it made me want to run to the local travel agent and buy the guy a ticket- I mean, if he is THIS good already could you image the insanity he would create after his maiden voyage to the country to which he pays such wonderful tribute to through his cooking?
The cost of this near-perfect, six course meal? A mere 5000 yen each for food. That's just under $50 each. It's almost a crime to eat all of the above and pay just that, don't you think?

Even though a bunch of weird things happened on this trip, our experience at Picchu made the entire trip worthwhile. There isn’t a shred of this restaurant on Google or anywhere online that I could find, and I don’t have the business card on me but once J gets back from his tour I’ll post the address.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Off to Japan for two weeks!

I am off to Japan for a two week vacation and I'm sure I will return with lots of delicious stories and photos to share with you.

We'll be visiting Sapporo, Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo so I see lots of sushi, sake, tuna toast (of course!) and tempura in our future.

Mata ne!