Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Mixed Week in Food

No pictures today as I've barely had a chance to bust out my camera recently. My food consumption this past week was like a rollercoaster, with some amazing highs and pretty unspectacular lows. Work has been super busy, keeping me at the office until 11:30pm on Monday (dinner = small salad) and Wednesday (no dinner) and until 2am last night (dinner = food I'd made for lunch but skipped eating in favor of going out with a coworker). To be honest, I wouldn't really say I had dinner on any of those three days, or at least not a proper one. I went out for lunch a few times during the week and had some pretty decent lunch specials, the best being my initiation to dosa and Indian curry. All in all, a lot of highly forgetable eating. Fortunately that was all offset by two spectacular meals to break up the mediocracy.

Last Sunday, I met up with Yuki in Ebisu to grab lunch and check out a photo exhibit that was going on. Our original plan had been to go to a highly rated Italian place that was supposed to serve up some good pizza, but we couldn't find the place. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we stumbled upon Calm Terrace. Yuki and I have are both big fans of the crazy deals you can get for weekend lunches in Tokyo (especially compared to a standard night at an izakaya) and had been talking for a while about doing less cheap eats + booze in favor of high quality lunches. I had actually found Calm Terrace, which does California-esque fusion food, online a couple of months ago but was unable to convince the college crowd back on summer break that, at the same price as a night out drinking cheap beer, it was in fact not too expensive. But as Yuki and I found ourselves wandering Ebisu unable to locate the Italian place, when Calm Terrace popped up there was no need to think about it.

It was by no means a cheap lunch and my mom will probably put her hands on her hips and frown when she finds out what it cost, but ohhhh was it good. To me, going out to eat is only worthwile if you either are comparing the dish to your homemade version to improve or if it is something you simply wouldn't be able to put together on your own. This meal definitely fell in the later category with beautifuly fresh ingredients, creative combinations, clean flavors, and elegant presentation all in a uber-chic setting. The restaurant itself is absolutely gorgeous, with clean modern lines and lots of open space. The restaurant is all one room, with a high ceiling and a small balcony (or perhaps... TERRACE...) elevated 7 or 8 feet above the maining dining area. In the back is the kitchen, which you can see into from the counter seats and is so small it probably couldn't handle a third chef, and a small bar (they seem to have a pretty good sized wine list). This is going to sound really cheezy, but it honestly was a calming place to be. Quiet, laid back, it just feels completely removed from the Tokyo hustle and bustle.

We opted for the pre-fixed course, which was made up of an appetizer, the pasta of the day, an entree, and dessert. Yuki started off with chili con carne and avacado - pizza style, which was a crispy fried tortilla topped with the best chili I have ever tasted. The sauce was a sweet cajun honey sauce that I would probably kill to get the recipe for. I went with steamed clams in white wine, a dish that I can make myself but was curious to see how they did it. The biggest difference is that they were clearly pretty generous with the olive oil for the sauce, which made mopping it up with bread at the end all the more satisfying. The pasta of the day was a thin spaghetti in meat sauce, but with the sauce using shredded white fish rather than ground beef as the meat. It was an interesting twist that made it much lighter than your standard meat sauce and kept a very basic dish from being boring. For our entrees, Yuki went with what they call Spicy Asian sauted scallops and prawns, but was really more like a light Japanese curry with scallops and prawns. The curry was absolutely amazing and the seafood cooked perfectly. Again, not a very standard combination but the execution was phenominal. I had a rare tuna steak with white sesame seeds and a sweet vinagrette sauce. Though the fish was good, it certainly wasn't the highlight of the meal. But I will forgive it, because beside the fish were two pieces of tempura, baby corn and avocado, that won me over. To me, the brilliance of using those two ingredients is all about the texture. Standard tempura is almost always the tempura shell with something moderately soft inside, but not these little bits of goodness. With the baby corn you get a crispy tempura crust wrapping even crunchy baby corn. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the avocado has the crunchy outside with a melt-in-your creamy avocado center. Simple yet brilliant and avocado is now on my list of things I will be tempura-ing for my sister when I go home this Christmas! The meal concluded with a refreshing but not terribly memorable combination of coconut ice cream and mango parfait. Though the portions at Calm Terrace are admittedly fairly small, the pacing of the meal and the number of dishes makes it feel like a huge meal and I had no complaints picking up the $70 tab. I think it took us nearly two hours to get through the whole thing, but it was a beautiful way to pace an early Sunday afternoon.

Despite the gloriousness of Sunday's lunch, terribly dull meals from Monday to Wednesday had put me in a bit of a food slump, so Thursday's dinner came at just the right time. I managed to leave the office around 6pm, the first time in quite a bit that I've gotten out while it was still light outside. The plan had been to meet up with Yuki in Gaienmae over near her office since they were having a big fireworks show at Meiji Jingu, which is really close by, then grab a bite to eat afterwords, but I was able to get out so early that we decided to get dinner first before the firework-watching masses decended on the area for post show eats. I've gotta say I would looooove to work in that part of Tokyo; it's so much more stylish and sexy than the Tokyo Station area I'm currently at, which is pretty much just a big depressing mass of Japanese salarymen. While Tokyo Station is surrounded by izakaya and the like that cater to salarymen on their way home from work, the Gaienmae/Aoyama area is loaded up with trendy little cafes and the like. Yuki lead me to one such place, Nos, a super cool place tucked just a little ways down a side street in Aoyama. We arrived at about 6:45 without reservations, but they told us they could give us a spot until 8pm. Since we planned on catching some of the fireworks action afterwards anyway, we were totally cool with that. As they showed us to our seats, it was like a progression of trendy-ness. Each floor is quite small, but different from the others and very cool. The first floor is a simple bar that only has 5 or 6 seats and standing room for 20 people max. The second floor is four small private rooms that looked like they were probably big enough for 6-8 max. The third floor was a more traditional dining room with a number of tables for 2-4 people and a huge 20 foot glass window view. But we were taken to the real money spot: the 3.5 floor loft, a private party space. Oh my was it cool. Low lit, lots of dark wood and soft lighting, I will almost certainly throw a part there at some point. And we had it all to ourselves. Niiiiiice.

The food at Nos is what generally falls into the category of 創作料理 (sousaku ryouri), or creative cooking. I guess it's sort of like fusion, with no real national identity and a focus on interesting or uncommon combinations. Yuki had a 20% off coupon, so we just ripped through the menu and ordered a bunch of stuff. We started off with Nos original cocktails, Yuki getting "Darjeeling Squash" (I think it was Darjeeling Tea and vodka) while I went with "L'azool Moni", a mysterious blue drink that I honestly could not tell you what was in but tasted good all the same. We started off with blow-your-mind good spring rolls. They were at least a full inch in diameter with huge shrimp, sweet crunch lettuce, and a few other shredded veggies wrapped up in the thinnest rice paper I've ever had. Delicious on their own, they were taken to a whole new level by the accompanying sauce. I tried so hard to identify what was in it, but in the end the only thing I could really put my finger on was ginger and something that tasted a lot like oh-so-fantastic tonkatsu sauce. Whatever it was, I would buy bottles of it if it were available in stores. That was followed by a tuna (raw of course; this is Japan) and avacado salad that was very refreshing, though the light swirl of Japanese mayo on top kinda took it down a few notches in my book. Would have been fabulous without it. From the "hot dish" part of the menu, we couldn't make up our minds, so we asked for the waitress' recommendation. She pointed us in the direction of the satsuma-age (a type of fried Japanese fish cake) which, to me, spoke volumes about the restaurant. Satsuma-age is one of the cheapest items on the menu, but she told us that it was unlike satsuma-age anywhere else and even people who usually aren't fans of satsuma-age love it. The fact that she would give us an honest opinion about what she thought was best, with no regard to how much it cost, pretty much won me over on the spot (not that the food wasn't already doing that already). Just like she said, the shrimp and basil satsuma-age was logic defyingly light and fluffy for something fried and each bite was a little bit of happiness. +100 points for creative awesomeness. Next up was crab and asparagus risotto, with crisp fresh asparagus and big chunks of crab mixed into a creamy risotto. Two things about this dish stood out to me: (1) they were generous with the crab and you could taste it. It wasn't just an ingredient in the name, it was a well represented part of the food, without overpowering the other flavors; (2) the risotto tasted like it was made with real milk. This may not sound particularly amazing to anyone in the US, but here in Japan pure milk is not all that common. Of the dozen or so brands of milk available at the grocery store, I would venture to say all but two or three of them are made of milk and 牛乳製品, or "milk products". In any case, attention was once again paid to the quality of the ingredients used and it showed. We had originally planned to end the meal there, but felt like we could go for a bit more, so we went with the boiled pork and daikon with grated daikon and ponzu citrus sauce, which Yuki had tried on a previous visit and said was really good. The dish was served cold after having been boiled until super tender. It was a pretty simple dish with a very Japanese taste to it that was light and refreshing; just the thing for a hot summer night. Thanks to the coupon, the bill came out to just over $50, which is a steal for such a big dinner and a drink.

After dinner we wandered around the area, checking out the fireworks from several different vantage points before settling down just in time to watch the big finale. To avoid the post-show crush on the subway, we decided to walk over to Akasaka and grabbed dessert at Haagen Dazs. By the end of the evening it felt like I'd done an unbelievable amount of stuff after work despite having been at the office until 6pm, which made me feel a bit of jealous towards those with more balanced work schedules and a little pang of regret for turning down exactly such a lifestyle in California. Even though I think I made the right choice coming to Tokyo, I think I will always feel a little mix of doubt and regret about what I gave up to be here. Regardless, it's the life I've chosen so all I can do is make the most of it! This coming week should be even busier than the past one, but if I can stick in a couple more of these amazing meals there will be no complaints from me!

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