Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nikko in the Fall

Fall is my favorite season of the year, with the summer’s sticky humidity giving way to cool breezes, Michigan football taking over Ann Arbor, and the leaves starting to change colors. While Tokyo benefits from the change in the weather, it is distinctly lacking in terms of both football teams and trees.

Yuki and I headed to Nikko last weekend to get away from the city for a while (I always wanted to be able to say something like that) and see the fall colors. With the scarcity of nature in Tokyo, heading out of town is the only real option for properly enjoying the season. Nikko, about a two hour train ride north, is one of the more popular destinations as it offers both World Heritage sites and a healthy dose of forestry.

The second half of October is generally thought to be peak season for fall colors in that part of the country and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Though I’m partial to the bright red color that the maple leaves turn in Michigan, the variety of shades of red, orange, and yellow leaves was quite impressive too. Unfortunately, Sunday was cold (down in the low 50s), windy, and rainy. We had set out for a walk along the coast of Lake Chuzenji, the largest lake in the area, before the rain started and, having expected the weather to be more towards the mid- to high-60s, only had a single sweater each. The rain was quite light, but combined with the air temperature and the breeze made things rather chilly.

After a couple of hours, we were getting hungry, but more than anything just wanted to get out of the cold. Looking around for a restaurant, the pickings were pretty slim and we were starting to look desperate. Then we stumbled on a little European restaurant called Cafe de Savoie that had the following sign out front:

Is roughly says: “Because each dish is made by hand, it will take time for your food to arrive. Please do not come if you are in a hurry“. Eating a slow, leisurely lunch of quality homemade food was pretty much exactly what we were looking for and, looking at the menu, the lunch prices were perfectly reasonable.

Inside, it had exactly the kind of atmosphere I would want if I were to open a restaurant. It felt very much like someone’s home, with all of the items along the walls looking like something collected rather than something bought. The restaurant had just 5 tables plus a small counter in front of the open kitchen and a staff of two: the chef and a waitress.

We arrived around 11:30ish, a little before the lunch rush, so we had the whole place to ourselves. There was a little space heater, so we stood near that after ordering in hopes of getting some feeling back in our hands and feet.

There were a couple of options for lunch, but for me there was only ever going to be one choice: oyako-don francais. Oyako-don is a standard Japanese dish made up of a layer of chicken and egg on top of rice. My mom calls it Japanese soul food. Oyako-don francais, the chef’s own creation, was a bowl of rice covered with a layer of chicken in tomato sauce, a layer of egg, and a layer of demi-glace sauce. Freakin good stuff. Warm, comforting and delicious, it captured all the traits that make oyako-don so good and put a European twist on it.

Yuki opted for the Hayashi Rice, a demi-glace like stew with beef and mushrooms. It was good too, heart warming and a little sweet, but nowhere near as good as mine.

Lunch was so good that we thought it would be a shame not to get dessert as well, especially as nothing on the dessert menu cost more than 600 yen (about $6). Yuki got a slice of chocolate cake with cassis (black currant) sauce that was absolutely incredible, practically melting in your mouth without being to rich or overly sweet. I got a slice of an apple tarte tatin with apples cooked so soft that they put up pretty much no resistance to my fork. It was gently sweet and had visible flecks of vanilla all over it. It tasted like fall.


We eventually headed back out into the cold, but the cozy restaurant and hot food helped take a lot of the edge off of it.

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