Whereas in the US, Valentines Day is usually all about guys buying chocolates and flowers for girls, but they do things a little different here. In Japan, without exception, Valentines Day is a day for girls to give chocolate (often homemade) to guys they like and guys are expected to do absolutely nothing. Instead, exactly one month later, on March 14th, they have White Day, which is the exact opposite of Valentines Day, i.e. guys give chocolate to girls they like.
On Valentines Day this year, Yuki took me out for a really nice of creative Italian food, made me chocolates, and cooked me a multi-course dinner. All very good stuff. So the bar was set pretty high for White Day.
I started things off with breakfast. First came french toast, soaked in whole milk, eggs, sugar and amaretto (Yuki is a fan), then sprinkled liberally with brown sugar and cinnamon before being fried in butter. You can buy bread cut super thick here and I used a loaf with nearly inch thick slices. Douse it with maple syrup and it's hard to tell whether you've made breakfast or dessert. To blur the lines even further, I followed it up with chocolate covered strawberries (fruit is an important part of a balanced diet!)
We lounged around for a couple of hours to give our stomachs a chance to catch up. There was still plenty of eating yet to come.
For lunch, we headed to Naka Meguro, in the South-West corner of Tokyo. Yuki had recently expressed interest in North African food, so I'd found a place that specialized in Moroccan cooking. Bistro Khamsa is located right next to the Meguro River in a very beautiful (and hip) part of town. All those trees lining the river are sakura (cherry blossoms) and will be blooming in the next couple of weeks. Even without the flowers, it was a pretty scenic spot.
The restaurant is a small place on the 5th floor of a building overlooking the river. There are table seats for 12 plus counter seats for 4 more, but that's it. From what we saw, the staff consisted of two waiters and two cooks. It is full of ceramics and small items that, as far as I could tell, seemed to be from Morocco. By far the coolest part was the lights hanging from a big mirror on the ceiling. The general feel of the place was pretty bistro-like (or at least, what I would imagine bistros should be like).
Normally when we get a lunch like this we'll have a cocktail or glass of wine to go with it but, far more appealing, they had mint tea. Yuki is a HUGE tea drinker so it was a must have. Mint can be a strong and overpowering flavor but, after dissolving a sugar cube in each glass, it was an awesome combination of sweet and refreshing.
On weekends, they offer a 3 course lunch which consists of an appetizer, a main dish, and dessert. When we go out for lunch, we always make sure to order different things so that we can share and try as many dishes as possible. For my appetizer, I went with a Toulouse-style sausage and Yuki got a vegetable soup. The sausage was handmade and delicious, served with a sweet vegetable puree (I think it might have had apple in it too) and a light salad. Yuki's soup was, unfortunately, rather uninspired. That's not to say it wasn't good, but it tasted like a simple soup that you can get at any of a million places. It wasn't on the same level as the rest of the food we got there.
For the main dish, I went with chicken confit, served with green beans and scalloped potatoes. A confit is basically a piece of meat braised in its own fat (kind of like a half way point between regular braising and deep frying). Once the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender (and this was), it is seared in a hot pan or oven to make the outside golden and crispy. I'm sure it's terribly unhealthy, but damn was it good. Healthy eating is important and all, but sometimes exceptions need to be made. An added surprise was the scalloped potatoes, which were also phenomenal. They were so good I could have sworn I was eating my mom's. If I closed my eyes, it was like being at home again. Big thumbs up. Yuki got a lamb stew with couscous which was quality stuff as well. The stew was full of chunks of lamb, carrots, celery, and some kind of bean, cooked in a broth with coriander seed, anise, and cumin, which I have read are common spices in North African cooking. The broth was delicious and the lamb practically fell apart in your mouth. It was so good I've decided to start looking up some recipes to see if I can't recreate something similar myself.
Finally, for dessert, I ordered a pudding, which was cute and tasty, but nothing to write home about. Simple but good. Yuki got "fromage blanc" with a fig compote. I don't know what I was expecting "fromage blanc" to be (it means "white cheese" in French), but what came out was somewhere between a cream cheese a yogurt. It was a little richer and thicker than most yogurt, but still had that slight sour tang that yogurt has. Interesting, but again good not great.
Our stomachs full (again), we wrapped up the meal with a cup of coffee, served in really cool little mugs. It came with real cream, not milk or little imitation-cream packets, which was a really nice touch.
It was a beautiful sunny day, so we took a walk around Naka Meguro and Daikanyama, the district next to it, to enjoy the good weather and work off some of the many calories we had just consumed. Somewhat counterproductively, we stopped in Dix Neuf Cent Quatre, a little bakery that has a pretty good reputation. One of the coolest things about the store is that they had an open workshop in the back where they prepared their cakes and desserts that you could see into. We were still pretty full, so we just picked up a couple little small goodies to go. We took them to a park at the top of a hill in Daikanyama with a pretty good view and enjoyed them while soaking up some sun.
After wandering around a bit more, we headed back to Yuki's place to relax a bit before dinner. Oh yes, there was still more food on the agenda.
First, a made a red shrimp chowder with corn that I'd seen on a blog I follow. The author had raved about how good it was (though bloggers are prone to that regardless) and it looked like it would go well with the rest of the meal I had planned. You know what: it was every bit as good as she said it would be. It was one of the best things I've cooked in recent memory and I only regret that I waited this long to try it. I had shelled 40 shrimp for this dish and another (1/3 of the shrimp went into the chowder) and had the shell left from a crab I'd cooked the other night (a story for another day), so I simmered those to make a seafood broth while I chopped up potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. It's a fairly simple recipe with all sorts of little tricks that make it so great. Things like smashing some of the potatoes to thicken the soup, red pepper flakes to give it a little kick, and fresh basil at the end to liven it up a little more. Really the only downside was that I made far too much of it. It could easily have fed 4 and would have been enough for 6 as an appetizer. Unfortunately, it was so good we ended up eating most of it anyways. I suppose there are worse problems one could have...
Yuki is a big fan of Spain, having studied Spanish for several years including a study abroad there, so for the main course I decided to make paella. One of my mom's former clients had moved to Spain and sent her two containers of saffron, one of which she let me have. I had the rest of the shrimp, plus I'd picked up some chorizo and small-neck clams (I'd wanted mussels, but they sold out before I got there two days in a row...) This was my first time making paella and I had high hopes. I have only actually eaten it on a couple of occasions, so am by no means an expert, but can assure you that this was an epic failure. I probably needed to cook the rice longer because it ended up being pretty soggy, bordering on a risotto-abomination. Not cool.
But just when all seemed lost, I pulled out my ace and saved the day. Creme brulee suckas. One of Yuki's favorite desserts. Complete with the freakin blowtorch and everything.
Despite a couple hiccups here and there, it was a great day and I think she was pleased with it too. I didn't buy her a box of fancy chocolates or Pierre Hermes macaroons like most of the 20-something guys in Tokyo do, but I think this was more personal and showed her that I cared in my own sort of way.