Sunday, May 21, 2006

More About Food (of course)

Back in March, my friend Miyuki took me to a wonderful French restaurant (Japanicized of course, much as ethnic food restaurants in America are Americanized), and I never got around to writing about it--but it was interesting, so here it is. We walked down a narrow alley, and entered a yellow door that didn't seem much different from other doors nearby. The small windows were curtained, so one could not see in from the alley, and there were no food photos, or rubberized food displays to show that this was a restaurant. I never would've gone on my own!

The whole place could have fit in my living room back home, I think. It was really small! There were perhaps seven little bitty tables crammed into this tiny area, and a high counter separated the dining room from the narrow galley kitchen. The "decor" consisted of dusty, mis-matched 1980s-style cutesy kitchen stuff...a ceramic goose with a bonnet, whose back was hollowed out as a planter for a plastic philodendron, a framed "antique" print of a rooster, several framed prints of seed packets, an enamelled iron silhouette of a barn, a plastic pig on a little scroll-work shelf, some blue and white china egg cups, etc. Different colored gingham and calico fabric had been attached to small folding screens to give the tables a little privacy from one another. The clientele consisted of a pair of VERY elegant, elderly Japanese ladies sipping tea (I haven't seen very many of this rare type, but once in a while I run into that Japanese lady of a certain age who leaves the Parisians in the dust when it comes to elegance!) and two businessmen in three piece suits having a heated conversation. Miyuki ordered for both of us...the cheapest meal on the menu at 1350 yen (about $11). Turns out it's a four course meal, and one makes two choices--meat or fish, and bread or rice. Miyuki told me the bread was squishy white rolls, not crusty French bread, so we both chose the short-grain rice. We were both given water and green tea, of course.

The courses arrived one after the other, and were simply astonishing, each on a spectacularly beautiful piece of gilded Noritake china, not one of which matched any other piece on our table or on anyone else's table. We each got a bowl of corn and onion soup, with a milky sea-flavored broth, in little bowls with double elbow handles. Then we each got a spectacularly beautiful salad of one leaf each of about eight different baby lettuces, a slice of smoked goose, a piece of smoked salmon, and a single little silvery fish (filleted and without its head, but with tail, backfin and silvery skin intact), with a drizzle of a very light French vinaigrette. Our main courses came on two plates (which we shared--Miyuki got meat, I chose seafood), each with about ten different single bites of things. Mine had scallops with salmon caviar and thinly sliced marinated baby eggplant, a shrimp coiled around a teeny spoonful of black caviar, a single steamed crab claw, two different slices of cold seafood terrine, a piece of amazingly tender swordfish, a single large oyster with some sort of sauce on top that had been run under a was amazing! And on the meat plate, I had no IDEA so many different, unique things could be done with beef! Each individual thing was a completely different, completely astonishing preparation. I was grateful for the rice, and took a bite in between each selection, so I could "clear my palate" and taste everything without mixing it all up! And then there were teeny cups of very strong coffee, and a little bowl of about six dessert bites. My favorite was a little tiny ball of kiwi sorbet. Next time, I will have to take pen and paper and make better notes! And if this amazing meal was the least expensive thing on the menu, what in the WORLD could the fancier meals entail??

Miyuki also took me to an Italian restaurant about a week later, and was curious to know if I'd ever tried pizza or spaghetti. That made me smile, as we Americans tend to be proprietary about Italian food, as if the Americanized stuff we get in Italian restaurants was our property somehow, and it didn't occur to me that there would be Italian (or French, or Greek) restaurants in Japan. Duh! Miyuki ordered for us both again, and we shared a small pizza with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil...very flat and slightly crispy and not at all like Pizza Hut. We also shared a small plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, which was pretty ordinary to my eyes--except of course for the Japanese slurping that seems to accompany all noodle dishes, and the fact that it was not the gigantic platter-sized American serving with more meat than pasta! My favorite was a dish of baked risotto, studded with bits of squid and shiitake mushrooms. Yum!

And of course, we've hit her favorite sushi-go-round, where each dish costs 89 yen (about 75 cents) and each holds two nice-sized pieces of sushi. We were both stuffed, and I think we spent less than $15 total! Remember, there is no tipping in Japan, and green tea is almost always free. At the sushi-go-round there were spigots every few feet along the counter, sort of like the levers you push with your glass to get soda or ice. These spigots dispense boiling water, so you can make your own green tea. The tea is not in bags, or even loose leaves--instead, there is a lidded container every couple of feet along the counter, filled with very fine, dark olive-colored, powdered green tea, and a teeny, tiny spoon for dispensing it. It was all so delicious! My favorite new dish was herring roe--the Japanese name of which means literally "Many Children"! There were four or five kinds of sushi that Miyuki called "shells" meaning they were some sort of shellfish. I had two different kinds, and though it was chewy, it was delicious. It wasn't scallops or clams or oysters..maybe some sort of whelk or conch?

I'm enjoying restaurants in Japan!

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