Jan 12, 2011

in which i manage not to miss dinner

1/12/2010: darryl sends further details and corrections, now seamlessly incorporated below.

the best meal in tokyo was also the most interesting, the best value (by a long shot), the last, and the one i came close to bailing on to take a nap.

darryl and saemi skipped a day of work to bring me around suburban tokyo. we had breakfast and lunch in yoyogi-uehara, a tiny cluster of low-rise residential neighbourhoods near shibuya that is the improbable home to at least five orthopedic surgeries, three boulangeries, one patissier, and a homestyle japanese restaurant masquerading as a bhutanese diner. eventually, we ended up back in the city center, at a smoky coffee shop called saboru in jimbocho drinking indifferent but very expensive coffee and watching the bar staff dry saucers very efficiently.*

i was getting sleepy and tried to beg off dinner way out in the west in asagaya, but darryl kept on my case. eventually we jumped on the tozai line out to asagaya, and then into the warren of streets surrounding the station. 水鳥屋 鶴に橘 is the name (i'm incompetent at reading hiragana or romanising kanji), and apparently it's been open less than a year. the inside has been mostly left alone, and we think it must have been, in the past, a hotpot restaurant or something of the sort.

there was one other guy eating and drinking at the counter when we showed up, and then a woman arrived much later to do much the same thing as he was doing: a few flasks of sake and what appeared to be a continuing flow of small eats and intermittent banter. the restaurant is the kind of neighborhood bar we all wish we had. good food, good drinks, small enough, and in a small enough neighbourhood that people get to know you without knowing you too well. it has a counter that seats maybe 6 people, two tables for 4 each, and one chef behind the counter (in jeans and a tie).

the restaurant had a short, serious-looking sake list and an amusing range of temperatures at which sake could be ordered (amusing because some, or at least one, was a pun in japanese which i didn't understand but everyone tittered about). we had a daiginjo (brewed by koikawa) followed by a wata-ya daiginjo (brewed by miyagi). both were good, the latter was better (more crisp, drier, extremely clean). each generous pour for the table was around 800¥, or about $10. a great deal. we decided to spring for the course dinner: 8 courses for 3150¥, or $40, plus another 1600¥ for two sakes (daiginjos from koikawa and miyagi). the food was remarkable.

  1. japanese leek puree (he got his leeks from shimonita), under slices of poached duck breast, with japanese eggplant cooked in the fashion of holland (apparently this means frying it first, then simmering it in dashi). the duck was tough and the skin had not been seared and rendered, even though it had been correctly scored for this. duck has to either be served rare or cooked low and slow. and putting an awesome sauce underneath foods often means wasted sauce and imperfectly sauced foods. i was sad to see the negi puree go. put this down as another instance where the tectonics of food would have been a fruitful study.
  2. a tray of lots of things: a dish of cubes of boiled, then cooled celery and shredded aburage tofu; a pile of blanched chrysanthemum leaves; a soupspoon with a halved quail egg smothered in tuna-flavoured mayonnaise; a cube of steamed sweet potato (an-no imo?); a shotglass of pureed sweet potato soup; and most wondrous of all, a square of nori and dashi gel. the agar was the perfect consistency (barely holding together, disappearing on the tongue but with detectable texture; also see previous grumbling about gels), it had also been made with a richly flavoured dashi and held in suspension a little festival of untoasted nori. this course was billed as appetisers, but could easily have been an unorthodox take on the composition of a traditional hassun course (for more on kaiseki, see here), which comprises foods from the seas and the mountains or from the rivers and the fields. in this case, the tuna sauce and the nori and dashi gel are the foods from the seas (instead of a bit of sashimi or sushi), and the chrysanthemum leaves, celery, sweet potato, and quail egg are the foods of the fields and mountains. extra points for making a little square that is essentially the sea: seaweed suspended in a gel made of seaweed extract dissolved in fish and seaweed extract. this little square was one of the best things in the entire meal.
  3. the bowl course was a square of fried gomadofu, topped with a piece of broiled yellowtail, garnished with a flake of yuzu peel and a tangle of shungiku, the whole afloat in pellucid dashi with the smallest scatter of shimmering oil droplets on top even though it was surrounding two oily things. gomadofu is a gel made of sesame paste set with arrowroot starch, most often served to open a shojin kaiseki meal. the gomadofu was brilliant and unusual in several ways: this piece was coarsely textured where usually smoothness is the objective (achieving a smooth paste when hand-grinding sesame in a suribachi is a long process, and a signal from the chef to the diner at the beginning of the meal); it was made of black sesame where usually the milder white sesame is used; it was fried and served as a component of a course rather than being the focal point of the course. because winter yellowtail is a fatty strong-flavoured fish, the black sesame tofu was a great foil. it's not a flavour combination you encounter often either: sesame, oily fish, bitter greens, and aromatic citrus. this course was probably the best one of the meal; innovative while clearly referencing tradition, perfect in composition and execution, incredibly delicious.
  4. a pair of nigiri, made of thin slices of beef tataki-style, garnished with wasabi, black truffle salt, and soy. very tasty, with rice perfectly cooked and seasoned. but if any flavour is overused to show people that they're eating premium, that flavour is truffle. the cut of the beef is ichibo, whatever that means. research time!
  5. stewed pork belly with carrots and daikon cooked almost to the point of disintegration. there was lots of fat in here, and the soup surrounding the pork belly and root vegetables was thick with dissolved collagen. this nimono (or stewed object) course was incredibly homey in style in contrast to the precision of the earlier courses, but satisfyingly delicious. and the rustic presentation concealed some fiddliness in back too. the soup had been defatted and clarified at least a little, because it was unusually clear when it was first presented.
  6. shiso sorbet to cleanse the palate. this was remarkable. a tiny bright green ball of sorbet. not too smooth, not too grainy, and not too sweet; ie the texture of perfect shaved ice (this is surprisingly difficult to achieve in a sorbet). but the flavour was what blew all of us away; the sorbet was the flavour of the leaf's scent alone, with none of the woodiness at all. he said, when we asked, that he simmered the shiso in white wine, umeshu, and sugar, then added lemon juice before processing. there is something else going on here, but this was ridiculously good sorbet.
  7. rice to close the meal. a claypot of rice cooked with turnip greens, maitake mushrooms, slivers of broiled yellowtail, and aburage tofu. this was good but not as well-made as the bamboo shoot and chicken claypot at fujimoto in kichijoji. the red miso soup that came with the rice though was really spectacular. super deep flavour.
  8. dessert was a dairy ice cream made of young savoy cabbage. this was beautiful, green, mildly sweet, recognizably cabbage, with great texture. apparently a simple cream, egg, sugar base with young cabbage leaves blended in, then heated lightly to nappe before processing to drive off some of the sulphides and also green it a little bit more. the unseasonably cold winter has already given the cabbages enough sugar to make something like this work remarkably well.
the four best things about this dinner were the most surprising ones: the two black squares and the two green spheres. they're more innovative than almost anything else i've eaten in a long time. each represents not only a novel concept from a chef with a particular idea of what deliciousness is, but also a high precision execution that allows someone else to have a flash of insight into that idea of deliciousness: communicating an idea through the medium of food with high fidelity. this is the kind of thing that great artists, writers, engineers, and scientists aim for, and lucky ones sometimes succeed at (like arthur ganson did here).

apparently the chef is the apprentice of the man who now runs guilo guilo in paris, having moved the restaurant there from kyoto. like bondir, i think tsuru ni tachibana is the real deal: small enough to have very little overhead and total control of what gets served. i like this model a lot. there are many good things to be said for being able to go to a restaurant and eat just one person's idea of deliciousness.

the menu changes monthly. if i didn't live thousands and thousands of miles away, i would go back a couple of times a month to see how his expression of deliciousness changes as the raw materials change with the passage of the year. this is the best value meal of 2010 and 2011 to date, and certainly joins the list of nearly perfect meals.

水鳥屋 鶴に橘
〒 166-0001
asagayakita 2-4-7, suginami, tokyo
open mondays through saturdays, 6.30pm until the food's gone; closed sundays.
calling ahead is probably not a bad idea: +81 3 3330 7705

* stack two damp plates and, holding them by the centers with one hand, wipe (with a cloth, in a circular motion, at the same time) the top of the top plate and the bottom of the bottom plate, then reverse the plates and repeat. very quick, if all your plates are the same size.

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