Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tsukiji Fish Market, Roppongi Hills, Salt Restaurant

Well, yesterday was my first full day in Tokyo. What a great city and varied and interesting.

It started with getting up the nerve and the stamina to try out the subway system for the first time. In my determination to get to the Tsukiji fish market, I studied the maps, figured out that all I had to do is take one train, and transfer to another. Tokyo has one above the ground train that loops the city (the JR Yamanote line) and multiple below ground lines that criss cross every which way. Despite the somewhat menacing look of the subway map, it is surprisingly easy to navigate as lines are color coded, and as in any city containing a metro, the direction is clearly annotated on the signs, you are either going in one direction or the opposite, and you can clearly figure that out by seeing which stations are further along in the direction you want to go. Of course though, before I left the hotel, in my quest for coffee, I happened upon the huge breakfast buffet (the size of a small convention hall) and had to try some grilled salmon, grilled mackerel, pickles, miso soup, simmered daikon radish. Just a few bites each (breakfast comes with the room…). The American breakfast looked awful, uncooked looking bacon and weirdo looking sausages, like bleached out hot dogs. Wonder white toast. There was a whole pastry area that I didn’t go near, but it looked do-able.

Not starving, I made to tsukiji.

After safely making it to Tsukiji, the temperature was getting up there, close to 75 or 80F. Walking around the stalls with many hole in the wall sushi places, vendors selling everything from restaurant wares, lots of ceramics, knives, dried fish, dried seaweed, pickles, lots of bonito flake stands, and lots of fresh fish, sake and household goods too. I was searching for a specific restaurant to spock out for later, Hiromi back in Berkeley mentioned I go, called Itadori. I found an information booth and the nice gentleman helped direct me to a building outside the market. I walked over, amidst more great looking things to buy (which I will visit on my last day here as I don’t want to lug ceramics and bulky items for 2 weeks). There was an elderly lady shucking large clams and grilling them over a little hibachi. She also had kushi katsu ready to eat (like tonkatsu but on a stick). I got one of those to try (must keep those calories coming in…) not sure it was pork??? Anyhoo, I finally found the “restaurant” Itadori, in a small alley, more of a passthrough, 10 bar stools at a counter with your back to the alley. The owner said to make a reservation because he is very busy at night. I may go there tonight or tomorrow. It is very unassuming looking.

Back at the main market, I roamed for a place to get some food, wanting something cooked, as my stomach wasn’t quite in Olympic form from my jet lag which had started to kick in around then. I found a sake vendor who spoke great English, used to live in Riverside and got married in Sausalito (to a Japanese woman). Anyway, he suggested a place across the way which I would not have entered on my own because no one was in there. A young husband wife couple who made me an awesome tai don with vinegared sesame sauce, grated egg, pickled daikon, ginger etc. miso soup made with a prawn head. I had a large glass of sake (well, I had to cure my jet lag somehow) and some green tea. Total bill $23. left there feeling good but actually, the sake and the heat kicked in and I needed water immediately which I easily found in a vending machine which is at every turn here in Tokyo.

I was feeling a bit queasy and run down, all of a sudden, after having eaten, and it was pretty damn hot outside. By the way, Japan doesn’t like to show skin above the waist and they like to keep their skin white (more about that later), so you can only imagine me looking very tan and exposing my top half, spaghetti strap tank and cleavage… oh well, I’m a foreigner for christ’s sake!!

I found another metro station and decided to take a trip over toward the other side of town, to Roppongi or Roppongi Hills which is a series of high rises, a relatively new development. I had no plan in mind and it was hugely relieving to be in the airconditioned subway so I didn’t really care where I got off. I got off at the major hub of Roppongi and immediately saw and exit sign for Roppongi Hills. What followed was a major 180 degree difference from where I had just been in Tsukiji. I emerged to a courtyard with beautiful fountains like sheets of water flowing down walls and very modern architecture. The weather was breezy and balmy, as if I were in a very high class area of Honolulu. The Mori building was right ahead with its famous sky view from the 52nd floor and a modern art museum. I headed straight there after finding the bathroom which was in the mezzanine of the building, replete with warmed toilet lids and more “flushing noise” options to drown out your natural sounds of elimation. (oh, I didn’t mention that the hotel public bathrooms had those too). A very modern hand dryer with U.V. light to kill any remnant germs. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven after having felt like death warmed over just a short 20 minutes before in Tsukiji.

I paid my $15 and made my way to the sky view which was a very cool atrium with 360 degree views of Tokyo. Too bad the smog was pretty bad or you could have seen Mt. Fuji from here. Bummer. Took lots of pics. Went to the museum exhibits, one of BMW art cars painted by famous artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder. That was so-so. The other exhibit was avante garde retrospective on British artists and had some poignant pieces like a full size Angus cow, cut in half lengthwise and preserved in formaldehyde. You could walk down the center of it. It was gnarly seeing its innards like that (and all grey from formaldehyde) and oh, there was a baby calf too with the same presentation. Can’t remember the artist’s name, will have to look it up.

Left there and walked around Roppongi a little, as it was only 2 pm and I was meeting Yumi, Mika’s sister for an early dinner at Salt in Tokyo CBD (central business district, duhhh). Salt is one of three restaurants owned by Aussie celebrity chef Luke Mangan. The other is Glass in Sydney and the 3rd is South food and Wine Bar, where I work part time helping out manage the front of the house in San Francisco.

I meandered back to my hotel and had, for some strange reason, a major 2nd or 3rd wind. I put on my exercise gear and walking shoes, and did a one hour walk around my neighborhood here in the Shinagawa district. Pretty cool. I have to say, the Shinagawa train station is right across the street and the most major hub for all incoming and outgoing trains from Tokyo. Think grand central station in NYC, times that by 4 (in size) and then add a plethora of restaurants and shops. Anyhoo, took a 15 minute nap, by this time I was death warmed over again, may have been because of the roll and café au lait I had which had the opposite effect of a pick me up.

I realize, shit, I’m being hard on myself here. Jet lag is a real bodily phenomenon. I have never felt it quite as badly as I do here. During dinner (which I will get to next), Yumi reminded me of the long (11 + hour flight) and trip, all of which occurs without ever seeing the dark. Flying to Japan occurs in daylight (as you are flying west, in essence, beating night or chasing the day), but because you cross the international date linea wacky thing occurs: you arrive on the next day. For instance, I left San Francisco at 1:30 pm on Tuesday, Flew for several hours, took trains etc and arrived at my hotel at 8:00 pm on Wednesday. One would think you would just sleep, which I did feel like passing out since sleeping on the plane continues to elude me (even after the 5 mg valium I dutifully took). But your body becomes totally discombobulated, which explains why I was writing my first entry at 5:30 am, and explains why I’ve been writing this entry between 3:30 and 5:00 am Friday morning. ShIIT. I took some sleep stuff hopefully after getting this adventure off my mind, I will be able to get more shut eye when I sign off.

To finish off my first day in Tokyo I met Yumi Matsui (my friend Mika’s sister) at Salt. The guy on the phone said “take the main exit out of Tokyo station and you will see two tall buildings in front of you, it is the building on the right.” What??? Exiting Tokyo station is like emerging from BART in the downtown financial district of SF (except without the urine smell). Which of the twenty or so tall buildings is he talking about??? My instincts kicked in though, and I navigated to an interesting looking building that had a Banana Republic in the bottom of it. Yup, I was right, the Shin-Maranouchi building was right in front of me. We hooked up and went up to Salt. What a handsome restaurant, kind of smallish with stylish booths and a view of the city scape and Imperial Palace grounds. The server immediately poured us some Janz Brut sparkling from Tasmania. Then she announced that the chef was going to give us a tasting menu complimentary. We said, awesome, bring it on. What followed was just a few things we ate: A perfectly soft cooked quail egg, out of it shell with celery salt and something else on the outside, yum. A slice of kingfish sashimi with goat cheese, cilantro sprouts and whatnot (can’t remember). This is a preparation they do at South and it changes your perception of the whole fish and cheese thing. Great! Then some coconut broth soup with truffle oil and a tempura prawn (served in an espresso cup) then the rest of the meal becomes blurry. Let’s seen, a large plate set between us with cured salmon and some sort of roe, seared katsuo (bonito) with a tomato concasse, Raw squid with wasabi tobiko, and I’m blanking on the other one, but I think it had cheese again. And again, the cheese was great with the raw preparation.

I was ready for some meat, as I had had nothing but fish for 24 hours (and lots of it). the next course was fish again, I believe barramundi with some fabulous gnocci and a few other things, I’m a bit fuzzy. She asked if we were full which we said we were, and she returned to the table to say the chef insisted on one last plate (geez’ okay, twist my arm). The last plate was Lamb belly (very gamey and delicious) and lamb tenderloin or some other seared cut (which was so not gamey, I couldn’t even tell it was lamb??). it was tasty but I was starting to seriously fade by this time (with the obligatory wine pairings, of course). The server then mentioned we would be having two dessert courses!!! What?? The first was served in a long slender shot glass: a quenelle of white chocolate ice cream on top of blueberries which were perched on top of coffee granite! Yum and I seriously immediately perked up. Yes, some non protein item containing sugar and caffeine. It did the trick. The next was an over the top trio of desserts, one some finely julienned apples with apple ice cream on top and a candied paper thin apple cross section on top of that. The next a pear ice cream with some sort of wafer and caramel sauce. It was like streudel in flavor. The third was a custard that looked like a brulee but had gelle’ on top but it was still tasty. Okay, that was it, three hours later and yumi and I were ready to fall asleep on the table, no shit. Oh, and the bathroom was done in hues of green and had lightly tinted green toilet paper which I threatened to steal a piece of but after much contemplation couldn’t imagine justifying a trip back to sf with a square of green tp to show my boss at south. She will just have to imagine….

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