Monday, October 19, 2009

A Wonderful Weekend in Nikko

Our dear friends Fran and Kaz have a lovely weekend retreat in Nikko, about 100 miles north of Tokyo, on the grounds of Rinoji Temple, one of the main temples of this ancient town. I visited last weekend, in time for the Autumn Grand Festival of the Toshogu Shrine, a procession that has been conducted twice a year for more than 300 years in pretty much the same fashion. In addition to this picturesque event, I was treated to some extraordinary meals, an open-air bath in a hot spring and even a round of golf at the Nikko Country Club.

Procession at Toshogu Shrine

The first wonderful meal was at a local soba place. The owners, former school teachers, decided to open Soba Gen, a traditional soba restaurant, where they make the noodles from buckwheat flour, white flour or a combination. The noodles are hand cut several times a day, which is typical for a really good soba place. What is special here is that they buy the grains in bulk and grind them into flour at the restaurant. We had cold buckwheat-only soba with tororo (grated yam) added to the broth, and maitake mushroom tempura, since maitake are now in season. Delicious!

For dinner we went to Gyoshintei, a kaiseki restaurant on the temple grounds. Kaiseki meals are about creative use of seasonal ingredients, mostly vegetables, and a variety of cooking techniques -- boiled, steamed, grilled, fried and raw -- beautifully presented in a variety of hand-made vessels. Gyoshintei did not disappoint; the food was delicious and eminently edible, without many of the difficult textures found in the most sophisticated Kyoto kaiseki cuisine. And beautifully presented in a manner that reflected the autumn season.

We started with an appetizer consisting of nama yuba (raw tofu skin), gomma dofu (sesame "tofu") and boiled maitake mushrooms.

Next up was a plate consisting of raw fugu (blowfish), chicken steamed in sake, steamed eggplant, burdock root and green potato. This was followed by dobi mushi, a broth with vegetables, including ginko nuts, that is infused with fragrant slices of the precious seasonal matsutake mushroom. You drink the broth from a small cut and eat the vegetables from the little teapot.

The meal continued with kampachi (yellowtail) cut and lightly pickled to imitate takuan (pickled radish), and cooked yuba in broth.

Then grilled shrimp with scallops and chrysanthemum shaped radish in a chrysanthemum petal soup.

Next were fried oysters wrapped in shiso leaves, with fried maitake-like mushrooms, rice with chestnuts, pickles and dark miso soup and, finally, bakes apple served with kibi (a soft sugary substance) covered by kudzu mochi.

And all this with copious amounts of sake -- three different ones from Tochigi Prefecture, where Nikko is located.


Bobby Jay

Tokyo -- Favorite Sushi

Ask a Japanese person to name the best sushi restaurant and he or she will never name one of the famous places but rather a place near home, where he or she and the chef have a relationship and the dining experience is predictable, delicious and comfortable. Our favorite is Isokan, located in Meidaimae, about 40 minutes by public transportation from the center of Tokyo. We were introduced to Isokan by friends who live in Tokyo and New York and who have been going there for 40 years. The master (pictured above) worked at the famous Kanpachi (hence the "kan" in his name) before setting out on his own in the 1960s. You can see that he is totally at ease and in command of his restaurant.

What makes Isokan special is the food - delicious and rare - and, as stated above, our relationship, which guarantees a relaxed and comfortable evening. All his products (tuna, fresh shrimp, squid, etc.) are of impeccable freshness, but there is more: this is the only place that I (or my more knowledgeable friends) know of where you can get octopus eggs, and his also hard-to-find ainameko (sperm of the ainame fish) resembles foie gras in texture, taste and appearance. The special baked oysters, which resemble Oysters Rockefeller, are exquisite. Sushi just doesn't get any better than this.

Click on "More" below for pictures.

Grilled octopus and ainameko

Baked oyster and octopus eggs

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gourmet RIP

Alas, Gourmet is no more, having succumbed to a dwindling bottom line after 68 years.

As I sat down to write this, I came across the post on bemoaning the loss of Gourmet, and I imagine the entire food blogosphere is or will be abuzz with comments. Nevertheless, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on Gourmet.

I was a subscriber to Gourmet for 35 years. It started when my wife (then fiance) and I were given a one-year subscription at a spice shower in advance of our wedding, and I continued to renew until now, with no lapses. During our multi-year stints in Paris and Tokyo, before the age of the Internet, the monthly arrival of Gourmet was a cherished event and a tie to home. Although we have long since lost touch, I remember very well the woman who gave us that initial subscription. The ultimate gift that kept on giving!
People often complained that the recipes were too difficult, and there is some truth in that. Still, I always used the recipes, and some became standards in my repertoire. But I must admit that for years I found Gourmet's recipes to be a bit complex and as a result I had some notable failures. During the last 10 years or so, I found them to be more user-friendly, but maybe that’s just me.

The really great thing about Gourmet, though, was always its monthly jolt of inspiration and challenge, whether of food to cook or eat, places to go or things to experience. The travel pieces were more than inspiring; if you were going where they had been, you found wonderful restaurants and other sights that the more generic, non-food oriented guides might have missed. I will never forget our perfect lunch more than 30 years ago at a tiny restaurant in the back of a fish store in Antibes near the Picasso Museum. We certainly would not have discovered it on our own and owe that memory entirely to Gourmet.

Other, more recipe-oriented food magazines have a value, and I subscribe to many of them, but Gourmet was special and irreplaceable.

Sad news.

Bobby Jay