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My Neighbor Tokoro

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Hello…helllooo..helloooooo….Is anyone still left out there that reads this blog?  It seriously has been way too long since I have posted any new content on Mastication Monologues, but such is the life of someone working on a 2nd Bachelor’s degree.  Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel is near, and I am looking forward to some mental rest and relaxation.  Thankfully, I won’t slack too much though because I have plenty of great reviews and food adventures to bring to you.  Today’s review involves Tokoro Sushi in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

My fiancee, then girlfriend, suggested we try the new eatery when it opened last year, and we have been back since.  However, our first visit wasn’t the most enjoyable compared to the second time.  There is mainly street parking and there are plenty of public transportation options for those of you rocking Ventra cards on the bus or L.  The interior of Tokoro looks like any other sushi restaurant complete with bamboo prints and assorted Japanese tchotchkes.  Fitting given the name of the restaurant in Japanese literally means “place”, i.e. this could be the interior of any of the other million, lower/middle rung Chicago sushi restaurants.  They have a BYOB policy and a free corkage service which helps if you care for a glass of chardonnay to go with your unagi.  Upon sitting down, we looked over their extensive sushi menu and saw most of the the typical Japanese restaurant offerings from lunch specials, soups, gyoza dumplings, sushi rolls, sashimi, and even hibachi offerings for diners searching for something a bit more substantial.  Janice and I preferred to try the figurative treasure chest of sushi that lay before  us in the menu, so we got the “all you can eat” sushi option for 20 bucks.  Some people always wonder or straight up deny that the all you can eat option is a waste of money, but when you think about it, there is some method to the madness.  Based on current trends of fishing, human consumption, and sushi demand from around the world, the price of fish, especially the fatty toro tuna, is only going to sky rocket.   Therefore, placing a cap on your wallet but not on your stomach makes perfect sense to me especially if you were as hungry as we were.  Then again, who knows if most sushi restaurants actually use the fish advertised on the menu.  The results are often times surprising.  Either way, that didn’t stop us from enjoying some good, not great sushi.  Thankfully, we got a complimentary bowl of miso soup which I think should come free with each meal in Japanese restaurants because it is such a simple but satisfying soup to make.  IMG_6101This traditional Japanese soup consists of a kelp/fish based broth and a soy based paste called, you guessed it, miso.  I have never seen it anywhere, but there are also red and mixed color miso pastes used in miso soup.  However, I greatly enjoy the white miso which is typically used in American Japanese restaurants because it is salty, savory, and has a taste that envelopes your entire body with a warmth that is enhanced with the soft cubes of tofu and slightly crunchy scallion strands.  Definitely great for the cold Chicago winters.  Once we drained our bowls, it was time to dive into our sushi.  Side note:  the service was absolutely terrible the first time around in terms of waiting for food, but thankfully they have improved their turnaround time from ordering to bringing out your order.  Our first platter consisted of the crazy tuna roll, spicy tuna roll, and mountain roll.IMG_6102

The crazy tuna roll, the one closest to the wasabi in the picture above, consisted of the rice rolled around a tuna and pepper mix and topped with slices of tuna and a sriracha chili sauce. IMG_6103 I didn’t find it to be too spicy, but it went down just fine.  The mountain roll was next which left the biggest impression on me for this round. IMG_6104 The inside was a cool cucumber and creamy avocado duo, but the real fire came from the spicy crab and spicy mayo on top that was festooned with a sprinkling of crunchy tempura crumbs.  I liked it the most out of the three selections due to the contrast between the relatively understated interior and the more eye-catching exterior.  Kind of a case of sushi superficiality, but this is a roll whose cover really makes the book a must read.  The same could not be said about the spicy tuna roll which was like the crazy tuna roll minus the “crazy” part. IMG_6105 I’m a big spicy food eater, and I didn’t think it lived up to its fiery moniker.  So it was not a big draw for me.  It was just a transition to the next sushi round we ordered.  We amped it up with a volcano roll, a kiss on fire roll, another mountain roll, and got some actual sushi on the side with a tomago, shrimp, and a piece of yellowtail.IMG_6106  I’ve already spoken about the mountain roll, but the volcano roll and kiss on fire roll were bolder than the first round participants.  The kiss on fire roll (between the raw fish and fried roll) did actually bring some spice since below the tuna there was a raw jalapeno pepper resting in wait for our unsuspecting taste buds.  I always like being kept off kilter sometimes during my dining experience, and I would recommend this roll for those who do like a bit of spice with their rolls.  Then there was the volcano roll.  Frying actual sushi is a crime against humanity, yet with rolls it kind of works.  The light, rice flour based batter goes well with the delicately constructed rolls, especially one that was bulging with spicy tuna, crab, avocado, cream cheese, and eel sauce and spicy mayo streaks across the sliced roll.  I think this was more of a luxury roll than a spice-centric entree due to the amount of ingredients that went into it.  I’d still recommend it though if you’re looking for a bit more heft to your typical sushi roll.  I did not have the tomago (egg) sushi, the shrimp, or the yellowfin, but Janice said they were all competently made but not mind-blowingly fresh/delicious.IMG_6107

So, if you’re looking for a solid, middle of the road sushi restaurant on the far northside of Chicago, roll on over to Sushi Tokoro!

Sushi Tokoro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loco For The Yoko

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Ah sushi.  Just one facet of Japanese cuisine that has taken the world by storm.  Most people think of this food as being super Japanese and simply means “raw fish”.  On the contrary, sushi was originally invented in Southeast Asia, and sushi actually refers to the vinegar laden rice that upholds the meal.  It wasn’t until the early 1800s in Japan when the sushi and sashimi (raw fish slices) were combined as we consume it now.  It was referred to as Edo (Tokyo’s old name) style sushi.  While most people focus on the quality of the fish, in reality the sushi rice is considered of greater importance to the overall dining experience.  In Japan, a sushi chef can’t begin to serve fish until he has mastered the art of preparing the perfect batch of sushi rice.  If you want a great movie to see the training and art of sushi at its finest and most old-school, check out Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  While I’ve experienced sushi in Tokyo, I managed to find a little slice of the homeland just around the corner from my house in Westmont, IL in the form of Yokohama Japanese Restaurant.

Now it may not be in the most glamorous place in the world: in a small strip mall next to train tracks and a water silo, but as I’ve learned throughout my travels around the world, never judge a restaurant by its appearance (however hidden, strange, or non-descript it might be).  IMG_4858When we walked through the door, we were actually the only people in the restaurant, and the stoic sushi chef who was meticulously scrubbing down his workstation greeted us with a konichiwa! IMG_4872 We were quickly seated and had our menus placed in front of us.  IMG_4859Looking over the menu, they had a plethora of sushi options that ranged from individual pieces (~$1.50~4 per piece) to combination platters of sushi and sashimi (~$20-25).  We naturally started with drinks, and I wasn’t sure what to get until I saw something called Ramune under the sodas.  So when it came to my table, Janice knew what it was, but I was greatly confused looking at this uniquely shaped bottle.  IMG_4862Our waitress popped the top of the bottle with something that looked like a metal rod, and suddenly a glass marble of sorts dropped into the middle of the neck yet somehow didn’t fall to the bottom. IMG_4865 It turns out that this bottle was introduced to Japan by a Scottish chemist who was selling lemonade soda which was subsequently promoted by local papers as a preventative for cholera.  When I tried to drink it, it was really hard to imbibe the lemon-lime soda I could liken to a more subtle Sprite in nature.  I had to somehow use my tongue to push it up while allowing enough space for the soda to flow.  I eventually was like a sugar crazed rabbit flicking my tongue on the end of one of those water bottles that attach on the side with the metal spigot.  Long story short, Janice finally figured out that the strangely notched neck had a resting place for the marble which didn’t help since I already had finished 3/4ths of the bottle.  The thirst was real.

Regardless of my sufferings in the name of quenching my thirst, we ordered our food.  Janice got a mix of spicy hotate (scallop) rolls, California kani (crab) rolls, and a tamago sushi roll.  As for me, I was quite hungry, so I got a katsudon.  We waited quite awhile for our food which was kind of surprising given that we were the only people in there, but it was a sign that they were making everything fresh and taking care to make each piece perfectly.  Before we got our main course, we received complimentary bowls of miso soup and a kind of noodle salad.  IMG_4863I love miso soup in any form because it was warming our souls on that frigid night along with the wonderful earthy, savory umami flavor that Japanese cooking is notorious for.  IMG_4864The noodle salad was ok, and the white dressing that it was drowning in tasted kind of like ranch but not as tangy.  Eventually, our food came out, and the care the staff took in preparing the meal showed through in every piece of sushi. IMG_4869 The spicy scallop rolls weren’t terribly spicy, but the seaweed wrapping mixed with the slightly salty scallops to perfection. IMG_4871 I was more of a fan of the California rolls since they had a mix of smooth avocado, sweet crab meat, and crunchy cucumbers. IMG_4870 The tobiko fish eggs on the outside were the icing on the cake or the crown on these king crab rolls since they added a salty contrast to the vinegar soaked sushi rice.  As for the tamago, it was a part egg and part rice sushi roll was a bit too bland for me, but it’s wildly popular in Japan and elsewhere in the Far East.  So much so that even famous Korean rapper G-Dragon perhaps unknowingly sported a dodgy hairdo paying tribute to the eggy treat.rambut-g-dragon-sushi  Then there was my katsudon.  The word katsudon is a portmanteau of the Japanese words tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and donburi (rice bowl dish).

The bowl...

The bowl…

Surprise surprise, that’s exactly what my meal was:IMG_4868  a moderately sized bowl packed with rice on the bottom and then topped with a melange of egg, fried noodles, and fried pork cutlet pieces.  I couldn’t go wrong with all of that protein and carbs, and I really didn’t.  The pork was plentiful and lightly fried with a crumb-laden crust.  Mixing the pieces with the rice and noodles proved to be quite the hearty meal that filled me up but did not leave me bloated, uncomfortable with a greasy taste in my mouth, and with a bad case of the meat sweats.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied with our meal, and the price we paid wasn’t bad at all compared to more glamous/popular sushi joints.  So, if you want to get quality sushi at reasonable prices with friendly service, check out Yokohama Japanese Restaurant in Westmont! Sayonara!

Yokohama Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Impressive Intragalactic Intercourse

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Welcome one and all to another fantastic chapter in the food epic that is Mastication Monologues!  Today’s entry is going to be a short one, but that doesn’t mean a lack of quality.  If you haven’t been reading, I’ve been reviewing various restaurants I’ve visited throughout my vacation to Delray Beach, Florida.  So far I’ve come mouth to burger, dog, and even mushroom.  However, this post is a definite shift as I move away from foods that might be considered classic Americana to more exotic meals.  So lets start with Lemongrass Asian Bistro, an upper echelon Asian eatery which has branches in other Atlantic coast Floridian cities.

After a filling lunch at Doc’s All American and an afternoon of scuba training, I wanted to have a light dinner that wouldn’t leave me bloated like a beached whale.  So, I decided that sushi would be something that would be rich, filling, yet light.  Lemongrass fit the bill.  The establishment has both indoor and outdoor seating, but I went for the latter since the weather, per usual, was quite pleasant. IMG_2873 I also love outdoor seating because it gives one ample opportunity for people watching as they pass by on the avenue.  While I was enjoying the sights and sounds of Delray Beach, I wasn’t too satisfied with the service.  I had to wait ten minutes for someone to welcome me and ask if I wanted anything to drink.  I know it is hard for the servers and kitchen staff when a restaurant is slammed (“filled to capacity” in customer speak), but Lemongrass at that time would hardly fall into that category.  Eventually I got a menu, and it seemed that they had specialties from mainly Japan with an extensive sushi menu, Thailand with a few satays and curries, and Vietnam with a plethora of stir fried noodle dishes.IMG_2868  However, I was surprised that their drink menu didn’t even offer plain sake given the litany of sushi meals they offer.  After a long time of contemplating between choosing the Vietnamese grilled pork and sushi, I got the Sex on the Moon sushi roll ($13) simply based on the name and spicy pepper next to the moniker.  After another long period of anticipation, my food eventually came out, and it was well worth the wait.  The presentation was interesting to say the least, but I personally think they went a bit overboard with the tempura bits sprinkled about the sushi roll. IMG_3945 It made it look like my food was swimming in sawdust, tasty, scallion-laced sawdust nevertheless. IMG_2869 I’m not quite certain why they call it “Sex on the Moon”, but I was over the moon after tasting it.  On the outside, there was a light sprinkling of the aforementioned tempura flakes, a moderately thick slab of raw tuna, and masago (Capelin fish roe).  The real magic of the meal resided within the snowy white nest of sticky rice where I was quickly introduced to the cordial and spicy family of fried shrimp, asparagus, avocado, eel, and pepper seeds.IMG_2870  While I naturally tasted the buttery shrimp and fiery pepper seeds, the other elements were not as individually impressive.  This meal was more of a team effort as the scallions enhanced the smooth avocado, and the asparagus provided a much needed crunch to balance the more delicate seafood ingredients like the fish eggs.  I spiced it up even further with the hefty dollop of wasabi they provided on the side, and that took it to another flavor galaxy.  By the end of Sex on the Moon, I was proverbially lighting up a smoke and lying back on my pillow with a sigh of satisfaction as I looked up to the stars in the Florida sky.

So if you’re willing to put up with slower than average service to experience some out of this world sushi, moonwalk on over the Lemongrass Asian Bistro.
Lemongrass Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tokyo (Day 4)- Having My Japanese Pancakes and Eating Them Too

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So after dinner on day 3 I went out with my new friend I made from the hostel in Roppongi, and then I made the decision to not sleep in order to stay up to see the world famous Tsukiji tuna auction.  The no-sleep decision was prompted by the fact that they open the visitor line around 3:30 a.m., and it’s first come, first serve with limited spots.  When I got there, I was the second one in line after a Japanese woman, but within the space of ten minutes, there was a line out the gate.  While I was waiting, I munched on this Calorie Mate snack I saw in the convenience store.IMG_1793IMG_1794 I was nerding out since it’s a common food for Solid Snake to eat in Metal Gear Solid 3.

"Mmmm, I want some more!"

“Mmmm, I want some more!”

It ended up being a packet of chocolate cookies that supposedly had multivitamins in it. IMG_1825 Either way it hit the spot while I was attempting to keep my wits about me in line while the fishermen buzzed around me like an ant colony on speed.  The downside of being early was they then herded us into a waiting room where we had to wait for an hour and a half.  Needless to say most people fell asleep on the floor, but we eventually were escorted to one of the most famous moments of food trading. IMG_3441 It was also the most over-hyped thing I was told to see in Tokyo which was kind of sad after not sleeping for almost 24 hours. IMG_3444 However, I looked forward to getting some great sushi at Daiwa Sushi in building 6.  Surprise surprise, I was waiting in another line to get into the restaurant for an hour and a half.  I eventually gave up my spot and went to the sushi stop right next door to it where there were a couple people inside and no line.IMG_1830  I went for the tuna bowl which was transcendent in regard to the overall quality of the pink salmon sheets and crimson tuna chunks. IMG_1829 The rice was fresh with a liberal sprinkling of dried seaweed, and there was plenty of potent wasabi horseradish to back up each bite with a sinus-clearing caress.  A veritable bounty of the ocean on a bed of quality starches.  As soon as I scarfed down the bowl and saw the people I waited in line with still weren’t in the restaurant, I laughed to myself all the way back to my sweet sweet bed at the hostel.

After a refreshing slumber, I awoke to a more laid back day that eventually resulted in me getting lunch on Tsukishima island in southeast Tokyo.  I decided to go there because they specialize in monjayaki which is a Tokyo version of the ever-popular Osaka creation okonomiyaki.  The main difference between these two pancake-esque creations is that the monjayaki is a bit more liquid compared to the doughy okonomiyaki.  I came out Tsukishima station exit 7 and walked a bit down to see a row of restaurants advertising what looked like the pancakes.  I chose one with a ship on top of it because it looked quite popular based on the advertisements, so I walked in to find an empty restaurant with just two old women cleaning the grills. IMG_1841IMG_1840 I could tell by their shocked expressions that they were probably closed like a lot of restaurants seem to do after the peak lunch hour, but they didn’t seem to mind serving me after I repeatedly signed that I was going to leave them be out of awkward foreigner shame.IMG_1836  I saw that their menu had the monjayaki, and I picked the option that had crispy tempura crusts mixed in.  There were plenty more choices that included cheese, cucumbers, rice cake, and tomatoes to name a few.  The woman came out to mix up a bowl of vegetables and batter, and when she put it on the grill it literally looked like a puddle of vomit.

The approach...

The approach…

Go home.  You're drunk.

Go home. You’re drunk.

Mmmm tasty!  However, when it began to fully cook, I realized that there must have been a misunderstanding with the menu.  It seems I had ordered okonomiyaki since it was a solid pancake creation that was quickly topped with mayonnaise, soy sauce, spices, and onion shavings. IMG_1839 Either way, I wasn’t complaining because I had never had either of them in my life.  The okonomiyaki didn’t let me down one bit. IMG_1838 It was a thick, savory pancake that was crunchy yet fluffy, bland yet fiery due to my liberal sprinkling of the chili pepper.  Okonomiyaki means “something grilled how you like it” in Japanese, and I grilled it to its optimum level of deliciousness.  This Osaka import satisfied my search for a good griddlecake in the middle of Japan in the middle of the day.

I topped off my relaxing day with a night stroll through Harajuku which is considered the hub of all the latest youth fashions.  However, I wasn’t going there to sport my latest Rockabilly pompadour or crossdress like a gothic Lolita.  I was going to Kyushu Jaugara which is known for its excellent tonkatsu ramen.  I went there by taking the Chiyoda line to Meiji-jingumei stop, and made an u-turn out of the exit three.  It was right by the Harajuku Quest store, and I couldn’t miss it by its incredibly loud exterior that practically served as a hype man like Flava-Flav for Public Enemy. IMG_1853 When I walked in, the place was hoppin’ with lots of customers seated around the kitchen counter with their faces making sweet love to the noodles within. IMG_1849IMG_1848IMG_1847 Thankfully they had random smatterings of English on the posters, but I also saw that they had an English menu for those who want to have more of a leisurely stroll through their offerings.  The hot and spicy option on the wall immediately got me jonesing for a bowl, so they gave me a small, red plastic chip to give to the cook.  As I waited, I inspected the various spices and free pickled vegetables they had to offer customers along with the large jugs of free water.  Eventually, I was eye to strand with this bowl of perfection for a cold night. IMG_1851 The noodles were firm yet not al dente, and the broth itself had a spicy kick to it that was between a jalapeno and a habanero level of spice.  I loved the fatty pieces of bacon and the green onions, but the strange red sauce didn’t really fit in with the rest of the soup.  I stirred it in, and it was the only neutral element to this Club Med pool party of awesome.  The hard boiled egg resembled a beluga whale slowly drifting through the numerous waves caused by my voracious slurpring per the local custom.  The cook was watching me eat his noodles, and I gave him a thumbs up and a smile while saying, “Very good!”  He replied with a chuckle and an “Excellent!”.  I noticed I followed the proper etiquette for eating the ramen on the counter that said you shouldn’t add any spices and consume the noodles while they’re piping hot.  It was a real cultural experience that lit up my night as bright as the Harajuku neon-splashed avenues.

Tokyo (Day 2)- Whale of a Tale/Silent But Delicious

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So day 2 in Tokyo started off with a terrible hitch since I tried to sleep earlier than normal and rise at 2 a.m. in order to see the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction.  I dragged my zombie self downstairs and into a cab.  As we arrived, it looked suspiciously devoid of activity, and I saw the sign said “Regular holiday”…th0gnqw9n0G$#@!  8 hours of sleep and 60 bucks poorer, I threw my sad self into my bed.

I only slept for about five hours, and eventually I decided to check out Matsuya which was right across the street.  Hiromi, the front desk girl from my first post who recommended the fugu restaurant, gave me the name of this place after I asked her for a place where Japanese people eat breakfast.  She was very specific too in insisting that I get the natto special.  For those who don’t know, natto is a popular Japanese breakfast food that consists of fermented soy beans.  So I shuffled my zombie self over to Matsuya, and I looked for brain…er…natto. IMG_3371 I found it on the poster, but then I walked inside to find a machine with pictures and coin slots on it.  I then realized you had to put in your order and get a ticket which in turn would be given to one of the cooks.  Hooray for no language barriers through cold, impersonal technology!  I looked around the convoluted diner counter at the busy salarymen quickly slurping down their noodles or a group of old timers slowly sipping their tea while having a very muted conversation like only the Japanese can.  Suddenly I was chest deep in a Japanese breakfast complete with miso soup, rice, pickled veggies, a boiled egg, dried seaweed and a small tub of natto.IMG_1772  I poured myself a large glass of water from the complimentary jugs on the counter and sipped a bit of my free tea before tearing into this bargain of a meal (only 3 USD equivalent).  It was no Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast by any stretch of the imagination in regard to how hearty of a meal it was, but the fluffy, sticky rice filled me up eventually along with the crispy dried seaweed sheets that made nice encasings for the starchy staple.  The miso soup was excellent since it was warming, bursting with a savory effervesence with each spoonful.  I didn’t find the pickled vegetables to be very delicious which then led me to the star of the show:  natto.  I know my friend, Nathan, who’s with me in Korean now has always extolled the health benefits of eating this soy bean creation, so I wanted to see why he loves it so much.  When I took the seal off the container, I was greeted with a slightly pungent odor, and I watched a guy next to me put the horseradish and soy sauces in the bowl and stir it around vigorously.

That sticky-icky

That sticky-icky

I did the same, and after a decent amout of agitation, I ate a bit.  I nearly gagged with the taste and texture.  Not only were the beans oddly slippery and musty tasting, they were coated in these strings that resulted in me looking like I was munching on a spider web.  It certainly was a surreal experience for breakfast, but not one I would repeating anytime soon.  Lunch, however, I would repeat in a heartbeat.

After a whirlwind tour of the city’s shrines, I was ready to check out Kujiraya in Shibuya which is straight out the Shibuya metro station exit 3a past the 109 store. IMG_3325 IMG_3324Before walking in, I thought this sign was interesting in terms of highlighting the caloric content of the whale meat, and its inherent superiority to beef and pork. IMG_3332 This promotion of whale meat was slightly countered by the Japanese doorman indicating to me on a sheet in at least five different languages that it was an eatery that only served whale; a clear sign that eating this traditional meat could prove to be quite contentious with foreign customers.  While the Japanese are often villified for their continued whale hunting expeditions, there are communities in the Faroe Islands off of Denmak that to this day kill whales just to prove their manhood in a rite of passage.  They don’t even use the animals like the Japanese do, but I wasn’t there to make a political/moral statement.  I just wanted to try this oft talked about delicacy.  I highly recommend coming here during the lunch hour which starts at 12:30 pm since they had a great deal with lunch sets for roughly 15 dollars compared to the dinners that started at 60 dollars. IMG_1774 I got the cheapest option with the fried whale set.  It came with unlimited rice, the whale slices, miso soup, pickled vegetables, and an incredibly fresh salad. IMG_1776  The two standouts were the whale and the salad, surprisingly.  I don’t know what made the salad especially unique, but perhaps Korea isn’t known for having just regular vegetables in a salad sans vinegar or a thick slathering of mayo.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the tangy dressing consisted of, but I could say for certain that it was some type of vinaigrette.   Then there was the whale…Lord, the whale!IMG_1777  I could see why Captain Ahab went made looking for Moby Dick because it was quite possibly one of the greatest meats I have ever tasted.  It was a deep burgundy with slight marbling that had a pseudo-fish flavor profile yet the buttery breading made it taste more like beef.  I would gladly eat it again if I had the chance.  This sustenance provided an excellent springboard to the wonderful and mysterious dinner I would have that night.

After resting a bit at my hostel, I walked out exit 8 at the Nagatacho metro stop to find the clandestine Ninja Akasaka restaurant.  The door blends into a non-descript corrugated wall below a shopping center, so keep your eyes peeled for the minimally lit seal on the wall that says “Ninja”.IMG_3373IMG_3374  When people think of Japan, they think of robots, Pokemon, samurai, and ninjas.  I was determined to see them all, and it just sweetened the deal to think I could eat in a ninja dojo.  I walked into the place, and it was incredibly dark.  The hostess clapped her hands, and a woman ninja literally jumped out of a wooden panel in the wall.  She spoke English as she led me through the ninja traps that were laid along the way to my table which included two trap doors and a drawbridge.  We eventually got to the dining area which thankfully was a bit lighter, but not much as we walked between narrow ninja cabins and houses on the stone pathway while torches flickered overhead.IMG_3376IMG_1787  My ninja offered to hang up my jacket as I sat down, and I joked saying, “No ninja magic?” which she got a kick out of.  She also warned me to remember my table name if I went to the bathroom because I would get lost in the labrynth.  I got the menu which was a giant scroll, and it’s not the cheapest place to eat in Tokyo.  I obviously looked at the cheaper options for the “ninja” section kept the bill under 50 USD.  I got the shuriken (ninja throwing stars) pate along with the hidden sushi along with a cup of sochu or Japanese brandy on the side.  Surprisingly it was cheaper than the beer at around 4 bucks a glass.  My server warned me it was strong, but I got it on the rocks since I’m a boss like that.  When I got it, it tasted like a weaker vodka with more of a slight floral taste.IMG_1784  The shuriken came out first in an interesting presentation where the black crackers were on a bundle of sticks which gave them the illusion of being stuck in a piece of wood. IMG_1782 The pieces of pate that I smeared on the crackers were also cut to look like throwing stars, and it was a well executed piece.  The crackers were crisp, and the pate was decadent like goose liver paste should be. IMG_1783 Then came my hidden sushi which was minimalist in design but gargantuan in flavor.  It was called “hidden” sushi because the piece of onion was hollowed out to a gossamer-thin sheet and then stuffed with rice to give each piece extra body.  IMG_1785However, it didn’t overpower the chunks of fatty tuna that were extra-tender and high quality.  The proper way to each piece was to couple the onion and tuna together while skimming them through the wasabi and chili sauce streaks on the plate.  Like a well trained ninja, the food vanquished my hunger pangs before I even knew it, but there was still the issue of dessert.  The waitress gave me a small piece of paper for the dessert menu, and I went with the snow frog.  As soon as I made my choice, she said to remember what I ordered and proceeded to light the menu on fire.  It quickly exploded leaving me to wonder what other crazy things these people had in store for my dining experience?  That question was quickly answered when the waitress told me the ninja master was coming to do magic for me.  I was greeted by a large, male ninja who proceeded to pull money out of my ears, hands, and shirt.  I need to take him to Vegas with me, and thankfully my wallet was still full.  He then did some crazy rope tricks along with a cups trick where he created potatoes and cloves of garlic out of cloth balls after he made me tap them a bunch of times while under said cups.  Eventually, my snow frog came out which was creatively presented as a frog literally made out of cream cheese and residing under a leaf on a chocolate cake lilypad. IMG_1789 The snow came from my server grating a sweet cheese over the leaf looking like some freshly fallen snow.  It was so precise and Japanese it hurt in a good way.  The cheese cake was wonderful.  It was stuffed with juicy blueberries, slices of strawberries, and a hint of kiwi.  All of that combined with the chocolate cake was the perfect flourish to one of the most unpredictable meals I’ve ever had in my life.  However, my adventure didn’t end there.  As I was being escorted out through an alternate route that ended up back at the entrance, I walked out the door to the metro stop.  Suddenly, I heard someone yell, “Arigatou gozaimashita!” (Thank you!)  I whipped around to see my ninja guide crouched down on the sidewalk with a scroll unfurled saying, “Please come again!”  It was a wonderful gesture among many others that made my ninja dinner one of the highlights of my entire Tokyo trip.  I’d recommend it to anyone if you’re looking for a dining experience that is anything but ordinary.

Tokyo (Day 1)- The Money Shot

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Well, back to Korea again after another wonderful adventure overseas.  This time it was to the Land of the Rising Sun a.k.a. Japan.  Now, I know Japan has left quite a Godzilla-sized cultural imprint on the world with technology, car manufacturing, and maddeningly-cute cartoons like Hello Kitty and Pokemon.  In these posts, like all the others, I will be showing you a gastronomical glimpse of the land that has brought sushi, tempura, and sake to a wider audience.  Naturally, there is much more to Japanese cuisine than just these three components, and I hope to demonstrate this through my Tokyo food series.

Day 1

After touching down in Narita, I was bracing myself for the train system which is the most complicated metro system I’ve encountered on my travels not due to its size but rather due to the number of private train companies that operate different lines which in turn affect fares, travel times, and how one manages to get from point A to point B based on which line and exit they take.  After a long time with the train info lady and making the sojourn to my hostel, I explored the neighborhood a little bit before heading back to my hostel to get some dinner ideas.  I talked to Hiromi at the front desk while showing her my handy-dandy personal guide I normally write up before I go places.  Thank you, Wikitravel!  I asked her about one restaurant, Torafugu Tei, and she immediately lit up with excitement.  It was probably because fugu is a Japanese deliciacy which involves making sushi out of an extremely poisonous blowfish.  Chefs have to have a special license in order to even serve the fish on the premises.   Roughly five people a year still die from this goofy-looking fish whose vital organs are deadlier than cyanide, and it’s the subject of one of my favorite Simpsons episodes where Homer thinks he’s going to die from ingesting improperly prepared fugu.  So I liked those odds for my first dinner in Tokyo.  Hiromi also recommended the sperm sacks which apparently were a winter specialty and her favorite part of the fugu since they tasted like cheese.  Turns out there are multiple locations in Tokyo, and I went to the one closest to my hostel located at 2-14-15 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo.  Mind you, they’re only open from 5 p.m. onwards. IMG_3305 I got a picture of the floating pufferfish, mouths still agape, while thinking this might be my last meal. IMG_3306 I’ve had it before during my trip to Busan in South Korea in soup form and survived, but this was raw fugu in the heartland of Japan.

Eventually I came in the restaurant behind some old Japanese businessmen, and the waitress thought I was with them for some bizarre reason.  She told me to take off my shoes, but as soon as the leader of the old men gave me the ‘What you doin’, gaijin?’ look, I was out of that room.  No one spoke English there, so it was just a humorous episode of confusion.  I was seated in a cosy wooden room, and I went for the fugu sashimi, the sperm sacks, and Hoshuku sake from the Nara prefecture served warm.  They brought out the sake first in a petite flask with an even tiner cup.  It was smaller than the cups I used to drink with my Kindergarteners.  However, it was a smooth, warm elixer with a bit of an acidic, alcohol-tinged bite to the end of each sip.  Eventually, my sashimi came out complete with a sumptuous presentation of each translucent slice arranged around sliced fugu skin, wasabi, green onions,  and a perrilla leaf. IMG_1767IMG_1768 The waitress motioned for me to squeeze the lime to coat all of the fugu pieces which I subsequently did.  She then imitated making mini fugu tacos and dipping them in the soy sauce on the side.  I summoned all of my chopstick skills which was a bit hard since the pieces were sticking to the plate and were extremely delicate.IMG_1769  Eventually I got the wee concoction into my mouth, and it was glorious.  The lime with the subtle richness of the fugu went well with the bolder wasabi and onions.  After eating most of the dish, I noticed my lips were slightly tingling which made me brace myself to hit the floor while being asphixiated, compliments of the poison, but it never happened.  The sake was also a nice palate cleanser to segue into the plat du jour:  the fugu sperm sacks.  IMG_1770They were served in a small porcelain bowl which I uncovered to find four golf ball-sized orbs that seem to have been roasted based on the char marks.IMG_1771  I decided to just take a bite out of one of them, and I was greeted with a piping hot stream of fugu semen.  Even though I was semi-injured due to my tongue being burned and quasi-violated based on what I was eating, I soldiered on after letting the sacks cool off.  I used the spoon that was provided to actually taste the semen, and strangely enough, like Hiromi told me before, it tasted like cheese.  I’d liken it to a cheddar flavor.  When the last drop of sake left the cup and my bowl was empty, I didn’t feel like I was full, but the meal amazingly kept me satiated for the rest of the night.  I guess the danger factor fed my adventurous soul along with my adventurous stomach.  I’d recommend it for anyone in Tokyo looking for a twist on your typical sushi experience.

Get Your Roll On

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Hello to everyone out there in cyberspace.  Still on the other side of the world and slowly but surely making my way through Korean cuisine.  Today I finally tried the Korean version of sushi but without fish:  Kimbap.IMG_1148

Originally, I thought that Japanese had the whole “stuff rice and a whole bunch of other ingredients into seaweed” market cornered, but as always, the Koreans manage to provide their own twist on a Chinese or Japanese staple food.  We had just received our rolls of kimbap right after our physical for immigration, so it might have been the hunger talking, but I greatly enjoyed these delightful little rolls.  The rice was sticky, and the seaweed wasn’t too tough.  On the inside, there was a bit of radish, cucumbers, spinach, and some sort of ham (possibly Spam), but they all combined to form a burst of savory flavor.  Surprisingly the meat didn’t overpower the vegetables, but in Korea, everything is seasoned or prepared to bring out the maximum amount of flavor.  So overall, it was a good experience, and it is a good preview to my more adventurous culinary outings during my time here like eating live octopus and dog soup (yeah, they serve both of those things here).  Stay tuned!

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