Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

IWFS Tokyo February 2014 Day One

By way of introduction to these five essays, a brief word about the International Wine and Food Society. The IWFS is a global membership of bon viveurs under this generic collective banner who seek to gain growing understanding of culinary processes and viticulture, and so deepen the appreciation of food and wine when sharing round the table gatherings with like minded people. We like our food and drink and company and want to understand why good wine and food is good and why brilliant matches can be sublime. Founded in 1933 by gourmet and wine connoisseur André L. Simon, his stated purpose for the Society was 

"To bring together and serve all who believe that a right understanding of good food and wine is an essential part of personal contentment and health, and that an intelligent approach to the pleasures and problems of the table offers far greater rewards than the mere satisfaction of appetite."

Today, more than 75 years after its founding. there are now more than 6,000 members in 130 branches in 30 countries with more being added every year.

In January 2013, the IWFS Roppongi branch was inaugurated. This made the fourth branch for Tokyo. The sponsor for the Roppongi branch is Tony Narisawa, a member at the IWFS Kuala Lumpur Branch, and he thought it would be a good idea to put a group of us KL members together for a jolly to Japan and join with the new IWFS Roppongi branch at a dinner to mark their official launch in February 2014. Which he did. And so it came to pass that nineteen of us signed up for the trip. Tony had enlisted the assistance of the Japan Tourist Bureau office here in KL to put together a tour that would take in both a tour of the area and a sampling of some top end eateries showcasing a range of Japanese Cuisines and styles. Absolute no brainer - how to pass up sitting in a Hot Spring with the snow on your face in the shadow of Mount Fuji with a cup of Hot Sake? We signed up before signing up was allowed.

And so it came to pass that nineteen of us signed up for the trip. We all had a brief pre-tour briefing by the tour leader Nakamura-san who got some idea of what we wanted to get from the trip. Most of it revolved around food and shopping; where to buy the Wagyu Beef for bringing back to KL, would we be going to Asakusa, and so on. We were all pretty seasoned travellers so the questions were pretty few.

Time ticked away and so we found ourselves packed and ready for the off from home. Got our usual taxi to the KLIA though our usual driver sent a substitute due to it being the Goddess of Mercy's Birthday and he had a dinner with the family. They all like to take the MEX Highway, presumably because the tolls are less. Haven't done the usual road to KLIA for a while so not sure here. Met our tour guide K Nakamura at airport who was supposed to help check us in, but there wasn't much he could do to help so we checked in on our own. The flight would be from the C section in KLIA, which would be a first time for us. Not much in the way of shops and diversions in this part of KLIA. Walked up and down the thinly populated shopping area and ended up sharing a coffee with Lenglui at the Harrods. In retrospect, not a good idea and was probably the reason I didn't sleep on the flight. Dozed a bit but very restless, and ended up watching half of a Thor movie before it got switched off before landing. The food on this MAS flight was awful - a cold and manky egg sandwich for supper and a rubbery egg omelette and tasteless chicken sausage for breakfast. Ugh. If this is any indication, no wonder they are losing money.

Arrived at Narita and went through a painless immigration process after a twenty minute wait and some early morning verbal joshing with Jagjit the Bone Corrector in the queue. Lenglui got rushed through - seems they thought she was elderly Japanese so she got the good treatment.  Saw a Hello Kitty eyemask on the floor, clearly dropped by someone. No one picked it up. 

Got the luggage, said our good mornings as we gathered together in our group and got met by Reiko-san, our tour guide for the bus rides.  Reiko-san has a charming and lovely Songbird speaking voice with a cute inflection - a kind of "unn" or "mmm" or "huhnn" or "mmf" which varied depending on what kind of emphasis was needed to support the point she was making.  The same sound, but used to inflect different emphases, much in the same way we in the West might say "It's a fact" or "that's right" or "yes, it is so." Darn cute and very endearing. 

Tokyo had endured two nasty snowfalls in the weeks before we arrived. Riding the bus from the airport revealed not a lot of snow on the ground but we got quickly told that the roads to Hanare and Mount Fuji were not good. The supply trucks could not get through to make deliveries of food and other necessaries and given the prospect of another imminent snowstorm during the week the decision had been made for us not to attempt to get there. The prospect of no food and getting snowed in was clearly to be avoided. So, we would spend all four nights in Tokyo at the Keio Plaza Hotel and do extra bits of Tokyo and accessible surroundings. On one level this worked well since there would be no need to repack on departing a hotel. Missing Mount Fuji was a bummer though. So it goes. Maybe another time. Or maybe not. 

The original schedule was to get to Yokohama for lunch and it was decided that this would be followed. Our first stop en route was at a Shopping Mall overlooking the Rainbow bridge for a photo op with a Liberty Statue replica. The light was crisp and sparky and made for good shooting. Highlight was that Lenglui and I found a Starbucks and split a most welcome and necessary morning coffee. A moneyless Barry Shaw was passing and decided to snag a coffee for himself, promising to repay at a future date. He did. 

Tokyo's Statue of Liberty
Back on the bus and on to Yokohama where we made a first stop at the apparently famous Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse. Located on reclaimed land and originally used as customs buildings, this big red brick building has survived both an earthquake and a war and is now used as a complex that includes a shopping mall, banquet hall, and event venues. The building was completed in 1905 though fell into disuse as container shipping grew. Restoration work by the Takenaka Corporation was completed in 1999 and the Warehouse was officially opened in 2002. There are two buildings - the functionally named Number 1 Building is used as a venue for cultural and art exhibition events whilst its companion Number 2 Building offers food and retail therapy. Its main attraction for us was as a pee stop. These were open, the rest of the complex not so. We were too early. Bugger.

Notwithstanding, I tried for a group photo but at this point the camera batteries decided to die on me. I later found that the charger had not been packed, though I would have sworn on the book that it had gone into the case. Dope. Would clearly have to buy some batteries at some point.

Back on the bus and off to a Chinese cuisine lunch at the Heichinro Restaurant. The place is apparently legend amongst those of Chinese descent who live in Japan, and acclaimed for having the best Chinese cuisine in both town and nation. Well and yes, though some of us were never sure that this would be a good idea. Generally speaking, the cuisine of home when eaten abroad generally disappoints because it can rarely be as good as the best of the home cooking. Different, yes, but as good, never. The ingredients are different, the preparation is different and it just can NEVER compare. Yet at the same time it is impossible for us not to give any slack for this overseas interpretation, and I do not know why. Perhaps it is a group abroad bonding thing - we need the sense of the familiar when we are in a new place and one way of bonding is to whack the food. Perhaps THIS is the reason that we ultimately will always try the local style. Catch 22 - can never win but we bond. I got enlightened to this a long time ago and rarely will eat Chinese food abroad. We can get magnificent Chinese cuisine here in Kuala Lumpur and anywhere else will always be a distant also ran. Lenglui speculated that this was probably perceived by the organisers as a must do on a food trip and given that we were a food group then most naturally we would want the home cuisine. For a normal tour group, possibly yes - many Malaysian Chinese on holiday tours would probably insist on eating Rice and Noodles and so we guess the assumption was that our group would be no different and as a result it had to be… done. So we would "do" it.

My notes say we had Chinese Jelly Fish and BBQ Pork followed by Hot Sweetcorn Soup, Enoke Mushrooms, with Chives and noodles in a tasty sauce. The Dim Sum was Siew Mai, Crispy Roll, and Woh Tip (looking like a squashed football). The Fried Rice was very good, with firm grains and good pork bits. Little of this seems to now match the menu provided, but there you go. Coconut Milk for dessert to finish, we also polished off two bottles of the Rice Wine. The hot food was perfect for the weather and the jet lag that was now setting in. Good dose of soul food to line the stomach for the onslaught of Sashimi and Wagyu ahead. 

The surroundings and setting were good - we were in a private room with two tables - and the service was efficient. But we were foodies coming from Malaysia, and the food at the Heichinro was just…. ultimately…  okay and somewhat forgettable. Very nice, and tasty enough but not really a patch on what we can get in Malaysia.  But not to worry. As said, it was tasty enough. And the ice crystal clear and clean tasting rice wine woke us up from our post flight stupor. Good heat on the throat and a useful brain shaker to force us into facing the day. Heichinro is now "done". Nice to compare the styles, but in a head to head food fight Malaysian Chinese cuisine outside of China whacks the world. 

Lunch : Heichinro
tel 045-681-3001
Date: 18th, February 2014 

Chinese-style barbecued pork

Steamed dumpling with shark’s fin

Steamed bun with variety subgum

Ravioli of squid

Steamed bun with minced chicken & mushroom

Grilled Japanese radish, sausage and dried shrimp

Shrimp flavored mayonnaise

湯葉巻きのオイスターソース蒸し & 春巻き 
Steamed roll with soy milk skin flavored Oyster sause & Spring roll

Rice Gruel with Guangdong style



Shaoxing Rice Wine
聘珍楼 紹興酒
Shaoxing Rice Wine Heichinrou Special

Hot Tea

We cleared out of the restaurant and got packed off for a brief one hour wander through the streets of the neighbouring Chinatown. This was a six block area bounded by four gates and we were told it was difficult not to get lost. Just look for a gate and turn right and meet back at the Heichinrou in one hour. The remnants of the snowstorm were clear to see with piles of hard iced snow littering the streets. Seeing this dirty snow piled high reminded me of winters as a kid in Wales when the roads and pavements on the Cardiff streets would look the same. This was a working Chinatown with lots of noodle and food stores to cater for the resident population and visitors. We found the big Kanteibyo temple and Lenglui and I offered prayers to the gods. The temple was pretty well organised for tourists like myself - you bought your joss sticks at the entrance and got told to follow the numbers on the various shrines to make sure all the shrines were duly respected and you would be sure of doing the full round. And not a word of English spoken in all of this. Ah, the universality of numbers. We then slowly headed back to the rendezvous, occasionally poking a nose into a store that looked interesting. We didn't buy anything, though Lenglui got close with a Cheongsam at one place. A lot fo the stores came across as…  the word is junky, lots of trinket style souvenirs and other junk. This was the Chinatown for tourists. Didn't buy anything, but glad we did the temple. 

Protectorate God of Water in Yamashita Park
We met up back at the restaurant for an onward walk to the very pleasant Yamashita Park, replete with fountains and statues and all nicely crisp in the chill afternoon air. One of the statues was the Protectorate God of Water, overlooking the bay and presumably keeping all mariners safe in their voyages. The park was next to a dock area where a boat named the NYK Hikawa Maru Yokohama was moored. The story was this was a lucky boat on which to get married, if I heard right. Got great photos of the seagulls parked on the mooring line. Like they were all waiting for someone to scare them off for a laugh. No one did. 

Back on the bus for a forty minute ride to the hotel to check in. Most people dozed or slept. At the hotel, the bags got quickly whisked into the reception where we were given our personalised room packages with keys, vouchers, and all the necessaries. Very efficient, and very welcome in being so.

We are waiting for summer...
Keio Plaza Hotel Room 1507 was pleasant and with a lot of space in comparison to some of the Youtube horror stories I'd seen about the miniscule size of Tokyo hotel rooms. This had good space, though lack of a room safe was not what we were used to. We unpacked in five minutes ahead of a quick hot bath and then dressed for a 6pm meet and a brisk 20 minute walk through the underground of the very nearby Shinjuku station to dinner. The station itself at this time of day is madness - the numbers of people going in and out and around the place was unbelievable. We were told that about 3 million people pass through Shinjuku station every day. Incredible how everyone seems to know where to go and what to do. I'm usually okay with Metro systems but this one was definitely scary. Total rush and way, way easy to get lost and go off in wrong directions. Thanks to Reiko and Nakamura, our nineteen people made it safely through to our target  backstreet and to our destination - the Tempura Tsunahachi restaurant. 

Tempura dates back to the 16th century when it was brought to Japan by Chinese and Western visitors to Nagasaki. Since oil was considered precious at that time, deep-fried fritter style dishes were seen as being very special. The late 18th century saw tempura stalls being set up on the streets and being served with tentsuyu sauce and grated radish.  There are two main styles we see today - the golden "Kimpura" coated with egg yolk and fried to a golden crisp; and the silver "Gimpura" coated with egg white and also fried. Served in restaurants, it became especially popular as a gourmet food which spread quickly across Japan. Along with sukiyaki, Tempura is now seen as one of Japan's true national dishes.

Tempura Tsunahachi was founded in 1923 by one Kyuzo Shimura, said to be a craftsman with tempura and attracting the stars of the day to the restaurant. Chef Kyuzo-san was also a musician and artist, often entertaining patrons with Tokiwazu-bushi (a type of traditional Joruri music). He would also draw pictures of shrimp and fish on tempura paper with soy sauce for guests. The present day restaurant has a souvenir bag on which is one of Kyuzo-san's drawing of a shrimp.

In the early 1960's, Keisuke-san became owner and heir apparent and opened the Shinjuku outlet in 1964 with the sole purpose of "serving delicious tempura to as many customers as possible." For Keisuke-san, ingredients came first, followed by oil and then skill, though presumably having a special supply route of superb shrimp also helps.

Now in its third stage of development under Hisaya Shimura, the mission has expanded to "create unique and refined dishes and to propose new ways in which to enjoy tempura" and so help cement the status of Tempura as a truly international dish. 

The website talks about two Japanese kanji characters, "beautiful" and "experience" joining together to form the word "oishii" which means delicious. As a result, Tempura Tsunahachi seeks to continually present "oishii" golden tempura to its patrons.

It was delightful. Our guides said it was one of the best tempura places in town and it certainly delivered.  Looking at the prices, it is not cheap, but is very recommended. 

The style seems to be to start with beer and then move on to sake and then on to the good sake. Which we did. Big time. Foodwise, I think we had a range of all the various menus since I remember having vegetables, the sea eel and the various accompaniments. We started with a chunk of Octopus leg in Soy Sauce which had good spice and firm bite without being chewy. This was followed by the traditional Egg Tofu and then the lovely Tempura. The batter was so light as to have been almost dusted on the food. 

The main memory was the tempura prawn - light batter and massive crunchy succulent big size King sucker. Absolute cracker of a prawn. Everything to this point had been pleasant and good but this seared the memory. Total melt in the mouth texture and bite. The batter was a dream, with possibly a hint of pepper. I also ended up with the Prawn Head Tempura - again, a lovely light crunch which evaporated. Very VERY nice. And then I got a scallop and spicy Soy Sauce Tempura with chopped mushrooms. Oyyyy….   got salt, got sweet, got sour and all over the tongue and sides of the mouth with lovely, lovely texture. Totally scintillating. There was also a Fish Tempura which I guess would have been the Anage or Sea Eel. Felt like Whitebait and a shade salty but was belter with the cold Mineno-hanarbai Sake (the naming of which was apparently the result of eight Admirals strategising together). 

As the night went on and the Eight Admirals Strategising Sake kept flowing, our end of the long table got quite raucous with the Bhai Boys and Girls in session. The other end was a bit more well behaved. The Sake seemed better cold rather than hot on the night. The waitresses were occasionally a bit muscular in clearing the plates, though perhaps with all the rowdies they may have felt the need to be. 

Tempura Tsunahachi
TEL 03-3352-1012
3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022

Exclusive Edomae Set Plate    from JPY 3,990
Japanese tiger prawn (Kuruma-ebi), squid, two seafood dishes, two vegetable dishes, Anago (sea eel), deep-fried small shrimps (kakiage), appetizer, and a set of rice, miso-soup and Japanese pickles (osoroi) 

Utage (Main Course)    from JPY 4,200
Japanese tiger prawn (Kuruma-ebi), squid, seasonal fish and vegetables, shrimp with shitake mushroom filling, deep-fried small shrimps (kakiage) 

Tempura Set    JPY 1,995
Two shrimps, assorted seafood, vegetables, Anago (sea eel), deep-fried small shrimps (kakiage), appetizer; and a set of rice, miso-soup and Japanese pickles (osoroi). 

Special Kyuzo* Bowl (Tokusen Kyuzo Don) from JPY 2,100
*Kyuzo is the founder of Tsunahachi
Salad, Japanese Lobster (O-ebi), seafood, vegetables, Anago (sea eel), deep-fried small shrimps (kakiage), miso-soup and Japanese pickles.

Affter dinner some took a taxi while others chose to walk back to hotel. We got a cab with some others because Lenglui wanted to see the Sky Bar at night. On getting there we ran into Tony-san and Vanessa who clearly had the same idea and insisted we help them finish his bottle of Champagne and sausage plate. It is SO impolite to refuse such a request, so we sat and enjoyed the midnight skyline with friends, pork and fizz. Total delight. Back to the room, zonked out for three hours sleep, waking for toilet and not getting back off for some time.

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