May 28, 2013

In Tokyo, Mixologizing with the Seasons

Gen Yamamoto, ready for business.
One of the best parts of a highlight-filled trip to Tokyo recently was dropping in on Bar Gen Yamamoto. Gen joined David Bouley's New York City team in late 2010 and the following April helped open Brushstroke, Bouley's French-tinged play on kaiseki cuisine. There, he specialized in fruit- and vegetable-based cocktails that were remarkable for their elegance and subtlety. I was a fan in New York, and curious to see what new concoctions the gifted mixologist had up his freshly-pressed sleeve in Tokyo.

He's set up his welcoming eight-seat bar in Azabu-Juban, a neighborhood where remnants of old Japan collide with  embassies, cafes and an international mix of residents. To the delight of his followers, he's also extended his range with a cocktail list that serves as a guide to the agrarian bounty of his native country.

We tried a four-course tasting menu (¥4,200, six-course is ¥5,800) which started with a refreshing mix of cucumber from Ibaraki, Kumamoto cantaloupe, Okinawa hiba-chi pepper, and Kawabe rice shochu. The latter is from a region in Kumamoto Prefecture known for its pristine waters.

 Fruit opener: cucumber, cantaloupe, hiba-chi pepper, rice shochu.

Full of beans: Ehime fava, kinome, junmai ginjo Raifuku.

Excited about the range of produce he has access to from all over Japan, Gen raves about the softness the tomato water he extracts from Ishiyama tomatoes that are now in season. He pays close attention to the condition of each tomato, and depending on variables such as when in the season they are picked and when in the tasting service he places it, he may use one of seven different tomato cocktail recipes. "The main thing is that I'm always looking for improvement and trying to surprise my guests," he says. The one we sampled included both fresh tomato, a housemade confiture of tomato, shiso and Rives Spanish gin. 

Not your mom's bloody Mary: Tomato cocktail

Another of Gen's finds is raw Kumano dogwood honey. The trees' flowers produce enough honey for bees to collect only every four years, resulting in a denseness of flavor that he likes combined with Ehime new summer orange (the flavor of which is somewhere between yuzu, grapefruit and lemon), mint and Torikai rice shochu.

The "dessert" course: summer orange, Kumano honey, mint, rice shochu 

Gen himself brings to mind a latter-day Jeeves, an unflappable master of his trade who never seems to break a sweat. While he is tall and lean, however, his creations are uniquely round and soft. They don't deliver the blunt alcoholic KO that many drinkers seek, but creep up on you in stockinged feet; their impact can therefore come as a surprise at the end of the evening. 

The room Gen has created is remarkable as well, anchored by an beautiful, broad bar fashioned from a 500-year-old Japanese oak (mizunara) tree. Beige walls and minimal adornment complete the setting, making Bar Gen Yamamoto a soothing refuge where you can relax and converse with your fellow guests and host while sampling his quietly astonishing cocktails.

Bar Gen Yamamoto
1-6-4 Azabu-Juban
Minato-ku Tokyo 

May 20, 2013

My Japan Airlines Foot Massage

I haven't flown Japan Airlines in a long time, so had not seen this particular airborne customer perk before. At the back of the plane en route to Tokyo,  where all the parents with jumpy kids and restless adults mill about during the 13-hour flight, this reflexology map of the foot was posted:

Right below it, I found this bamboo segment, upon which you massage the above outlined pressure points.

I had to wait in line for my turn, and when I hopped on the bamboo half-cylinder, found that it can be a challenge to zero in on minute points such as  #4 and #5. I  did my best, though, and my organs and other bodily parts thanked me for my efforts. Since my total travel time to Saga Prefecture, Kyushu was 25 hours, I can only imagine what kind of shape I would have been in at trip's end without this ki-enhancing interlude.

May 14, 2013

Takashi Inoue: Putting the 'Variety' in Variety Meats

Chef Takashi: Recently featured looking very sharp on the pages of GQ.
 Reporting on and eating horumon--innards and variety meats--at Takashi restaurant in the West Village was my recent fun assignment for Edible Manhattan, resulting in this article. Conceived by Osaka-born chef Takashi Inoue and general manager Saheem Ali, the restaurant specializes in yakiniku (Japanese grilled meat), with the subspecialty of horumon. 

Artist Aya Hasegawa's charming murals, which Takashi commissioned
to make horumon less intimidating to American diners.

As the mural above (created by a friend of Takashi's, Osaka artist Aya Hasegawa) explains, the term horumon, the Japanese rendering of the English word "hormone," connotes stamina and vigor. The mural posits that the name was an effort to re-brand off-cuts, though in many cultures eating organ meats is said to enhance virility. 

Yakiniku arrived in Japan along with the large numbers of Koreans who were conscripted during World War II and has been gaining in popularity ever since, especially after the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Takashi is a fourth-generation Korean Japanese whose grandmother ran a small yakiniku restaurant in Osaka. Growing up in his family and in a Korean neighborhood, he says, “My snack was horumon; it’s like a street food.” Today, he says, cow guts have gone so mainstream in Japan, “You can go to any supermarket and buy horumon, already marinated and in a ‘barbecue set.’”

When I arrived, Takashi and crew were in the middle of a photo shoot for a new dish he had come up with: squid ink rice with miso-marinated sweetbeads and spicy yuzu aioli. Preparing and primping the dish before a shoot is like putting it through hair and makeup; here, the lighting technicians and cameraman try to show the model off to best advantage.

Beef heart chili with grilled mochi (rice cake) and cheese. Sounds weird, but it's actually delicious.

Takashi's dishes are fresh and daring, and this is no exception: a combination of housemade smoked beef pancetta, baby whitebait fish and monkfish liver, done Spanish style in olive oil and garlic. It's cooked in a sardine tin.

The main attraction: tetchan, or large intestines, which many people consider the most delicious of the cow innards. Cooked on Takashi's super-hot electric grills, you can get the ideal texture:  crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. Itadakimasu!

May 3, 2013

The Experimental Cocktail Club Shines

I wasn't expecting a buffet of inventive cocktail wizardry at yesterday's Lucky Rice cocktail event at the Bowery Hotel, but that's just what it turned out to be, with eight establishments shaking and stirring to excess. These were my favorites, from the aptly named Experimental Cocktail Club.

The first was the Kho Tao, a mango-infused Cazadores Reposado tequila, Thai mango sticky rice custard, lime juice and young coconut cordial. A slurpee rethought by a mad mixo-culinary savant.
To read more about the guy behind ECC, Nico de Soto, check out this interesting interview on Heritage Radio.

The next, also from ECC, moved into the territory of alchemy. It was presented in a glass bowl letting off clouds of dry ice smoke, individually packaged in smart little apothecary bottles. This was the Penang Milk Punch, made with pandan-infused Bombay Sapphire East gin (whose product an logo was everywhere), Van Oosten Batavia arrack, Cameron Highland green tea, fresh pineapple juice, fresh lemon juice, clarified milk, Malaysian herb and spice-infused coconut water. Just what the herbalist prescribed, and strangely delicious, too.

Can't wait to see what the Lucky Rice people have in store for us tonight.