Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Going Out With A Bang

Yesterday was our last regular day in Japan and unfortunately we had to spend the day dealing with a few chores we had put off. We started the day with Rumi renewing her drivers license at the DMV. From about 11 to 1 she needed to take a two hour course and I was on babysitting duty. I set out to find a last good bowl of ramen despite Rumi's warnings that we were in the middle of nowhere.

I was positive that the DMV being filled with civil servants, good cheap eats had to be nearby. I was shocked how near. Not a two hundred yards, or meters in this case from the huge combination police station DMV was this little gem. Mubo ramen. I considered walking past, actually did by about twenty meters or so, then circled back. This had to be predetermined.

As you can see in the shot on the left, the gentleman was even putting out the sign just as I walked by. Hana and I circled back and sat at the counter to the first, "Irashaimasse" of the day. I of course couldn't read a thing so I simply said, "special" and the guy behind the counter replied with a knowing "Hai."

When the soup arrived I knew I had made the right choice, Yoda and Bobafet were standing on the counter next to the business cards. From the first glance. I knew I was looking at a soup that was unpretentious, well balanced and most importantly, tasty. Yes, I could tell all that from looking.

What struck me here was the simplicity. Three pieces of chashu, which had been rolled and tied, three slices of nori, an unsliced egg, some spring onion and yamakurage, a new one for us this trip. The noodles were very thin, al dente, perfect. I was the first bowl of the day and these guys hit the nail on the head. The chashu was so soft it litteraly tore from its own weight on the chopstick, not to mention melting in the mouth. The broth was shoyu, soy sauce, and had a dark taste, but without the oil of the "gravy-like" broths I have described in earlier posts.

I was sold already, the only question that remained was the egg. It was whole which has often signaled overcooked. This one however was, like the noodles, cooked perfectly. When I sliced it with my chopsticks, the inside ran just slightly and had that bright yellow-orange almost neon glow. I finished the entire bowl and drank about half the broth. A nice early lunch.

Unfortunately our great culinary journey has come to an end, we have an early flight tomorrow and though our airport hotel has three restaurants, none of them are ramen. I've enjoyed the trip though I am looking forward to NY pizza like Christmas.

I gave Mubo 4 1/2 bowls, well earned

Monday, July 27, 2009


Today I was treated to a very special and delicious meal. Rumi's aunt, the youngest girl of the mothers eight siblings, is a warm and welcoming person who has gone out of her way to make me feel welcomed and to celebrate Rumi and my life together. Today she invited us out for kaiseki, the pinnacle of refinement in Japanese cuisine. This was a an experience to remember.

I have tried to document things with photos, if you click them you can see larger images. The first series of dishes, four and an umeshu was strong and diverse. An indicator of the meal to come to be sure. Two of the dishes were covered and are show so in the first photo, in the second they are shown cover removed.

The umeshu, plum wine, was a welcomed refreshment from the hot and humid Tokyo day outside. Lighter than what I have had in the past. It was fun to listen to the others wonder whether they could drink it due to the early hour and the fact that they had to drive. Japan has 0 tolerance for BAC. The four dishes, clockwise from the top, the first was a corn pudding or tofu with onion flavor and a topping of caviar, I identified this as the stuffing from the Hotel Fuga raddish that I enjoyed last week. Second squid, raw and cold in a broth made of squid ink. I tried, it was nasty. The third an interesting take on wine and cheese. The cheese was sharp something similar to cheddar but lighter and the wine was jellied. These were served with a small cheese quiche or what was similar to Italian cheesecake. The last dish was sazae, a snail-like shell dweller that is caught off the coast of Japan and is something I have turned down on several occasions, even when I fetched a few from the reef myself. They're ugly. This tasted great. Slightly spicy in a miso sauce with Japanese cucumber.

Next was a light broth with fishcake and a three tiered dumpling which was topped with a Kyoto fish called hamo which seems to be similar to pike. This was interesting in its complexity. It is a difficult thing to put together three ingredients, serve them layered in a broth and have it not fall apart. I got the impression that it was special to be served this fish, and the dumpling was delicate and light.

Next was the sashimi course. Two things stood out here, the squid which was simultaneously thick and tender, and the fact that real wasabi was served. Real wasabi is all but unavailable in the US, and is not served in most resturaunts in Japan either (at least not where I eat). You can tell by sight and certainly by taste. I actually ate the remaining wasabi straight to try to compare the power, but that is not where the difference is felt.

A cold soup of tomato and lettuce maybe, I skipped this, was served opposite one of the best dishes of the afternoon. Japanese figs are large, this one almost the size of a baseball, certainly larger than a racquetball. This one had been stewed and served with a miso sauce. I couldn't believe how delicious this was.

The next volley is pictured both covered and uncovered. This little ship sailed in with a crab spring roll, piece of anago sushi, chicken roulade and a piece of broiled sansho, not sure about that name. Each one of these was a tasty bite sized morsel to be savored for it would not last. The toxic green looking soup contained a fish cake and tofu in what was a significantly salty clam stock. Now there are three kinds of clam chowder. The flower I orriginaly mistook for a garnish, but soon discovered a delightful little sweet had been lovingly placed inside. A ball of jelly, apple perhaps with other flavors as well. It reminded me of a candy apple with about half the sugar.

Next came somen noodles served in a sleeve of bamboo which you lifted to release the noodles, crab, mushroom and other toppings into the broth. These were of course served very cool and were delicious. Served with this was a wine soaked ume, Japanese plum which I was hesitant to taste. So far I have only had these when they have been turned into the deplorable umeboshi, pickled plum, that I can't stand but others love. This was sweet and refreshing. I want to try these plums ripe off the tree, I don't know why anyone would ruin them by pickling.

Next came a scallop served with potato in a thick soy flavored sauce topped with roasted red pepper and snow pea. The red pepper did seem like it was just added to be an eye-pleaser, but I love roasted red peppers so there are no complaints here. The scallop was perhaps past where I like them, but I'm nobody to argue with this cheff.

Another soup was served, this one containing a yaki-onigiri (fried rice ball) which contained tiny fish inside that were so small as to be translucent except for their eyes. These are not my favorite, I have had them as sushi before, and I only ate about half of this. The pickles as well were not the varieties I care for and I ate only the daikon, just tasting the other two. Here again was served real wasabi, for the soup along with small squares of nori.

Finally it was time for desert. This was a mango pudding with whipped coconut topping and fresh fruit. I made short work of this surprisingly light desert, wishing only for more fresh fruit. Fruit is for some reason expensive in Japan. It might have to do with the hesitance to buy foreign food products. This was served with what was probably the best cup of coffee that I've ever had in this country that was not served in someone's house.

The meal in total took three hours and we are pretty sure that the bill was well over a thousand dollars. Nice aunt, too bad she is not my mother-in-law. This was a great meal, worthy of bumping the ramen for a day, but with only a few days left before we go back to America and I hang up my noodles for another year, tomorrow I'm back at it.

A Pleasant Surprise

About a mile from where I am staying right now is this little unassuming ramen shop which my twelve year old nephew told me was supposed to be good. It was really hot out Sunday and I didn't feel much like walking too far so I figured I'd give it a try.

When I walked in I was in the familiar position of not being able to read anything. I looked at the posted photos of the ramen and asked the waiter what was 880 yen. "Negi chashu miso" he replied. Didn't look like that to me but I said, "So desuka, watashi wa negi chashu miso onagaishimasu." Really bad Japanese I'm sure, but he understood.

The reason I was confused was because the photo appeared to show kimchee on top of the bowl of ramen, not scallions. When the soup arrived, my confusion was soon settled. The scallions had been soaked, not quite pickled, in a chili paste which made them red hot. These were a fantastic new topping which I heretofore have not seen. This combined two of my favorite things. Add to that crisp fresh moyashi, a little wakame sea weed, and some very decent, though a little thick, chashu and you've got yourself a winner.

The noodles were a thicker variety, though certainly not as thick as the ones I had at the ramen museum. They were cooked to perfection and I was beginning to think the family should chose this as their local joint, it being a significant step up from the other places around their house I have tried.

The soup as well was not bad. It wasn't anything to knock your socks off, but it was a good clean tasting light miso broth. Overall this was a very well balanced bowl of ramen and I will certainly be visiting this shop again in the future. I gave it four bowls.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Some Like It Hawt

Sometimes you have to resort to slumming it. This week we are in Karuizawa, a mountain resort town which is unfortunately also home to a large outlet mall. Being that most of the shops are American, and that the goods are twice the price of the American outlets, this holds no appeal for me. We went. And it was decided that we would eat lunch here despite several ramen shops in town. I had to choose between Ajihe Ramen and another shop which was even less appealing in the food court. I chose Ajihe.

Once inside I ordered the spicy miso (karamiso) ramen, the day being a little cold and damp. The soup was topped with a slice of chashu, nori, moyashi, sesame seeds and cabbage. It appeared very red in color. Sadly it was only mildly spicy. The noodles were average, and the chashu was surprisingly good, but on the whole this was very run-of-the-mill. Food service food. There was nothing special here, but not much to criticize either. As I dined to the sounds of Danny's Song(Even though we ain't got money) by Loggins and Messina and Chucky's In Love it struck me how there was a similarity between the music and the food. Not offensive, but not good either.

2 1/2 bowls.

The next day we rode out to the Onioshidashi Lava Rocks outside of town. I figured for sure that this day we would have to give the ramen a miss. Then we found Demon Volcano Ramen right there next to the food court. The menu looked like I'd be in for more of the same as yesterday, roadside attraction food service, but everyone wanted ramen today so who was I to say no. There were several options here that I found appealing, especially the mountain vegetable ramen, but when I heard the name of one ramen was Volcano Ramen, I had to see just how hot it was. We all ordered, and as I sat to wait for the lunch, KISS came over the boom box in the corner, I Was Made For Loving You. Maybe we were in for an improvement over yesterday.

Looks hot right? It was especially at first. The broth was spicy miso again, but this time there was some kick to it. Not Tom-yam or kimchee jigae, but still pretty hot. It seemed like they had put chili oil on top. The real heat didn't last through the whole bowl, but the broth was very good.

The toppings, corn, bean sprouts and green onions formed a mountain on top of the bowl, clever. The wakame seaweed however was just off to the side. I don't like corn on ramen, though it is fairly common. I feel like it just falls away as you eat and it requires a special effort to seek out with chopsticks. It all ends up on the bottom of the bowl. Also, there was no pork which everyone else's soup had or menma which several others had. Mine was the most expensive soup, which means you are paying for a gimmick. I object. The noodles were fair if slightly past where they should have been cooked, but not bad.

Overall I gave this 3 1/2 bowls.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Where's the Beef?

So instead of ramen for the last two days, I am going to focus on the food we had at the hotel where we stayed in Nikko. The Hotel Fuga in Nikko was probably the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. The food and hotel was, thanks to careful internet bargain shopping by my sister-in-law about $150 per night per person. An absolute steal when you consider the amount and quality of the food, both dinner and breakfast.

The dinner, several small dishes ranging from a pear flavored sake to shabu-shabu, to a delicious but odd desert were served in a traditional tatami room on a low table by an attentive and very friendly staff.

The meal started with a stuffed radish which must have been baked I would guess. The stuffing was actually creamy in texture, almost like a custard with bits of crab, shrimp and vegetable. Both the texture and the taste were exceptional and this was not something I would order. I made up my mind here that I would eat everything that was served, no matter how odd it looked. The raddish was served opposite a pear flavored sake about which my only criticism is that it was a small glass (it was the proper size for sake, I just wanted more). There was also a small side dish of a corn-tofu, which was similar though softer and smoother than pollenta (not pictured here).

Second was the sashimi course. Maguro, tai, and botan ebi. Tuna, red snapper and a special shrimp served raw. The sashimi was fresh and tender. The highlight was the shrimp which was served raw as well with the head on. I wish someone at the table hadn't wanted theirs, I would have traded all the tofu of the night to get another shrimp.

Next was a soup with a large tofu dumpling, for lack of a better description in the center. Though it kind of looked like the chilled monkey brains from the Indiana Jones movies, it wasn't that bad. I'm so so on tofu to be frank, especially when people try to serve tofu ten different ways in the same meal. This was ok though. The broth was not too salty and very light in flavor.

Finally the main course arrived. Shabu-shabu. I've had shabu-shabu before, but take a close look at the marbling on this beef. The vegetables as well were all fresh and the shittake in particular were large and flavorful. The mochi, rice cakes, had been toasted before being added to the soup. Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, jumbo scallions and enoki mushrooms. Nobody seemed to know what the yellow cakes were, but it seems to be the pollenta like substance from earlier. The beef was wonderful. The kind of thing a fool would grind up and make into a kobe burger in Manhattan. When the meat is already mixed with the fat, it doesn't need to be ground. Bastards.

Next the meal took a dramatic turn. These were steamed vegetables served in an umeboshi (pickled plum) vinaigrette. I hate umeboshi, this wasn't terrible, but I could have done without it. Those who liked umeboshi at the table liked it very much though and my sister-in-law gladly finished off the portions of other diners.

Next came simple Japanese fare, pickles, rice and miso soup. The pickles were cucumbers two ways and daikon radish. These could have had a stronger salt, but were pleasant. The rice was cooked with Japanese sweet potato and topped with black sesame. This was different and I was enjoying it, but I was so full already I couldn't possibly finish a bowl of rice. The miso soup, red, was different and I vowed to buy red miso in addition to white next time I go shopping.

All of this brings me to the dessert. Silver-grey. I joked that it looked like something I could use to patch a scratch on my car. It was sesame pudding. Yeah I know, but trust me this was delicious. It took a second to get used to, but I ate it all. My twelve year old nephew didn't agree however. The only criticism I have here is that it was topped with a slice of honey dew and a slice of pink grapefruit which didn't work. The grapefruit should have been subbed out by watermelon. And thus ended dinner. Remember, this was only $150. You'd pay that much for this meal in NYC, but add in breakfast and room, pictures below, and this was a steal.

Breakfast is pictured below. The room was huge and included a seperate bathroom and toilet, a very large main room, small sitting room and tea room. Click on the link above where I mentioned the name of the hotel. Oh yeah, there was also a full onsen, all included in the price.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


No post yesterday, but I did have the ramen so I'll write a double today. We went outside Tokyo yesterday to visit a friend. We had also heard from her that there was a good ramen place near her station which we decided to try on the way. Itsuki ramen was supposed to be wonderful, the only problem was it turned out that this was not Itsuki ramen. Thanks Google Maps. Whatever this place was, there was a line outside and I got in it. The funny part was that this place seemed like it might be really good. They are billed as having a good broth, made from tai (red snapper) and shio (salt). That is exactly what I ordered with an egg. I waited for it to come as I looked at some of the other "innovative" bowls my fellow diners were enjoying. One had bell peppers on top in three colors and, of all things, a slice of bread! Sure, why not top it off with some mashed potato too.

The soup came and looked good enough, the smell of the fish was pungent, and this was obviously not for those who don't like fish. I do, and this was what I had ordered, so I couldn't possible take points off for the soup smelling, or tasting, like tai. The noodles were a different story, thick and gummy, they left a lot to be desired. The pork as well was square, and seemed to have been seared on all sides and sliced rather than braised. This of course made for a tough mess of what should have been a nice piece of pork. Its difficult to see, but under that nori is two blocks of menma. Menma, preserved bamboo shoots, are usually sliced so that they blend nicely with the noodle offering a nice addition to the flavor of the noodle. This was an attept at innovation, it floundered as I'm sure the bread did. This was not good ramen.

1 and 1/2 bowls

Sunday morning I was back at it. This time only a few short blocks from the house at a place that my brother-in-law Yas-san and his son said was pretty good, Manpuku Ramen. I ordered the tonkotsu with chashu and negi. This was a small shop, and had a very mom and pop feel. When the soup arrived, it looked great. The broth whitish, with just the right amount of oil on top in small bubbles rather than a slick of grease. The chashu, five generous slices, was arranged around the perimeter of the bowl. In the center were menma, propperly sliced this time and a small pile of green onions. The bowl was finished off with a single piece of nori at the left.

Looks great, but wasn't. The noodles were ok, and the soup did have good flavors, but there was a lack of salt here that left the soup, and hence everything it was supposed to flavor, bland. I added some pepper, sesame seeds and nori flakes to try to give it some more appeal, but no luck. The pork was not rolled and wasn't soft enough, though it was not chewy either. The spinach was just slightly over boiled as well. This was a bowl that was not without promise or beyond rescue, but it wasn't great.

I gave this 2 1/2 bowls.