Sunday, January 6, 2013

Country French in Studentville

Name: Couscous Rougir / クスクス・ルージール
Neighborhood: Shimokitazawa / 下北沢
Style: Mediterranean Country French

There used to be an awesome place in Shimokitazawa called Big Chief which was a cajun restaurant. To tell you the truth, the cajun food wasn't great, but the place was awesome; it was a locals hangout where you could swill a few beers and catch up on the latest that was happening around town. Almost every time I went in there I saw some of the same people (some of whom owned other restaurants around the 'hood) and hung out too long.

Unfortunately for us but happily for them, the proprietors of Big Chief decided to pack it in and move to Okinawa. Can't argue with that lifestyle choice, but it left a void in the local scene.

The only good thing to come out of the whole episode is that the space where Big Chief used to be was taken over by Couscous Rougir. This delightful place, while not as homey as Big Chief, serves awesome Mediterranean/Country French food, in particular couscous-based stews, and is currently one of the highest-rated places in Shimokitazawa on tabelog despite being only a few months old.

The staff is a grand total of two people, and they're kept pretty busy even though there's only 18 seats in the shop. There's a nice French wine list including about 5 reds and 5 whites by the glass, ranging from 900 to 1400 yen; and one chalkboard each describing the appetizers, desserts, and the main event, the couscous-based stews.

The stews each come in three parts: a bowl of extremely light and fluffy couscous; an iron pot fresh off the stove with a tomato-based stew as well as whatever main ingredient you picked; and a small dish of extremely spicy sauce which you can apply to taste. To eat, you put some of the couscous down in your plate, dollop the stew over the top, add spicy sauce to taste (I used all of it), and let it soak for a minute before spooning it (rapidly) into your mouth.

They're all available in 1-, 2-, or 3-person sizes and the night I was there the main ingredients offered a choice of beef, chicken, fish, or, as the server recommended and I chose, lamb. The lamb was deliciously broiled to medium rare perfection before being added to the stew, so this is no boiled-to-death version of meat. Depending on ingredient and size the stews range from 1400 to 3000 yen and are a fantastic value.

The appetizers I tried were good although for the appetizers the quantity of food is more along the lines of a kaiseki restaurant than country french. There was a daily special of ebi baked in bread, and I also got a yummy Moroccan salad with a mildly spicy dressing.

Big two thumbs up for Couscous Rougir. Don't miss the stews. By the way, the tabelog entry for Cousocus Rougir somehow says this place costs 8000-9000 yen per person for dinner; that's simply wrong by about a factor of two, even including a glass of wine or dessert.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Great Eating in Kanazawa, Part 4 of 4

Restaurant: Yumeri / ゆめり
Neighborhood: Kanazawa behind the Rifare Building / 金沢市 リファレビルの後ろ
Style: Japanese / 和食

My friend Yasuko had suggested two places right away to eat. Itaru was the first, but Yumeri was the second, and on my last night in Kanazawa I managed to get reservations here (which are always suggested, it's quite often booked). Just like you would hope, my last meal in Kanazawa was the very best!

Yumeri was started by a chef who previously trained at Itaru, so it also is a Japanese restaurant emphasizing seafood. Accordingly, for the third night in a row we started out with the sashimi moriawase, and it was the capper of all the great sushi I had in Kanazawa (and once again the buri was probably the single best). We followed that up with quite a variety of other seafood, based mostly on the chef's recommendations, and every single dish was fantastic.

The atmosphere here is generally more upscale than Itaru or Hirosaka-tei and the prices are also somewhat higher; although we didn't have much to drink it still came to over 6000 yen per person. Still, it was a great deal for a sumptuous meal.

Yumeri is very conveniently located if you're around the station area. Follow the main road heading SE away from the station, and in less than five minutes you'll come to a huge building called Rifare; Yumeri is on the street behind Rifare. There's no particular English menu or English speakers here, so be sure to have a Japanese speaker with you (especially so you can ask the chef about tonight's recommendations!).

Great Eating in Kanazawa, Part 3 of 4

Restaurant: Mojo Cafe / Kopi Gallery
Neighborhood: Near Kenrokuen in Kanazawa / 金沢市、兼六園に近い
Style: Western-style Coffeeshop
Website: None but there's a tabelog or the owner's blog

Quite different from the very Japanese food I was eating in the evening was the pleasant afternoons at Cafe Mojo. I wish there was a cafe like this in my neighborhood in Tokyo!

Cafe Mojo is a very mellow coffeeshop. It's shockingly large for a Japanese business, with open-plan seating featuring a lot of overstuffed chairs and couches. The coffee is very good, but the clear winner here is the scones: real homemade, crumbly scones served with clotted cream and organic jam. The Queene Anne in Victoria doesn't really do it any better than this!

From Kanazawa Jan 2012

The cafe also has free WiFi, which is rare in Japan, so this cafe is a definite must-go place for the traveler. The owner (who is usually the sole employee) speaks perfect English, and the menu is largely bilingual anyway, so a lot of the local foreigner community will stop by here in the afternoon if they can.

This cafe is an easy 5-minute walk from Kenrokuen Garden Ishikawa-mon, but it's not labelled with a big sign. If you have Google Maps here's a link; otherwise, when you come out of Ishikawa-mon, walk down the hill to the large intersection, cross the street to the police box, and walk around the left side of the police box and up the street. The cafe is just after a parking lot on the right, and from the outside it looks like a retail store or something.

This is a lunch + afternoon sort of place, open Wed-Sun 11am-5pm.

Great Eating in Kanazawa, Part 2 of 4

Restaurant: Hirosaka-tei / ヒロサカ亭
Neighborhood: Katamachi in Kanazawa / 金沢市片町
Style: Izakaya

The second day I explored off on my own. There actually is a very nice Kanazawa page on Wikitravel which is a good read if you're heading there. I picked Hirosaka-tei out of the mid-range section and checked it out.

It was another great night of eating! The highlights here were the sashimi moriawase (again) and the tempura. The place doesn't have an English menu but the owner speaks excellent English having lived in the US for many years, so if you don't speak Japanese feel free to go here but be sure to sit at the counter where the owner can help you out himself.

I continued trying the local nihonshu here with Kagatobi / 加賀鳶, a nice medium-dry sake with a lot of fruitiness.

Hirosaka-tei is just a touch cheaper than Itaru, at about 4000 to 4500 yen per person. The (weeknight) when I was there, it wasn't busy so I had a great time chatting with the owner and waitress in Japanese.

Great Eating in Kanazawa, Part 1 of 4

Restaurant: Itaru / いたる
Neighborhood: Kanazawa, near Kenrokuen and the 21st Century Museum / 金沢市
Style: Izakaya with emphasis on Seafood

Many years ago, I studied Japanese in Kanazawa. I've been there in the spring, summer, and fall, but I'd never been there in winter to see the famous Kenrokuen Gardens covered in snow. Just before my new job starts, I made a quick trip to see them (and indeed it was gorgeous).

However, the other advantage of going to the Hokuriku region in winter is getting to eat great food! Food in Kanazawa is always great, but winter is the best time for seafood and so I had three great days of eating out in Kanazawa.

My friend Yasuko suggested Itaru as the first place to try in Kanazawa. Itaru is very popular among locals, so reservations are a good idea; you'll frequently be turned away even on a weeknight without them. It's easy to get here either by walking, or by taxi (unlike Tokyo, taxis in Kanazawa are not too expensive); just tell the driver "itaru honten".

Itaru is the familiar open-kitchen, counter-oriented izakaya format, and the food has a special emphasis on seafood but encompasses the full range you'd expect from a high-end izakaya. This is a Japanese restaurant, so having a Japanese speaker in the group is essential.

Some of the highlights here the night I went were the sashimi moriawase, which of course included the Buri that hokuriku is well-known for in winter (in fact, I ate delicious buri sashimi every night I was in Kanazawa), Shirako (look it up), and grilled buri. Everything here was really good, and as with most Japanese restaurants, it's a good bet to ask the chef what's good tonight and order that.

We had a toriaezu beer but after that moved on to Nihonshu, there was a delightful dry sake but I forgot to note the name!

A lot of food and a generous amount of sake at Itaru still only came out to about 5000 yen per person, great food value.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Homey Cafe near Home

Restaurant: Mona Records Music Cafe / モナレコード音楽カフェー
Neighborhood: Shimokitazawa / 下北沢
Style: Homey Japanese / 日本料理

Recently my friend Katie leant me a cafe book covering Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya. These books are available for most neighborhoods in Japan and go through listing the local (non-national-chain) businesses in a given neighborhood, with a little bit of text and a few photos of each. When I first saw them a few years ago, they weren't that useful to me, both because they're written in Japanese only and because I didn't understand the tropes of Japanese food culture as well.

Now, I can generally work my way through the Japanese text and I actually know what a lot more of the dishes are (monjya, agemon, chanko, etc.) so I can actually get an idea from a book like this where I might want to go. Since I live in the neighborhood, I would explore a lot of these places anyway, but the good thing about this kind of book is that they will find some places that are so out-of-the-way you would never see them.

The book definitely prompted me to go to Mona Music Cafe and I'm glad I did! Mona is an indie record label, from what I've explored they seem to focus on acoustic and mellow music. The second floor is the cafe and record store and the third floor is the live space where performers connected to the label play.

This article is about the cafe as a cafe though! And it's a great place. It's shoeless, meaning all the tables are low tables with cushions. The overall vibe fits an acoustic label, meaning it's low-key and very homey. There's plenty of space (rare at a Japanese restaurant) so you won't feel hemmed in. On a Monday night at 8ish it was busy enough to not be empty but not crowded.

I got one of the daily teishoku (set meals), which by the way is generally the right thing to do in Japan. It was simple fare very well-done. The main was grilled organic chicken and vegetables, and the great thing is that they were flame-broiled, meaning that the food actually had carbonization and the associated taste (carcinogens, yum!). Besides a generous bowl of rice, it came with miso soup, some sesame-oil-laced noodle/tofu, and a pickled root vegetable (the exact nature of which I couldn't identify). 900yen.

It was a cold night so I started with a pot of kocha (black tea) and followed up with their housemade ginger ale. It was nice and gingery, but like a lot of housemade ginger ale here, very very sweet. Still tasty though!

This is a great place to hang out and grab a meal on a cold winter's night. I'm sure I'll be back.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nippon Craft Beer Festival 2011

A little while ago, my friend Dylan and I were at Ushitora, the local craft beer bar here in Shimokitazawa, and saw the information for the upcoming Nippon Craft Beer Festival.  I had heard about this festival before but missed it so we picked up tickets on the spot!  (it's best to buy tickets for this event from one of the local craft bar beers, like Ushitora, CraftHeads, Popeye's, DevilCraft, or Taproom)

For your 3000-yen-ish ticket, you get a small beer glass and ten tickets.  Each ticket gets you a pour (about 120ml, good-sized) of one of the 46 craft beers on tap at the event.  Should you want to push your luck by trying all 46, extra tickets are only 250yen, which is a pretty good deal considering these beers all sell for 1000 yen or more a pint.  There's also a little bit of food for sale for 1 or 2 tickets each, although most attendees had wisely brought a bento along with them.

The event was crowded, but not overly so.  I've also been to the Great Japan Beer Festival and those tend to be so crowded that it's kind of not fun.  Here, there was always room to move around and generally you didn't have to wait too long for any one beer.

They had live music as well -- visually the most interesting was the punk bagpiper who was playing when we arrived.  One of the craft beer bars put together a band that played a selection of mostly folk music in English, which several of them looked like they were sight-reading (classically-trained musicians slumming?).  Apparently they couldn't get quite enough groups since that group played twice, repeating the exact same setlist (including "Country Roads") each time.  I'm inspired -- next year our Inokashira park group should sign up for a slot!

Anyway, enough of the event descriptions.  Here were the beers I got to try. Keep in mind that this event was full of amazing beers, so even a beer I describe here as "OK" would probably be the best beer on tap at your local. Also, if you haven't tried beers with me, my taste in beer runs strongly to American-style IPAs (very bitter, very hoppy).

Brewery Beer Style Comments
プレミアムビール鬼伝説 (Japan/日本) 赤鬼ペールルエール カスケード・アマリロ American Pale Ale OK/まま
いわて蔵ビール スモークエール Smoked Ale It's amazing to taste the same kind of smoke in a beer as you get in meats or cheese, but I didn't like that taste. / いや
Harvest Moon Brewery 復興 IPA American IPA Good but didn't stand out in this crowd / よい
August Beer / アウグスビール Toshi's IPA IPA This is fantastic, but I knew that before the festival. This is the IPA from the new company established by the original founder of Yona Yona Ale. / もちろん Toshi's はすばらしいです。
多摩の恵 ベルジャンウイット Witbier OK/まま
OH! LA! HO! Beer ビエール・ド・雷電 インディアペールエール American IPA OK/まま
ヤッホーブルーイン Yona Yona Real Ale Cask Conditioned / よなよなリアルエール カスクコンディション American Pale Ale OK (Yona Yona is probably the best widely-available craft beer in Japanese supermarkets. Don't hold back from buying it there!) /まま
城端ビール Dragon's Taste / 竜の味 IPA OK / まま
Brew Dog Hard Core IPA IPA Omigod. This was the best beer among the tastings at the show, and was my vote for the top prize. A lot of other people apparently agreed - this took first place in the voting. It really says something about who comes to this event, because this beer is correctly named: it is an extreme version of an IPA, with overwhelming Hop flavor and strong bitterness (that's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it). / 一番のビールだと思いまして、そのショーの一番賞を受けました。
Brew Dog and Mikeller Artisan Black Very, very black Brew Dog was offering 30ml samples of this as a special event at their booth. And it really was a special event, this is an amazing, strong, dark, beer; more like sipping a wine than tasting a beer. What an amazing experience!
Baird Beer Hop Stoopid Right towards the end of the show, Baird opened up a new keg to hand out samples of their excellent hoppy brew.

So there you go, a rundown on my experience at Nippon Craft Beer Festival 2011. Next year, I'll definitely try to plan ahead and actually volunteer; but in any case, I'll definitely go again.

One small hint for those of you who (apparently, you're reading here) stay all the way to the end: at about 5 minutes to 5, they declare all beers to be free (no tickets required): "Help us drink what's left!" Handy to know if you really want to get your money's worth out of the ticket ;-).