Saturday, December 26, 2009

Natural in Shibuya

Name: Kahemi Cafe
Neighborhood: Shibuya
Style: Organic

A few weeks ago my friend Gilles was in town, and since he's allergic to cigarette smoke we were hunting for a place that was mostly or entirely smoke-free. Alas, non-smoking restaurants are largely non-existant in Japan, but I figured that our best bet would be an organic restaurant, since while not technically non-smoking they don't tend to attract the heavy-partier crowd.

I found Kahemi Cafe through web search, and both the menu and pictures looked inviting so we made it our destination. It turns out to be very much as you'd guess from the pictures: a light, airy place with an open feel, despite being tucked away on the bottom floor of a building up the hill in Shibuya.

We started with an local organic beer they stocked I had never heard of before, and it was good if not enough to make me give up on Ushi-tora. The food was mostly the kinds of things you'd expect at a cafe (fried potato) supplemented with a fair range of entrees. Kahemi Cafe is organic but not especially vegetarian; meats were well-represented and most of the memorable dishes in fact came from the meat side of the menu.

It was also an easy place to hang out; we had a good conversation going and the staff was quite happy to let us jabber away (in the front table, no less). As I guessed going in, there were no smokers in the place at all the night we were there. Kahemi makes for a good option if you're looking for a nice hangout in Shibuya.

Sashimi Insanity in Yokohama

Name: Hatsuyoshi-zushi はつよし寿司
Neighborhood: Yokohama (near hinodecho) / 横浜(日ノ出町駅に近い)
Style: Sushi
Website: None but see for instance

Sorry for the very long post, but this was just an experience that needs writing about.

Last week was SIGGRAPH Asia 2009 down in Yokohama, and in arranging the week's events, some of my friends (mostly from Pixar) mentioned that they were planning a sushi night. The initial idea had been to take a train to Tsukiji, the famous fish market.

Unfortunately, that's about an hour away, and while Tsukiji is totally worth going to at 5am to see the tuna auction or 7am to eat the proceeds of the tuna auction, in the evening you'll be eating the same fish there that you will in any other restaurant in the greater Tokyo area. So I decided to cast about for a good choice in the Yokohama area. As one does in this new century, I posted on my Facebook that I was looking for a sushi restaurant in Yokohama.

And as happens in this virtual networked world, a friend who lives in Palo Alto California piped up, "well, my friend was born and raised in Yokohama and they recommend Hatsuyoshi-zushi."

That looked like the most promising of the recommendations, and the group had grown to 9 by now, so I called to put in a reservation. Luckily, they could still take the group, and even give us a private room. But then they asked, "Will you be doing a course?" In Japan, it's very common to have a course (set) menu for any group larger than 4 or 5. "Well," I asked carefully, "how much do the courses run?" (one must always be careful talking too explicitly about money here). "Our cheapest course is 7000 yen" came the reply.

Hmm, that's probably more than most of my companions had banked on. But hey, they're visiting Japan, right? "Sure," I said, "we'll take the course."

As always with SIGGRAPH or SIGGRAPH Asia, the day was chaotic and there was some fluctation in the group. Patrick Lin out, a couple other friends in -- we ended up at 10 people. I warned everybody about the course price, which everybody took in stride. We split into 3 taxis, I made sure all the taxi drivers knew where we were going, and off we went.

Well, actually, almost all the taxi drivers knew where we were going. The first two drivers knew exactly where Hatsuyoshi-zushi was (as we were to gather, it's an institution), but our driver in the third cab had no idea, as a result of which he did the most blatant red-light-running I've ever seen in Japan to keep up with the first two cabs. I was seriously wishing I had buckled my seat belt earlier...

Anyway, we all got to Hatsuyoshi without incident and found it to be a old-ish Japanese building. The first-timers in Japan were quite fascinating with the red-light district (love hotel and something that looked to be a soapland) across the street, but we corralled them into the restaurant.

Indeed we got a private room. Hatsuyoshi was a perfect experience for the visitors, in that it was very Japanese-style (tatami mat room with a low table made from one gigantic piece of wood, sliding doors) and yet it isn't fancy -- as I said, many many Japanese businessmen had spent happy evenings there before us, it was very nice but not all pristine and prissy. It also was fun because we were the only foreigners in the place.

We settled down and the first drama started. One of our group loves sashimi and sushi but has a shellfish allergy (allergy with a capital A, as in, he carries an EpiPen at all times). Fortunately, he had the foresight to have a friend write out a card in Japanese explaining exactly what his condition was. For those of you not from Japan, restaurants here are really not used to dealing with food preferences or restrictions of any kind, so when I first explained it to the waitress (who was very efficient, consistent with the fact it looked like she had worked there for 40 years), she got very flustered and insisted there was nothing they could do. I tried to explain that he was happy to eat fish, just not shellfish, but between the general lack of experience with this sort of thing and the fact that the words don't work the same way they do in English, it dramafied. Eventually she said she would need to check with the chef -- at which point it suddently became a non-issue (presumably the chef read the card and said, "oh, OK"). In the end, I think he ended up getting an even better mail than the rest of us, which is saying something.

Once that drama had played out, we got a yummy tataki appetizer and our toriaezu-biiru ("toriaezu biiru" means "First of all, I'll have a beer" and is sort of the default response to the question, "What would you like to drink?"). We were settling in to wait when it happened.

They opened up the sliding doors to their maximum width and brought in not one but two giant one-meter-across platters covered with sashimi.

One meter across. Covered. with. sashimi. Two. of. them. Topping off each platter was a giant lobster (really, it's not a lobster, it's a huge shrimp properly called ise-ebi, which was a word I learned that night) that had had the rear shell removed to reveal the tail meat... and which was still wriggling it's antenna a little bit, meaning it had alive in the kitchen when they started making our platters. They take this fresh food idea seriously.

And it's not like this was cheap-ass sashimi, either. It was a feast. Even for me it was the first time to eat ise-ebi that way, and it was really very good). The rest of the plate was covered with stacks and stacks of tai, maguro, hamachi, tako, ika... Unlike tako (octopus) in the US, which I find rubbery and tasteless, the tako here in Japan is delicious -- as was the ika (squid).

Our shellfish-challenged member -- lest the two meter-wide platters be insufficient -- got a separate plate of fish sashimi only, which included several things we didn't get.

OK, this was a Really Good Thing. So, ten foreigners were doing their best to make their way through all the fish (bad night for mercury content), and it looked like we had a good chance to finish it (except for the compressed loaves of herring roe, which produced reactions ranging from "eh" to "bleh"). And then came... the broiled tai (snapper) heads.

The platter is so thick, and the servings of sashimi so big, it's hard to get a sense of how much food this was. Look at the pitcher of beer for scale refrence. We had already been eating for quite some time by now.
From SIGGRAPH Asia 2009

While most things in a sushi restaurant will of course be raw, the head of the tai is often broiled like this, and is considered a real delicacy, including the fat surrounding the eye (no need to eat the eyeball itself, the lens is hard). These tai heads certainly lived up to the reputation, they were absolutely delicious. Well, that made for another eating challenge, to work on the tai heads while finishing off the sashimi. At this point, they had cleared away the ise-ebi carcasses, so the sashimi platters were looking less imposing.

That's when they brought in the second round of broiled tai heads (I don't think this was on purpose, they probably just couldn't get all 10 ready at once). Although, I swear, we ended up getting more than 10 tai heads total between the two rounds. We were now seriously worried that we might not finish everything, but we certainly wanted to keep going because the tai heads were so good.

Oh. And then they brought in the miso soup, which was made from the remains of the ise-ebi they had taken out of the room a few minutes before. Nice touch! Miso soup had the benefit of not being too filling and providing needed water (we were continuing to drink beer and/or sake throughout the meal).

I was starting to get a bit worried. Although I had specified the 7000 yen course when making the reservation, once we arrived they hasn't asked about anything. There was a seriously large quantity of food on the table, and I was wondering whether this was really the entry-level course.

As I was pondering that, they brought two 18" or so platters filled with sushi.

We were all seriously in shock at this point. Especially after the miso (miso soup is often a final course in Japan), we thought we would be done (and we would have been full). But no, now we had two platter of sushi to work on -- and again, the sushi was almost all nigiri (only 2-3 rolls), and was delicious, and included chu-toro. And, our shellfish-challenged member again got his own separate fish-only sushi assortment.

Now I was seriously worried about exactly what course we were getting. We kept doing our best to work down the sashimi, the tai heads, and the sushi, but seriously even 10 foreigners could not finish completely any one of the three. I felt pretty bad about that, because it was all great (unfortunately, not only do they not have a doggie bag tradition in Japan, sushi doesn't work out so well with that anyway...). We came very close to finishing each of the three, but there was still some left.

With some trepidation I asked for the check. The pre-meal calculations involved who had how much cash (like most restaurants in Japan, Hatsuyoshi takes only cash), so if we really were on some more expensive course, we might run short. And, of course, there was the non-trivial matter of all the beer and sake we had been drinking.

The check came. For 10 people, it was 70,000 yen -- exactly, precisely, 10 times 7000 yen. Not only was the massive amount of food covered under the 7000 yen course, that course was also nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink). At that point, this was an extraordinarily good value for a sushi meal here in Japan. Everyone stumbled out of the restaurant in a fish coma, amazed at the fantastic sashimi, sushi, and tai heads, and the incredible experience. We were talking about it all week.

Needless to say, I heartily recommend Hatsuyoshi for a group in Yokohama. I don't know what it would be like to eat there as 2 or 4 people, but it's certainly fantastic for a group. And -- get the course!