Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Japan Trip 1: Where did all the good food go?

Since my last trip to Japan at the end of 03, I've been telling everyone who asked and many who didn't that if you want good food, Japan's your destination. During the many years I lived there I must have had many bad meals but once you learn the good places, you can usually count on good eats. I suppose that's true anywhere. I was surprised at how random meals could be so good, groceries too, as a tourist for 3 weeks in 03 and was expecting the same on just concluded trip. Perhaps the "white meat" chicken on the JAL flight to Tokyo that tasted like dark meat painted white should have been seen as an omen. Of very bad things to come.
My first meal, at some odd hour by body's clock was at a hamburger joint close to where I was staying. Grated daikon on the burger? How refreshing, in the massive heat. The following day we went to Kamagaya, where my family had dwelt for nearly a decade of regularly good meals. In particular, Dennys made a hamburger my daughter loved and upon trying it for the first time in 03, I looked forward to eating again. I noticed the menu had changed. It seemed more cluttered. The service was surprisingly slow and confused. The asparagus was too hot for the heated day we had ducked into Denny's to escape and then the burger. It was unedible. You're better off eating the plastic burger in the window. My hosts Eiichi and Tomomi said Japan was flooded with poor tasting beef imports and this may be the result of that. Finding a good meal became even more of an obssession than previous times here. Never less successful.

The reason I went to Hamamatsu and stayed at its Grand Hotel was to have Teppan Yaki. I have spoken of my first dining on this Japanese Ultimate Feast often enough on this blog. So richly does it stand out in my taste memory. So I got off the bullet train, taxi'd over to the hotel and had a pleasently chillled asparagus salad and beer awaiting my room's availability. While there, I asked which of the hotel's many restaurants had the teppan yaki. The woman did not know what I was talking about. My Japanese isn't That Bad. She asked what it was. I explained it was a beef dish, once famously served at this very hotel. She went in search of a more knowledgeable server. He confirmed that a restaurant outside the hotel's door did indeed have my beef feast. I asked if the restaurant had been there in 1971 and was assured that it had, so I went there for dinner. Was it as good as 36 years ago? It was very good indeed. Two sauces, the thicker paler sauce complemented the shrimp/scallops and vegies as did the white wine; the darker sauce complemented the top of the line Japanese beef with a red wine, more than I could eat or drink. Later the bartender of the 12th floor fine view bar told me the hotel had only been there 25 years. 36 years ago it was somewhere else. So it wasn't the same meal at the same place. It made up for the Denny's atrocity though. Beef I had from department stores wasn't nearly as good as it was 4 years ago or in the 70s-80s when I often took a package of roast beef slices cold from the dept store to work.

I don't understand why Yaki Tori didnt become the world's favourite Japanese food instead of sushi. It's simple and great. Chicken on a stick. Grilled. Sauce or salt. I always go for the sauce. Eiichi was not a fan of Yaki Tori so asked a YT loving friend for a reccommendation and we were off to a street off an arcade accross from Shin Koiwa station in seriously suburban Tokyo. It said its name in English, and that was it. I had a great Yaki Tori experience at Agatha in Kyoto in 03 and expected as good in the modern capitol. The first piece of sasami (breast meat) was exquisite. Even better was the same chicken wrapped in shiso, the "Japanese basil" that adds so much to cooking here. For the first time, I feasted on cherry tomatos, with cream cheese and bacon, appropriate grilled (see above). Perfect combination with the chicken. The shitake mushrooms and green pepper I've had better at other restaurants, but the quality of the chicken stood out. Almost as good as we get from local chicken store 3P Poultry here in North Van. This was the best porkless meal I had in Japan. That isn't saying much.
I had the pork shu mai at this Chinese restaurant with Fumiyo in 03. When I worked in this area long ago I used to have the spring rolls. I briefly contemplated having the Ebi (shrimp) Chili, a meal I had been taken to Yokohama by Fumiyo's father to enjoy, as its Chinatown had the best Chinese food, even though it was an exhausting train trip from Chiba were we lived. But I figured this was what I last had at this place and thoroughly enjoyed. Well, at least the beer was as good, in its Japanese Summer-mitigating way. Once more with the lower quality meat. This kind of thing used to be unheard of when I lived here, unless it was a restaurant so cheap the people who ate there couldn't complain. This was an upscale Chinese restaurant. Like so much of the food I had during the trip, it looked like its predecessor and it tasted vaguely like it but I suspect that's more from the power of memory than observation.. The only other Chinese meal I had was some decent scallops at and even more upscale place in Roppongi Hills I'll leave to the section on sea food. It's as if the whole country has lowered its expectations of food quality from both restaurants and department stores. Who eats those Dennys burgers? They would be considered "good" compared to what? One shudders.
Tako Yaki, doughy balls with fragments of octopus inside, were tasty at the airport when I was leaving in 03. That is no longer the case. I probably contributed to the overall poorness of the meal by ordering just one (yuzu, ok, my favourite Japanese fruit) sauce of several available. But the balls were too doughy, particularly during a liquid summer your body craves escape from sticky starchy bummers. They seemed like nice people. What's with the bad food?

And just like the bad chicken on the flight over, the tuna on the flight home was vile. An insult to plastic. I'll go into detail of the fine run of Ton Katsu restaurants I chased down, the sad case of sea food in Nippon and summer-abating beverages to upcoming posts.

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