Friday, July 4, 2008
Masala Art – written in Gothic script calligraphy, admittedly is an interesting choice of style to use on a sign for an Indian restaurant. I suppose I shouldn't find is so unusual given the colonial history of India and the fact that many British Imperial remnants persist to this day in a country of one point one billion. What really did surprise me however, was the recent recognition and fame this restaurant has received in the past months.
Scarcely a week goes by when people, both Japanese and Western don't bring up “that new Indian place on Heiwa Dori near the McDonalds and south of Route 20.” A lot of that, I'm sure has to do with the Yomiuri Newspaper (Japanese edition's) May 17th, 2008 Leisure section review, and a television crew filming a segment there a while back as well. Both, copies of the newspaper article, neatly framed, and photographs of the filming session are proudly displayed inside the sparsely decorated interior.
Once again, fame aside, I wanted to present as impartial a review as I could, given that it truly seems as though I'm the last person in Yamanashi to visit this restaurant... Everyone else has already been there at least once, commenting on everything from the inexpensive lunchtime all-you-can-eat buffet (￥880 on weekdays, ￥980 on weekends) to the extreme spiciness of the curry dishes. In fact, friends of ours went recently and in recounting the experience of their visit, pointed out that they asked for just a little bit of extra spice but ended up with something they could barely eat.
Undeterred by such comments, I was committed to set my mouth on fire. ( If you haven't already realized, there is an ongoing poll at the bottom of this web page where you can vote for your preferred level of spiciness. I encourage all my readers to give it a go). I made this visit with two other people once again, my wife Bonnie and another friend. It's really invaluable, for the sake of restaurant reviews to have three or four people who each order different dishes, allowing for a much wider cross-section to make their way into my reviews. We made our sojourn to Masala Art on a Tuesday evening, thus avoiding the crowds as well as the lunch buffet. Something I've realized about many of the local buffet restaurants – their lunch buffet and dinner menus tend to be as different as day and night and judging the merit of a restaurant on its buffet would be most unfair as it does nothing to reflect the true flavour and quality of their dishes.
Getting a table was no problem. There were plenty of green and white vinyl tableclothed tables to had. We requested the “non-smoking section” if there were one, and got directed to the far corner of the dining room. There was a low wall separating two halves of the restaurant, presumably for this very purpose, but as I'm so fond of pointing out – having a non-smoking section in a restaurant is akin to having a non-peeing section of a swimming pool... Nevertheless, I didn't see any ashtrays on any of the tables in either section. I was glad for the incandescent lighting, even though it was turned up far brighter than it need have been for the evening crowd. They would benefit from more subtle lighting, though a a reviewer it really helps me when I can see exactly what it is that I'm eating and I get an accurate idea of the colours, textures, presentation and other nuances that I might otherwise miss if the room were dimly lit. I can understand the need for vinyl tablecloths given the fact that many of the spices used in curry-making tend to stain rather severely, making cloth an impractical choice. For that reason too, dimming the lights would really work in their favour.
From the time we were seated to the time the waitress arrived with water, menus and napkins I felt we waited an uncomfortably long time – and despite our overall positive experience and enjoyable evening, this was a minor aberration. The menus are actually very attractively put together with nice, professionally photographed pictures of dishes and explanations that appear both in English and Japanese. I won't get into the details in this review, as one has only to hop over to the restaurant's website: http://www.masala-art.jp and click on “menu” to see for themselves the selection and prices.
Saving me the trouble of expounding on the various menu selections, I'll get straight into what we ordered. I ca lled the waitress over when we were ready and ordered: the Indian Spice Salad (￥500), Vegetable Pakora (￥530), Sag Chicken (￥1050) with a spice levell of “medium” out of a 3-level scale, Aloo Began (￥900), which is a curry made with potatoes and eggplant, also at the medium level of spiciness, Butter Chicken Curry (￥1,200) at a mild spiciness level, Naan (￥330), Kashmiri Naan (￥530), which is naan stuffed with coconut, raisins and dried fruits, Kirin draft (￥550) and Lassi (￥400).
When the waitress arrived, I did ask her what the house special was in the way of curry.
“Do you like your curry spicy?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied.
“I mean, do you REALLY like your curry spicy?” she asked again.
“Sure do,” I said with confidence.
“Then I recommend the Chicken Hyidrabadi, (￥1,200)” she said, pointing at a line in the menu. “This one isn't available in mild or medium – it's hot only,” she explained further.
At this point I was a little leery so I opted for the Sag Chicken in the end, but vowed to myself that if I were happy with my meal this time around, I would definitely come back to give the Chicken Hyidrabadi a whirl.
When the Indian Spice Salad arrived, it looked dangerous. All red, looking much like Korean kimchi, you could almost feel the spicy heat emanating from the dish. I was not disappointed. After the first few mouthfuls I realized that this was, in fact not Indian at all, but rather, something concocted damned kitchens of the 9th level of Hell, with Satan's own atomic breath infused in with the spices; the restaurant chefs obviously having made a contract of souls with the Dark Lord himself. In other words, it was wonderful! Certainly not a dish for the feint-hearted, but yet very flavourful.
The following dish, Vegetable Pakora, was essentially assorted vegetables, breaded and deep fried in a cardamom curry-flavoured batter, much like Japanese tempura, but served with ketchup as the dipping sauce. It was the right contrast to the preceding salad, though while not hot, was just as spicy.
The main course curries followed soon after, and just like the preceding appetizers, plenty of Indian spices were recognizable and appropriately blended into a mouth-pleasing, thick stew, which, when used as a dip for the naan, was divine.
A special note of the Kashmiri Naan should be made, however. Even though I would not normally order it as an accompaniment to a spinach-based chicken curry, was very interesting in its sweetness, coconut flavour and bright orange colour. Almost a desert in its own right, made for an interesting diversion from the otherwise usual offerings seen in an Indian restaurant.
Having ordered “medium” spiciness for my Sag Chicken however, I was very surprised that it had nowhere near the same heat as the first salad we ate. In fact, when I got a free moment I called the waitress over and asked her if it weren't too much trouble, to see if they could make it spicier for me. She was more than happy to oblige, and whisking my dish away back to the kitchen, she disappeared, only to reappear moments later with a question from the chef, “Exactly HOW much hotter should we make it?” To which I told them that on their “mild, medium, hot” scale of spiciness, they could definitely go ahead and make it “hot.” When I got my dish back, it had indeed been turned up a couple of notches, but was still nowhere near the level of the salad. That was fine too though, because the heat of the curry was a different kind of heat – it was a slow burn that built up over time and had a delayed action. It was clear to me that they didn't just dump a fistful of hot peppers and mix it up, as this would kill a lot of the flavour. No, this increased level of spiciness also increased the potency of the other flavours as well. The Butter Chicken naan, despite it's fairly high price, is very nice. I would recommend this dish to anyone who might be a little apprehensive about ordering something spicy or hot. It's a very relaxing, laid back dish – sweet and mellow, and of course, with naan, is a great meal.
At the end of it all, I was very happy, very full and eager to try some of the other menu selections the next time we decide to go Indian... Ultimately, the bill came in at ￥6,310 for three people, which included two drinks (Lassi and a beer). Certainly average in the grand scheme of things and compared with other local restaurants. Somehow, I don't think my review will make its way onto Masala Art's walls, but if it did, I'd probably be there to read it!
The Good: Very tasty food. Want to burn a tastebud or two? This is your place! Authentic, Indian dishes, friendly staff, English menus.
The Bad: Bright lights, vinyl tablecloths give the impression of a cheap diner. Not the best place to take a date if you are looking for a romantic atmosphere. Come here to get your spice on.
Menu: Available online, but a large selection of curries, appetizers, salads, tandoori chicken, deserts, limited bar selection, including draft beer.
Price Range: Barring the all-you-can-eat buffet, roughly ￥1,000 for a bowl of curry, not including naan or other side dishes. High end of average in my books.
Smoking: Presumably so. The restaurant is subdivided into two sections but no one was smoking when we were there and I saw no ashtrays on any of the tables.
Recommended?: Definitely. Especially if you want to burn something inside your mouth.
Address: Kofu City, Nakakogawara 575-1
Hours: Lunch: 11:30am – 3:00 pm ; dinner: 5:30 pm – 11:00 pm
Languages spoken: Japanese, some English (bilingual menus)
Friday, June 27, 2008
I remember walking into Budouya a few years ago with some friends, having a pretty good time and enjoying some drinks over lively conversation. I also remember that my friends who had been to this particular bar/restaurant before, seemed to tiptoe around the owner who takes care of the establishment mostly by himself and speak to him very gingerly. I gathered that he might be a tad touchy or quirky but just how much so I never knew until yesterday when I came with Bonnie and a friend.
Even though the place is fairly large as far as Japanese restaurants and bars go, there was only one group of patrons in the corner who smoked up a sufficient enough cloud to fill the place. Bad ventilation, I guess. Also doesn't help any when the owner smokes as well.
Sitting down at a window table overlooking Heiwa Dori the first thing that struck me was that the table was horribly sticky and no amount of wiping it with damp hand towels made it any better – in fact, I'd say it made it worse. In any establishment where food and drink are served, cleanliness should be paramount, and if I had any pull with the local health inspector, I'd be on the phone with him to investigate any dump that can't be bothered to clean up their sticky floors or tables – if they can't do that much, heaven knows the horrors that might be lurking in the kitchen where the public cannot enter.
Nonetheless, we made our selections from the menu that was in Japanese, but with the last page translated into English, obviously having catered to and welcomed some foreign clientèle over the years. When we were ready to order, I called the owner over I said we'd order some drinks first, and starting with me and then my friend, the conversation went something like this:
“So, what can I get you?”
"I'll have a Guinness..." I said.
“Just water for now,” said my friend when the owner looked at her.
The owner blinked and stared blankly for a moment before spitting out in Japanese, “If you're not ordering, get out!”
“Excuse me?” I asked, bewildered.
“I said, if you're not ordering a drink, get out of here! I don't need you in here. Get out!”
“Well.... we WERE actually going to order a meal. Isn't that acceptable enough?”
“Oh.” He stopped abruptly. “In that case, that's fine. Go ahead.”
At that point I would have told the owner exactly what I thought of him, his restaurant, along with a detailed guide to where I thought he could go and what bus to take to get there. However, showing great restraint, I decided that I didn't want to go exploring for another place to eat due to the late hour and I would still give this guy a fair shake, though I can't even explain why. Masochism, perhaps.
Later on, I spoke to another friend about our experience and he did give me the skinny on common Japanese restaurant culture, indicating that his attitude was quite common – even if you had ten people in a group and one of them didn't want to order anything, the entire group might be up the creek. At the same time, tact and customer service should be important in an industry where competition is only next door. A simple, “I'm sorry but our restaurant has a minimum per-person charge. Might I recommend a drink or appetizer?” And that would make all the difference in the world! Of course, seeing that the restaurant already has a table charge for no particular reason (￥105 per person), combined with the fact that even a glass of soda will cost you over ￥400 just shows me the extent of greed and avariciousness of the owner. Definitely not positive traits and certainly not a place where I would care to spend my money in the future.
Otherwise, following our initial run-in with the Japanese equivalent of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, every time the owner spoke to us, he was nothing but sugar and spice, and bursting with friendliness. In the end, between the three of us we probably ended up ordering and spending more than he would usually get from a party of three. Jumping to conclusions can be a perilous thing, but somehow I think this concept was lost on him.
Since this is a restaurant/bar, the bar selection is ample with mixed drinks, cocktails, draft beer and wine galore. With a name like Budouya, wines are indeed the house specialty with many local Yamanashi wines ranging in price from ￥525 for a glass of house wine, to ￥4000 for a bottle of premium. Yebisu is on tap for ￥630 and other drinks run about the same price. I was however shocked at the outrageous ￥420 for soft drinks. This combined with a ￥105 table charge and the fact that the owner will gladly throw you out for not ordering a drink is a testament to where the owner's priorities lie. Maybe if he invested some of all that profit in a bottle of cleaning solution... Some manner/hospitality lessons wouldn't hurt either....
The unfortunate thing about this whole experience is that the food served at this restaurant is indeed tasty. A very Italian pasta and pizza menu overflow with authenticity. We ordered Japanese mushroom pizza (￥630) and spicy, anchovy spaghetti with fresh greens (￥735). In addition, I had a plate of delicious kim chi flavoured and marinated sliced beef with onions, and a “stick salad” which was in fact assorted vegetables cut into sticks and served with a mayonnaise dipping sauce. The spaghetti was served al dente a pleasant change from the standard fare I've had in many other places. The pizza order was thoroughly messed up – we received a bacon and tomato pizza instead of the Japanese mushroom pizza we ordered. I didn't dare say anything about it, lest the owner try to throw us out again... Who knows with someone so touchy. It was rather strange that he messed it up anyway, since he did presumably write down our order when he came to the table. But again, such is the result of arrogantly assuming you have everything right and not confirming the customer's order.
In the end, for three people, food and drinks ran us ￥5,250 – not bad at all for the quantity of our order, but yet there are certainly cheaper, better, nicer places out there where the same amount of money will go even further. And to quote Forrest Gump, “That's all I have to say about that.”
The Good: The pasta was nicely cooked, all the food tasted great!
The Bad: Dirty. Sticky tables, rude owner, completely messed up our order. Unreasonable price of non-alcoholic beverages, in addition to a table charge and the reality of getting thrown out if every person in your party doesn't spend a bucketful of cash. Hardly anyone was there but it was full of cigarette smoke.
Menu: Japanese pub fare, Italian pasta, pizzas, salads, fried foods, rice dishes. Full bar with a large selection of wines, whiskeys, beers. The Guinness is bottled – not on tap, Yebisu is, though.
Price Range: From ￥420 to ￥630 for drinks (bottles of wine or some whiskeys cost more) and ￥600-900 for food (again, with some exceptions).
Smoking: And how!
Recommended?: No. About as much as I'd recommend shouting, “There's a bomb in my suitcase!” at the airport. There are plenty of wonderful places with great food, atmosphere and excellent customer service so you can avoid places like this and give your money to someone more deserving of your business.
Address: Kofu City Marunouchi 2-29-2 (2F)
Hours: Honestly? I forgot to check, as I won't be back any time soon.
Languages spoken: Presumably Japanese only but a partial menu is available in English
Parking: No. This place is right on Heiwa Dori.
Friday, June 20, 2008
What would a restaurant review be without French food? It's somewhere in Chapter 3 of the Restaurant Reviewer's Manual. I've forgotten the precise page number, as is only proper, having eaten sufficient French food and drunk sufficient French wine.
Restaurant Pâtisserie Bonmarché has been ever-present in Kofu for many years -- I should have asked the owner directly exactly how long. He's an old, Japanese gentleman who wears his bow tie and crisply ironed shirt proudly and smiles whenever he sees someone walk by his shop front. This is probably the most difficult review I've written to-date as it's very challenging to do justice to a restaurant with such a broad selection of both food and drink. Even though its mainstay is “French” or perhaps Japanese fusion, the menu is filled with departures from the quintessential escargots in butter, foie gras and veal dishes you might expect in a typical French restaurant.
The first thing that will strike you upon entering Bonmarché is the décor. The entire place is made to look rather European, with the front section much like a Viennese cafe and the dining room a sort of mix between something Parisian and something Victorian. There is a large credenza alongside one wall, filled with interesting knick-knacks and some photographs of award-winning chefs, presumably somehow affiliated with the restaurant. I couldn't tell and I didn't have a chance to ask. In another corner, a baby grand piano for some of the many live bands that appear from time to time, providing an interesting mix of entertainment. We had no such accompaniment to our meal. We did have a soft, canned violin to keep the room from being unpleasantly silent.
Since the restaurant actually has its own website, I shan't expound on all the various menu selections because a quick jump will reveal most of their current offerings. Mind you, many seasonal items are not completely current, nor do they list the daily or monthly specials to my best recollection. They have some complete “French Course Menus” that will set you back between ￥3,700 and ￥8,500. This however includes everything, and several courses, starting from appetizers and ending with desert and coffee afterwards. Because I was not exactly feeling overwhelmingly rich that night, I opted instead to choose from the regular menu.
In the end, it was very difficult to decide. With various salads, (￥900-￥1000), rice dishes (￥950-￥1200) and “à la carte” items from ￥950-￥3200 (with fillet mignon topping that scale and sirloin steak scoring a close second at ￥2800) we looked more towards the lower end for inspiration. Bonnie requested that I order for the both of us -- I chose the “meat hors d'oeuvre” (￥1200), followed by spaghetti Bolognese (￥1050) and mixed pizza (￥1000). I ordered a glass of house red wine (￥520) and for Bonnie, a non-alcoholic lemon squash, for the same price as my wine.
The wine was a local Yamanashi brand (Delian) red made from Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that boasted having won a gold medal at an international competition. It was very light, dry and subtle – much like everything else about this restaurant.. Everything, I must point out, was designed to be “just so.” This, I suppose would be perfect on a date! Absolutely nothing that would distract, disturb or otherwise overpower any of your five senses. Absolutely nothing that would take you away from gazing deep into your true love's eyes. For the rest of us, however, a little bit more spiciness is nice too. I really can't judge the restaurant too harshly for this because it is what it is – designed with subtlety and Japanese tastes in mind.
From the moment the owner arrived at our table with the wine, the staff all kept the most professional and sophisticated demeanor I've seen in a long time.
When our appetizer arrived with the stunning presentation of a Michelin 3-star restaurant, I stopped feeling bad about the price of the dish... The ambiguously described “meat hors d'oeuvre” was in fact, a selection of three sliced meats served on a bed of assorted vegetables. Specifically, smoked beef tongue, which was amazingly tender and thin, with mustard, served with sliced cherry tomatoes and pea pods; roast beef on cabbage and green beans; finally, roast duck served on charcoal-grilled corn.
The staff, aside from being very helpful and friendly, (and here I was expecting some authentic French snootiness from the waiter – boy was I disappointed) were also very observant. I realize that it's consistent with local custom to share dishes at a restaurant, often being provided with separate plates for that exact purpose. Having observed that I ordered all the dishes at once and on behalf of both of us, they took the liberty of assembling everything into a single meal and course set for us. I was taken aback (but not unpleasantly so) when our Bolognese arrived not on a single plate, but already on two smaller plates, evenly portioned out for each of us to enjoy. The pizza arrived in a similar manner, the presentation equally stunning as the appetizer. The style of the pizza was also a little different to most Japanese-style pizzas I've experienced to date, and it was a nice change. No question about it, everything tasted great! Being a lover of anything spicy, however, I found myself longing for even a dash of pepper, or better yet, a splash of habañero sauce... No matter, for one meal I'm happy to experience the raw, naked flavours in the way the chef meant them to be tasted.
Having come this far to have a full course meal, I started to feel weird about not having ordered desert. I asked what their specials were and they showed me to the “tea room” portion of the restaurant where various cakes lay behind a glass display case, the sort you might find in a bakery. I chose the crème brûlée (￥400) which would have been well enjoyed with one of the many coffees and teas offered on the extensive drink menu. I was already happy with my wine and some water.
In the end, for an appetizer shared by two, wine, drink, two dishes and desert, we paid ￥4,800. This is certainly a bit more than your average eatery, but then again, a restaurant such as this is probably also most appropriate for special occasions and whenever you are in need of a touch of class!
The Good: Fantastic food, wonderful, intimate, romantic atmosphere, staff that makes you feel like a million bucks. Fancy set menus, extensive à la carte menu.
The Bad: The food was rather bland for my tastes and although I appreciate that the staff tried to provide top-notch service, they would be best to realize that not everyone would appreciate sharing the dishes they've ordered. Again, I was alright with it (this time) but if, for example, I had been allergic to eggplant, the Bolognese would not have gone over very well with me.
Menu: French, Italian, Japanese Fusion. Huge menu, monthly specials, set menu courses. Regional specialties like wine pork are also available. Full bar, including many European import beers (Czech, German, Belgian, among others), large wine selection, draft beer: (Guinness, Suntory Premium).
Price Range: Average price for a supper entrée is ￥1000 but many items are much more – the sky's the limit, especially when ordering wines or other drinks.
Smoking: Unknown. There were no ashtrays present on any of the tables, and the group sitting nearby weren't smoking.
Recommended?: Absolutely. But remember to bring plenty of money if you want to enjoy this place to the fullest.
Restaurant Pâtisserie Bonmarché
Address: Kofu City, Chuo 1-5-12
Hours: Couldn't find any hours listed anywhere. Not posted at the restaurant, nor on their literature, nor on the website.
Languages spoken: Japanese only
Parking: No. This restaurant is located in the heart of downtown near Orion Dori. There are nearby pay parking lots available but availability will vary.
Friday, June 13, 2008
What makes a Japanese restaurant famous? I asked myself this question when I visited Houraiken – a ramen noodle shop in Kofu that has been around for 39 years and is proud to boast many local and national awards for its food. I noticed, for instance, a first place win in a national “Grand Prix” last year, sponsored by Softbank Yahoo Japan. It was very impressive until I saw that there were 46 other first place winners. Nevertheless, first in Yamanashi Prefecture should count for something right?
I told myself that I wouldn't allow myself to be influenced by the reputation preceding this restaurant. My goal is always to provide as impartial a review as possible – though all the hype makes it much more challenging. I've said this before, but I'll say it again -- just because there are people queued up outside a restaurant doesn't mean it's a good restaurant – only a popular one. Houraiken has been featured on numerous Japanese television broadcasts and in many printed publications. I even own a “ramen guide to Yamanashi” that lists this place and makes mention of its fame. Another interesting note about this place, is that a number of retailers stock the Houraiken ramen home kit so you can make your own, authentic Houraiken ramen in the comfort of your own home without standing in line for the real deal. I'm not even going to touch the implications of that in my review other than mention that it can be purchased at the restaurant and at various other locations in Yamanashi for ￥1000 and it will feed up to four people.
My first attempt to review Houraiken was actually unsuccessful. It was going to be last week”s review, unfortunately I was not informed that they are, in fact closed on Tuesdays. These things happen, I suppose and I had to be happy with waiting until the following Wednesday. The location is fairly convenient, (walking distance from downtown Kofu) and armed with little more than the address and a map, I had no troubles finding it.
First impressions: Huge! This has to be by far the largest ramen shop I've been to in Japan. The front seating section alone has room for 24 people, with room for at least twice as many in the rear of the restaurant, seated on tatami mat floors, Japanese-style. One main feature of many ramen shops, the counter, is not so prominent here. The counter space is made to accommodate about six patrons, the focus here being mainly groups of people rather than individuals. The menu even seems to reflect this, with a number of dishes clearly made to share with friends. The décor was very nice... Clean, elegant earth tones, wood, tatami, matching wall colours and artwork all complement the motif. Adding to the cleanliness, a large sign on the front, sliding, glass door indicating a 100% SMOKE-FREE restaurant! Even if everything else were to be of average quality, this alone scores huge points in my books and makes a restaurant worthwhile to visit time and again!
Unlike the response I received the last time I asked someone “What are your specials?” the waiter was happy to point out their top seller – the soup that wins all the awards. To make things simple we ordered this (￥700), the chashu-men (sliced pork topping) variety (￥900) along with a side order of gyoza (dumplings) (￥500). Other varieties of ramen here include: tan-men (￥900) nikku (meat) soba (￥1150) and wan-tan men (￥800). Rice dishes available here include among others a sliced pork and rice dish for ￥750, other “soups”, yakisoba (￥700) and a large plate of sweet & sour pork meant to be shared for ￥1550. The most expensive item on the menu was a plate of meatballs for ￥1600, again meant for groups rather than individuals. The bar selection is standard, with draft beer for ￥600, sake, Japanese liquor, (both ranging in price) and soft drink or juice (￥200).
The ramen itself, when we received it, looked a lot like, well – ramen. There were no surprises in appearance. Green onion, fish cake, bamboo shoots, sliced pork and nori seaweed on top of homemade noodles. So then, why is Houraiken famous? Why does it win so many awards? The noodles are definitely hand-made and cooked slightly al dente, giving them a very natural taste. The soup broth is not salty, but slightly sweet, making it very pleasant and easy to eat without feeling like you're raising your blood pressure with every spoonful. Clearly, the pork was cooked in the broth for a long time, infusing its flavour quite nicely. The bamboo shoots despite their strange pink colour, had no evidence of the characteristic, barnyard aroma and flavour that I find very prevalent in this particular ingredient. When it comes to ramen, I tend to prefer either a good "tan-tan men" which is made with lots of sesame, or "tonkotsu" which has a white broth as opposed to a clear one. As far as regular ramen goes, this was in fact quite tasty. Was it "stand in line tasty?" No. But I generally have a problem waiting in queues in general. There is absolutely no reason why someone couldn't enjoy a bowl of ramen in this restaurant without waiting in line -- when we went, it was mostly empty... I think the lunch crowd is what makes this place jump.
The gyoza also worth mentioning, are quite large – much larger than the standard ones you see in supermarkets or chain restaurants. They reminded me of the Chinese-style gyoza I used to make at home years ago, with ground pork, carrots and ginger. Bonnie pointed out quite correctly, that for many, this alone would make a decent meal. I would only add some rice to that, and for 600 yen you would have a respectable lunch.
The real question here in reviewing this restaurant remains whether or not all the hoopla and commotion is apt and justified. Certainly, we enjoyed a very tasty meal that set us back ￥2,100 for two people, in very comfortable surroundings. I would indeed recommend for people to come and try it, if for no other reason but to find out what so many consider to be top-notch ramen.
The Good: Famous local landmark (a great conversation starter when you tell people where you've been). Good food, excellent selection even for non-ramen lovers. Nice decor.
The bad: Prices slightly above average for this style of food/drink. Menus are all in kanji except for English headers. Not a "bad" thing per se, but since this is an English restaurant review Blog, I felt I should mention it.
Menu: Ramen, soba, rice dishes, sweet & sour pork (suu-buta), meatballs (nikku dango), gyoza (dumplings). Draft beer, Japanese liquor, soft drinks, juice.
Price Range: Food: ¥500-¥1600. Drinks: ¥200 and up. ¥600 for beer.
Smoking: No, no and NO! Big sign on the door marks this as a non-smoking establishment!
Address. Kofu City, Chuo 4-12-28
Hours: 1130-1430; 1730-2100 daily; closed Tuesdays
Languages spoken: Japanese only.
Parking: Yes. 18 spaces.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Last night I was jonesing for noodles. Lucky for me, that's an easy wish to fulfill in this country. Quality noodles on the other hand, are a little more challenging to find. Years ago when we first arrived in Japan, a friend taught me that among the best places to get good, quick eats were the yatai restaurants scattered across the country.
In Japanese yatai literally means “food cart” but often times, it's really more of a temporary structure, like a tent, or shelter, inside of which may be a kitchen or cooking area, and if it's really fancy, a place for customers to eat their food without getting rained or snowed on. It's a broad term that also includes the take-out food vendors, ever-present at any of Japan's many festivals. Either way you look at it, yatai are Japan's answer to carnival fast food, and where in the United States you might get a hot dog from a cart vendor in New York City or a deep-fried Snickers bar-on-a-stick at the Iowa State Fair, the Far Eastern equivalent is more along the lines of grilled chicken on a stick (yakitori) or ramen (noodles) soup.
Raumen Menkui falls squarely into the category of yatai although it has come a long ways since its humble beginnings. It really used to be an honest-to-goodness tent before, a couple years ago the owner constructed a building for his restaurant. But all he did was take the food cart, folding chairs, benches and kitchen appliances and move them onto a concrete foundation with solid walls. When you enter the restaurant, the food cart is still the centre of attention, with seating space all around it. I never tried it when it was still a tent but since a few people have told me about it I thought that it would be a great place to get my noodles on and to write my next review.
The name Menkui Raumen is interesting to begin with. In Japanese, menkui is a pun – the kanji (Chinese characters) that can be used to write this word literally translate to: "noodles", "eat." However a less literal translation of menkui means: attractiveness that is only superficial or physical. A rather strange choice, and yet, rather clever. In addition, before I get a sea of e-mails from the Japanese transliteration pundits, let me point out that I spelled “raumen” the way I did because that is the way the restaurant spells it (both in kana AND in Roman characters). Why? Beats me! I asked a few Japanese co-workers today and they really had no ideas other than perhaps the owner wanted to stand out from the crowd a little and used (what they figured) was maybe a more Chinese pronunciation. The veracity of this claim is unconfirmed.
Walking past the sliding doors, we were greeted by very friendly staff, and told to go ahead and park it anywhere. Initially they were a little taken aback by the fact that we weren't Japanese, but not in a bad way... They were really just trying to figure out whether we would be able to understand the menu which was written only in Japanese script. Had I not assured them that we would in fact be fine and that I could read the menu quite well, I'm sure they would have been most becoming – it seemed as though they were more than ready to give us an adequate oral interpretation of their offerings. I sat down and glanced at the menu which was taped to the wall in front of me.
The décor was reminiscent of a beach shack, with various pieces of driftwood furniture. It looked like they were after a bit of an “Okinawan” look, something I gathered from the Okinawan liquor adorning the counter and a few Okinawan dishes on the menu. More on that later.
“What's your specialty?” I finally asked the man behind the counter in Japanese.
“Take your pick,” he grinned. “All our soups taste the same.”
I chucked to my wife, “Well, at least he's honest.” Indeed, the main soup menu consists of a soy-base with thin noodles, but with various toppings. I figured that instead of the standard “ramen” (¥680) I would have the chashu-men (ramen with sliced pork topping) and Bonnie, being a fan of negi-ramen (julienned green onions) opted for that, for the same price.
The offerings are pretty standard for a shop of this type – bamboo shoot ramen, seaweed ramen (both ¥750), among a few others. In addition, the non-ramen portion of the menu consists of several kinds of “dish” (sara), such as a sliced pork dish (¥400), bamboo shoot dish (¥300), kimchi dish (¥400). I also spotted some roast eggplant for ¥400, and as one might except, this being a somewhat Okinawan-themed place, two varieties of Okinawan Champuru. Champuru in the Okinawan language means “mix” -- perhaps like the English use of the word “stew” and the main ingredient is the name the “mix” is given. In my case, it was so-min (thin noodle) Champuru (¥500).
It took longer for the Champuru to reach us than our soup, but the wait allowing me to get a better feel for the restaurant. Once again, I didn't bring a camera so I had to satisfy myself with the lens from my cellphone. At least it gives a bit of an idea of what the main counter area looks like.
(Yes, the red lantern in this photo DOES say: ra-men in katakana -- but elsewhere they do use the odd spelling of "raumen").
In addition to this, there is a projection TV overhead, and judging by all the Ventforet Kofu paraphernalia and posters, I would imagine that it gets quite busy during soccer games. As far as that goes, I have frequently seen people waiting to get into this place, one of the reasons why I also wanted to try it. Tonight was no exception and about midway through our meal, looking behind me to the entrance, spied three young men waiting for a vacancy. The staff, aside from smiles also wear matching uniforms, consisting of black T-shirts with the restaurant name Menkui printed on the front in white writing, with a slogan in English: “Do you know Menkui?” written in small lettering across the top and an oversize question mark on the back. It looked quite sharp. A photo album containing pictures of all the various kinds of Japanese liquor they had for sale hangs on the wall for perusal and containers of waribashi (disposable chopsticks) are scattered about, containing not the usual, pale bamboo sticks so common everywhere in Asia, but dark, walnut-coloured chopsticks that I haven't yet seen before.
The soup, finally arriving, was quite tasty, the sliced pork, hard-boiled egg, bamboo shoots and seaweed all contributing to the overall flavour. The noodles were a little thinner than I've had in other ramen shops, but certainly no less palatable. True to their promise, Bonnie's soup tasted similar, although in addition to the shredded onion topping, a little bit of red, hot spice and some sesame seeds added variety. When the thin-noodle Champuru arrived, I detected traces of black pepper, ginger and canned tuna in addition to the noodles themselves. At first I didn't care for it much; the overall taste and choice of spices didn't seem to agree with me, and the saltiness was a little much for my taste... Funny thing is, however, the dish seemed to grow on me the more I ate it, and after a few bites I was very much alright with the whole affair. Next time, however, I might try something a bit different.
In the end, the total for two was ¥2,200, we left very well fed as the portions were more than adequate, but no drinks – only two bowls of soup and an order of stir-fried noodles. It's not the best noodle joint in the city, but it is a place to get some soup in some interesting surroundings.
The Good: Pretty good food, interesting atmosphere, friendly staff.
The bad: Small place – may have to wait to sit down and order. People queued up at the door are common here. Also, smoking/ashtrays are everywhere. If one or more people are smoking (they were) it's hard to get away from.
Menu: Ramen, various other dishes, including even a salad and some ice-cream deserts, Champuru, draft beer (Asahi -- ¥550), soft drinks ¥200, sake ¥400-600, a few other alcoholic beverages,
Price Range: Food: ¥300-¥850, drinks ¥500 average
Smoking: Yes. Ashtrays everywhere. Don't go if you are allergic to smoke or don't want to get the smell of it on your clothes.
Recommended?: Maybe. But if there were a queue outside, I'd move on to “plan B.”
Owner: Ken Saito
Tel. 090-7637-0964 / E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Address. 2-10-3 Takabatake, Kofu City (almost across from Restaurant Torisumi)
Hours: 18:00-about 25:00; Closed Sundays.
Languages spoken: Japanese only.
Parking: Yes. Plenty.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
“Samila, does this place have authentic Sri Lankan food?” I asked him before we left my house. “ Does it taste like the food back home?”
“Yes, of course!” he replied. Quickly adding, “But it's been changed a little for Japanese tastes. We cannot make it as spicy as we like it in Sri Lanka.”
“Are the owners Sri Lankan?” I asked. “Do you think you could ask them to spice things up for us a little bit more?”
“Of course!” Samila replied enthusiastically. And so we set off by car to Chuo City, which is really just south of Kofu, maybe about a 20 minute drive by car from the city centre.
Pulling into the parking lot, I saw inside the restaurant through the front window. “Holy cow!” I thought. “How fancy IS this place?” I had sticker shock without even seeing the menu. It looked very fancy indeed! The interior is all done up in dark woods, with wood paneling on the walls, shiny hardwood floors, and very modern, chestnut colored tables contrasting starkly with equally modern, elegant, white chairs. Certainly not something I was expecting, especially considering the signs out front, and even the business card that was given to me a week prior, don't come anywhere close to matching the interior elegance I saw when we first arrived at the restaurant. Rather than expound on this any further, I will allow my readers to see for themselves what I'm talking about. I've included a picture of both, business card and restaurant. I have restricted myself to only one picture, having forgotten my good camera and with only my cellphone I would spare everyone the pain of having to look at anything more than one mediocre photo emanating from my cellphone's pinhole-sized lens.
In terms of authenticity, it was a welcoming sight to see a number of Sri Lankan people sitting, enjoying their meals, some of whom, upon seeing Samila walk in greeted him warmly in Sri Lankan and he wasted no time in chatting up the waiter who he said was a friend. What Samila described later as Sri Lankan music played quietly in the background.
We were given menus, and Samila earned his keep with a few good recommendations. In the end I opted for the Deviled Mutton (￥1,300) , Chicken Biriyani (￥1,000) and Vegetable Roti (￥450). In addition, since my wife was the designated driver last time, I got the job on this trip, so instead of beer I opted for a Lassi (yogurt drink - ￥350). Samila's selection closely matched my own, although instead of the Chicken Biriyani he chose the Special Mixed Fried Rice with Vegetables (￥1,400) – a dish not dissimilar to my Chicken Biriyani but with a side note that it was appropriate for 1.5 – 2 people.
It was a tough decision, the menu being otherwise full of Indian style curries, like Chicken Curry (￥800), Mutton Curry, Prawn Curry, (both ￥1,000) side orders of rice or roti, (￥180) and a virtual cornucopia of both Western and Asian dishes – from Sirloin Steak (￥1,700) to Sweet and Sour Chicken and Chop Suey Rice (￥800, ￥900, respectively). A full complement of soups, salads (￥500 range) and deserts (￥250) completed the selection. One interesting note about the menu, however; each one had random items crossed out in it, obviously indicating unavailable items... This alone is not so serious but I thought it rather strange that no two menus had the same items crossed out... I found myself cross-referencing menus and wondering which dishes were, in fact available and which ones weren't.
Regardless, when we placed our order, Samila chatted with the waiter in Sri Lankan for a minute or so, and they seemed to be having quite the dialog before the waiter finally left us and retreated into the kitchen.
“I told him that we wanted things more spicy – like we have in Sri Lanka, not like for Japanese people” he explained. I was glad he remembered to do so. I looked forward to the experience.
As we waited for our meal to arrive, the waiter made a brief stop at our table, and following a short conversation with Samila, explained that the Vegetable Roti wasn't available, and whether we wouldn't mind trying a different variety – fish or beef. I opted for the beef. After a somewhat lengthy wait, (30 minutes or so) our dishes arrived piecemeal, starting with the mutton. It was pleasantly sweet, slices of meat, onions and green peppers with a hint of ginger. The rice dishes followed, with the Beef Roti arriving last. The presentation was impressive with everything served in elegant, white china. It definitely matched the overall décor and restaurant atmosphere.
I had just started on the Chicken Biriyani when the waiter returned with a large, shallow bowl full of a dark red paste-like substance. As soon as Samila saw it, he just about went into convulsions and started madly chattering away at the waiter who brought the concoction.
“When I told them that we wanted our food spicy like in Sri Lanka they thought I meant this..” Samila exploded between fits of incredulous, nervous laughter. “It's a very hot Sri Lankan spice you put on your food.”
“What do you call it?” I asked.
“It's called, 'lunumiris'” he replied. “But it's very hot. Maybe too much.”
“That's great!” I smiled. “Exactly what we're looking for. I want to try some!” I picked up the teaspoon from the bowl, heaping full of lunumiris... “How's this?”
Samila, just about choking, burst out: “No! No! That's waaaay too much! Just a little bit! Really. It's very spicy.”
I emptied half a teaspoon of paste back into the bowl and the other half onto a portion of Biriyani rice. Even as the fork approached my mouth, Samila sat, spellbound by my resolve to subject myself to what he assumed would be excruciating pain.
Prepared for the worst, I bravely ate the lunumiris-covered rice, savoring the flavour of the paste, trying to pick out individual flavours.
“So...?” Samila asked after a few moments of anticipation.
“I... like it!” I answered back picking up the spoon from the bowl and proceeding to liberally spread lunumiris all over the Chicken Biriyani.
“Oh my God!” Samila exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief. “Are you sure you're not Sri Lankan?” he asked me rhetorically.
Having grown up with a father who just loved any kind of hot or spicy food, I've become largely accustomed to the “burn” of such foods. I've learned to enjoy the experience for the most part, choosing to interpret the sensation on my palette as a “pleasant, warm glow” as opposed to an insane, raging inferno. Rarely a meal went by growing up when the ever-present bottle of cayenne pepper wasn't spread over my father's meals. From what I understand, scientists figure that it's even quite healthy.
Far be it for me to question the wisdom of scientists touting the health benefits of capsicin, I thoroughly enjoyed my “enhanced” Chicken Biriyani. Without the heat, it would have been just another rice dish. The beef roti did fall into that latter category – although not at all unpleasant, wasn't anything particularly special and I could have done well enough without it. My original choice was between that and a dish of “Wade,” a Sri Lankan appetizer that came highly recommended by our friend. I opted for the roti.
Our meal was followed by a complementary desert of custard that tasted as good as the rest of our meal. Interestingly enough, we never ventured into the realm of curries – something I'll be sure to try next time.
Typical to many of the South Asian restaurants in this area, lunch buffets are the standard, and this restaurant is no exception. They offer a daily buffet from 11:00 to 14:30 for ￥780, which is, to say the least, about 100 yen less than most of the other Indian restaurants in the greater Kofu area.
I'm glad I was introduced to this gem of a restaurant. If I weren't already married, I would have no qualms at all about bringing a date here – the atmosphere is certainly very pleasant. Paying separately for our respective meals, the entire bill for my wife and I, including a beer for her, two Lassi drinks, a meat dish, rice dish and appetizer all came in at a modest ￥3850. With draft beer costing only ￥480, soft drinks ￥250 and many menu choices nowhere near breaking the 1,000 yen barrier, Midland makes for an inexpensive yet classy evening.
The Good: Very classy-looking restaurant, modern décor; tasty food, reasonable prices. Ample menu selections, many styles of food: Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese and Western. Kids' menus are available too, as well as set menus and group menus. English-speaking staff; Sri Lankan items for sale near the entrance: spices, Basmati rice, lentils, lunumiris, green (Indian) pickle, to name a few.
The bad: The wait: 30 minutes is not an unreasonable time to wait for a meal, but admittedly, was a little bit long for me. The time lapse between dishes arriving at our table could also have used some improvement.. It may have been due to the fact that only one cook was in the kitchen and we ordered a number of dishes, and there were several other patrons in the restaurant as well. In the end the quality of the food was worth the wait but if a half-hour is common, I would recommend some sort of appetizer or snack to nibble on with drinks while waiting, if possible. Otherwise, it would be good to have menus that agreed with each other as to what was available and what was not.
Menu: Sri Lankan, Indian dishes, curries, Western, Sri Lankan-style Chinese, soups, salads, deserts, full bar and alcoholic drink menu, Kirin draft beer.
Price Range: Main courses: ￥800-1700, soups, salads ￥500 range, deserts ￥250, soft drinks ￥250, draft beer ￥480, lunch buffet ￥780, group/set menu ￥2,000-5,000.
Smoking: Yes. One smoker sitting at another table. It didn't bother us but it was noticeable. There is no specific non-smoking section.
Midland Indo Lanka Restaurant
Hours: Daily: 11:00-1500; 16:30-22:00; (lunch buffet 11:00 - 14:00); last order 21:30. Closed on national holidays.
Location: Chuo City, Wakamiya 2-8 Angel House Narase Bldg.
Languages spoken: Sri Lankan, Japanese, English
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
This unassuming, little restaurant is located on Showa Dori, near the Arakawa River, specifically, across from Coco's, a large family restaurant. The signage is mostly in kanji, and even if you can 't recognize the characters for "Korean" it's pretty obvious from all the color photographs of delectable-looking dishes decorating the building's exterior. The kanji for the restaurant's name reads: "East Large Gate" but the furigana next to it shows a more Korean reading: Don De Mun.
As we entered through the sliding doors, two women sprung into action, welcoming us and offering us a place to sit. It seemed we were the first customers of the evening, and that's the way it would remain until we left. I do wonder if they have a time or day when they are busy -- but I guess 9:00pm on a Tuesday wasn't it. The hours, though are very long -- 5pm to 3am so they can accommodate just about anyone, even the busiest of salarymen, providing they aren't working a night shift until morning. Unlike many such restaurants I've seen in the past, even though the decor was sparse and unimpressive, save a few Korean knick-knacks decorating the walls, the seating area, floors, and walls were kept squeaky-clean. The layout allowed us to see part-way into the kitchen, and I must say that even the stainless steel cooking area and grills were well-kept. So far, so good. I did ask how old the restaurant was, and the waitress said that they've been around for a while but moved to their present location only a year ago.
The first item of business was ordering a draft beer (￥600) for me and a Coke (￥400) for my gracious, designated driver Bonnie. I thought that the prices for drinks in general was a bit on the high side of average, but to the restaurant's credit, four dishes of appetizers soon followed. A bowl of the quintessential kimchi (spicy, pickled cabbage), sesame oil-flavoured bean sprouts, sweet, dried and marinated squid jerky, and marinated seaweed salad. I would have been happy even just munching on the appetizers as they were both plentiful and very flavourful. You'd also never guess that the chewy, sweet and tasty morsels in one of the bowls was squid... We were certainly off to a fine start, I thought. I tend to judge Korean restaurants based on the quality (and quantity) of kimchi (I hate to admit) but Don De Mun passed both tests. It was very traditional-tasting, spicy, (but not overly spicy) and when we finished the first bowl, I asked for some more and an even larger bowl appeared thereafter -- something that's always appreciated.
The menu prices were on the high side of average. I ordered another quintessential Korean dish: Bulgogi (sweet marinated beef and vegetables) (￥1500) and Bonnie tried the stone-cooked Bi Bim Ba (fried rice, vegetables, egg, sauce) (￥1200) which gets served to your table sizzling in a stone bowl. The non-stone-cooked variety is also available for ￥1000. The Bulgogi was exactly what I had expected and didn't disappoint. It was comfortably sweet, not spicy and the vegetables retained a fair amount of crispiness. As for the Bi Bim Ba, just as the kimchi preceding it, was spicy but not overly. Sometimes I forget that restaurants in this country do cater largely to a Japanese audience, many of whom tend not to care for spicy or hot foods. Having said that however, I would not recommend coming here to someone who cannot handle such dishes, as my mouth was definitely aglow for a good portion of our meal. I enjoyed the Bi Bim Ba for the rice since my own Bulgogi didn't come with any and would have cost ￥300 extra. In addition, it was served with two bowls of clear, seaweed broth that was an enjoyable contrast to the Bi Bim Ba. As it was, the portion sizes were quite large and we were both quite well satisfied with it all. I felt that we got our money's worth.
As an additional note, when I ordered my second beer, we were served another snack -- apparently a specialty of rural, Southern Korea: dried seaweed with sesame seeds. The best way to describe it would be to say it was like a seaweed jerky -- tough to chew but not unpleasantly so. It complemented the beer well.
When it was all said and done, our final bill for two people, including two beers and a Coke, came to ￥4300 -- which is exactly what I hoped I'd end up paying. This means that all the appetizers and snacks and side dishes we received were part of the bill total and not as part of a seating charge which tends to be very common in Japanese restaurants and izakayas where beer and snacks are served.
I enjoyed our time and look forward to coming again, hopefully to try some of the other interesting-looking dishes on the menu.
The good: very tasty food, friendly staff, clean atmosphere, no seating charge, drinks served in chilled glasses.
The bad: eyeball-burning fluorescent lighting, average to high drink prices, horrible menu photography -- pretty much all amorphous, blurry masses... (Hint: examine the pictures of the dishes outside, before entering the restaurant -- outside, they are crystal clear and look tasty).
Menu: Traditional Korean dishes. Korean BBQ, Bulgogi, Bi Bim Ba, Korean "maki" (sushi) rolls, soups, salads, Kimchi pork soba noodles, full alcoholic drink menu including Kirin draft beer.
Price range: ￥500 for a soup or salad, ￥1000-￥1500 main dishes, ￥3000-￥5000 groups/Korean BBQ yaki-nikku plates. Average price for 2 (including drinks): ￥4000.
Smoking: Probably. No one else was there when we went and we don't smoke. If smoking is permitted, consistently keeping with the overall cleanliness of the restaurant, there were no ashtrays on the tables.
Don De Mun
Hours: Daily from 5pm-3am
Location: Showa Dori, across from Coco's Restaurant
Languages spoken: Korean, Japanese (no English)