Monday, July 27, 2015

Izakaya in Kagoshima: Tsuwabuki 石蕗、鹿児島

From Kyoto 京都, we traveled all the way to Kagoshima 鹿児島 via Sanyo 山陽 and Kyushu Shinkansen 九州新幹線. Since the last time we were in Kyushu, the shinkansen only went to Hakata 博多, we really wanted to ride all the way to the southern most shinkansen station, Kagoshim-Chuo 鹿児島中央. The Kyushu Shinkansen train is shorter (6 cars). In addition the terrain is more mountainous so the line has quite a lot of tunnels which don’t afford as many vistas of scenery as other lines. In any case, this was the first time for us to visit Kagoshima. Our Hotel was on the top of a small hill/plateau overlooking the active volcano "Sakurajima" 桜島. We were appropriately impressed with the view from our windows.

For this evening's Izakaya, I chose "Tsuwabuki" 石蕗 from Tabelog listing.  I made a reservation for the counter and took off from our hotel. The taxi driver did not know the place and entered the address into his GPS. Despite the intervention of modern technology, he dropped us off several blocks away from the Izakaya. After walking around directionless for a while we found guy in a stained apron who appeared to be a cook from a nearby restaurant on break smoking a cigarette and asked him for directions. While the cab driver didn’t seem to have a clue where the izakaya was located, this fellow did. The place was in the basement of a building. The stairs did not have any railing and it looked like someone with a little bit of sake on board could easily fall off the edge (as we would say in the States stairwell “not up to code”). We took off our shoes and went in. It was a rather small place with a counter that could seat 7-8 people and several low tables on koagari 小上がり.  The place was run by a "Mama-san" and a sidekick. Mama-san was very attentive and was very good making her guests feel warmly welcome including us. Her sidekick was an older women who took the orders and brought the dishes.

Tsuwabuki inside

The otoshi for the two of us were six small dishes served in two long plates which looked like three bowls connected together; somewhat reminiscent of  the otoshi served at Suikou 酔香 and Shuhai 酒盃. Among the six, we liked a kind of salad made of bitter melon, kelp and myouga and Mama-san gave us an extra serving (see below).

Kagoshima Goya

As usual, we asked for a combination sashimi. Among the items, "Kibinago" きびなご (English name is supposedly "silver-stripe round herring"). This is famous in Kagoshima.  I was not familiar with the fish since I am originally from Hokkaido and this fish does not exist in the cold waters around Hokkaido. The sashimi was good but we were not crazy about the "Kibinago".

Kagoshima Sashimi

The sake choices were limited but there was a much wider choice of Kagoshima shochu 鹿児島焼酎. Especially, Imojouchu 芋焼酎 which is famous in the region. It is made from sweet potato called "Satsuma-imo" 薩摩芋. "Satsuma" is the old name for Kagoshima. After we finished the first sake (I do not remember what it was), I tried shochu on the rocks which was recommended by Mama-san. It was too harsh for my wife. I did finish it but I have to admit that shochu is not my favorite. After we switched back to sake, we ordered "home-made" satsuma-age 薩摩揚げ, deep fried fish meat balls, again famous in the area. It was fried after we ordered it and was good.

Kagoshima satsuma age

At this point, there were several regulars sitting at the counter and a group of salary men who must also have been regulars took up the tables. The regulars at the counter were competing with each other to buy Mama-san some beer and the sidekick placed her glass on the counter asking "How about me?" And the glass was quickly filled. After all the guests had been served drinks and food, both Mama-san and the sidekick joined the group at the table. We could see that the warm welcoming atmosphere that Mama-san created, in addition to the food, was a major attraction to the place.  It felt somewhat like a bar and the guests obviously liked her attention and easy familiar conversation. Her clientele appeared to be salary men coming in for homey relaxation first and a bite to eat second. We had a few more dishes and decided to “call it quits”. We were impressed that as we were leaving, Mama-san came out, and in turn grasped each of our hands firmly in both of hers and looking us in the eye genuinely thanked us for stopping by. We left feeling like truly honored guests.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Two appetizers 酒のつまみ 2種類

These are not new but one evening we had these two small dishes with sake.

We got a pound of salmon filet. When we get salmon filet, I always ask for the head portion because it includes the belly meat  or "harasu" はらす (thin and oily). I usually separate this portion from the rest of the salmon so the two sections are of even thickness. Besides, the belly portion makes a good small appetizer. We had the rest of the salmon for dinner. (Diversion alert: for some reason the fish fillets sold here are not scaled. Maybe people don’t eat the skin? So however I cook the fish my first step in preparation is scaling them.)

I marinated the belly portion in  "Yuuan-ji" 祐庵地  (soy sauce, mirin and sake in equal amounts) in a Ziploc bag for 30 minutes. I cut the belly into two pieces (one for me and the other for my wife) and skewered them using long flat metal skewers for Yakitori we got from Kappabashi 合羽橋 on our recent trip to Japan. The new skewers made my job much easier since they are long enough to span the length of the baking dish I use in the toaster oven (the ones we had before were too short). I grilled the meat side first and then the skin side to make the skin really crispy. I served this with daikon namasu 大根なます garnished with tobiko roe and slices of my Japanese cucumber pickles.

The second dish shown below is also grilled in the toaster oven. Whenever we get bone-in split chicken breast, I separate the tenderloins from the breast meat. I used two tenderloins for this appetizer (I used the rest of the breasts for chicken paillard). The tenderloins were soaked in sake (mostly to help preserve the meat). I skewered and lightly salted the tenderloins. Then, using the same type of flat metal skewers I used to grill the fish. I grilled the chicken on both sides in the toaster oven. When the meat was almost done, I smeared on some umeboshi  梅干し sauce (I removed the meat of umeboshi - I still have my mother's home made - placed it in a Japanese Suribachi 擂鉢 mortar added mirin and ground it to paste). I grilled for 30 seconds more (mostly to warm up the sauce). I served it garnished it with chopped perilla from our herb garden.

These are nothing new but they are really good appetizers for sake. We had the rest of the salmon (pan fried and then finished in the oven with crispy skin) and rice for dinner.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Izakaya in Kyoto; Kurakura 蔵倉、京都

We got back to the hotel after an afternoon of sight seeing and shopping ready for a power nap. For the evening activity, I made the executive decision that, instead of rushing around to get to our favorite Izakaya Akagakiya 赤垣屋 when it opened at 5:00pm and take a chance we could sit at the counter, we would just go to Kurakura 蔵倉 which was within walking distance just around the corner. Although we always have been able to sit at the counter at KuraKura without making a reservation, I did not take a chance and booked our place at the counter.

When we arrived, it was almost empty. We have found from the experience of previous years that it pays to be selective about what we order. For example, one time we ordered avocado tempura. To our surprise we got the entire avocado, sliced—deep fried! We can appreciate a good avocado with the best of them, but you really have to be into avocado to eat a whole one, fried, in a single sitting. They must be renowned for their sumptuous serving sizes. That said, with some judicious selections we had a great meal. The interaction with the chefs was also nice. The good thing is that they also have a good selection of sake.

Soon after we were seated, the head honcho (chef and owner, we assume) came out and helped us pick some sake. With his help, I picked ”Summer" Ichino-kura , 夏の一ノ蔵特別純米生原酒 from Miyagi 宮城県 made from 100% "Kura-no-hana" 蔵の華 sake rice as our first sake. It was good choice, not too dry and not too sweet.

As usual, we first ordered a combination sashimi including Hokkaido uni and amaebi 北海道産うにと甘エビ.  The sashimi was all great and the amount was just right for the two of us.

Kurakura sashimi We then ordered fava beans or soramame そらまめ.  The assistant chef asked if we would like soramame grilled or boiled. We said, without hesitation, grilled.

Kurakura fava benas
We also had half a simmered fish (Kinmedai 金目鯛の煮付けor fantastic alfonso). The assistant chef again asked our preference, head or tail? I said,  "Of course, head". My wife immediately said she would give me the "eye". The fish was not pre-cooked and just sitting there waiting to be reheated when an order came in. Instead the chef started cooking it after we placed our order. Blue flame suddenly erupted from behind the counter in front of where we sat. While my wife prepared to evacuate the chef reassured us it was just the alcohol from the sake used in the sauce being burned off while making our dish. Thanks to my wife’s generous offer, I enjoyed the gelatinous part behind the eye.

Kurakura Kinmedai

We were ready to order another sake. I went to the glass front cold case where they kept the sake bottles. A woman appeared and she seemed to be in charge of that part of the establishment. (We assumed, she must be the chef/owner's wife and was the sake sommelier). I discussed the various selections on display in the cold case with her, then I spotted "Icebreaker" sake behind the glass door.

Although I never tasted this sake, I remember reading about it on the Internet. I remember reading that it was brewed by the first and only foreigner (British) sake master Philp Harper at Kinoshita Shuzou 玉川木下酒造 in Kyoto. Seeing the distinctive blue label with the Penguin on it, I had to taste this one as the next sake. The sommelier/wife (?) commented  "Oh, you like summer sake". This is junmai ginjou genshu, non-filtered 純米吟醸無濾過生原酒 made from Nihonbare 日本晴 sake rice.  I think this was a new sake just released. We tried it first like regular cold sake. It was OK but not great.  Then I remembered that the idea behind this sake is that it can be drunk on the rocks which would be particularly refreshing in the hot Kyoto summer. Since it is genshu (not diluted and of high alcohol content), it would withstand the ice.  (And how could anyone be hot after seeing that label?) My wife provided some ice cubes from her oolong tea to test my theory. We thought it actually tasted much better so we requested more ice and drank it frosty cold. This was a rather clean sake and we did not notice the high alcohol.

Meanwhile, for the new sake, we had several more dishes including shiokara of “hoya”  ほやの塩辛,  (Hoya is similar to sea anemone and also called sea pineaple) which was not too salty or fishy and had nice texture. We needed some starch and fried food to absorb the alcohol so the next dish was potato croquets, which was nicely hot and somehow very comforting.

Kurakura Coroquet

The last sake was recommended by the sommelier/wife (?) was another "summer sake". This is called ”Cool summer Gassan",  junmai ginjou 涼夏月山純米吟醸 by Yoshida sake brewery 吉田酒造 from Shimane prefecture 島根県. This is specifically brewed as a "summer" sake but the approach is a bit different from Ice Breaker. This is a very gentle and fresh tasting sake. It was brewed with very soft water and "Sakanishiki" sake rice 左香錦.

At this point, we had more than enough sake. Although the potato croquettes were good and quite filling, we finished with grilled rice balls. I asked if they were big and the young chef at the grill said no they were small and one order had two. So I asked for one order. Turns out they were BIG. They were filled with cod roe and the saltiness of the roe was perfect with the rice. I’m glad I asked for only one order. We only just managed to finish one each.

The sommelier/wife (?) was also the cashier. We paid the bill. I am not sure what the final sum was but I don’t think it was very high. We slowly walked back to our hotel. We are getting more and more fond of this place. Nice sake selection, interaction with chefs and the discussions about sake with the sommelier/wife (?)/cashier, were all educational and a major part of Izakaya experience we particularly like. With some judicious selection, the food is quite good. We were totally satisfied with this evening.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Izakaya in Kyoto; Shinme 神馬、京都

Recently we were in Kyoto 京都, a city not to be missed on a trip to Japan. This time we finally got to go to Shinme 神馬 which was recommended by Mark Robinson some time ago.  Fortunately, I managed to "reserve" the counter. It was far from our hotel at Kyoto station. Although the taxi cab driver knew where Shinme was, it was a long ride and the driver's lecture on Kyoto history and geography got fairly old long before the end of the ride. The izakaya had a very unassuming store front. Stepping inside was like going back in time. The inside reeked of Showa era 昭和 (an era of the previous emperor, 1928-1989); the decor, the advertisements, the clientele (including us).

Shinme - 2 (1)

We bellied up to the counter and an older fellow came out and initially interacted with me but was kind of unfriendly for the remainder of our stay, not the type to chit-chat and provide information. We were not sure if he is the owner but could be. He spent a fair amount of time, while we were there, in front of the old cash register tucked into a nook in the front of the store. He also occasionally came out and interacted with the customers especially a select group, we assumed, were the regulars. We noticed that while he used the drawer on the cash register to store money, he  relied on a calculator or abacus to ring up sales. There was no menu and I had to read hand written cards hanging on the walls to order sake and food. Some were difficult to decipher. The serving staff, in contrast to the Showa immersion experience, were young and efficient. Relics of old grills and other instruments of food preparation moldered long unused behind the counter. At some point in the past, at least, Yakitori must have been cooked there but "Yakidai" 焼き台 grill was not used any longer. The space was used only for the preparation of sake.

Shinme - 4 (1)

We ordered cold sake from Kyoto. The Otoshi was rather nice; composed of rice noodles on the bottom with onsen tamago, two grilled hamo (conger ell) pieces, okra, and shrimp in dashi broth.

Shinme - 1

We did not take pictures but we had a sashimi assortment including uni from Hokakido. We had a grilled fish, boiled firefly squid with sumiso sauce (The picture below is after we had eaten 2/3 of it. The serving was much larger than this). We ordered more dishes but our memories are foggy. We had more sake.

Shinme - 3

How was this place? It is not bad. The food was good but the total lack of interaction with the people preparing the dishes left an emptiness to the experience (the kitchen is in the back totally isolated from the customers). Since we like to stay in the hotel at the station when we visit Kyoto, the distance and lack of convenient transportation besides taxi is another negative. So, we still like "Akagaki-ya" 赤垣屋 better, although we have not been there for some time. I tried to secure the counter but they do not take reservation for counter just for tables. We staggered out of the door after paying the bill (about $180?) to the fellow at the cash register and took a taxi back to our hotel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Izakaya in Kanazawa; maguro-ganchi まぐろがんち 金沢

It was Sunday and this was Kanazawa 金沢. On our previous visit two years ago, we enjoyed several Izakayas but this time, we arrived on Sunday and many of the Izakaya we visited the last time were closed. Our hotel was next to Kanazawa station and I looked for Izakaya within walking distance. I found this place "Maguro Ganchi" まぐろがんち. I read that "Ganchi" is a local dialect for local crabs called  "Zuwaigani" ズワイガニ. So, this Izakaya specializes in Tuna and Crab. I am not sure this place is classified as a "chain" but they have one more Izakaya in Kanazawa called "Monzen" 底曳き割烹もんぜん. It was just 5 minute walk from our hotel.

maguro ganchi outsdie (1)

This was the "Otoshi" appetizer. Needless to say we were quite surprised and have never seen anything like this before. It consisted of a portion of the ribs and back bone of a tuna. We ate it with spoons that were slightly curved at the corners--almost square shaped. (originally for Ice cream?) They were perfectly shaped for us to easily scoop the meat off the bones. The tuna meat attached to the bones is usually called "Nakaochi" 中落ち and is a good and economical portion of tuna. We have eaten tuna nakaochi before (often served in Krean "Yukke" style) but we have never seen Nakaochi served still attached to the bones. In any case, it was a fun to dig in and tuna was quite delicious. Of course we cleaned off all the good meat except the dark red "chiai" portion.

Maguro - 1

We then ordered a special maguro sashimi combination. It had red meat or akami 赤身 (left back), chutoro 中とろ (left front), ootro 大トロ (right front),  kama-toro カマトロ(right back) and nouten 脳天 (center back).  Among these different portions of tuna, the most precious are Kama-toro and Nouten. Kamatoro is fatty meat in the collar/head of tuna and nouten is small amount of very fatty meat in the top of the tuna head ("nouten" means "brain"). The amount you can get from one whole tuna for these two portions is very limited. This was the first time we had "nouten". All was excellent. It was almost like a “tuna tasting”; all the parts laid out side by side so we could compare the taste and texture of meat from various parts of the tuna.

Maguro - 4

We really liked the kama-toro and ordered additional servings; one as is and another "aburi" or seared by torch. We liked aburi best. We had several sake at this point. It came in a medium sized Tokkuri (They called it "large") supposedly holding  2go or 360ml but, somehow,  it did not feel like 2go of sake (much less). In any case, we started with local (from Noto in Ishikawa 能登石川県) sake called "Sougen" 宗玄純米 which we dispatched quickly. As far as I can remember, we went for  "Tedorigawa" 手取川山廃純米 and "Tengumai" 天狗舞山廃純米 (both also ”Jizake” 地酒 from Ishikawa prefecture 石川県). All sake was quite good but we liked Tengumai best.

Since we cannot pass up our Kanazawa favorites, we ordered firefly squid okizuke ホタルイカの沖ずけ and shiraebi kara-age 白エビのから揚げ.

Maguro - 6

Since it was not crab season, the only crab item available was "Crab croquet". It was hot and nicely creamy. Finally as a shime dish, we ordered fried potato. They were quite decent steak fries. The bill was very reasonable $103 (or 12,480yen).

Maguro - 8

We walked to our hotel and I immediately crashed. My wife enjoyed the sunset over the sea of Japan (a thin sliver of ocean can be seen from our windows) and took the picture below. This was really a fun day and we enjoyed good local sake and tuna.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Tuna mayo and Tuna zuke handrolls マグロのマヨ和え、漬けの手巻き

Recently when we visited Japan, my wife had a "gunkan" 軍艦 sushi which was topped with tuna salad (canned tuna dressed in mayonnaise) from a chain take-out only sushi store at a home party. I did not try it but, according to my wife, it was unexpectedly good, especially the combination of mayo, nori, and sushi rice. While we might agreed that mayo and sushi rice was a good combination on principle we both balked at the use of canned tuna. So, instead, I used a frozen yellowfin tuna block. As I posted several times, this frozen tuna block is my emergency sashimi ration and requires some additional treatment to make it palatable. So this is an ideal tuna to use.

After thawing the tuna block, I did my usual "Yubiki" 湯引き treatment and then made half into "Zuke" 漬け. I made one quarter into "Namerou" なめろう, I used half of the Zuke in "Yamakake" やまかけ. So, I made these hand rolls from a quarter each of Yubiki and Zuke tuna.

For the tuna mayo hand roll; I cubed the yubuki tuna. I dressed with mayonnaise mixed with the marinade from making Zuke (or soy sauce, just a splash) and Sriracha for kicks (to your liking). I also added finely chopped perilla leaves.

For the tuna zuke hand roll; I cut slices of the zuke tuna in half to make long strips.

I made sushi rice as per usual. I then cut the nori in half to make long rectangular pieces. I passed the nori over a gas flame several times to make it crispy and to give it a toasted aroma.

I  arranged the components of  the hand rolls in order so that we could assemble them quickly (Actually I assembled and handed it to my wife).

I  placed the rectangular nori sheet at an angle on my open palm with the top corner in the 12 o'clock position, just hanging over my fingers. I placed the sushi rice on the upper 1/3 of the nori, added a spoonful of the tuna mayo. Wrapped it up to make a cone (see below).

For the second roll, I added Ikura or salmon roe as well since I had it.

For zuke hand roll, I place two strips of zuke tuna, a slice of cucumber and perilla leaves. I forgot to add wasabi this time.

I have to agree with my wife that the tuna mayo hand rolls were pretty good. This combination of tuna and spicy mayo is not unusual in any American sushi bar especially as a roll but we never tried it. So this is an eye opening experience and now we have another way of making this low-quality block of frozen yellowfin tuna sashimi palatable. Problem is my wife is talking about egg salad sushi.

P.S. After this post, I came across an article describing the first recorded use of mayo in sushi (in Japanese). According to this, it was invented by the sushi bar in Miyazaki 宮崎 called "Ippei" 一平 in Shouwa 41 nen 昭和41年 (1966). It was a roll with shrimp, lettuce and mayo and details are in the web site of this sushi bar (in Japanese).

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Kushiwakamaru, Nakameguro 串若丸、中目黒

This evening, we met with our Izakaya friends, Tobias and Dave and their wives. We went to a Yakitori place called "Kushiwakamaru" 串若丸 in Nakameguro 中目黒. Since we were a party of six, finding an authentic Izakaya which could accommodate such a large group was not easy and this place was a perfect choice.

We arrived around 7pm (the place opens at 5pm), it was full so we waited in queue (sitting on the row of chairs provided outside for that purpose as shown in the picture below) for 15 minutes or so before being seated at a table.

 kushiwakamaru outside

It was a noisy, smoky, perfectly authentic yakitori-ya 焼き鳥屋. It would have been fun to sit at the counter but being such a large group we were glad to settle in at the corner table provided. I have to say yakitoris are fun but even more fun when they are enjoyed with good friends.  We had such a great time! With all the conversation, and laughter, sociability took center stage and I forgot to take pictures. I only took one food picture and that was after we had eaten most of the food (I am not as disciplined as many other food bloggers).

They served an interesting otoshi appetizer  "Shirasu-oroshi" しらすおろしwhich was grated daikon topped with "jako"( or "shirasu", dried small bait fish) in sweet vinegar sauce. It was good but the portion was huge and we (my wife and I) could not finish it. Before we started on the yakitori, we had fava beans (soramame ソラマメ), herring roe on kelp (komochi konbu 子持ち昆布), and Kushiwakamaru salad. We ordered every species of drink; beer, white wine, and sake to accommodate all preferences at the table (we had sake). It is interesting that this Yakitori-ya had wine.


Tobias and Dave ordered so many interesting and delicious yakitori, I cannot recall them all. I remember chicken tenderloin with pesto, Hokkaido potato with butter, pork belly wrapped wedges of tomato, small Japanese green pepper (piiman ピーマン) stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. The number of skewers in the large cup in the picture above, indicate that we did not leave hungry. Fully fed and watered, we staggered off to the next place for dessert and nightcaps.

Everything was really excellent. Although the place is authentic and old fashioned Yakitori-ya, the menu had some new yakitori items which are not traditional adding to the interest. We would like to add a special "shout out" thanks to Tobias, Dave and company for introducing us to one of their izakaya treasures and sharing it with us in such a good time.