Review: Rézkakas

26 February 2015

I had a busy afternoon my first day in a rainy Budapest, so I decided to fuel up a bit with some good food. Walking up Sas utca, the location of many good restaurants and bistros, I eventually ended up Rézkakas. I admit it was not my first choice but a few places I know on this street had closed up since my last trip to Budapest.

Rézkakas is a pleasant bistro that has that Budapest charm — you know what I mean if you’ve been here. Service was a pleasant surprise, as it was actually quite good. I ordered my starter and main and chilled out with some excellent local white. I love Hungarian wine so much…

AB-pork_terrine

We first began with an amuse bouche of pork terrine, which was not bad. Surprised I got one for lunch. But a good start. Some good bread too.

01-catfish

My starter was catfish carpaccio on a bed of spinach pillow. Not bad, though probably shouldn’t call this carpaccio per se. But it was rather nice, a salty, ham-ish feel to this beloved local fish. Good start.

02-mangalica

My main was, unsurprisingly, roasted mangalica loin. The meat was cooked very well, retaining the juice of this magnificent beast. The pasta shell was done nicely, and the mixture of various mushrooms was a surprise treat. Nothing as wonderful as mangalica and wild mushrooms!

I finished my wine and had a coffee and thanked the servers for an excellent meal — and solid service. Considering how crap the service just next door at (the now 1-Michelin, utterly shocked…) Borkonya on a previous trip. I was fuelled up for my busy afternoon. Into the rain…

Rézkakas
Sas utca 3
Budapest, Magyarország

Review: Канапа [Kanapa]

23 Feburary 2015

The one place I targetted for my Kyiv trip to check out the fledgeling food scene is Канапа [Kanapa], which is the first place I’ve seen that talks about new Ukrainian cooking. I looked at the menu and it indeed had many extremely adventurous items on the menu. It was recommended to me by food people I trust, so I was looking forward to the evening.

It was relatively busy compared to most places in town, as it was half-way down the touristy Andriyvsky uzviz. My table was not in a great location, near steps and it constantly got kicked by quick-moving waiters, which was rather annoying. And most of the tables were larger parties, so staff were pre-occupied by them. But I was glad to see them busy.

Although the menu had many fantastic items I had decided to do the tasting menu — to see how they handle it. It missed a few items I wanted to try but this is a good balance. Took awhile for the wine to show up but I’m reserving judgement…

01-canapes

The first item to arrive was a tasting of 4 different canapes — a combination of fillings and toppings. The pate with onion marmalade was nice as was the potato mousse with herring. I do apologise for the photo, as the last Android update screwed up the focus of low-light photos — YET AGAIN…

02-salad_mousse

The second dish was a cute service, on a glass panel with stuff you don’t eat beneath it. The salad wasn’t bad, but a bit excessive of the goat cheese mousse. The boar ham was a nice touch.

03-varenyky

The third dish is a take on an Ukrainian classic, the varenyky (dumpling). These had interesing fillings such as pike-perch with salo. I really enjoyed this item, including the odd “onion sponge” in the middle. Good stuff.

More wine and then the star of the night arrived — the potato “sausage”.

04-potato_offal_sausage

This is actually just some potato, but also minced sweetbreads and veal brains all covered in caul and cooked. A fantastic offal dish, wonderful flavours here. Offal lovers will love this dish, as would non-offal lovers. A complex and strong dish, it really shows excellent promise of this kitchen!

05-rabbit_ribs

Following this was the cute, almost heartbreaking serving of rabbit ribs. Very tasty and a beautiful serving, but you know it can be frustrating to eat rabbit because of the size — especially trying to clear meat between the ribs. But another excellent dish.

06-beef

Next up, with more wine, was a nice bull cheek. Cooked well, with strong flavours. I enjoyed this dish as well, solid stuff.

07-egg_meringue

The dessert was a “sweet” egg meringue and quince. A nice presentation and it went down quickly. It closed a relatively good meal.

I have to say some were a miss, but some were excellent. Service was a little trying, and being kicked constantly was annoying. A table-full of drunken brits misbehaving was also unpleasant, as were people taking flash photo nearby. I can see a lot of potential here. Maybe they need to streamline the menu a little, as it is huge. Take a look, some of it is spectacular, but it’s way too much stuff. Better to have a shorter menu and improve the execution.

But just to show how bad the local economy is, the food part of the 7-course tasting menu cost me…under 15 euro. Yeah, really.

But I do recommend this place, it has a lot of potential, and some of the dishes are fantastic. Some growing pains and other issues, but for Kyiv, this is indeed a great example of new Ukrainian cooking. Makes me optimistic for my next trip…one rare moment…sigh…

Канапа [Kanapa]
Андріївський узвіз 19а
Київ, Україна

A Heartbreaking Few Days in Kyiv…

I made my way to Kyiv from London on a very long-awaited trip to Ukraine. The local economy stinks, and frankly anything I can do to help — in return for filling my stomach — I’m happy to contribute! 21 years after I took Ukrainian language in college, I step foot in Kyiv.

My Ukrainian was beyond rusty, but at least I can read it. Most people were speaking surzhyk (a pigeon hybrid vernacular) anyway, so that was confusing enough. I had my first meal after a stroll around the hilly town, stopping in the middle of the small Shevchenko Park at the restaurant О’Панас (O’Panas).

The meal wasn’t bad considering it was a little of a tourist trap — though lacking in tourists. They made a garlic salo spread with some dark bread, which was a good start.

spread

The beef tongue (I love tongue) was not bad, the beet-infused horseradish made it more interesting.

tongue

And finally, the veal cheeks were pretty good, using a sweet-ish sauce. The puree was a little of an unnecessary sideshow.

cheeks

Not a bad first meal, a good fuelling for me wandering the town in the evening. It is very hilly, and you need all this energy. The evening I walked around the Maidan area and just looked at it with my heart skipping beats. It was just a year ago that Russian-paid snipers shot innocent people all over the square, and at the points where their lives were taken were spotlights shone into the sky. It’s emotional to say the least.

I needed to remove myself from this. This was as mentally damaging to me as the Hiroshima visit, partly because how close I was/am/will be to the Ukrainian freedom movement. So I dropped into the nearby brew-pub Славутич Шато (Slavutych Shato) and enjoyed a few hearty brews. I also enjoyed 2 large plates of smoked pigs ears, one of my favourite beer snacks. Mmm…

pigs ears

Then some nice local sprats…

sprats

And with several half litres of good beer it didn’t even cost me close to 10 dollars…

I wandered back to my hotel and had a nitecap before turning in for the next day, which would prove to be very busy. And food-less, as events overtook most of the day; for dinner I had my one tasting menu in town, which I will chronicle in the next review.

My last full day in Kyiv also had me skip food again, as I was too busy — this time doing touristy things. I had wandered down near the Dnipro, the river that bisects the city, and hiked up to the Holodomor Monument. Frankly, when you visit a monument that commemorates all the millions of lives lost in the Soviet-created famine, you lose your appetite… I hiked further to the historic Pechersk Lavra monastery complex for a long exploration of the buildings and areas, as well as into the amazing caves.

I was running low on daylight and had to make my way to Baykove Cemetery, so I skipped lunch and hiked across town. With the weather warming so much the cemetery was a muddy mess, and it was a challenge to hike around the hilly but muddy environment. Throw in a dinner-time meeting and I was running on empty basically, except for some nice fried small fish at a really nice Czech pub.

So I got back to my hotel and during my nitecap they admitted (the hotel bar) that they had salo — the ultimate Ukrainian treat.

salo_1

I had the plate with quite some vodka, and actually asked for another…

salo_2

I heard the kitchen ask with some incredulity when I ordered it… Oh, this was fantastic. Just melt-in-your-mouth goodness. I can eat this all night but I’d be dead by morning. Mmm…

Before I had to head to the airport to bid my farewell to this struggling but fair town I went for a last meal at Козацька грамота (Kozatska hramota), another bit of a tourist-trappy place (but no tourists). I had a pretty interesting lunch, starting with the студенець (studenets) — or jellied meats.

01-studenets

Not bad, a combination of pork and chicken. I enjoy jellied meat, but this was a little too large. Still, not bad. Main course was baked pepper pork.

02-pork_pepper

Now Ukraine knows its pork and this was very tasty. Grilled nicely, with good cuts of meat. I probably should have gotten some veg on the side, but too late now.

I left Kyiv with a heavy heart, fearing for its future. So many people once again talk about leaving, and they’ll take the heart of this country with them when they emigrate. The economy sucks, what little I did was less than a drop in the bucket for what they need. They need not just major amount of tourism — which they can easily support — but just wholesale restructuring of their economic framework. Then maybe this city will have a chance and shine as much as some of the domes on the city’s many churches.

Слава Україні! Героям слава!

О’Панас
Терещенківська 10

Славутич Шато
Хрещатик 24

Козацька грамота
Пушкінська 19а
Київ, Україна

Review: Tar & Roses

28 January 2015

My epic Japan trip had to end at some point, and it didn’t end very well. After a rather boring spicy pork lunch pushed on me by a restaurant that went back on its word and forced me to order only from the lunch menu after I was seated, I made the long trek to Narita Airport and the even longer flight back to North America.

I landed in Los Angeles and having not slept the entire flight (thanks to the awesome entertainment system on Singapore Airlines, I watched Godfather, Godfather II, and Godfather III — but only up to the start of Cavalleria Rusticana  as we landed early). I had pretty much zero jetlag going west to Japan, but I know going east is always my downfall…

I didn’t eat anything but planned for an early dinner, deciding to walk into one of LA’s most raved-about restaurants, Tar & Roses. I’ve heard many good things about this restaurant, especially their wood-fired vegetables. After all the fantastic veggies I’ve had in Japan I wasn’t ready to give up on them 3 hours after landing back in the States.

I cabbed it out there and at 5.30pm it was already buzzing, and the counter had just 1 spot left — for me. Albeit I have to say it is a squeeze, a very poorly planned system. If they keep suggesting small plates for people, it doesn’t fit on the counter the way they squeeze folks… And the only person working the entire counter is also the bartender, so it is very hard to get her attention; she’s working frantically and other members of the FoH staff are standing around. Poor management, but I digress…

I ordered a few snacks and enjoyed some wine. Soon the food started arriving, and I was wondering how I can eat without elbowing my neighbours (I know I was being elbowed when they started eating).

oxtail_dumplings

First to arrive were the oxtail dumplings. Sorry about the pix, it was dark in there too. These weren’t bad, with a little bit of a bite for the fillings.

pork_chicharones

Coming out a minute later were pork chicharones. Sorry, you can’t see them really from this picture. Not bad, but wee overcooked. It’s never good when you taste the fatty portion and then the dried-out lean part that aren’t in synch — and the dried out parts are really dry…

octopus_skewers

Finally I had some octopus skewers. Bad order, since I had so many excellent octopus in Japan like at Yoshitake (those marinated ones) and also at Iwa. Not bad, and still better than the horrible ones I got at Mizutani…sorry for mentioning it again.

I ordered a few other things since I skipped lunch, and enjoyed more wine. This place was buzzing, but I don’t see why so far. Food has been average, and it’s loud, warm and annoying with hipsters trying to pair their small plates with craft beers. So damn West Coast… The next set of plates arrived soon.

sprouts

First were the Brussels sprouts — one of my very favourite vegetables. Now what did they do to this? Completely unnecessary overdose of something vinegary, even the bacon tasted soaked. The sourness completely overwhelmed the taste of the vegetable. It’s like a chef trying to cover up very bad quality produce, not something a restaurant that is known for its wood-fired vegetables should be doing.

lamb_belly

My heart sank as the lamb belly appeared. It tasted really bad, cooked much worse than the chicharones earlier. It was so overcooked it was tough as a board at places. Just poor execution.

cauliflower

And finally, the cauliflower. This was a total disaster. It’s like they squeezed an entire lemon on this. Again, why overly-adulterate fresh vegetables? Is this the disease of cooking shows on TV, that you feel you NEED to screw with the food?

This is why I really dislike eating in LA and the West Coast. Completely unnecessary crap done to natural ingredients. All the fresh stuff in California and you go and ruin it because you want to show the world you’re doing something creative. No, this is just bad. It’s like Bestia — highly rated by Angelinos, for me it was rubbish.

And sadly, Tar & Roses isn’t far off from that. I abandoned most of those 3 dishes and closed up and waited for a cab to take me home. Frankly some chicken wings sound more appealing than this dinner. You gotta think Angelino hipsters would scoff at food in Sicily or Galicia because they are fresh and requires little adulteration — and served often as such.

Ugh…first meal back in the States and it’s a major fail…

Tar & Roses
602 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, California

Review #2: Hinaiya

27 (and 16 & 23) January 2015

Rather sad to be writing my last review (or is it “reviews”) of my Japan trip, but very happy it’s for what’s become my “regular” in Tokyo, the excellent chicken-specialist izakaya Hinaiya [比内や]. I found it during my trip last year as it is right next to the excellent Park Hotel Tokyo (highly recommended, with a top concierge team!) where I stayed (and will keep staying). That trip I was here twice; this trip, thrice.

They remembered me from last year as the guy that came in late for drinks and chicken treats, and I did that on 3 separate occasions this trip. The first was a quick stop supposedly only for a nightcap but I did succumb to a few skewers from heaven, after that amazing 2-Matsusaka dinner at Satou [サトウ] and the hot-as-hell craft beer night at Goodbeer Faucets. The second night was accidental as I had that fabulous eel dinner at Kabuto [かぶと] but was frustrated by a poor experience at Craft Beer Market. Lots of sake that night with some excellent skewers. And finally, the final night in Tokyo had to say my goodbyes after the somewhat frustrating dinner at Yukimura [幸村], and had plenty that night…last night, right?

Anyway, won’t do anything detailed as they repeat on each other, but these are my staples. They have a great selection of amazing Jidori free-range chicken as well as good vegetables, all grilled from behind the glass at the counter.

neck-skin-tail-gizzard

This is a pretty good picture of what my faves are here chicken-wise, the neck, skin, tail and gizzard. Amazing taste on these things! Ruin me for chicken back home!

asparagus_skin_skewer

Here is some asparagus with skin, which is crispy golden goodness!

neck_skewer

Here’s a close-up of the neck, which is just fabulous. Don’t see this in the US often!

peppers_tail_gingko_skewer

Here’s some peppers and awesome gingko nuts (love these things), as well as my favourite, the tail. A perfect blend of juicy and crispy, it’s like little morsels of heaven.

Aside from skewers they had a lot of stuff, and one day I will try their full chicken tasting course. Here are some other goodies I had.

fried_chicken

The fried chicken is excellent, golden juicy and delicious to the last bite. And look at that gorgeous skin next to it…mmm…

chicken_sashimi

And finally, this I only eat here, nowhere else. Chicken sashimi. I love this, but know it’s not something to have often. Just delicious, it tastes better than some bland fish sashimi…

I just love this place, from the sake to beer to local single malts I’ve had here. It’s all been good, and frankly it’s good to have a regular — even if it is half way across the world.

I’m gonna miss this place and Japan for the next 11.5 months I tells ya…

Hinaiya [比内や]
8-8-5, Ginza, Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Yukimura

27 January 2015

After a fortnight of fantastic eating during my exploration of Japan, namely Tokyo and Hiroshima, the trip reached its inevitable conclusion. I had saved one of the best of Tokyo, the 3-Michelin kaiseki specialist Yukimura [幸村] for my final dinner. I was hoping this will be one of those places that blow me away, and end the “3-star curse” for me.

Yukimura is probably the hardest place to find out of my 2 weeks in Japan, partly because the Google Street View of this location is blocked by a car and there was no clear look at the front of this building. But thanks to my hotel (Park Hotel Tokyo, very highly recommended!) concierge who booked this for me, she printed out a photo of the front — with all the necessary info.

I got to the restaurant in Azabu-juban a little early so wandered around the hilly area for a little bit before heading to the dodgy lift to the 3rd floor to Yukimura. This is another small place, with counter seats for 10 people and a small table on the side. At this early hour there was only 6 people (me included) seated as this meal was starting to move.

Interestingly, it was just chef and 3 assistants working all night. One of his assistants was female, which again is a good thing for Japan’s overly-masculine top restaurant scene. The assistants, as well as chef, take part in all aspects of prep and service, including drinks and clearing dishes. Sounds good, but it became a little problematic later — and may be a cultural issue I alluded to. I will elaborate later.

I ordered some of their house sake (the female assistant spoke good English) and looked forward to a wonderful evening. A large abalone shell was presented, and chef opened it for us and wishes us a happy new year.

01b-abalone_roe_beans

Wow, this is beautiful. He explained (via the assistant) that these items were for the new year’s good luck, especially the black beans and the 3 different roes (mullet, cod, flying fish). The abalone was nice, as were the assortment of root vegetables and small whitefish. This was a very tasty selection, beautifully thought out and presented. If this was an example of what to come tonight, I will be extremely happy! Excellent!

The second course was presented in succession, almost as 3 mini-courses.

02a-chawanmuri_namako_innards

The first was a humble looking chawanmushi (egg custard), but was graced with the innards of namako (sea cucumber). Nice, added some depth to the egg.

02b-female_snow_crab

The second, brought out quickly as we worked on the egg custard, was a beautiful presentation of a female snow crab (matsubagani) — including the roe. This was utterly delicious and a perfect seasonal dish. I was told that the male crab is coming next, and I see chef already prepping it with some slick knife skills.

02c-vegetable_tempura

The third item of the second course was a tempura of seasonal vegetables, including bamboo and taranome (Angelica shoots), which I had at the excellent Tenko Honten [天甲 本店] in Hiroshima. Very nice.

We watched chef finish prepping the crabs and he showed us what was coming…

04a-snow_crab

Wow. This will be excellent. They start grilling the legs on the wood grill in front of me. In the meantime, the soup service was next.

03-miso_mochi

This is a miso soup with a touch of mustard and a giant mochi (rice cake) in the middle. I know it’s a new years thing, but I really dislike mochi in general. In this soup it was nearly inedible for me, like trying to eat something that reforms after every chew. I was so scared I was gonna choke to death on this (which, btw, happens often this time of year in Japan…). Sorry, traditional, but was a total miss for me.

At this point they brought out parts of the crab grilled whenever they are ready.

04b_snow_crab_leg_01

The leg was first to be presented, which was followed by another leg when we finished the first. Very nice though I have to say my right hand was getting sore from trying to get all the meat out with chopsticks.

04d-snow_crab_arm

Then the arm, then the claw. All very meaty and tasty. My hand was about to cramp at one point though…

04f-snow_crab_body

Then we got the body, which chef quickly cleans to make it easy to eat. Good, as my right hand was really fatigued from 2 weeks of constant chopstick use — which it was not in shape for…

04g-snow_crab_omelette

Then chef used the stock and insides of the crab, as well as additional meat, and cooked it like an omelette-ish thing within the shell. Very nice, lovely flavour in this item. I wish he had presented it in shell but he portioned each shell out to various diners for balance.

Mmm, enjoying this meal so far, especially with the seasonal snow crab. More sake! I was looking forward to the next course, the noodle course, as I’ve heard so much about some amazing stuff here.

05-daikon_soba

Well, this is soba in a nice deep broth with a lot of daikon. It was good, but I had hoped for something a bit more interesting. Broth was very good, a clinical definition of umami, but after all that crab this seemed a little pale.

At this point the rest of the counter filled up and some people were out of sequence, so the service got a little choked up. This is a problem when there’s no one dedicated to the front of the house service. And more annoying, I noticed the 2 male assistants basically not wanting to do any drink service unless absolutely forced to (as much as standing around staring at people), and didn’t want to clear plates. Basically all of that work came down to chef himself and the female assistant (who was also working on the food). Sexism right there, very sad to see…

06-kabocha_moroko

The next dish had been grilling for a bit, the kabocha or the Japanese winter squash, alongside honmoroko (willow shiner), coming from Lake Biwa. An interesting pair of delicacies, the kabocha sweet and the honmoroko deep. Kind of a “not bad” course though.

07-giant_daikon

Then next up was braised giant Sakurajima daikon, which was very tasty but still, it’s just daikon in dashi. I know it’s the whole new year theme and these are beloved Kyoto and Kansai-region ingredients, but it’s falling a bit flat for me. The service issues were noticeable thanks partly to the out-of-sequence guys, as well as the 2 male assistants that seemed to not want to do their fair share.

08-rice_red_bean_pickles

At this point then the rice course came, signalling the near conclusion of the meal. Hmmm…it’s been a little anticlimactic since the crab course ended. The rice was nice, with the new year-themed beans, but it’s just rich on symbolism. Nowhere near as good as the excellent rice course at Den [傳] at the very start of the trip, nor as good as the very humble rice course at Nakashima [なかしま] in Hiroshima.

It was nice for chef to top up my sake on the house before the dessert course. He seems like a genuinely nice guy with great skills, and he enjoys chatting with the diners. He tried to explain the courses with his limited English, though it was the female assistant that had the English to properly explain the items. The 2 male assistants didn’t even try; they seem utterly disinterested. Even other diners seemed put off by them…

09-strawberry_mascarpone

The dessert was strawberries with mascarpone. Very nice strawberries, as you’d expect.

10-candies

Then a little traditional candy service and we were done — to be presented with a very hefty bill. I think the subtlety of some of this meal is lost to me. I generally don’t like kaiseki places that are too traditional because of that exact reason, which is why Den [傳] appealed to me so much. I love daikon and I eat it all the time, and appreciate the giant variety as a delicacy, but it seems to have ruled too much of the post-crab part of this menu.

I thanked chef as I took my leave, and the female assistant walked me out and down the elevator to the street. We chatted a bit and I encouraged her to break the male-dominated barriers and wished her continual success in this field, and she seemed genuinely appreciative of my comments. The best thing for haute Japanese cuisine is to have female chefs rise to the top.

I was slightly deflated and honestly still a little hungry after this, so it precipitated a visit to my “local” in Tokyo — which I will write about in the next post. But as for Yukimura, it certainly did not break my “3-star curse” at all. I think I may just avoid 3 Michelin places from now on, anywhere in the world…

Yukimura [幸村]
1-5-5 Azabujuban, 3F, Minato-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Some Drankin’ in Japan…Gotta Feed the Liver

Now with all the food entries from Japan the last fortnight you must be wondering — Mel’s been pampering his stomach, but what about his liver? I assure you it’s not aching nor wanting; it was fed very well, with surprisingly only 1 night of seriously blotto stuff.

However, it’s right that I talk a bit about my drinking adventures in Japan. I will break this entry up into 4 categories — cocktails, rum, beer and sake. These were the four I really explored during this trip and you may be very surprised by some of it here.

A Taste of Cocktail — Japanese Natural Style

I found Gen Yamamoto [ゲン山本] by accident on the web one day during my research and found it intriguing — a tasting menu for cocktails. So I made a late booking and decided to go to the Azabu-juban speakeasy one night after dinner in nearby Roppongi. In fact it was the night of the amazing wagyu offal tasting menu at Sanda [さんだ].

An interesting bar, seating only about 8 people, somewhere serene almost, like a hybrid bar-temple. Stunning bartop. Gen Yamamoto was a veteran of NYC’s drinking scene and he’s trying to create something local that’s different. Instead of getting folks blotto on various well-known cocktails, he’s trying to use seasonal ingredients to create tasty drinks.

In other words, it’s almost like a juice bar for adults.

The course menu is either 4 or 6 items, and I went with the 6.

cocktails-1

This shows the first 3 items. The first drink was a slightly fizzy drink with fresh quince fortified by sake. He spends a lot of time freshly juicing, mashing and working ingredients, and each drink is freshly made. The second focuses on the yellow mandarin, again freshly juiced, with a touch of daikon and shochu. Very refreshing. The third is based on strawberries, again freshly muddied, with cloudy sake. Again, extremely refreshing.

The items are one-by-one, but I’m just consolidating space here. But the second and third were excellent. The alcohol is almost an afterthought here.

cocktails-2

The fourth item is a popular one, using freshly muddied locally-grown kiwi. There’s even some sake lees in this item, fortified by sake. Very refreshing again! Fifth on the list was the first to use a non-Japanese alcohol — Templeton rye — to bring out the ginger. Again, not focusing on the alcohol, the ginger is strong and soothing. Finally, the last of the course was a hot drink featuring the kumquat.

I found this service interesting, but I may have broken his concentration when I asked him (as I do all my bartenders) to make something off the menu. He gave it some thought and clearly he had some back-ups.

cocktails-3

The first was an utterly delicious drink using fresh local apples and Yamazaki single malt. Totally delicious. However, he seems to have been stymied when I asked for a second (and last) one, and he basically repeated the last from the course but switched the fruit — a hot yuzu-based treat. Nice.

Fantastic idea. Not a place to get blotto, as you barely taste the alcohol, but it’s like a really cool adult juice bar, with some fantastic juices. It’s very Japan.

Island People Like Island Stuff — Japan’s R(h)um Haven

One place I heard whispers about that I needed to check out was a little bar dedicated to the goodness of the Carribean, Tafia [タフィア]. A little place in the chic (and train-less) district of Nishi-azabu (near Roppongi), I headed there after an incredible sushi dinner at nearby Taku [拓]. It’s only 30 seconds away, and also about 30 seconds away from the temple of pork Butagumi [豚組] if you want to do a post-meal treat for yourself.

Easy to find as you see various Carribean flags in the window. I walked into this bar and was like, wow…

bar

I thought my dearly departed Elettaria had a good r(h)um selection, but this is just insane. This is truly a labour of love, as I spoke to the proprietor about her devotion to this tipple. I told her I’d leave my fate in her hands and love to try some of her favourites.

These all came one-by-one, mind you, but again I’m consolidating…

rum-1

The first was an excellent Rhum JR from Martinique. A very typical rum, delicious — perfect after all that sushi (and dry sake). Next up was unique, the Santa Maria – from Okinawa! Yes, a local rum, aged in whisky casks. I gotta say it’s wee rough, and almost tasted more whisky than rum. But interesting. The third was a mind-blowing beauty, the Rhum Bielle from Martinique. She told me this was her favourite, but it’s hot as hell at nearly 60%. Lovely clear stuff, deep rich flavours here despite the burn. Mmm…

Stupidly I kept going, knowing I am gonna be wasted after this. But was nice chatting with some folks enjoying a more tempered drinking experience. The proprietor also told me since there are quite many Central American embassies nearby, this is their favourite watering hole — no kidding! More!

rum-2

The fourth rum was a very limited bottled rum from Haiti. It’s quite interesting, with a kick that’s more than its already higher proofage. A 2004 vintage, very nice. Next up was the Rhum Agricole Extra Vieux that had been matured in sherry casks. Interesting flavours, not quite my thing though. We closed with the rich Matsusalem from the Dominican Republic (maybe one day Cuba again?).

I honestly don’t have much memory from this point of the night, as this was a LOT of booze. Too much, to be honest. It caused my only rough hangover for this trip…ugh… But it was damn worth it! A total place to check out, really! And it’s open until goodness knows what time!

Craft Beer Arrives — as well as Hipsterism…

Much like so many places around the world, Japan — a heavy beer-drinking country — has a growing industry in craft brewing. Albeit the numbers are much smaller, and often populated by ex-pats and travelling hipsters, they are nevertheless interesting.

One of the best places is called Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya. I had finished 2 amazing Matsusaka steaks at the amazing Satou [サトウ] in Kichijoji and needed to change trains/subway at Shibuya anyway, so decided to stop off. It was the hottest room I’ve ever been…which is why I drank more than I usually would.

Goodbeer

A nice selection, I ended up drinking a few of the dark local brews. They were quite good, I failed to take down details as I was sweating profusely and worried the phone may short out… I do remember a nice dark ale that was rich, a stout that was the closest thing to coffee I drank all trip long, and a chocolate stout that they use for a special dessert drink (I didn’t do that). Snacking on some octopus-and-lotus root fritters, this was pretty cool.

But the heat, and the voices of annoying ex-pats, drove me out. But certainly worth a trip.

I also made a stop at Craft Beer Market closer to my hotel after that utterly amazing eel tasting at Kabuto [かぶと]. This place was packed out the door so I drank at one of the outside standing tables (perfect, to blow some of the eel and charcoal aroma off my clothes), but the damn group of expat workers and their hipster friends were so ridiculously annoying I could be in a hipster bar in Brooklyn if I closed my eyes. I left after 1 so-so dark ale.

Clearly craft brewing is on the rise in Japan, but finding places to drink them tend to subject you to the most annoying things you want to avoid — hipsters. And expats moaning about their lives don’t help either. FFS, if you’re so unhappy in Japan and can’t deal with things here, go the fuck home to Portland or Austin!

And Of Course, the Sake…

No drinking experience in Japan can be complete without sake. I enjoyed quite many over my fortnight in Japan. I can’t read the labels and some of the subtlety is lost with me, but they are quite good.

Iwa-sake

These are the ones I had at the amazing sushi experience at Iwa [いわ]. We went from dry to rich on this as the course progressed (choice of chef).

Nakashima-sake

These are the ones I had at the awesome kaiseki course at Nakashima [なかしま] in Hiroshima. Again, house’s choice. The first was a special local one that apparently was served to Obama during his Tokyo visit. The other two complemented the meal very well during different points. Kudos to the pairings.

Kabuto-Taku-sake

This first one here was from my eel night at the amazing Kabuto [かぶと] – this is the one they say complement the eel best. The next two came from Taku [拓], that amazing sushi experience. I had forgotten Taku has a specialty in wine pairings with its food, so these were my tipple that awesome night (before my rum adventure).

Plus so many more I had here and there, it’s a rich world. I need to learn more about it for sure, to prepare for my next visit!

As you can see, my liver enjoyed this fortnight in Japan very much! Maybe not as much as my stomach, but this trip was always about my stomach rather than liver. The liver’s won too many times over my 42 years, so…

Gen Yamamoto [ゲン山本]
1-6-4 Azabu-Juban

Tafia [タフィア]
2-15-14 Nishi-Azabu

Goodbeer Faucets
1-29-1 Shoto, 2F, Shibuya

Craft Beer Market
1-23-3 Nishi-Shimbashi
Tokyo, Japan