Museum to Remember
Out, Kyoto Style
and September Eleventh
Out, Tokyo Style
FROM THE FIELD --
JAPAN : 2001
OUT, TOKYO STYLE
While Kyoto has its culinary charms as reported earlier, there is really
nothing to compare with the restaurant scene in one of the world's most
sophisticated and worldly capital cities.
Tour Manager, H.L. Todd, worked in Tokyo some two decades ago for an advertising
agency long enough to become well acquainted with the local dining scene.
Our first evening in town, therefore, after acquainting folks with how
to use the extensive city subway system to best advantage, I suggested
we try out the newest addition to the system (the Oedo line) by making
our way to nearby Roppongi, long thought of as the trendy center of Tokyo's
nightlife, for dinner. It proved to be one of the best suggestions I have
ever made with respect to an evening 's dining entertainment.
Once we arrived in the area, Todd took charge and led us through the gauntlet
of African touts (the latest rage) anxious to have us patronize the particular
clubs and bars paying their wages, down a narrow pedestrian-only side
street, then into an even narrower alleyway. At our destination, about
halfway down the block, we ducked into a narrow hallway and descended
past a newly-opened bar, its doorway heaped with flowery "welcome
to the neighborhood" bouquets, to the second basement level.
Here we found Wakaba, a very special restaurant Todd had first patronized
some twenty years earlier. The place was lively and nearly full, its six
tables occupied, so we were seated at the counter. The handwritten menu
was done in a difficult-to-read spidery script, but we made out a few
items to order. Then we were handed a menu in English -- or an approximation
thereof, at any rate; we kept having to refer to the nearby Japanese to
figure out, for instance, that "fly to crab craws" was "fried
crab claw meat". While we were making up our minds, small dishes
of sliced raw fish and cubes of peppery beef arrived to whet the appetite
for what was to come.
Once we had decided in conjunction with the counter waitress what to order,
she suggested we might want one more dish to round everything out nicely.
Completely at a loss, we asked if the Master (chef/owner) might have a
suggestion. The waitress called him over for a consultation; he asked
what else we had ordered, then looked us over and said, "Leave it
to me". So we did -- with some trepidation since some of the prices
on the printed menu were rather stratospheric!
Once underway the resulting meal was stupendous and included, among other
distractions, duck sausage with a tangy pimento sauce, a plate of five
vegetable dumplings, a clear soup to die for and a small succulent fish
filet brushed with a miso (soy) topping.
As we ate, of course, we watched the Master at work behind the counter.
As he busied himself, selecting garnishes, slicing fish into the thinnest
of translucent slices, layering and arranging the ingredients into the
perfect presentation, we found ourselves commenting aloud to one another
on what we were seeing: "What do you suppose THAT is?" Look
at THAT!""What's he doing now?" We then realized we had
begun to sound exactly like the inane celebrity commentators on cable
television's Iron Chef. We would catch ourselves, laugh a bit, then --
within minutes -- be back at it again!
Among our fellow diners were a set of three businessmen, obviously regulars,
who were thoroughly enjoying themselves; an older man in serious conversation
with a younger coworker (we imagined they were in a sempei menor-mentee
relationship working on career advancement strategies); and, most intriguingly,
a foursome -- two men, two women -- in which the better dressed, handsomer
male was clearly trying to impress the more beautiful of the two women.
The young man's strategies were clearly working, and working well: first,
he arrived late, sweeping into the place with a flourish, clearly a busy
young executive on the way up; then he carefully removed his impeccably-taylored
suit coat as he greeted his guests, adopting his role as host with another
casual flourish; next -- working in close consultation with the waitress
-- he chose the evening's menu, demonstrating his knowledge of both fine
food and wine.
The opening course -- which we watched the Master prepare -- consisted
of a block of ice covered with two fresh bamboo leaves and a layer of
eatable chrysanthemum leaves topped with thinly sliced sashimi
and nestled into a bowl of oysters on the half shell amidst a web of daikon
(white radish) threads! This guy clearly knew what he was doing ...
we took all this in, Todd and I began to converse about how it was possible,
in the midst of a decade-long recession, for a place like this to survive
and prosper. This was not casual dining but instead demanded a level of
sophistication and savour faire needing to be nurtured over time
and with considerable effort. Where did these "ordinary middle class"
Japanese gourmands come from? How did they develop such knowledgeable
palettes? Where did the money come from to support this "fine dining"
habit? And what was a restaurant catering to this crowd doing in the second
basement of a nondescript building off an alley in Roppongi?
Later, after the crowd had cleared out a bit, the Master came over for
a bit of conversation. Todd mentioned how he had originally patronized
the place years ago, and the Master acknowledged that he had just been
starting out back then. Pointing to one of the two sous chefs,
he indicated that now he was training his son to take over the business.
He then told us his four secrets for success: a great chef, a well-trained
and supportive staff, a dedication to customer service and -- most importantly
-- an appreciative and knowledgeable consumer!
That combination is what makes the Tokyo restaurant experience so very
special -- extraordinary food, impeccable service and a sophisticated
We then asked if the Master was acquainted with the Iron Chef television
series and mentioned how we had found ourselves engaged in a running commentary
similar to that found on the show as we watched him at work. With a twinkle
in his eye, he told us he had actually appeared on the program, not once,
but twice! His duck sausage had been a big hit, but he said the experiences
were mixed in his opinion because success on the show depends so much
on a level of teamwork and coordination not emphasized in his smaller
The tab for the evening, by the way, including drinks, came to less than
fifty dollars apiece, not bad at all for such a life-enhancing experience!
on any of the report titles in the column
the left to continue.