Saturday, February 07, 2015

A Japanese Jaunt (or how I got my mojo back)

Tokyo 2015. This is a backward-looking trip and a backward-looking post. It's so retro that I've posted it here, on my old travel-focused blog, hosted on the Blogger platform that feels so outdated and retro now that it's almost kitsch. (My newer shit-talking can generally be found here.) But sometimes you need to look back in order to move forward.

I was last in Japan just over seven years ago, which is long enough that the photos and videos look insanely lo-res and that my writing feels almost embarrassingly worse and even more egocentric than it is now. Vis-a-vis my ramblings of late 2007, I find that not much has changed: Japan is still surprisingly affordable, public internet access sucks (though renting a "pocket wi-fi" device changes all that), Roppongi is still a Yankee-magnet douchehole, and everything is so. Ridiculously. Clean.

Of course, I have changed. I'm married. I'm a father. I've traded in San Francisco for Paris as a home base. And while I still have a day job at a software multinational, I'm less focused on the leisure such a stable job would afford me, and more so on spending my money and waking hours turning me and my wife's restaurant business into a proper venture that will support our family and our future. So you might say I've grown up a bit... But my adoration of Japan remains both childlike and rooted in childhood.

We spent a good chunk of my early childhood in Japan. In addition to spending time with the Japanese side of my family in Kochi, my Iranian grandfather owned property in Tokyo where my father did a lot of business. We lived there part time, just south of the Imperial Palace grounds and not far from my now-not-so-beloved Roppongi. When the house wasn't available, we would stay at the Okura Hotel, practically next door. And as the parallels have been drawn before, it was like having our own Grand Budapest Hotel. Yeah, childhood was perhaps a bit idyllic in the Tavallai household.

Me in the bath, Okura Hotel

Today our old place - an old, now quaint looking three-story building dwarfed by skyscrapers - is set to be torn down to make room for yet another "xxxx Hills" complex like Roppongi Hills or Ark Hills or whatnot. And despite all efforts to save it, the main building of the Okura Hotel is being demolished later this year to make way for an updated version housed in a 38-story steel and glass beast that checks all the boxes of modern luxury hotel needs.

With a daughter of the same age as I was in the photo above (and a 1-in-60-thousand spot at an insanely coveted dining destination), it was imperative, then, that we go to Tokyo and savor what would for me be the last vestiges of my earliest years and for my wife and daughter the first and last chance to get a glimpse of my past. And though we'd been on vacation in the States only a couple of weeks before, I needed a vacation after my vacation.

I'd had a bit of an existentialist crisis on Christmas Eve while looking out over the Palouse in eastern Washington, taking in unobstructed moonlight reflecting off the snowy expanse visible from my in-laws living room. It was serene, it wasn't Paris, and I was happy, the faint din of family sleeping in the adjacent rooms. Enjoying this peace, I was tempted to pack it all in. Quit the job. Reboot the business. And maybe even move back to the States. I'd been in a rut, I was feeling directionless, and I needed to be inspired again. With this trip to Japan coming up, I'd placed my hopes in travel's restorative power, its power to inspire, and its power to motivate.

If this all sounds very self-indulgent, well… that's because it fucking is.

Being that I had miles to use up on Virgin Atlantic, we made our way to London via Eurostar, which is much nicer and only a little bit longer than the RER B commuter train to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, sadly enough. There was an ungodly delay thanks to a fire in the Eurotunnel the day before, so we had minimal time with our friend Carla in London. But it was still better than riding the RER. Throw in a 15-minute jaunt on the Heathrow Express in the morning and, as the locals say, "Bob's your uncle."

Virgin Atlantic VS900 & 901

We had inadvertently booked ourselves on what would be among the very last flights operated by Virgin between London Heathrow and Tokyo Narita airports, and after experiencing the amazing service and exceptional flight crew, I already miss it dearly.

Arrival in Tokyo was pretty much effortless, and despite some oddball  ticket pricing schemes to figure out, we were on the Narita Express train into Tokyo in less than 40 minutes after landing. My jetlag and sleep deprivation, however, couldn't suppress my anger and befuddlement that to this day there is no direct express train between Paris and its airports. Fix your shit, France.

A jet-lagged Friday
It was morning, so we had to have breakfast. The natural instinct in Tokyo, even in the morning, is to gravitate to rice. And fish. Naturally, with Tokyo Station being within spitting distance of the Tsukiji fish market, we had an over-the-top sushi breakfast, at a "standing sushi bar" (i.e. there are no seats), for approximately $.75 - $2.00 per piece. Having eaten nearly twice as much sushi as we had originally intended, we walked out with a $35 bill. Yet it was still the best sushi I'd had in, oh, 7 years, particularly due to the sheer novelty of fish that we simply do not get in France.

We then walked over to Tsukiji proper, explored the market a little, and settled in for coffee at Turret, one of the gazillion specialty coffee joints on our list to check out. In our life as cooks, we've worked with most of the specialty coffee places in Paris at one point or another, so it's always fascinating to go to another country and see how it's done. Tokyo's scene is certainly more mature than Paris', but other than a more fetishistic focus on craft, most places seem to offer the same formula of one or two baristas presiding over a narrow counter with a handful of local variants on American-style baked goods in small but pristine surroundings. Not unlike your typical Parisian third-wave specialty coffee joint. If I were looking for any exoticism in the coffee scene, we were not to find it here. (For those looking for a more singular coffee experience in Tokyo, check out ridicu-snobby Bear Pond and mega-retro Café de l'Ambre.)

The barista/owner at Turret was kind enough to let us hang out and charge our phones and feed our daughter and half-fall asleep while figuring out just how our jetlagged asses were going to bide the time 'til we had to meet up with our AirBnB hostess in the early evening, which we did by scouting out more coffee, buying high-end custom-polished rice in Ginza, and exploring the nooks and crannies of Tokyo Station. We learned that you can breastfeed pretty much anywhere, that the family bathrooms and diaper changing facilities around Tokyo are nothing short of amazing, and that having a kawaiiiii seven month-old strapped to you is like being a Hollywood celebrity: Everyone wants a photo. 

Hot damn, have my priorities changed.

Tackling evening rush hour to bustling Akasaka was actually pretty easy. The insane Tokyo subway commute you see on TV only applies to the morning, when everyone goes to work at the same time. Evenings are more lax, as departure times are more distributed, with half of Tokyo salarymen sticking around near work to get various degrees of hammered through the evening. We made it to our tiny apartment unscathed, settled in, and met up with our friend Vaughn for some low-key dinner and sake in a less touristed part of Tokyo.

Sake and just a little bit of food.

Part of our motivation to come to Tokyo was, in addition to getting some inspiration, to get a feel for how other small actors with limited resources were doing it. In much of Tokyo, space, staffing, and regulations are as excruciatingly challenging as in Paris. Yet time and time again, we see Japanese businesses that are flawlessly executed and overwhelmingly amazing in terms of service and quality, a far cry from their Parisian counterparts, and I knew we could learn from them.

Tsuru-ni Tachibana was one of these. There's but one man running the show - cooking, cleaning, and serving for fourteen covers, and it's all excellent. Both elegantly refined and comfortably humble at the same time, this is quite possibly the best sub-$40 meal (including drinks) anywhere. Somehow capturing the immersive sensorial luxury of a Kyoto kaiseki meal and the value-for-money efficacy of a Paris bistronomie menu, the food and atmosphere are both highly traditional but loose and playful. I felt like any of these dishes could have been made by my mom or by a grand chef, without being the least bit paradoxical. It's the sweet spot. Restaurant perfection. This is what I want to eat. This is what I want to do. This is what I wish others would aspire to be.

So it may seem back-assward that this also became the most nerve-wracking meal I've had in memory. The fifth dish that the chef/owner/barman/waiter/plongeur brought out (in the center of the photo collage above) was a distinctly white sashimi served with a seasoned citrus coulis. My sphincter immediately tightened up and a shudder ran from my lower back down through my legs.

"Fugu. Not dangerous. Please enjoy," said the chef/owner/barman/waiter/plongeur as he set down the plates and walked away.

The last time I was in Japan, I ate whole sparrows and locusts and raw horse in Nagano. I ate all manner of slimy things cooked, raw, and parboiled. I ate fish head-on, guts-in, and in every way it was presented to me. I conquered whatever remaining food aversions I had in my life. My prior "big trip" had been to Australia and New Zealand where I got over my fears of open water and heights by scuba diving and bungee jumping, respectively.

However, I'd promised Alannah last time that I wouldn't try fugu – at least not without her there to die with me – and more recently I promised Alannah's father that I wouldn't make her eat fugu on this trip. I generally try (and sometimes fail) to be a man of my word, but beyond that, I was looking at my daughter snuggled up in the Baby Björn thinking, "…and I'm a dad now."

Realistically, no one in the modern era has died by eating fugu at a restaurant. Its preparation is very tightly controlled, and the only recorded deaths have been through untrained amateurs making the fish for themselves, sometimes unknowingly. But still – it's a very sudden, very painful death, one too quick for any sort of antidote. Vaughn picked up a slice and popped it in his mouth, laughing at the slight tingling sensation on the tongue. "I guess if you don't die in the next thirty seconds, we're good to go." Vaughn didn't die, so Alannah picked up a slice. I had promised her father that I wouldn't make her eat fugu - she grabbed it voluntarily! Anyway, she didn't die, either. So I had a piece and psychosomatically started to sweat and tense up and… obviously I didn't die. And despite the fact that the fish has almost no flavor whatsoever, it was pretty damn amazing, owing to the indescribably unique texture. And the brilliant seasoning.

(Un)fortunately, Alannah couldn't have more than one piece due to the fact that she's nursing, so Vaughn and I split up her plate and ate the rest with gusto, with me thoroughly embarrassed at being so freaked out only minutes before. I thought that was the death-defying closing act for dinner, but the dishes kept coming, and while none reached the drama of the once-poisonous blowfish, the flavors kept on winding their way through the winter season, ticking off almost every ingredient on the "what should we eat in Japan right now" checklist.

Despite their unerring efficiency, trains stop running around midnight, so as dinner ended we had to have an extra-quick round of "hold and take photos with the kawaii baby" with our fellow diners and the chef before catching the last train to Akasaka. But even the lengthy ride home couldn't ruin the sheer enjoyment of a spectacular meal. Oh yeah, there's also the rush of staring (highly improbable) death in the face and winning. Boo yah.

An epic Saturday
"Be sure you dress nice."

"Tokyo isn't like San Francisco or Scandinavia. You have to wear nice shoes."

"Make sure Alannah has a nice handbag."

The texts came streaming in from my mom in California.

Because another part of our motivation to come to Tokyo was, duh, Noma Japan. Like every other chef or industry person in Tokyo from January through mid-February, we were among the lucky assholes who landed a table. Our friends Linda and Kim from California had scored 4-tops for Saturday and Monday, respectively, so between us we had a good chunk of California love reppin' the 408/415/650/etc. (Do area codes even matter beyond rap songs anymore?)

Not a photo of the wriggling shrimp with ants, god dammit.

Ironically housed in a 38-story steel and glass beast that checks all the boxes of modern luxury hotel needs (did I use that phrase already?) Noma's Japan pop-up would probably have fit more sensibly over at the Okura with all of its natural wood and simple but opulent mid-century Scandinavianesque furniture and its more, shall we say organic feel… The Mandarin Oriental felt insanely formal. 

We'd been in touch with the MO's concierge who – at the insistence of my mom, again – arranged babysitting services for us.

"Tokyo restaurants did that for us all the time," she insisted. "One time even the chef babysat you! Just call them." Apparently I was a really spoiled little twerp and my parents were a couple of jet-setting high rollers before we went to America to be poor and grow our own food or some shit. At least she wasn't insisting I ask René Redzepi to take care of our kid.

We were marched down a seemingly endless series of hallways, with a well-heeled member of staff stationed at every turn, bowing and welcoming us. I was suddenly very glad I didn't wear sneakers. We arrived at the room they had provided us for the day, wherein there was a rather luxurious crib, and a very nice woman named Mrs. Abe who would be taking care of our daughter for the duration of our meal. After introductions and a feeding session, we were then led to the 37th floor to Noma's temporary digs, still surrounded by a number of people in suits. I felt very self-conscious about the sweat stain on my belly from rocking a Baby Björn for the past couple of hours, waiting for Vaughn to arrive so we can be seated.

I'd never felt ill-at-ease going to Noma in Copenhagen, but admittedly I felt a little out of place among the suited-and-booted who were waiting to be seated in the lounge. I'm just a bit allergic to formality.

It didn't help that my mom was still texting me. And even she had seen all the photos of the shrimp with ants.

And then an assuringly familiar face, front-of-house man extraordinaire James, came out to greet us and any fish-out-of-water feeling melted away and I flashed back to the moment when we first shook hands a couple of years ago. We don't really know each other, but every restaurant in the world should have a James, the type of person who can make you immediately feel at home.

We were seated at our table and *boom* from that moment on, it was every bit as fun and light-hearted and comfortable as Noma proper, which is why we love, love, love that restaurant in the first place. So here we were, staring out over Tokyo, surrounded by staff who excel at feeling like family, ready to eat, drink, and be merry. I'm not going to bother documenting everything we had. There are so many news/blog/Instagram reports of that out there, and believe me, it was impossible to avoid all of them in the run-up to this meal in hopes of not getting any spoilers.

Yes, the wriggling shrimp with ants was delicious (but not nearly as freaky as the much-more-alive langoustine we were served last year). There was, as you've undoubtedly seen, a duck roasted whole with its head (out of which we scooped out the tiny bit of delicious brain). And pastry chef Rosio Sanchez' sweeter preparations blew our minds. Again. As before. The experience was 100% Noma. The magical staff, the exacting methods, the whimsical juxtapositions, the total concentration on providing you with an experience for every dish… now done with what I consider (with extreme bias) the best ingredients in the world. I beamed with pride when René described a very atypical (both for Noma and for Japanese cuisine) citrus dish containing fruits from where my mother grew up. I marveled at how total novices (in the Japanese food sense) had made tofu better than any I'd eaten since I was a baby. I drank sake made from red rice, which was as much a revelation as any wine paired with a dish. It's my favorite restaurant making, literally, my favorite food! Cost and travel be damned, how could I not do whatever it takes to experience this, probably literally, once in a lifetime opportunity?

Our lunch ran quite longer than expected, so we had to unfortunately eat and run, rushing downstairs to get the baby. She'd mostly been great with the sitter – and vice-versa – so it was an easy end to a fantastic day. Since tipping is verboten in Japan, you often give gifts to people who render high-value services. So we very cheesily packed up omiyage versions of our granola that we'd brought from Paris - frilly bow and all - for the babysitter, concierge, and Noma staff. Nicolas from Télescope Café, if you're reading this, someone's enjoying a bit of our granola with your joint's name on it in Tokyo.

Speaking of shoebox cafés with an eye for simplicity and aesthetics, we wound down our day with espresso at Omotesando Koffee, while rambling around Omotesando and Harajuku pecking on delicious  things like gyoza and ramen to get us through the evening. Omotesando is just as ostentatiously and commercially Champs-Élysées-like as I remember, and Harajuku feels a bit more gentrified and grown up than it was before.

As our second day in Tokyo was coming to a close, inspiration started knocking on the door, and ideas for our nonbei (the Japanese word for drunkard) menu for a pop-up the following week were starting to form, albeit vaguely.

Sunday chill
I can't remember the last Sunday that I didn't cook. We normally produce a gazillion portions of bar food and pastries on Sunday, and on recent holidays we had an army of family to cook for in near-restaurant volumes. A 40-minute walk from our apartment to the Imperial Palace, with a detour at Hie Jinja, was totally undaunting, baby and all. The escalator to get up to it helped, I'm sure.

Hie Jinja is, as far as I know, the only Shinto shrine equipped with an escalator.

If you read back in my archival posts, you'll see that I'm irritated by the fact that Tokyo is, despite the huge number of bicycles, not bike friendly. This has been slowly changing, and there's a great English-language advocacy site run by an expat that's chock full of information and positive information. Although it doesn't do much in terms of infrastructure and commuting, the eastern perimeter of the Imperial Palace is now closed to traffic on Sundays, with free bike rentals – even for kids – for people to get a chance to ride freely and unencumbered. If you're ever in Tokyo on a Sunday, you should absolutely do this. The course is relatively short and the bikes are low-end cruisers (though I got myself a sweet  mamachari old lady bike with kid seats!) but the experience of cruising leisurely in the middle of one of the world's megapolises (is that a word?) with the city skyline and the Imperial Palace as a backdrop is refreshing. And it doesn't cost a dime.

Daddy, we so need to get one of these for Paris!

A hunt for cheap eats around Tokyo Station was rewarded by an incredibly unique bowl of charcoal-grilled oyako-donburi, followed by now de-rigueur exploration of a supermarket for snacks and drinks. While Tokyo is full of gastronomic delights for every imaginable price range, supermarkets and konbini (convenience stores) are a goldmine for unusual snacks, crazy melon-flavored soft drinks, and surprisingly tasty heat-and-eat meals. With our little one only recently starting on solid foods, we were also able to take advantage of the amusing selections of baby food, ranging from easily digestible "egg balls" (essentially little tiny puffy crackers) and low-sodium "baby" dashi that helps babies acquire a taste for bonito broth. Between AirBnB and konbini, budget travelers need not fear Tokyo.

Alas, we said goodbye to our AirBnB apartment  – leaving, of course, an omiyage of daintily packaged granola – and walked one neighborhood over to my old digs, the Okura Hotel. Despite the old school appearance and perhaps slightly outdated hotel regalia (bell hops in pill-box hats, anyone?) the Okura is still a place of grandeur and late 20th century luxury. We were once again greeted with a series of endless bowing and wholly unnecessary deference as we marched from one hallway to the next, but once we arrived in our room it was like being home again.

Like being in our very own Wes Anderson movie.

Settling in once again, we hooked up with Vaughn and checked out the world's biggest organic pet supply store as well as über-chef Yoshihiro Narisawa's… food truck!  Both are in the dreaded Roppongi, but this time I found that if you approach this over-commercialized neighborhood from the back side and not from the main station, it's far more palatable. And calm. And pleasant. I am famously cynical about food trucks in dense, overpopulated cities, especially those run by famous chefs (do they need a food truck?) but Narisawa Kitchen Car is set up in a calm and airy space next to an outdoor ice rink. The food is thoughtful and very Japanese, drawing ingredients from various regions of Japan, and on a chilly night the soup component of the offer (soup + sandwich for just under $12) is warming and above all crazy delicious.

Slurping down delicious beef offal in spicy miso and Hokkaido king salmon in sake lees, Alannah remarked that Tokyo is surprisingly calm and manageable, unlike the incessant flashing lights and loud noise and sea of humanity that movies and TV inevitably portray.

We fixed that by going to Shibuya, home of the infamous six-way Shibuya crossing, accessible by the Hachiko exit at Shibuya station. I told Alannah that Hachiko is inevitable. The statue of the legendarily faithful dog is one of Tokyo's primary meeting points – not unlike the stairs of the Opéra Bastille in Paris. She still did not want to see it. At all. A number of years ago, I suggested we watch the movie Hachiko (the American remake with Richard Gere, for simplicity's sake) and she's never forgiven me for making her watch a movie so gut-wrenchingly sad that she wanted to commit harakiri on the spot.

Fair enough. But we headed for the statue anyway (and even took a Japan pose souvenir photo in front of it like countless other tourists) then made our way to the crossing. 


Although there are gigantic Jumbotrons blaring commercials for canned coffee, bright LEDs advertising crap to make your hair look more like a white person's, and more people per square meter than we ever see in Paris or London or New York, it was still pretty calm and peaceful, relatively speaking. After all, Vaughn reminded us, it was Sunday night. We did still get, though, a taste of the famous neon Tokyo, and all the unending buzz and consumer insanity and get-whatever-you-want madness by making our way through the crossing and exploring the various streets and alleys. We even found bizarre beverages (salted lychee, yum!) and more baby goods at a gigantic 24-hour drug store. Because that's what gets me excited now: Food, drink, and cool baby shit.

Back at the Okura we took a bunch of silly photos with the baby in the same poses I was in with my parents so many decades ago, thoroughly relaxing and enjoying myself before facing the dread that it will soon be over.

Blue Monday
It was to be our last full day in Tokyo and I woke up depressed. Again, that's self-indulgent bullshit. Here I am in an amazing country at a swank hotel with my beautiful wife and adorable daughter while on a trip we'd have considered improbable and maybe impossible barely a month before. I needed an attitude adjustment.

When moving from the apartment to the hotel the previous day, we'd happened upon a bakery that was closed, but there were people inside making things that smelled absolutely delicious. We took it upon ourselves to get up early on Monday to check it out: Nagano Bakery. I asked for basically one of every genre of baked good they had in stock, and – hello attitude adjustment – it was just what the doctor ordered. Although we were headed to Tsukiji to meet up with Vaughn and Linda for some further exploration and morning sushi, we had to scarf down the korroke-pan (croquette sandwich) while it was still hot. O.M.G. Yen-for-yen, this was the most amazingly delicious thing I'd eaten in Tokyo. Dead simple, but perfect in almost every way. A crispy but yieldingly soft korroke (how it holds its shape yet stays so tender I don't know) inside a perfectly sweet hamburger-shaped shokupan (Japanese white bread) bun. Alannah and I kept trading bites of it, respectfully taking small ones and handing it back and forth. "This bun is amazing," I said. "I don't know what it is about it - it's firm but perfectly spongey. It's flavorful but doesn't overshadow the korroke inside. It's.. it's…"

"It's like one of our buns," she said. "Only a bit less cooked."

The understated divinity of the Nagano Bakery korokke-pan.

This would normally call for another attitude adjustment in the self-absorption department. But here's the thing – I've admittedly been in a rut lately, and as a cook it's actually harder to get out of when all you ever get is positive feedback. So sometimes you need to hit reset, either on your daily routine, your palate, or just how you cook things. Normally we do that when we're back in the US, but this last time around, we were totally focused on family. This trip, then, became the opportunity to recalibrate those taste buds, set a benchmark for familiar favorites, and try new and exciting things. Having this revelatory bun – then being reminded that what we're making is just as good – was the sort of reminder I needed that, perhaps, despite all our difficulties in Paris, we are doing something right. After all, the dough that Alannah formulated over 250 hours with barely any sleep was a labor of love, with Japanese shokupan as one of the reference points. We came to eat the real deal, and ours holds up, dammit.

Ego buzzing and tripping and expanding, we got to Tsukiji – with some additional Nagano sweets as fuel. After all, exploring the world's most intense wholesale food market requires some energy! We ogled some very expensive citrus and strawberries, pondering as we did at Noma the other day why Japanese strawberry season runs from January to March despite being in the Northern Hemisphere. Incidentally, that one time the chef did babysit me, I allegedly ate all of the restaurant's ridiculously expensive strawberries.

We drooled over palettes of uni as I wondered how the hell there are any sea urchins left in the world when all of them seemed to be gutted and laying in neat little stacks in front of me.

We saw a ginormous tuna being sliced on its axis with a scythe, while I promised myself over and over not to touch the endangered bluefin variety at my next sushi stop.

Every cliché and trope and meme and other word you can use for what you expect of Tsukiji, it was all there. Only this time around, I didn't show up at 4:30 a.m. completely hung over after a Ginza-Shibuya-Roppongi bender like I had years ago. I did violate one rule of Tsukiji decorum, however, which was to go inside the market with a kid. That's a big no-no. But after all the market people who weren't busy sawing enormous tuna or perfectly displaying octopus had come up to say hello to the little one, I learned a new rule for Japan: Nowhere is off limits when you've got 7.5kg of kawaii attached to your belly.

Not giving a flying fuck about the world sea urchin population for two moments, we opted for a donburi of five different kinds of uni, which was ridiculously indulgent but affordable at one of the outer market stands appropriately named Uni Tora. This was followed by a bout of uncharacteristic snacking on sweets, including white sardine flavored soft serve and taiyaki (red bean-stuffed wafers, traditionally in the shape of but not flavored with sea bream) shaped like Tsukiji's famous tuna and thusly renamed maguroyaki

Tsukiji'ed out, we parted ways with Vaughn and headed north to Ueno to check out Ameyoko (a portmanteau of ame + yokocho = candy alley) where there was very little candy, but a lot of cheap goods being hawked from myriad stands. Historically it was full of candy stands, though we saw only one, but there were myriad affordable street food options – not that we had any room to eat – and the sorts of bag and clothing stores you'd equate with Camden Market in London and Les Puces in Paris. In short, not too impressive, but a lively atmosphere nonetheless. On the other hand, elevated Ueno Park is just nearby, and it seemed to be the place for mommies (and vacationing daddies) to take their babies for a Monday stroll… so we fit right in.

To ensure that we did as much sightseeing as eating/drinking on this trip, we hopped over to Asakusa to check out the Kaminarimon gate (which is an arch with a gigantic lantern representing the gods of thunder and lightning) and the long alleyway of vendors that leads up to Tokyo's largest temple, Senso-ji. Of course, many of those vendors hawk street food, so we, you know, might have had a few ridiculously delicious cheap eats along the way. (Tip: The agemanju stand closest to the temple has the most delicious fillings of the three on this strip.)

Once again we parted ways with Linda (she had an impressive eatinerary to fill with Kim and other folks from California) and made our way back to the hotel for afternoon tea and much-needed rest. This gave me a chance to fiddle with my phone and get in touch with some other friends who were serendipitously in town (a Paris chef/restaurateur and a VP at Yelp - imagine those worlds colliding!) and make plans to get together for drinks in Ginza or Ebisu or Nakameguro come evening time. This last day was going to end strong!

Of course, life happens. And sometimes that comes in the form of a baby who suddenly has a head cold and really is not up for anything, and you realize that you're feeling that same cold coming on, and that you have a 12-hour flight the next morning and… fuck. ファック!

Luckily, we'd made a second stop at Nagano Bakery on the way home and had plenty to hold us over while we pampered the little one and pondered what would be our last (and uncomplicated) meal in Tokyo. It was pissing rain out, and none too warm, so I pondered take-out options or even eating *gasp* at the hotel if we could afford it. (We could not.)

In the end, we decided – fuck it – it's our last night in Tokyo. We bundled up the aka-chan and headed to Ginza and made it in time to line up for what would probably be the last servings at new but already legendary Kagari, a chic ramen joint specializing in tori-paitan, a milky chicken-based broth. We got in line and were handed a menu and quickly decided what we were going to have. Within a record ten minutes we'd be seated and warm and dry and be scarfing down what might be the best ramen of the trip, making our final Tokyo foray less bitter, more sweet, and oh so satisfying.

"I'm sorry," said one of the owners. "You cannot come in with baby."

We were aghast. There are many places with no-children policies in Tokyo, but never at a ramen shop.

"Only have seating at counter, cooking very close, too dangerous," he explained. "For safety, cannot bring baby. So sorry. So very sorry. So sorry." He bowed at least 20 times while continuing to apologize.

He was so polite. So apologetic. I was upset that we couldn't have his ramen. But I couldn't be upset with him. No way. And what were we thinking bringing a stuffy-headed baby out in shitty weather just so we could have a final bowl of frickin' ramen. I was being selfish in the first place. Serves us right to get turned away.

Saddened but understanding, we about-faced. And after weighing several options, we pathetically chose… fast food. Now, I'd been wanting to try a rice burger at Mos Burger ever since my last trip, but never had the chance to. So we tracked down the nearest location at Shinbashi and went in. I texted (er.. WhatsApp'ed) Vaughn, who had proclaimed his love for the rice burger, and asked him which one to order. I went with the Kaisen Burger - grilled rice patties with a filling of kakiage (fried vegetables and shrimp) and while obviously industrial and not made with love and care and anal retentive perfectionism… it was really fucking good.

We walked back to the hotel, and my mind was swirling: What's the best way to get back to the station tomorrow morning? What time do we have to get up? Should we pack right away? What if that ramen that I couldn't have was going to be the thing to snap me out of my rut? Should I have just eaten there by myself? I went into reflective mode and unpacked the evening's events. Realizing that the best part of Japan - or any other trip, for that matter - is never the things you planned on, but the things that surprise you. That it's not knowing where to go that makes travel rewarding, but being able to ferret out a good Plan B.

Sayonara, or rather, mata suguni-ne
Baggage packed. Baby congestion mostly cleared. (The Nose Frida is the greatest damn thing ever, if you like sucking snot from a baby's nose with your mouth.) Cab hailed. Transit cards refunded. (Seriously, you get money back when you turn in your transit passes!) Train ticket to airport procured. Checked in. Immigration cleared. All without a second wasted.

We boarded the flight back to London. We had the same awesome Virgin crew as on the outbound flight! We had champagne. They set up the bassinet for baby. We ate some pretty great sushi we got at the airport (!?) and they served us some surprisingly decent katsu-curry before we put on some Oscar-nominated entertainment.

Then Alannah turned to me. "Okay, we had five days of inspiration. Menu for nonbei. Drinking food. GO! Let's start with Japanese curry flavored pickled eggs."

"Great, then let's do something on a skewer, yakitori style." "Duck, it's French. Duck confit?" "Duck gizzard confit!"

"How about a nigiri?" "Yaki-onigiri. The grilled kind." "Yes!" "Stuffed with kakiage, like that rice burger. You know, tempura-battered veggies." "What's the meat?" "Keep it vegetarian." "Love it."

Boom. "Great! Make an ingredient list." "Already done."

"Fuck it, I'm adding one more item to the menu." "Can we afford to?" "We'll keep the cost down." "What is it?" "I'll tell you when I figure it out, but I'm on to something." I smiled and, for the first time ever on a flight, started drifting off to sleep.

Barely recovered from the jet lag back home, I get a call from a chef doing a pop-up following ours in the same series of events. Can we make buns? "I'll have to confirm with Alannah."

Alannah: "Fuck yes, we can make buns."

Inspiration: Achieved. 

Confidence: Regained. 

And… childhood: Recaptured.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

PS - Mom, Dad, Linda, Kim, Vaughn, ルナ, せつ, Ms. 安倍,  René, Rosio, James, Katherine, Mads, Miriam, Braden, Omar, Joe, Jen, Shaun: You were inadvertently part of a small rebirth. Arigatou-gozaimasu.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Spain: A sort of homecoming

A faltering economy, nobody buying mix CDs out of Ibiza (Eye-bee-tha if you're a Brit) anymore, four years removed from its World Cup championship… Outside of my hardcore food/hospitality friends, it seems nobody talks about Spain these days – and even then half the time is spent mourning El Bulli, or rather how none of us ever got to eat there. These days, France is kinda cool again in that self-centered-ugly-people-being-cool kind of way led by hipsters. Scandinavia is white hot, whether it's dining, happiness indexes or inspiring Disney animated features. And no traveler worth his or her salt calls themselves a traveler without spending at least a month in Asia. But Spain is just sort of… there.

Me, I've always loved Spain. I blabbed on about it around Christmas 2006 and New Year's 2007, and somewhere on the Interwebs there are photos of me horribly inebriated with German and Dutch backpackers around Catalunya in 2003. Over a decade later, much has changed, and much hasn't. Back in Andalucía… Racking up kilometers in a tiny rental car… Eating and drinking through anything that might be in my way.

I've certainly upgraded the lodging situation.

And have a more permanent travel companion.

But blissfully some things are best not changing at all, like Bodegas Obregon in El Puerto de Santa Maria, the oldest sherry bodega in Jerez province, from which we get the name sherry (or Xérès if you're Frenchy).

Obregon was half of everything I love about Spain rolled up into one place – old as time, titillating to the senses, and – compared to much of where I go nowadays – ridiculously cheap. It's the kind of place a lot of old folk, and quite a few young folk, can have a pre-prandial glass or two or three of sherry at around a euro a copa.

The other side of Spain that I love was just a five minute walk away: The pioneering, fear-nothing, get-the-fuck-out-of-your-comfort-zone avant garde-ism that brought us Picasso, Almodovar, and Adria. That was at Aponiente, the all-seafood restaurant from "chef del mar" Angel Leon where products from the waters that surround the Iberian peninsula are transformed into sausages, or crackers, or ham, or creamy egg-like substances, or even bread.


Aponiente is a bit fancy, but it's fun. It's classy, but it's humble. The waiter practically apologized for serving langoustine, saying it was added to the menu to accommodate people's demands for more luxurious food when in a fine dining setting. The modernist play on familiar, pure, primordial flavors through the 20 other, non-luxury-ingredient courses of tuna, mussels, razor clams, and even plankton is deeply delicious, intellectually challenging, but never intimidating – reflecting in a way how I feel about Spain and its contradictions.

Spain, to me, is simple, but full of variety. Uncomplicated but mired in subtleties. It's an interplay I enjoy. I see it when ordering gin & tonic at a bar, where there are 1000 different ways they can pour it, but they'll only pour it their way unless you specify otherwise, which they are more than happy to accommodate, no questions asked… I see it at the supermarket, which are American in size and scope but where the produce is limited to what's local (short of a few tropical fruits) yet the word "organic" seems not to exist… I see it in the waiters who are almost invariably dressed in pressed pants and white shirts and attentive to your every need, but so informal as to say "tu" instead of "usted" and apologize if there's even the slightest misstep. (Living in France has skewed this last one to be very impressive to me.)

And, of course, I see it in every chiringuito where I can have my insanely fresh fish grilled whole, or fried in chunks, or fileted and pan-fried restaurant style… (Again, living in France has rendered any choice in how I would like my fish prepared a total anomaly.)


Coming back to Andalucía was not unlike a homecoming. The decision to come was simple: My cousin Ali, who grew up in London, was to marry Erin, who grew up in Australia, and while southern Spain is by no means in between, it made for a nice wedding destination. And thus the main event was an emotional epicenter – an opportunity for me to see family I hadn't seen in over 20 years, to meet all-new family, and to introduce them all to Alannah. The world may be getting smaller but our lives only get busier, so we had to take advantage of this occasion to come together.

…and have an excuse to take a break!

Spain was not only one of my early travel destinations, but Alannah's as well, though we'd never come here together before. So it was also our chance to indulge in copious amounts of tapas…

(If ever you're near Torreguidaro, make a point of going to Pura Tapa, camp out, and make your way through as much of the menu as you can.)

Listen to and watch some flamenco…


Eat our weight in churros y chocolate


And spend our last moments as a childless couple doing things no responsible parent should ever do, like pose for a photo on a live runway in Gibraltar.


My own parents actually drove along the Costa del Sol of Andalucía (and beyond, all the way through to Iran via Turkey!) when I was but a little thing in the womb, so it's only appropriate that we plant the same travel bug in our child-to-be. Circle of life. Hakuna matata. As they say in the old country… a luego*.

A ton more photos – mostly of food and pregnant bellies – are available in this Flickr set.

*I was totally caught off-guard by this. When saying goodbye in (Mexican) Spanish in California it's always hasta luego, but every single time, I only heard a luego on this trip.

Monday, September 02, 2013

MAD for Copenhagen

It's been over two years since I've blogged. It's not that I've lost interest in travel or writing about it, it's just that I've been busy with other things. Around the time of the second-to-last post (also set in Copenhagen) the initial seeds of Emperor Norton had been planted, and it has since become a successful little venture - leading up to two more trips to Copenhagen to attend the MAD Symposium.

The city we formerly found expensive (solution: Airbnb, eating at home, bike rentals), maddening to reach (solution: private sleeper cabin on Deutsche Bahn, which costs less than a flight when you factor in a dog), and difficult to leave (go for a full week, minimum) has become extremely important to me and Alannah.

Why Copenhagen?
Our last visit to MAD was - quite seriously - life changing. The theme of the event in 2012 was "Appetite" and the speakers helped Alannah and I find our own hunger and examine what we were doing as cooks and broaden our horizons. (Videos of all the speakers are here.) We spent a week biking around the beautiful city, taking our dog to its gigantic parks – where grilling is allowed! – and feeling genuinely inspired to chase our dreams.

We had no doubt that we'd come back to Copenhagen again – because of our now even greater love for the city, as well as to attend MAD3 in 2013. Dates hadn't even been announced but we were already planning our vacances around it. Because when you take your piss break with Ferran Adria or get handed ice cream bars by René Redzepi, as a young chef you are obligated to want to repeat this experience.

And that's what we were afraid of: Alannah and I both thought that perhaps we'd be like heroin addicts, chasing the unattainable peak of that first high in an increasingly futile manner. Would we still love biking around Copenhagen? Would we still love its parks and green spaces? Would we still think of the Danes as absurdly friendly (and ridiculously attractive)? Would we still eat as well? And most importantly, would we get as much out of the event on which we were spending nearly a month's pay?

The answer is unequivocally: YES. And even more so.

I've attended and even helped run many a conference in my life. Nothing, in my opinion, comes close to the inspiration, camaraderie, and relevance of MAD. Rather than bore anyone any further with explanations of what the event is (the link to the web site is above) or give a summary of the event itself, I'll sum up my little takeaways of each speaker, presenting on this year's theme of "guts." (For those that don't care, you can skip to the bottom.)

Day One
Dario Cecchini, butcher: Don't be wasteful. And learn to passionately recite Dante (and the occasional Shakespearean pun) - it's seriously impressive.

David Chang, chef & restaurateur of the Momofuku empire (& co-curator of MAD3): Don't be afraid to fail. Homeboy's empire goes from New York to Toronto to Sydney, so I'd say he's worth listening to.

Heribert Watzke, scientist: Our gut has a "brain" and we must feed it well – like we do our proper brain – to stay healthy and on top of our game. Going by the size of my gut, it must have a very high IQ.

John Reiner, writer: Food has a social function, and if you want proof of it, try being completely unable to eat or taste or even ingest anything. (Winner: prize for second most terrifying life story of the day.)

Sandor Katz, fermentation expert: The war on bacteria is a war on the diversity that makes life happen. I'm glad I called bullshit on anti-bacterial soaps years ago.

Souk el Tayeb, cooking collective of Lebanese women, provider of lunch: The differences that have lead to strife in the Middle East conversely enrich even the smallest of communities. Their amazing, kaleidescopic food was proof.

Josh Whiteland, Aboriginal cultural guide: The aboriginal calendar has six seasons, which really makes more sense. Also, I really need to go to Australia again.

Roland Rittman, forager: Foraging isn't just a trend, it's an essential link to the Earth. (And really, foraged herbs taste so much more real than whatever your industrial purveyor can deliver.)

Daniel Klein & Mirra Fine, filmmakers (The Perennial Plate): Sometimes telling a story requires the guts to be vulnerable. Also, their short films are really cool and you should watch them.

Jason Box, glaciologist: Climate change is for real, motherfuckers, and the J-Box has the proof. The good news is we can do something about it. See his research here.

Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach magazine: Do you have the guts to see what your CO2 footprint really is? Noma and Franky's did, enabling them to make effective changes. Also, I will NEVER use my nitrous oxide canister ever ever again. (Ok, only when absolutely necessary.)

Tor Nørretranders, scientist: Tickle me, chef! (From the inside...) (Note: Just about every purveyor of food on this trip did exactly that. Fantastically.)

Martha Payne, 10 year-old food activist (and her dad): Feeding kids properly helps them concentrate in school – so let's make sure that's happening. I can't tell you how many times I teared up during this bit.

Diana Kennedy, cookbook author: If you're 90 years old, you can say whatever you goddamn want, and luckily what Ms. Kennedy wants to say rings true – BE MORE RESPONSIBLE.

Pascal Barbot, chef of L'Astrance: Spontaneity comes from mastery. This may sound like some high-falutin' bullshit, but it's true: If you know your craft incredibly well, it's much easier to go off-script and still come out with good results.

David Choe, artist: Lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome stories are always funny. Also, damn, there's a lot of Koreans in the house this year! (Though I must personally fist-bump the other Iranian in attendance.)

Ahmed Jama, chef of The Village: Think having a restaurant in London is difficult? Give it up to open a place in Mogadishu, tough guy. (And then have a suicide bomb wipe out a dozen people in your joint.) That, my friends, wins the terrifying life story of the day award.

Day one was an emotional roller coaster. I laughed my ass off. I wiped tears from under my eyes. I got angry. I felt futile. I felt empowered. And once again I felt inspired.

Alannah and I took the boat across the canal and biked our way back to our rental in Østerbro, chilled in the park with the dog, and had a quiet almost-vegetarian dinner of all local market goods at home. It was nourishing, it made us feel a little responsible and healthy, and allowed us to quietly reflect on what we'd seen and heard during the day.

On Monday morning I started running again for the first time in forever. Inspired by the clean air, beautiful parks, and beautiful and fit people of Copenhagen, I figured I'd actively do something good for myself. After all, I can spend all the time I want surrounded by the world's greatest chefs and thinkers going on about having courage and changing the world – but none of that would be any good if I we don't make ourselves better as well.

We went into the second day of the conference feeling recharged and ready for what lay ahead.

Day Two
Knud Romer, author: Making mean comments isn't honesty, it's rudeness. Also, writers are obligated to drink. (Maybe I do need to write more to keep in line with my drinking habits!)

Vandana Shiva, environmental activist: The food industry was borne of the war industry and its mentality of domination. This lady blew my mind. Seriously, Google her. And in the meantime, join the fight for Seed Freedom.

David Kinch, chef of Manresa, and Cynthia Sandberg, farmer at Love Apple Farms: The relationship between restaurant and farmer is far from simple, but can be extremely rewarding. (Also: Northern California rules!)

Michael Twitty, food historian: Culinary justice is difficult to encapsulate in a one-liner, but I'd say we have an inalienable right to our own historical foodways and we should learn and teach them to maintain our respective heritage. Deep stuff from the black gay southern Jew (How's that for someone who has some heritage to study?) who famously reached out to Paula Deen.

Margot Henderson, chef of Rochelle Canteen: Masculine cooking seeks to dominate the ingredient/technique, whereas feminine cooking nurtures – not sure I dig the male/female dichotomy, but she did ask the most important question of any culinary event: "Where are all the women chefs?" (I was glad to see Alannah accept her identity as a chef finally and raise her fist at this point!)

Barbara Lynch, chef/restaurateur: She went from being a dyslexic number-runner to managing a $24m empire – by having "quenelles of steel," from wanting to be Robuchon or Ducasse to be "happy being Barbara." This lady should be a motivational speaker.

Mission Chinese Food, former pop-up turned bi-coastal restaurant venture that kills it for charity, provider of lunch: These guys had the balls to turn up in Europe and not tone down their food. Mad respect. Of course, most of us would've lynched 'em had we not gotten our fill of chilies and Szechuan pepper. For those of us living in Europe and missing heat, this was a godsend.

Ben Reade, Nordic Food Lab: Ben didn't speak, but was showing off his Scottish roots by presenting the delicious "Dream Haggis" he'd made using various suggestions from the Twitterverse. (Alas, while my contribution of chicharones had made it onto the whiteboard, it was not in the haggis.) A bagpiper led the ceremony and beautifully recited some Robert Burns with a full-on brogue. Oh, my takeaway from Ben: Shaving cream removes red wine stains from white dress shirts. (Long story.)

Alain Ducasse: Even when speaking at a conference themed around "guts," only a 10% risk ratio is the norm in the Ducasse group. (Ok, so that's a remarkable amount of risk for a French enterprise, so there's that...)

Jonathan Gold, food critic (& fellow Bruin): There is no authenticity other than being true to your time and place. (Take that, purveyors of shitty Mexican food in Paris! Or, uh, not...? Now I'm confused.)

Roy Choi, modern food truck pioneer & chef of Kogi BBQ: Bringing good food to the streets can help the poor and hungry who live in food deserts – it's a chef's responsibility to the community. (Take that, purveyors of €15 food truck burgers in Paris!)

Christian Puglisi, chef of Relæ and Manfreds & Vin: Opening in a neighborhood overrun with drugs/gangs/violence isn't necessarily "gentrification" but sometimes an opportunity to revive and build a community. (This is true - Jægersbrogade is now more habitable but maintains much of its character. My favorite single street in Copenhagen.)

Alex Atala, chef of D.O.M.: Death happens. I found this chicken-choking finale to MAD3 too macho for my taste, but the point behind it is important. Death is a reality behind everything we consume to give us life – whether animal or plant. As such, we must respect the cycle of life.

While equally heavy and thought-provoking, Monday felt a little more "manageable" than Sunday. I once again laughed my ass off, was moved to tears, angered, and ultimately inspired, but a little less exhausted. This is good, because the after-party under a Copenhagen bridge would go late into the night. It was fantastic that the party was open to everyone this year, as it really provided an opportunity to cement the brief relationships attendees had formed inside the conference and during the breaks.

I thought it had been because I'd been preoccupied that I hadn't written about my travels in two years. But I think that in all my busy, crazy, hectic life, even when traveling I had lost touch with the number one, all-important, raison d'être facet of travel that always motivated me, kept me going, and fueled my wanderlust: The connection with people.

Although MAD brought me to a now familiar city to a now familiar event, it renewed my ability to connect with people. For a brief moment I was not in my office. I was not in my kitchen. I was just out there and getting face time with people who share a common interest but who come from all backgrounds and walks of life. I listened to and then broke bread with creative freaks from California, ultra-specialized professionals from London, coffee roasters from Scandinavia, head-down chefs from New Zealand and Canada, writers from France and Turkey... When I was younger and drunker and singler, these relationships were forged in the common areas of hostels over a deck of cards and a bottle of liquor. Now we come together in a slightly more grown-up manner (though admittedly no less crazy) thanks to a little conference started by the guys at a little restaurant called Noma.

Speaking of which, the third time must be a charm. On this third trip to Denmark we finally landed a reservation at Noma. For three years it was ranked the number one restaurant in the world (yes, such things are arbitrary, but it's no little thing either) and thus made Copenhagen one of the culinary epicenters of the world on par with Tokyo and San Sebastian for the amount of media and attention going to it. In the restaurant world, there is an unbelievable amount of hype, often unsubstantiated.

Our lunch at Noma felt like an extension of the MAD Symposium. (And not only because all the Noma staff work their tails off at the event themselves.) We laughed our asses off (the front of house staff are genuinely charming and fun). We got angry. ("Why haven't I thought of that!?") We felt futile. ("We will never cook this well.") We felt empowered. "We could totally do this.") I wiped tears from under my eyes. (That dessert of potato and plum? Holy shit, you guys! It changed how I view dessert forever.) And more so than any other meal in recent memory, we felt inspired.

Chef René Redzepi and his entire team (and they are many but still relatively small for the amount of work they do) do an amazing job, and I don't know where they get what seems to be the boundless energy to keep firing on all cylinders. It has been a week since the conference and a few days since Noma and I am still in awe.

Omid & Alannah at Noma, Copenhagen

This is not, of course, to disparage any of the other amazing meals we had on this or past trips to Copenhagen. The hype is for real not only about Noma but about the city. We may live in what people consider to be the "culinary capital of the world" in Paris, but it has been our trips eating and drinking in Scandinavia – and the CPH in particular – where we have had an inordinately high number of amazing meals and "wow" moments, whether at fancy Michelin-starred tasting menu joints or casual walk-ins. (This is not a food blog, so I won't bother listing every place that tickled us on the inside!) We've made some bad choices here and there, for sure, but krone for krone (and believe me, you can spend a lot of kroner) this is one fantastic eating and drinking town. And you better believe I'll be back.

I'd previously half-joked about wanting to move to Copenhagen. After several trips this has become less of a joke and more of a crazy pipe dream – but still quite silly especially since we haven't experienced winter there. But there's good reason Monocle has ranked it as the world's most livable city.

For now, though, I plan on continuing to visit. After all, Emperor Norton has yet to complete its conquest of Paris, and we still have a lot of growing up to do before expanding the empire. (Har har.)