My favorite quarantine recipes Part III

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Maryland crab cakes (see next week’s blog for recipe)

Twenty-something days into a seemingly endless isolation, the only real downside to my self-imposed challenge to never repeat the same dish twice for as long as the lockdown lasts is when my semi-smart bathroom scale flashes ONE AT TIME PLEASE! Regardless, week 3 heralded a couple of old faithfuls, a few recently improveds and one or two new entrants to our “keepers” folder.

SUNDAY

We generally stick to at least one vegetarian dinner each week, and I had already planned on making a batch of my perfected-over-time Puttanesca, but the nice thing about this dish is that it can pair with way more than just pasta. In fact, after spotting a handsome pair of wild caught Chilean sea bass steaks, I decided to take a rain-check on the veg rule.

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Puttanesca on grilled Chilean sea bass

PUTTANESCA

Ingredients

  • 2 to 4 chilies de arbol
  • 4 large garlic cloves thinly sliced on a mandolin
  • 3 tblspn olive oil, divided
  • 2 oil packed anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
  • 1 tblspn fresh oregano leaves
  • 2 cups crushed San Marzano tomatoes, drained
  • 3/4 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 2 tblspn drained capers
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

Directions

Heat chili’s, garlic, and 2 tablespoons oil in a large deep skillet over medium low. Cook,stirring occasionally until garlic is tender and light golden, about five minutes.
Add anchovies and oregano, cook, breaking up anchovies using the back of a spoon, until garlic is golden and mixture is fragrant, about 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Add tomatoes bring to a simmer over medium. Simmer, stirring occasionally until flavors all melded and sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard chilies. Stir in olives and capers and cook for another 10 minutes on medium-low heat.
Remove from heat. Add basil and remaining 1 tablespoon oil, toss to coat.

MONDAY

Most pork chop recipes include some concoction of apple or apple-derivatives. While many of them might be good, nice and fine…good, nice and fine are all four-letter words. Instead, I dare you to try this wonderfully sublime (and new to me) Ginger-scallion relish. You’ll quickly forget how to spell appel.

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Ginger-scallion relish on grilled bone-in pork chop

GINGER-SCALLION RELISH

Ingredients

  • 6 scallions, white and green parts separated and sliced thin
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • ½ teaspoon grated lime zest plus 2 teaspoons juice
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce

Directions

Combine scallion whites, ginger, pepper, and lime zest in heatproof bowl.
Heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat until shimmering.
Pour oil over scallion mixture. (Mixture will bubble.) Stir until well combined.
Let cool completely, about 15 minutes.
Stir in scallion greens, lime juice, and soy sauce.
Let mixture sit for 15 minutes to allow flavors to meld.

 

TUESDAY

Another smashing new-to-me recipe for a rather classic dish is a wonderfully garlicky, buttery Linguine in White Clam sauce that makes you forget how long it’s been since you stepped a bare foot onto a soft, sandy beach. BTW, you don’t have to use fresh clams in the shell, but I just happen to think they make this dish look that much sexier.

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Linguine with white clam sauce

LINGUINE WITH WHITE CLAM SAUCE

Ingredients

  • 1 tblsp butter
  • 2 – 3 tblsp olive oil
  • 4 or more large garlic cloves, crushed or minced
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 8oz chopped frozen clams (thawed)
  • (I also like to include a handful of fresh clams in their shells for garnish)
  • 1-2 bottles of clam juice
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese with more for serving
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley with more for serving
  • 1 lb linguine pasta
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta al dente according to the package directions.

(If using fresh clams in their shell, steam them until they all open, about 7 – 10 minutes. Set aside.)

Rinse the thawed clams in a strainer and then add them to a small pot of simmering broth, water or clam juice. Cook for no more than 2 minutes, drain and set aside.
(If using tinned cooked clams, separate the clams from their juice.)

In a large saucepan heat butter and olive oil, add garlic, cook for approx 1 to 2 minutes until aromatic. Add bottled clam juice and white wine to the pan. Add salt and pepper to taste and allow the sauce to simmer. Add red pepper flakes.

Remove from heat and finally add the cooked (or tinned) clams to get them warm and coated in the sauce.

Drain pasta, and add back to the pot on medium-low heat. Pour the sauce mixture over the pasta, add grated cheese, salt, pepper and parsley and stir until nicely combined.
Serve in a bowl with a sprinkle of additional cheese and parsley and some baguette slices to mop up the extra sauce.

WEDNESDAY

I can barely remember when “Wednesday Wings” used to be a thing. But unlike their upstate cousins from Buffalo, these Crispy Peppercorn Chicken Wings don’t require all that deep frying (–twice, if you want them extra crispy). These are baked and then broiled in the oven. The secret is in the spice mixture.

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Crispy Peppercorn Chicken Wings

CRISPY PEPPERCORN CHICKEN WINGS

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons black pepper corns
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1½ teaspoons garam masala or Chinese five-spice powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 3 pounds chicken wings, flats and drumettes separated, patted dry with paper towels
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 scallions
  • 1 lime

Directions

Crush peppercorns in a pestle and mortar or with the bottom of a saucepan in a baking sheet.
Add salt, coriander, cumin, garam masala, baking soda, and sugar to bowl with peppercorns and mix with your hands to make sure all spices are intermingled.

Add chicken wings and oil and toss with your hands until wings are evenly coated. Chill, uncovered for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Arrange wings on prepared sheet, spacing then apart and them let sit until they’ve lost the chill of the fridge and are as close to room temperature as possible, at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°. You’re going to bake and then broil the wings so they get extra crispy, so make sure you have one rack aset closer to the broiler

Bake wings on center rack, removing sheet halfway through and turning wings over with a pair of tongs, until browned and crisp in spots and cooked through, 30–40 minutes.

Remove baking sheet from oven and turn on broiler; let heat at least 5 minutes. Broil wings on top rack until browned and crisp all over and nubs on ends of drumettes are just a little charred for about a minute. Remove from oven and turn wings again.
Broil until second side looks as crisp and lightly charred as the first, also about 1 minute. Let rest about 5 minutes.

While the wings are resting, thinly slice scallions and cut lime into wedges. Arrange wings on a platter and scatter scallions over. Serve with lime wedges alongside.

THURSDAY

Just because I haven’t shared any breakfast recipes so far doesn’t mean that I don’t partake in one of the three most important meals of the day. This Oven-baked Steelcut oats has to be one of the strangest preparations of oatmeal ever. I “borrowed” the recipe from a seaside resort café where the (high, drunk or both) chef might have intended to make oatmeal cookies but threw in steelcut oats by mistake. The happy accident is a nutty, chewy, cookie-esque version of Grape nuts. Serve with plain yogurt, berries and (last week’s) Lemon curd.

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Oven-baked Steelcut Oats

OVEN-BAKED STEELCUT OATS

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Steelcut oats
  • 1 Tblspn brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbslpn melted butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Stir first 5 dry ingredients together and mix well.
Beat the wet ingredients and fold into the dry until well moistened.
Pour the mixture into a medium sized, greased baking dish.
Bake for 30 minutes and then using a spatula, chop it up into very small chunks and stir it around. Bake for another 15 minutes, continue to chop it up and let cool. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week.
To serve warm, saute briefly in a skillet with a little butter. Serve with a very generous dollop of plain yogurt, blueberries and lemon curd (essential).
Or you can serve it cold with whole milk or almond milk.

 

FRIDAY

Here’s a question for you: What’s the difference is between an Austrian Wienerschnitzel and a Japanese Tonkatsu? Both involve pounded, crumbed and fried veal, pork or chicken. But because that they are both equally delicious, does anyone actually care what the difference is? The key is what you pair them with. This recipe works just as well for any of the above proteins, but the secret is in the dark-and-sassy Tonkatsu dip – plus these amazingly crispy quick-pickled cucumbers.

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Chicken Tonkatsu with Japanese pickled Cucumbers

CHICKEN TONKATSU WITH JAPANESE PICKLED CUCUMBERS

Ingredients

For the pickled Cucumbers:

  • ½ pound small Kirby cucumbers, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, more for seasoning
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sliced scallions
  • 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced shiso or basil
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon toasted Asian sesame oil

For the Tonkatsu:

  • 8 thin slices chicken breast medallions
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups panko crumbs
  • ½ cup flour
  • Black pepper
  • Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying

For the Tonkatsu sauce:

  • 2 Tblspn tomato sauce
  • 3 Tblspn Worchestershire Sauce
  • 1 1/2 Tblspn Oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon juice

Directions

Place the cucumbers in a colander set over a bowl. Toss them with 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon sugar.
Mix the Tonkatsu sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside for serving.
Place one piece of chicken at a time into a Zip-lock bag. Pound the meat to 1/8-inch thickness.
Place eggs in a large shallow bowl; whisk in the Worcestershire and tomato paste. Place the panko crumbs and flour in two separate shallow bowls.
Season cutlets with salt and pepper. Dip each cutlet in the flour (tap off excess), the egg mixture (ditto), then dredge in the panko.
Heat a large pan, pour in 1/8 inch of oil and heat for 30 seconds. Working in batches, put cutlets in the pan. Immediately shake and tilt it so the oil rolls over the chicken in waves (this will give it a lighter, crisper crust). Shake the pan occasionally, until cutlets are golden on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip them and shake again. Cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined platter to drain.
Pat the cucumbers dry with paper towels. Toss with scallions, vinegar, shiso (or basil), soy sauce, sesame oil and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Serve cutlets with pickled cucumbers and sauce on the side.

 

SATURDAY

A wonderfully rustic variation from serving meat ragu with pasta is to pile it on top of a mound of steaming, fresh polenta. This Beef short-rib Ragu cooks for a good 2+ hours in the oven before falling apart and yielding to mouthwatering tomato-ey, garlicky and umami flavors. Don’t forget a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan.

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Beef short-rib Ragu

BEEF SHORT-RIB RAGU

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups beef broth
  • ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry, and minced
  • ½ teaspoon five-spice powder
  • ½ cup dry red wine
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained with juice reserved, chopped fine
  • 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs, trimmed
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt

Directions

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Microwave 1/2 cup broth and mushrooms in covered bowl until steaming, about 1 minute. Let sit until softened, about 5 minutes. Drain mushrooms in fine-mesh strainer lined with coffee filter, pressing to extract all liquid; reserve liquid and chop mushrooms fine.

Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomato paste, anchovies, and five-spice powder and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture has darkened and fond forms on pot bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Add wine, increase heat to medium-high, and bring to simmer, scraping up any browned bits. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until wine is reduced and pot is almost dry, 2 to 4 minutes. Add tomatoes and reserved juice, remaining 1 cup broth, reserved mushroom soaking liquid, and mushrooms and bring to simmer.

Toss beef with ¾ teaspoon salt and season with pepper. Add beef to pot, cover, and transfer to oven. Cook for 1 hour. Uncover and continue to cook until beef is tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours longer.

Remove pot from oven; using slotted spoon, transfer beef to cutting board and let cool for 5 minutes. Using 2 forks, shred beef into bite-size pieces, discarding any large pieces of fat or connective tissue. Using large spoon, skim off any excess fat that has risen to surface of sauce. Return beef to sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.)

 

Stay safe. Stay sane, but most importantly – stay at home!

 

Tokyo at (or below) street level

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Tempura on a stick, Mitzukoshi Ginza

Just because Tokyo has the most restaurants with the most Michelin stars in the world, the unknowing traveler might feel bullied into enduring a quizzically vexing and rather fruitless reservation maze in trying to secure high-brow, high-cost, high-demand tables – assuming that’s where the best food must be, right? Wrong! The overall standard and quality of Tokyo’s food is so high, that even low-brow options are quite simply and utterly magnificent. This includes street-side establishments and those several feet below.  For just a few Yen, you can enjoy the best meal you’ve never had.

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Ramen Alley, Tokyo Station

Subterranean food scares most people. And in most cities, it’s warranted. The carte blanche invitation for pigeons, rats and other vermin to indulge in the culinary trash of their choice so conveniently located next to the subway system is hard to ignore. But for Tokyo, not only do the spotless stations offer the freshest and best tasting options, the longest wait lines are actually one level below. Ramen Alley and Kitchen Street, both located beneath the train tracks of Tokyo’s main station are a hive of popularity from 11am to 11pm every day. Some of the countless establishments are so coveted that foreign travelers – still pasty and stale from an international flight – will endure the barrage of humanity to schlepp luggage down long corridors just for a bowlful of sheer deliciousness as their very first Japanese priority.

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Ramen vending machine, Abura Soba

If you’re in the mood for noodles, head down Ramen Alley. The line for each of the stalls ends at a giant ATM, where you insert cash, punch in your order and hand the ticket to the staff. Then, a steaming bowl finds its way to wherever you are sitting in under 4 minutes.

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Rokurinshu, Tokyo Station

After an eternity of inching forward in the longest line of them all, I finally noticed that I was standing on a large sticker that read: Rokurinshu Tsukemen30 minutes from this point!

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Tsukemen, Rokurinshu

Quick lesson: Ramen usually consists of noodles, meat and vegetables served in a clear or creamy meat or fish-based broth. Tsukemen, (a warm weather favorite) has slightly thicker, cold noodles served separately from the pork and chicken bone-based broth. The idea then is to dip the cold noodles into the hot broth, thereby warming them up as much or as little as you prefer, and then slurping them down with a symphony of surprisingly encouraged sound effects. Mouthful after mouthful of pure umami bliss.

 

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Shrimp, Cuttlefish and vegetable tempura, Tempura Keyaki

Kitchen Street on the other hand has a wider variety of Japanese (and some western) snacks. One of my favorites is Tempura Keyaki. The house-blend of sesame and vegetable oils gently cooks large shrimp, Japanese eggplant, beans, cuttlefish, eel and lotus root to a spectacularly crunchy and un-soggy, golden crisp right in front of you. After you baptize each steaming item into the dipping sauce, your taste buds get a delectable workout in contrasts between soft and crunchy, hot and cold, sweet and salty, yum and yummier.

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Bento Deli – Medium box, Tokyo Station

Still within the station campus but a little closer to the high-speed train platforms, are a warren of Bento Deli’s that produce the most ridiculously appetizing wooden lunchboxes of all shapes, colors and sizes that feature multiple geometric sections containing a bright and colorful smorgasbord of Japanese delights: Sashimi, pickles, edamame, omelet, sushi rolls, breaded meats…and an even more handsome variety of cookies and chocolates all smartly gift-wrapped for your upcoming voyage.

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Mixed Berry & Yuzu lemon vinegar toppings, Expre-su

After a veritable sampling session from east to west, we stumbled upon a rather peculiar dessert bar serving soft-serve ice-cream topped with your choice of something called Fruit vinegar. Expre-su offers a variety of sour dessert syrups including Yuzu lemon, Cocoa, Blueberry, Strawberry and something called Christmas. Talk about an explosive wake-up call for the taste buds when your sweet center recognizes (and appreciates) the ice-cream, but your sour center simultaneously goes into shock mode as the vinegar hits the back of your throat. Yet another sensory delight that had to be repeated. Daily.

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Chicken Yakitori, Mitsukoshi Ginza

Moving beyond the train station, but still well below ground level, are the food halls that anchor each of Tokyo’s major department stores. Daimaru, Isetan, Sogo, Matsuya and many others all compete for the most tantalizing display of fresh and cooked foods to lure the lunchtime crowd, but none are as opulent as the Mitzukoshi flagship in Ginza. Row after row of the most salivatingly cravable bites from abalone to yakitori and everything in between.

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Garlic and honey prawns, Mitsukoshi Ginza

Kimchi crabs, scallion crepes, Asian meatballs, petite sandwiches, beef salads, raw fish, cured fish, smoked fish, shellfish, designer chocolates and so, so, so much more. Our department-store picnic lunch took over an hour to select – but was gone in sixty seconds!

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Nonbei Alley, Shibuya

Just around the corner from the crush, noise and lights of Shibuya Crossing are a series of lantern-lit back alleyways called Yokocho, with 5-10 seat snack bars that date back to the second world war. Among them, the Golden Gai, Omoide, Harmonica and Sankaku Chitai often feature bars that only permit locals, but we ambled through Nonbei (drunkards) Alley to a room no larger than an elevator called Appre Yumiko Sasame.

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Fried rice dough with nori, Appre Yumiko Sasame

The two charming proprietors went to all sorts of trouble to try and translate the names of each dish of Kyoto style appetizers that included pickled Japanese carrots and sweet potatoes, the most delectable slither of fried rice-dough wedged between a strip of nori, and their house specialty – Pan fried duck with Japanese green peppercorn sauce. Fresh, flavorful, salty, umami and utterly amazing (even though we had to vie for some table space between all the pots, pans and other cooking utensils.)

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Abura Soba Shibuya

Aside from Ramen and Tsukemen, my all-time favorite noodle dish would have to be Buckwheat Soba, and no-one does it better than Abura Soba Shibuya. Instead of a broth, the noodles, veggies, shredded pork, scallions and bamboo shoots all sit on top of a thick, secret, spicy-soy sauce that you stir up after adding a few squirts of vinegar, a few squirts of chili oil, a few spoons of chopped onions and some black pepper. Suddenly the noise of the world disappears along with your manners, and you slurp up heavenly bite after heavenly bite of the most indulgent, unbridled food vacation your tongue has ever been on.

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Butagumi

While on the subject of indulgence, no trip to Tokyo would ever be complete without at least one slice of Tonkatsu (pork schnitzel), and the best place to find it is at Butagumi – a curious little wooden house with a moon-shaped window, that just so happens to be on every chef’s must-eat-when-in-Tokyo list. Don’t be fooled – while the building might look like a fairy tale, the Tonkatsu is more Superbowl than 3 little pigs. Here, in addition to picking a species of pig, or where it was raised, you can also select a particular cut (sirloin, tenderloin, shoulder etc.) and your preferred thickness and fat content as well.

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Pork Sirloin Tonkatsu, Butagumi

The result is a flaky, fluffy, crunchy panko crust (without a trace of oil), surrounding a few slices of the pinkest, juiciest, most tender cutlets you will ever encounter in your life. And that’s before you add the special sauce, mustard and slaw.

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Mille Crepe, Yoku Moku

So, never let it be said that only the best things come from above. Sometimes you might be standing right on top of them.

 

 

 

Eating my way through Japan

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Bento boxes from Kyoto railway station

The myriad preconceptions about Japan and its culinary reputation are always consistent no matter who you hear them from:

  • It’s just as difficult to secure a reservation as it is to have a bad meal.
  • There’s much more to Japanese food than sushi.
  • Tokyo is home to more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world.
  • Japanese chefs generally focus on one singular style of cooking before perfecting it.
  • Prepare yourself for a ton of seafood – even for breakfast!
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Steamed Beef buns

All true, but there is a whole lot more to it before you finally snap your hashi (chopsticks) apart. For the average westerner, the Japanese kitchen scores very highly under the following criteria:

Presentation – probably the most attractive and appetizing works of art you will ever see on a plate – from 3-star tasting dishes to pre-packaged bento boxes. It’s always absolutely, reliably, unbelievably Instagram-astic.

Ingredients – Everything you will ever eat in this country will be of the freshest and highest quality in the world. The notion of foodborne issues never crossed my mind – even if I was eating raw eggs. (See below).

The next few, however, are where things start to become a little iffy for the less-adventurous:

Location – It takes a little while to reconcile the notion of climbing down into a small, windowless, sign-less, basement box of a room to enjoy the most excessively expensive (and enjoyable) dinner you’ve ever eaten. Or that one of your more memorable meals might be found in, at – or under – a train station.

Flavor profile – Let me put this as simply as I can: it’s different. Foods that normally carry a bonfire of spice back home, tend to be oddly muted in Japan. Not that that’s bad – it’s just different. Conversely, when you prepare your palette for the subtle flavors of seafood you’re accustomed to, it could feel like you just bit into a 100-year old anchovy from the darkest recesses of the ocean. Again, not bad – just different.

Texture – while Japanese foods tend to run the gamut from “crispy to crunchy”, you’d do well to prepare yourself for “sticky to slimy” as well. (Hey, I’m just puttin’ in out there.)

Surprise – This is where we separate the men from the boys. In a world where English is rarely spoken (particularly by restaurant servers or market stall cooks), what do you do when you have neither the slightest recognition nor comprehension for what it is you are holding between your hashi? Hmmmmm.

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Traditional Japanese Breakfast

All my efforts to research a multitude of websites, blogs, articles, and personal recommendations to hand pick 4 good restaurants out of the 82,000 that Tokyo offers, were largely a waste of time. Those that were truly top of my list were either not bookable by foreigners, required multiple pre-departure phone calls well after midnight, were booked out more than 4 months in advance, or I am still waiting to hear back from them. And so I was left with my 2nd, 3rd and in some instances 4th tier choices. On the other hand, and without exception, every one of the spontaneous snacks and lunches I stood in line for at crowded train stations, noisy food markets or prolific department store food halls were so beyond exceptional, that in retrospect I regret not having taken even more advantage of them. But here are some of highlights (and lowlights) with my own star ratings.

Butagumi (Tokyo) 5-stars

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Tonkatsu, Butagumi

This charming little wooden house with moon-shaped windows and creaky floors, cranks out nothing but Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets). The menu consists of several pages of an anatomy lesson in all things pig. Not just cuts of pork, but also the different breeds with details of their diet, size, exercise, fat content and heritage. As simple as our choices were, the table was then bedecked with sides, sauces, salads, curries and spices – not forgetting the ubiquitous Japanese pickles and rice. The cutlets themselves were sliced and served on a copper wire stand with an impossibly delicate, cotton-candy fir of crispy panko that literally melted on the tongue as the flavorful, tender and moist meat succumbed with ease. This is a perfect example of a single dish notched up to such a high level that any self-respecting Austrian Wienerschnitzel chef might hang up his apron for good.

Seizan-Mita (Tokyo) 1-star

A Kaiseki meal is a traditional sequence of several formal courses that includes an appetizer, a sashimi, a simmered fish, a grilled dish with rice, a steamed dish, a soup and a dessert. The fundamental problem with Kaiseki is that unless you are in reliably English speaking hands the surprise factor goes off the charts, which is precisely where we found ourselves in a quirky little sub-street-level, angular, disconnected and rather lonely room. Each time one of the servers would deliver us a plate, all he was told to say was something that sounded like: “Tsanchwangdo-ma!” Despite our litany of desperately probing questions, (Is it a river fish? Is it a sea-fish? Is it a fish???!!) all we got was “Tsanchwangdo-ma!” The only dishes that needed no translation (and which turned out to be the most memorable) were the raw shrimp over peanut tofu sauce and the delicate potato fritters stuffed with shiitakes. After the third or fourth nameless slither of fishy fish in an insipid broth, one couldn’t help but wonder when those two well-hidden Michelin stars might finally reveal themselves.

Sushi Tokami (Tokyo) 5-stars

Given that Tokyo is home to the Tsikiji fish market, the largest fresh fish auction and distribution center in the world, if you’re going to eat sushi in Japan, you have to do so in Tokyo. Chef Hiroyuki Sato is a toddler by sushi-celebrity ratings, but he has focused his formal training into a unique Michelin star experience in an intimate 9-seat basement space. After a delectable “welcome” Hand-roll of Tuna tartare, “…from behind the head!”, chef Sato proudly exclaims as he points to the back of his neck, there followed a series of small cooked items like grilled Baracuda, Bonito sashimi with three delicious mustard toppings, a wonderfully tart smoked Sardine and the almost sweet baked Lemon Fish. Then came the sushi. His signature red-vinegar-reduction soaked rice, served at body temperature, accompanies about 15 very different fish, from Kohada to Perch to Toro, Shrimp, Squid, Snapper, Smelt, Roe…to his unique Hot and cold Sea Urchin – yielding a thrilling salty temperature contrast between the left and right of the mouth. He rounds out the meal with what he calls a Japanese omelet, but is in fact a sweet, baked-custardy egg tart.

Craftale (Tokyo) 3-stars

Shinya Otsuchihashi’s formal French training under Joel Rubichon shows through his very detailed set menu dinner. Located on the 2nd floor of a building in the midst of a quaint suburban neighborhood street lined with cherry blossom trees and a small stream, the all-in-one-room restaurant and kitchen churns out a variety of meat and fish dishes, the gimmick being that each one is accompanied by a different type of bread or muffin to mop up the heavenly sauces. I could have done with a 19th helping of the delicious slither of Bonito sashimi with toasted shallots and a ring of black burned onion powder in a ponzu broth. Equally delectable were the slightly scorched Barracuda and the Spanish Mackarel with boiled peanut sauce. The medallion of tender rabbit with shaved freeze-dried foie gras flakes was pleasant enough but perhaps a tad too rich for one dish, and despite admiring the pork knuckle still roasting in its cast iron pot with nothing but straw and peanuts in their shells, it failed to deliver much flavor and was as tough as fresh bamboo.

Ramen Street (Tokyo) 4-stars

Who would have thought that standing in line to order Ramen via a vending machine in a crowded train station, and then waiting for the diners ahead of you to finish slurping theirs down until a seat became available would be such a runaway sensation? The deliciously rich and salty broth with hand-pulled wheat noodles, eggs, pork slices, scallions and croutons just so happens to be that amazing.

Kitchen Street (Tokyo) 3-stars

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Shrimp tempura, Kitchen Street

Also housed within Tokyo’s train station are a few bright and boisterous bistros that serve fresh tempura. Battered and fried in cottonseed oil right in front of you, everything from fish to vegetables to leaves to shrimp are all total home runs. (I can’t help salivating just thinking about it now.)

Abura Soba (Tokyo) 5-stars

Arguably one of the best lunches in all of Tokyo, the only options at this 15-seat noodle bar chain are the portion size and spiciness of their one-and-only fresh soba “oil” noodle dish. Once you manage to get a seat and grab your bowl of broth-less soba with pork and scallions, the instruction card tells you to first squirt three circles of rice vinegar, followed by three circles of chili oil, a spoonful of chopped onions and then thoroughly mix the contents to free up the secret sauce from the bottom of the bowl. The perfect texture of the noodles and the staggeringly rich flavor of the ingredients is beyond yummy and umami, rendering all of us speechless for 15 solid minutes of slurping.

Cafe de L’Ambre (Tokyo) 5-stars

For as much green and Matcha tea they serve in Japan (there is also an obnoxiously large industry that produces Matcha cookies, candles, soaps, chocolates and even soft-serve ice-cream) they sure do love their coffee culture too, and nowhere more so than this little post-war cafe in Ginza that roasts its own vintage beans in-house – some of them dating back two to four decades. Each of their specialty coffees involves careful weighing of beans and sugar (on a real scale with sliding weights), and a variety of other interesting additions, followed by patiently grinding, brewing, stirring and pouring through fabric sieves into non-matching, fine-bone china. The classic Royale is stirred into a cocktail shaker and then hand chilled alongside a large block of ice with a very careful topping of thick cream into a champagne glass, or the Cafe Oefs which involves a raw, beaten egg yolk poured into hot, sweet coffee that has to be drunk quickly before the egg starts to cook. #showstopper

Mikaku (Kyoto) 4-stars

Teppanyaki has always been an entertaining way to have your food theatrically tossed, seared and sliced on a steel griddle right in front of you. It somehow always seems to taste better after watching each ingredient wilt, sizzle and color right before your eyes. But when your chef uses wafer-thin, certified Kobe beef (and we were presented with the official paperwork stating the animal’s ancestry dating back three generations along with his nose print!) the process only takes 20 seconds, but the pleasure of enjoying the most marbled, flavorful, roasted-marshmallow tender steak will stay with me forever.

Iroha Kitamise (Kyoto) 1-star

The process of Sukiyaki is fairly simple: thin slices of Kyoto beef are seared in a heated pot built into the table. Sugar, soy sauce, scallions, sprouts, noodles and chilies get added and once ready, you dip it into a bowl of beaten eggs. I can now say that I have tried it, but the overly sweet glaze, combined with the raw eggs were two stops beyond my realm of personal enjoyment.

Okonomimuro “Ron” (Hiroshima) 3-stars

Hiroshima might be known for where the first A-bomb was dropped in 1945, but it is also home to a really tasty and fun local meal known as Okonomiyaki. Wedged in one corner on the 3rd floor of a 4-story building with nothing but Okonomiyaki grills side by side, “Ron” (with her curiously long eye-lashes) concocts a wide variety of this popular meal. First she pours a thin circular pancake onto the griddle with some fish spices. Then comes a mound of fresh cabbage, bacon, sprouts and scallions, before it all gets flipped over. Simultaneously she warms a portion of cooked Udon noodles alongside, before flipping the pancake on top of them. Next comes a fried egg on top of that before the final flip over and a sprinkling of cheese that gets flame-torched over a dollop or two of a salty brown sauce. Voila – your heavenly Japanese pancake-enchilada is ready.

Owariya (Kyoto) 4-stars

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Cold Soba Platter, Owariya

Owariya is Kyoto’s – and probably Japan’s – oldest restaurant serving the best Soba (buckwheat noodles) in the city for more than 550 years. The dish to order is their Cold Soba Platter with a tower of four individually portioned plates of the nutty, chilled, gray noodles, alongside a plethora of toppings like pickles, tempura vegetables, seaweed and sauce. The tray includes a teapot of some of the treasured Kyoto water that the noodles were cooked in, which has to be drunk as a broth with a little soy sauce “to enjoy for good health.”

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Ice-cream cake, Glaciel

Desserts in general tend to be even less familiar than other dishes, (with the exception of a few specialty dessert houses like Glaciel in Tokyo who have rewritten the book on ice-cream cakes). The most popular flavor or filling for pies, ice-creams, pastries (like the über-prolific, fresh-baked, maple-shaped Momiji Manju cakes) and (believe it or not) Kit-Kat varieties is red bean paste. If this is the ultimate in highly desirable sugary indulgences, then I guess it’s no wonder that no-one in Japan will ever be overweight!

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Momiji Manju cakes, Miyajima Island

http://www.butagumi.com/nishiazabu/about.html

http://sushitokami.3zoku.com/12about.html

http://www.tables.jp.net/craftale/

https://tokyocoffee.org/2016/05/29/cafe-de-lambre/

http://miner8.com/en/5551

http://www.okonomimura.jp/foreign/english.html

https://honke-owariya.co.jp/en/whatisowariya/