What’s Behind Door Number One?

sakaLast year, Tokyo had more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world.  As a self-defined foodie you would think i won the lottery moving here.  Actually, its more of a frustrating situation then you would think.  In New York, if you want to go to a fabulous restaurant, you usually have to wake up early and dial furiously one month before the night you want to eat out.  And with any luck, you manage a booking some time during that night (it might be the 5:30 seating but at least you get the reservation).  And when you arrive at the restaurant, you are presented with a detailed menu and a waiter who is just dying to tell you all about the food you are so fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to eat.  And then the bill comes and you contemplate if it was actually worth the effort/price, etc… This procedure is pretty standard.  In Tokyo, its not that easy.  There are a few “expat” restaurants around our house that everyone goes to and the menus are in english and there are people who work at those restaurants that speak some english.  Its not uncommon to bump into people we know, even though we’ve only lived here for three months.  Saturday night, we had plans with our friends Libby and Doug to go out for dinner. Libby was pretty busy the week before as she had guests in from the U.S. and i told her i would find a place and make a reservation.   I wanted to break out of the mold and go to a “real” japanese restaurant.  Every day that I walk in Tokyo i pass another restaurant that has a small door that you need to bend to enter.  Usually there are noren (linen curtains) in front of the door and the name of the restaurant is in japanese (usually a mix of kanji and hirogana).  They only seat a handful of people.  My mind starts to fantasize about all the fabulous food that is being served there but only for the people in the know (e.g. the people that can read and speak Japanese).  I just don’t want to think that i am skimming the surface of good food in Tokyo.  I want to eat where the real people eat.  So i started doing some research, reading old Metropolis issues (the english weekly magazine) and looking on the internet and i came up with a small restaurant that wasn’t too far away that was Japanese/French.  I thought the combination would help the transition from a gaijin restaurant to a Japanese.  If it considered itself French in some way, the menu might actually have some French words which would help us figure out what was on the menu.  I couldn’t actually make the reservation myself as that would require the ability to speak Japanese so i asked member services (my new best friends) at the Tokyo American Club to make them for me.  They called me back later that day to say that we had a reservation for 4 at 8pm at HINOTOHITSUJI SAKA.  I emailed LIbby and told her that i made the reservation and we were all set.  Saturday night came and we took a quick cab ride over to the restaurant and it was exactly how i pictured it… down a small dark street, lit from within with a small door that Tom had to bend (and Doug who is 6’4) to get inside.  I was actually very proud of myself at that point.  When i stood upright and surveyed the very brightly lit, very small restaurant that was EMPTY, the pride started to melt into something closer to remorse.  We were welcomed by an older woman and a younger man (who could have been her son).  He quickly brought us menus that were completely in Japanese.  And not the Japanese that Tom can read (hirogana and katakana) but most of it had kanji characters.  One particular one did stand out for Tom – the character that represents a Horse.  We asked for Eigo menus (english) and he quickly shook his head NO.  After some hemming, hawing and teeth sucking, he told us there were three choices.  Horse, Pork or Beef Cheek.  He left us to decide and we all laughed at how it would be pork for 4.  The meal began with a small dish of some type of green grass in salt water.  Crunchy but very earthy tasting.  The next course was shredded radish with shimiji mushrooms served cold.  This course was followed by a clear broth with what looked like gefilte fish floating in it.  It turned out to be very similar to gefilte fish but it was pressed crab.  After the soup, we were served a chicken sausage with shredded cabbage that was actually quite good.  Next up was the pork that was served with root vegetables and a semi-sweet glaze that was also very good.  After the main course, we were served cold soba noodles that you dipped in cold soy broth and when you were finished, you poured hot water into the left over broth and drank it like soup.  At this point, we were hoping there were no more courses but out came the dessert.  It looked very much like coffee ice cream on top of brownie chunks in a custard sauce.  Tom took a big bite and as Doug spooned some into his mouth, Tom warned him not to do it and at the very same moment what Doug put in, Doug took out.  Turns out the brownie chunks were chunks of some sort of hard jelly and the coffee ice cream was tea flavored.  Watching Doug take a big bite excited for the chocolate/coffee dessert and then watching him spit it out, i just couldn’t contain myself and i started laughing so hard that real tears spilled out of my eyes and at that point i just couldn’t stop laughing.  of course all night i had to take the brunt of all their jokes (how from now on libby was going to choose the restaurants, and where exactly had i read about the place).  We were there for over two hours and not another soul walked in the door.  When the bill came, it was close to $200 per couple.  Considering the amount of courses we had, it wasn’t really that expensive (for Tokyo).  But I don’t think i’ll be going back.  Even though it wasn’t the meal I envisioned, i’m not giving up on my exploration of the little doors with the Japanese curtains…

1 thought on “What’s Behind Door Number One?

  1. Hi Liser:

    Well, that was quite the excursion. I enjoyed your very well written description; but then again, you have taken writing courses. Of course this is well written.

    I cannot get over the photos. The girls look 2 years older.
    That’s what travelling will to for ya. I figured out why that building is lit in Blue. IN HONOR OF HANUKKAH!.

    Tom may stand out in Tokyo, but I would fit right in.
    Thanksgiving sounds like fun. Is it difficult to get a turkey in Tokyo? From the photos I know they have sweet potatoes. How do you know the soldiers from the Army Base? I definitely want to hear about shopping for, preparation for, and your Thanksgiving dinner.

    You know, Lisa, you should keep a copy of all the e-mails you send and all the responses from everyone. It would make great reading for Americans travelling to Japan for the first time.

    Have a great time in Syndey. Can’t wait to hear about it. We send hugs and kisses.
    Love always, in all ways,

    Aunt Nancy

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