Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Okonomiyaki at Ebisu Gardens Place

Ignoring the looming pile of laundry in the corner, and as of yet still un-vacuumed floors, we caught a train into Tokyo looking for something to eat.

It was still heaving rain on Sunday, after a string of gloomy days that had started with a mini-typhoon last Tuesday. That meant it was a big umbrella day.

(A big umbrella day means that it's actually raining when you step outside, and thus requires a full-size umbrella. Any other day, such as one with high overcast; or banks of threatening clouds lurking over the mountains; or any time during the summer, frankly, is a small umbrella day, in which a small collapsible umbrella should be tucked into the bottom of your bag so you can get home from the train with all your papers intact. My small umbrella is green, and has an endearing frog-face on the handle that makes it less likely that I'll toss it out of my bag in an attempt to save weight. It's funny, because I can't remember even owning an umbrella at all in Canada, let alone categorizing days by the size of umbrella which might be needed. Of course, in Hanoi, I never used an umbrella at all, they were almost impossible to buy - when it rained, I just threw a plastic bag over my head and drove faster, like everyone else in the city.)

The big umbrellas came out, and we dodged puddles and scooters all the way to the station. It seemed like a good day to try out the green car on the train. For a 500-yen premium, we could ride the 45 minutes to Shinagawa station in proper seats, in noise-reduced cars designed for lulling businessmen to sleep during their morning commutes. The trip would normally be spent clinging to the rail by the window, avoiding pokes from other people's big umbrellas, and trying not to be thrown down the length of the car as we screeched from station to station - the Tokaido line drivers have all the guts and panache of the Yamanote line drivers, driving the trains like Kojira himself was after us, but with distance between the stations to build up enough speed to do actual damage. My friend Evan once described the difference between rugby and football by noting that it was length of the kill-zone that necessitated the protective equipment that football players wear. I understand this theory in more detail now.

When we pulled into Shinagawa - a large station near the bottom of the Yamanote line ring, and a Shinkansen station as well, we were well-rested and ready to go. Nimbly avoiding strings of tourists, trailing rolling suitcases behind them like unmoored ships with their anchors (I do a lot of dodging and ducking in Japan. It really requires good shoes.) we made a bee-line to Dean and Deluca. We admired the tasty deli options, Peter amused himself for a while sampling the salts at the salt bar (his favourite was a 5,000 yen container of truffle salt) and we finally settled on some pastries. Japan is currently in the grips of a scone craze, to Peter's utter delight, and he was not disappointed by his lemon scone. I deliberated a long time of the cinammon rolls, but finally settled on an almond croissant, since I rarely see them out here in the burbs.

Properly fortified, we did some stretches, and boarded the Yamanote line to go to Ebisu, one of our favourite neighborhoods in Tokyo.

Ebisu is quiet, filled with small independent restaurants, small cafes, a good used bookstore, our favourite pub for Japanese microbrews and live music, and the Ebisu Garden Place. We did a quick lap around the bookstore to stimulate our appetites and then wandered over to the Garden Place. It used to be a brewery, I think, and then was re-done as a huge shopping and dining complex, anchored at one end by the not-quite-sure-if-it's-tacky-or-camp Palace de Joel Robuchon. Peter couldn't convince me to go look, I was too worried that I'd be sucked in with a homing gun, seated at a plate of $200-truffled mashed potatoes with a pound of gold-flake butter melting on top before I knew what hit me. We had a quick look at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of photography before deciding to go to the top for lunch, before we actually got hungry.
It's impossible just to walk into a nice restaurant in Japan, especially at lunchtime, and even more especially at the weekend. By nice, I mean anything better than a McDonalds, and even at those, you have to wait for a table on Sundays in any of the busier parts of Tokyo. You'll have about a 30-45 minute wait at most places, and they kindly provide benches for this eventuality. It's best to bring a book or start thinking of Kevin Bacon movies in this situation, because if there's anything worse than waiting in a line, it's waiting in a line to eat, while being hungry and bored.

Since the restaurant was on the 38th floor, Peter left me in line to take pictures of the view. When we eventually got in, 30 minutes later, the wait was worth it, as we were seated at a bar looking out over the city towards Yokohama.

It was our first foray into okonomiyaki, which I remember fondly from Matt's Ranma videos we used to borrow - when was that, anyway? Okonomiyaki is usually described as a kind of Japanese pizza, but it seems far more like pancake - which is what it actually is. It's a savoury pancake, topped with pork, dried shrimp, cabbage, and other things - noodles, if it's from Hiroshima - or not, if it's from Osaka. People from Hiroshima will tell you that their city is famous for okonomiyaki, and it seems cruel to point out that, in fact, it's more famous for other things. I was convinced, however, and ordered a Hiroshima-style pancake, with noodles. Peter went with the delicious sounding black pork and pepper Osaka-style pancake. They come topped with okonomiyaki sauce (it's rather like hoisin) and mayonnaise, and flakes of bonito, called katsuo-bushi, that are so thin and delicate that they flutter and tremble from the pancake's heat. You're given a mean-looking paddle to stab off pieces for yourself and others, and we sampled each others liberally. I must admit that Peter's was better than mine. I prefer my pancakes to be thin and crispy, and I thought the noodles made the whole affair entirely too doughy. It was enjoyable, nevertheless, and I look forward to trying to make them at home.

When we finished, we unfolded our legs from the table, and descended to street level to consider dessert.


Canadian Bento said...

Upon first glance, I was convinced that the first photo was dessert! Guess I got my sauces confused! Can't wait to hear about what was actually for dessert :)

nakji said...

Dessert was a doner kebab from a street cart in Shibuya. Is there an embarrassed icon around here anywhere?

MEM said...

So lucky! I think you'll enjoy okonomiyaki at home even more, though, because you can control the heaviness. I find them to be better if I just use the bare minimum of batter necessary to hold things together.

But: you've got to find some proper okonomiyaki sauce, and actually it's quite a bit more like tonkatsu sauce than hoisin. IMHO. Good luck!

nakji said...

I agree completely, but most of my family and friends in Canada don't know what tonkatsu sauce is, and they do know hoisin. I guess it's a good excuse to do a post on Tonkatsu! :)