Sunday, July 29, 2007

Espresso Bar Madeleine

On the way back from our healthy-for-the-mind and healthy-for-the-body Saturday afternoon brunch at Mother Esta, we stumbled upon this cute little VW Bug Citroën 2CV (thanks eshibui!) of an espresso bar--with passerby's lined up for their coffees, but curiously no one in the driver's seat. (Literally and figuratively, folks.)

Upon closer inspection, we identified the barista...

...scrunched between the trunk, the roof, and the seat dividers. He also appeared to be the owner, and uncomfortable.

Service at Espresso Bar Madeleine is (not unsurprisingly) laid-back. If there are folks before you, you wait an extra five minutes to get your order in. But who gives, on a Saturday afternoon? If you do, you should not be in Naka-Meguro, period. Go to Shinjuku or something.

Also, Madeleine passed my iced Americano test, which is less like a test and more like a regular order of an iced Americano. (I just said it to sound cool.) Though I will drink a crappy Americano over no Americano any day, I always prefer a well-thought out, lovingly-brewed one, and am willing to pay my way for it. You see, I am from Seattle. (For those of you who get it, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph.) We have Starbucks on every face of a city block and a small business-operated cafe on every outer-city block (that or a Tully's). And most of them know exactly what they're doing. Some people say Starbucks' coffee is overroasted--not me. And I love, especially, the fresh bitterness of an iced Americano, two shots of just-brewed espresso poured over ice and then splashed with ice-cold water. That is a good iced Americano. Starbucks (usually) does it, Javasti does it and, well, almost any other cafe I frequent (-ed) does it right--in Seattle. I can't say the same thing about cafes in Tokyo, but thankfully enough cafes here serve excellent brew. Madeleine included.

I was actually doubly surprised at Madeleine; first by how cold the Madeleine barista was able to get it (I confess--I was expecting it to be luke-warm coming from a car at 2pm in July), and then at the balance of bitterness, sourness and deliciousness the drink provided. But what was even better was my friend's uji matcha latte. First the uji matcha was froathed with milk. Then the espresso was brewed into another cup. Finally, the barista gave my friend both cups and had her pour one into the other.

Pretty awesome! Now, the whole process from Americano to uji matcha completion took about eight minutes and on a Monday morning I'd perhaps border getmemyfrigginlattehomeboy, but this was Saturday afternoon, and Naka-Meguro. So my friend and I were charmed (though she may be on a Monday morning as well). What won me over completely was that the uji matcha foam was not sweetened, as many green-tea latte mixtures can be (tsk, tsk, tsk). He served both our drinks with bite-sized Japanese Meiji chocolates, complementing our coffees. We had a few minutes to chat with the owner and as he never came out of his shop/car, he mustn't have been as uncomfortable as I initially suspected. He's along the Meguro River every day except Mondays, so make sure to stop by next time you're in town.

Apparently the owner/barista bakes/serves extra extra chocolat cookies in the winter time, and something tells me they'll be more rich and dreamy than sugary. Can't wait.

宇治抹茶ラテ Uji matcha latte
明治チョコレートMeiji chocolates

Espresso Bar Madeleine
Along the Meguro River, click here for map
T 090-3500-0560

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mother Esta (She's Getting Married!!)

But I certainly did not suspect such a thing... not one morsel. After all, she was the one who was so adament about wanting to not get married. What was the point, she challenged, to shackle up a good thing? Why not let the good run it's course, why encourage premature death?? She, the one who dated her now (as of today!) husband for ten years and never once referred to him as her boyfriend. Boyfriend? C'mon, he was more than that. He was her water, her air; she couldn't live without him, and so that, was that.

So when I met her for lunch at Mother Esta, Naka-Meguro's organic cafe and restaurant, I was in for more than just a culinary surprise.

Photo from

It started with carrot potage, as many things really often should.

Followed by an organic vegetable salad, starring little daikon radishes that look like little swollen ankles, carrots, slices of zucchini, leaves of mustard greens and arugula, topped with a drizzle of blue cheese dressing.

I did not appreciate the pre-poured dressing, as I often prefer salad without dressing. Its only redemption was that it was good, at which time I got more use out of the accompanying gravy boat of remaining dressing. But, Mother Esta, you really should consider having all dressing accompanied--especially if we're talking about one who's as choosey with her friends (and vice versa), like, ahem, blue cheese dressing. (With whom, I would just like to point out, I am the best of friends.) (But, say, what if I was on a diet? Or I didn't care for rotting cheese? What if??)

Actually, this was basically my meal. For a steep ¥1,600, I had ordered the Mother Esta Soup & Salad lunch--but keep in mind, the ingredients are all organic. But also keep in mind, I am a carnivore. OK, OK, but we'll also keep in mind the honorable mentions! With my slightly (to me, anyway) pricey lunch were served a fantastic glass of iced coffee, hard and chewy bread with olive oil...

and a chilled banana bread dessert--and I don't even like bananas!

Shocking, I tell you. How far organic vegetables have come since the days of the over-priced, awkwardly-placed (right next to the $1.99/lb Granny Smiths would be the $3.99/lb organic Grannies), new-kid-on-the-block era at our local grocery stores. Now they've opened restaurants! In Tokyo!!

And think how much else has changed since 1997, with all of us, including my dear friend. (Who is not named Esta, by the way.) She was with her husband then, too, but with no intention of signing a marriage contract. What changed? In her own words, she realized that marriage was a declaration of strong feelings toward one another in that moment. What happens tomorrow is irrelavant, as the question really is, what can't happen in 24 hours? No, what we need to focus on is what is special to us now. And that, well! That, to her, was as clear as air.

Congrats, you two.

大根 daikon radish (Japanese radish)

Mother Esta
2-20-14 Aobadai, Meguro-ku
T/F 03-5724-5778

Sun Tea and Iced Coffee

Last weekend was a clear, blue day. A perfect day to brew sun tea (a milder version of iced tea). Just pour clean water in a clean bottle, top with lots of tea leaves and allow it to "brew" under the sun. Half a day later, your patience will be rewarded with delicious sun tea.

You can also make iced coffee in a similar fashion, but you don't want to leave it out in the sun; the point with iced coffee being, it should be cold. When making iced coffee, pour the grinds in before pouring in the water. If you do it right, a Guiness-like foam will arise. (Otherwise, in my experience, the grinds refuse to sink.)

Dump spoonfuls of freshly ground coffee grinds in a clean bottle, pour in clean water and allow the bottle to sit in your fridge over night. Tomorrow morning, say good morning to an ice-cold glass of tart, sharp coffee.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Umi Budo


Literally, "sea grapes", umi budo are a type of sea kelp that gets its name from their physical resemblence to grapes. They are found in the warm seas of Okinawa and then shipped to various other locations in Japan in a plastic sac filled with salt water. Before serving, they are lightly washed (to wash off the sea water) and then soaked in room temperature water for about 3 minutes to bring it back to its fully buoyant state.

It sounds harmless enough, doesn't it? Well, the first time I followed this procedure, I nearly had a heart attack. Let me explain.

Yikes! It's like little worms coming to life! Slightly disturbing, but way fun all the same. As you can imagine, once fully inflated, they make popping sounds when you bite down on them with your tongue and mouth. The taste? Compared to caviar they are less salty and bigger; compared to ikura (salmon roe) they are smaller and contain less liquid; kazunoko (herring roe) is much more rubbery than umi budo whereas tobiko (flying fish roe) is way more crunchy. Hmm, I managed to almost completely squirt skirt around the flavor issue. They definitely lack the flavorpunch that most of these caviar deliver, but they are seaweed, afterall, not eggs.

But wait, wait! That is not to say they are boring, and in fact, they are very good, especially because you can dip them in various sauces to enjoy various flavors! With just the right amount of salty and fun texture, they make a great otsumami (or snack, usually accompanied by an alcohoic drink like beer). I eat them dipped in ponzu (a mixture of soy sauce and yuzu or sudachi citrus) but that already means you can try them with soy sauce and wasabi, plus I have heard of it being served over sushi rice as a donburi (rice bowl). This is definitely something worth trying--at least so you can say you have, and at most because you might even like it! In Tokyo, visit Okinawan restaurant Achi Ko Ko in the Shinbashi/Yurakucho area, where they serve 'em fresh (I'm guessing freshness is key with these little guys). And while there, order a glass of authentic Okinawan liquor to complete the otsumami experience: awamori is a 60-proof, distilled rice wine from the southern islands.

海ぶどう umi budo
いくら ikura
数の子 kazunoko
飛び子 tobiko
おつまみ otsumami
ポン酢 ponzu
ゆず yuzu
すだち sudachi
わさび wasabi
どんぶり donburi
泡盛 awamori

Achi Ko Ko (あちこーこー)
2-3-2 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku
T 03-3569-3480

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Zelly is the phonetic vernacular of the international super star, jelly, in Japanese. (Of course no one spells it zelly, silly, but what the heck, I will.) I am a huge fan of anything remotely gelatinous, be it not too sweet (sorry, Jello-O) but better yet, slightly savory. Think: chilled consomme gelée over salad greens, or onsen tamago: fresh eggs simmered long and slow (and perhaps even relaxing in) a hot spring, or a simmering pot of hot water.

Ya, you heard me: the hot spring. Don't believe me? Check this out:

(Onsen tamago is my favorite and can be deliciously prepared at home and served on and in various dishes. I promise to talk about this in a future post soon.)

Yes, peeps, if it wiggles, Miss Ai giggles. I don't think I am being overly zealous in declaring my love for the buoyant and the chilled, a splash of flavor swirling in after the bounce of texture. And so, perhaps this is why Japanese zellies are high on my list of good things. Refreshing, satisfying, not terribly sweet and so often completely not what you expected. Take for example my morning cup of coffee...

..or is it actually my 4pm pick-me-up coffee zelly...

... made approximately six hours earlier with cold-brewed iced coffee mixed with gelatin?? Pour some coffee cream over the jiggly substance, and you've got yourself an afternoon delight. (And if you don't think zellies are the best thing ever, I will fightchu. No lie.)

The popular Kyoto tea house and dessert company Tsujiri often turns traditional Japanese teas like hojicha and matcha into delicious zelly (see the first photo of this post for hojicha zelly). (What this requires of us, readers, at home, is to brew that perfect cup and include a dallop--just one--of honey. Mix with gelatin, and chill.) What's more, Tsujiri features seasonal specials every month, like the sakura parfait (cherry blossom parfait) which was available in April this year. The sweet and slightly salty sakura zelly (salty because the cherry blossoms are often treated with a saline solution to help preserve it) and the bittersweet matcha zelly make this parfait what parfaits were born to be--a very special treat, of course--at ¥1,400 (about $10-12 USD).

sakura parfait

(Click on the parfait photo for details.)

It's easy to make zelly at home--if you drink black tea, try mixing in gelatin with a fresh pot of Earl Grey tea; milky, if you prefer. If you like coffee, definitely try the cold-brewed iced coffee zelly. Have Japanese, chai or herbal teas lying around? Experiment to find your favorite consistency of gelatin--the hojicha zelly at the top of this post and the coffee zelly toward the bottom have completely different consistencies due to the difference in ratio of liquid to gelatin. Keep in mind that you must immerse the gelatin--powder or sheet gelatin--in water first, for about five minutes, to insure that it will melt in evenly with the liquid you are trying to gel, otherwise the outcome can get clumpy. If it tastes good as a cold liquid, it probably tastes good as zelly. (Don't quote me on that.) Experiment!

ゼリー jelly
温泉卵 onsen tamago
コーヒーゼリー coffee jelly
都路里 Tsujiri
ほうじ茶 hojicha
抹茶 matcha

Tsujiri (都路里)
Caretta Shiodome B206, 1-8-2 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku
T 03-5537-2217

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cardenas Chinois

An introduction to an old favorite restaurant turned new favorite, Cardenas Chinois in the Hiroo/Ebisu area. Previously (on Desperate Housewives), it used to be a casual yet stylish hangout, where one ordered a la carte and paid for the waiters (and hence, yourselves) to look swanky. Today, it's a bargain, any-day-of-the-week, semi-posh dining experience with friends, with fam and for non-first-time dates. The only thing on the menu is their ¥3,900 course (plus tax), from which you pick a plate from each of the three categories: cold side dish, warm side dish, and entree. Let the menu unfold!

I chose the Chinese Chicken Salad, which was gigantic as well as delicious. No photo as yet I was unaware of the extremity of culinary delight-ness I had stumbled onto.

Second came my warm dish, mussles and clams steamed in sherry.

Notice how the photography starts here. Ding! Said Miss Ai's brain. Servings Iz Larg N Tastingz Gud. BTW, that plate's just my serving (one often wonders in Japan. One being myself.)

Hey, a little crab!

(I ate it, much to my companion's disgust)

Here I would like to mention you have unlimited access to their drink menu. Unlimited. Beer, nama-beer, bottled-beer, five types of red wine, just as many of white, sparkling wine, OJ, coke, tea... the list goes on for two pages. Literally, the drink menu was two pages. I had a crappy Syrah, but A-M-A-Z-I-N-G-L-Y they allow you to bring your own drinks should you wish. At least, I think I received a press release about that. Check with them before showing up with your vintage in tow, do not mention Miss Ai.

Regardless of the fact it was crap, it looks nice in the photo. (It was Yellowtail.)

My main was grilled lamb rubbed with herbs and spices--juicy, tender, savory and rich. Served atop garlic mashed potatoes.

For dessert, fresh fruit and gelato, slivers of brownie (I was not too crazy about their desserts, but nice presentation. Not worthy of photo, apparently/however).

And with decaf coffee. Decaf!!

Notice the crema. It tasted like it wasn't decaf, too!

So that was my nice Monday night dinner at Cardenas. Ninapod, wanna join me soon? And to all else--two enthusiastic thumbs UP!

Cardenas Chinois
5-22-3 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku
T/F 03-5447-1287

The Avocado

I love the avocado...all 300 calories of it! You say 30 grams of fat? I say 13 grams of fiber. 13mg of sodium? Puh-leez, how about one-third of your daily intake of vitamin C, not to mention lots of vitamin B and folate? The avocado, worthy of such titles as the fertility fruit (the Aztecs) and the butter of the forest (the Japanese), claims a special place in the pits of many of our souls. And while I religiously prepare perhaps what is the best guacamole this side of...errr, well, at least my kitchen walls... I do utilize the emerald fruit to star in more than just my Mexican features. He's suave. He's international! He tastes good with lemon and salt. After all, he is silky-smooth, velvety-soft, and tough-skinned. The ambassador of gourmet. The diplomatic fruit. Oh avocado, your last name may as well be Pitt!

Yes, the avocado does often play a role in my--and many others'--Japanese cooking. It's said that a ripe avocado resembles the texture of toro--one of the most prized areas of flesh of the blue-fin tuna.

In fact, if you can't get your hands on the good stuff, purchase fresh but economical sashimi (not the toro, which is pink from the marbled fat, but the red flesh-only), and arrange the pieces over sushi rice. Scatter blocks of diced ripe avocado on top, and as you take a bite, close your eyes as the lean, red meat of the tuna does a back-flip to salute the mean green yummy machine and feel like what is in fact a ¥500 sashimi-don is a ¥2,000 toro delight!

One fantastic no-frills Japonization (ah yeah... is that a word?) of the creamy avocade is to slice it up and serve it sashimi-style--complete with a a dash of soy sauce in a sauce dish with a smother of wasabi on its rim. Accessorize with a frosty glass of beer. I tell you, avocado sashimi is the best thing that could accompany you for a Sunday night feature on TV, an elegant appetizer to your five-course meal or the dependable sidekick for the take-out-sushi-and-let's-watch-baseball (or whatever) night. Yes, as its emerald hue implies, the avocado is wicked.

アボガド avocado
森のバター butter of the forest
刺身 sashimi (in the vernacular, it is often referred to as osashimi, which is a more polite way of saying sashimi.)